22 May
2014

Comp Stomping

I was first introduced to the term “comp stomping”—the intentional reenactment of a specific composition created by someone else—a few years back. I’ve previously talked about icon chasing, which involves photographing famous scenes that have been shot over and over by hundreds of thousands of people; comp stomping takes it a step further, copying more than just the location, but rather the specific composition itself.

There’s nothing wrong with comp stomping, especially for beginners. In fact, the reason people usually offer for stomping comps is that it helps them learn. I think there is some truth to this (but not as much as people hope). Of course, every single one of us has done some comp stomping, and we all have stomped comps in our portfolios. So I’m not going to tell you that comp stomping is inherently bad. In fact, to one extent or another, all of our work is derivative of other people’s work, and even the most creative among us cannot escape the shadow of the photographers who have come before. So we’re all a little bit stompy—it’s just a question of degree.

Filling your portfolio full of stomped comps represents one extreme. On the other end of the spectrum is the so-called “photography celibacy” movement, which advocates never looking at the work of others. This, of course, is an easy cure for the comp stomp itch—you can’t copy what you don’t see. Personally, I don’t like any philosophy which combines absolute commands with the word “celibacy,” but it might be fair to say I’m an unintentional casual adherent, as I don’t pay much attention these days to what other photographers are doing.

Why? It’s simple, really. Once you see a successful photo by someone else, you are instantly trapped by a very basic human need: to covet. Now “covet” is a nifty little word, one which has been around for a very long time, and it basically means to feel inordinate desire for that which belongs to another. Whether it be Commandment-style (your neighbor’s wife) or something more relevant to our discussion at hand (someone else’s awesome composition), our basic human instinct to possess gets switched into overdrive when we see something shiny and new. It happened to me recently when fellow Dreamscapes blogger Joe Rossbach showed me one of his rain forest images when we bumped into each other at Olympic National Park. Want to guess what I ended up doing for the next four days? Yep, that’s right—shooting the rain forest. Even though I wasn’t necessarily looking to copy his exact shot, seeing the successful result of Joe’s artistic vision changed mine. And that’s something I’m really trying to avoid at this point in my career.

"Ebb and Flow" - Olympic National Park, USA (by Ian Plant)

“Ebb and Flow”—Olympic National Park, USA.
Canon 5DIII, 16mm, 2-stop graduated neutral density filter, ISO 100, f/9, 0.5 seconds.

I ended up taking a break from comp stomping the rain forest to go down to Ruby Beach for sunset. Of course, Ruby is a prime comp stomp location, so in an effort to get off the stomp train, I decided to do my best to let the unpredictable clouds and waves dictate my composition, rather than the famous unchanging (and therefore easily stomped) Olympic sea stacks themselves. But even when you aren’t looking to mimic someone else, parallel independent discoveries happen all the time; two photographers shooting the same location can certainly come up with the same composition even without knowledge of what the other person is doing. So did I come up with something original? Beats me. I certainly wasn’t intentionally copying someone else’s shot. Accidental comp stomps are better than premeditated ones, I suppose. Maybe not. All I know is that too many of us are trying too often to photograph the same locations or subjects, so a lot of us are going to end up with very similar shots even when we try to come up with something different.

If comp stomping is your thing, you shouldn’t feel bad about it. You are, after all, in very good company. But if you really want your art to be your art, then you need to unmoor yourself from the safe harbor of imitation, and immerse yourself instead in the swirling seas of creativity—and let the tides take you where they may.

Ian PlantAbout Ian Plant (380 Posts)

Ian Plant's photographs and instructional articles have appeared in a number of books, calendars, and magazines, including Outdoor Photographer and Popular Photography. Ian writes a regular blog column for Outdoor Photographer online, and he is the author of numerous instructional eBooks and videos. Ian leads several photo tours each year.


20 Comments

  • I wanted to come in here to argue, but you pretty much have the most fair perspective on this that i’ve ever read.

    I am sure this practice frustrates professionals to no end, but I wonder – is it equally annoying when hobbyists do it? Asking for a friend.

    • Sorry if that was unclear – I meant professionals doing this to other professionals must be tough!

      • Ian Plant

        Hi John! Yes, it can be tough. The worst thing is when someone stomps your comp but does it better than you!

    • @John K – I frequently go out to photograph with a good friend. We are not shooting professionally, just for the love of the landscape. We have both always found it amusing and not at all annoying when it turns out we took the same random photo! It’s fun to see which one turned out better, and it’s also fun to see what we each did differently. We never look at each other’s photos until after we get home, so there is no direct opportunity to comp stomp besides just standing in the same place and looking the same direction. Actually we often take turns doing exactly that, but we usually end up with different photos anyway. Occasionally we do see the same photo op, and one of us will say, “You take that one!”

