In the digital age, there’s one prevailing fear that can cripple photographers, and that’s the fear of being a cliché. In recent years, popular photo blogs have run articles with headlines like Top 15 Photography Clichés Everyone Hates and 25 Photo Clichés You Should Try to Avoid if You Want Your Work to Stand Out.
Landscape photographers probably suffer the most. The prevailing idea seems to be that every beautiful place has already been photographed, so why bother? Still, the best photographers don’t run from the clichés; they lean into them. A few years ago, the great Catherine Opie said, “The biggest cliché in photography is sunrise and sunset.” Then she made a bunch of pictures of sunrises and sunsets.
The climate is changing, and our planet is endangered, and for that reason, we need landscape photographers more than we ever have. We asked five Shutterstock photographers who have shot famous places to tell us how they deal with the clichés and find inspiration for their landscape photography. Their stories are proof that, when it’s all said and done, the clichés not to be feared.
1. “I don’t go to the well-known lookouts to take pictures.”
“I often walk around with near-to-zero photo pretensions when I am in well-known beautiful places. I guess the intrinsic beauty of something is not enough for me to feel compelled to photograph it, even less if it is being constantly photographed. I will just be enjoying the scenery until something captivates me or moves me somehow, and only then I will take a photograph. Otherwise, I would happily leave the place even without having photographed the “landscape” itself. I try to experience the landscape in my own way. I don’t go to the well-known lookouts to take pictures.
For this photo, my girlfriend convinced me to go to a place in northern Spain that is famous for its weird sand formations. The kind of drive-through natural reserve in which you stop by, take a picture, and keep driving. But it was beautiful indeed.
Everyone would take the same pictures from exactly the same places. I told her to go and pose for a picture in front of a sand formation, but I made her wait and stand still. It was windy and the clouds were moving fast. I was telling her to do things and making fun of her. And the magical moment happened when, at the same time, she finally got really tired of me, a wind gust hit her, and a cloud partially covered the background.”
2. “I rarely use a lot of equipment.”
“To be honest, I am not sure if I really do avoid the clichés. Sometimes I wonder if when a landscape has been photographed too often, the picture of itself becomes a cliché no matter how you photograph it. So I think the best way for me to avoid it is not to care so much if I can or can’t avoid it.
It took me a long time to give in and photograph the touristic places in Iceland. They are so popular because they are the most beautiful places in the country, but I was too afraid that the pictures would be too much of a cliché. Photographing those places is a bigger challenge than any other landscape, I think.
When photographing these places, I rarely use a lot of equipment. I bring it all with me, but I avoid using it too much. I like to be able to move and walk a lot to explore the landscape, rather than standing in one spot for hours to get the perfect sunrise shot.
I feel very connected to nature, and I love when a place shows its mystery. This is what I try to show in the end: a little mystery in the little moments. Photographing landscapes is very intuitive. It can reveal a lot about the place, but sometimes it can also reveal something about the photographer. That is how I like to work. I like my pictures to be somehow emotional.”
3. “I am trying to avoid these clichés by finding new angles or unique compositions.”
“Since close to every place in the world is photographed, it is always a challenge to come up with something new. A lot of well-known landscape sites are overused or over-photographed, especially since we are using digital cameras. I am trying to avoid these clichés by finding new angles or unique compositions. Sometimes I am lucky, and sometimes not. For me, it is all about being there at the right time in the right place. That is also the reason why portfolio is growing slowly. I don’t need thousands of pictures every year. I am happy if I have twenty which I really like. The rock formation in the Olympic National Park was such an experience. I was there with my photography buddy. It took us five days to get that picture. Usually I am done in 20 minutes. That one was different. In 2013, we travelled from Seattle to San Francisco, and the Olympic National Park was on our photography bucket list.
We knew it rains a lot there, but we didn’t expect five solid days of rain. We tried every day to reach these formations. You have to know that this location is not accessible from a parking lot. You have to walk for about two hours along a beach with big stones and no sand, carrying all the equipment.
