Assess the Risk of Photographing in the Wild

Have you ever heard the term, “Safety is no accident?” It was something that I used to say when I was in charge of building million dollar houses. This week we are going to discuss how-to assess the risk of photographing in the wilderness with other people.

I have one more saying, this one I am going to steal it from Harrison Ford from the first installment of Indian Jones – Raiders of the Lost Ark, “It’s not the years, honey, it’s the mileage.”

Both of these sayings have migrated into my daily operations as an adventure photographer. While the risk involved with what I do for a living doesn’t compare to something like crab fishing in the Bering Sea, it definitely has more risks than driving to the office as a day-trader on Wall Street.

Assess the Risk of Damage, Inc.

I would love to say that I have a perfect safety record, reality always has a way of taking advantage of you when you least expect it though. I have personally been part of seven avalanches in backcountry locations of Alaska, Colorado, and Wyoming. The first six produced zero injuries and were definite learning experiences, but it was the seventh that really changed my perspective on safety.

I wrote about this in a bit more detail in my post on fear, here is a brief overview of what happened in case you haven’t read the Fear Post.

As far as recorded avalanches go, it was a fairly small slide, but it gave me a tiny glimpse of the power of nature. Lucky number seven took me for a short 500 foot vertical ride, over a 35 foot cliff, then a 15 foot cliff, and finally pinned me up against a dead tree. The resulting injuries included a dislocated shoulder, a humoral head fractured in 6 places, and a torn labrum. Oh, and then I had to walk 4 miles in 2 feet of new snow for rescue because I couldn’t locate my skis.

I have also managed broken arms, fingers, and toes in the middle of nowhere. And let’s not forget the daily general cuts, bruises, and bug bites. I gotta say that I absolutely hate black flies and mosquitos most of all.

Now couple my personal injuries with potential injuries of the athletes that I photograph and you have the making movie that would rival anything Tom Cruise or Vin Diesel can concoct in their heads. My lens has been witness to countless torn knee ligaments and tendons, broken femurs, fractured arms, one torn spleen and cuts and bruises that count in the thousands.

The Why

I know you are asking this very question right now. I and everyone I photograph does it because, accidents aside, we cannot sit in a cubicle and day trade. Our souls feel whole out there, somewhere beyond where most would journey.

I would be lying to you if I told you that my mental state hasn’t suffered for years from some injuries (go read Fear!). I have learned some pretty important life lessons over the years through this though. While the pain is not “the years, it’s the miles” and I truly do focus on “safety is no accident now”, there is always a chance everything could go wrong at any moment in the future. So the more I can assess the risk before, the better the chance we all have of coming out alive.

Assess the Risk

When I photograph in the wilds, I typically keep my person count lower now. Large groups have the potential to be a disaster. Especially if people in that group aren’t all well known assets.

What is a well know asset? Someone who you have skied, biked, run, or hiked with before. Someone you truly know as a friend. Basically, can you ask yourself this question… “Will this person save my life if everything goes awry?” If the answer is yes, you are golden.

You have to assess the risk of not only the activity, but the location too. You also, have to assess the risk of the specific day you are planning on shooting. If you are hiking a very easy scenic trail on a seventy degree day with clear blue skies, the risk is pretty much non-existent. However, if you are photographing skiers in the western backcountry with 3 feet of new snow, after a clear, cold, windy night and your goal is to ski a fifty degree couloir first thing in the morning and avalanche danger is rated at high, you better know every person in your group better than your lover.

Assess the Risk of Photography

So the whole process of photographing athletes in the wild begins with obtaining as much info about that person as well as what your shoot plans are going to be, before you even leave the house in the morning.

In addition to this, I also confirm our original plans with the members of my party when we meet in the field. We will often change our original plan at this point dependent of EVERYONES’ thoughts. Since I am more often than not the “old guy” in the group, I make everyone voice their opinion regardless if it has changed or not.

Verbal communication and justification for your opinion should be taken very seriously by everyone in your party. If not, they shouldn’t be traveling with you. Since I became that guy in the group who asks and tells, I have seen peoples’ respect for me explode. I have also seen others change their approach to how they explore the wilds. One voice really can change many.

When Shooting

Once we are out there on the trail or in the middle of the back country, I again confirm my athletes choices. I have them express their opinions on my photo concept to further assess the risk. We discuss where I plan on shooting from and where I am specifically thinking of capturing the photos based on their movement.

If for any reason someone voices a question of safety we always rethink the approach. I will even question my athlete if I feel they have any doubts about our photo goal when related to their abilities.

Some sports allow for repeats of a photo, so if you miss the first shot you can try again. Sports like skiing typically do not allow for a second photo without extreme effort, if at all. So a massive amount of communication happens before anyone does anything.

Once everyone is comfortable, we go for it. If I am traveling with more than one athlete or have other people with us who aren’t part of the photo, I use them as spotters. I also use them as safety monitors assessing the risk. Even if I pick the smartest and safest location things can go wrong. Essentially, anyone traveling with me when I am photographing becomes a participant in some way.

I consider everything and everyone I can personally think about.

Special Gear

As an adventure sports photographer my goal is tell a story with my photos. My clients demand a photojournalistic approach to my work. This means all creative concepts in a final photo have to be done in-camera. If the photo needs to be taken from a great distance, I make someone carry my 600mm lens to the spot. I told you there are always assistants! If I need to balance an exposure, I will carry a flash or a graduated neutral density filter.

I also carry two-way radios with microphones attached. The radio goes in my pack and the mic is clipped to one of the shoulder straps on my backpack. This allows me to talk to anyone in the group by depressing the mic button. My athlete typically has the same radio in the same position. Most people never notice the mic in the photos.

I remember shooting skiing shots from the helicopter more than 15 years ago. Now we just bring a $1000 drone with us that shoots DNG (RAW) files for stills. This gives me almost limitless adjustment to those photos without the cost of using an actual helicopter.

And More Gear

I have an assortment of specialty straps and clamps to mount a camera specifically to an athlete or support equipment like mountain bikes, cars, etc. I always have a pair of Pocket Wizard IIIs with me to remotely trigger a camera as well.

In addition, I wrap duct around a ski pole and the handle bars of my bike. Most of my athletes travel the same way. Duct tape has a thousand uses and by wrapping it on equipment that is always part of the shoot, I don’t need a bulky roll taking up precious space in a backpack.

Don’t forget the first aid kit! My father-in-law, who is a retired fire chief, created mine. This kit includes EMT items like splints and respirator guards for CPR which don’t necessarily come with a pre-packaged kit.

You can see how I put photo gear into a non-photography based backpack at shotkit.com.

No Limits

When I am thinking about compositions, the sky is literally the limit. I will hang off of cliffs with a rope and harness. Ridden chairlifts in reverse as athletes have dropped sixty foot cliffs below me. I have climbed trees, towers, and the stood on the roof of my truck. Don’t forget taking photos from countless airplanes and helicopters. All these devices allow me to create something unique. They allow me to create any vision I dream up.

Final Thoughts

This style of photography does come with more risk. Communication is the key to success when we assess the risk. There is also one more benefit to journeying into the abyss.

By using a mountain bike, my own two feet or skis to get somewhere most people shy away from, more opportunity almost automatically exists. My goal may be to shoot an athlete, but I also have the ability to shoot landscapes that most rarely see. I also get to see more wildlife than the average national park Sunday driver. I find a peace that cannot be explained, only witnessed by those who venture out there with me.

Winter in Yellowstone

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