Other Photographers and Our Egos

A passel of photographers photographs Antelope Canyon in May 2012.
A passel of photographers photographs Antelope Canyon in May 2012.

A friend of mine, who I regard as a very talented photographer, recently asked me for some advice about photographing the American West. Among her destinations was Mesa Arch, a beautiful, easy-to-reach attraction at Canyonlands National Park in Utah, which I have visited many times.

I told her that this feature is classically photographed in the morning, since the sun rises in the opening of the arch, with a beautiful canyon below and mountains in the distance. The light strikes to red wall of the canyon below and causes the underside of the feature to take on deep red hues.

Mesa Arch at Canyonlands is illuminated by handsome morning light in this 2002 image. The light bounces up from canyons below to causing the underside of the arch to take on a deep red. In the distance are the La Sal Mountains.
Mesa Arch at Canyonlands is illuminated by handsome morning light in this 2002 image. The light bounces up from canyons below to causing the underside of the arch to take on a deep red. In the distance are the La Sal Mountains.

The only drawback, I told her, is that it’s been “discovered,” so she should expect to see a large number of photographers there at sunrise.

“I really want to see Mesa Arch, but I hate the idea of a lot of photographers because I will feel inferior,” she replied.

Years ago I wrote a piece about how I can sometimes be tempted to get outside my game when I am in the presence of other professional photographers. I’m sure this is true for other professions as well, and why conferences and think tanks are useful for showing us way of doing things we might not see.

The other side of that, of course, is that we don’t want to let the herd mentality take us to what I like to call the “force op,” or forced photo opportunity, in which you let other photographers define you creatively.

I told my friend that the Grand View Point at Canyonlands is "better than the Grand Canyon," which I think it is for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that there are far fewer visitors.
I told my friend that the Grand View Point at Canyonlands is “better than the Grand Canyon,” which I think it is for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that there are far fewer visitors.

But there is a little trick that will help relieve you of the burden of feeling competitive with other photographers. Now that digital imaging has taken some of the mystery, and particularly the surprise,  out of photography, all we have to do is stand behind someone and look at their monitor to see what kinds of images they are making. Often, even most of the time, I am surprised and discouraged by how badly photographers are composing their pictures. “Why is this guy even here with his $10,000 worth of equipment,” I ask myself, “when he can’t compose his way out of a wet paper sack?”

In some ways, painters and sculptors are freer than photographers because their art starts with vision and imagination, and I admire that.
In some ways, painters and sculptors are freer than photographers because their art starts with vision and imagination, and I admire that.

Also, don’t let anyone’s equipment intimidate you, and even more importantly, don’t let them talk about their equipment to you. If they do, it will be all they talk about, and they will have nothing interesting to say about the art of photography.

Ultimately photography should be about expressing ourselves and sharing our vision of our lives and our worlds, not worrying about how we look when we’re making our images or what others might think about our equipment or skills. When it comes to comparisons, it is certainly worth looking at the work of others, but not with the purpose of copying it. I should serve as inspiration.

Everyone takes pictures now. The only genuine value in them is your vision.

Despite the traditional "best" shot of Mesa Arch being a sunrise shot, my favorite image of it so far is one I made right after sunset. Not only was the light beautiful, but there were no other photographers present, and I feel the image is unique. When you see this image, or another you admire, don't try to copy it. Ask yourself how you and your creative vision might express it.
Despite the traditional “best” shot of Mesa Arch being a sunrise shot, my favorite image of it so far is one I made right after sunset. Not only was the light beautiful, but there were no other photographers present, and I feel the image is unique. When you see this image, or another you admire, don’t try to copy it. Ask yourself how you and your creative vision might express it.
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