Top Ten Mistakes

January 31, 2021

There is no simple rule to photography in the broad sense of the art, or the business. There are techniques, specifications, rules of composition, elements of design, digital flow practices, and all manners of guidance to discrete aspects of photography. As such, there are some lessons that can only be learned by mistake. And sometimes, those lessons really did not need to be taught, you just were not paying attention.

Turnagain Gold

The sun sets behind the Kenai Mountains as low tide exposes patterns in the mudflats along the Turnagain Arm south of Anchorage.

1. Backing up files

This is one of those things that every photographer really knows they should do, but sometimes does not. And there are two times you should be backing up the files – in the field and at the office. It is easy now to back up in the field, especially with DSLR cameras that have two card slots. One card can be the primary and the second card can capture copies, just in case something happens to one card before you can download. But that was not always the case. Prior to that option being available in digital cameras, I was hired to photograph a wedding vow renewal ceremony and reception. Before I could download, the card became corrupted. Efforts to recover the images using various recovery software were not successful, and all the images were lost.

The other part is also backing up your images at the home or office, wherever you keep your files. I was constantly upgrading external hard drives, and felt that by doing so I could keep ahead of problems with failing hardware of the drives. But, before I began the practice of fully backing up everything (which I do now), I had two external hard drives fail simultaneously. One held original RAW files and the other processed files. All of it was essentially archival, as the files were from various work for clients over the years – weddings, portraits, commercial, and sports. I was no longer doing any of those when the hard drives failed, but I wanted the images restored just in case. The final bill just to recover the hard drive with the RAW files (I chose not to pay for recovery of the processed files) was a little over $3,000. But, it was worth it. A wedding client from ten years ago recently approached to get another copy of their photos. It was approaching their ten-year anniversary, and the husband had recently passed away.

Now I back up in both instances. I use my dual card slots in the field, and I purchased two 16 terabyte external hard drives – one for the original, RAW files and the other to back up everything. Why external hard drives? Yes, they are slower than with an internal drive, but, in the case of emergency, they can be easily grabbed during an evacuation. Of course, those will only last for so long and I will have to get two new drives eventually.

2. Bring that second camera

Yes, this really is one of those things that really should go without saying, but sometimes it still happens. Two notable times in my career, I managed to forget a camera. The first time was for a trip to the Flathead Valley of Montana, to meet up with a friend, Nick Fucci, who had moved to Montana and another friend, Andrew Von Bank, who I knew from Minnesota. In preparation for the trip, I took my Nikon D200 to the local repair shop to have the sensor cleaned. As I was packing up my camera bag in the evening to get ready for my red-eye flight out of Anchorage, I realized as I was packing in my Nikon F100 (35mm) and my Hasselblad 503CX that I had forgotten to pick up my D200 from the shop before they closed. I asked my wife, Michelle, to pick it up for me the next day and ship it down to me. She still gives me a hard time about that today, some ten years later.

The other time was more recent, when she and I want to Hawaii to visit friends CJ Kale and Nick Selway of Lava Light Galleries on the big island. I took two cameras with me, but only one digital. Still shooting film occasionally, I took my Hasselblad again, and my Nikon D800E. On the first evening shooting on the island, we were capturing surf at sunset. With my tripod set up, I stepped away briefly to grab my set of Lee graduated neutral density filters. Just then, surf came in and undercut the sand beneath my tripod. It toppled over, with the camera hitting the wet sand on its back. I picked it up and quickly determined that the LCD would no longer function, and I could not switch exposure mode. Fortunately, the camera still worked, I just had to take photos using old-school, film camera techniques. But my plans for doing night photography out near the volcano were shot if I could not switch to manual mode and have access to my LCD. So, I contacted our house sitter and had him ship out my Nikon D700.

So, yes, I now absolutely always head out with two cameras if it is for travel, but not at home. I figure I can run home and get a second camera if I really need to.

