Landscape Photography and Social Media: A Blessing and a Curse

Preface

I’ve only been in the field a short time; I started this journey in 2012, but the changes that I have seen over the past few years have really inspired me to write a opinion piece on the state of the field and the direction in which things are headed.  I’ve had some amazing interactions with some outstanding photographers on multiple platforms and I’m very privileged to call a number of the people I’ve met over the years friends.  In the content below I’ve outlined some issues that I, as well as other photographers have noted in recent years.  Sarah Marino encouraged me to write a post on the subject.  She has already published a post about 500px and the direction in which landscape photography is heading.  It’s very inspirational and worth a read: Photo Consumption, Conformity and Copying in Landscape Photography

The Social Morphology and the Death of Originality 

There’s really no question that social media has shaped and is continuing to shape and influence landscape photography today. For better or worse the majority of us desire to get noticed and for our work to be appreciated by the masses. This desire has really unequivocally damaged the field in my opinion. Day in and day out I see the same locations shot in the same way over and over again, with no credit given to the person who found that original winning composition.  I can’t tell you how many different copies of one of  Marc Adamus’ shots I’ve seen with little to no credit given to him.  Originality may not be dead but it’s definitely on its way out. Photographers now flock to these locations over and over again to get ‘the shot’ for their portfolio. They don’t bother to look for other compositions or different perspectives, no they just want that number one spot on the front page of 500px and they’ll do whatever it takes to get it. Crank the saturation to 150 throw some Orton on the frame, run it through HDR software and you’re set! I’m the first to admit that I’ve done this in the past and I would be a hypocrite to say that I haven’t. But! Things have definitely changed for me personally; especially as of late. Originality is king and less is more. Unfortunately it seems that originality is being rewarded less and less while imitation goes viral. 

Weeping Grotto

It’s so discouraging to see the direction the field is going in. Photographers are fighting on social media outlets over the representation of areas that have been shot countless times. Vote scamming and playing follow the leader are running rampant throughout the media world and thoughtful, constructive feedback is all but dead. There really are very few healthy communities in social networks today that feed off creative and positive forward thinking and feedback. If I were a budding photographer I would be intimidated as hell by all of this nonsense. The field isn’t going in a positive direction right now and to be honest it’s really quite sad. 500px has been an amazing way to expose others to your work but it’s also become a very stressful and, quite frankly, a hostile environment for budding photographers.

Social Media Alternatives

So, where does that leave us? What other outlets or choices do we have? In order to answer that question I think some light needs to be shed on the problems with some of the other social media outlets currently available on the market.

Facebook has become one of the worst choices available. Personal pages are now limited by newsfeed regulations and friend limits and I can’t tell you how many times I get asked if I’m even still posting photos by people who follow my Photography Page. In addition to those problems Facebook has been severely limiting how many of my followers actually see my photos. Out of the nearly 7k followers that I have currently following my page only a few percent are actually seeing my posts. If I want everyone to see them I have to pay and if you do pay they then limit subsequent posts to get you to pay more. It’s like a giant money pit that leaves you broke in the end. What’s even more concerning is the fact that they generate fake likes with zero engagement on the page itself. So you essentially pay for your content to be seen by your current followers and click farms outside of the U.S., sounds like a great deal, doesn’t it?  I can understand limiting the reach of major corporations in an effort to turn a profit on their end but they do it equally across the board. In addition to the above stipulations any posts that have links, any mentions of commerce or anything of the sort are penalized even further and reach less people. This makes it extremely difficult to maintain any sort of a photographic community on your Facebook page. Facebook groups can be beneficial but from my experience constructive conversations can be hard to come by especially since Facebook even limits who sees what you post in groups as well due to newsfeed regulation and the like.

Instagram (which is now owned by Facebook, go figure) severely lacks in the community aspect and it has honestly become much like 500px in the sense that hubs only feature content from the same photographers over and over again in an effort to gain followers of their own much akin to the editors choice category in 500px (which has improved as of late drastically thanks to a handful of talented photographers with a great eye for outstanding content). It’s essentially a giant popularity contest. I’ve heard that Instagram can be a very productive, lucrative and positive environment but I have personally yet to experience many of those aspects. One positive is that post engagement isn’t currently regulated so it’s an excellent way for your content to get seen once you’ve obtained enough followers to do so, although I’m sure that that will change in the future.

