As I have observed photographers over the past few years, one of the things that I have noticed is that the quality of an individual photographer's imagery is often determined much more by the personality of the photographer than by any other factor. Now, there are many aspects of personality that can affect the quality of imagery that a photographer produces. However, one aspect that I have noticed the most is the willingness of a photographer to push himself past his comfort zone. This might seem a bit abstract at first, but what it really boils down to is a matter of place and time. In order to get great shots, one has to be in the right place at the right time. Now, that doesn't seem like such a big deal. However, the problem is that getting to the right place at the right time is quite often uncomfortable. Getting to the right place at the right time frequently involves a very early alarm clock, very hot or cold temperatures, hikes with a heavy backpack of photo equipment, and long waits for the perfect light. These things are simply not very comfortable.
What I have noticed is that it is those photographers that are willing to push themselves outside of their comfort zones, in order to get the images, that produce the most impressive shots. In reviewing my own images, I have found that a very large percentage of my favorites required me to push myself outside of my comfort zone. In this article, I would like to take the opportunity to show how this concept has applied to my own images. In so doing, I would like to introduce you to what I call the "Secret of Too". I think the meaning of this secret will quickly become obvious.
What I experienced in capturing the image in Figure 1 drove home this concept more than any other image that I have captured. This shot was taken in Death Valley in the spring. In the year this shot was taken, Death Valley had the most rain that it had received in about a hundred years. As a result, the valley experienced a massive flower bloom. This news got on the television the week before I headed out to Death Valley. Due to the newscast, Death Valley was inundated with people. The campgrounds filled up early in the day. I tried to grab something to eat at one of the few restaurants in the valley and was told there would be a three hour wait to get a single seat. There were so many people that the gas stations at the two main towns in the center of the valley ran out of gas. I had to drive about fifty to sixty miles each way to fill my gas tank. Everywhere I looked, there were people, people, and more people. Of course, almost all of the people had cameras.
While I thought that I might get some nice flower shots, I was actually more interested in the sand dunes. Some research, before I left for Death Valley, had shown that the moon would be just above the mountains as the first rays of the morning light bathed the valley in a warm glow. I thought that this would be an incredible photo opportunity.
When I arrived at Death Valley, I headed to the dunes to scout them out. However, as I drove to the dunes, I was a bit dismayed -- there were so many people in the valley. With the great photo opportunity that the next morning would provide, I began to suspect that the dunes would be crawling with photographers as the morning, magic hour light approached. I figured that it might be impossible to get a good location and, wherever I pointed my lens, there would be other photographers in the shot. This feeling was strengthened when I got to the dunes and discovered people all over the place.
The next morning, our alarm clocks went off at 4:00 AM. A half hour later, we were hiking on the dunes under the full moon. I was surprised that there was nobody else in sight. This was great! My photo partner and I were able to get good locations, set up our equipment, and wait for the morning light. While I was waiting, I kept looking around for the other photographers that I was sure would come. However, as the sun rose, there was not a single photographer in sight (other than my photo partner). I was extremely surprised.
After we got our shots (including the one in Figure 1) and the magic hour light was gone, my photo partner told me that he wanted to stay on the dunes for awhile and "play with his camera". So, we stayed for another hour and a half. When he was done, we started the hike back to the car. We still had not seen another photographer on the dunes.
As we reached the top of the last, large dune on our way back, I looked across the dunes toward the car to make sure that we were headed in the most direct line to our vehicle. What I saw stunned me. There was a small army of photographers heading from the parking area into the dunes. It was immediately obvious that these were serious photographers. They had expensive DSLRs with expensive lenses. They were carefully setting up their cameras on tripods. They were attaching shutter releases. They were carefully studying the possible compositions. In other words, they had everything perfect except for one thing -- the light! The magic hour light had been gone for close to two hours. The light that was now striking the dunes was way too harsh. Furthermore, the warm color of the early morning light had disappeared. In short, the best photo opportunities were long gone.
All of these photographers, and there were many of them, traded in a great a photo opportunity for a couple hours of extra sleep.
When I went to Utah last October, I wanted to shoot some of the Indian ruins. Again, these shots required an early morning alarm clock. To make the trip to the ruins as short as possible, the previous night, I found a camping area close to the trail that leads to the ruins. That night, as I slept in the back of the van, the temperature dropped down to 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Now, for those of you that live in colder parts of the world, sleeping in a van in 20 degree weather may not be a big deal. On the other hand, for a Southern California boy, that is cold!
