“If I did what has already been done, I would be a plagiarist and would consider myself unworthy; so I do something different and people call me a scoundrel. I’d rather be a scoundrel than a plagiarist!” – Paul Gauguin
Before heading to a new location, something I have tried to do is *not* look up the best views or trails. Instead of going wherever I plan to go with prior expectations, I am able to witness the beauty of the area with virgin eyes. This allows for photographs to be made which have not been influenced by anyone else’s works. Rather than being subconsciously pushed to photograph the popular, attention-grabbing compositions, intimate, meaningful scenes are revealed in a natural manner. Of course, the “popular shots” will likely still be captured – they’re popular for a reason, after all – but they do not exist as the primary goal of the trip.
For my 2021 trip to Acadia National Park in Maine, I made sure to look up as few details of the area as possible. Aside from knowing the park was an island with beautiful fall colors and harsh winters, I had little knowledge of trails and popular locations. Instead of looking things up, Mel and I asked her aunt and uncle – who have lived in the area for over twelve years – where they recommended we go. And when we arrived at the visitor center, we asked a ranger for their opinion on some nice trails. With those options in mind, we assumed our trip was set.
After the first two days, however, we realized we would need to find some flatter trails to balance all the mountains. We were not at all used to climbing 700+ foot-tall mountains; the Bubbles at Jordan Pond surely revealed that to us.
Jesup Path was one of the few areas I had looked up prior to coming to Acadia. A trail full of birch trees – my favorite of all trees – it was a trail I knew I had to hit. This “research,” so to speak, had been done in 2020, when Mel and I were originally planning to head to Acadia. Then COVID hit, and the rest is history, as they say.
Until our tiring hike of the Bubbles, the Jesup Path trail was largely left un-remembered. Whether it was Mel or I who mentioned it is beside the point. It wasn’t long before I was looking up additional photographic trails in Acadia to hit. For the most part, they aligned well with those recommended by others. That wasn’t an issue.
What became an issue is that I viewed a beautifully simplistic photograph of the birch trees along the trail in the tall grasses. Immediately upon seeing that piece by another photographer, thoughts of photographing the scene raced through my mind.
Though we’d decided to first tempt Death himself by summiting Dorr Mountain – a 1270 foot tall rock – we managed to keep alive long enough to witness the calm beauty of Jesup Path. While on the trail, I couldn’t find any manner in which to escape that composition captured by another photographer.
Had they employed the use of a telephoto lens to reach into the distant birches and isolate the “best” ones? Had the trees which they had captured since died and fallen, destroying the possibility of reproducing that beauty? Perhaps they had maliciously defied the trees, hoping not to have anyone else capture that same scene. That’s unlikely, if for no other reason than the trail being popular and their chances of being caught in the act rather high.
Instead of keeping present and capturing the beauty as it was found, I could not help but focus my efforts on this composition. Rather than being satisfied with the idea of being out in nature, proud of having scaled a 1270 foot tall mountain, excited about the few compositions I had captured, I was stuck fighting this composition and the power it maintained over me.
Expectations can have both good and bad side effects. They are a powerful force which can easily ruin a photographic outing – such as in my case – or they can push the mind toward a much more creative state, allowing for the creation of novel works. How the mind reacts to expectations depends largely upon the individual. Having expectations of an area prior to exploring it, for me, ruins the mood and stifles my creativity. My ability to create novel works is left struggling and my enjoyment of the exploration is killed a brutal death.
So, if you are left feeling as though you are only capturing the obvious, over-shot, popular compositions – and are dissatisfied with that approach, as there is nothing wrong with it otherwise – perhaps the issue stems from arriving at the location with prior expectations. Perhaps you will be better off not viewing the photographs of a place taken by others before you explore it yourself. Your creativity will likely thank you.
Expectations can go further than simple compositions. Perhaps one of the most prevalent of these would be that of GAS, or Gear Acquisition Syndrome. There seems to be a growing number of individuals who believe having the latest-and-greatest camera or lens will help them to improve their photography.
In some cases, yes, there is truism to this ideology. For landscape photographers needing more details in their pieces so as to print larger for their clients, yes, a high-megapixel camera would be worthwhile. Their expectations would therefore be met.
However, the hobbyist photographer who expects they require a new, high megapixel camera and the “holy trinity” lenses – typically the 14-24mm, 24-70mm, and 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom lenses – as their beginning gear would be sorely disappointed to see that their work is nowhere near the quality of their favorite photographer, who just so happens to use the same equipment. Their expectations would neither be met nor satisfied in any manner. In fact, the likelihood of them giving up photography and selling their gear would only increase.
