Well, I've had a couple close calls this year, and it's got me thinking: Landscape photography is exciting and fun, but it can be very dangerous at times. Whether you're in inclement weather atop a high peak, or knee-deep in a fast moving river, one mental mistake can lead to disaster. Sometimes it's not even a mental mistake, but just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Nature can be unpredictable and unforgiving.
I spent a small amount of time discussing this with my Digital Photography class today. They are a group of budding landscapers, and I felt the topic of safety is a worthy subject. As the photographer space gets more crowded in the digital age, photographers are going to greater lengths to achieve unique shots. Sometimes, as landscape photographers, we put ourselves in harm's way to get a shot. But no shot is worth dying for!
Here’s a shot I got late last year. This is the half bowl at the end of Cape Kiwanda in Pacific City, OR. It was about medium tide with 12 foot swells when I got this image. As you can see, there are nice drainage patterns on the rocks. Waves typically shoot up here and drain down the middle. Note: Water doesn’t usually make it to where I’m standing to get this shot.
Fast forward to a couple nights ago. A big storm had come in and hit the Pacific Northwest. It cleared up for just a few hours at Pacific City. The combination of 20 foot swells and clear conditions made this an irresistible shooting opportunity. My buddies Cody, Zach and I made our way up to the bowl to finish our shooting for the evening.
Waves were coming in and splashing straight up, very far away from us and not reaching the top of the bowl. We were getting our timing down for a good shot as the sky was starting to show nice colors. Suddenly, a big wave rolled in and hit against the rock. We’re facing south here looking at Haystack rock.
Within a matter of seconds, with no warning, this monster was coming right at us:
Photo credit: Zach Blackwood
This is pretty much the exact same spot we were standing last time. It's about 60 feet above the ocean. Needless to say, we got soaked. I almost lost my entire bag of gear to the ocean as the water receded. We were all soaked to the bone and shook up. The person in the picture gives you an idea just how high the wave made it. This was a rogue wave. With a combined 20 years+ of landscape photography experience among the three of us, and both Zach and Cody being locals of the coastal region for many years, none of us saw it coming.
Fortunately, no one was hurt. The only fatalities were a couple smartphones and an umbrella. But it could’ve been a lot worse.
I've assembled a list of six tips to help keep you (and your gear) safe. Learn from my mistakes and employ these in your landscape photography. No amount of precautions will guarantee your safety, but there are some precautions you can take.
1. Be Selective with your gear
Do you really need all 8 lenses you own in your bag? Pick a couple lenses that you know you’ll need and leave the rest at home. If your gear is lost or damaged, at least it won’t be all of it!
Plus, it’s very tiring to lug around tons of extra weight. I find I shoot well when I have one or two lenses to focus on. Three at the most.
2. Planning, Planning, Planning
Pack the night before an outing. If you sleep on it, you may remember something you might have otherwise forgotten.
Know where you’re going. Know what the weather is going to be like. Pack your bag thoughtfully and accordingly.
Going to be wet, or around water? I highly recommend a “dry bag”. A large, freezer sized zip-lock bag which you can keep microfiber cloths and cotton towels in. If you get rained on and your camera bag isn’t completely waterproof, it’s nice to have a large plastic bag to throw over it. I’m a big fan of dry bags; if one thing is wet, chances are everything is wet. And you’ll want something to dry your gear.
3. Keep your gear away from you
If you’re near any type of water photographing, the last thing you want is for your gear to suffer the same fate as you if you slip and fall in. If you’re gear is reasonably far away from you, in a “safe zone”, chances are it will be okay, even if you take an unexpected bath.
You can establish safe zones by observing the wetness of the ground. If there’s a dry area of ground away from the action, this is probably a good spot that will be safe from the elements.
4. Don’t get too caught up in the moment
Look at the big picture when you’re out photographing. There may be the adrenaline-pumping moments that get you excited. But don’t get too caught up in the moment where you lose sight of the dangers around you.
Remember that the picture you are taking is only one picture of many that you will take in your lifetime. It is not worth putting life and limb on the line for. There will be better days and safer situations. It is not worth the risk. No picture is worth dying for.
5. Mentally and Physically prepare
Landscape photography can be both mentally and physically taxing. Stay in good shape so your body is able to respond to the demands of landscape photography. Being able to get low in an instant, and then run to a different spot to catch a different angle as the light disappears is physically demanding.
Lots of safety mistakes are a result of mental fatigue. Stay sharp and aware of your surroundings. Always be on guard and prepared to react.
6. Take precautions
Wear a life-vest. Tie yourself to a nearby tree. Wear a helmet. Don’t go out on the very edge (there’s no reason to, you’re just putting yourself at greater risk). If you must take risks, calculate them carefully. Observe an area for 20 minutes before you decide where is safe.
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