The hunt for unique images is a big part of Fine Art Landscape Photography. Before I decide to go to a location, I do general research to determine what is there and what the immediate possibilities will be. I discuss my thoughts on this in my article 7 Tips For Planning A Photography Trip.
As discussed, looking at photos on Google Earth can occasionally provide some ideas. Looking at the back roads, rivers, and streams on Google Maps can also help.
It’s so easy at National Parks and other well-known and overly-photographed locations to get caught up in the iconic views. They’re iconic for a reason. They are very good. That being said, they are not something new.
Getting the Unique Image
As much as I enjoyed a spectacular sunset at Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park, I wasn’t the only one there so my photograph was certainly not unique. Conversely, when I shot sunset at Twilight Peak following a snowstorm, I was the only one there and no one has that image but for me. I was fist-pumping all the way back to my hotel.
Some photographers absolutely refuse to shoot the iconic images and I understand their feelings. They want to only have unique images. As someone who sells fine art landscape photography, it is difficult to pass on the iconic images if the conditions are really good. I have found that people that purchase images from the National Parks or other iconic locations tend to have a memory of being at one of the iconic locations and purchase the print because of it.
However, once I have captured what I feel is something special like I did at Glacier Point, I avoid going back again. I want to focus my efforts on the hunt for unique images.
Where To Go
If I am in an area with cell phone service, which could easily not be the case, then finding the potential back roads becomes much easier. I can start driving all of them and see what I can find. Most of the time, I will be looking for streams and lakes, that are generally shown on the map.
If the back roads are going to be out of cell phone service, then planning for this in advance and bringing good old-fashioned paper maps would be the way to go. This is probably going to be the case with many of the dirt roads searching for photos in the Southwest deserts. I really don’t like getting lost and it’s easy to do after making several turns at intersections. The rocks and trees all start to look the same.
I usually fill up the gas tank every night so I can have the freedom to go down any set of roads as far as I want to. I also carry a tire patch kit, a pair of pliers, and a tire pump. If you get a nail in your tire, you’ll need the pliers to pull it out. I also try to rent only vehicles with four-wheel-drive. Unexpected rainstorms can result in you getting seriously stuck for days. A two-day supply of water and some food is also good to have in the case that happens.
The Scouting Process
The scouting process usually begins after taking whatever images I did at sunrise. I generally create a rough plan the night before based on the weather forecast. Unless the weather is really cooperating, it is unlikely that I take any photographs while I am scouting. I also accept that my success rate is going to be quite low so I don’t stress out about finding anything. If I do come across a possibility, I’ll take a photo with my cell phone. I can later review all those photos and decide which ones to go back to under better light and weather conditions.
What To Look For
This really does depend on where you are. Maybe it’s a stream that’s just the right width with overhanging tree limbs. Maybe it’s a leaf-covered old road surrounded by Aspen trees in the fall. Maybe it’s a lone tree on a hill. Maybe it’s a closeup of something that makes for a great abstract nature photography image. There are so many possibilities.
Learning to See
Before the days of serious landscape photography, I was just going from point A to point B and not really looking much at what was along the way. I was like any other tourist, having fun and going from Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park to the next parking lot and the next one after that. Looking back, it was like I was in a race to see how much I could get done in a day.
Now I’m the slowest car on the road pulling over constantly to let the others go by. I’m on the hunt for photographs and not in a hurry. I am stopping constantly, getting out, and looking at all kinds of scenes and objects. I’m no longer in a race but my eyes and mind are busier than ever. I have learned to see in ways that I never did before. I am having a blast doing it.
I’m always telling people that a big benefit of doing landscape photography is that it gives me so much to do when I am out somewhere. I always say that without it, I could cover any National Park in a day or two and be ready to move on. I enjoy being busy and having lots to do. I think those that are hikers have a similar benefit from that.
The hunt for unique images is not easy. There’s nothing wrong with having a guide take you to the popular spots, getting a good photograph, and moving on. I just find it more fulfilling when I find something unique on my own. It’s fun to have another photographer ask “Where did you find that?”. Most good landscape photographers today will politely decline to answer to avoid having a location getting overrun, which happens way too often in this world of Instagram.
In 1920, Robert Frost wrote the famous poem "The Road Not Taken". At the end of the poem he writes "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference." As a landscape photographer, those words are well worthy of your consideration.