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Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Photographers In Harm's Way

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Photographers In Harm‚’s WayHow Far To Go For The Ultimate Photograph?
There seems to be no end to the dangerous things photographers will do to get the ultimate photograph. Each of us has to decide how far to push the limits, but collectively, we're all influenced by other photographers' failed attempts. I'm increasingly concerned by the imposition of more rules and restrictions to our access in both public and private locations due to the government's or the private owner's perceived need to protect themselves from liability and to protect ourselves from our own recklessness.

Photographers In Harm‚’s Way
I know, those low fences on the bluffs and "Keep Off, Restoration in Progress" signs are annoying. You're sure-footed, and you can tell a wildflower from an exotic invasive species, so why shouldn't you be able to cross the line to get your photo? Two reasons: we're not always as smart or as adept as we'd like to think we are, and with our big lenses and pro gear, we're a high-profile example to others. Where we lead, others are likely to follow. If you have a real need to enter a restricted area, you probably can get permission. Sometimes forgiveness is easier to get than permission, but you may find yourself on the bad end of a citation and make it even more difficult for the person who follows you to get consent.

Road Work. The roadside photo opportunity rarely seems to come with a place to park, especially in public environments. I often encounter photographers stopped in the road, or barely off it, opening their doors into traffic, determined to get that shot of the elk herd or moose. Before long, the cars are lined up and spectators are blocking the road in both directions. Sometimes, you just have to be content with seeing the possible photograph—and let it go.

Another menace on the roads are the photo-racers. They're trying to make it to a good site before the sun rises or sets. The photographers-in "training" drive me craziest. Their goal is to shoot the train at one spot, then beat it to the next vantage point. Does it mean you've lost your edge if you won't risk your life and others' to get the photograph? Not in my book.

Know Your Limits. Just because someone else can, doesn't mean you should. Professional risk-taking photographers go to the ends of the earth, and they put themselves in danger on a regular basis, but they're prepared, they know their abilities and they have backup. I'm remembering a photograph of Galen Rowell, leaning out from a cliff face (probably El Capitan in Yosemite), hanging from a rope with one hand, a camera in the other, and taking a picture of the person who was taking his picture. His superb physical abilities and endurance allowed him to photograph in situations in which most of us would hope to never find ourselves.

Then there's Frans Lanting, who for National Geographic takes off for some of the most isolated places on earth, where the smallest health problem or injury can be catastrophic. Yet he comes back time after time with incredible images from places none of us has seen, in a world that we'd think had been completely photographed by now.

Nick Nichols is always on the edge. Whether it's traversing equatorial Africa or stalking tigers in India, he's always exceeding the bounds of common sense, but he consistently produces amazing images for National Geographic. He has paid an incredibly high price in physical risks to do this.

But remember, these are truly extraordinary men in terms of not only their boldness but also their photographic abilities. I don't want to be the one to discourage the next Galen, Frans or Nick, but recognize that few will ever achieve what they have done, and just being willing to take risks doesn't make you a great photographer.

The image featured here shows photographers in Rocky Mountain National Park in the process of taking their own picture with lightning in the background (the enlarged section of the image shows them setting the camera on a rock to capture a self-portrait with the storm). First of all, they're exposing themselves by being on a high place and, secondly, the lightning is already flashing over their heads. It was time for them to get into a building or a vehicle. Luckily, they got down without being struck.


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