Photographing Icons – Or Not

Yesterday I shared elsewhere a photograph that someone had posted featuring a line-up of scores of photographers, arrayed tripod-to-tripod, ready to photograph one of those iconic views that we all know so well. I suspect that we have all been to such places and either found the experience of seeing and photographing them to be powerful… or we might have been repulsed by the crowds of people all apparently trying to “capture” the same thing, among them perhaps a number of folks who might be trying to almost literally recreate versions of the scene that they had seen elsewhere.

The point of the share (seen here and here) was not complimentary. My reaction to the photograph was to wonder, even more than usual, why people would want to make photographs that way. I phrased it as, more or less, “yet another reason to avoid photographing icons.”

However, a person wrote to me after I posted and pointed out, with a bit of anger and with some justification I think, that complaining about and putting down those who want to photograph a beautiful place might seem a bit pretentious and self-righteous.

She has a point.

While there is something a bit troubling about seeing dozens of people lined up to make the very same photograph, some of us might be a bit too quick to jump to overly negative conclusions. Perhaps there is a way to cast this as a positive lesson, rather than ridicule. So let me engage in a bit of reflection and honesty.

I’m not big on shooting icons. I find it more challenging, interesting, and rewarding to look for things that might not be seen at all if I didn’t take the time to see them. However, I have photographed icons (as will be clear if you ever look at my Yosemite photographs, along with a few others) and still do on occasion.

Doing photography is a journey. We all began (or are beginning) somewhere and we are all at different places in the journey – and we are certainly not all on the same path. I recall clearly the early discovery stages (not entirely different from today’s late discovery stage! ;-) when I was first trying to understand how to make photographs, both from the technical and aesthetic perspectives, and I looked to the photographs of others for models of subject and interpretation. I thought about how marvelous it must be to be able to photograph certain things in the ways that great photographers had photographed them, and in trying to understand how they did this I most certainly imitated and even tried to reproduce what they did. And, in fact, imitation and copying have long been powerful and effective tools for learning the basics of an art. Why should it be different today? (One just doesn’t want to stop there at the imitative stage, right?)

I still photograph icons on occasion. I’ll mention two circumstances in which this happens, though there are others. First, if I travel to a place where such icons are found, I happen upon them, and I have not photographed them before, I will often shoot them just so that I have the images in my archive – and partially to see if I can photograph them in ways that reflect the way I see them. (However, I’m perhaps less driven towards this than some. I recently photographed in Utah for the first time – really! – and I drove right past things like Delicate Arch and Mesa Arch without stopping as I followed my own sense of what was interesting to photograph.) Second, in places that I know tremendously well – to the point that I’m well beyond shooting the icons most of the time – I will drop everything and head to such icons when I think that truly extraordinary conditions may occur. Yes, this has taken me back to Tunnel View in Yosemite Valley, Zabriskie Point in Death Valley, the Golden Gate Bridge, and others from time to time.

Another admission: When I do find myself at these places with at least a few other photographers around, although I usually prefer to work entirely or nearly alone, I can enjoy the social aspect of the situation, as well. I’ll bet that quite a few of you do, too. :-)

However, having backtracked a bit regarding the possible negative implication of my original post, I still encourage photographers who haven’t yet tried it to step away from the icons. Slow down and look around and get to know the inner character of the places you visit, too – and not just the icons. And when and if you do find yourself in one of these crowds, consider some of the other subjects around you, wander off, and enjoy looking beyond the obvious.

Let me conclude with a story and a photograph. A few years ago I had gone to a small eastern-Sierra lake in early October, a place renowned for its stunning autumn aspen color. I had photographed there before, starting perhaps just before the recent flood of new DSLR owners and workshop participants of the past few years. One early morning I got it in my mind to head to a spot along the shore of this like that I knew about, a place that can, when conditions are just right, provide a beautiful scene that includes the lake shore with autumn-brown grasses, surrounding groves of aspens including one stand that rises high up a nearby slope, and beyond that conifer forest rising into rocky slopes and eventually giving way to alpine peaks, which were touched with a bit of new snow on this morning. As you can imagine, as I approached this spot my anticipation increased.

I came around the final bend before the lake, at the point where I planned to set up along the shoreline… to find what must have been at least three workshops set up – yes, “tripod-to-tripod” – all along the entire lower portion of the lake. My initial reaction was a combination of being a bit upset that some workshops could take over almost completely a photographic location and a bit of simultaneous bemusement that people would want to do this. Not sure what to do, but certain of what I no longer did want to do, I parked, shouldered my tripod and gear and started walking. I eventually ended up next to an aspen thicket that looked much like many other aspen thickets found throughout the eastern Sierra. I walked quietly into the grove, for the most part simply looking around and becoming aware of my surroundings: variations in the colors of the leaves, the contrast between their bright but ephemeral colors and the solidity of the trunks of the trees, the cool autumn air, the sounds of the grove, and fallen leaves scattered on the forest floor. My focus tightened – away from the grand view I had originally been looking for – until I was looking at individual branches of individual trees and even at individual leaves.

