How Much Risk Are You Willing to Take for Your Photography?

How Much Risk Are You Willing to Take for Your Photography?

It’s a subject not often addressed but significant in the process of creating images. There are domains where risks have to be assessed, evaluated, and prevented. Taking risks is sometimes necessary, although that encompasses many different aspects, and the stakes are also diverse. It mostly depends on your photo field and where you are on your photography journey.

Be Prepared

Low on the scale is the simple risk of failing. It may happen when you’re not able to complete an assignment, when your photos of an event are disappointing or they're technically or aesthetically of poor quality.

There are multiple reasons: you forgot something crucial, you had technical issues, there was a misunderstanding, or the client is simply not happy with the result. Not all photographers include a satisfaction clause in their contracts. It can even be more insidious: the client may be satisfied with the result, but not you.

It happened that I accepted a job, wondering if I would be able to manage. Initially hired for a standard series of corporate portraits, there were also group shots (4-5 people). No big deal. It's just a question of organization and preparation. But things became more complicated when, from the group shots, I was supposed to make a montage of all of them in panoramic size. Theoretically, it was possible.

It needed some planning, marks on the floor, consistent lighting, and the use of a 50mm lens that shows the least amount of distortion. The shots were spread over two days in an office. If the shooting itself went well, there was no guarantee that the panoramic group image would turn out satisfactory.

It was stressful, as I kept doubting my retouching skills. It needed more work and time than planned. Even the background needed to be retouched. Although gray, it had some tint variations that needed to be leveled, which meant making precise selections around the people.

Finally, even with a 50mm, some deformations were visible. The distance made it impossible to use a longer lens. I guess that an 80mm would have been a better choice. The final result, although shameful to me, pleased the client, which was the most important. But I felt it was a failure nonetheless.

The risk here is not overcoming this fear and losing some self-confidence. Knowing our own boundaries allows us to grow inside them before we push them.

So you have to be prepared. In all meanings. Mentally and technically.

Don’t rely on luck alone. Ewan Lebourdais, a prominent navy photographer who obtained the official title of Peintre de la Marine in the French Navy, remembers that he wasn't entirely familiar with the use of his newly acquired 600mm f/4 when he accidentally encountered a returning nuclear submarine off the shores of Ouessant Island. Even if it allowed him to win the Nikon Photo of the Month, he humbly confesses that it was only "beginners' luck," mostly because it was difficult for him to reproduce it afterwards, only thanks to hard and long work, in order to progress by improving the techniques.

Ewan Lebourdais in action ©Ewan Lebourdais

To this end, it’s crucial to keep improvisation at its lowest level. Try to get the most information you can find about what you intend to photograph. If it’s a wedding, check the venue a few days ahead. Try to figure out if you need a flash, a tele lens, a wide angle, if you’re authorized to bring a tripod, etc.

If you plan a landscape trip or an urban tour, use applications such as Sun Position Sunrise & Sunset, SunCalc, or SunOnTrack to determine the sun's orientation at the time of the shooting, as well as weather forecast applications or websites as exhaustive as Windyty.

And, as the gear doesn’t (yet) magically perform, you might need some training prior to a shooting. That’s the moment when a comparison between photography and sport or music becomes relevant.

When Your Gear Is at Risk

Now, there are domains where your equipment might be at risk. And I’m not talking about getting some drops of champagne during a wedding party.

Natural elements are, by far, the biggest issue. In nautical photography, for example, the salty water shows no mercy, even to the sturdiest gear.

Ewan Lebourdais remembers very well when, on board a light inflatable boat, along with a group of Navy commandos (the equivalent of a Seal Team), he documented an assault against a bigger ship. While the soldiers were climbing to its deck, their boat was swept by huge waves that submerged them regularly. The Nikon D5 didn’t die on the spot, but corrosion finally killed it three weeks later. Fun fact: the operations happened during a night so dark that Ewan had to shoot at ISO 100,000.

Ewan Lebourdais prepping his gear ©Ewan Lebourdais

So, in such circumstances, it’s safer to use extra protection, such as an underwater housing or case, even if you don’t plan to dive. Motorsport photographers know this very well and don’t hesitate to spend a few coins on an investment that can save the day.

It’s also a good idea to insure your gear. It won’t replace the shots you may lose on the memory card, but at least you’ll get back on your feet faster.

Apart from the material risks, a more significant issue might be your own safety and health.

When It Gets Serious

Some fields are inherently hazardous for the photographer.

Andy Schmid in action ©Tobias Maloy

Wildlife photography sounds exciting and is within reach of any patient photographer. But it’s not totally free of danger. Andreas Schmid, an underwater and wildlife photographer, advises beginners to "work your way from simple, basic subjects towards more demanding and dynamic animals," especially as "anytime you face a big animal, there is a certain risk involved that something unexpected might happen." Still, he is quite clear: it is necessary to take the risk of exposing yourself to a potentially dangerous situation. "Not in a mindless way, though. (...) The key is to know how generally a subject will behave." It is necessary to stay calm, show respect to animals, get to know them, and know when not to cross the line. "Perfect your craft before trying to capture the most challenging situations and animals".

