Archive for the ‘danger’ Tag

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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Friday Foto Talk: Point of View & Staying Safe   13 comments

A recent shot from a lovely place in the Colorado Rockies called Bluebird Lake.

Let’s follow-up on the topic point of view (POV) and in particular last week’s Foto Talk on ethics and legality.  As you begin to dream up and try a wide variety of positions to shoot from, you’ll find yourself getting more deeply involved with it.  It’s what photography is all about.  But before you get lost in the moment, take another moment to consider the following cautionary tales.  The phrase “safety comes first”, after all, applies to photography like it does to any undertaking.

Flowers grow on a lichen-covered rock outcrop at 11,000 feet in Rocky Mtn. National Park, Colorado.

Flowers grow on a lichen-covered rock outcrop at 11,000 feet in Rocky Mtn. National Park, Colorado.

POV & Safety:  People

  • Property Territoriality.  I mentioned last week how you might run afoul of property owners or officials.  Yet anybody could take strong exception to your shooting near their “territory”.  One time in a lonely rural area I was getting some sunset shots.  Not far away was a farm house.  I was on the side of a county road, not even pointing the camera directly at the house.  But driving away in the gathering dark I noticed a guy following me in a pickup.  He continued for quite awhile until I stopped, got out and challenged him (something I don’t recommend).  Later I was pulled over by a cop (the guy had called) and had to explain who I was and what I was doing.
While shooting this barn in central Oregon I was approached by the owner who told me I was on a private road. I was honest about my reason for being there and he let me shoot away.

While shooting this barn in central Oregon I was approached by the owner who told me I was on a private road. I was honest about my reason for being there and he let me shoot away.

  • Compositional Territoriality.  It’s not always property owners who have issues.  You can also get in the way of other photographers too.  Although I generally shy away from popular locations and subjects and so don’t run into many others, on occasion I have inadvertently stepped in the way of a fellow shooter.  Some of these guys (they’re always guys) are extremely possessive of “their” compositions (see bottom image).  I don’t know why but they seem to like shining flashlights or (worse) laser pointers at me in a sort of passive aggressive way.  Weird.
  • See Below for more on staying safe in populated areas.
Dusk falls at Bluebird Lake. I balanced on the edge for this shot 'cause I wanted a POV highlighting the metamorphic rock textures in the foreground.

Dusk falls at Bluebird Lake. I balanced on the edge for this shot ’cause I wanted a POV highlighting the metamorphic rock textures in the foreground.

SOLUTIONS    

  • Stay Cool.  I probably don’t have to tell you that situations involving angry people can spin quickly out of control.  But if you remain relatively calm and listen to what the person is saying you’ll thank yourself later.
  • Be Honest.  It’s always best to state honestly what you’re doing.  If you try to obfuscate in any way you’ll just put yourself under suspicion.
  • Be Sensitive but Firm.  I try to strike a balance between (1) being sensitive to both the law and to people’s concerns and (2) being firm about my right to be on public property and my right to use (especially to keep!) my camera gear.
  • Know when to Walk Away.  I don’t always handle people the way I later realize I should have.  The main thing I’ve done wrong in the past is to not apologize and walk away when someone gets very angry.  Apologize even if you don’t think you’re in the right.  If they won’t let you go and want to get physical, just pull out your phone and dial 911.
St. Vrain River, Colorado.

St. Vrain River, Colorado.

POV & Safety:  Animals

People are obviously the biggest danger, but other animals can be dangerous as well (see what I did there?).  How close to that buffalo do you really need to be?  Seems we read on a weekly basis about tourists getting hurt when they get too near buffalo or other wild animals in Yellowstone Park.  And it’s not just tourists.  Pro photographers with not enough wildlife experience or common sense get too close.  Don’t take domestic animals too lightly either.  For example I give Brahma bulls more respect than most wild animals.

This large African elephant in the Okavango Delta gave us a fright when he bluff charged.

This large African elephant in the Okavango Delta gave us a fright when he bluff charged.

SOLUTIONS

  • Learn.  Start by reading about your animal subjects, paying particular attention to body language, territorial behaviours, “comfort distances” and related info.  But remember to take anything you learn on the internet or in books as a general guide only.  Animals are like people.  It’s not just that each individual is unique; it’s that each situation you find it in is unique.  Animal behaviour depends not just on instinct but on the individual and its circumstances.
  • Observe.  There is no substitute for careful observation of body language while you’re anywhere near a potentially dangerous animal.  Don’t approach until you take a good look.  For example, ears back is a common warning sign with prey animals.  For predators you may get ears back if they’re feeling defensive, or ears forward and alert if they’re on the hunt.
  • Go Slow.  Approaching slowly will not only avoid frightening the animal and blowing your chances, it will also give the animal a chance to get comfortable and keep it from becoming defensive.  It will also allow you more time to observe your quarry and stop if a behaviour indicates you should.  As a rule you should never turn your back on or run from any potentially dangerous animal.  There are exceptions to this however.

