Make Your Own Tripod Tracks by David Leland Hyde

Written by Alpenglow Images on December 19th, 2011

I am really happy to have David Leland Hyde of Landscape Photography Blogger as a guest author today on my blog.  David and I struck up a friendship via our blogs a little over a year ago and I’ve grown to really appreciate his advice and commentary, through his blog posts and emails, on life and photography.  His essay today is inspired by conversations he and I have had over the last several months.  Also, today, I’ve concurrently posted an essay entitled, “Moving Past the Repertoire,” on his blog.

In May 2011, Guy Tal relit the torch on an ongoing controversy over photographers “copying” each other with his blog post, “The Art of Copying.”  Why bring along another photographer’s photograph, seek out his or her exact tripod tracks and steal his exact composition?

Some photographers say they do it to learn. Some photographers do it because they like the photograph and want to make their own print without having to buy it. Some say it is more commercially viable to copycat; others are lazy, or greedy. I ask them and you, the reader if applicable, “Why do you copy other photographers? Do you feel it is ethically OK?”

Is it OK to photograph a similar image, but not exactly the same? How far do you go?

Back in May 2010, I wrote Greg Russell and suggested that his image of Mesa Arch, while well executed, could send people a message about his work inconsistent with his intelligent, experienced perspective on the subjects of place, landscape and wilderness.  Greg has mentioned his own process in photographing Mesa Arch, but did not purposely seek out another photographer’s exact composition. He made a photograph at a location that has been photographed many times and can no longer be claimed by one photographer. Can one photographer claim a location? Not the location, but the composition? Yes, no, maybe? Copyright cases in courts across the land have come to differing conclusions depending on the degree and intent of “copying.”

Plateau Edge, Southern Utah, 1964 © Philip Hyde

Plateau Edge, Southern Utah, 1964 © Philip Hyde (Used with permission)

A magazine years ago beat up Tom Till for photographing Mesa Arch with the sunrise like David Muench had. Now dozens if not hundreds of photographers have produced nearly the same image. A photograph of Mesa Arch at sunrise in a portfolio now says, “I am looking for commercial success more than establishing my own artistic vision.” I wrote to Greg that I hoped he would not take what I said as an attack, but as honest feedback and my own opinion that I did not want to hold back from a friend.

I said that I felt that his photographs of a Death Valley sand dune and of Yosemite Valley were strong, but if placed at the top of his blog with Mesa Arch, the group begins to look like the work of every other landscape photographer from the American West.

“Have you ever tried to sell either the Yosemite or the Death Valley image to magazines?” I asked Greg in my e-mail. “I think you might have a tough time. Not because they are bad photographs, but because they have been done before.” Galen Rowell called it “image maturity,” the concept that regardless of the quality of the image itself, editors may have originally perceived it as unique, but today enough images similar to it have been made that it no longer appears fresh and unusual.

“Look at your own portfolio,” I wrote to Greg, and now to you. “Neither your image of Mesa Arch nor your Yosemite Valley image alone would be damning, but paired together, they give the opposite impression from what readers get who dig just a little and see more of your photographs.”

You might say, “Who in the world is this David Leland Hyde guy to give advice?” You may have grounds for wondering. However, in making selections of my father’s photographs I have been talking to many of the top landscape photographers alive today, as well as some of the best photography galleries and museum curators too. I have learned that for the most part the selection of Dad’s work that will be accepted today is very different than it was 30-40 years ago. Some of his most known icons just don’t appeal today because too many other photographers have copied them since their creation.

I could fight this with a big protest such as the obvious fact that Dad made his images first, that his work is timeless and any number of other arguments, but most of it has to do with Galen Rowell’s concept of image maturity. Certain photographs are no longer as new and compelling as they might have been even 10 years ago. I feel we have done a great job with the Philip Hyde site, though there are a number of images on it now that I look at from time to time and realize that they too will have to be replaced by something more uniquely Philip Hyde. It is a difficult task, even a contradiction of sorts, to take a body of work that helped start it all 50-60 years ago, and only be able to use the images that everybody else did not emulate. Once in a while, sparingly, we will use some of Dad’s signature photographs that people are more likely to remember came first.

If you, as a landscape photographer, completely ignore what I have said here, I understand. You are the artist. Even if you agree with it, I wouldn’t necessarily change everything right away. Mull it over. Let it rumble around for a while. I hope it is helpful to you at some point. The rewards of finding your own great locations, of making your own tripod tracks, are far greater than the few dollars in monetary gain from photographs like many others.

