Originality in Photography

Autumn Scenery in the Beautiful San Juan Mountains of Colorado

Here is a challenge for you.  Do a Google web image search for “Maroon Bells.”

I’ll save you the effort, just click this link.

Try it again, searching for “Oxbow Bend“, a famous location in the Tetons of Wyoming.

What you’ll get is thousands and thousands of images of the same basic scene from the same basic vantage point.

Not that these locations aren’t photographic. To the contrary, they are too photographic. They are commonplace and over-exposed locations and magnets for tourists with cameras.

If you are a photographer and making an honest effort to establish credibility as such, you should avoid photographing tourist photo spots.

Why?

Your photography will never stand out in the over-crowded market for landscape photographs. You’ll simply be another blue jelly bean in a jar full of blue jelly beans on a wall covered with jars of blue jelly beans.

Many years ago, notable Colorado landscape photographer John Fielder once asked me. “So, Gary, when are you going to sign up for one of my workshops?” I politely replied “John, why would I want to get the same photographs that everyone else is taking?” He just smiled at me and said “I can see your point.” I knew he would see my point before I said it, because he made a name for himself by being original with the scenes he selects to photograph.

Make no mistake, I’ve stopped at many a famous location and taken a few photos of these scenic spots, but in general, I try to avoid seeking them out because I don’t want my portfolio to be full of blue jelly beans.

I was selling at an art festival once and a lady was browsing my collection of prints for sale. She commented, “I really like your images, they aren’t all off the common spots I always see.” She purchased a 24×36 inch print of a mountain scene that I’ve never seen anyone else offering. It was reassuring to me to know that there were people out there looking for photographic originality, not just another photo from a famous tourist location.

Recently, I was talking to a photographer who told me he was going to go to the “Crystal Mill” the next morning to get a sunrise photo. In the back of my mind, I was thinking “he’s a tourist.” I told him I didn’t have any images of Crystal Mill and that I personally had no interest in getting photographs there. It was too popular a spot. Based on his reaction, I could guess he was thinking that I was stupid. He said, “I have to sell my photos to make money, that’s a money shot.” I’ve heard it multiple times over the years, always from photographers I’ve never heard of.

I left the conversation at that, but I know from experience that he’ll never make much money from selling a photo of Crystal Mill. He’ll be trying to sell a blue jelly bean from a jar of blue jelly beans on a wall full of jars of blue jelly beans.

As a matter of fact, the few “famous” location shots I’ve put on stock agencies seldom sell. My best sellers are original compositions and not the images tourists look for. The same holds true for my print sales. It’s the original work that makes me money, not the commonplace.

As a matter of principle, I refuse to take a photograph of Maroon Bells or the Crystal Mill. I have none in my portfolio and I’ve been near these locations many times over the years. I’m not stuffy or conceded about it. I just don’t want to be a blue jelly bean.

Other blue jelly bean locations are National Parks.

We have a few here in Colorado, but they can be any National Park. Yes, I will make an occasional visit to a National Park, but I don’t put a lot of effort into getting photos there among the crowds, all with cameras, snapping the same photos from the same locations. These parks get millions of visitors each year and that means millions of photographs taken of the same scenes, over and over and over again. Lots of blue jelly beans.

To up your photography game, learn originality. Practice originality. Be original.

Or, you could just be a tourist. Nothing wrong with being a tourist.

Unless you want to be a better photographer.