I was standing at Tunnel View in Yosemite National Park recently, sharing the popular overlook with a couple dozen photographers. It's one of the most popular viewpoints in any national park. From this one point you can see several iconic granite peaks as well as Bridalveil Fall. If there's any one scene that says, "Yosemite," this is it.
But the sky was clear. The lighting was not dramatic.
"Let's go," a photo tour leader barked to his students, wanting to retreat to the lodge for hot coffee. "I have many pictures from this spot that are much better. You could get this picture any day." He ambled to his car and honked the horn at his students who were still snapping pictures.
He was right. But he's also wrong.
His statement was literally true. (I, too, had "better" shots from Tunnel View already; one is at the bottom of this post.) But I think it's tremendously sad that someone could ever find a sweeping vista that stretches from El Capitan to Half Dome boring. Even more troubling, I am guessing that someone who hired a guide to take them to such a well-known viewpoint had probably never seen that view before with their own eyes. I would also guess a fair number of those students will never get to experience that view again.
I did not get a great photo there, nor did I expect to. Yosemite is one of my favorite places, but I live 1,000 miles away. I am lucky if I get to visit once a year.
While I was at the viewpoint, I spent nearly all my time just taking in the scene. I watched golden sunlight trickle down the face of El Capitan. I watched three ravens circle together, catching thermals to effortlessly soar higher and higher. I listened as car-sized chunks of ice that formed on the granite walls overnight broke free and crashed to the ground.
I left the viewpoint not disappointed, but recharged. Everything suddenly seemed interesting. I noticed tiny details as I went for a walk on the valley floor after leaving the viewpoint. I noticed the golden granite walls reflecting in tiny streams. I noticed gorgeous patterns in fallen trees. I immediately took my camera out of its bag and began making art. I can't imagine that would have happened without the seemingly unproductive stop at Tunnel View.
In a way, I understand where the cranky photo tour leader was coming from. Beginning nature photographers typically flock to popular vantage points where they attempt to recreate images from artists they admire. Frankly, it can be an almost paint-by-number approach to nature photography.
As these beginners grow as artists, however, they learn to work beyond that. "I stood where Ansel Adams stood, why doesn't my shot look like his?" They learn about quality of light. They learn how the view from one particular point can change dramatically from one minute to the next, one season to the next, one year to the next. They eventually learn that creating truly special images involves more than just standing where someone else stood. Rushing his students off deprived them of that important lesson.
Professionals often call images from well-worn viewpoints like Tunnel View "cliché shots." I believe that attitude shows that we professionals can still learn something from them, too.
A photographer who thinks that one of the most iconic scenes in one of the most iconic parks in the world is just a cliché is a photographer who has been desensitized to the wonder of nature.
So-called cliché shots, like that from Tunnel View, are popular because they are iconic and represent some of the best scenery we have. True artists need to work beyond the cliché, of course, but they also need to acknowledge that just because a viewpoint is popular doesn't make it bad.
If you can't appreciate something that nearly everyone else finds wondrous — even if only for the sake of your students who are seeing it for the first time — maybe you need to leave your camera in its bag for a morning or two and get reacquainted with the wonder of nature. If you ever let the feeling of wonder die, or snuff it out in new photographers, I believe art is lost in the process.
The image at the top of this post came from my walk on the valley floor after my time at Tunnel View. It may look like a simple fallen tree across a creek, but to me, it's more than that. I was drawn to this scene because the water captures some of the amazing golden color that I watched develop on the granite cliffs earlier. It's not a picture of Tunnel View, but it's certainly inspired by it.
Paying respect to these icons, even if you've seen them hundreds of times before, is good not only for the next generation of photographers, but it can also help fuel your own creative spirit.