Imagine you have a guitar and want to make music your career. Since Eric Clapton is your favorite artist, and “Let It Rain” is your favorite song, you you work hard until you can play it perfectly. But wait—before you move on to “Layla,” let me suggest that your best path to musical fame and fortune is not to replicate the works others, no matter how great they are. (Also, there’s a reason Duane Allman isn’t answering your calls.)
Using Eric Clapton as a model for your music is fine—the more you listen to Clapton, the more your guitar playing will be influenced by his creativity and craftsmanship. But at some point you need to choose between carving your own musical path, or languishing as a cover artist.
Make the world your own
The same applies to photography. In my photo workshops I encounter many people who have travelled great distances to duplicate a photo they’ve seen online, in a book, or in a print somewhere. I certainly understand the desire to create your own version of something beautiful, and I can’t say that my portfolio doesn’t contain its share of photography clichés—but, and I can’t emphasize this too strongly, if you must photograph something exactly as it’s been photographed before, make that recreation is your starting point, not your ultimate goal.
Once you’ve captured your “icon” (that word is a cliché itself) shot, take a breath and spend a little more time with your scene. Identify what draws your eye and ways to emphasize it. Look for alternate foreground and background possibilities (move around), seek unique perspectives (move around some more), tweak your exposure variables to experiment with depth and motion. If your first inclination was to shoot horizontal, try vertical, and vice versa.
It also helps to remove your camera from the tripod and pan slowly, zooming in and out as you go until something stops you (don’t forget to return to the tripod before clicking). Even if nothing immediately jumps out, I promise that the simple act of slowing down and spending time with a scene will reveal overlooked secrets that might spur further creativity.
One of the easiest ways to stretch your style is taking lens choice off autopilot. The expansiveness of most landscape scenes almost begs for a wide angle lens that includes it all, but if your goal is to create something rather than covering what’s already been done, consider a telephoto lens for your landscapes.
I sometimes catch myself automatically reaching for a wide lens, only going to a telephoto when I see a specific composition that requires one. But I’ve learned that those times when I’m struggling to find a shot, the easiest way to reset my creative instincts in the field is often to simply view the scene through a telephoto lens, just to see what my wide-angle bias might be missing.
If telephoto vision doesn’t come naturally to you in the field, you can train your eye in the comfort of your own home by opening any wide angle image in Photoshop (or your photo editor of choice), setting the crop tool to 2/3 aspect ratio (to match what you see in your viewfinder), and see how many new compositions you can find. (I’m not suggesting that you shoot everything wide and crop later—this crop tool suggestion is simply a method to train your eye.) But whether you do it in the field, or later in Photoshop, once your eye gets used to seeing in telephoto, you’ll find virtually every scene you photograph has telephoto possibilities you never imagined were there.
Still not convinced? In addition to providing a fresh perspective, telephoto lenses offer undeniable, tangible advantages in landscape photography:
About this image
I love aspen. Not only are they beautiful trees, they’re fascinating subjects. For example, did you know that a stand of aspen is actually a single organism connected by one common, extensive root system? In other words, each trunk that we identify as an individual tree is in fact part of (and genetically identical to) every tree surrounding it.
A single aspen stand (known, appropriately enough, as a “clone” of aspen), can be tens of thousands of years old. The oldest and largest aspen clone, in Utah’s Fishlake National Forest, is the oldest, largest living organism on Earth (much older and larger than any of the far more heralded bristlecone or sequoia trees).
On last year’s visit to Lundy Canyon, I went exploring the aspen clone on the trail to Lake Helen with my Sony 12-24 GM, seeking to capture the sturdy trunks emerging from a gold-carpeted forest floor (image on the right).
This year, looking for something different, I went at this same aspen clone with my Sony 100-400 GM lens (on my Sony α1), trying first to isolate a single leaf against the colorful background. After a few unsatisfying attempts, I turned my attention to the aspen trunks, looking for a way to emphasize their stark whiteness, papery texture, and protruding knots.
It took a while, but I finally found a tree that offered the combination of separation and background I was looking for. There was nothing especially distinctive about the tree I found, but it displayed a healthy white bark, a prominent knot to anchor my frame, and was separated enough from the surrounding trees that I could get it perfectly sharp, while significantly softening its neighbors.
I started with vertical compositions, but as soon as I switched to horizontal I knew that’s how I wanted to handle this scene. With that determined, I spent the rest of my time making micro-adjustments to my position and focal length, looking for the perspective and framing that gave me the absolute minimum merging of trunks. I also experimented with a variety of focal lengths and f-stops before deciding that I liked the absolute softest background best. I shot the image I share today at nearly 400mm and f/5.6 (wide open).
While I started this post writing about creating unique images, I know I’m not the first person to photograph aspen like this. (Nor do I mean to imply that I’m the Eric Clapton of landscape photography.) But I do feel it’s important for all photographers, myself included, to constantly seek fresh takes on old subjects by pursuing the qualities that move them, and experimenting with new ways to reveal them.
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