Aspen Leaves, North Lake - Colorful autumn aspen leaves at North Lake, California
Colorful autumn aspen leaves at North Lake, California

© Copyright 2012 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer whose subjects include the Pacific coast, redwood forests, central California oak/grasslands, the Sierra Nevada, California deserts, urban landscapes, night photography, and more.
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11 thoughts on “Photographing Icons – Or Not”

  1. John, pretty funny, but also pretty true. Not everyone has managed to learn to drag themselves out of a nice warm bed two or three hours before dawn to go stand in the cold and dark waiting for light… but many more are fine with standing around in the warm late-afternoon light. :-)

    It also helps to shoot at off-peak times: weekdays instead of weekends, a different season, or on “bad” weather days.


  2. Good subject Dan
    I have past up many Icons due to crowds unless the light or conditions are just to good to pass up. I too enjoy solitude when hunting to discover something new. I have observed several workshops that instruct the pupils to set up and do this and do that. I have never understood the appeal of that even if you are just starting out. But that is just me.

  3. As you can see from the many variations of Tunnel View published in his books, even Ansel Adams did not disdain icons nor did he have second thoughts about including resulting the images in his oeuvre. They are not icons for nothing. How do we know that the amateurs lining up don’t hope for great conditions which would let them create the new superlative variation ?

    1. Fair enough, QT. Actually, I’m not against photographing icons – that would be a bit inconsistent, since I shoot them myself at times. (This is one of those moments when I wish that perhaps I had chosen a different title for the post – perhaps “Joining the Crowd. Or Not?”)

      What I was actually musing about was the over-emphasis on bagging icons at the expense of looking around a bit more broadly to see the many other wonderful things that people often miss. In fact, I often stop at Tunnel View when I’m in Yosemite. I get out and look around – most often I don’t take my gear out. But if something really special seems possible I will join the throngs, too. Though on the most recent stop I followed that routine, looking at the Valley and thinking that it looked (at least in photographic terms) sort of ho-hum. But then I looked around, as is my habit, and saw far above and to the right some spectacular clouds moving past some thin towers and aretes. I did get out the camera, but never pointed it at the main view. Instead I set up behind my car (!), attached a long lens, and shot almost straight up at these tiny vignettes high above.

      The other things about which I have mixed feelings – and I really do mean mixed, as in not altogether negative – is the image of the crowd of folks standing elbow to elbow to shoot the same subject, likely in roughly the same way. You are right – and I wrote about this elsewhere – that it is entirely possible that among those engaging in this activity there could be a few who are just getting started and for whom this could be a powerful formative experience that will lead to great work in the future.

      It is complicated. I guess I would just like to encourage people to look a bit beyond the obvious and to try to find their own personal and unique vision through their photography.

      Take care,


  4. I enjoyed your Icons Or Not. Being just a “picture taker” I so enjoy seeing the icons of our world & seeing them leads me right into Taking pictures of them. But I have learned about myself that I enjoy taking pictures of odd & unusal & old rusted things. I so enjoy your Photos because I never know what I will see next. Thank-you for inspiring me and others to be better “picture takers”.

  5. Great post Dan! It is always interesting to read what people think when this subject comes up from time to time.

    The most intense example of this at an iconic location I’ve witnessed was at the Picture Lake view of Mount Shuksan near Mount Baker. I lined up for a viewpoint (about 10 photographers ahead of me), feeling a bit dirty about it the whole time. When I setup for my turn I moved my camera into a vertical position only to be interrupted by a large amount of noise behind me indicating that the “proper” way to photograph this scene was in a horizontal orientation only. I photographed both, then got out of there as quickly as I could. As you know – the area there near Artist Point has a vast array of views and interesting things to photograph. What surprised me is that while the lake only a few miles away was crowded, I had Artist Point almost to myself. I only saw one other photographer up there during a fantastic sunset. I agree that those who limit themselves to trophy hunts really miss out on a lot of the interesting aspects of photography – finding your own compositions and locations. Perhaps icons are a great place to start, but I think too few never go beyond them.

  6. I live in Vegas and as most know, we have several icons. One of the most notable is of course the “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign. I drive past there frequently and see dozens of tourists lined up to get a shot. I snicker but I realize that I too get excited about various icons in different areas and will photograph them.

    My reason? If chances are high I will not visit that location again any time soon I want to be sure I have at least one image to remember that visit. I wonder if the same holds true for others. Some may not have or will be able to get a second chance to photograph that iconic location so they are determined to have that one shot in their portfolio.

    I agree that some of the best shots are in the details most don’t see or aren’t willing to see but I believe taking photos of an iconic place can be and/or just as good as those small details. Every photographer just has to make that decision for themselves. Personally, I prefer both so I always have a memory of the big and small pieces of that photo trip.

  7. I had the same experience when I went to Utah a few years ago. I went to the Delicate Arch parking lot. I walked around a little bit but after seeing how many people were on the trail, I decided to not go to the arch. I still wonder what the place is like though. Perhaps another time…

    Great post Dan.

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