I recently had my first encounter with a drone. I was traipsing across a snowy field looking for where to plant my tripod when I noticed a car pull up behind mine. Minutes later I heard a strange buzzing sound overhead; it didn’t take long to realize what it was. It was not a pleasant experience. Aside from the obvious intrusive noise was the fact that I couldn’t help but feel as if I was being watched, even though I knew the person was there to photograph the same scene and certainly had no interest in me. Regardless, the entire experience was disquieting. The presence of a drone buzzing overhead was a distraction I could not overcome.
My position on drones and photography has been evolving over the past year. Initial indignation has given way to a tempered acceptance. That they are intrusive due to their noise is an obvious and significant problem and one that I believe is beyond debate. It is clearly noise pollution. Noise notwithstanding, I can see the allure, and yet I know I will never own one.
A recent magazine article on drones and nature photography offered much food for thought. A photographer interviewed for the article stated that one of the reasons he purchased a drone was that it was the future and he feared he would be left behind had he not. Okay, fair enough, I understand his fear, even though I don’t agree with his supposition of being left behind. However, another reason was that he became “frustrated with the paucity of perspectives on the ground.” The quote floored me. Mind you, he always photographs in extremely beautiful places, how in the world could he feel limited? I can’t help but liken his view to that of the photographer who, having grown tired of easy and obvious compositions in a given place, goes somewhere else to find new and obvious compositions rather than explore more deeply and creatively where he already is. When the low-hanging fruit has been picked from one tree you go on to the next one. Drones, like any new gadget or technology, can be the easy yet ultimately misguided answer to the question of how to advance one’s photography.
It would be easy and unfair to dismiss drones based on the perspective of one photographer. My decision to never own a drone is based more on the types of images that inspire me than the noise factor, though that alone is damning enough. Ultimately it comes down to the art produced. That beautiful photographs can be made with drones is without question. But can images be made with drones that go beyond pretty and are subjective, creative expressions of the photographer rather than objective representations of a place? Is there more to drone photography than the cool factor? This is the question with which I struggle. Ansel Adams once stated that means and methods often hold an unbalanced dominance over creativity. Could drones be an example of the means and methods of which he spoke?
As an artistic medium photography is unique in that it relies so heavily on technology. And it is precisely this reason why it is so popular and why so many people are “good” at it. It’s a matter of skill versus talent. Skill is a learnt ability. It is acquired or developed after much time and hard work. If one has the desire to make good photos and puts in the time to not only learn their camera but also the theory of exposure they will in time produce aesthetically pleasing photos. Technology these days has advanced to the point where it is easier than ever to get to that level. Talent, on the other hand, is innate; it is a natural ability that one is born with. You either have it or you don’t. No matter how much I may love to be a painter it will never happen regardless of how much I practice because I wasn’t born with that ability. But one can be born without a natural talent for photography and yet still produce nice images because they have learned the technical side of the medium. This is what makes photography unique, but also greatly hindered its being recognized as an art form. A great many images that landscape photographers create (myself included) are feats of skill and not talent.
Well then what about composition? Isn’t that where the talent lies? In his book More Than a Rock photographer (and personal hero) Guy Tal asks the question “is there anything easier in photography than making a beautiful photo of a beautiful subject? It requires little in the way of imagination and creativity and is in fact a low form of art”. Granted, even I have to admit that he may be a tad too harsh here, but I agree with his point. When presented with stunning scenery it is very easy to compose a beautiful photo. Nature has done the bulk of the work; the photographer simply needs to be there. This is not false modesty, just simple truth. Being in the right place at the right time is a matter of having done your homework and/or luck and not talent. Manipulating camera settings to achieve proper exposure is a skill earned through time and practice and not talent.
A far greater accomplishment is making beautiful something that is ordinary. Talent lies in recognizing those ordinary things that most others do not. Talent lies in being able to creatively express our own unique thoughts and feelings about a subject. Anyone can make a pretty photo of beautiful scenery, not anyone can create something truly unique and different using the same visual elements available to all of us.
Yesterday I greeted the arrival of the new issue of Outdoor Photographer magazine with a groan and a sigh. The issue is dedicated to night photography, and has oh so many photos of the Milky Way in various settings. The current issue of Adirondack Life also has a cover photo of the Milky Way. Please, enough with the Milky Way photos. Despite the setting every photo looks the same. Why? Because the Milky Way always looks the same. The shot has become as cliché’ as a sunset over water. The photos of the Milky Way in this issue look exactly like those of another photographer featured a year ago in the same magazine. In fact, I assumed it was the same photographer until I saw the byline. No originality or creativity at play. Enough.
My photography trips to the Adirondacks this month focused both on new areas I first explored this summer and tried and true locations that have been visited and photographed by myself and countless others over the years. The new areas are those of which I have never previously seen a photo, or at least a good photo. I’ve had time to reflect on the photos I made on those trips and have found a greater sense of satisfaction and pride in the work I created from the new locations compared to that from the iconic, well-known spots. And I know why.
I feel as if my creativity is enhanced when visiting a new location, as there is no preconceived idea of how and what to photograph. There’s no bias. My mind and eyes are open to any and all possibilities. And I certainly like the feeling of creating something entirely new (at least as far as I know), as opposed to a photo from someplace popular that is largely derivative. Yes, the lighting is always different, but the composition is often very similar to what has been done before. Mind you, the photos I did make from the two iconic and oft-photographed spots I visited this month are arguably the most stunning and beautiful of the group and probably the most marketable. But I feel a lack of accomplishment, a lack of creativity on my part.
The reason these locations are so popular is because they offer spectacular views. By visiting these spots I feel like I sold out and took the easy route, the route that most guaranteed a good or great image. I went for the low-hanging fruit. Such images may look good on social media or in my portfolio, but in the end they leave me feeling a bit empty. What they have in aesthetic beauty they lack in creativity and originality, and to that end ultimately represent an artistic failure on my part. A failure to take chances, to explore, to be different, and most importantly, to express my own voice and vision.