Moving Beyond Icons

Moving Beyond Icons

Originally published at:

If there is one thing I have learned from interviewing some of the world’s most interesting and prolific landscape photographers on my podcast, it is that our journeys as nature and landscape photographers are often very similar. Many of us started out as nature junkies, always looking to spend time outside and explore the Great Outdoors. At some point on our path, we picked up a camera, maybe to show people how amazing it was to see the things we were seeing or to document our experiences as explorers and nature lovers. Others took to the camera first and discovered nature second. Whichever path you took in becoming a nature photographer, it is a given that we all started out as beginners. When I reluctantly review my earlier images as a nature photographer, I always come to the same conclusions in my progression:

  • My love for nature exceeded my skills in photography
  • I took some pretty bad photos
  • My photos started getting better
  • I developed some decent skills but had a hard time finding locations to apply them to
  • I gravitated to photographing “the Icons.”

A lot of photographers go on a similar journey and many find themselves bored after a couple of years of grinding to build a portfolio filled with “the Icons.” Three years ago I found myself stuck in that rut and grew very complacent with landscape photography and even considered quitting altogether. It wasn’t as fun as it was when I started out. If you too feel like landscape photography has “lost that lovin’ feeling,” I’m here to tell you that your journey as a nature photographer does not have to end. In fact, it may have just begun.

Why the Icons are photographed

For many of us, this beginning in nature photography is fast and explosive, and it leads us to crave more. We want to learn how to take better photos. We want to photograph more interesting subjects. We want to see the best of what nature has to offer through our lens. Taking it a step further, some of us are also then motivated by what I would call the dark side of humanity that exists in most, if not all of us: ego. Some of us start comparing ourselves to other photographers, many of which have been taking photographs for much longer than us. Some of us start looking for short-cuts to feed the ego. We search for answers. We start copying the great images we see. In 2014, I moved to Portland, Oregon from my home town of Colorado Springs, Colorado. I found myself lost in an entirely new landscape. I was excited to find places to photograph, but I was also out of my element. I turned to the internet for help. I found inspiration from many artists, including Alex Noriega, Marc Adamus, and Ryan Dyar. I was particularly enamored with a shot that Alex Noriega had of Mount Hood on top of Tom, Dick, and Harry Mountain. I tried over and over again to replicate it.

Social media has played a role in recent years in accelerating this process for some of us. Amazing and fantastic photographs from iconic locations all over the world are at our fingertips. Social media has made these locations well known, and it is almost impossible to go a day without seeing a photograph of one of these Icons. Seeing this imagery triggers some of us to want to take those exact same photographs. We want it for ourselves. Our photographic juices are flowing, and we look for ways to quench our thirst.

For many of us, this means that we end up photographing “the Icons.” Why is that? Well, iconic locations and compositions are a fantastic way to learn and gain skills quickly. Many photographers also say that the Icons sell better at art fairs. It is also a great way to feed the ego and to play it safe. Don’t get me wrong, I love to visit these locations myself. It is obvious why they have become iconic locations – they are stunning. The images we see blow us away. I remember seeing a Marc Adamus photograph of Elowah Falls in 2013 and wanting to get the same exact composition myself. And I did.

I want to state up front, there is nothing wrong with photographing icons! If this is what you love to do, then more power to you. When you are first starting out, there is nothing like the feeling of photographing an Icon in good conditions. You feel like you’ve finally made it as a landscape photographer. Many of us have been there and understand why people do it. Let’s be honest, it can be a lot of fun! Like so many other nature photographers that have come before me, I have slowly outgrown the desire to photograph the Icons. It has minimal appeal to me. In fact, the thought of seeking out a popular iconic location with hundreds of other people standing nearby is the opposite of my idea of a good time.

What next?