Compare this, then, with the hobbyist who starts out with the cheapest gear they may acquire. Their expectations of being able to capture photographs as beautiful as their favorite photographer right off the bat will likely be much lower. This then increases the likelihood of them keeping the camera and working with it for as long as possible, until the gear no longer meets their newly acquired needs. As you may guess, this new gear will thereby satisfy their expectations.
I could go on regarding expectations and how they may be met or left unsatisfied. From being able to find a composition which was expected in a new area, to GAS, and beyond, expectations may be found all around us. What matters is not how to avoid them altogether but rather how to tame them so as to mold them into something beneficial. This may be done in a number of ways, depending upon both the individual and the situation.
Let us take, for example, expectations revolving around previously-noted compositions, such as in my case with Jesup Path and the birch trees. Rather than going to the trail shortly after having viewed the other photographer’s composition, it would have been more beneficial to wait a few days to allow my expectations to die down. This would have also allowed for me to come up with other compositional ideas, such as an abstract photograph of the blowing tall-grass which coated the ground. In fact, I had attempted a composition such as this, but due to my mind being so preoccupied, it unfortunately did not turn out right. I hadn’t spent the necessary time on getting it just as wanted and it failed.
Had I felt the strong urge to go to Jesup immediately, I could have – should have – worked to push the desired expectation from my mind as best as possible. This could have been done through meditating within the forest before bringing out my camera. Given I had the time, I also could have slowly walked the trail, taking in the possibilities while even searching for the composition. On the way back, then, I could have begun exposing whatever scenes I deemed worthy, allowing my creativity to flow, knowing the scene I expected to find was simply not there.
Ultimately, the best option of all would have been to avoid laying eyes on any other photographs of the area, especially those taken by other photographers. This is something which I continue to hope to do in the future as I explore new locations. It will not always be possible – especially regarding such popular places as Death Valley and Zion – but the effort will surely be worth it, as it shall help to lead to more novel, creative photographs. And at the end of the day, isn’t that the most important goal? To create novel works of meaningful art? To show people how we, as artists, see the beauty of the world around us? That, at least, is my goal; and I hope to never allow any expectations to change that.
Hi Cody, I noticed your article was accompanied by two photos that appear to be from one of my favorite places…Fallingwater. What is most interesting is the first photo that I thought I recognized seems to be of a planter next to the garage of the house. After seeing the next photo, I was sure it was Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece. I couldn’t find any reference to the site in your article, but I believe they’re from there…especially after noticing you are from PA. (I grew up in western PA).
The photograph of the potted fern is from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Kentuck Knob house and the other is from his Fallingwater house, yes. I had visited the two houses – though only from the outside, as tours were quite pricey! – this past summer. They are so beautifully designed, so as to flow with the nature around them, don’t you think?
Thanks for an interesting take Cody. Like others here, I am not professional in that I make a living from photography, but I do try to ‘be’ professional in the way I set about my image taking. Also like others, my subject and perception of it is not governed by others, or clients and that freedom in itself is a problem. I find shooting with a goal is much easier for me, than to randomly flit about looking for interesting compositions. Having got that out of the way, I would also say that the images which I get by circumstance, rather than by design, are often my favourites from any batch of images shot in a session or trip etc. Part of it is the surprise when you open them up on the screen for the first time, and think ‘ooohhh!’ to yourself.
Thanks for your efforts, very relevant to those of us who have the gear, and some skill, but are sometimes like a rudderless boat, unsure where to go and what to shoot. Very thought provoking.
It interests me that you find shooting with a goal to be much easier for yourself. Have you thought of photographing in projects, if you don’t already? Whereas you are focused on one theme or subject, with the end-goal being a collection of photographs worthy of exhibition, perhaps? I’d be interested to hear if that is something which would satisfy your desire for a goal, rather than photographing for clients specifically. Maybe even the creation of a single coffee table book, to cap off the project, would further help make the goal complete? Just thinking aloud here.
Hi Cody, when I referred to having a goal, I was really talking about being ‘in the moment’ as opposed to something on a larger scale, such as a project. As an instance, maybe I would see a photograph in a book, or in a movie scene which inspires me to capture a similar image myself, so hunting down a suitable location and getting the light right and so on, for that one image, is my own definition of having a goal, and, finding it easier to shoot when I have such motivation. Sometimes when I am out with the camera, I do find it a bit of a struggle to find a satisfactory subject. There are many cliched images and I do try to avoid replicating them, by style, or by content, or composition. I like to attempt a fresh take, by going in close with a wide angle, for instance. Shots taken ‘on the hoof’ like that, I find usually far more satisfying than those I shoot ‘with a goal’. Maybe this goes back to your quotation at the start of the article – plagurism -because if I get close to ‘the goal’ all I am really doing is emulating an image that inspired me, whereas, a success with my ‘on the hoof’ impromtu shots is a true success. Thanks for your input, I am not motivated sufficiently to produce an exhibition and my work is somewhat self-indulgent anyway, since the only client is me. None of this takes away any of the fun / pleasure of capturing images, which has always been a passion for me. Spring will reach the UK in two – two and a half months, I am already thinking about what kind of images I want to go for this year. Wish me luck, and, thanks once more for your interesting article and images.