I was relieved and happy that Greg responded with gratitude and appreciation, not because he accepted what I said, but because he took it the way it was intended, as honest feedback from a friend who wanted to help him improve the look and presentation of his blog to be more in line with who he is as a person and photographer.

My father said that finding one’s voice is the most important endeavor of all. He was able to make a full-time living as a landscape photographer, which itself was particularly rare then and perhaps will be again the way the industry is going. Most landscape photographers don’t get rich, though some do through extreme commercialization and the production of cliché. Dad would advise other photographers not to be tempted or to waver from seeking quality and the development of their own vision that comes from who they are and what they feel is important to convey about nature.

Mesas and Boulders on the San Rafael Swell, by David Leland Hyde

Mesas, Boulders, San Rafael Swell Utah, 2009, © David Leland Hyde (Used with permission)

In Colorado and many other states, people have little inherent fine art taste and have been marketed into thinking that mediocre over-promoted pretty pictures are the best photography. A certain top Colorado photographer has very little respect outside Colorado because his work consists of primarily post-card type images. He has a 5,000 square foot showroom in Denver, part of which is devoted to another big name from the Southwest. My father called this other photographer’s work “roadside landmark photography.” Many photographers today look up to this photographer as a role model. This shows how fine art standards have dropped. We need to take back photography from the hucksters. While certain photographer’s work sells like hotcakes in Denver, the nearby Camera Obscura Gallery devoted to the classic photography masters recently went out of business. Unimaginative work sells due to the public’s lack of art education. You can choose to either prey upon this ignorance or do your part to introduce quality. Every cliché photograph adds to the problem, and every image you or anyone else puts out that shows something unique and of artistic merit, helps to raise artistic awareness.

In my blog post on Galen Rowell and developing personal style, there is a bit of discussion on these issues in the comments where I mention the work of one wealthy photographer from Australia. If you look at his website, you will see that his images resemble the typical recognizable photograph from each top location, except that the saturation has been amped up and the drama has been increased. Contrast this work with say that of Eliot Porter, Philip Hyde, Michael Kenna, Brett Weston or Carr Clifton. The problem is that many times fine art prints are an impulse purchase rather than an educated purchase.

Any photographer whose website begins to look like they just went around to the “checklist” and checked off various locations will be passed over and dismissed by the best photo editors, serious collectors and the art museums. If your photograph of Mesa Arch is your bestseller, I would ask to whom is it selling? What is the buyer’s knowledge level about art and photography? This is actually a good gauge of your work: what kind of buyer are you attracting? Is your work representing who you are as a photographer, or is it merely what you think people want to buy? Asking these questions and considering your answers carefully can and will completely transform your portfolio and your work. Try it.


50 Comments so far ↓

  1. Alister Benn says:

    Great read and highlighting many key points that I have pondered at great length myself.

    Plagiarism may be the highest degree of flattery, but it comes at a price.

    It’s no coincidence that I live on the border with Tibet, where I can take images inisolation.

    • Thanks so much for commenting, Alister; I know from some of our own discussions you’ve pondered many of these same points…

      Yes, you live in a very localized spot–beautiful but not frequented by landscape photographers. 🙂

      “Plagiarism may be the highest degree of flattery…” Don’t you dare tell my students that!! I’ll never hear the end of it… 🙂

    • Steve Sieren says:

      Alister, I’d have to say you may not have the oppurtunity that most photographers in the states have to copy other work, it’s just too easy to do here in the U.S. I’m sure our photographer to icon has a very high per capita here. Most photographers are hobbyist seeking a creative outlet but it’s a shame they don’t fully work at the creative part. In your case you have to be creative with fresh subject matter at every turn in your local travels.

  2. I think this is a very thought provoking essay and I guessed before I scrolled down that this would resonate with Alister. I think to the ambitious amateur or even would-be-pro originality is the single biggest challenge. How many variables can there be in a location that has been done to death? Light, cloud formations, weathering over time, man-made intrusions….. How do you find a new angle or do you have to find a truly new aspect. I doubt if many people can or will do what Alister has done and adopt a nomadic lifestyle in search of Available Light. I am as guilty as the next man of getting up at 5am to photograph the sun rise over Angkor Wat. Perhaps the truth is that most people will ultimately reconcile themselves to ‘copycat’ photography and the ones that don’t will then stand head and shoulders above them. The challenge David raises is whether they will be recognized as pioneer artists or submerged in a deluge of mediocrity. I poked fun in my own blog at the Gursky Rhein II and I suspect it would not pass the DL-H seal of approval but is that really the way the photographic arm of the art world is going? Scale, yes. I am not convinced about anything beyond that. There are plenty of images on I’d buy before the Gursky!! I’m going away to put a wet towel over my head.