      If I had worked hard at creating and marketing my best images for sale, I imagine it would be annoying to come across a “copy” – although who knows if they had it first or if they were even aware of my image.

      If it was happening with another hobbyist who was not my friend? I don’t think it would bother me unless it was obvious they were stalking my work, taking a LOT of the same non-iconic photos, and then trying to pass them off as awesomely original.

      • I just went back and read the “comp stomp” definition again. If my friend was intentionally copying my exact compositions, I probably would not want to go out and photograph with her. What makes it fun is the differences between our images, not the similarities.

  • Very good post and very thought provoking. What’s the difference in comp stomping and enjoying someone’s work so much that it becomes your style?

  • Never heard the term before( comp stomping)! I can honestly say( to the best of my knowledge), I have never copied anybody before and find it rather disgusting, basically it’s borders on theft. I can own up to “copying” a wedding photographer who was composing at a 30 degree angles which initially offended me, but after trying it liked the ability to include/exclude certain things.She wasn’t original, just the first in a small town!
    Be inspired absolutely!
    Comp stomp, no way!

  • I’ve seen so many portfolios that look the same. Same iconic locations, same time of day, time of year, etc. After viewing so many, I get what I call “photo fatigue” from the repetition even though the pics are beautiful. To be fair, that is bound to happen to an extent with thousands of photographers that have the same list of places to see.

    Last time I was on a trip to visit some of those places, I had little interest in photographing anything immediately recognizable. What I can’t quite figure out is that a result of seeing too many damn photos of the place already or a maturing artistic vision? I suppose every photographer feels that way at some point.

    • Ian Plant

      I think it is certainly a sign of a maturing artistic vision that you don’t want to hop on the stomp train!

  • In order to prevent others from comp stomping my work, I am now focusing exlusively on closeup rattlesnake photography.

    • Ian Plant

      Dang – I was planning on doing that too! Oh well, maybe I will do alligator mouth interior macros instead.

    • hahahahaha!

  • As an amateur who has been at this for 40 years I
    I have done my share of “comp stomping”. Iconic photos certainly are pleasing to many viewers who are not photographers or who do not get out to some of these locations. On the other hand I try to do some “intimate landscapes” of these places which focus on small parts of the bigger picture, often overlooked by those who are breathtaken by the grand scene.

  • Thanks for the thoughts Ian. I think my take-away is not getting distracted by someone else’s images when they are not your vision. I often do this and lose my direction when photographing areas and come back less than impressed with my images. But if I dabble a little to extend my abilities and focus on what I love, I come home far more satisfied.

  • All the more reason to not overlook the beauty in one’s own “backyard.” Beautiful images are closer than most realize — photographers and viewers alike.

  • Forgot where I read one of the better advices I have received, which incidentally helps control comp stomping… a bit – avoid National Parks like the plague, focus instead on a state park nearby. Usually same geology, similar opportunities, a lot less tired photo ops. Examples – Copper Mine Canyon instead of Grand Canyon, Valley of the Gods instead of Monument Valley. Especially in the Colorado plateau there is absolutely no reason to go to Grand Canyon, Antelope, the Wave, or any other overly famous location. Yet even with tons of no-name mesas and canyons practically unavoidable, people still fight for elbow room at Upper Antelope. Go figure.

    Of course, when you go to one of Ian’s workshops you are comp stomping by definition. I should know, I have some images in my archive that look suspiciously identical to his. So take Ian’s advice to heart and don’t go on his workshops :-)

    • Ian Plant

      Just one of many reasons to avoid my workshops!

  • Enjoyed this blog Ian..
    Laughed @alligator mouth interior macros! Funny

  • Nice comments. I can’t tell you how many really nice images of egrets in breeding plumage that I’ve seen, and been inspired by. I have taken that “wow, what a great shot” excitement with me when going out and shooting my favorite waterbird, the Brown Pelican. I won’t ever get the same image (cuz pellies just don’t do all that cool breeding puffed up feathers thing), but I can transfer that energy into my own images. In the meantime, I don’t have much interest in getting the whole breeding-egret-throwing-its-head-back-with-a-big-piece-of-nesting-material image, because it’s been done waaaay too many times and has, for me, lost its lustre. For others though, it’s still the holy grail and they very much want that shot in their portfolio. I confess that if I happened to stumble upon such a bird, I would mos def start shooting if possible, and certainly would have all those other images in my head.

  • I like the idea of not feeling bad about comp stomping, and recognition that we all do it, intentionally or not. I have arrived at locations without having “googled” it first for other images, but then some places I couldn’t help myself. The key is to use that only as a starting point, and make your own statement from there. Thanks for writing about this!