In this article, I'm going to talk about something not often discussed in photography. That is the fact that in order to get the best photos, you often need to accept the fact that you may also be uncomfortable in some way. That means getting out of your comfort zone!
Darlene and I were somewhere in Morocco, chatting about photography and stuff, taking advantage of the time spent on the bus during our photo tour. People always ask us, “How did you take this image?”.
That day, I said something that always resonates with me, it went something like this:
“You know what guys, I consider some of my best photos to have been shot when I was the least comfortable.”
Darlene loved it; she said, “Dan, what did you say? Say it again!” Since then, the topic has always found its way back into our discussions, so I decided to write something about it.
What does being uncomfortable have to do with making good photos?
My statement means that generally speaking, making a great photo sometimes requires you to make some sacrifices and get uncomfortable.
It involves going beyond the extra mile in different ways. Like pre-dawn wake-up calls or skipping dinner to chase the best light or hiking to a remote location. It may also require staying up all night to spot the Milky Way or enduring extreme weather conditions.
Lately, most of my work involves travel, therefore being in a remote location already represents an effort. Hence, if I need to choose between dinner and a blue hour photo shoot opportunity, I'll skip the meal in a heartbeat.
I'd rather be out making photographs than eating in a restaurant. I can always eat later or earlier when the light is not at its greatest.
When on tour, more often than not, you'll always find me wandering beyond the limits of the program, either early before breakfast or late at night. I always encourage our guests to go out with me, and the ones who do, end up better understanding what I mean and coming back with really different images.
It's simple really
In some ways, photography is not that complex. If you're willing to put the time and extra effort into getting yourself into special situations, you can always find the opportunity for great images.
Even if you're not very comfortable, if you put this into practice, you'll quickly find out that the end usually justifies the means.
It’s worth clarifying that going the extra mile does not imply putting yourself in dangerous situations. I would never consider the idea of entering a dangerous neighborhood or trying to hike a place not suited for me. The list of such dangerous action goes on, but you get the point right?
After learning the basics rules of photography and how to use the camera, finding good shooting spots and the perfect time of day and situations – the most important thing you can do is to differentiate yourself and get amazing results.
So like I previously said, I believe that most of my best, most well-rounded pictures happened when my level of comfort wasn't the best. Here are five such images and the stories behind them. See if you agree with me that my sacrifices were worth it in the end.
The stories behind 5 images when I was most uncomfortable
1) Discomforts: Snow and cold weather
Iceland is a magnificent place for landscapes. I know, it has been overcrowded lately. Still, there is no question that the land of fire and ice is a very compelling place.
In order to take the photo above, we (myself and my friend Efisio from Australia) had to endure terrible weather and mere minutes before the image was taken, we were driving through heavy snow. But we ventured to the location with the knowledge that the weather in Iceland can change in a matter of minutes.
We got to the site and waited in the car. Less than an hour later, the storm ceased, and the sky started to open up.
A few meters away from the parking lot, I found this composition that I liked. Sometimes bad weather makes good photos, and I wouldn't have been able to take that photo if I had stayed back in the hotel room because of the weather.
2) Discomforts: Cold and late at night, Peru
Taquile is one of the Islands nestled around Lake Titicaca in Peru. Located 45 kilometers outside Puno, it is only accessible by boat. The population is about 2,200, and due to the location and infrastructure, most visitors go there just for the day.
The only rooms available to stay overnight are basic homestays, and in most cases, power is minimal too. The high elevation – over 13,000 thousand feet – makes it hard for the average person, and because of the altitude, the temperature also drops significantly at night.
But I had a photo in mind for my second time there. So I went for it.
My first time visiting, I was like almost everybody else, just a quick stop, lunch and the trip back to Puno. But at the time, I realized the potential of the place if I could arrange a homestay.
About a year later I was back. I wanted to stay overnight and wait for the crowds to leave. I wanted to experience more of the locals without the tourists and take advantage of being there late at night and early in the morning.
Therefore, I exchanged the comfort of a nice hotel in Puno and was able to get the photo you see above, made in the middle of the night, under freezing conditions.
3) Discomforts: Late at night and mosquitos, Miami
This photo is the opposite of the one above. I got it on a sweltering and humid night not far from where I live.
The thing is, in the Northern hemisphere, the core of the Milky Way is visible between March and October. In Miami, this means typical tropical summer temperatures.
But a little bit of sweat is nothing compared to the size and quantity of hungry mosquitoes you get around the water in the middle of the Everglades. I knew I was going to suffer, but I had no clue that even wearing long sleeves wouldn't be of much help.
Repellent did a bit of the trick, as long as it was re-applied every 20 minutes or so. I made it to the location with a local photography group at the last opportunity of the season to photograph the Milky Way.
We drove about 70 miles west of Miami into the Everglades National Park and stood there shooting for a couple of hours. It was a clear night, and the image shows some light pollution from the city, but that's the best night sky we can get around here.
4) Discomforts: Early morning and an uphill hike, Myanmar
In the past couple of years, I've been drawn more and more to documenting and photographing people of disappearing cultures. I savor the interaction with locals of less visited places, where tourism isn't yet widespread.
In these remote regions, customs and traditions remain mostly untouched. I know that's something that is rapidly changing, so whenever I can, I like to travel deeper, connect with the locals, understand, and document these traditions before they vanish.
For the photo above, during my second visit to Myanmar, I went to the small town of Kyaing Tong in the Shan State. This area recently opened up to foreigners. But the primary interest around here was to visit the mountain hamlets around this town. There are a number of villages and minority tribes scattered around the mountains of this region.
The photo was taken in the kitchen of a local Akha woman at the Wan Pin Village. To get here, we needed to drive from the town very early in the morning and then hike a bit uphill to reach the village.
Communication up there isn't easy so the guide became the interpreter and helped me to communicate with the people.
After his explanation and introductions, the woman invited us into her kitchen where I was able to photograph her. The sunrays were filtering through the window, and I used a flash to open up the shadows and help with the exposure.
5) Discomforts: Early morning and tough hike, India
I always try to find a new angle, or a different perspective when photographing architecture or monuments.
This is the Jaswant Thada Memorial in Jodphur. The cenotaph dates from 1899 and serves as the cremation ground for the royal family of Marwar. It features intricate marble carvings and is simply beautiful. But beyond the closeup photos, I wanted to see a different perspective.
When I went there for the first time, I noticed a natural reserve around the grounds of the monuments, and I saw a poster offering walks over there. After some investigation, I found out that these walks are designed to see and understand the environment of the area.
I told the park ranger giving me the information that I was most interested in photography and asked if there was any way to go for that as well. He told me that not only was that possible but that we would find very nice views of the Jaswant Thada and the Megarahnt Fort if we walked and hiked a bit further down.
Consequently, we arranged to meet up the following morning. By doing this, not only did we gain access to the park while it was closed to regular visitors but we also got a unique view of the monument and fort behind. Yes, it involved a very early wake-up call and a good hike, but the resulting image is very compelling to me.
Time to get uncomfortable!
I have many more stories like these, and I plan to keep them growing. The ones listed above are just some of the photos and stories to help me illustrate the point of sometimes it's necessary to get a little bit uncomfortable if you want the best photos.
So what's your favorite photo? Do you have a similar story or any photo that you think you went above and beyond to make it happen? Please share your story and image in the comments below, I'd love to hear about it.