Sunday, October 29, 2017

Have You Ever Pushed The Safety Envelope To Get A Good Shot?

I think we can agree that with the exception of a photojournalist working in a war zone, most people would not consider photography to be inherently dangerous. That is unless we decide to push the limits ourselves by taking some risks. Over the last several months I have seen some photos that clearly involved people putting themselves at some kind of personal risk to get the photo they wanted. Frankly, this is something I didn’t think about all that much. As I have shared with you all before, I enjoy sports action photography and cityscapes the most. When I am taking photos at sporting events, it’s pretty easy to position myself so I don’t get run over by basketball or football players. And when taking pictures around the city, the only thing I need to worry about is not crossing against the light and getting hit by oncoming traffic.
Entrance to the Upper Antelope Canyon near Page, AZ

However, I have recently decided to spend more time taking pictures of the Arizona landscape. Most people think of this part of the country as desert. That is true to some extent, but northern Arizona is all mountains, gorges and canyons. In fact, Flagstaff, AZ sits at a higher elevation than Denver, CO (my hometown). Last spring, one of my very good friends came to Phoenix for a wedding, and we decided to take a day trip to Antelope Canyon, which is near the town of Page, AZ.  I had seen some pretty amazing shots of the canyon, so I thought it would be a great opportunity to get some good practice at landscape photography. There was only one problem. Antelope Canyon is a very popular tourist stop and we were going at time when things were just starting to get busy. We paid for a standard tour. There were also guided tours that were especially set up for photographers, but they cost quite a bit more. It turns out that it wasn’t that great an experience. It was very clear that tourism drove the local economy. And these tours ran like clockwork. The guides didn’t really allow time to take any quality photos. And the interesting thing was that the tour guide companies were conducting the photography tours at the exact same time. So they weren’t really getting a whole lot of opportunities either because that part of the canyon was packed with tourists. If I had paid for that tour, I would have felt like I’d wasted my money. I took several dozen photos, but even without looking at them, I had a sense that I didn’t get anything all that memorable. I was beginning to think that aside from having the opportunity to catch up with my friend, the trip had come up short of my expectations.

We decided to drive over to Horseshoe Bend, which was only about 15 minutes away. This is another very popular spot where the Colorado River make sharp 180 turn through Glen Canyon, which is about 140 miles from the southern rim of the Grand Canyon. I believed that I could still salvage the photography part of the trip if I could get a good shot here. It was about a 20 minute walk down to the edge of the canyon from where we parked. The first thing I noticed as we approached was that there were no guard rails to keep people back from the edge. I had a couple lenses to choose from including an 18-55mm and an 18-105mm. So the question became just how close I was willing to stand to try and get a shot of the entire Horseshoe.  I wouldn’t say that I have a fear of heights; just a healthy respect for high altitudes. I tried taking some shots standing about 10-15 feet away, but even at the widest angle I wasn’t coming close to getting everything I wanted. And the higher rocks were too far back to get the bottom of the Horseshoe. So my only option was to try and get a little closer. I wasn’t going to be one of those daring people who dangled their feet over the ledge to get the shot. The drop is over 1,000 feet to the bottom of the canyon, and I’ve seen my share of photos on the internet taken moments before someone took a wrong step and fell. So I decided to sit down and move within about three feet of the ledge. That way I would still have a nice solid base. Then I just held my camera over my head and took a series of shots hoping I could capture one that worth keeping. I didn’t have the right lens to get the entire horseshoe bend and the talk rock on the opposite side of the river. But I was able to get one that provided some great perspective on the sheer enormity of this part of Glen Canyon. If you look really close, you can see a boat on the river. At over 1,000 feet away, it appears to be a small white dot.
The Horseshoe Bend in Glen Canyon. This is as close as I wanted to get without risking life and limb. From where I
am sitting, it is over 1,000 down to the water. I couldn't quite get the extreme lower and right edges, but it's the
best I could do under the circumstances. See the boat?
So that’s my story on how much I was willing to push the safety envelope to get the shot I wanted. The answer is not terribly far. I just didn’t feel that comfortable standing that close to the ledge with other people standing around. All it would have taken was for someone to stumble and bump into me. And then who knows what would have happened. That’s why sitting on the ground seemed to be the safest play. I must have taken about 30-40 shots, but I found one worth keeping. At first I was disappointed that I didn’t get the entire lower edge of the bend, but from where I was sitting, that was as good as it was going to get. I’ve also talked to other photographers who have taken shots from that same location, and they said it is extremely challenging to get the entire bend and the rocks on the west side without being on some kind of elevated platform. Given the tools that I had to work with, I was happy with the result and felt like that made the trip worthwhile. Do you all have any examples where you pushed the limits even a little bit? I would be interested in hearing about them. Feel free to share them in the comments section. Good luck getting that great shot, but most importantly, stay safe! Until next time . . .


  1. The risk is somewhat relative I would have no problem standing on the edge and looking over. I will sometimes climb down off the trail. I will often not take the trail. my scariest one was at in California Jashawa tree I think were I had gotten down for the shot but couldn't get back up the same way so I had to walk a small ledge and hug a rock that was hanging over the ledge. I still have the lens filter marks that rubbed through the UV filters and the brass showing on the filters. I would have only fallen three or four feet into the lake but if rocks just under the water would have been bad. then there was also I was alone before cell phones so could have been out there a long time. The only thing I was worried about was damiging my Mamiya 6MF.

  2. Thanks for sharing your comment. I can see where that would have been a problem; especially in the days before cell phones. Stay safe!