I distinctly remember the moment when I realized that shooting Icons was no longer enjoyable to me. I drove into Ridgway, Colorado to meet up with other Nature photographers on a late Thursday September afternoon in 2017. I had some time to kill so I thought I’d go see what the Dallas Divide overlook was like. I figured that it would be pretty empty on a Thursday afternoon and the conditions were not particularly great that year for fall color. I was wrong. The parking lot was filled with tour buses and other vehicles. I counted four drones in the air, all seeking that perfect angle of an iconic shot. The light was not even good! I didn’t even get my camera out. Instead, I decided I would seek out my own spot to enjoy the sunset from, something unique, something that afforded a scene that was perhaps never shot before. The rest of that trip, I avoided iconic spots. I avoided the classic Chimney Rock shot. I avoided the popular Owl Creek Pass spots. I wanted to challenge myself as a photographer to find something for me. Something that I would have to work for, not only physically but also compositionally. It was a considerable risk. I felt uncomfortable not knowing if I’d find anything worthwhile to photograph. Would my time off from work be a waste? I found a trail going straight up the side of a cliff band above Silver Jack Reservoir. I explored the high mesa for vantage points that afforded unique and interesting views. My curious explorative nature finally paid off. A storm moved into the valley, and I was greeted with some of the most interesting light I’d ever seen from this area. It was dramatic, moody, and something I’d never seen from any other photographer.

From that point forward I vowed to seek out photographs that were uniquely mine. A risky venture to be sure. What has followed for me has been an incredible resurgence in both my appreciation of nature and my interest in landscape photography. I went from seeking out icons to seeking out images that spoke to me and fed my soul as a photographer.

What to expect

I’m sure this all sounds pretty amazing to you at this point, right? Well, it’s not all puppy dogs and ice cream, let me assure you. Photographing for yourself outside of Icons results in a lot of failures. Without reference images to rely on for inspiration, you’re forced to spend a lot more time studying composition and light. You are also forced to come away with far fewer keepers. In the past two years, I have created some fantastic and unique images, but I have also come away with some awful photographs! My success rate has dropped significantly, but I know my photography has improved by leaps and bounds. The increase in failure as an artist also means that there is more opportunity to learn and grow. I have never been more excited to be a landscape photographer than I am now, all thanks to my pursuit of more unique images.

An extra benefit to seeking out unique images is that you often find yourself back to your roots as a nature photographer. You find yourself alone in fantastic locations. You experience the raw power and beauty of nature in areas that most people will never get to see. You also open your mind up to photographing things that might be more intimate, more special to you, and more aligned with your personal vision. Focusing on this type of photography has really helped me re-develop my vision as an artist. I see the world in a completely different way now. I see photographic opportunities all around me. Granted, my ability to capitalize on those opportunities has decreased as well.

Do I still photograph iconic locations? Absolutely, yes – I try to get my own angle and interpretation of those scenes now. Maybe I shoot them with a different lens than is popular. Perhaps I focus on something at the location that is often missed in traditional presentations. Maybe I hike above the area or near the area to find something different. The bottom line – they are no longer at the top of my list in terms of my desire to get out and photograph them.

How you can try

Some may be familiar with the work of a black and white photographer named Cole Thompson. He practices what he calls photographic celibacy – he purposely does not look at other photographers’ work. In March of 2018, I took my first trip to Iceland. I made a point to not look at any photography from Iceland before I left. I wanted to challenge myself to find interesting ways to photograph the incredible scenes that I would encounter there. I did not want any influence from the outside world on my artistic vision. The results of that experiment were noticeable.

I came away with some very unique and compelling images from Iceland that I am very proud of. I also came back with some of the ugliest photographs you’ve ever seen from Iceland. I still found myself shooting iconic locations from time-to-time as well. Such is the process of growth and learning as a photographer. I encourage you to try this technique the next time you plan a nature photography trip. It does not have to be an all-or-nothing approach.

Another exercise you can try is “finding your voice.” My friend Jason Matias has developed a fantastic way to do this, and I encourage you to give it a shot. The process involves an opposite approach to what I just described by which you immerse yourself in images that you find interesting. It forces you to take inventory of the aspects and variables that each image has that you find appealing. You then look for similarities and focus on what you should then look for when you are out taking photos.

In summary, to move beyond the Icons, you should do these ten things:

  • Be open to possibilities – look for locations and subjects that speak to you and that are unique to your vision.
  • Be willing to fail – a lot.
  • Bring a friend – often I have found doing this with a friend creates even more opportunity. You bounce ideas off each other and see the world in different ways.
  • Get honest feedback on your images from photographers you trust. The NPN critique forum is a great place to start.
  • Be your own harshest critic. I look back on the last two years of images I have captured, and so many were not very good, but I look at them and ask how I could have made them better. This helps me the next time I’m in the field.
  • Spend more time exploring. You never know what you will find.
  • Try limiting your lens selection to a single prime lens. This will force you to find new ways to see the world.
  • Experiment more. Shoot at night or the middle of the day. Use a wide-angle lens on a close-up subject.
  • Slow down. Walk slower. Be more intentional with your images. Take the time to examine the landscape. Take inventory of what is available to photograph and ask yourself how those elements could work (or not work) for your photograph.
  • Stop comparing your work to the work of other photographers. This will end your desire to feed your ego and force you to spend more time cultivating your creativity.

