Cover photo : ©Abandonednordic
It’s a subject not often addressed but significant in the process of creating images. There are domains where risks have to be assessed, evaluated, and prevented. Taking risks is sometimes necessary, although that encompasses many different aspects, and the stakes are also diverse. It mostly depends on your photo field and where you are on your photography journey.
Low on the scale is the simple risk of failing. It may happen when you’re not able to complete an assignment, when your photos of an event are disappointing or they’re technically or aesthetically of poor quality.
There are multiple reasons: you forgot something crucial, you had technical issues, there was a misunderstanding, or the client is simply not happy with the result. Not all photographers include a satisfaction clause in their contracts. It can even be more insidious: the client may be satisfied with the result, but not you.
It happened that I accepted a job, wondering if I would be able to manage. Initially hired for a standard series of corporate portraits, there were also group shots (4-5 people). No big deal. It’s just a question of organization and preparation. But things became more complicated when, from the group shots, I was supposed to make a montage of all of them in panoramic size. Theoretically, it was possible.
It needed some planning, marks on the floor, consistent lighting, and the use of a 50mm lens that shows the least amount of distortion. The shots were spread over two days in an office. If the shooting itself went well, there was no guarantee that the panoramic group image would turn out satisfactory.
It was stressful, as I kept doubting my retouching skills. It needed more work and time than planned. Even the background needed to be retouched. Although gray, it had some tint variations that needed to be leveled, which meant making precise selections around the people.
Finally, even with a 50mm, some deformations were visible. The distance made it impossible to use a longer lens. I guess that an 80mm would have been a better choice. The final result, although shameful to me, pleased the client, which was the most important. But I felt it was a failure nonetheless.
The risk here is not overcoming this fear and losing some self-confidence. Knowing our own boundaries allows us to grow inside them before we push them.
So you have to be prepared. In all meanings. Mentally and technically.
Don’t rely on luck alone. Ewan Lebourdais, a prominent navy photographer who obtained the official title of Peintre de la Marine in the French Navy, remembers that he wasn’t entirely familiar with the use of his newly acquired 600mm f/4 when he accidentally encountered a returning nuclear submarine off the shores of Ouessant Island. Even if it allowed him to win the Nikon Photo of the Month, he humbly confesses that it was only “beginners’ luck,” mostly because it was difficult for him to reproduce it afterwards, only thanks to hard and long work, in order to progress by improving the techniques.
To this end, it’s crucial to keep improvisation at its lowest level. Try to get the most information you can find about what you intend to photograph. If it’s a wedding, check the venue a few days ahead. Try to figure out if you need a flash, a tele lens, a wide angle, if you’re authorized to bring a tripod, etc.
If you plan a landscape trip or an urban tour, use applications such as Sun Position Sunrise & Sunset, SunCalc, or SunOnTrack to determine the sun’s orientation at the time of the shooting, as well as weather forecast applications or websites as exhaustive as Windyty.
And, as the gear doesn’t (yet) magically perform, you might need some training prior to a shooting. That’s the moment when a comparison between photography and sport or music becomes relevant.
When Your Gear Is at Risk
Now, there are domains where your equipment might be at risk. And I’m not talking about getting some drops of champagne during a wedding party.
Natural elements are, by far, the biggest issue. In nautical photography, for example, the salty water shows no mercy, even to the sturdiest gear.
Ewan Lebourdais remembers very well when, on board a light inflatable boat, along with a group of Navy commandos (the equivalent of a Seal Team), he documented an assault against a bigger ship. While the soldiers were climbing to its deck, their boat was swept by huge waves that submerged them regularly. The Nikon D5 didn’t die on the spot, but corrosion finally killed it three weeks later. Fun fact: the operations happened during a night so dark that Ewan had to shoot at ISO 100,000.
So, in such circumstances, it’s safer to use extra protection, such as an underwater housing or case, even if you don’t plan to dive. Motorsport photographers know this very well and don’t hesitate to spend a few coins on an investment that can save the day.
It’s also a good idea to insure your gear. It won’t replace the shots you may lose on the memory card, but at least you’ll get back on your feet faster.