There are other choices outside of the world of Facebook, but they too have their share of issues. Google+ was once touted to become the next Facebook but better. Well truth be told it’s essentially become a ghost town with very little user interaction and post visibility. Once in a while one of my posts will catch fire and go ‘moderately viral’ for a brief period of time but that’s honestly fairly rare. The hubs and pages do a much better job of sharing content but the reach is fairly limited. One of the old dogs in the fight is Flickr. I only recently joined Flickr but I’ve been told that it used to be a budding community with plenty of user interaction and fairly nice photo reach but that has since disappeared. The new platform has severely limited photo reach and the groups are essentially useless. Personally I’ve experienced very little interaction with new users on that site and my exposure has been minimal. There are also a handful of other platforms on the market such as 1x, Ello and Pinterest but they all have fairly big gaps in one way or another.

Social Eb and Flow: The Demise of Whytake

The death of Whytake was a huge blow to the field in my opinion. I had only discovered it a year or so ago but it had already made a huge impact on my work. The site featured a curated inspirational photography catalogue that exemplified the essence of modern landscape photography. Anything from intimate nature abstracts to sweeping vast landscapes and powerful wildlife images graced the home page of that site and gave visitors a much different and more broad look at the field than other sites provided.  The name didn’t determine the content and the images spoke for themselves.  Many of the images that graced the galleries were from photographers whom I had never heard of and many of the more subtle images from those that I was aware of but had never seen.

Whytake may not have had much user interaction, but it made up for that in sheer original and inspirational content. The same can’t be said for many of the other alternatives on the market today. I never got to experience the Nature Photography Network or NPN in its heyday as I began my photographic journey in 2012, but I’ve heard that it was a lot like Whytake with the addition of excellent user interaction, constructive feedback and a positive learning environment.

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500px is King 

Unfortunately at the time of writing this 500px is king. Many photographers strive to get to that top spot at the expense of creativity and in some cases self respect (in the case of photo theft through composites or outright re-posting someone else’s work). Intimate scenes are often overlooked, subtle yet creative and original content often goes unnoticed and many of us sit behind our computer screens shaking our heads in disbelief at the content on the front page. Thoughtful comments are often replaced with ‘great shot v+f take a look at my latest work!’ Or in some cases really destructive dialogue between fellow photographers which is laid out on the table for the masses to see. The site has essentially become a massive popularity contest run by consumption with little appreciation for the amount of work that actually goes into the photographs themselves. The site’s crop can utterly ruin a photo’s chances of making it; especially in the case of panoramic work.  Up Voting, cliques and fairly un-original content now run the site for all intents and purposes. The superficial and sometimes damaging dialogue that permeates the site has really damaged the community as a whole and has substantially culled what could otherwise be a fantastic learning environment.

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Where do we go from here?

With Whytake on its way out, Facebook dictating what we see, Flickr failing to form a community setting, 500px with so much potential yet so many problems and many of the other social networks coming up short.  The question can be asked; where do we go from here?

The truth of the mater is I don’t have a solution or a fix for social media as a whole but I think that we as individuals owe it to ourselves to strive to do better. Think outside of the box and really strive to form a community that feeds off creativity and constructive feedback.  Instead of going for ‘the’ shot investigate other perspectives and less seen scenes.  Get away from the familiar and immerse yourself into the unknown.  Creativity knows no bounds but your own limitations.

Lastly we need to remember that in the end you will never be remembered for your pulse, the number of followers you have or how many likes you get.  When all is said and done the photos are what really matter.  We need to remember why we started photography to begin with and why we continue to do it today.  After all is said and done the journey to each photo is often more important than the image itself; we grow and learn from each step forward and the occasional stumble backward from time to time.  I think social media has really diminished the value of the art of photography itself and getting that back might be the single most important thing we can do at this point in time.

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17 Comments

  1. Shannon Beach July 15, 2015 at 2:40 am #

    Thanks for writing such a great piece on this topic. I have been a novice for a number of years but when I retired last year from the military I decided I really wanted to improve my skills in this area, not only with nature but with my husband’s glass work. I am really afraid to put my pictures out on social media due to the fact that I may not get credit for my work. My husband posted one of my photos to a local page and one of the other local pages took it for their cover work but did not even credit it to me. I am also a fan of minimal editing to my photos, unless I am doing a black and white with a color left, I really try hard to do anything to my pics. I try hard to capture the most realistic pics thru my settings. Thanks again for putting this out there, because there are a lot of us who feel this way.

    • cwexplorationphotography@gmail.com July 15, 2015 at 3:41 am #

      Thanks for the feedback Shannon! I definitely don’t want to discourage anyone from posting their images. Social media can be fickle but you can also learn a great deal. There are a handful of other photographers out there that do minimal editing; Art Wolfe is one of the more famous ones. Don’t be afraid to put your work out there! As far as credit goes that can be tough but a watermark doesn’t hurt and just make sure to limit the file size that you upload. Good luck!

