When It Goes Wrong

Hit By Lightning • Hydrate! • Bad Rocky Mountain High • Sooooo Cold • Lost Going To The Devils Postpile• Bugs In The Amazon • All Images Lost

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You never want to surprise a grizzly bear on the trail. Making noise to let them know you’re coming is a good idea. Another good idea is to carry pepper spray. In most cases, it will send the bear packing. This image was taken in Denali National Park & Preserve, Alaska, from within a parked vehicle. The camera was a Canon EOS 20D with a Canon EF 500mm lens set to 1⁄350 sec. at ƒ/5.6.

Anytime you get a group of professional photographers into close proximity, you’ll find them gathered ’round the campfire (or in the local pub) to swap stories and talk shop. Sometimes there’s a kind of “can you top this” mentality going on, but we all learn a lot from each other’s bad experiences. Turn up the lights and throw a log on the fire before you read this because some of it’s pretty scary. It’s not about ghosts and werewolves; it’s the foolishly frightening ways we photographers put ourselves and our equipment in danger. Listen and learn!

Have you heard the one about…

…The Photographer Who Got Hit By Lightning
Your personal safety as an outdoor photographer depends on careful attention to and defense against Mother Nature’s activities. As photographers, we’re drawn to Her wonderful displays, taking our metal tripods onto rock faces to photograph lightning in the distance. But lightning is by definition unpredictable, and here in the Pikes Peak region of Colorado we’re especially respectful because a colleague was killed by a lightning strike on America’s Mountain a few years ago. The person walking next to him survived, but rescue was delayed by more than an hour due to the continued strikes in the area.

I love to photograph lightning, but I won’t put myself at risk. My Lightning Trigger (www.lightningtrigger.com) takes the photographs while I stay safe inside my vehicle. If you’re caught in a lightning storm, take shelter immediately or crouch low with only your feet in contact with the ground (a good reason to practice your Yoga).

…The Workshop Leader Who Ended Up In The Hospital
Water, water everywhere, and I should have been drinking more of it. During a workshop I was leading in the high Sierras of California, I was fortunate to have a couple of physicians among the participants. They noticed that I was (even more than usually) out of sorts and disoriented, as well as having chest pains. Fearing a possible heart problem, they quickly got me to a hospital in the area, where simple dehydration was the diagnosis. An overnight IV course remedied the problem.

The risk of dehydration increases at altitude, so be sure to carry sufficient fluids and field water purification systems, and keep yourself and everyone else in your group well hydrated.

…The Rocky Mountain High That Could Kill You
Altitude sickness can be another great challenge for outdoor photographers. It typically occurs above 8,000 feet, but I’ve seen its effects at lower altitudes on older folk or those with heart issues. Don’t underestimate the effects of altitude sickness: They range from headache (also a symptom of dehydration) to fatigue, dizziness, light-headedness, disorientation, shortness of breath and rapid pulse to life-threatening pulmonary or cerebral edema. Always allow yourself time to adjust gradually to higher altitudes; if you experience symptoms, limit your activity and return to a lower elevation immediately.

…The Summer Day It Was Sooooo Cold
It’s a beautiful summer day, and you’re traveling light. After all, the tripod I recommended weighs a ton, and your well-sealed pro camera and your 500mm lens are killing your back. Who needs a jacket? A couple of hours out, clouds form and you anticipate a simple summer shower. Instead, it’s a freak summer snowstorm like we’ve experienced in Yosemite National Park in mid-August. In another scenario, it’s winter, you’ve dressed warmly, but you slip on the frozen bank and fall into the icy stream you’re photographing. In either case, hypothermia is a real danger. The symptoms advance from shivering, limited vision and disorientation, to violent tremors and confusion, to stumbling, amnesia, unconsciousness, organ failure and death.

The best defense against hypothermia is the right clothing. Synthetic and wool fabrics provide better insulation when wet and dry more quickly. Cotton (that means your favorite jeans!) retains moisture, so it’s a bad choice. If you’re suffering from hypothermia, keep yourself hydrated and nourished, drink warm liquids but not alcohol, and get yourself to a warmer place ASAP.

…The Lady Who Got Lost On The Way To The Devils Postpile

Here’s how to risk your life and make everyone in the class hate you: Get lost. This particular workshop participant was present at the orientation the night before, where everyone was asked to hike as a group and to stay in a particular area. For whatever reason, she took off on her own. The result: Workshop leaders (and rangers) spent a good part of the day locating her, much to the annoyance of the other students. When you’ve paid a hefty fee for a workshop with your favorite instructor, follow his/her directions for everyone’s benefit.

There’s really no excuse for getting lost when you’re on your own, either. Plan ahead, take your maps and GPS, and let others know where you’ll be. A nifty new GPS satellite messenger service called the SPOT Tracker (www.findmespot.com) is the latest way to stay in touch when you’re in the field and out of cell range. This small handheld satellite communication device tracks your location, which can be followed on a home computer. You can press a button to send a present message to your at-home contact that says “I’m OK.” Another option sends a 911 call and your GPS location to an emergency response center every five minutes.

…The Woman Who Was Eaten Alive In The Amazon
No, it wasn’t cannibals. It was swarms of tiny, biting, black flies. And she wore shorts, although she was warned to wear long pants. Even now, when I’ve traveled all over the world leading photo workshops in the field, I pay attention to the advice about clothing, insect repellant, sunscreen, footwear and prevailing temperatures that are offered by experts in the region or colleagues who have recently been there. But these dangers aren’t limited to exotic locations. The possibilities of scorpions in the desert, snakes in the foothills, mosquitoes in wetlands and bears in the mountains all require advance precautions. That means wearing boots to protect from bites, even on a hot day. Carry repellant with DEET and/or head netting and light gloves when entering areas with mosquitoes and biting flies. In bear country, it makes sense to carry a canister of pepper spray and to make a lot of noise as you move about in dense cover. Bears don’t like surprises (neither do I).

…The Photographer Who Went To Dinner And Lost It All
This one is about keeping your equipment and images safe. It happened in the film days, but could happen just as easily today with CF cards and laptop computers. A well-known professional photographer spent months on a major project photographing the Southwest. On his way home, he stopped for dinner in San Francisco. His vehicle was parked on the street near the restaurant, but not in sight. In the short time he was gone, thieves broke into the vehicle and removed all of the photographer’s cameras and the valuable exposed film from the entire shoot. The film was much more valuable than the equipment, and despite the large rewards that were offered, it was never recovered. In the course of a meal, he lost months of work.

How do you prevent a similar catastrophe? Park where you can see your vehicle. Insure your camera equipment with group coverage available through an organization such as NANPA, the North American Nature Photography Association, or ASMP, the American Society of Media Photographers. Keep the computer and cards on your person when you leave the vehicle. A device I’ve used for years is a pager alarm. If someone breaks into your vehicle, you’re notified immediately if you’re within a mile. But don’t just run back, defenseless. Bring your bear spray!

For information about upcoming seminars and digital-imaging workshops, visit www.georgelepp.com.


One of North America’s best-known contemporary outdoor and nature photographers and a leader in the field of digital imaging and photographic education, Lepp is the author of many books and the field editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine. One of Canon’s original Explorers of Light, Lepp finds inspiration in advancing technology that fuels creative innovation and expression of his life-long fascination with the natural world.