    • “The challenge David raises is whether they will be recognized as pioneer artists or submerged in a deluge of mediocrity.”

      Well said, Andrew! I think this pretty much sums it up. I have to say that I am impressed by most of the images on…there is some amazing anti-copycat work there, and on various blogs. You just gotta seek it out!

      Thanks for commenting!

  3. Rafael Rojas says:

    Simply one of the best blog posts I have read in a long time. And SO, SO TRUE!!!
    I think the only reason for photography should be to give you another medium to express your inner voice. Anything else just deviates from its reason d’être, and becomes something else: a business, a race for a bigger ego, a trend, a fashion. All that is forgotten quickly…only vision remains!

    Thanks for sharing this Greg…I also enjoyed very much your post on David’s blog…which brought me here. Thanks for sharing it on Whytake mate…these two posts should be read by a lot of people!!

  4. pj says:

    Great contribution to Greg’s blog David. To my mind, photographing the icons isn’t necessarily taboo. The key is to put your own unique vision into the images. That’s what separates the artist from the hack.

    • Thanks for your comment, PJ–I think you’ve stated simply an answer to the problem that I’ve definitely overthought; can’t speak for David. I have to admit that I’ve seen “vision” confused with “conditions” in the past. For instance, a glorious sunset does not a creative image make if it was photographed from the same location (same composition) that others have photographed 100s of times before.

      Sure, it can be processed creatively, and it sure can make for a beautiful photo, but original art?

      I hope this doesn’t sound too hard-edged…I’m not really trying to draw an absolute line in the sand but this is just the way I’ve personally been thinking about things lately…

  5. Thank you to all those reading and commenting here. Thank you, Greg, for running this post concurrently with yours on my blog and exchanging many ideas over time between our blogs and other blogs. As I wrote on my post, I appreciate the link to Jim Goldstein’s blog post on this topic: I remember reading Jim’s earlier post on the subject of originality. Your readers may find a widely read blog post of my own also pertinent to the discussion, “Man Ray On Art And Originality,”
    Thanks again, David

  6. Josh Cripps says:

    Great read, David, and certainly a matter of consideration for every photographer who considers himself (or herself) an artist. My thoughts on this subject would be preaching to the choir, so I’ll keep them to myself for the most part. But I will say that I loved the sentence: A photograph of Mesa Arch at sunrise in a portfolio now says, “I am looking for commercial success more than establishing my own artistic vision.” Though I don’t think it’s necessarily limited to commercial success. Based on my experiences around the various social photographer networks, I think it’s safe to replace “commercial success” with “peer acceptance,” “pats on the back,” or “validation.” I don’t mean to sound so snide though. Sometimes it’s as simple as this: you see a beautiful place in a photo and it makes you want to visit it, but of course being a photographer you bring your camera with you and inevitably take some pictures. Voila, one more Mesa Arch at sunrise image added to the world. 🙂

    • Well stated, Josh–thanks for your comment! I agree completely–having spent some time on critique forums, it really is that pat on the back mentality that drives a lot of this stuff. That said, there is some unique work out there as well.

  7. This is a great post David and an excellent partnership with Greg’s post at your blog.
    I think the concept of finding one’s own vision can be taken beyond just location but to how one see’s all subjects. A successful bird photograph these days is considered to be the typical “bird on a stick” shot. After a while they all look the same. Getting a sunstar rising through an arch would be another great shot that has become a cliché. We need to see things for ourselves and not through the eyes of others.
    Alister makes a good point above regarding finding your own turf. One could say that about how we treat an image as well.
    When I remarked about taking the same shot as Philip in response to Greg’s post on David’s blog I had not read this posting yet. But that is another aspect of copying another’s images. If we admire Philip Hyde, Eliot Porter, Ansel Adams or Galen Rowell, why would we want to diminish their value or viability by flooding the market with copies?