  2. Terry Boyd July 15, 2015 at 8:36 am #

    A sad but accurate appraisal, Chris. Something that needs to be said and repeatedly so. Unfortunately we all, by our participation in FB, IG, 500px and Flickr, become part of what perpetuates the “rot”. In response to our shared observations on getting “the shot” at “the location”, I have come to be quite protective of some of my locations and remove GPS from my files. The last thing I want is to create another Wanaka Tree or Antelope Canyon, with hundreds of ‘tog’s gathering as individuals, in small groups or (as is increasingly the case) in their (mis)guided masses.

    Not sure if I am becoming selfish or what, but there is a higher joy experienced by the viewer of an image they could never imagine reproducing, than that of the amateur/hobbyist photographer who, lacking even an ounce of individual creativity, just wants to look up the location and go copy your shot next weekend. I would prefer the appreciation of the former, perhaps along with the respect of fellow photographers who also appreciate some mystery.

    It is because of this that I have been one of the least active trip leaders in the Focus Group of which I am a member (http://focusphotographers.org/). Focus is a vastly different group in that many of the better values you mentioned, that are being lost, are actively encouraged. As a forum and a learning environment, Focus ticks a lot of boxes. What troubles me is the ever increasing number of people on shoots, particularly in Sydney, where the greatest density of members live. Significantly better here in Melbourne, but growing. I admit, I have “discovered” some fabulous locations due to the generosity of others in describing them to me and I am still happy to share some of my faves with friends. There remains this growing selfishness in me though, that gets worse with every post I see about the NZ’s Church of the Good Shepherd, our own Great Ocean Road or Snæfellsnes. I don’t want to be a dog in the manger, but I am rapidly becoming one.

    Cheers!

    • cwexplorationphotography@gmail.com July 15, 2015 at 9:47 pm #

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment Terry I really appreciate that and I think that your thoughts echo mine. I’ve seen the damage that revealing the location of places to the masses can do but at the same time everything should remain accessible for those that are willing to work for it. It’s a hard pill to swallow. I’ll have to check that group out. Thanks for sharing that and thank you for your thoughts and insights.

  3. Jere July 16, 2015 at 8:08 pm #

    I’ve watched the slow decent of social networks in regards to photography for a long time. There was a time before facebook, before digital had gone mainstream where photographers would discuss in depth techniques, gear, location, all of it, eventually scanning prints/slides/negatives to share, and give honest and real critique. I miss those days terribly but they are all but gone. Once you could post one good photo and get pages of feedback on it, not just “WOW” or “THATS CRAP” but honest discussion about where you failed the composition, how a GND would have helped, how a polarizer could benefit etc etc. And then forums fell by the way side to FB, 500Px and the like. With the exodus of film and the mass introduction of digital to everyone. Everyone was a photographer, not just those that found the passion and drive to push it, but every kid on the corner. And they would slip in looking for an instant answer to the question of all things photo, and off they would go wanting nothing more than a “like” “good job” or whatever, suddenly the idea of a critique was evil and all that mattered was an “atta boy”.

    I watched the last 30 years take my favorite locations to fish, hike, photo and flood them with people to the point they are no longer worth going. I am fortunate to live in a place where wilderness is steps away, and at lunch I can find seclusion in places with beauty that most the world hasn’t yet bothered to photograph. But even here the inevitable comes. And I combat it as best I can by looking for the unique even when everyone else is trying to get that same shot. When i look at another’s photo I look to see how they did it so I can try and incorporate those skills as fitting in my world, to make me better at what I do, to hone my vision, my voice. Never to try and become them or take their thunder or go photograph their masterpiece in the same way.

    Stay individual, and keep looking for something new, something unseen, around the next bend, over the next hill, and then when you get home, sitting on couch your laptop tossed beside you some national Geo on the TV, don’t forget to look around for that thing close to home that you see just a little different than the last guy, and grab your camera and create a tiny bit of magic. If only you “get” it, enjoying being on the last page of 500px, and realize those two likes your photo has, are from other people who also “get” it.

