Take Risks!

There is nothing as boring as a safe photo. When the photographer didn’t risk anything. However, I don’t mean physically risk his or her life, like going into a war situation or into a dangerous neighbourhood. Instead, I mean going into a situation where you as a photographer feel vulnerable and exposed. Yes, of course that could be photographing in war, but it could be as mundane as photographing a total stranger. It takes guts to approach someone you don’t know and ask permission to take this person’s photo. For most of us, at least.

It could also mean shooting something you don’t feel comfortable with or in a way you have never done before. A photographer who comes to mind is Adrian Chillbrook. He does some amazing landscape photography. On his blog Cornwall Photographic he regularly posts images he captures, often from his favourite place in the world, Iceland. Some time ago he took a chance a posted for him unusual photos; very minimalistic, clean, almost empty but yet very expressive photos. Adrian was overwhelmed by the positive response. He took a chance and the result was magnificent. If you want to see for yourself, have a look for instance at his post Ice and Snow.

All this said, however, just not to tread all alike, there are all kinds of successful photographic approaches where the photographer is quite comfortable when taking his or her pictures. For example, I don’t think André Kertész, one of the old masters, ever felt uncomfortable when taking a photograph. Someone like Brassaï, however had a bodyguard with him at various times. The thing is, much of the best photography happens when one begins to overcome one’s personal limitations. I see for instance that participants in many of my workshops tend to be very shy, particularly when photographing people they don’t know. They often retreat to photograph in empty, abandoned places where no one will bother them.

To do photography, for the most part, we must manoeuvre our bodies around to be in the right spot to take a picture. As photographers, we must be physically in front of something. Once again, noticing what’s happening during my workshops, participants—and I think many photographers in general—are not getting themselves in front of things that really interest them because they aren’t quite brave enough. I try to remind my students that passion can’t really exist in the absence of risk, or feeling risk. Think of love. Falling in love means taking a risk. You don’t know where it’s going to lead, if it’s going to last, and it might even break you heart. Nevertheless, you—or most of us—are willing to take the risk.

And so it is with photography. You need to take risks. It could indeed be a physical risk, like visiting a dangerous neighbourhood, or a more emotional risk, such as visiting your estranged parents or face something you don’t understand. Or it could be, such as the case with Adrian, that you take a complete different approach to your photography.

Are you taking risks when you photograph? Would you be willing to? To try at least?

Facts about the photo: The photo from the Tierkidi refugee camp near the border of South Sudan was taken with a Canon Eos 5D with a 24-105 mm lens, set at 24 mm. Shutter speed: 1/200 of a second. Aperture: f/18. The photo was processed in Lightroom and Photoshop.

Afterword: I always feel uncomfortable and at unease when photographing people in for them dire situation.

74 thoughts on “Take Risks!

  1. I can see why a photo such as this might cause you discomfort since people usually like to be photographed at their best or at least to commemorate a happy time…hopefully you could use this sad shot to raise awareness of a disaster. When Mozambique was just opening up again after their war I used to carry a Polaroid insta-matic so I could take photos but also leave one behind – that helped lessen my discomfort. I too follow and admire Chillbrook’s photos.

  2. That’s a lesson I will try to remember – to go out of my comfort zone. Many people though are reluctant to have their pictures taken for cultural reasons. A few believe it brings bad luck. Always best to ask, as you say.

    1. I don’t think you always have to ask. But you have to be sensitive to people you want to photograph. For instance in some religions it’s not accepted, and as a photographer you have to respect that. At the same time, even in the most secluded societies is it possible to be invited in to photograph.

  3. I did a short term photography course and during that time, I didn’t think twice before asking people because I thought I had a valid reason. I took pictures of people in trains and on streets. Now, I’m more reluctant to do that because it just feels intrusive.

      1. Absolutely, sometimes it just doesn’t seem right to take a picture. Sometimes, people don’t know the background to a picture and judge you for being insensitive – case in point being Kevin Carter and his Pulitzer Prize winning photo of the Sudanese child being stalked by a vulture.