    • Really well said, Steve! As always, I really appreciate your thoughtful comment, and your extension of this to bird photography. I actually started out by wanting to be a bird photographer, but ended up turning to landscapes. I know what you mean about the “bird on the stick” shot…

      • I didn’t know you started with bird photography Greg. I’ve never been much of a bird photographer, but I participated in one forum just enough to get a sense of what is preferred. I’m more of a “Bug on a Stick” kind of guy. 🙂 But the same preference holds true in the forums whether it’s a bird, butterfly or flower. Isolate the subject against a smoothly blurred background for the “Ideal” shot. I will admit to that practice myself sometimes, but within its environment always seems a better image to me.

        • Yeah, one of my good friends is a very serious bird photographer, and I always wanted to be one as well. Truth is, the cost of big glass was very prohibitive to me, as a graduate student. So, I started shooting landscapes, and sort of fell in love.

          You do some beautiful macro work, Steve. I’ve done a little, with borrowed lenses, but honestly, it frustrates me more than it fills me with calm. 🙂 Wind is certainly a macro photographer’s worst enemy, and we have plenty of that out here…

  8. @ Josh Cripps,
    Thank you for your complimentary comments. I haven’t participated in the critique forums, but from what I’ve heard from you and others, it encourages conformity as much or more than other positives.

    @Steve Gingold,
    I appreciate your thoughtful input. It really does all boil down to “how one see’s all subjects” as you said. A lot of landscape photography these days seems to go for the trick, gimmick or dramatic conditions to create the illusion of “wow factor” rather than artistic expression in terms of what has always made all great art great, little concepts like form, texture, perspective, patterns, and so on. There is a much more satisfactory “wow factor” to be discovered from creating and viewing such photographs. And, Steve, the first several sentences and what you point out about bird photography, has me feeling bold enough to go out on a limb and say that theatrics in photography is a substitute for art, rather than art. I say leave the theatrics to Hollywood and Broadway. It doesn’t wear as well in the other arts.

    • Hi David
      You make a good point about the “Wow” factor question. The amount of “theatrics”, as you say, is a variable for me. There are a lot of techniques that I have no problem with and hope to master myself. Tastefully done HDR, such as practiced by Royce Howland and Alister Benn, seem very acceptable to me. They are presenting their vision as art and in a way that the eye can potentially see. These images contain all the attributes you are looking for but offer a unique vision not often enough seen these days. I aspire to be able to present my images in such a manner….but not the same of course. When processing is taken to an extreme I believe it hurts photography and over-saturated images with electric colors give many the wrong impression about Landscape photography and other venues as well. Adams claimed that his images looked very different from the reality he experienced and I feel that the contemporary landscape photography some are practicing today stands very well alongside such work.
      Once again, as you and many others have expressed, it is up to each of us to find our vision or voice and present it as we feel but not as others would have us feel. I think we also need to temper our presentations with a sensibility of what gives the most pleasing appearance and not what garnishes the greatest attention. There are reasons certain works of art stand the test of time.

  9. “Bird on a stick,” isn’t that something you order at the county fair? Or maybe it’s cotton candy…

  10. Richard Wong says:

    Great article David.

    What I’m curious about is if a photographer like Peter Lik, who has all those icon postcard photo galleries in Vegas and other high-traffic areas, actually does more creative work that they just don’t show publicly because it would never sell enough to pay the rent.

    It’s clear that the majority of people out there aspire to do nothing more than that level of work as evidenced by how healthy the photo workshop industry has become. “I’ll take you to Glacier and you can shoot all these pretty pictures just like me then share with your Facebook friends then be as popular as I am.” Those workshops aren’t catered to people seeking their own work like you or me because we can easily get there ourselves and explore on our own.

    • Josh Cripps says:

      That is a very interesting point, Richard. Both points in fact.

      Every working photographer surely walks a fine line between following his true creative path and shooting what he knows will sell. I see this all the time: if I want to sell work, I need to get it in front of as many eyes as possible, and it’s just plain fact that the big vistas, iconic locations, and dramatic lighting attract more attention than obscure compositions, unknown places, and muted colors, regardless of how well-executed or creative the photos in the second category may be. But I’ve also found that there is a sweet spot: if you are able to shoot the iconic locations in a new way then you will have the most success of all. For example, I took a photo of Yosemite Valley from an unusual vantage point where you are looking out past Upper Yosemite Falls and seeing Half Dome at sunset (I can post a link if appropriate). And this photo has received ten times more attention and praise than any of my other work even though it’s not my best shot. But simply because it’s novel yet recognizable at the same time. This leads me to conclude that people ARE hungry for novelty and creativity in photography, they just have to take baby steps to get there.

