To Risk or Not to Risk (for a Photo)   13 comments

Orion rises behind Turret Arch in Arches National Park. Utah. To get a higher viewpoint where the arch wasn’t blocking Orion and the snow-capped La Sal Mtns., I climbed to a narrow ledge with a steep drop into blackness on three sides.

This question comes up more than I ever expected when I got serious about photography again and many years ago decided to join the digital wave.  I thought I was getting into a pursuit more sedate and less physical than the outdoor sports that had been breaking down my knees and other body parts for the better part of my life.  In some ways I was right.  Photography is less strenuous and much easier on the joints than mountaineering, skiing or mountain biking.  And that mostly translates to less risk of injury or death as well.

What I didn’t appreciate is how difficult it is to be forever satisfied with “safe” shots.  In my Friday Foto Talk series I discussed point of view and perspective at some length.  In all types of image-making, but especially in landscape photography, exactly where you place the camera makes a huge difference in the kinds of images you get.  I’m not saying you can’t get great shots from safe locations.  Many of my best images involved not much more than stepping out of the vehicle and walking a few yards away for the shot.

In Zambia’s Kafue National Park, I came upon this herd of Cape buffalo at dusk. Africans consider them the most dangerous animal. Needing a tripod for the low light, I got out of my 4×4 and approached them – but not too close!

That said, it’s a simple fact that when shooting landscapes and nature some subjects and situations demand hard choices.  You can stay safe and get the kinds of shots that anyone and everyone gets, depending on great light to make up the difference.  (But can it really?)  Or you can take risks, gaining unusual perspectives to capture images that are to some degree unique.  When and where you straddle the ever-shifting and subjective line between safe and risky is totally up to you.

These images recall times when I stepped across that line and scrambled (or waded or descended) to spots that are better approached with rope or other safety gear, not to mention a partner.  Or when I approached a dangerous animal.  Technology now offers risk-free ways to get similar images.  For example drones can go to places that would take great effort (and imagination) for a photographer to reach in person.

I thought a shot from within this sea cave on the California coast would be fairly unique, but it required scrambling inside, getting it and getting out quick before a big wave swamped me.

The effect of technology taking much of the risk out of our lives is another subject entirely.  But perhaps what’s most interesting about this topic is that our need to take occasional risks can be applied to all types of photography, and of course to life in general.  A portrait, wedding, even a food photographer must take risks too.  Unlike wildlife or landscape shooters, they don’t generally risk physical well-being (well, maybe the portrait photog. does when he chances the ire of his very particular model).  But the idea is the same.  If you do the safe thing all the time, you just won’t get very many images that spark special pride.

The shot of Courthouse Wash (Arches N.P., UT) from ground level has been done too many times to count, so I climbed up a steep route used by canyoneers to get this image from above.

I always recommend knowing your abilities, and knowing specifically when and how much to push them.  But if you’ve never thought about this before, it’s high time.  Think of all the ways you can take risks, in life as well as photography.  All the ways you can do it while avoiding near-death experiences.  And if you’re a nature/landscape person, all I can say is Good Luck!

Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge has become ultra-popular with photographers. I’ve spent a lot of time trying for unique perspectives. This one required off-trail scrambling to a steep perch above Oneonta Gorge.

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13 responses to “To Risk or Not to Risk (for a Photo)

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  1. Great article, and the images are awesome! That shot at Arches *really* blows me away! I’ll be one of the photographers stuck with the others in the easy-to-get-to places, so I’m thankful you are out there showing us perspectives I would never otherwise see!

  2. All beautiful images! You are much braver than me!

  3. Yes, I can think of a few.

    … Carefully squeezing along a narrow tongue with a sheer 800 foot drop on each side: https://murrayfoote.files.wordpress.com/2013/05/tasman-island-from-cape-pillar.jpg

    … Nearly getting trapped by a cold climate hurricane in Iceland: https://murrayfoote.files.wordpress.com/2016/03/dscf8658-2.jpg

  4. Yes, I can think of a few. Carefully sq

  5. The images are an inspiration, as well as your tenacity for the right perspective, imagination and photographic skill. I’m also jealous of your travels… M 🙂

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