5 Tips for Using Risk Taking as a Tool for Better Photography

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With the rising tide of enthusiast photographers and the ubiquitous camera phone, there is more competition for eyeballs than ever before in the photo industry. How can you ever stand out from the crowd to be noticed? The trick is both deceptively simple and incredibly complicated: take more risks. Great photographers rarely play it safe, but before you head into the world with reckless abandon, let’s dive into what kinds of risk taking is productive.

1 – Your camera is a tool, not a pet

You’ve received your very first, very shiny, very expensive DSLR kit. Your instincts are to cradle and protect the expensive piece of equipment. Don’t. While you shouldn’t fully submerge your camera, or throw it off the balcony and expect good results, coddling it like your newborn child won’t do you any good either. It’s a tool and is meant to be used out in the world. It should get a few scratches in the paint and some wear and tear on the grip. Take a look at the following images and ask yourself where the camera is.

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For the first two, the camera is sitting on the bow of a kayak roughly four inches above the water. For the third image, the camera is a half inch off the muddy ground. Water is often a camera’s worst enemy, but without the risk of the camera getting wet, these images would not be possible. Water is not your camera’s only enemy though. Dings and scrapes, dust, and even wild animals pose a threat.

That said, there are ways to be smart about risk taking and mitigating potential problems. For example, when kayaking you could store the equipment in a dry bag, so it is only exposed when you stop to take a photograph. You could have a friend kayak with you and help stabilize your kayak, or warn you when a large wave is coming. (It is recommended to do outdoor activities with a buddy anyway for general safety). You can use various coverings, coatings, and cases as well to protect your gear.

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You don’t even have to be in the water to expose your camera to harsh elements. The spray from Wli falls in Ghana was strong enough to reach me 300 meters away. I kept a light jacket in front of my camera until the right moment.

2 – Know your tools

In order to take risks in a smart fashion, it helps to know the limitations of your tools. Does your camera have dust or weather sealing? Does the lens? Did you remember to put a clear (UV) filter on the front of the lens to protect against the basic threats? Is the body primarily plastic? Does it have a metal frame? A quick visit to the manufacturer’s website or a websearch for your equipment’s user manuals should get you the information you need.

There are many more things to consider, but the point is to learn as much as possible about your kit. Your DSLR and lens may be weather sealed and can handle light rain but the audio recorder may not be and may wind up being the weak link.

It’s wise to know how to use your camera well. Often in risky situations you will want to expose your equipment to that risk for the least amount of time possible. The better you know your camera, the less time you’ll spend fiddling with settings. Be sure to practice using your equipment in a low-stress environment, before exposing yourself to a risky situation. Digital Photography School is a great resource for articles on the nitty-gritty workings of your camera, so you don’t have to travel far to get started mastering your gear.

3 – Do your homework on your subjects too

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Let’s say you have been given an assignment that involves getting into an occupied cage at the zoo. How do you prepare? It isn’t enough in this situation to know your gear alone. You need to learn about the animals you are interacting with, some basics on their behavioural cues, and what potential stressors may be present. Luckily in this situation you are likely to get help from the zoo’s staff; in fact, they are required to enter the enclosure with you. But be sure to meet with them prior, and take some time online or in a library to supplement your knowledge. Be sure to ask questions specific to your situation as well.

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Photo courtesy of Clare Hancock.

In this case, what do you do if an animal approaches you and grabs, bites, or otherwise latches onto the camera? It turns out in the case of lemurs, just hold still and they’ll lose interest pretty quickly. The point is don’t panic and don’t be afraid to ask questions, even if they sound far-fetched.

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What would you do in this situation? Photo courtesy of Clare Hancock.

In the same vein as asking questions to be prepared, don’t be afraid to ask questions during a shoot either. You are only expected to be an expert photographer. In this particular example, the zoo staff are there to help everything go smoothly. Don’t let pride prevent you from tapping into their expertise. Consider the photo above, I had no idea what to do when a wallaby and her baby decided I made a comfy resting place. I checked with the keepers to make sure there wasn’t any risk to myself or the wallabies. There wasn’t, so I continued to shoot from that position until she eventually hopped away.

Being informed is the best way to enter a potentially risky situation. The zoo session may seem specific, but consider what would go into photographing a tall ship setting sail, or snowboarders screaming down slopes, or even your own dog in your backyard. Snapping good images often involves getting in close, or shooting from a unique angle that could involve having a camera accidentally knocked out of your hands on a crowded ship deck, having snow sprayed onto your camera, or even having an excited dog slobber all over your equipment or tackle you. Do some homework, be aware of your surroundings, ask questions and you will have mitigated most of the riskiness.