As I started the hike the next morning, everything was covered in frost. When I arrived at the location, I discovered that there were no other photographers around. I was able to shoot undisturbed (the result is shown in Figure 2). After I was finished with the shoot, I hiked around for a while before heading back. I was almost all the way back to my car before I encountered any other people.
The northwestern part of Oregon, along the Columbia River, is an incredible place in the spring. At least part of the area is rainforest. Trails lead through lush vegetation and past numerous streams and waterfalls. It is a photographer's delight.
The weather forecast predicted rain. I thought this was great. I envisioned shots of the waterfalls and streams surrounded by a misty, rain drenched rainforest. My first morning, I put on a poncho to cover my photo backpack and headed up a trail during a rainstorm. For the first three hours, I hiked and explored while the rain came down.
Eventually, I decided on the shot in Figure 3. Unfortunately, when I arrived at this location, it was still raining. However, I wanted to capture the rainforest behind the waterfall when it was wet. So, I took out an umbrella and set up my equipment while it was still raining. Then, I held the umbrella over my equipment and me and waited for a break in the rain. Eventually, the rain stopped, and I got my shot.
On my way back, I encountered people, with their cameras, that had waited until after the rain had stopped to begin their hike. However, by this time, that early morning, misty feeling that had made this such a great photo opportunity was already fading.
The image in Figure 4 was taken during a fifteen mile hike. I was a bit reluctant to start this hike. I had been in the field for over a week and had already done a fair amount of hiking. So, I was tired before the hike even started. In addition, the backpack weighed in at around fifty pounds with all of the photo equipment, rain gear, and outdoor supplies. On the other hand, I had seen pictures of this area and did not want to miss the opportunity. So, up the trail I went.
This image was shot on the way up the trail, while on a bridge that crosses the canyon. The hike was well worth the effort. In addition to the beautiful canyon, there were several major waterfalls along the way.
My photo partner had identified this location a day or two before I arrived. After meeting up with him, we scouted out the opportunity. The location obviously had a lot of potential, but it was not the best time of the day to shoot. So, we opted to check out other locations in the area. In the afternoon, we decided to go back to this location. The location had a lot of beauty, but there was a problem with the light and wind. The cloud cover was heavy. As a result, most of the time, the lighting was sub-optimal. In addition, the wind kept stirring up the water and ruining the reflections.
We needed both good light and a break in the wind. So, we set up our equipment and waited. Somewhere past the two hour point, the light broke through the clouds and illuminated this rock while the wind was calm. I jumped up, grabbed my remote switch, and fired off three quick shots before the light was gone. We stayed a while longer, but the light was never as good again. In all, we spent close to three hours at this location waiting for the best conditions.
I envisioned the image in Figure 6 long before it was taken. I had been out to this location previously and had taken note of the opportunity. I decided that I would come back and capture the shot that I had in mind. That was a bit easier said than done. There were two conditions that were needed for this image. First, a low tide was required. To get this shot, it was necessary to climb onto a patch of wet, slippery rock that juts out into the ocean. At anytime other than low tide, the rock is mostly covered by the ocean. Second, a great sunset had to materialize. Furthermore, these two conditions had to occur at the same time.
I could predict the tide by checking a tide table, but I could not predict the sunset. In all, I had to come back a total of six times, over a period of several months, before I captured this shot.
All of these shots required me to step outside of my comfort zone a bit. Had I insisted on staying within my comfort zone, these shots would never have been captured.
As I go to various locations to check out photographic opportunities, I am repeatedly amazed at how frequently my photo partners and I find that we are alone at the best locations during the best light. I have encountered this so much that I no longer hesitate to go to crowded areas during the peak tourist season because I know that if I wake up at 4:00 AM and hike a mile or two my photo partner and I will, most likely, have the shooting location to ourselves.
In short, if you are willing to push yourself outside of your comfort zone, you will have photographic opportunities that most other photographers pass up. This will provide you with the chance to create images that are unique -- images that will allow you the prospect of standing out from the crowd.
In closing this article, I would like to challenge you to pick some photographic situation that forces you to push yourself a bit beyond your comfort zone -- something that you haven't done before. Then, take advantage of that situation to go out and create some great imagery.
I would like to throw in one caveat. Pushing yourself past your comfort zone does not mean being unsafe. Please know your limits and do not engage in unsafe behavior in order to get some shots. Push yourself past your comfort zone, but at all times put safety first.