After trying this out – share your experiences below. What did you expect? What actually happened? What did you learn?

I look forward to seeing your responses! Thanks for reading.


An interesting corollary to this is trying to take images with the intent of them being icons. I see some photographers, many actually, who pursue photography that way, trying to make iconic images. The pursuit of new iconic images. I think that would be an interesting subject to write about.


Matt, A wonderful essay and stunning images. Some of your very best work.

I’ve felt many of the same feelings you have felt and described so well here. I, too, have tired of shooting what everyone else is shooting and am purposefully focused on unique and personal expressions of my relationship to nature.

As I’ve followed your podcast for some time now, I’ve heard you discuss these topics with your guests and have often found myself nodding in agreement about the state of things in landscape photography - how the icons are awash in humanity, how we are loving our beloved places to death, how social media can ill affect one’s vision. Over the past 20+ years I’ve watched some of my favorite Colorado locations become so used and abused that, as painful as it is to imagine, I may never return (Ice Lakes Basin, for instance).

Like you, this reality has forced me to reassess my own purpose and vision within photography. Thankfully, there is room to move about and see things from a new and refreshed perspective. The timing of my new outlook with the popularity of the icons seems like a recipe for success, as you so beautifully express.

Thanks for putting your ideas about this in one place. And keep on exploring!


Thank you @Matt_Lancaster. I really appreciate the reply! Gosh yes, I am sad about Ice Lake also. I feel ever so responsible for that too having published articles about that location. Whenever I see fellow photographers post images from there with a geotag I shake my head.


Good words, Matt. I’ve seen several social media and blog posts recently from photographers saying they won’t go to the iconic locations because they’re overdone and overcrowded. Your advice to go, but look for your own interpretation is much better. The reason the locations are iconic is that they’re spectacular. It may take getting into a headspace to deal with a crowd, but seeing and experiencing these places personally is definitely worth it IMO.

Thanks for chiming in Greg! I agree, many of the locations are worth seeing for sure… if you can visit on an off-month or weekday, even better.

I think many of us are guilty of spreading the word about Ice Lake Basin and other favorites. Back in 2017 after word had already gotten out on IG I visited and subsequently posted a slew of geotagged pics of it, so I’m guilty too.

However, I talked to a ranger on my hike out who said they were thinking about restricting access. I haven’t been back to see if they followed through yet. I sincerely hope so bc the place was a mess. Toilet paper on the ground in visible areas and much more. I counted 17 people in one party alone. Imagine how much area they alone take up and destroy. I could go on…
Like you, I’ve since stopped geotagging.

BTW the pic above of the view into the valleys of the Cimarron River is totally beautiful. Never seen that vantage before. Well done, my friend!

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Well put, Matt. I’ve discussed with topic with lots of people and I think you summarized those discussions well - icons are fun and especially great for learning composition (looking at well composed photos is one thing, seeing one in the field is another), but at a certain point, some people find themselves feeling a little hollow and unfulfilled when shooting them and you start to do your own thing.

I especially like your brief mention of the ego. I really enjoy reading about and thinking about psychology and I know you have a psychology background, so I would definitely enjoy more in-depth and technical psychological discussions on this stuff! :slight_smile: In my opinion it’s often subtler than you make it out to be here - “dark side” makes it sound pretty evil or black and white :laughing:. It’s not like people are sitting at iconic locations cackling and twirling their mustachios about all the likes they’ll get with this photo (dramatized for illustrative purposes), but it could come out something like “This is fun. People seem to really like these, and I like myself and photography better when people like these. I’ll keep doing it!” or something similar. It’s easy to get caught up in that, and then one day you get bored and either start trying something else or quit altogether. That’s my $0.02.

