Every professional photographer experiences failure. Sometimes we spend a lot of money to travel to a fantastic location for a limited amount of time and a giant storm hits tanking our plans. Maybe a crowded photo hot spot with lots of restrictions makes it challenging to get one photo much less multiple show stoppers. Occasionally the wildlife we drove hours to photograph decides to play hide and seek. Or maybe the mirror fell out of our camera halting all photos (true story).
Plenty of things can make photography stressful. What happens when photo shoots go awry? Do we give up and go home? Nope. We turn lemons into lemonade.
Plan B or C or D
When a shoot goes sideways, Dad and I take a step back to assess the situation. How bad is it really? We try not to get stuck in our preconceived shots and panic. We look around for a “Plan B”.
Take my situation at Garrapata Beach in Big Sur, California. I’d planned a sunset shot at the beach but a giant fog bank rolled in five minutes before the big show. I’ve done enough outdoor shots to realize things don’t always work out.
So when I arrived at the beach, I scouted out my sunset spot and then proceeded to explore other photo opportunities. Golden light bathed the entire coast in beautiful color, making it the perfect time to shoot other pictures. I photographed some unusual rocks and then I found one of my favorite photos, Footprints in the Sand.
It pays to ask, “What if this photo doesn’t work out? What’s Plan B or C or D?”
Because I remained flexible and I exercised the “what if” scenario, I walked away with a multitude of photos. I even shot the original sunset photo. It wasn’t the glorious explosion of color I’d imagined, but the cool, sinister look drew me in anyway.
Fog rolls into Monterey Bay often. Because it interfered with my planned shots so frequently I learned to use it in my photography. When I set out to photograph Asilomar State Beach, I envisioned beautiful sunrise colors and light hitting the rocky coast. But a giant fog bank rolled in early that morning. So I combined the fog and a long shutter speed to create Mysterious Sanctuary (the photo at the top of this blog) where the waves and fog blend together giving the photo a soft, enigmatic look. The muted colors add to the mystique.
Just like me Dad experienced weather issues in his quest to shoot a spectacular high country elk hunt for a client. He’d traveled to Northern California’s Mt. Shasta. A blizzard shut down his location scouting. But the next day dawned clear and snow free.
Unfortunately when the crew arrived at the mountain clouds enveloped in the peak completely. Dad’s “Plan B” involved turning around. Directly behind him was the perfect spot for his elk-hunting photograph. Had he remained locked in to his original plan, he would have run way over budget and his client would have lost confidence in him.
Dad said, “You certainly have to be flexible, sometimes almost instantaneously. One minute the area looked great and the next minute a big cloud covered up the mountain. The art director was getting nervous. But I always try to have something, a Plan B. Sometimes that ‘something’ actually might be better than the original, if you’re lucky.”
That mentality helped Dad out years later when he traveled to Keyhole Arch at Pfeiffer Beach in Big Sur. He loved the photos he’d seen of a shaft of light blasting through the arch. But that phenomenon only happens for a limited time in December. Due to other circumstances, he couldn’t be there in December. That didn’t deter Dad though.
He shot the arch and sunset at the same beach, but separately. Then he used some Photoshop magic create a piece of art in his own unique style.
As Ansel Adams said, “You don’t take a photograph, you make it.”
That requires staying flexible and alert for new possibilities on every photo shoot. Thinking outside the box doesn’t hurt either.
Stack the Deck in Your Favor
Consistently making great photos entails being adaptable on location. However, a little preparation goes a long way in a successful photo shoot.
If you’re going to a new-to-you location, do the research. Find out things like the weather patterns for that time of year. Discover what challenges exist there. Find out about photography permits. Unearth sunset/sunrise charts and tide charts. Pinpoint services like gas stations, grocery stores and camera shops. See what other photographers share from shooting at that same location. And get reliable directions so you don’t miss the event because you’re lost. GPS coordinates often save the day.
If you’re photographing animals, learn all you can about that specific species. Dad and I delved deeply into the lives of hummingbirds before planning a shoot at Madera Canyon, Arizona. We learned their food preferences, including specific flowers, migration routes and times, behavior around other hummingbirds and where different types hung out in the United States.
That helped us narrow down a shooting location to Madera Canyon. Then we researched other photographers’ experiences in the canyon. That led us to the Santa Rita Lodge. We knew that the lodge kept year round bird feeders and that thousands of birds migrated through the area each year. We put ourselves in an area that had lot of the animal we hoped to photograph. Dad took one of his all time favorite bird photographs thanks to our diligent research.
When we go on a photo shoot, we know that it might take more than one day to shoot what we really want. Wild animals don’t necessarily cooperate and Mother Nature often throws us curve balls. So when possible we try to build in enough time at a location to work around those things.
We also realize we may need to return another time. We spent a week at Madera Canyon on two different trips. I returned to Asilomar State Beach five times before I shot Mysterious Sanctuary. Persistence, patience, and determination play a huge role in successful photography.
Test that Gear
While research sets us up for victory, our gear can literally make or break our photo shoots. We test and retest our gear before heading out in the field. Obviously that won’t prevent a mirror from falling out of the camera, but it does do two things for us.
First, we can quickly see if everything’s functioning well. As I mentioned in Part 1 of this blog, I recharged my camera batteries before heading out to sea. Normally I test all of the gear before leaving, but I was in a hurry that day. If I’d run a quick camera check, I would have noticed the batteries weren’t holding the charge well. I could have purchased new batteries instead of sweating bullets and doing photo triage. Lesson learned.
Second, we know how to operate our gear without thinking so we don’t miss a shot. That confidence comes from lots of practice when the pressure’s off. When we’re in the middle of a shoot, we don’t have time to think about how to set our camera’s white balance or how to cut the power in our flash. It needs to be automatic so we can focus on composition and capturing the moment.
Take a Chance
Sometimes, no matter how well you plan, things don’t turn out as you expected. Case in point: Dad’s trip to Antelope Canyon in Arizona. He’d researched and decided to pay extra for the “photography tour” because photographers supposedly got more time to shoot in the canyon.
Unfortunately other tours ran through the same space at the same time, so it was a sea of humanity. Dad traveled light with one lens and a monopod. But even with that limited amount of gear he couldn’t maneuver well because the tour guides packed them in like sardines.
My Dad’s a perfectionist. So these conditions caused him to itch like a bad case of poison ivy. He knew he had limited time in the slot canyons. He also knew he wouldn’t be back in the area for a long time. So even though he really needed a tripod for a long exposure, a few hundred less people walking through his picture and something to keep the blowing sand off his camera, he took a chance. He hung back from the tour group, braced himself on a wall and waited for a two second break to snap this photo. He didn’t even have time to bracket before people started flowing through again.
If you know this is your one chance to capture an image but the conditions aren’t exactly right, take a chance. You might just be surprised at the results. Dad was.
So the next time a photo shoot doesn’t work out as planned, take heart. We’ve all been there. Get creative, come up with a Plan B or C or D and take a chance. A positive, can-do attitude goes a long way in photography. These character-building situations create wisdom and confidence in dealing with future “failures”. Plus you might just get some tasty lemonade out of those lemons.