You know, it’s ok to shoot iconic locations

I recently had a little break from Facebook, I was getting bogged down in arguing against very opinionated people and I realised that I was at risk of becoming too opinionated too. There is nothing wrong with that, as long as you can tolerate and empathise with those whose opinions differ. Anyway, I’m very guilty of having expressed certain opinions in the past around certain photographic subject matter (Misty Trees or Bluebells anyone?), certain much photographed locations (Ooh, another shot of [Insert Castle Name Here]) and certain processing techniques (Eye bleeding saturation anyone?). You know what, I’m guilty of doing all that too (well, hopefully not the eye bleeding saturation bit) and it’s cool, it’s all cool man.

Recently I visited the Isle of Skye, a trip I’ve already mentioned in my blog before, but to revisit the subject serves a purpose here. Most of the time I like to head off into the wild to seek out new viewpoints, or at least ‘hard to get at’ ones. On the whole I try to ignore getting bogged down in the ‘iconic’ locations trying to get the same view a million others have already succeeded in getting. Why? Because I can, it’s what I enjoy. Skye was a little different because the weather was so bad it simply wasn’t worth the effort to get anywhere other than the obvious roadside locations. This gave me the opportunity to revisit a perennial favourite, or should I say nemesis…Elgol. I have a vision of the image I want from here and in four or five previous visits I’ve never had conditions that come anywhere close.

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First visit to Elgol back in 2011, shot on a Canon 40D…woo, saturation!

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And again in 2013, this time with the 5DMkII

Well, over Easter I happened to visit that little fishing village no less than three times over one weekend in search of the perfect conditions. They didn’t quite happen. What was good about that though was it gave me time to hunt down a certain boulder that a certain exemplary landscape photographer made famous. For some reason I’d never noticed it before. Visiting three times over a weekend also meant I could gauge what tidal conditions were required to achieve what I wanted to do…and at which point during the tidal cycle the sea was at the right level.

Now, I’ll come out and say it right now, I have a problem with virtually every shot of that boulder. Whilst trying not to be too opinionated about it, everyone is different in their vision afterall, the problem I have with it is the domineering lump (for want of a better word) of sea carved rock to the right of it. Whilst not being in that particular shot, the headland to the right of Elgol also presents the same problem for wider views of the Cuillin. Whether shooting the boulder or a wider view of the Cuillin, that rock or the headland unbalance each and every composition that they are in as far as I’m concerned. My mission here was to even things out.

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iPhone pic of ‘That Boulder’ at Easter on the first day

On the third visit the tidal conditions were perfect. The sky was stormy but the sea was calmer than I had hoped, despite the tide. I set to work trying to get the (my) perfect composition, thinking I could always return, when conditions were really as I had envisioned…having already tried for five years. If it ever happened I’d then go straight to a pre-determined composition and ‘click’, that would be that. Done. What ensued was about an hour of micro-adjusting my position, focal length, angle, everything really, to achieve the composition I wanted. Persistence pays off. I kind of got the shot. In that time the stormy skies began to break over the distant mountains, dousing parts of them in dreamy storm light, there was even the hint of a rainbow amongst the peaks. The waves were crashing over the boulder and lapping at my feet. I captured what I wanted…almost. There is still room for improvement, a stronger shaft of light, a stronger rainbow, more violent seas, etc. I think the shot actually requires a tilt shift lens, but for now I have to work with what I already have. Overall though, I’m finally happy with a shot from Elgol.

The point of this is as the internet becomes saturated with millions more images each day, people are going to greater extremes to get something unique or set themselves apart from ‘the competition’, be that hunting down more and more remote vantage points/landscapes, employing more and more extreme processing, seeking to use more cutting edge genres of photography (Dronography, Timelapse, etc), which unfortunately, I think, in turn is sacrificing the quality in this art.

In the last few days a timelapse popped up on my timeline, many people retweeted or shared it, shot in 8K, about Patagonia. Folks proclaiming it ‘breathtaking’. I watched it, curious (as I’d love to visit Patagonia myself), and was distinctly underwhelmed. The music was great, the scenery was great, most of the editing was great. The image quality was great, and the photographer got some wonderful conditions. However, in his quest to produce a compelling short film of a fantastic place, all shot at 8K on a Medium Format camera, the photographer forgot one vital thing. Even with timelapse your images need to be well composed. I know that is not easy, and I wouldn’t expect every scene to be a masterpiece, but sequence after sequence after sequence kind of bored me. Sorry. I guess the same can be said for the majority of Dronography. Just because you can now shoot from 500ft above the cliff wall, through the rainbow and next to the exploding firework and between the wings of an Eagle, doesn’t make it a great shot. Likewise, just because you trekked for 50 miles with 30kg on your back and were nearly eaten by a dinosaur in a long lost valley, doesn’t mean your shot is great, albeit perhaps unique.

There seems to be a growing community of photographers out there who openly chastise those who don’t want to, or don’t have the confidence, or who are simply unable for one reason or another to explore beyond those iconic locations, whether new or old. It may be because of time, or health or a number of reasons. It smacks of a superiority complex, some kind of ‘worthiness hierarchy’, and it’s a bit much to take when they should really concentrate on making their own work better than it already is (yes you, you should). You don’t need to be shooting somewhere new to do that. Of course, do what you enjoy, but don’t have a go at others for taking the ‘easy’ shot, the easy shot isn’t always easy as I’ve found in Elgol.

And so, I come full circle to why it’s ok to shoot iconic locations. Why it’s ok to shoot repetitive subject matter.  Why it’s ok to walk no further than three steps from your car.  Why you need not explore if you don’t want to. As landscape photographers we have absolute control over what our camera sees and we have almost no control of what mother nature chooses to show it. For that reason alone, every shot will be different. But even what we can control can always be bettered. If we want to set up in somebody else’s tripod holes we can, the shot will still be different because the weather and the light is never exactly the same. Our processing differs too and if that is what you enjoy, then do it. Smash the hell out of it if you want to, ramp that bad boy slider to 100. Though if you do, remember that art is fickle and the herd are generally intolerant of those who stray too far. All up to you, but work to make your shot, however similar to another, better than what you have shot before, what others have shot before. For example I’d prefer to see a  dozen fantastic compositions of Corfe Castle in mist, than a single mediocre composition of a previously un-photographed Himalayan peak (if such a thing still exists).

Oh, the shot from Elgol? You’ll have to wait, I’m on a sharing hiatus. Didn’t you read the last blog? 😉

2 thoughts on “You know, it’s ok to shoot iconic locations

  1. Very thought-provoking Greg…but sometimes you only have time to get ‘there’ once, so whatever you shoot, that’s it. I’ve got some lovely poor images, however looking at them takes me straight back, and that’s the beauty of it surely? Maybe I’ll get back again and enjoy better images, until then, the odd iconic ‘copy’ will still make me smile – or weep about the poor conditions! The only time I’ve been to Elgol conditions weren’t great, my best shot was of a conifer wood across a lake on the way…

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