Photography Nightmares: Professional Photographers Share Their Horror Stories on the Job

Photography Nightmares: Professional Photographers Share Their Horror Stories on the Job

Lament a lowlife that lurches and lurks the local lanes, and I'll let loose a listless laugh. But tell me tales of a memory card formatting itself in the middle of a wedding and I'll hide behind the proverbial sofa, toes curled in fright.

As we grow older, our fears mutate in to something more realistic; monsters under the bed are replaced with credit card fraud and missing a mortgage payment. And yet, we're still drawn to stories of horror. For me, the folklore of haunted hills and marauding murderers leave me cold and dry, but disastrous photo shoots by fellow professionals never fail to leave me all a fluster. So dim the lights, turn your cameras to face away from you, and delve in to disaster.

Dani Diamond: Cliff Hanger

Ok, so I’m shooting a seascape on the coast of Malibu, California. It’s a gorgeous coast with crazy cool cliffs that come all the way up to the water. There’s around four feet between the cliff and the water; it’s really narrow. So, I’m walking down the coast with all my gear to find the right spot and I always shoot around sunset. I’m sitting there shooting in this area of the beach that was a decent size. When I finish shooting just as the sun sets, I’m packing up and I start walking back along the coast and I realize the water has risen above my way back along the cliff — there’s no more beach left and there’s no way to get back! I turn around and walk the opposite way and there’s nothing until I reached the other side of the cliff which also had high water so I was completely trapped. I noticed a home-made wooden ladder that was falling apart but it lead to a ramp with a metal door. The door was locked. The door and fence was 25 feet in the air and had metal spikes on top so you can’t climb without ripping yourself apart but it was my only way.

So I take my camera bag and my tripod and I throw it over the door and then I climbed like a monkey over the fence. I make it down the other side and I’m in some dude’s back garden. This is not a house, it’s a gorgeous fancy mansion on a cliff in Malibu, who knows which celebrity owns it?! I sneak around to the front to get out and boom, there’s an electric fence seventeen feet tall and it only opens electronically for cars. I’m standing on this guy’s driveway — I’m not going to go knocking on his door — but the fence has barbed wire at the top too so I just start walking around the garden. I eventually find a tree with a branch that hangs over the fence and so I climb it, throw my gear down and then jump the seventeen feet.

Photo by Tim Trad on Unsplash

Mads Peter Iversen: SOS

I spent half a year waiting for an original shot I had envisioned in Iceland. I spent 4 hours on the day it was going to take place on a windy crater top, hoping for the weather was going to comply. I got the exact conditions I wanted for the shot I had spent 6 months dreaming of. But I miscalculated my drone battery, the strong wind forced the drone away from me and I had to crash land it... I didn't get the shot.

Robert Baggs: Panic at the Disco

I had a magazine shoot with a band in and underground club. This place was incredible, but very dark. I began the shoot and all was going well. Around half way through the shoot, I noticed my main light was over-exposing my subjects. I blame the light, because nothing had changed in settings, ambient light, or positioning. I was confused, and after staring at the light for a moment, I continued by firing off a burst of six shots. When the sixth shot finished I looked down at my screen to see the highlights blown out, but my attention was quickly brought to the room getting continuously brighter.

This was courtesy of my light which of its own accord, was getting ramping up its brightness. This would be weird if it were a continuous light, but it was a strobe. After a couple of seconds, it let out a muffled bang and fire began pouring out of the back of the unit with plumes of smoke. A fire extinguisher and the light being placed away from anything else resolved the situation, but few things make you look more like a budget photographer than your equipment catching fire.

Photo by Jackson Hendry on Unsplash

David J. Fulde: Itchy Trigger Finger

After shooting a scene for a short film in a location with very short time allowance, I went to set my white balance. I knew I had to click "Okay" twice. However, my finger slipped and my menu landed right on "Format" and then I hit "Okay" twice. We had to reshoot a scene that took three hours, but this time in just 30 minutes.

Wasim Ahmad: Child's Play

I was shooting a wedding in 2011 at the Oviatt Penthouse in LA. I left my gear bag with extra lenses and bodies in the bridal suite while shooting the ceremony and reception, nothing unusual. I also kept cards that I had shot with in a memory card wallet in the bag as well. During the reception I come back there to grab a lens and two small children — maybe age 5 or 6 — were in my camera bag and had grabbed and hidden everything in it about the entire room. I shooed them away and found everything pretty quickly and put it back in the bag and went back out to continue shooting.

