One of the Crowd
If you're having mixed feeling these days as you self-isolate, welcome to the crowd. No doubt many of us feel the same. But as aspiring photographers, we should be trying to stand out from the crowd. Weird, isn't it?
When looking at images online or in books, some stand out more than others. When we find a really good one, we admire it, and are naturally curious on how it was shot. Some photographers I know are so interested in the technical details of aperture, shutter speed and so on, they clearly figure that if they set their cameras the same way, they might get similar results themselves. When the opportunity presents itself, there's a strong temptation to stain the footsteps of those they look up to and try to take the same shot. We all do it. Consider all the shots of Yosemite Valley from the Wawona Tunnel viewpoint made popular by Ansel Adams, if you don't believe me. I have a few myself. I'm sure many of you do as well.
The National Park Service knows this and marks the spot to make it easier for visitors not to miss. As you exit from the tunnel, your first view of the valley includes Half Dome, El Capitan, Bridalveil Fall and other landmarks arrayed before you. Even without the sign markers, drivers paying attention would be tempted to stop anyway, but it's interesting to consider how many already planned to, having learned about it ahead of time. Such not-to-miss vistas are scattered throughout the country and the world, and with good reason. The sights are incredible. If you play your cards right and do everything just right, maybe some of Ansel Adams' talent will rub off and you can be part of the "in crowd" like those photographers you look up to.
But if everyone's photos all look the same, why should anyone prefer yours? That's the curious thing about wanting to be part of the crowd and follow what the crowd does. The best you can hope for is to blend in, not stand out. Yes, with enough work, you might become better than Ansel Adams and other luminaries, but I wouldn't get your hopes up. There just isn't much room for improvement when the bar is already so high.
Learning from others and following their lead can be helpful, but only up to a point. Such an approach may get you in the ballpark, but to hit a home run takes a deeper kind of commitment.
Focus on areas you are familiar with, that you can visit easily and often. Maybe that's limited to your backyard right now, but think beyond the current restrictions. Consider parks, regional wildlands, and other areas near you and what they may offer. If you're lucky enough to live within striking distance of a National Park, that's fine too, of course. But don't just go to where all the guidebooks point you. When I finally head down to Mt. Rainier National Park again, I will visit the well-known sights just to see what's changed. But most of the time I'm in the area, you'll find me checking out lesser-known spots, far from the maddening crowds of the Paradise and Sunrise visitors centers.
When the first photographer set their tripod up at some now-famous location, they had to end up with unique images. But as ever more people followed in their footsteps, it grew increasingly difficult to come up with anything new. As people learned what something looked like, they wanted to see it themselves. Expectations had been set.
The best places to photograph are those that surround you more by scenic potential than by other people. Famous sites that typically have large crowds have mostly been worked to death already. Find some areas of your own and see what you can do with them. It's more a matter of cultivating your familiarity with a few places than it is of visiting every possible destination, or of going to where the cool people go.
Look for new ways to portray common subjects. Become curious. Rather than looking to others, look within, and be authentic. It's more about how you represent something than merely what you are portraying. If you want to develop your creative vision, make that vision truly your own. Sometimes this means honing your technical skills so you can push the bounds of what is possible. Sometimes it just means crawling around on the ground until you notice what has been right in front of you all along.
Facebook and Instagram each have over a billion active users. And as you can guess, many of them own cameras. Don't settle for being just one of the crowd. Be yourself.