Hi Cody, sorry for the delay in reply, it seems I was banned from the site because I was using a VPN for my own security when I go on banking sites and ebay etc. Just a quick reply to tell you that planned shots with a goal in my case are in many ways a facsimilie of the images that inspired me, whereas, off the hoof shots taken with little advance thought do, when they work, give greater satisfaction. I have no interest in publishing or exhibiting other than making prints for my own walls, or the family so I am happy as I am. Great article, hope this gets to you
I liked the idea of the article.
Glad to hear you enjoyed it, Pat!
Cody – I enjoyed with great interest your ideas on photographic expectations. Preconceptions of what has been photographed before in similar genres and places tend to aberrate my creativity – after all it is my creative intention vs what some may call image perfection. Several years ago I read Dirk DeVries’ Contemplative Vision: Photography as a Spiritual Practice. This changed my view of imaging nature entirely. As I replied several days ago to Spencer’s article on the megpixel wars – I recently have, at least in part, returned to my early (and ancient) 5-10 mp cameras, eg. Nikon’s D100 and 200 to photograph simple artifacts of nature and micro-landscapes. Such natural compositions seem to search for me rather the other way around! These lower resolution but still profound images seem to provide a more natural solace for my taste at this point in my life. Again, I so appreciate your thoughts on “previously noted” compositions.
It’s nice to hear you connect so well with the ideas presented, Ralph. It continues to amaze me just how influenced we can be by works we have seen of an area – or of a similar area to which we are going – even when those works hadn’t been gazed upon for months or years. I’m curious to know why you have decided to return to the D100/D200 cameras, rather than something more recent? What is it about these cameras which provides you with such “natural solace?”
Good question. I have not permanently returned to early models but at least once a week I will use these early models for their imaging simplicity. I have the Z7II and D850 among numerous others but for me the early models “cleanses the soul” of my optical imaging expectations when in the forest or high desert moreover I miss the days these “relics” provided so much joy – and still do!!
Very much enjoying the space your article opened up. I am an amateur, a position where consideration of recognition of others is not of significance. I capture what elicits bliss.
Thank you for helping me with this awareness.
I’m very glad to hear you enjoyed the article and that it helped you gain some awareness. Continue to be an amateur, for there is no other reason to create art than for the love of it.
Interesting perspective! I have some experiences to share too.
1) when i am planning to go to a location (with photographic interest) for the first time i have a completely different approach: actually, i am trying to get every possible information and views of the place. I have to be prepared. I am not making any income from photography, though its my one and only pass time and i love it. With that said, i usually don’t have the ability to revisit the place at all, so i must make that visit to count. The originality of a photo, in my opinion, is irrelevant to the prior knowledge of a place. It has to do with the photographic “eye”. Yes, i will seek the most photographed spots in order to find and shoot the exceptional perspective of it, something that have passed unnoticed from the others… sometimes works, others not.
2) for the GAS, i am totally agree with you! It took me about a decade of spending too much for gear i didn’t understood back then, then in a moment of enlightenment i sold everything (full frame, L lenses etc), did a fresh start shooting for two years with an iPhone while reading books and studying classic photography works, and then… i bought a mid-range aps-c DSLR, with a kit lens! That setup took me (at last) to the level of expectations i had at the very beginning!! And today i love my gear, i love my photography and i understand the limit of my expenses for gear over my hobbyist needs.
And for the last i have a tip for other people that suffers from GAS: any modern camera with 18-24 megapixels (MFT or APSC) is capable of BRILLIANT photos! And if you want deliberately something to improve your image quality (provided that you know what to do) then spend your money on a good lens! I recently bought my first Zeiss glass, and even though i was used to primes and manual focus, this lens opens up to me a new window of opportunities for creative shooting.
Regarding your first point, I do agree that going to a place – especially when you are unsure whether you will ever go back – with as much knowledge as possible can be beneficial. For those who wish to come back with memories of that place, the popular photography spots are, of course, the first to go to. And if that makes you happy, keep going for it! It’s nice to hear that you try to capture a unique perspective, as well – whether it ends up being successful doesn’t matter so much as long as you have learned something and can use that knowledge the next time you are out with your camera.
GAS is something I had suffered a bit from, but not nearly as much as most others. I was lucky, in a way, as I did not have much money to spend toward photography and therefore couldn’t keep up with the latest and greatest. The number of photographs I have seen printed huge from iPhones and old point-and-shoot cameras always blows me away, but it helps to realize how little the gear matters, so long as you are creating what is meaningful to you, personally.