The night ends, and the couple wanted some extra photos in the empty streets of LA, so I obliged and by the time I got back to my hotel room it was close to 2 a.m. I go to dump my cards from my card wallet and... they're not there. I realize that in addition to hiding all of my lenses, the kids took the card wallet too. Panicked, I run back to the Oviatt, which was thankfully only a block away, and try to get back in. I banged on the door and hollered but after a few minutes realized that maybe no one was there any more. I wasn't even sure if that's what happened to the cards. My mind was racing thinking I lost half the wedding and the portrait shoot that spanned three locations beforehand, when finally one of the cleaning staff heard the noise and came down and opened the door. I explained my situation and they let me up to poke around the bridal suite — and I found it, the card wallet, under the bed. I was so relieved. That was the day I learned to keep my spent cards in my pocket and not in my camera bag.

Photo by Gabriel on Unsplash

Mark Dunsmuir: Ice Cold

Shooting a New Years Eve wedding in Ontario, Canada, cottage country. There had been several feet of snow over the prior week and then a freezing rain the night before. Thought we'd be smart and take a short cut from the preparation location to the ceremony venue. What could go wrong, right? The car couldn't get up a hill. I couldn't steer back down the hill without sliding either. Finally arrived about 20 minutes late. Thank goodness they waited for us; and, half the family members who were stuck behind us.

But from the ceremony, we went to a lake side for photos. I parked on hard packed snow (I swear). However, the car melted some of the snow and sunk. The groom's father helped by laying down some chains and helping to push us out. Once the tires bit into the snow and chains, he fell face first on to them. So, I was late for the ceremony and managed to get the Groom's father a nice shiner from the chains he fell onto.

Share your most toe-curling photography horror story in the comments below!

Lead image by Ian Espinosa on Unsplash

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I was a young photographer working for a national newspaper who had exposed the mayor of a small suburban town as corrupt. He ran again as mayor again and I was sent to cover his campaign headquarters election night. The reporter who wrote the series did not go so I was on my own. It was upstairs at a strip mall in the middle of nowhere. He lost and which time I went into the headquarters. There was no other media present. I started to try and take photos of him, but he blocked me. When he asked where I was from, I told him he likely would not be happy with the answer. At this point he went ballistic and tried to shove me while blocking his face and his people kept pushing me backwards towards the steep stairs. I still didn't have a clear shot of him. At the top of the stairs he totally lost it and said he was going to kill me by throwing me down the stairs, which were now right at my back. He lunged for me and his daughter cried "No Dad!" and grabbed him, holding him back as he tried to complete the task. I got my one frame of the event of this moment and it was a winner. I turned and ran for my life!

user-206386's picture

Absolute horror story - wasting 10 minutes reading about sloppy photo practice when
I should have been working. My bad.

Matthias Dengler's picture

Why do there always have to be haters?
Just stop reading, man!

user-206386's picture

I take all the blame for wasting my time. Man.

Robert K Baggs's picture

If you have work to do, why did you click an article full of anecdotes? And given you believe the time spent reading the article you didn't have time to read was wasted, why would you then waste more time telling everybody about it? Bizarre.

user-206386's picture

Exactly. Bizarre indeed. I try to give people's work a chance. I failed.

user-187388's picture

Here's one of my stories that had a happy ending. Had been interstate to shoot a wedding. Walking from the airport to the car in drizzling rain. A lady comes up and says I think you dropped this. I had put all the cards from the wedding in a card wallet and put it in my pocket. It had fallen out of my pocket. Whew! I don't shoot weddings anymore now but sometimes still dream about them.Mostly nightmares. If you are new to weddings or photography don't be discouraged. Prayer helps.

My first job out of college, in 1982, was at the paper in Montgomery, Alabama. I got sent to cover a plea hearing for a Girl Scout den mother who stole the cookie money. She had a huge husband who threatened to whip my ass if I photographed her coming out of the courtroom. The deputies and bailiffs enjoyed the theatrics for a while before finally telling the guy to back off.

So she exits the courtroom, and he runs interference for her as they run for the door. I managed to get off a couple of shots, a smidge off on focus, but useable. AP picks up the photo and moves it.

