Opinion Photography Tech/Web

On “Popular” Web Photography

Enveloped in Sandstone by Lisa Bettany on 500px

A response to “Will the Real Landscape Photography Please Stand Up?” by Ugo Cei.

As one of the photographers of those “popular” photos that left the author of this post “cold as a stone“, I have to say that not all photography is aspiring to be high art. Sometimes a photo is just a memory, or a moment, or in the case of my photo of Antelope Canyon, an attempt at taking a sweet photo of a cool location. I took that photo 2 years ago when I was just learning to how take landscape photos. I actually thought I hadn’t gotten a shot of the canyon because I was such an amateur at the time and I was completely overwhelmed by the location and trying to shimmy through the canyon with my tripod in tow.

I recently revisited my photos and discovered this shot. I was pleased as punch after I worked on it for a while in post and discovered that my attempts to shoot an incredible location weren’t completely amiss.

I certainly aim to tell a story with my photos, or to emote something. I definitely feel something when I take them. But, I’m not a true artist yet. That takes years and a commitment that I have not been able to give because like most aspiring photographers, I have a a day job. One day, I might be good enough to emote something with a fish-eye shot of a canyon. For now, let me just say, “Whoa, this is super cool”.

For me, this photo was an early triumph in my landscape career and I wanted to share it with my followers to inspire them. With every post I feel like I’m saying, “Hey you can do this to — here are the settings I used, here’s how I did it, now go out there and get it for yourself!” The aim for me in posting an image is not to become more “popular”, but to inspire others. I receive hundreds of emails from people who are inspired to become photographers because they like a photo of mine, and to me that is the real benefit of reaching a huge audience on 500px.

I think what is really making the author rant, is the state of photography on the web. I’m not a fan of the fake photoshopped hot air balloons in neon coloured skies either, but hey, they look cool on my iPhone. And that is what the majority of people are doing. Scrolling through thousands upon thousands of images on their phones in between conversations and iced lattes. If you want to be viewed in such a sea of media, you have to go big, or go home.

You don’t have to play along with your own work. Just because the cool kids are doing it doesn’t mean you have to too. Many don’t. Even some of those popular 500px photographers remain true to their vision by posting moody, dark, deeply emotive work. But those are the professionals. These people are full-time, hard-core, bad-to-the-bone landscape photographers with several books and gallery showings under their belts. The rest of us are just landscape photographers-in-training.

Every few months, I too feel the pressure of conforming to the bright and shiny epic shots that are so popular these days that I hide away in my cave of disillusionment and stop posting online. I vow to only take artsy black and white photos that “mean something”. After a few months of this depressive behaviour which frankly results more in me watching every sad documentary on Netflix, than producing true art, I get over myself. I realize that trekking through a crazy slot canyon in Arizona to take a stunning, glittering, awe-inspiring is pretty freaking cool. Everyone with the means and ability should go to that exact spot and experience that incredible place and take their own amazing shot.

I’ve been fortunate to be a guest editor on 500px this month and I’ve spent hours looking at thousands of images each day. I say embrace it all: The good, the bad, & the ridiculous. A bunch of over-saturated sunsets aren’t going to ruin the art form of photography. It may hurt your eyes a little, but as a photographer you are constantly learning and growing. Everyone starts their journey into Lightroom and Photoshop by over-saturating their sunsets and cranking the clarity. But, sharing your work in it’s development stages is how we get better. These “popular” photos may not all be “art”, but every single one of those photographers is creating something. And to me, that deserves respect.

In today’s world, everyone has a camera in their pocket. If I can help even one person get off their couch and go take a photo that they are so proud of that they share on 500px and it’s so good that it gets thousands of views and as a result, they feel encouraged to continue their journey as a photographer, well then I’ve done my job as one of the “popular” photographers on the web.

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  • Reply
    Ugo Cei
    January 26, 2015 at 6:30 AM

    Hi Lisa, and thanks for your post. You know, I just went to the 500px popular page and snapped a screenshot. It was bound to capture the good and the bad together. No, actually there isn’t a single bad photo on that page, they are all great.

    My problem is trying to produce something great that isn’t just dependent on the “wow” factor and that works FOR ME. I’m struggling with it, not trying to dictate what others should do, I hope you’ll understand.

  • Reply
    Mostly Lisa
    January 26, 2015 at 7:03 AM

    I do understand. I initially took offence because I was so proud of my photo, but then I realized that I have had those thoughts many times. I actually stopped posting for a year while I struggled with the same thing. I felt like I couldn’t take great photographs unless I was standing on the edge of an erupting volcano. In that year, I took a lot of non “wow” photos… foggy seascapes and dark forests etc. I share these works with close friends and trusted photographers I know, because their opinion matters more to me than being popular on the web. Sometimes the only way to truly gain focus is to shut off all the noise and distractions and focus on your own art. As long as you are filling your mind with other photographer’s images, you will always compare your work to theirs.

    Good luck on your journey! When in doubt, disconnect your wifi and just listen to your heart!

  • Reply
    January 28, 2015 at 7:33 AM

    I think Ugo has some valid comments, but to a certain extent it seems to hinge on the idea that appealing to popular sensibilities or fashion negates artistic value. As you say, “…not all photography is aspiring to be high art. Sometimes a photo is just a memory, or a moment, or in the case of my photo of Antelope Canyon, an attempt at taking a sweet photo of a cool location. ”

    I *LOVE* the fact that people are not only carrying cameras everywhere now, but are willing to show off their work and expose themselves to both negative and positive feedback. In regards to 500px in particular, it’s really interesting to look at how people change their styles as time goes on, and clearly gain technique and skills. Will most of them become great artists? No. But who cares, really? Even if a lot of the work does nothing more than leave the viewer with a quick “Oh, that’s pretty” or “I’d like to see that in person”, never to be thought of again–That’s fine! It made someone’s day a little brighter, made them think about something they wouldn’t have otherwise. What’s wrong with that, even if it’s not an image that will be talked about generations from now?

  • Reply
    January 29, 2015 at 12:25 AM

    It seems like in this day and age with everybody carrying a camera that every subject, especially tourist attractions are capable of becoming photographic cliches, everytime I visit a destination I take “the photo everybody else has” and then I start to explore the surrounding areas, it’s amazing how many other tourists won’t move more than a 10 minutes walk away from the default viewing position. Exploring the cliches, looking at what already has been done and trying to replicate it helps you learn and doesn’t necessarily devalue what you’ve done, it also helps if you know what’s already been taken so you can apply some creative thought into taking something a bit different, encouraging yourself to take creative risks in unpopular subjects rather than personal risks such as dangling yourself over a volcano!

  • Reply
    Matt Payne
    January 30, 2015 at 6:18 PM

    Wow, great post Lisa… and I really appreciate the back-and-forth dialogue between you and Ugo here – very respectful. In regards to the meat of this issue… I think that all of us photographers struggle a great deal on the tug-of-war between wanting to be successful and staying true to ourselves.

  • Reply
    Doris Pacheco
    September 10, 2015 at 3:37 PM

    I loved reading your beautifully written opinion piece. It really nails how I feel about photography and post processing. If it moves you, it can’t be all bad! Thanks for expressing your ideas and for sharing your work.

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