In another popular field, such as urbex, this notion of danger is also very present.

Steve, also known as K9urbex, is quite clear about it: "Urbex is risky at 90%." It’s confirmed by Tanja and Timmo from "There are no safety rules for abandoned buildings."

The question is: is it worth it?

For Andrea Schmid, when underwater, "getting great results requires getting close," a stance not so far from the famous Robert Capa’s line: "If your photos are not good, it’s because you were not close enough".

For K9urbex, "each photographer should ponder what he or she is ready to sacrifice for a photo (2 months in hospital for 300 likes?)/" Abandonednordic also insists on weighing the possible risks against the rewards.

"Our friend Niko is trying to find safe place but good to take a photo" ©Abandonednordic

In urbex, the list of potential dangers is impressive.

The most obvious would come from the building itself. Floors can collapse, and ceilings can fall down. "Falling is a constant threat,, says AbandonedNordic, especially when floors are strewn with "shattered glass, nails, and all sorts of debris." So, get your vaccines up to date.

Other hazards are less often reckoned with, but those urbex photographers warn about them: mold is usually encountered in ancient houses, mines, or underground facilities. Asbestos and germs or bacteria from animal droppings are other reasons why the air might be unhealthy or unbreathable. Even radiation might be a concern in some areas.

Not to forget animals, which are also a possible threat. Snakes, dogs, or even owls are known to attack their victims on the face. Insects may not agree with your presence either. Check for ticks when you get back home. Lyme disease is far from pleasant.

Those are the reasons why they don't recommend this hobby to anyone.

What is usually encountered in urbex. ©K9urbex

Another matter is the legal part. Neighbors usually have a negative opinion about urbex photographers, who are sometimes suspected of being thieves or drug users. Exercising common sense should be enough to keep you from photographing military installations, even abandoned ones, or anything close to a government facility.

Think of the Lana Sator case, for example.

K9urbex recalls that "nothing justifies your presence." So, he strongly advises being discreet and respectful, a golden rule in urbex. Tanja and Kimmo confirm this: "Never break or take anything, but photos."

Ewan Lebourdais admits that "when you shoot in three dimensions, there is always some risk" and "going to the sea is always inherently uncertain." And there is no need to face a tropical storm or climb Everest to find yourself in a perilous situation. He underlines that "a good sailor is the one who knows when to renounce and turn back. (...) The objective is to never put yourself at risk."

His advice is that "the more you anticipate and prepare, the better it is." In the case of a shooting involving several people, the briefing is a very important step. It avoids misunderstandings, sets boundaries, and prevents vagaries.

Ewan concedes not being willing to take uncalculated risks. "I think that it always ends badly, and the photos might not even be good!"

K9urbex keeps in mind a scale, graduated from 1 to 10, and tries to stay at 6 or 7. He always sees urban exploration as "a pleasure, an adventure, a way to surpass oneself," but he never pushes for a "competition for the shot that has never been done before because of its danger."

©Abandonednordic _ central photo by Niko Kupari @kupanik


Regardless of any shooting circumstances, anticipation and preparation are crucial. A good understanding of your skills and gear and an in-depth knowledge of your subject and the environment are essential. It will never eliminate all the risks, but it will keep them at the lowest level possible.

"The limit is what allows us to avoid the risk", concludes Ewan Lebourdais. "Being a hothead never lasts long".

All images used with permission. Lead image by ©Abandonednordic.

Stefan Gonzalevski's picture

Stefan Gonzalevski is a French photographer based in Budapest, Hungary.
He has experience in fin art printing, for luxury brands, and product photography. He is also into urban and architecture photography.

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My wife took a picture of me climbing on some rocks up in Oregon to get a shot. She posted it saying this is why I have gray hair. There were also a couple at the Grand Canyon that made her nervous.I watch myself. If I'm not comfortable I won't risk it.

I think that there is some sanity in recognizing the risks.

I have no trouble taking lots of risks for my wildlife photography.


Because getting wildlife photos that please me is more important than anything else in the world to me. Yes, more important than my health and physical well being. More important than financial stability. More important than comfort.

This is why I have no family and am sometimes homeless - because responsibilities like a home and a family can infringe on time spent in nature taking photos of wild animals. If I base my entire life on being free to take photos, then I am not going to let things like venomous snakes and ticks and grumpy bears keep me from getting the shots I want.

And living at poverty level, on the brink of financial ruin at all times, means I have nothing to lose, so that emboldens me even more.

My gear faces all kinds of abuse in sand and salt water and getting dropped on rocks and getting rained and snowed on and getting dust and ash all over it regularly, but somehow it keeps functioning, even if the dials and buttons are sticky and I hear sand grinding away whenever I turn them. And yeah my lenses all have scratches on the front elements, but you know what - that doesn't affect image quality at all so I really couldn't care less. All that matters is what the photos look like, not what the gear looks like.