Cut to New Years Eve. Johnny Carson is doing his “Dubious Year End” awards. I fell out of my chair when he mentioned her name and then held up the AP photo. So kind of a cool ending.

Geoffrey Badner's picture

Got hired to shoot a private end-of-year concert for a huge financial firm. The main performers were Bon Jovi and John Cougar Mellencamp. I was told that I would be shooting wide shots from the audience's perspective so I brought the biggest on-camera flash I had (I forget what it was now). After shooting for the entire show from out front, the show's producer (my client) came and told me to follow her. We went backstage. She introduced me to the CEO of the company and told I was to shoot him walking out and jamming with John Cougar on stage during the encore. She pushed me out in front of about 5,000 people while the band was rocking. Completely freaked me out. I started shooting, but I totally forgot to power down my flash. The whole thing lasted 30 seconds. All of my frames, ALL OF THEM, were almost completely white. I didn't get that job the following year.

Robert K Baggs's picture

Oh, that's terrible! Getting thrust in to a situation with no time to prepare can be so awkward.

Ya know, if you were like some of the water-walkers who comment on here you wouldn't have let that phase you and would have turned down the flash. lol ;-)

Jim German's picture

It was early in my career in 1997 and I was covering the final round of a hometown major PGA tournament for the local weekly newspaper I worked for. Thanks to the heavy rains supposedly brought about annually by the curse of a famous Wyandott chief whose nearby grave is disturbed by the tournament, the golf course grounds were treacherously slick in places. I was perched against a tree atop the rise at the back of the 16th green awaiting a shot of a player in contention to make his putt. Suddenly the ground seemed to give way beneath my feet. I don’t remember anything between that instant and the moment my body hit the ground, but the resulting thud was loud enough to disrupt play and everyone turned to stare at a photographer lying sprawled in the muddy grass wondering what the heck had just happened to him.

Real estate photographer here, the most dangerous job I've ever done in my life. I had to shoot a high end listing for a site I work for. The owner spent a lot of time preparing it, and decided to hire another photographer to shoot another round of photos since mine would have been exclusive for my customer. I was the second one to shoot the place. I set up my gear (tripod, tablet for tethering, etc., you know the drill) then asked the owner for a quick survey of the place. While I checked that everything was ready in the bedrooms' area, and it was, the owner left me and went to the front of the house with the other photographer, who was leaving. Survey finished, I walked to my gear and... ...I smashed my face against a perfectly clean 1-inch thick glass door with no handle or decorations, which luckily decided not to break in shards. I did not notice it when I moved from the living room to the bedroom area, and the owner closed it behind me. Outcome: no gear harmed, as I did not have it with me yet, lots of blood from the nose, ER trip, nose wasn't broken, but I'm sure I got really really close. I recommended the owner to put some stickers on that door :-)

John Teague's picture

I'm also a real estate photographer and was once photographing this huge, beautiful house with a grand foyer that had slate flagstones covering the floor. I was trying to get a shot of this foyer from an upstairs balcony about 14 feet above the flagstones. I leaned against the balcony railing to get the shot, but the railing began to give way and I felt my weight shifting with the railing over the flagstones. Suddenly alarmed, I jerked backwards just before falling to the floor below. Turns out, the end of the railing wasn't actually attached to the wall, and I was just lucky that I hadn't toppled down onto the flagstones. To this day, I always test railings before I put my weight on them, even in the high-end houses.

John Teague's picture

Here's another story from real-estate photography. I use Liveview on my camera all the time, so I go through batteries pretty quickly. I carry three batteries, and that's always been enough, except this one time. On the third house of the day, I exhaust my second battery. No problem, I think. I'll just load the third battery into the camera. Uh-oh. Battery three is dead. It had discharged because I hadn't used it (and subsequently recharged it) in several weeks. Again, no problem. I always carry an old camera for backup. Uh-oh, same story with its battery. Not used recently so not recharged in months, maybe. Last chance: a second battery for my backup camera. Dead, too, of course. So I had a total of five dead batteries on my hands. Oh, yeah, I've still got my cell phone to use. Saved. Not great pictures, but Lightroom pulled me through. Of course, now I regularly recharge all of my batteries periodically. I also bought a battery grip that can use AA batteries, if necessary.