This photo was taken recently in Grand Teton National Park and was one of the most incredible sunrises I have witnessed in person. It has a rainbow, colorful clouds, and warm light on rolling hills in addition to perhaps the most iconic mountain range in the United States.
It also says nothing at all about me as a photographer.
If there were one hundred other photographers who were standing near where I was standing, when I was standing there, ninety-eight would have taken the exact same photograph (one of them would have forgot their memory card and the other was too busy talking about gear to actually get their own gear out in time). Ansel Adams said that a good photograph is knowing where to stand, but at a well-trodden location, knowing where to stand is the easy part.
Passive recording of sublime conditions at popular locations is more about luck than any intention on the part of the photographer.
These types of photographs are popular. I still take them from time to time - as the existence of this photograph proves - but they are exceptions in my portfolio rather than the rule. While there is nothing inherently wrong with the pursuit of photographs like this, I have come to the realization that I want my photography to be about more than pretty pictures. I want my photography to express my voice.
I get more pleasure out of photographs that require me to be an active participant - photographs that rely less on “epic conditions” and more on observation or an ability to connect to the environment I’m photographing. I generally avoid going out with a specific photo in mind - planning the exact location where the sun will break the horizon, scouting foregrounds days in advance, etc. - not only does the thought of that bore the hell out of me, I also feel it leads to very static photography. For the pursuit of a single preconceived photograph, a billion other (often better!) potential photographs will never be taken.
Intentional photography means being open and removing arbitrary barriers. This includes times of day (compelling photographs can be made at any time of day, not just sunrise or sunset), compositional elements (the sky isn’t a requirement, and no you don’t always need a foreground paired with a background), different focal lengths (wide angle lenses are great, but so are telephoto lenses and macro lenses), or light (there are many permutations of light in terms of color, direction, and temperature - and all can result in great photographs).
It is easy to come up with excuses on why certain conditions “won’t work” but it is better to try and use those barriers to creatively come up with a way they will. Rarely does innovation arise from everything going exactly as planned. Finding a way through obstacles, rather than avoiding them at all costs, is a key part of developing creativity.
To photograph with intention and with little to no planning means you have to be comfortable with failure and be open to experimentation - these are opposite sides of the same coin. I would argue this is actually easier than being a prisoner to expectations - but for many this is a completely different mindset.
Being an active participant in your photography means your photographs will be more about you, and for me, that’s the point of any individual creative pursuit. Why fail at being somebody else - or even worse - succeed at being someone else - when you can more easily succeed at being yourself?