Lesson 4: No Risk, No Reward
Alright, let’s see here. I’m in a location I’ve photographed a dozen times before, and I’ve got the same composition I’ve shot a dozen times before, and I’m here at the prescribed time for good light, now I just have to sit back and take my nice, boring shot. This is a series of my 7 favorite life lessons I’ve learned by being a photographer. Now I want to talk about how Business as Usual is Boring.
I am anti-icon. The Tunnel Views, the Golden Gate Bridges, the Torres del Paines, the Antelope Canyons. Each of these places is so spectacular and famous within the photography community that they have become cliches. They are beautiful but boring, and you can find better things to take pictures of.
Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t ever shoot these places. In fact, there are great reasons to shoot the icons. If you’re just starting out they can be a great place to test and improve your photography skills. By shooting an icon you have taken one big variable out of the equation: the location. You know it’s going to be jaw-dropping.
And heck, these places have become icons for a reason: they’re insanely beautiful. It’s hard to go to places of such grandeur and to not need to take a photo. So yeah, there are some great reasons to shoot the icons.
But for purely personal and artistic reasons, ditch ’em! Leave the parking lots, pull-outs, and crowds behind. Get off the beaten path and go exploring. The uncertainty can be daunting when you don’t know what you’re going to find, or if you’re potentially going to miss out on a great shot somewhere else because you accidentally ended up splashing through a ravine instead of shooting at Glacier Point.
And face it, a lot of times that’s exactly what happens: you try to discover some new vantage point at Horseshoe Bend and get totally skunked, while your friends at the classic view are happily capturing some breathtaking sunset.
Yeah it sucks, but the flip side is so incredibly rewarding that in my opinion you can’t afford to not take the risk. Look at Galen Rowell, a giant of a photographer, and my #1 influence. That guy practically lived off the beaten path, and by doing so he popularized so many of the icons we shoot today: Horsetail Falls, Mobius Arch, Cuernos del Paine, and more.
As a more personal example, take a visit to Yosemite I made a few years back. That day the sky was full of dramatic clouds and as always when that’s the case, the temptation was to go to a safe spot, like Valley View or Tunnel View. But instead I decided to take a chance and see if I could find something unusual
As I hiked up the endless, steep switchbacks along the Upper Yosemite Falls trail the storm clouds began to break up, and warm light was streaking through the Valley. By the time I got to Columbia Rock the texture and light saturating Yosemite were spectacular, and I was able to take a great photo of Columbia Rock. But as happy as I was to see that image pop up on the back of my camera it wasn’t quite what I’d hoped to find. So I continued up the path and came to a spot where it was possible to scramble up the cliffs along the north side of the trail.
That put me in an unusual vantage point and I was able to come home with an incredibly unique shot of Yosemite Valley which has since become one of my best-selling and best-known photos.
So what’s the lesson here with this No Risk No Reward mantra? Simple: get out of your comfort zone! I’m not saying you have to scale cliffs or do something dangerous or unsafe. Just push your boundaries a little bit. Don’t be afraid to fail or make mistakes or miss out on opportunities by trying something unknown.
You may fail more than you succeed but when you do succeed it will be surprising and novel and amazing. And personally, I think that new experiences are the foundation to having an interesting life. So try something new, try something unknown, and make your time on this planet as interesting and rewarding as possible. And for you photographers: this is a guaranteed recipe to create images that are yours and yours alone. And who among us doesn’t want that?
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