Photographing Icons vs the Unknown

by Kari Post | August 27, 2012

© Kari PostIn the digital age, just about everyone has a camera. Thanks to social media, everyone knows it, and we are constantly bombarded with images from thirteen year olds with iPhones, retirees with 1D Mark IVs, and budding amateurs and pros alike, some who are constant sources of inspiration and others whose talent always seems to underwhelm our own. Not only is everyone a photographer, but everything worthy of being photographed has been photographed to death. Or so it seems.

That isn’t true of course. Owning a camera doesn’t make anyone a photographer any more than owning a pair of sneakers makes someone a runner. But it does mean, for those of us who take our craft seriously, that competition is greater. Images from the same locations and of the same subjects surface over and over again. In the field, there are more people to contend with at photographic hotspots. Getting a moment alone with an icon has become increasingly rare, and creating a shot of one that is creative and original is becoming more and more challenging.

Some photographers have adapted by avoiding the icons altogether. They find subjects that are tucked out of the way and lesser photographed. I admit this is something I often do for several reasons. First, I just don’t like crowds of people, and for me photography is often a personal and private experience. Photography is one of the ways I connect with nature, and it just doesn’t work as well with a bunch of other people around.

Snowy owl © Kari Post

This snowy owl had been flushed from this same spot earlier in the day by a large group of inconsiderate photographers who had discovered the owl via postings on bird lists and by other photographers. When I found the bird again I was alone except for a friend that I trusted, so I was able to make a slow approach and get close to the bird, carefully observing for any signs that I was stressing her. I never would have attempted to get this close with other photographers around.

Secondly, I like to feel free to work the subject, something I find very difficult to do with other photographers around. When people are around, they tend to get in my way, or I worry I’ll get in their way. Overly aggressive photographers or ignorant spectators can spook the subject. Overly cautious or lazy ones will scold you if they feel you are getting too close. Curious people ask questions, and I find it difficult to concentrate on creating images when I am deep in conversation. When it comes to having other people around when I’m photographing, less is definitely more.

There is also something really special about creating an image that is new or unique. It’s not impossible with icons, but it’s far easier to do with subjects that have been photographed less. Plus, being willing to work the less famous subjects will give you far more options, and typically ones closer to home.

Hubbard Brook Waterfall © Kari Post

This waterfall is located on private property so there are few photographs of it. Since public access is limited, I can share the general location of this photograph without worrying about others visiting this spot and negatively impacting the landscape. Luckily for me, this spot is also close to home, much closer than any icon I might photograph instead.

Yet, just photographing in less traveled places and avoiding icons completely isn’t really the solution. It cannot be the solution, not in an age so infiltrated and influenced by media. Only photographing the unknown is simply not sustainable in the world we live in. The very act of sharing a photograph creates an awareness that the subject exists. Often that awareness breeds interest, and interest leads to more photographers finding their way to that special place. The end result is that photographers usually either exploit the heck out of new subjects, often unintentionally, or guard their secret identities obsessively, neither of which is productive. As photographers, we are not challenging ourselves enough and not acting as good stewards of the environment if we only operate in that way.

Icons are iconic for a reason. They’re usually visually impressive and sometimes historically or socially significant. People are drawn to them, so they are typically quite obvious photographic subjects. Because of this, they too can be challenging to photograph. Most icons have been photographed many thousands times before, and the majority of those photographs range from mediocre to very good. Many of them look almost identical. The challenge of photographing an icon is not getting a good shot of one, but creating an image that stands out among the rest. How you meet this challenge is what will make you a better photographer.

Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse, Acadia National Park © Kari Post

The Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse in Acadia National Park is an often photographed icon. On this day, there were at least 30 other people out on the rocks with me, which proved both frustrating and challenging, but forced me to shoot smarter. In the end, perseverance and knowing my subject and the craft enabled me to get this unique take on the scene.

There are times when photographing at a more iconic place is actually better, too. Icons generate more traffic and in many places, the landscape has been adapted to compensate for the increased human load, concentrating people in areas that can handle the abuse while minimizing impact on the surrounding area. This makes such spots ideal for multiple photographers and tripods and perfect for group outings and workshops. The risk of further damage to the subject is perhaps less, because so many people already know about it and use it. One could argue that sharing a photograph of an icon online is less likely to result in a negative outcome than sharing a photograph of a more sensitive subject.

This infrastructure can also create opportunities that wouldn’t otherwise exist. Pedestrian walkways, overlooks, bridges, and trails often provide unique perspectives to shoot from. They can also limit access to a subject. There may be barricades that restrict compositional choices and limit where you can go and what angles you can shoot from. But a good photographer will work within these confines and will work to create the best shot possible even in less than ideal situations. Working an icon can challenge the photographer to try new techniques and to look at the subject differently.

I think there is room for both icons and the unknown on any photographers’ list. Each provide a unique experience and have unique challenges and benefits for the photographer. Each require different skills and knowledge to shoot successfully. By shooting a both types of places, photographers learn to be adaptable and more creative, becoming not only better at what they do, but more marketable and better able to succeed in a competitive world already saturated with the work of countless other photographers.

About the Author

Kari is a self-described adventurer, photographer, outdoor enthusiast, conservationist, and nature lover. She loves being outside in nature, exploring the world around her, and doing just about anything that keeps her on the move. Kari picked up photography as a young girl and developed a serious passion for the still picture in high school. In college, she combined her photography hobby and love of nature and began photographing wildlife and outdoor subjects, which now make up the bulk of her work. Kari views photography as a way to share the beauty she sees in the natural world with others. She hopes her images can be used help educate and inspire others to appreciate, preserve, and protect wild places and creatures, and aspires to one day work as a photojournalist for National Geographic documenting conservation issues. Visit Kari's website at: www.karipost.com and her blog at: www.karipost.com/blog.

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