3. Field testing the gear

I fortunately have never had anything go spectacularly wrong with gear not working in the field, but, trying new gear for the first time in the field has caused its times of frustration. This is especially exacerbated when you are in a hurry (see #5 below). And it is not always just an issue when trying new gear for the first time; it can also sometimes be a problem with old gear. On more than one occasion I have gone out into the field with a shutter cable release that simply didn’t work. A pin or the cable itself got pinched in just the right way and it no longer worked. I had to improvise by using the self-timer on the camera for these occasions.

I recently purchased a Kessler-Crane Stealth Slider with Second Shooter control system for capturing time lapse. Before I ever used it out in the field, I tested it in our living room, which was designed to show the sequence of how sun movement throughout the day affected light in the living room. Not only did it accomplish that goal, it also caught our cats in some rather curious activity. Having made those tests, I was able to make my first uses of the gear in the field without incident or frustration. However, as I continued to use the gear in cold temperatures, I learned that the cables turn rock hard and are challenging to disconnect. So, it would have been helpful to test the gear outside in colder temperatures to learn of that complication.

4. Showing up at the wrong time of the year

In nature photography, some things are timed to happen in a limited window, and that window is not always the same. Whether the peak of fall colors or the bloom of a particular flower, nature happens on its schedule, and you have to know that schedule in order to capture the desired images. During our first trip to Iceland, we visited about a month past the normal wildflower peak period. Fortunately, it was a colder than usual summer (we were told the coldest in 23 years), so we actually hit the peak. There have been times when I have gone to Denali in the autumn and been too late for peak colors, simply because it changes slightly from year to year. And there is no website that provides regular updates on fall colors for Alaska, like there is for the Lower 48. But very rarely are there resources available to know the exact time to show up, so the best you can do is determine the most likely time that is the best time. Extensive Internet research and trip planning is the best way to figure out when to go, if you do not know anyone local.

The only events that occur regularly at a predictable time are those that are based on the position of the sun, not on the weather or the climate. The “fire falls” event at Horsetail Falls of Yosemite is a perfect example. But, given that photographing that event has become quite the combat experience, I have no desire to attempt it.

5. Showing up without knowing that thing was going on

So, related to the previous topic, I have made a trip to a location having done my research, checking conditions, and confirmation hours of operation … for the things that I knew about. But, sometimes opportunities may be present that are not on your radar, and you may not know about them until it is too late.

Case in point, I was in western South Dakota years ago on a family trip. But, as my travel always goes, no trip is made without camera gear and taking advantage of photo opportunities. I grew up in the region and had served as the artist-in-residence for Badlands National Park, so I was familiar with the area. But, what I did not know, what I did not even think of checking, was that twice a year the Crazy Horse Memorial is opened up to allow close viewing of the sculpture. Called the Volksmarch, it allows visitors to hike (6.2 miles round trip) up to the face of Crazy Horse instead of viewing the sculpture from a distance. And, of course, one of the two times they do this a year was during our visit in early June. We only heard about it toward the end of the day from other guests at the bed and breakfast where we were staying.

For future visits to planned destinations, I will search a little more broadly, visit the local chambers of commerce websites, and search other sources of information to see what sort of interesting photo opportunities may be available.

6. Assuming you can shoot it later

Somewhat related to the two previous topics, do not ever assume that you can shoot the subject at a later time. The light may change, the weather will be different, or the subject simply may not be there again.

A perfect example of this is the occasional incidents of hoar frost exploding throughout Anchorage in winter. Once in a while, we get these long periods of persistent ice fog, typically in January, which coats all of the trees in the thick, bright white texture of hoar frost. It is spectacularly gorgeous and makes for a great photo opportunity. Almost every time, I come up with an excuse as to why I don’t have time to go around town and shoot it, and tell myself I can catch it the next day or in a few days. As is often the case, the phenomenon ends before I take advantage of it. During the hoar frost event this last winter, I did not spend as much time as I would like photographing it, but I did get out and spend some time with it.

7. Not giving myself enough time

You will never get to a location as fast as you think you will, even if it is an area with which you are familiar. I know this. I have experienced it. Yet, time and time again, I have found myself rushing to get to a location to capture the light at wanted at the scene I wanted. When it comes to sunsets in Alaska, this is not a big problem, as the colors of sunset and beyond can last for well over an hour. But, farther south, such as in Hawaii, if you blink, you miss it. When you rush to get to a location, you don’t have as much time to set up your gear, think about composition, and simply enjoy the act of creating the image. But I have done it time and again, and Michelle often reminds me of it.