      As to the point about workshops, you are certainly correct. There is definitely a healthy market for the weekend warrior photographer who wants to be shown the best spots and nothing more. In fact, we recently had a student on a Death Valley workshop who told us explicitly all she wanted from the workshop was to get a B&W picture from Badwater just like my co-instructor’s. When she got that shot, she kinda tuned out for the next two full days!

      But then there are also people who love to shoot, love to find their own take on the world, but who simply don’t have time to research, scout, and explore like a full-time photographer does. And in their case, I believe they are paying for the guide’s knowledge of the area not necessarily so that they are simply taken to the best spots to get the iconic shots, but rather to minimize the amount of time the have to invest in the “front end” of the photography.

      In any case, my opinion is that there’s nothing wrong with any of these approaches. We all love photography in one way or another, so you just have to get out there and do it in a way that makes you happy, whatever that may be.

      • Richard Wong says:

        Going points, Josh. I do agree that there are some workshops that do appeal to me or photo tours depending on how you want to call it. I went on Ron Niebrugge’s grizzly bear tour at Lake Clark NP in Alaska last year. That’s not a place I’d likely go myself without a group as logistics and safety were a concern.

    • Steve Sieren says:

      Richard, I’ll usually get a group of serious icon hunters out on a workshop but I’ll always try to convince or brain wash them into thinking they should do more then just take that iconic shot that drove them on the journey to a certain place. Many participants are there to just talk and shoot the icons so when I don’t get through to them it hurts. If they mention they love my work and it’s part of what inspired them to make the trip then I tell them my desire to shoot something other then an icon is far greater then my desire to photograph an iconic subject then that gets the wheels turning.

  11. @ Josh,
    I find fascinating your story about photographing Half Dome differently and the results. Your statement may provide photographers aspiring to earn an income the best pointer of all: “…if you are able to shoot the iconic locations in a new way then you will have the most success of all.” Imagine in 10 years, 100,000 new “famous” photos of each icon. This would be better for the medium of photography than 100,000 similar images. You might think the former scenario would happen more readily, but in practice, most photographers won’t go to the effort or be that creative. They won’t hike the miles or get to know the country. They will stick to the same tripod marks as those before. However, hats off to those who do hear your words and Greg’s and Guy Tal’s and Jim Goldstein’s and my words. Not only will their experience of photography be richer, but their experience of wilderness will be far richer. Maybe then they will appreciate our planet more and help to change destructive human habits that spoil our home.

  12. Oooops, I meant to address what Richard said too…
    Richard, I appreciate your additions to the discussion. You’re probably right about Peter Lik. One thing I will say regardless of whether you like his photography or not, he has some of the nicest and most professional staff who make generous offers. I guess he can afford to hire the best.

  13. Mark says:


    Wonderful piece David, and evident in your writing is your unique perspective of being involved with so much of landscape photography history.

    For many photographers though, and I include myself in that group, knowledge of history may be hit and miss. I know Guy touched on this in his previous post, and you brought forward the notion of “image maturity.”

    I suppose one has to study quite a bit to be educated on something that hasn’t already been done before. Not everyone can be exposed to the volume of material that a photo editor is exposed to. Studying the historical greats is one thing, but the amount of landscape photographers now is just staggering.

    I sometimes wonder if that is part of the problem, that is in being able to carry around in your head only so much. I am sure some just go to these places to duplicate what they saw in a magazine, but we should be careful that the line between originality and cliche isn’t too draconian.

    It is the unintentional duplication of what has been done before that perplexes me. I know it is beyond my feeble grey matter to cart around very many historical compositions. It is a fuzzy line between trying to research to gain that image maturity and just being in the field and going with what feels right, whether it was done before or not.

    I appreciate all of the thought provoking posts here.

    • Richard Wong says:

      Interesting thoughts, Mark. Makes me wonder if we conciously try to avoid icons and what others have done before, are we really being true to ourselves? Perhaps we’re thinking too much about what others have or haven’t done rather than just doing whatever we want which is the real meaning art? Just thinking out loud. I have no answers.

      • Mark says:

        Well, even beyond the iconic landscapes Richard – what about simply photographing leaves, or ice, or flowers. No doubt those subjects have been done over, and over, and over. I might do something I truly feel is original, only to poke around a bit more and find someone else did the same thing 20 years ago.

        I am all for pushing ourselves to see with our own hearts and minds instead of through others, which is the intent of these posts I believe. I would just hate to see someone get discouraged early in the process pursuing something they enjoy because someone has already rafted down that river, or climbed that mountain.

