Why Does Everyone Want to Shoot at the Hot Spots?
Places are popular precisely because everyone wants to shoot there, so the title of this week's article may sound a tad odd. But there are so many other options for where to go. Fighting the crowds and access restrictions for those iconic hot spots comes with both pros and cons, so why do we do it? And should you?
On the plus side, who wouldn't want to shoot an image that would look at home on the cover of a travel guide or in a postcard rack? These are the images that made certain places famous. The sights of Oxbow Bend in the Grand Tetons, Yosemite's Half Dome, the majestic vistas of the Canadian Rockies, Glacier National Park, the Grand Canyon, and others are well known. Indeed, I'm guessing many of you are visualizing them right now, even if you've never been there. You can view trying your hand at capturing one of these landmarks as a test of skill or a rite of passage. If you can measure up, you earn some personal satisfaction and the right to brag about it. I'd say you should post it on Facebook, at least.
And if you got into photography to capture the beauty of nature, it makes sense to go where you know you can find it. Most of the prime destinations have already been documented. Your time is precious, so why not take advantage of the research by others? From the examples of the earliest masters such as Ansel Adams and Elliot Porter to modern luminaries such as Galen Rowell and Art Wolfe, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. And let's not forget the legions of unsung heroes who posted to Facebook before us.
But this plus can easily turn into a minus when everyone around you is doing as you are. Only one person at a time can stand in the footsteps of Ansel Adams. Everyone else gets to wait in line or jockey for position, elbow to elbow, with all the other aspiring photographers there that day. In the right circumstances, you can make some good connections among the crowd. But in my experience, it's more common to come away frustrated than friendly. Why won't that guy move on so others can get a chance, he's been there for ten minutes already, and the light is fading fast. Then there are the folks who insist on posing in front of the attraction everyone else is trying to photograph. Vacationing families can create some unusual impediments to pristine nature photography. I once had to wait nearly half an hour while some kids splashed around at the foot of Marymere Falls in Olympic National Park. Their parents seemed to consider it the greatest thing ever. To each his own, I suppose, but still.
You can avoid the crowds to a degree by planning your visit for off-hours or off-season. Most visitors to Mt. Rainier National Park leave from the Seattle metro area after breakfast and arrive in time for lunch with the family. I often find myself more or less alone for sunrise, with the parking lot not filling until I'm packing up to leave for camp. So long as I put on sunscreen that morning before it got light so I wouldn't forget, I consider it a day well-spent. If I'm lucky, I'll have a productive sunset as well, but that depends, in part, on what everyone else has planned for the evening.
And consider what you end up with for your labors. At best, you capture an image already shot by countless aspiring photographers before you. Remember, you're not the only one looking to duplicate the work of the masters. When you see one of those killer shots on Facebook, it can sometimes be difficult to tell whether someone stole your image or merely copied it. After a while, they all end up looking the same, and the good ones are no exception. Imitation is also the most sincere form of confusion.
Some wildly popular sites now have access restrictions. This year, Glacier National Park instituted a program of ticketed entry for the Going-To-The-Sun Road from May 28 to September 6, 2021. Acadia, Carlsbad Caverns, Rocky Mountain National Park, Zion, and Yosemite all now have access restrictions as well. The competition among visitors has exceeded the capacity of the park and the environment to accommodate at peak times. It's time to consider other options.
To get distinctive shots, seek your own way, far from the madding crowds. Get a flavor of the area by visiting the iconic locations or the postcard rack at the visitor center, but then go off on your own and see what else you can find. I find this a lot more fun than just photographing views that I already know how they look.
Consider all the postcards, travel guides, and web postings as something to whet your appetite. They may entice you to visit a location, but don't limit yourself to what others have done. With a bit of luck, you can find a secret hot spot all to yourself. If it becomes popular with you, that's what counts. Most of the crowds will be elsewhere. It's nice to visit such private locations again and again, so you know them well and what time they look their best.
Beyond mere imitation, this is how true learning takes place