Apart from the material risks, a more significant issue might be your own safety and health.
When It Gets Serious
Some fields are inherently hazardous for the photographer.
Wildlife photography sounds exciting and is within reach of any patient photographer. But it’s not totally free of danger. Andreas Schmid, an underwater and wildlife photographer, advises beginners to “work your way from simple, basic subjects towards more demanding and dynamic animals,” especially as “anytime you face a big animal, there is a certain risk involved that something unexpected might happen.” Still, he is quite clear: it is necessary to take the risk of exposing yourself to a potentially dangerous situation. “Not in a mindless way, though. (…) The key is to know how generally a subject will behave.” It is necessary to stay calm, show respect to animals, get to know them, and know when not to cross the line. “Perfect your craft before trying to capture the most challenging situations and animals”.
In another popular field, such as urbex, this notion of danger is also very present.
Steve, also known as K9urbex, is quite clear about it: “Urbex is risky at 90%.” It’s confirmed by Tanja and Timmo from AbandonedNordic.com: “There are no safety rules for abandoned buildings.”
The question is: is it worth it?
For Andrea Schmid, when underwater, “getting great results requires getting close,” a stance not so far from the famous Robert Capa’s line: “If your photos are not good, it’s because you were not close enough”.
For K9urbex, “each photographer should ponder what he or she is ready to sacrifice for a photo (2 months in hospital for 300 likes?)/” Abandonednordic also insists on weighing the possible risks against the rewards.
In urbex, the list of potential dangers is impressive.
The most obvious would come from the building itself. Floors can collapse, and ceilings can fall down. “Falling is a constant threat,, says AbandonedNordic, especially when floors are strewn with “shattered glass, nails, and all sorts of debris.” So, get your vaccines up to date.
Other hazards are less often reckoned with, but those urbex photographers warn about them: mold is usually encountered in ancient houses, mines, or underground facilities. Asbestos and germs or bacteria from animal droppings are other reasons why the air might be unhealthy or unbreathable. Even radiation might be a concern in some areas.
Not to forget animals, which are also a possible threat. Snakes, dogs, or even owls are known to attack their victims on the face. Insects may not agree with your presence either. Check for ticks when you get back home. Lyme disease is far from pleasant.
Those are the reasons why they don’t recommend this hobby to anyone.
Another matter is the legal part. Neighbors usually have a negative opinion about urbex photographers, who are sometimes suspected of being thieves or drug users. Exercising common sense should be enough to keep you from photographing military installations, even abandoned ones, or anything close to a government facility.
Think of the Lana Sator case, for example.
K9urbex recalls that “nothing justifies your presence.” So, he strongly advises being discreet and respectful, a golden rule in urbex. Tanja and Kimmo confirm this: “Never break or take anything, but photos.”
Ewan Lebourdais admits that “when you shoot in three dimensions, there is always some risk” and “going to the sea is always inherently uncertain.” And there is no need to face a tropical storm or climb Everest to find yourself in a perilous situation. He underlines that “a good sailor is the one who knows when to renounce and turn back. (…) The objective is to never put yourself at risk.”
His advice is that “the more you anticipate and prepare, the better it is.” In the case of a shooting involving several people, the briefing is a very important step. It avoids misunderstandings, sets boundaries, and prevents vagaries.
Ewan concedes not being willing to take uncalculated risks. “I think that it always ends badly, and the photos might not even be good!”
K9urbex keeps in mind a scale, graduated from 1 to 10, and tries to stay at 6 or 7. He always sees urban exploration as “a pleasure, an adventure, a way to surpass oneself,” but he never pushes for a “competition for the shot that has never been done before because of its danger.”
Regardless of any shooting circumstances, anticipation and preparation are crucial. A good understanding of your skills and gear and an in-depth knowledge of your subject and the environment are essential. It will never eliminate all the risks, but it will keep them at the lowest level possible.
“The limit is what allows us to avoid the risk”, concludes Ewan Lebourdais. “Being a hothead never lasts long”.
All images used with permission.