Millions — perhaps billions — of people take pictures every day. Famous places and people have been photographed more times than anyone can count. All of this leads to the deluge of images that we are seeing online and in social media. Every time that a photographer visits a beautiful location for the first time, thousands of people already photographed it under the best possible conditions (and the worst conditions, and everywhere in between). Recently, I have heard more than a few people say that photography has become boring to them; everyone copies everyone else, and it doesn’t seem like there is anything new left to photograph and explore. Is that mindset justified? Can photographers still create unique photos?
1) What makes a unique photo?
I visited Grand Teton National Park for the first time over this past summer. It is one of the most popular places in the United States to take landscape photos, and I knew that the scenery would be beautiful. After arriving to the park, though, my first thought was not on how inspiring or surreal these mountains were; instead, I immediately recognized Ansel Adams’s famous photo of the Snake River sitting right in front of me.
Inevitably, the photos I took of the Tetons would have some similarities to Ansel Adams’s shot — which isn’t as good as it sounds. With a similar background, viewers would be reminded that better photos have been taken of the same scene! Even if I didn’t think about his famous photo, people who viewed my work would notice the landscape. So, one of the difficult parts of taking pictures here was to create work that felt like my own.
A lot of us have a desire to take unique photos; we want to do something that has never been done before. There is nothing wrong with thinking like this. But, if you are after unique photos (and I tend to include myself in this category), are you chasing something that is impossible?
Obviously, unless you create a digital duplicate of an image, every photo is “unique.” It is impossible to take a picture that is identical, pixel by pixel, to one that someone else has taken. The true definition of a unique photo, of course, runs much deeper than this, and is a bit open to interpretation.
Is an image unique if the scene has been photographed before, but not by you? I have taken pictures at some popular locations, but I wasn’t actively trying to copy anyone else’s photo — does that still count as my own work? What if my composition is different from the most famous photos of the same place?
No one can provide definitive answers here. However, I can offer a story that you may relate to. When I first went to Yosemite, I took pictures at most of the famous overlooks, including Tunnel View. This is where Ansel Adams captured his “Clearing Winter Storm” photo, and, more recently, where Apple’s default desktop background was taken. However, the photo I took (now my profile picture) couldn’t easily be mistaken for either of these two images, despite the same underlying landscape. Does that make it unique?
I am divided. On one hand, the composition is my own; I haven’t seen many similar shots. However, it isn’t entirely my own photo, since I wasn’t the person who discovered or popularized this landscape. I went here for sunrise because I knew it would be a good place to take pictures. If, instead, I had found a totally new vantage point to take photos in Yosemite, it obviously would be more of my own shot. So, are there degrees of uniqueness? (According to linguists, no.)
Still, you could photograph a popular subject under unusual conditions, or you could photograph a scene that few people have captured before. There is a clear difference between these two examples, and that is the crux of this article.
I can’t tell you how to take a unique photo; I can’t even pinpoint when a photo turns from commonplace to something completely new. What I will say, though, is that the search for unique photos is not something that can be done easily. It takes unusual dedication to find something that no one has ever captured, especially with the bombardment of photos taken around the world every day. Whether that makes it more worthwhile to chase uniqueness, or less, I leave the ultimate question up to you.
2) Capturing an Old View in a New Way
Rather than searching for photos that are completely new, you may prefer to put your own spin on a popular subject. I certainly love doing this whenever I visit a famous location, and I am sure that many others are the same way. So, how can you put this into practice?
There are countless possibilities. One of the first is simply to use different equipment than most people do, especially your choice of lens. If everyone uses a wide-angle lens, pull out your telephoto! Show viewers a detail of the scene rather than an expansive view.
When I visited the Notre Dame Cathedral several years ago, I was particularly interested in the chaotic lines and shapes of all the buildings. Rather than taking a wide-angle photo of the city skyline — which seems to be the most popular thing to do — I switched to my 105mm lens and focused on distant details.
Other times, you can capture a famous view under unusual conditions. The Stokksnes Mountains in Iceland may not be a household name, but they are relatively common subjects for landscape photographers. When I visited, though, the strong wind made for very unusual conditions along the shore: lines of white foam in the sand, which stayed in place even as the water receded.
I know that this is a windy location, so perhaps it was simply the tides on this particular day, or an odd combination of elements all together. No matter the reason, I haven’t seen anyone else capture a shot with foam like this in the foreground. I owe this photo’s uniqueness to the unusual conditions I encountered. Sometimes, that is the best way to photograph a popular subject in a new way.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, is your choice of composition. Although it may seem as though a given landscape can only be composed in a handful of ways, that rarely is the case. Move around, try different foregrounds, and look around for things that some photographers may miss.
On the same trip to Paris as my Notre Dame photo, I spent an hour taking pictures from the top of the Arc de Triomphe at night. Obviously, this is a popular spot to take photos — even more so if you are taking pictures of the Eiffel Tower. Yet, I took a photo that night which I still consider to be unique, despite the ridiculous popularity of this subject.
This wasn’t a very unusual night, but I did plan my composition and timing very carefully. How did I take this shot? A few elements were at play.
First, the top of the Eiffel Tower has a spotlight that spins around at night. This spotlight points at an upwards angle, rather than directly parallel over the city. As a result, when the light faced my exact direction, it appeared to point straight up. It took several tries to get the spotlight facing perfectly towards me, but I did ultimately get the shot I had in mind. Finally, I was lucky that a cloud was nearby to complete the illusion; it almost looks like an erupting volcano.
So, it is possible to take unique photos of a well-worn subject; you just need something new in the scene. Either you add the newness yourself (perhaps by using an unusual focal length or finding a different composition), or you hope to capture your photo under rarely-scene conditions.
3) New Frontiers
Aside from the instances mentioned above, there are still a few places in the world where you can capture things that have never been seen before. Maybe you are a macro photographer searching for a rarely-seen species of beetle. Or, you could be a landscape photographer hiking to the inner reaches of the Canadian Rockies. If you capture a subject that few people have seen before, your photo will certainly be unique.
At this time in history, it is easy to feel as though everything has been photographed already. So many people have cameras that it seems almost inevitable. Still, I don’t think this is entirely accurate. Think about the most impactful photos you have seen from the last ten years. In everything from reportage to landscape photography, I can picture several “classic” photos that no one had thought to capture until recently (whether because they captured a famous subject in a new way, or because they found an entirely new subject).
On the other hand, this truly is an unusual time for photography. Billions of people have access to a camera — vastly more than was true a decade ago — and a sizable proportion consider themselves photographers. Still, there is space to find unique photos, and there remain a number of new frontiers to capture. If you are searching for unique photos, you will need to work hard and think outside the box. But, when you do, your results will be worth the effort.