Friday Foto Talk: Overcoming Physical Obstacles   11 comments

This continues the mini-series on overcoming obstacles to great photography.  This Friday we look at two inter-related and very important obstacles: shooting position and physical barriers.

Being Too Far Away

“If you’re pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough” is one of photography’s most basic truisms.  To illustrate, I’d like to share a little story.  At the Grand Tetons in Wyoming, I had always wanted a good shot of the horses who hang out along the east side of the Snake River (visible from Hwy. 89 north of Jackson).  The image below was the best I had gotten before my visit last September.


Horse heaven.

Horse heaven.

I spent one morning shooting along Hwy. 89.  I didn’t visit the horses until well past sunrise, but the light was still interesting because of storm clouds.  And because the sun was still low and behind me, I knew there was a chance for a bonus: a rainbow!  There were a few other photographers coming and going.  We were shooting the mountains plus some buffalo who were near the road.  A fence lay between us and the fairly distant horses.

I was itching to get closer to the subject, so I slipped under the fence.  I knew this was park property and that the horses turned out on it were used to take tourists on rides.  Realize that the horse’s owners or handlers would probably not have not liked it to see a tourist next to their horses.  So don’t take it as an invitation to follow this specific example.

Walking slowly up to the horses, I murmured soothing words and scratched them, just to say hello and allow them to get comfortable with me.  Having owned horses I know how to avoid disturbing them.  I had only taken a couple pictures when the rainbow happened.  I clicked happily away.  I used a fairly wide angle so everything was in focus while using a faster shutter (to keep the grazing horses from blurring and to shoot hand-held).

When the rainbow faded, I walked back to the road.  There were quite a few more photographers because the rainbow made them pull off the highway.  They were shooting with longer focal lengths and not getting the best shot.  They were much too far away, and also they weren’t really ready when the rainbow happened.  They let two important obstacles get between them and a great shot.

Not being too shy about getting up close and personal with a subject is the surest way to get average photos.

Not being too shy about getting up close and personal with a subject is the surest way to get great photos.

Physical Obstacles

The fence in the story above is an example of a physical obstacle.  In that case it was a pretty simple one to hop over, so what held the other photographers back was either laziness or more likely mistaking the purpose of the fence (it was for keeping horses off the road, not to signal it was private property).  Sometimes the obstacles are a little bigger than this, but rarely are they insurmountable.

Is the best shot of that sunset from the shoreline or partway into the lake?  Is the best shot of the waterfall from the near side or do you need to wade the stream to get closer?  Do you need to get up higher for the right point of view?  At Boudhanath Stupa in Nepal, I needed to get off ground level, and that meant asking around until finally, just before sunset, I found a place where I could buy a cup of tea that came with a good view.

The great stupa at Boudhanath, near Kathmandu, Nepal.

The great stupa at Boudhanath, near Kathmandu, Nepal.

See the pattern?  It’s actually about point of view and working the subject (a recent Friday Foto Talk).  But to get there you need to get past obstacles regarding position and physical barriers.  How about climbing that hill for a better point of view and composition?  I’ve often been tempted to climb trees, but (alas) I’m not the limber guy I once was; it’s just too dangerous.

But so often it’s not danger that holds us back but the fear of a little discomfort, or of being seen doing something slightly ridiculous.  The key is to not fool  yourself one way or the other.  Know your limits but don’t sell yourself short either!

Thanks a bunch for reading and don’t forget to add your ideas or ask questions in the comments.  Have a very happy weekend!

I was able to see and shoot this fiery sunset in Kuala Lumpur only because I found a way on to the roof of my hotel.

I was able to see and shoot this fiery sunset in Kuala Lumpur only because I found a way on to the roof of my hotel.


11 responses to “Friday Foto Talk: Overcoming Physical Obstacles

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  1. Excellent tips – try to change the position and work on it 🙂 The image of horses with rainbow is spectacular!

  2. And here I thot you’d be hanging out of trees for that perfect perspective:)

  3. I love your tips Mike…thanks so much! And I adore that photo of the horses in the meadow with that stunning rainbow. 🙂

  4. One obstacle to overcome if one wants to photograph buffalo in Y-stone are the Japanese tourists, wearing red shirts and caps who are often seen running toward the shaggy beasts.

  5. Ansel Adams said that standing in the right place was the key to photography, and you certainly illustrate that here. The horses and rainbow is really special. Great shots.

  6. Great suggestions to ponder. You are doing a great job preparing me for Yellowstone. However, I’m not going to walk up to bears or bison.

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