Light & Shadow

Shooting in Precarious Situations

Shooting in Precarious Situations – and a few tips for surviving them

Dan Ballard

Over the past 10 years and 60 something countries visited, I’ve found myself in more tricky situations than I care to admit. From being held at gunpoint in Guatemala, to the riot I nearly caused in Syria, to falling through a frozen river in Colorado, simply trying to get a great photograph has not always been easy.

It seems like so many times the ideal place to take a photograph is either on the slide of a cliff, in the middle of a fast-moving river, on half frozen ice, or at 17,000ft in the middle of nowhere in the Himalayas.

Learning how to be smart, prepared, and aware in these situations can make all the difference between getting out safely, or getting yourself in trouble. Here are some tips to keep in mind when shooting in interesting and precarious situations.

I spent two months hitchhiking around India and taking photographs. Many of the villages I ended up in never see tourists and were thrilled I was there. I also found myself in some tough situations in the bigger cities while wandering the back allies and rougher areas.

Be prepared with a fully stocked camera bag, always!

While being prepared is probably the most important consideration for coming home safely from a major adventure, major adventures are rarely the times when we get into trouble. This is precisely because we are prepared. Most people that get lost or that find themselves in bad situations weren’t planning on an adventure and didn’t expect to be outdoors or in a tough spot at all. Most of the time they just went for a short walk, or found themselves a long way from the car as it was getting late or as the weather changed and then got turned around or confused.

As photographers we are even more at risk as we always find ourselves further from the car than we intended while looking for images, and often at sunset when the walk back to the car is in the dark.

Just having some basic things in your bag can make this situation no big deal and even the small things, like having a couple extra lights, can be lifesaving. You should never shoot without your bag and your bag should always have some basics no matter what.

Shooting this awesome waterfall in Iceland is an amazing experience. It is also a little scary as the ground is steep, slick, and leads to a very long fall if you went over the edge.

Here is a list of non-photo equipment that stays in my bag at all times:

Camping at over 16,000ft in my extremely small
one-man tent was interesting at times in the Himalayas.

  • I carry two high quality headlamps plus two very small keychain type lights for emergencies and extra batteries for the headlamps.
  • Lightweight compressible rain jacket. These are expensive, but worth every penny. They compress to very small size and don’t take up much room.  Not only for rain, but they will keep you so much warmer than nothing, if needed.
  • Water bottle. Of course, having some extra water with you at all times is key when outdoors.
  • Extra food. I always make sure I have two or three granola bars just in case.
  • Travel umbrella. This is more for shooting than safety, as it is the best way I have found for shooting in the rain and keeping drops off the lens, but as it will help keep you dry and therefore warmer it has a safety element as well.
  • Camp towel. Again, this is not so much for safety, but it is one of the most used things in my bag. Every time I take my shoes off to cross a stream having a towel to dry off with before I put my socks back on is truly awesome!
  • Garmin inReach. Discussed more below. Maybe the most important thing to have in your bag after water and light.

If you are in a car make sure it is completely stocked with food, water, extra warm clothes, basic tools, a first aid kit, a good real spare tire, and maps.

I am currently on a multiyear trip with my girlfriend. Our truck is set up to spend weeks in the wild at a time. We are constantly on back roads for hours and hours from even a small town. We must be able to handle any situation that comes along ourselves. This spot on the north side of Lake Powell is about 6 hours from the highway. Much of that is on a very challenging “road” that takes skill and a very capable 4-wheel Drive to pass.

Be aware of your surroundings

This is such an important topic for both travel and outdoor photography.  Simply being aware of your surroundings and making that a big part of your thoughts can help you in so many ways. The world we now live in makes it very easy to ­zone out, look at your phone, and focus on your camera and nothing else.

I am astounded at times when I give private workshops. Sometimes my clients are completely unaware of the world around them because they are so focused on shooting. In group workshops, I watch everyone like a hawk to make sure people stay safe in nature.

