I think I’m suffering from icon overload. I just did five workshops in five weeks, photographing Mt. Whitney and the Alabama Hills, Mono Lake, the ancient bristlecones of the White Mountains, Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, Antelope Canyon, the Grand Canyon, and virtually every conceivable view of Yosemite Valley. Yikes.
As I go through my images I’m alternately thrilled with the beauty I captured, and disturbed that I may not be contributing anything new. I became a landscape photographer because of my love for nature, and my goal has always been to use my own vision to create fresh perspectives of the subjects I love so much. But an unfortunate byproduct of turning a passion into a profession is the sudden shift from photography as pure pleasure to photography as prime source of income. I vowed when I embarked on this path to only photograph those things I want to photograph, consciously shunning more certain money-making pursuits (weddings, portraits, stock, and so on) that would force me out of my creative space.
I chose photo workshops because they enable me to continue visiting, sharing, and photographing the locations I know and love best, while tapping (from a previous life) many years of communication and training experience. And I couldn’t be happier with that choice. My fall workshop marathon only confirmed that I made the right decision, as I was blessed (once again) with great groups and beautiful scenery.
But if I'm not careful, relying on photo workshops for income risks costing me my identity as a photographer. Running a business in general, and marketing, planning, and conducting workshops in particular, drains me both physically and mentally, severely curtailing “quality time” with my camera. The cost of this fatigue is satisfaction with beautiful but cliché images from the iconic locations to which I guide my workshop groups. Iconic is a compelling force, and clichés are that way for a reason (pardon the cliché), making it easy to be satisfied with merely beautiful. But just how many more pictures of Delicate Arch, Mesa Arch, Monument Valley’s Mittens, or Half Dome does the world need? I have to remind myself that sustained success as a nature photographer requires both beautiful and unique.
My concern for generating unique images dovetails with the mentoring I do in my workshops and other teaching. Most of my workshop students have travelled great distances, sacrificing significant time and expense, to capture the “classic” photos they’ve admired for years in books, magazines, and online. I am of course thrilled to give them those opportunities, but I challenge them to make the iconic shot their starting point rather than their goal. I encourage them to seek unique perspectives (though “unique” is sometimes elusive at locations that generate millions of clicks each year) and to strive for something that’s uniquely their own.
Of course I try to follow my own advice, but when leading a group my priority is never my own photography, so I rarely find myself in “the zone” as a photographer. For me Bridalveil Creek is a photographic breath of fresh air in Yosemite’s suffocating, overwhelming beauty (not that there’s anything wrong with that) that puts me back in the zone. At Bridalveil Creek photographers can wander for hours capturing images that are theirs alone. (We often don’t even make it up to the Bridalveil Fall vista just a couple hundred feet up the trail.) Once I set my students loose here I usually have to drag them out, and only then after promising that we’ll return. Image reviews invariably provide an exquisite variety of Bridalveil Creek scenes that elicit simultaneous gasps of admiration and chagrin (“Why didn’t I see that?!”).
Honestly, I don’t think I’m ever happier as a photographer than when photographing Bridalveil Creek in autumn. Colorful leaves dance above rocky cascades, carpet the ground, and drift in calm pools. There’s a composition wherever my lens points, and never am I more confident of discovering that unique scene I long for. This week looking at my Bridalveil Creek images at home was a reassuring reminder that these opportunities exist for anyone with the desire to find them, and a powerful incentive to grab my camera and head out the door to look.
* Website: Eloquent Images
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