        • This is an interesting take on things–thanks for opening up a whole new can o’ worms! 🙂

          Like I mentioned above, I think some similarity is unavoidable, and the “icons” as they are extend far beyond places like tunnel view. How many pan blurs of aspens do you see each fall, for instance? Something I struggle with is feeling inspired by another photographer (which I frequently am) and copying their idea. Where is the line?

          And, as you point out, Mark, how is a beginning photographer not to get discouraged with all this talk? I think, for my part, this idea of originality is to urge others to follow what is in their own hearts and minds…not to mindlessly follow the flock. If your heart tells you to try for that perfect image of your favorite icon, then by all means go for it. And be proud of your final product…

          …I know I would be…

  14. Derrick says:

    The iconic places that are photographed over and over are hit that hard because most of the time they are stellar places…. They are icons for a reason. That being said, I have no desire to put my tripod in the same place anyone else has …. when I even bother to use one. What’s the point of that???

    I also think that photographing the icons is somewhat limiting. There is a whole big world out there and the iconic places don’t really take up a very big slice of it.

    It’s similar to me when people say only take pictures at the golden hour in the AM and PM…. That leaves me 22 other hours for finding my own icons.

  15. Sandra says:

    Having the Matterhorn in my home country, I see iconic places from two sides. If I take photos, I don’t do it for commercial use in the first place. I do it for pleasure, I do it because I enjoy being out early in the morning and I do it to add photos of Matterhorn reflecting in a lake to my portfolio. If conditions are fine and I come back with some nice shots, then I am happy and satisfied. Perhaps there was a special sunrise mood, even better. And to be honest, I don’t care at all, how many other photographs have been taken in this spot. The same applies to the dunes of Sossusvlei, Namibia. Both subjects are icons of their country and I don’t see why I would not take photos only because they have been photographed a million times before. So what I try to express is, that I don’t really consider taking photos of iconic places as “copying”. I go more with Stephen regarding bird or flower photography. Especially in photo forums or at photo contests, there is often a certain style established like the bird on a stick with a clean background or flowers have to have a soft foreground or a wildebeest photo has to be shot in backlight and with a sense of movement etc. etc. Experienced photographers get a lot of praise for the photos and new photographers just start adopting this style because they think that this is the one and only way to go. This is copying other photographer’s style and creativity to match the forum’s or judges taste. I enjoy exploring WhyTake a lot because there is nothing like judging and meeting a certain taste and it is why I don’t take part a lot in forums or contests.

    I hope it is understandable what I mean – English is not my native language 😉

    By the way, I only went once to the Matterhorn and although I am not really happy with the result, I won’t go again soon – there are so many beautiful places in Switzerland 😉

    Thanks for this article – it certainly makes photographers think!

    Cheers – Sandra

    • Thanks for your comment, Sandra–I really appreciate your thoughts on another icon I’m not at all familiar with. 🙂

      I think you hit on a lot of good points, especially concerning the culture of the critique forum…

      I can imagine Switzerland is beautiful!! I would love to visit someday…

  16. Hi Sandra, Great to hear from Switzerland. The Matterhorn has to be one of the world’s greatest icons. What you say about many, many places in Switzerland being beautiful and highly picturesque is very true. Why would anyone photograph the Matterhorn? Well, I must say that my father, American pioneer landscape photographer Philip Hyde did. He made what he would have called “snapshots” out of his hotel window in Zermatt. One of them had an incredible Cirrus streamer. It was unlike any other Matterhorn photograph myself or my photo choosing team had ever seen. Carr Clifton’s exact words when he saw the 35 mm slide were, “That one is amazing,” and he never says that. The image of it online doesn’t do the prints justice: So yes, even Philip Hyde made snapshots of an icon essentially for his own use, but they were unique or unusual and not intended to copy another’s work.

    What I am mainly arguing against in the post above is the practice of various professional photographer going around and finding the exact same tripod marks of certain iconic photographs and purposely making someone else’s photograph their own, which by the way, if the image is identical is against copyright law. I am also against part-time amateurs seeing a great photograph and saying, “I need to go get that one too so I can hang it on my wall.” This essentially is plagiarism. I am not sure where the law stands on it happening by accident, as has been mentioned in a number of comments here and elsewhere. It does happen sometimes that two photographers come up with the same exact framing 10 years or even 10 days apart without common knowledge of each other’s work. So Sandra, I am not beating up the kind of thing you’re doing, especially since most of your images are going to be different anyway. Have fun and enjoy. Nonetheless, if you start showing extensively online and elsewhere an image that looks exactly like another famous one, we might begin to question your motives.