8. Not having my camera on me

Just because you are out in the wilderness with your camera does not mean you always have your camera on your person. There are two times in my career where I did not have my camera in hand, and deeply regretted it from a photographic standpoint. The first was when I worked as a guide for a camp in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota. The camp was located on two islands connected by a suspension bridge. Even though my primary job was as a guide, I still had my camera gear at camp. One day, I was having a chat with the camp director in the middle of the bridge when a group of four pine marten slowly made the way across the bridge, with us seated on it. They want in front, behind and over us (one crawled over the lower part of my leg). My camera was in my cabin.

The second time came when I was the artist-in-residence in Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve. I was halfway through a two-week trip, on a float down the Alatna River. We were on a layover day, camping on a gravel bar, when I was pumping water in a tributary stream. I looked up to my left, and there was a lone wolf standing there, maybe fifteen feet away, watching me. My camera was about 100 feet away in our designated kitchen area. So, still crouched in my pumping position, I started talking to the wolf, telling him he was beautiful and that it was really cool for him to drop by for a visit. I slowly got up, backing off with the hopes of surreptitiously making my way to the camera so I could take a photo. I turned around briefly to see how close I was to the kitchen and turned back around to find him gone.

In both cases, I was extremely disappointed to not have my camera on me. But, over the years, I have wondered how those experiences would have gone had I been holding a camera. Would that act of pointing and composing a few photos changed the interaction? I will never know.

9. Letting weather stop me

As a general rule, I do not let a weather forecast deter my plans. Weather can change in a few days, especially if you live near mountains and glaciers where weather can change regularly. But there have been times when the weather outside has demoralized me, taken away my drive to head out and photograph at that moment. And I should not have let it do it.

A recent case in point involves a trip to Sweden. Michelle and I booked a five-day backcountry dog mushing trip in the Lapland region of Sweden (read An Authentic Dog Mushing Experience), and I chose this time because of potential for aurora borealis. The depiction of the region as being mixed with taiga forest and mountainous terrain, along with being in the backcountry, filled my head with visions of the sort of photos I could capture.

Upon arrival, we learned that we were at the beginning of snowstorm making its way through the area and that there would likely not be any clear skies during our trip. At first, I remained hopeful, as forecasts are not always right. But as time progressed, I became increasingly frustrated creatively, and that frustration led to inaction. I was enjoying the mushing part of it, but could not allow myself to get into a place where I could create images. It was not until our last evening and last full day on the trail where I could snap out of it and start capturing images. Rather than fulfilling the images I had imagined, I started thinking of how I could monopolize on the heavy snow storm (about a half meter in two days). Thick blankets of snow now covered the spruce in the forest, and even with the gray skies created cool monochromatic compositions. During our last night, the howling winds and blowing snow inspired me to go out and photograph our guide as she did her last check of the night of our dog teams – lit only by a head lamp. I envisioned what the blowing snow could do in a slower shutter speed under her headlamp.

I don’t really know if I missed any photo opportunities as a result of the funk in those first couple of days, but it took away from the experience. The lesson – don’t let your expectations set the outcomes. Michio Hoshinospent months or even years pursuing photo subjects that he did not capture because of weather or circumstance. But I am sure that did not take away from his experience. We could all follow that example.

10. Not having a system for deadlines

Whether you are developing a career as a photographer, or an established photographer who is looking for marketing his brand, entering in photo competitions can be very important. But there can be so many of them in any given year, whether local, statewide, regional or national. On more than one occasion I have found a competition I was interested n, and even thought about what images I would submit. But, I have also lost track of the submission deadlines and lost out on the opportunity.

Whatever system works for you, come up with a system for managing those deadlines. For me, my wife Michelle keeps track and created a spreadsheet for identifying and tracking deadlines. She searches for opportunities and brings them to my attention. If I am interested, I ask her to put them in her tracking system.

Now, what competitions are worthwhile will be a subject for another blog post.

Posted in Instruction.