4 – Taking risks in your career

Using risk as a tool in your career is not specific to photography, but it is especially important in this field. If you always use the same tried and true portrait poses, and standard three point lighting that you learned in your high school photo course, you are likely going to be stuck at a studio in the mall holding a stuffed giraffe in one hand and a remote trigger in the other, praying that baby Jesse stops crying. (If you work at one of these and enjoy your job, that is awesome and you are honestly a much more patient person than I). Most photographers I know have bigger dreams than this, whether it is running their own mall studio or becoming a successful commercial photographer. Unless you run into some magnificent stroke of luck and were born with real talent, this is going to a lot of time, more effort, and a few risks.

I am no Warren Buffett when it comes to business sense, but I can say the biggest jumps in my own career came from taking big risks. When former Ghanaian President John Atta Mills passed away in July of 2012, I was just coming out of graduate school and interning at the Daily Guide newspaper in Accra. President Mills was the first Ghanaian president to die in office and his state funeral was considered one of the most important stories in the region. I had just arrived in country, knew only what I had read about the culture and only had two weeks to convince my new, sceptical editor to let me be a part of the team covering the story. I worked very hard with my new coworkers, contributing to as many stories as possible, and hanging out with the reporters to learn about Ghanaian politics, history and culture.

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Two days before the funeral, I convinced my editor to let me go on the assignment. Going in I was scared. I felt like I could never be prepared enough, and doubted every decision I made during the assignment. Regardless, I took the risk of screwing up an important assignment, and managed to rise to a challenge. The images ran front page and an entire centrefold was dedicated to my images of the event. Moments like these demand taking risks. If you have ambitions beyond photography as a hobby, you will need to get used to going in over your head. Risk will always force you to be a better photographer.

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However, the risks you can take regarding your career can be mitigated to some extent as well. The key, as you already know, is being prepared. This is a much more abstract process compared to mitigating risks related to camera equipment. While some things are the same, – knowing your tools and subjects well enough to work efficiently – others go a little beyond the act of photography itself. They involve politics in your particular branch of the profession, and knowing just how far you can push yourself.

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As I eluded to earlier, I am not the kind of guy you will see doing family portraits or weddings. I am horrible at convincing the average person to smile or look natural. I simply am no good at those kind of portraits. That said, after I won my first photo award I ran out and bought a Vivitar flash, cloth backdrop and three hot lamps. I was convinced I was going to quit my job waiting tables and pay for my impending college career with my photographic talent. I was wrong… very wrong. I managed to perform poorly on three portrait sessions before realizing that my foray may have been a mistake, and I was out a few hundred dollars in studio gear.

I knew nothing about the family portraiture business. I didn’t do any research aside from reading a couple of gear reviews and really burned myself in the process. Worst of all I didn’t know my equipment very well. I had a total of one lesson in studio lighting under my belt at the time and may have purchased a book, that to this day, I have read a total of three pages of. I took a dumb risk and hurt my confidence and disappointed people in the process.

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An example of a failed attempt at portraiture in my early career.

5 – When things go wrong

There is one catch to risk taking. What if it doesn’t pan out. You may end up with broken equipment, angry customers, or bodily injury. What now?

Broken equipment is relatively easy to deal with: mourn the loss of your trusted tool, then buy a new one. If you are worried about not being able to afford replacing equipment, talk to your insurance company about whether your homeowners or renters insurance will cover your gear outside your home. Specific camera (and commercial) insurance policies are available as well. Be sure to find out what is covered and how they handle claims.

Smoothing customer relations or repairing a career are tougher issues. Patience and good customer service skills will go a long way, but every case has to be approached individually. Giving a discount for a mediocre portrait shoot might work in one case, but blowing an expensive commercial shoot is going to take a whole different approach. I have been lucky enough that I haven’t had to do this in my own career, but I encourage joining professional associations and talking to other professional photographers to learn what consequences there might be, and how to recover from them.

Bodily injury is the worst on this list. If you are risking your life or serious injury for a photograph, STOP! No photograph is worth getting hurt or dying for. There has been a recent rash of people dying while taking selfies or trying to capture memories from crazy angles over the edge of a skyscraper. It doesn’t matter if it could be the best photo ever taken, this kind of risk is never worth taking in the first place. Broken cameras can be replaced, careers rebuilt, and customer relations smoothed over, but the best photo of your career is worthless if you die or are maimed in the process. Just don’t do it.

One final disclaimer

The nature of risk taking is that the result could be game changing good, or painfully bad. You can fail and fail hard. The advice given here is simply what I have learned over the course of my own career, and it may not apply to you at all. There is no guarantee that taking any kind of risk will result in a positive outcome. Ultimately, you must decide if the risks you take – if any – are worth taking. The outcomes of taking those risks will be entirely yours, so use your best judgment. If you do decide to take a risk, be smart about it and do everything in your power to lessen that risk. Best of luck out there.

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Christopher Scotti specializes in photo-journalism but works in graphic design and web development as well. He is the co-founder of Immersion Travel Magazine, a digital publication that showcases unique and sustainable activities and tours for travellers. You can find out more about him and his work at cmscotti.com or by following him on Instagram.

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