  17. @ Mark,
    I appreciate your concerns about how we present these ideas to new aspiring photographers. It ought to be done with sensitivity and care and perhaps that gets lost when I hit a little hard on a post like this. Nonetheless, copyright law is what it is. If your leaf or rock or other closeup photograph looks identical to mine, if I was hardcore about it, I could file a lawsuit, which might or might not stand. That’s another subject. Enforcing copyright law is not easy. We don’t worry or get anxious about explaining to new musicians that they can’t use the same melodies as others they’ve heard. We don’t hem and haw about it with painters or any of the other arts. There are very good reasons why it is not right both from a legal and ethical standpoint to “copy” (the word does imply exact sameness) another’s art. I feel that as we share photography with the ever increasing number of new participants that we educate in many areas and that copyright law ought to be one of them. Nobody owns the mountain, the river or even the location. Otherwise, nobody would have been able to take a camera into Yosemite after Ansel. At issue here are people who take another photographer’s work to a location with the purpose of matching up the composition perfectly.

  18. Sandra says:

    I strongly disagree with your point regarding landscape photographs. I can speak only of myself but even if I visit spots like the Matterhorn or Sossusvlei I would not even think about doing a research on the internet or elsewhere if any other famous or not famous photographer has taken that photograph from the same place or somehow similiar than I did when I was there! The moment I took the photo, it is MINE with MY view and the light and the conditions I had that day. Only because a famous photo had been taken around the same place does not disqualify my photo from showing it and I would really go mad if someone would blame me of plagiarism! Photography is about capturing a moment in time – if it is a landscape more or less famous or a butterfly, a flower or an animal. Only because someone won an award or contest photographing an icon does not disqualify other amateur or professional photographers to shot the same place. Especially landscapes are different every second unless you and the award winning photographer are shooting side-by-side. And even then – how would you judge who copied who? My whole point is that you can’t really copy landscape shots – you can only copy other photographer’s style or creativity.

  19. Hi Sandra, your point at the end of your comment is well taken and agreed. I am not sure what point of mine about landscape photography you disagree strongly with, but I commend you for stepping out here and disagreeing. That is what this kind of discussion is all about: open interaction between people of differing points of view. I state my points rather strongly and I have no problem, rather I ought to say, I respect those who come forward and state opposing views just as strongly and offer a good case to support their argument. You may be operating in a grey zone too, if you are not posting to a United States served website. You may be subject only to the copyright rules of your own country. I am not sure how U.S. copyright laws would apply, if at all. I believe people are looking into developing an international copyright pact of sorts, but I am not sure where that stands now. All I can say is that if you publish or otherwise profit in the United States from an identical image that someone else can prove they made or published before yours and they have taken care of business to be sure there is record of their copyrighted image, you will be in violation of U.S. copyright law. Your point about it being logistically difficult to search all other sites to check for similar images is one of those that has legal people and Library of Congress staff looking for new ways to define these issues. One of my legal advisers is a consultant to the Library of Congress in regard to new media. I will have to ask her about these concerns. I am not a legal expert and I am not giving legal advice. I do know that before the internet, a photographer or any other artist could be sued for copying another photograph even without knowing it. People back then may not have wanted to search all books and magazines in print for similar photographs and usually did not, but once in a while there were cases that did get filed against them anyway. Other than that, we digress from the original thesis of this blog post which is that you will be perceived a certain way if most of your images look like others that we all recognize quite well. My essay is meant to encourage people of all levels in photography to be ORIGINAL. I am not faulting people making photographs “around the same place,” as you put it. “Around the same place” I have said many times is OK and encouraged, just as Josh mentioned above, “…if you are able to shoot the iconic locations in a new way then you will have the most success of all.” I am faulting deliberate identical or nearly the same “copying” of photographs. I feel it is stealing if done on purpose. As I said previously, nobody owns the locations.

  20. Allison says:

    Well spoken. I feel as if this is a topic that doesn’t get addressed nearly as much as it should. Although I agreed with much of what you have said in this post, I do not think that the public should need an education in order to be able to appreciate the photographers that ‘deserve’ more appreciation than others. Although sad that the gallery closed, photographers should be able to communicate something with the audience whether they are educated or not. I think the real issue at stake is where the inspiration comes from within the photographer. If it is to give the public what they want, they are not going to follow their own creativity!