If you are a travel or outdoor photographer, you must start paying attention! This is such a common problem and can get you killed or in serious trouble. Make sure you are always aware of what is around you.

In the case of nature, that means looking behind you periodically as you walk so you have landmarks to find the way back. Being aware of how dangerous the trail is and what the consequences will be if you slip and fall. Checking weather conditions and avalanche conditions in the winter and being aware of the weather in the field. Making sure at least someone knows where you are going and when you should be back and having a plan if things go bad.

Shooting in old Mexico was a blast! I was able to find some great images that I have never seen
photographed before. I drove down from the US and had to be super aware and cautious, but I didn’t have any trouble.

In the case of travel, always be aware of the area you are in and how you present yourself. You can normally get a feel for your safety based on the subtle signs of the people in the area.  Are they curious or slightly hostile?  Are they giving you slight warnings or looks?

Keep in mind you are most likely carrying a lot of expensive camera gear.  Try not to show it off and make it look as inconspicuous as possible.  Don’t dress like a tourist, keep your gear in a small black bag that could be anything (that stays on your front or side) and only grab the camera when you want an image. I always put black gorilla tape on any logos on my bag and gear. It makes it look old and less expensive.

Make sure you have a plan if you are in a tough area and will be returning in the dark. If you do find yourself in a bad area, walk with confidence and pretend you know exactly where you are going. Walking with confidence is one of the most important factors in avoiding being robbed.

Ethiopia is one of my favorite countries. There are travel warnings right now, but we found it to feel very safe and didn’t have any issues. Still, it is the type of place you really need be smart about traveling in. The top image was taken in a small village in the middle of nowhere with no roads going to it. Most of the younger people in the village had never seen a foreigner before. They were as nice as anyone I have ever met and so happy for me to go into their homes for a photo. The lower image is a very active volcano in the Danakil Depression. There was nothing safe or smart about standing where I was to take this image!

Avoid the tourist areas when traveling

While I am reluctant to mention this one, and I caution you to use at your own risk, I have found that I normally feel much safer when I am traveling in areas where there are few other tourists. I mainly land myself in areas that a tourist would have zero desire to go (because it is much easier to take photographs when people are actually happy to see you), and I always find amazing people that are super friendly and I feel completely safe. If there are no tourists, there is probably no one around that wants to rob tourists.

Garmin inReach

As mentioned above, this is one of the most important things I have with me for both travel and hiking/backpacking. It is an emergency device that allows you to contact help from anywhere in the world regardless of cell signal. This is so huge for anyone that spends time outdoors at all or finds themselves off the grid in any way. You do have to pay for a monthly subscription, but this can be put on hold whenever you like and then reactivated.

The hike to Sky Pond in Colorado is a great example a fairly short hike that can easily get you in trouble. It is short enough that many people don’t prepare as much as they should, but long enough you can find yourself in a bad situation if the weather changes and you are not ready.

Cell phone GPS

Along with the inReach, I rely a lot on my cell phone and its GPS. Remember that your cellphone GPS can be used offline without cell signal if you plan ahead of time and download offline Google maps. Google has recently added basic terrain maps as well. I use google maps offline to drop a pin on my truck at the start of a short hike just as a precaution, so I can always find my way back. I also use the Backcountry Navigator or Gaia GPS apps for serious trips with the high-quality topographical maps downloaded before the trip. I also make sure I have real paper maps, and the inReach with the trail head marked in case the phone goes down.

I hope these tips give you a few things to think about on your next adventure… or more importantly, the next time you leave your car for a short hike!

Dan Ballard is an internationally known travel and landscape photographer and keynote speaker. He is best known for creating intense, dramatic images – venturing to over 60 countries on five continents across the globe throughout his career. The intention behind his work is to elicit the true essence of a being in a strange new place, whether that be in the high mountain passes of Ladakh or the vast deserts of Syria.

Please note: The above article represents the experience and opinion of the author and should not be taken as a complete guide to international travel or outdoor adventure. Please do your own research and due diligence.