  4. We all need to take risks when out photographing…..I try to take risks, try thing s that are new to me. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but nothing ventured, nothing gained! I, too, am a great admirer of Adrian’s work…stunning landscapes, a great awareness of light.

  5. Hi Otto, I’m very touched that you should use my experimentation with minimalism to illustrate your point in this excellent article. It really did feel risky, posting that first ’empty’ picture. The reaction that I have had to the photographs has definitely given me the courage to venture out of my comfort zone more often. A valuable lesson learned. As artists and photographers, what we do has to be for ourselves, to follow our own need to create whatever that might be however, as you spoke about recently, it’s easy to settle into a particular way of working when that way of working works and people respond positively to it. To evolve and to grow however, we do have to break out and try new things and as I discovered, the results can be quite unexpected.
    This is a good opportunity for me to thank you once again for the support and encouragement you have shown to me since I started taking photographs again and writing my blog. As I’ve just said, we need to follow our hearts with our creativity but we don’t exist within a vacuum and it really does help when someone whose work you respect tremendously, gives you the positive feedback that you have always given to me. The photograph above illustrates why that respect is so deserved.

    1. You comment, says it all. This is what it is all about, taking chances on one level, but more importantly to grow and find ways to keep being able to create. You have proved it again and again. I think many people have discovered you amazing photos, because you keep expanding. 🙂

  6. Taking risks is important to our growth as photographers. Good post to remember, Otto. And thank you for always posting the settings you use on the photo you show. That is a wonderful photograph that is a story.

  7. The power of your photo makes my pretty little nature pictures feel pretty irrelevant. But I take the point of your message, that we need to face our fears to grow as photographers, and that doesn’t necessarily mean putting ourselves into danger. I was interested in what you said about your workshop participants, about “not getting themselves in front of things that really interest them because they aren’t quite brave enough.” That is true for me, too. An example is a rundown old building, a deserted business, in my town, on the side of a main road, that I’d love to photograph closely. I think of it every time I drive by, but I’ve never stopped because I’m afraid someone might be upset if I did. Or I might get in trouble for trespassing. Or something. You’ve given me something to think about.

    1. First of all, there is no reason to talk about irrelevant photos. You photograph what is relevant to you and no need to compare with others. Or at least we try to photograph what is relevant to us. Which leads to my second point, and what this post is about: Yes, sometimes it takes courage to photograph what you would like to photograph and feels relevant for you. But you have to face the fear. And I am sure the result will surprise yourself. Easy to say, but I am still going to say it: Go for it!

  8. This is a wonderful photograph Otto. I admire your work very much, to tell the world, one must step out of their comfort zone and this photo speaks of a world most of us are not accustomed to. Bravo!

  9. in addition, I want to thank you for directing us to Cornwall Photographic, his photo “Ice and Snow” is breathtaking.

  10. I am so uncomfortable taking photos of people. I suppose that’s why I gravitate to nature shots. I do try to get out of my comfort zone when the time is right though.

    1. I am not saying that everybody needs to take photos of strangers, but if you want to, you should force yourself to try it out. It’s quite amazing how people are willing, if you only get yourself to ask.

  11. Thank you Otto, I can’t agree more with you. I experienced all of that on my recent trip to India, Rajasthan. At many times I would step out of my comfort zone taking the risk of photographing people in their working environment for example, or being devoted in their daily prayers.

  12. I admit that over the years I have had stones thrown at me and nearly been punched by some punks whom I was photographing but for the most part, my friendly and inquisitive nature help me to photograph people, my favorite subjects. I am not so comfortable photographing landscapes. They seem to require perfect lighting and a high degree of technical skill that I lack. Being a city slicker, my inspiration is limited. I am, however, inspired to go out and give it a shot! Excellent post.