I’ve posted this one before, but it shows so well how animals use body language to warn you about getting any closer (arched tail).

POV & the Blinder Effect

  • The blinder effect is when you are dialed in to what you’re doing, changing positions and POV.  Our minds are on the shot, not on possible dangers.
  • As photographers we are more vulnerable than the average person.  To see why, let’s take mountain lions as an example.  If you’re a smaller man or a woman you need to be particularly careful in cougar country.  But even if you’re big and ugly like me, think about it.  As a photographer we often choose to shoot near dawn or dusk when the light is good.  And that’s when most predators are active.  Further, we tend to crouch down (making ourselves smaller) with faces pressed to the camera instead of directed toward danger.
  • In populated areas, simply substitute the word mugger for cougar and the situations are perfectly parallel.

ANIMALS

It’s not just when they’re the subjects that wildlife is a potential danger.  On a couple occasions I’ve been so focused on a landscape shot that I allowed a curious animal to approach me quite closely.  Depending of course on the animal and the situation, this could be either a pleasant surprise or a dangerous development.  For example cougars inhabit even populated areas.  And don’t forget venomous snakes.  Adjusting POV often means walking through tall grass or thick brush.

I definitely avoided turning my back on this Komodo dragon on the island of Rinca, Indonesia.

This Komodo dragon on the island of Rinca, Indonesia snuck up on me while I was photographing a bigger one. It’s a bit chilling to be stalked.

PEOPLE

  • Urban Areas:  In cities, wandering into a sketchy neighborhood near dark is easy to do when chasing a shot.  I did it in Kuala Lumpur once while trying for a photo of the Petronas Towers at blue hour (dusk).  That is, until a kind local noticed and let me know I was putting myself (or at least all my camera gear) at risk.  I got a shot but it wasn’t right, so next night I did something different (see image).

Not as famous as the Petronas Towers, but still worth shooting, the Kuala Lumpur Tower & the perfect POV on my hotel’s roof. I don’t think I was supposed to be there.

  • Remote Areas:  One reason I like wilderness areas is because there’s normally no need to worry about other people.  But the other side of that coin means you are more vulnerable if a bad character does appear.  Several years ago I was in Colombia on a hike through a jungle known for its bandits.  I stopped to watch some very cool-looking monkeys.  There was a small noise and I turned around to find that two young native guys with machetes had caught right up to me.  Chills went down my spine.  But happily they turned out to be friendly and we ended up hiking together.  One even climbed a tree and used his machete to cut a huge fresh papaya down (yummy!).

SOLUTION

For the blinder effect there is really just one solution:  Be Aware of your Surroundings.  Take your face away from the camera and look around from time to time, particularly in lonely places.

Summary

I feel like I’ve sounded a tone that’s a bit too paranoid.  We all know what can result from too much fear: paralysis.  In fact you’ll probably never run into most of these situations.  But they are worth being ready for in the same way that it’s wise to prepare for a natural disaster that’ll probably never happen.  So be careful out there, just not too careful.  Shoot with as many POVs as you think is necessary.  Practice awareness and common sense and all will be well.  Have a great weekend!

At Deadhorse Point, Utah, a popular spot, I arrived pre-dawn & was able to shoot this gnarled juniper while another photog. who arrived after me circled around with his little flashlight.

At Utah’s Deadhorse Point, a popular spot, I showed up very early (rare for me).  While shooting this gnarled juniper a guy who arrived after me but apparently wanted the same shot circled around trying various ways to hurry me.

Friday Foto Talk: Point of View – Ethics & Legality   4 comments

For this swirling pool on Colorado's St. Vrain River, I went for a POV looking down on it.

For this recent shot of a granite-lined pool on Colorado’s St. Vrain River, I went for a downward-looking POV.

After the recent posts on point of view (POV), I realized I had been taking it for granted.  It’s the kind of thing that experienced photographers model naturally when shooting.  But they gloss over it and don’t talk about it enough when teaching.  Novices tend to be busy figuring out their cameras, exposure, where to focus, etc.  As a result they may not pick up on how important POV is until later on.

But here’s a simple fact: the sooner you learn to quickly and purposefully adjust your point of view, the faster your photography will improve.  Why is POV so important?  Because it’s all about finding the best compositions.  And in photography composition means everything.  So be sure to check out POV Part I and POV Part II.  This week let’s take a step back and look at some consequences of changing POV in the quest for the perfect shot.

Last post I showed the male mountain bluebird. Here is his mate near the nest at 11,800 feet elevation in Colorado.

Last Wednesday featured a male mountain bluebird. Here is his mate near their nest at 11,800 feet (3600 m.) up in the Colorado Rockies.

An image whose point of view is of another creature's point of view (note what the elk is looking at).