  21. Sharon says:

    Great post, David and so many good comments. There is so much similarity in style now with landscape photography that it is difficult to differentiate between photographers. I find that to be more bothersome than shooting the icons.

    Thanks for the great read!


  22. Thanks Sharon. I agree. Interesting that you mention it because that’s the subject of our next exchange post a bit down the road: “Voice” in landscape photography.

  23. Steve Sieren says:

    A photographer’s landing page will reflect how they would like the world to perceive them as.

    If that first impression is full of iconic images then the viewer is going to think this is the same old same old. Maybe that is exactly what they are looking for and the photographer got lucky their work was found first.

    I’ve seen many people shoot an iconic view so similar to Galen Rowell or Ansel Adams and call it a “unique view” because it was taken nearby. To me it’s all the same even it’s just has a little more dramatic of sunet on top of it. In the days of film we wanted the best light on the most powerful part of the composition and now it seems most photographers will settle for mediocre light on the land while colorful clouds decorate the top third of the photograph. If you crop out the sunset portion of the photograph and the main subject just has a level of photoshop adjustments to make up for mediocre light then the photograph might consider going back and timing it differently.

    A high number of comments on a social networking site doesn’t necessarily mean a photograph is going to sell or it will contain high honors. I have many of these types of images that have done well on the internet and may even sell via the internet but when displayed as prints they get don’t stand out. I’ve sold just as many prints that do poorly on the net when compared to the high traffic images.

    David in one of your recent posts, you referred to me as a maker of new icons, something I’ve never stated, I’ve been asked many times exactly where a photograph I’ve taken was. I never reveal where a certain photograph has been taken because I like to add a little bit of mystery to my portfolio.

  24. Steve, thanks for your input. I did write somewhere, perhaps as a comment on your blog, that you are a maker of new icons. I said this because you are such an avid explorer and intrepid outdoorsmen. You seem to have a knack for discovering new arches, alpine scenes and other locations that nobody else has done. Your photographs contain subjects that easily rival or improve on most of the scenes that have become all too common in portfolios of photographers in the American West. Your brand of backcountry photography is what my father would have approved of in terms of getting to know the land, getting far out away from the crowds and blazing your own visual trails. On the other hand, your locations will only become photography icons for the few because most of us don’t have what it takes to follow where you have been.

  25. I really value a lot of the points made in David’s article and am glad to have been exposed to this general message soon after starting to seriously pursue landscape photography, as this type of thinking has encouraged me to get beyond the icons. I do, however, think there is value in photographing icons as part of the process of experiencing beautiful places. Because I am fairly new to photography, I am striving to seek a balance between finding my own way and experiencing some of the classic views of the American landscape for myself.

    Photography is not solely a creative pursuit for me. It is also vehicle to help experience and connect with the places I have the good fortune to visit. In some cases, those places are iconic locations and the act of photographing such places so that I can have my own image of a location is worthwhile for me. In these cases, I know I am not creating anything unique, but for those particular photographs, uniqueness is not my purpose and I am okay with that.

    For most photographers, it is not an either/or consideration, but instead is about seeking a balance between capturing classic views and finding one’s own way, with that balance hopefully tipping to the latter as photographer matures in their pursuit of creativity and artistic expression.

    I always enjoy your blog, Greg. Thank you for featuring this thought-provoking read (including the dialogue in the comments!).

    • Hi, Sarah. Thanks for stopping to comment on this post–I’m glad to hear your thoughts, and to read David’s reaction below.

      Truth be told, I thought this post was timed well because of your most recent blog post “Icons & Experiences” only a few days before:

      I think you distinguish very well between making an image for the experience of visiting a place, versus the act of creating an original work. Everyone who read David’s post should go and read yours as well.

      Again, Happy New Year, Sarah!

    • Sarah you have a nice balanced way of putting it all together. I very much enjoyed contemplating this article and the ensuing comments and will say a bit jokingly that this makes me feel better about the fact so many of my photo buddies have been making journeys to shoot icons while I struggled just to keep afloat in life with no money or time to go travelling anywhere right now. At least I am not compstomping! *grin*.

      As a result, I chase the light and clouds around home, and never know what comp is going to come my way when the sun sets… sometimes I get something good, sometimes just document the moment, but it feels good and that is enough. AND some of it sells!

  26. Hi Sarah, You make some excellent points yourself. There’s a big difference between when a developing photographer photographs icons for personal enjoyment and learning purposes and when a professional does it to make himself another million by claiming other’s creativity as his own.

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