    1. We do occasionally run into people that react negatively to being photographed, but for the most part people are smiling and welcoming. Landscape photo don’t necessarily require technical skills, but light is important. If you’d like to try, just do it. 🙂

  13. A week ago, I visited a friend in the Texas Hill Country. I didn’t know if the flooding had subsided, but I decided to take my normal route back home.

    On a secondary road, I found a sign pointing to a cemetery. It took a little gravel and dirt to find it, but I stopped, took a few photos, and then saw quite a sight: a group of very unusual cattle in the field next to the cemetery road. In Texas, it’s not always the best practice to photograph fancy cattle — you could be mistaken for a rustler scoping out the herd! — so I decided to do something I generally wouldn’t do: go up to the house, and ask permission.

    By the time it was over, I’d met three lovely children and their grandmother, learned that the cemetery was a historical black cemetery, that the concrete slab in their yard had been the black school, and that their house used to be the school’s gym. And, with a bucket of range cubes in hand, the grandmother and the kids took me out to the gate, called the cattle, and gave me the opportunity for some fun photos. Technically, the photos could be improved, but they certainly do prove your point about the value of risk-taking!

    1. Is there a better example than this, that taking a risk can open up so many doors and lead to profound experiences!? Fantastic. Thanks for sharing your experience, Linda.

  14. I must admit, taking photos of people is scaring and something I normally will not do. The few times I have tried I have visited places where people are more open to being photographed, like activity parks. This makes it easier for me to step outside the comfort zone. If you get a really good shot your subject might even want to buy the picture.
    I have followed Chillbrook for some time and have always loved how he catches the light in his pictures. In the Ice and snow series I think he has brought his good technique and eye for light with him to a different setting benefiting from earlier experience making the transition a lot easier.
    My point is, when ready move forward, challenge yourself but don’t step so far away that you loose your earlier experience and have to start all over again. Bring your best sides with you and become better.

    1. I think you have a good point. In order to challenge yourself, you don’t need to start skydiving, but maybe rather go for a tandem jump. Then, on the other hand, people are of course different; what works for one person might be quite different for another. 🙂

  15. Just the other day, I got up close to photograph a lone police officer struggling to arrest a young man who apparently suffers from schizophrenia until other officers eventually came to his aid. How’s that for a risk?

    I haven’t done anything with the pictures as yet because I’m taking my time mulling over the ethics of it all.

  16. This is a very moving photo indeed, Otto, and getting it, must have taken quite some courage on your part. I always catch my breath when opening Adrian’s posts. His images are so stunning, especially those from Iceland.

  17. It is difficult to ask a stranger if you can take their photograph. I typically ask men who I come across fishing a lot and they generally are pretty agreeable. Usually it is women with children who are apprehensive and that is certainly understandable.

    I love this photo. Something about his right foot and how it seems to be jutting towards the camera. I think that is very cool!

    1. I find most people to be agreeable, but every so often you run into those who don’t want to have their photos taken. And I don’t have a problem with that either. Thank you for the feedback, Elizabeth.

  18. That’s a very telling image, that could not have been obtained without courage, for sure, Otto. And as always, you give us a good point to think over.
    I’m heading over to the linked site now…

  19. deciding to take bad photos was a risk, but then it became ‘normal’ for me… now i’m fighting with ‘blur’… so i do know what you mean… but i don’t think MY risks make for great photos haha

      1. awwww Otto, really? give me your address, i’m coming over with a bottle of brandy and we shall talk about it… gadz i’m in a slump

  20. Nice post. It’s inspiring. After all all marvelous photographs don’t happen in comfort of a home. Keep posting!!

  21. I think a ‘close-up’ shot can give you much, much more than just a close-up shot. It gives you the opportunity to ‘connect’ with another individual, to open up to another mind. It can give you a new perspective, a new way of looking at another life. You may not get that perfect shot, but you may go back with a rather enriching experience. Personally, these are reasons enough for me to take that risk 🙂

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