    • cwexplorationphotography@gmail.com July 17, 2015 at 8:30 pm #

      Thanks for taking the time to read the post. I’ve only been in the field three years or so but I can definitely see how much things have changed in that short amount of time. Personally; other folks have had a huge impact on my work (Marc Adamus, Ryan Dyar etc.) but I do this not necessarily for the crowd but also for self fulfillment and try to put my own spin on things to separate myself from the herd so to speak. I think the bigger problem is photo visibility; not necessarily getting the likes or pats on the back. On some platforms that has become increasingly difficult due to, as you mentioned, everyone having access and flooding the market. I think the flood of content has had a huge impact on overall image quality and the quality of discussion as well. Thanks for your thoughts on this I definitely ‘get it’ hopefully others will as well!

  4. Jill July 16, 2015 at 10:16 pm #

    Hi Chris, interesting article! I’m an amature who needs to learn a lot more. However I am happy to say I don’t fall into the category of wanting to recreate someone’s shot but I do like to know the location so I can check it out and find my own shots. I’m really only on IG but I have noticed the popularity click on HUBs. You won’t get a feature though if you ratchet down your resolution. So I found your statement really interesting to not put up the best quality of your image to keep it from getting stolen. At first I craved the validation of getting comments and likes but in the long run I have not gotten much info on how to improve or what in particular is or isn’t good which disappoints me. I do think I’ve improved from seeing and studying others shots though. I have also found there are a few photographers willing to give out info to help others and some not so much.

    I’m really more commenting on my experience but I am curious on your thoughts about Twenty20? My friends and family (in real life, not social network world) tease me that I’m now professional since I did receive a dollar for a download of one of my pics on Twenty20. In no way do I feel or label myself a professional though. But how do you get seen? Maybe the social sites are not the audience one wants but I’m curious how much business one gets from them.
    Regards,
    Jill @jbakke3 Good day!

    • cwexplorationphotography@gmail.com July 17, 2015 at 8:35 pm #

      Hey Jill! Thanks for stopping by and giving this a read. I’m glad that you found it somewhat informative! As far as twenty20 goes I was invited to post images over there but in general I shy away from posting images on that site or sites like that. You have to be extremely careful and be sure to read the fine print about photo rights ownership and the percentage the company takes from you. Personally, I always sell my images and personally deal with each client. I’m not a huge fan of letting another company handle interactions like that. Personally I’ve gotten huge visibility on IG, Facebook and 500px. I’ve recently spent more time on Google+ and Flickr but I have yet to see any results from that. Social media is critical to getting exposure so it really is a blessing and a curse.

      • Jill July 21, 2015 at 1:53 am #

        Thanks for your feedback, I appreciate it!

  5. Kevin July 16, 2015 at 11:21 pm #

    Very well written and thoughtful article. One thing I have been noticing on sites such as 500px and Flickr is that people are uploading a lot of cell phone and cheap compact camera snapshots by the page full. I once was looking at the fresh photos on 500px and saw almost 3 pages by someone uploaded poorly exposed snapshots. That in my opinion hides a lot of very good photos as they get put several pages down and then are less likely to get viewed.
    I also have seen photos from the same locations over and over again. Personally, I like to see new locations instead of the same ones over and over again. It seems that a lot of photos are taken at the same spot in these over photographed locations. There is a whole big world out there to photograph not just a few popular locations. I try to get intimate details of any landscape I photograph not just where everyone sets their tripod in the same location.
    I believe in staying individual and not copying every one else and explore the area to try to get various photos.

    • cwexplorationphotography@gmail.com July 17, 2015 at 8:38 pm #

      You absolutely nailed it Kevin! There’s way too much content out there and as a result the quality has suffered. There’s so much floating around on the web nowadays that it makes finding the quality work that much more difficult. I think that seeing new locations is very, very important! But I also REALLY enjoy the challenge of shooting a familiar area in a new way. Staying individual is the way to go! Thanks again!

  6. Jake July 17, 2015 at 12:15 am #

    Nice Piece Chris. You are where I was a year ago. Social media is geared for the masses. In my opinion, well done photography is very intimate in nature. It connects the viewer with your photograph and resonates in some form or another with them. Be it Ansel Adams Moonrise Over Hernandez New Mexico, or a photograph in Time magazine, there is something there that connects the viewer to the photographer. Its the single impression that matters. I truly believe the best way to achieve this connection is person to person. Todays world seems to be lost on this. So whats the answer? For me it was to start small and try to get a single personal connection. Doors will open and your connections will grow, as will your photography.

    Good Luck

    Jake

    • cwexplorationphotography@gmail.com July 17, 2015 at 8:41 pm #

      Thanks for the thoughtful response Jake! I think that paying attention to the small details in landscape work is extremely important. You can’t get lost in the grandeur of the images themselves; as you said you need to stay connected. I definitely agree with you; individual connections can be very, very important; as well as a connection to your audience as well. Thanks for your thoughts and best of luck to you as well!