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Hi Matt,

I actually find it helpful to look at iconic shots because then I know what to avoid shooting. The icons are usually the obvious shot of a certain location. Case in point-I went to Colorado this fall for the first time, and I had never seen the so-called icons. I went to Chimney Rock and got a shot I thought was nice. What do you know, it’s the exact same shot you posted in your article, with different weather conditions. Had I known that was an iconic shot, I would have looked for something different when I was there. Instead I saw something pretty and photogenic, not realizing everyone has it. I can’t tell you how disappointed with my shot I was when I realized that. My shot is good, but who cares since it’s so unoriginal?

I find a lot of inspiration looking at other photographers’ work and how they interpret a scene. I never want to copy anyone’s shot, but they may inspire me to visit a location to see if I can draw my own interpretation from it. I particularly love shooting sand dunes, because they are constantly changing and there is no iconic shot that is obvious, it’s whatever your creativity can draw out.

Lastly, I find comparing myself to photographers I admire shows me where I need to improve. I like most of your suggestions in the end, but one thing I’ve found helpful that you don’t list is working with another photographer who is more advanced than you. Find someone whose approach you relate to and who will invest in you (you need to invest in them too and pay them for their efforts). It’s really rewarding and worthwhile.


Laura Zirino

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Brent, maybe that IS what I do at icons… except its my beard. Muhahaha. Good point for sure. I just didn’t want to dive too deeply into that here because I think it can get to a point where folks feel like they are being attacked or called out for feeding their ego (let’s be honest here, we all have an ego and we all like to feed it a little bit). Diving deep into the motivations of why people do certain things is certainly one of my favorite things to do though… perhaps for another article.

@Matt_Lancaster - yes, I too am guilty of that haha! I also heard that the FS is going to implement a permit system there and limit the numbers and maybe even completely banish overnight trips there (what a shame). Thanks for your comment about that photo - it is one of my favorites.

Hi Laura - that photo from Chimney Rock is a perfect example - thank you for bringing it up! I actually went to that exact location to try to copy a photo of Nate Zeman’s. That was back in 2013 though. I think you should not be too hard on yourself though, if you see a pretty spot and it moves you, then go for it. Wanting original work is good, but it also should not deter you from photographing something that you find stunning.

And yes, you bring up a great point about bringing people with you or going with people that are better than you. I have been doing that a lot lately and it has helped me see things I normally would not see in the field on my own!

Hi Matt,

I don’t mean avoid iconic places, I mean go deeper than just what’s in front of you. A lot of the iconic places are famous because there is an obvious shot to take, but if you don’t know what that is you’ll just be repeating what’s already been done, as I did with Chimney Rock. I’ll attach two shots as examples. The first is my Chimney Rock shot, which is pretty. The second is from the Mesquite Dunes at Death Valley. Which one tells you more about what I saw when I was there? Which one draws you in? And why on earth would you want to copy someone else’s shot, unless it’s to work on techniques. You haven’t created anything when you do that. Shooting something that’s iconic is easy, but you haven’t developed yourself and your vision.

And I don’t mean just bring someone good with you to your shoots, I mean hire somebody to work with you on your photography, hire someone whose approach you relate to and is dedicated to the development of the creative process. Someone who is there for you. I’ve been doing that for the last year and it’s been a fantastic experience.


Haha…In your list of ten ways to move beyond the icons, I misread “be willing to fail a lot” as “be willing to fall a lot”. I do both in a regular basis.

Nice article, by the way.

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LOL. I would not recommend falling too much unless you’re on belay :wink:

I hear what you are saying Matt, but if you don’t go to the icons then what is the point. I travel all over the place and go to “icons”. Sometimes it is just to tick it off the list, while other times it is to get that different shot. The different perspective. to focus on a small part of the overall scene.

I don’t totally disagree with what you are saying, but if you travelled downunder, are you telling me you would not go and see Uluru or visit the Great Barrier Reef. When I come to your country and I don’t visit Bryce Canyon or the Pinnacles or fly into Admiralty island to see grizzly bears; what is the point of my trip.

You may see these things all the time and see the same the photos come up. However for someone that has never experienced an icon it is something for them to behold. For tourists and travellers it is new, fresh and exciting. So as an Aussie photographer we would exhibit the photos of our travels. Some may have seen the photos before, but a lot would have not.

I agree a lot tourists can be pains and the vanity sticks I totally hate. When I went to Antelope Canyon as a photographic group, we were given 2 minutes to take a shot while they held back the tourists. So many Aussies have no idea of the existence of slot canyons. To share that beauty with others is a privilege.

Just saying…don’t discount the icons.