An image whose point of view is of another creature’s point of view (note what the elk is looking at).

Okay.  You got the message of the last two Foto Talks.  You’re moving around with purpose, shifting POV in all directions, shooting away.  You’re well on your way to better photos.  And maybe on your way to trouble as well.  Here are some quandaries common to photography, along with ideas on how to handle them.

POV & Ethics

  • Be Kind to the Environment.  Moving closer to your foreground subject could mean trampling delicate vegetation or disturbing other living things (stirring up sediment in a sensitive aquatic environment, for example).  Just last night I saw a portrait photographer trampling flowers while shooting a family, and this was inside a national park.
  • Be Kind to Fellow Photographers.  In places with other photographers around, working a subject with many different POVs (normally laudable) could result in you selfishly “hogging” the subject (next post will have the counterpoint to this).

SOLUTIONS 

  • Strike a Balance.  While a strong commitment to getting the shot is necessary to get good images, it’s also important to avoid being insensitive or rude.
  • Be Aware of where you are and of those around you at all times.  I’m not saying to take your mind off the photography or to worry about what others think of you lying there on your belly.  But at the same time, be conscious about damaging sensitive habitats.  Think about the critters, including your fellow photographers.
The subalpine flower meadows of Mt. Rainier, Washington are a place where you should be careful where you step.

The subalpine flower meadows of Mt. Rainier, Washington are a place where you should be careful where you step.

POV, Legality & Permission

Are you going to hop that fence to get closer to your subject, grab a quick shot and get back before the property owner comes along?  What about entering a questionable area in some foreign country?  Laws are different there and enforced in different ways.  Do you really want the shot that badly?

  • Example 1:  Unexpected problem in a Foreign Land.  In a busy public area in Malawi I was shooting a cute little baby with big brown eyes, after asking her mom.  The unexpected result: a policeman became suspicious, approached me and wanted to take my camera away.  I had to do some quick talking, show them my pictures, and get the mom to back me up.
  • Example 2:  Dangerous & Illegal POV turns out OK.  Another example is the image below, which is a few years old.  I had driven past this spot with a fantastic view of Portland, Oregon many times.  But I could never see a safe way to shoot there.   For the same reason that makes the spot such a great POV:  it’s on a busy, curving freeway ramp that swings out over the Willamette River.

But one day I noticed a spot where the ramp widened, with just enough room to park.  It even had a curb for a bit of protection from traffic.  It required a quick maneuver in the heavy traffic.  The first time I did it was on my motorcycle, which made it quite easy.  But I knew it was illegal to be there so didn’t stay long.  I quickly set up my tripod and captured the shot I had been after.

Portland, Oregon is a town of bridges, like the Steele Bridge here spanning the Willamette River at dusk with a crescent moon.

Portland, Oregon is a town of bridges, like the Steele Bridge here spanning the Willamette River at dusk with a crescent moon.

SOLUTIONS:  Asking vs. Apologizing

You’ve probably heard the old expression “better to ask forgiveness than beg permission”.  Sounds good, right?  But in the real world you have to weigh risks and be able to handle things diplomatically if you get caught or challenged.    Here are a few examples:

  • In villages and on treks I’ve seen photographers surround some poor kid doing something cute, with no thought of whether it was okay with the parents.  That is horrible ugly tourist behavior.  With kids you should almost always ask the parents first.  Or be ready to be apologetic and honest about your motivations.
  • For sensitive areas (political or military), I would avoid them outright.  If you insist, always ask first.
  • Photographing someone’s property (including their bodies) also begs you to ask first.  But we’re entering a gray area.  If you make it a rule to always ask, you may not get many good shots.  You could miss the light, for example.  Then in reality you’re asking to return another time.
  • One more example: on a city street photographing people.  Unless you shoot first, you’ll probably miss that great candid shot.  For some subjects, however, it doesn’t matter, street performers for example.  So you may as well ask first.
One of my favorite child images, I didn't ask permission first in order to get this candid. But in an out of the way place, people are more chill, and I smiled a lot. Mom invited me in for tea.

One of my favorite child images, a Sherpa boy waiting for his dad to come home.  I didn’t ask permission first, but in a part of Nepal away from tourists, I was willing to risk it.  I smiled a lot and his mom invited me in for tea.

SOLUTIONS:  The Quandary

The last two points above illustrate a quandary unique to photography.  Do you forego the quick shot and engage first, or do you strike while the iron is hot and talk later?  Each of us have to handle it in our own way, realizing that each situation is different.  Ultimately we need to accept responsibility for our actions.  It’s safest to ask permission first, especially if there is the slightest doubt.  But whatever happens, it’s important to be honest and pleasant.

Okay that’s it for now.  Next week we’ll look at other issues to be aware of when actively changing your point of view.  Happy shooting and have a wonderful weekend!

Sunset over the high tundra of Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

 

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