On the fifth day, we started our daily beach walk again. No rain for the first time, but after one hour, there was suddenly a river. Luckily for us, there was a big tree, which we used as a bridge. We arrived at our location and had a small window to take some shots. I used a 4×5 large format camera and a backup D800 just to make sure I got the shot I wanted. After 15 minutes, it started to rain again. It was pouring, so we packed our gear and went back.”
4. “If you fill your head with other peoples’ photos before you arrive, you spend your whole time trying to find their photos.”
“I’m not sure that I do avoid clichés, but the reason for this is the same as the reason that I possibly sometimes avoid them. Basically, I avoid looking at photography from the places I visit beforehand. This isn’t specifically to avoid cliches, but I find that if you fill your head with other peoples’ photos before you arrive, you spend your whole time trying to find their photos, and this can paralyze your own creativity. You have to avoid planting these seeds to leave yourself fully open to your own creativity.
If the results end up new and fresh, that’s great. If the results end up cliché, it’s simply because I wasn’t aware of what other people had already done with the location, and the classic shot was just too obvious to avoid, or maybe I’d drawn on an old memory subconsciously.
I’ve visited the incredible Landmannalaugar in Iceland each year for the last four years, and I often come home with similar images, although I am consciously striving each time to get better shots, better light and compositions. The other thing that I try to do is to find a different perspective, and I was able to do that this year with a wide angle lens, looking down at the stream that runs through the valley. It was just a case of being open to the situation and keeping new possibilities in mind. I also like extreme compositions. Pointing the camera up or down and going wide can often produce interesting results.
I also find that using long focal lengths for landscapes can work very well too. If you pick out a small part of a classic landscape at say 200mm, you have a greater chance of abstracting a section of the landscape that hasn’t been seen in your context before.”
5. “Arrive early and leave late.”
“Check Google Earth to pre-visualize the iconic images of well-known locations to be aware of the clichés. By all means, compose your iconic shot, but make it unique to your vision by considering the unrepeatable variables: the time of day, season, and prevailing weather. Accept clear, sunny days, and welcome “bad weather.” Cloudy skies, rain, snow and fog make for unique atmospheric light conditions. These variables will set your photographs of familiar locations apart.
Consider the orientation of sun and moon and the times of their rising and setting. Try to avoid peak vacation times for more interesting weather and smaller crowds. Arrive early and leave late. Slow down, and become aware of the location with all your senses. Take time to look around without pressure to immediately get busy with your camera.
I am inspired by minimalist desert landscapes, like this one at White Sands National Monument, especially the elegant, wind-sculpted forms of sand dunes, the beautiful colors of light at dawn and dusk, together with the flowing shadows cast by a low-angle sun. Under the bright sunlight around the middle of the day, the bone-colored gypsum sand appears white as snow; there are no shadows, and it can be unbearably hot.
I decided to visit in November, when the temperatures are cooler and there are no crowds of visitors, as evidenced by the huge parking lot near the visitors’ center and the scores of shaded picnic tables nearby. I decided to stay for three whole days around the time of the full moon. This would ensure unhurried time to experience and thoroughly explore the landscape and also to photograph the moonrise and moonset low above the distant mountains.
Researching the location, I discovered that the Park Rangers lock the gates before sunset and open up only after sunrise; however, I was able to reserve one of a few back-county tent sites in the dunes. While necessitating a two-kilometer hike on sand, back-packing camping gear, including food and water, plus heavy photography gear, this enabled me to make an interesting series photographs in the most beautiful light of the day, as well as under the soft light of the full moon at night.”
- 1. Go out with an open mind. Don’t study photos of the landscape beforehand, which could lead you to photograph with preconceptions.
- Go in the off-season to avoid crowds, but also to capture the landscape in an unexpected way.
- Bring minimal equipment so that you can enjoy the landscape and traverse it freely, instead of weighing yourself down with extra lenses and other gear.
- Seek out and experiment with unique angles and compositions.