  7. Teja July 29, 2015 at 12:12 am #

    This was a great read Chris. My thoughts are pretty much similar regarding the nuances of social sites like FB, IG, 500px, etc. 500px is the site that I post most of my images and what has pained me off late is how less of an interaction there is throughout. It’s an irony that the very site that has inspired me to take up photography to the next level was now becoming a sad zone for posting my images.

    • cwexplorationphotography@gmail.com August 26, 2015 at 4:58 pm #

      Hey Teja sorry I missed this. I completely agree with you; it seems as though 500px has sold out and they really could care less what their users think. It’s hard to say if things will ever return to what they once were on that site but one can only hope that they do since no other platforms really exist right now. Thanks for the comment!

  8. Patrick McDonald October 12, 2015 at 5:43 am #

    Great read. Sadly, I agree with your critique of modern social media driven landscape photography. I have been an avid landscape shooter since before the rise digital cameras. Sure, even then many people were going after the same shots as everyone else – places like the wave, white pocket, horseshoe bend, Jason’s corner in the narrows, etc. It just wasn’t nearly so obvious. Back then we relied more on photo books, calendars, maps, and galleries to find new spots and get inspiration. It took more work to find new images and discover new spots, and much more time for a photo spot to get “discovered”.

    For me, the most upsetting result of online photo popularity contests is the style of “trophy” photography it seems to encourage. “If this guy’s photo of xyz did well than I will go get that same shot.” An example: This summer I drove over to Brookings Oregon and ran into six other photographers on a remote beach. While this may not sound like a lot, I lived in Brookings in 2006 and I never once ran into another “serious” photographer at the beach. I am pretty sure that the recent popularity of this spot is due to a handfull of sucessful images from this area on 500px. Some of these locations are very fragile and the last thing they need is to become a popular photo spot.

    I stopped shooting in around 2008 once I could no longer buy the 4×5 Fuji RVP film I loved, or get my chromes processed locally. When I returned to shooting in 2012, I was pretty shocked at how the “look” of landscape images had changed over the course of just four years. Many new types of shots have been made possible by the amazing digital sensor technology and Photoshop advancements. With the aid of exposure blending, focus stacking, and high ISO settings we can now make shots that would have been impossible in the film era. Much of the work from the greats like Jack Dykinga and David Muench seem pretty tame (or intimate) compared to current styles. Today, it seems that an image needs to have as much dynamic light as possible shoved into the frame to be widely praised. Lightling bolts, the milky way, and backlit glowing clouds over a recognizable scene with a perfectly focused field of flowers 6 inches from the lens seem to be what is needed to get “popular” now. I don’t really have a problem with this. People are taking advantage of the awesome light that can be captured with modern technology.

    When I was shooting film, I would sometimes see a composition and think to myself “this shot will never work, there is too much contrast, not enough light, etc.”. Now I have to worry about thinking “this shot won’t to do well on 500px” – which is terrible. These days, it seems hard to develop your personal vision without being overly influenced by the current processing trends,and without having your work judged and ranked by the inside crowd at 500px. I’m not sure what the solution is. The easy answer is to not visit these online platforms – not very practical though as most of us to like to have our work seen as well as check out what others are up to.

    Sorry for the scattered and lengthy comment.

    • cwexplorationphotography@gmail.com October 14, 2015 at 8:58 pm #

      This response is so spot on Patrick! Your thoughts echo mine almost identically. I can’t tell you how unsettling it is to see the same composition shot over and over again from the same location and what’s worse is that no one ever credits the original photographer. Social media has such a HUGE impact on images today and it’s really a shame. Although I’ve never outright shot an image for the purpose of doing well on a site; it’s definitely been in my subconscious which is just terrible in and of itself. Modern technology has opened a huge amount of possibilities for photographers; most of which are positive but as you know with the good comes the bad and the very bad. Terrible composites that gain millions of likes on social platforms have become the norm. Will they ever win an award? No. Will they get the person a ton of publicity if marketed correctly? Yes. It’s so unfortunate that so many great photographers get overlooked now-a-days due to social media conformity and the sheer ignorance of the general public when it comes to photo manipulation; it’s becoming so easy to fool people that it’s not even funny. I just hope that things can change and if they can’t well time to batten down the hatches and ride out the storm. One thing is for sure though; I’m going to attempt to stay true to myself and produce things that I enjoy.

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