People who value safety and security and health ..... I just don't relate to them at all, even though they comprise at least 95% of the human population.

I'd be curious what your exit strategy is for when you get injured or become too old to physically do the job. What's the plan for the future for someone who only thinks about taking pictures today?

Exit strategy? Hmmmmm. That kind of talk seems like something someone would say who takes life seriously and has a "career" and an education and thought out retirement plans and all that.

I am 55 years old and pretty much live paycheck to paycheck. I would probably just die if I had some kind of major health issue, because honestly, putting a ton of money into my body just wouldn't get much return on investment. I'm not worth that much, and I know it.

I have been truly poor for the past 20 years, and when I get old I will be still poor, as there has never been enough of an income to stash anything away and I have hardly ever had "regular legitimate employment" where I was on the books and had social security taken out and all of that. Some friend or family member will probably let me move in with them and care for me if it comes to that ..... but I would prefer to just die rather than have some long drawn out years of old age and the ineptitude that goes with it.

If I spent my time planning for the distant future, I might miss out on the Timber Rattlesnake gestation den that I found recently, or the Black-backed Gulls predating on the fledgling herons (mixed species) at the coastal rookery a couple hours southeast of me.

I don't value security or stability or peace of mind, so using my energy on things that will provide those things doesn't make sense to me.

That's some serious committing!
I think it's up to everyone to define his or her own limits.

Absolutely! To tell someone else what would be best for them assumes that they have the same values I do, which would be foolish to assume. Must resist the inclination to judge others on the basis or what our values are.

Do you feel the risk you take should entitle you to comparable rewards? Please live your life as you see fit. I've always believe risk and reward should exist in a proportionate way. Most of the people in the "95%" you speak of avoid risks at the expense of gaining any significant rewards. I guess I'm thinking monetary rewards. But the reward could certainly be emotional or spiritual or social. Perhaps you're in that category.

Money has never meant much to me at all. My goal has never been to earn a living or to compile something to fall back on. My goal is to enjoy life. The emotional, spiritual, and social realms that you mention are everything to me. I do things based on how they make me feel, not on how much money they will yield.

Thanks for sharing your experiences!

I was on a white water expedition with a canoe a few years ago. My goal was to photograph wild animals and birds of prey. We had planned a two-day trip on the Kymi River here in Finland.

Everyone was an experienced sailor, so there was no risk of anything untoward. The river split at about ten different geographical points, and we reached a giant water dam at one point. The current was so strong that it was impossible to reach the shore. So we paddled as fast as possible to keep the canoe straight for as long as possible before plunging with the masses of water.

Big waves swept over the canoe and filled it with water. We could not empty the canoe because strong eddies pulled us back towards the rapids. After a short paddling that felt like an eternity, we got free and to safety. We were happy to be alive.

All my professional Nikon camera equipment was destroyed, and nothing could be saved. But the SD card worked very well, and I got fantastic pictures from the expedition.

Now I have camera equipment that can also be used underwater. I have also purchased a waterproof case for my sensitive kits. It was expensive tuition, and it took several years to build up new tools for photography. I chose Fujifilm to be able to restart at a slightly cheaper level.

Quality dry bags are very inexpensive, and would have saved all of your gear. I mean they are only like $50 or $60 for a really good big one that will hold two bodies and two little lenses and a 100-400mm and a huge 800mm supertelephoto.

I am sorry that you had to learn this lesson in such a hard way.

Quality dry bags are pretty cheap here, but never big enough for my camera bag.

I use a protactic 450 aw ii and wasn't able to find a dry bag wide enough. Made for some discomfort when I had to take a shallow riverboat out an estuary with a lot of chop.

I have never even considered trying to put a camera bag or backpack into a dry bag. I guess because I don't use camera bags to carry my gear around. I just put the individual lenses and bodies in, and it is amazing how many pieces of gear will fit in the dry bag I got at Cabelas for $30 ... including my huge 300-800mm f5.6 Sigmonster!

There is a bit of caution that should be taken. Because the bag is sealed, moisture could condense within the gear. So I pout several paper towels or a cotton or terrycloth towel in the dry bag along with the gear. Those things will absorb the excess moisture so it doesn't condense inside of lenses or bodies and fog them up.

The only time I "needed" one was my last trip (mentioned above).

I was tight for weight and space and worried about how deep I'd need to wade into shore. I did so much research, but nobody had noted how deep the water would be wading to shore - Turns out it was only ~2 feet deep, so no dry bag needed.

I couldn't do a dry bag only because I had 2 bodies, 24-105 and 200-600 plus a flash, triggers, charger, power bank, photo backup solution, food and drink, medical supplies, etc... Needed to use the AW450 and add-on packs. Also, there was a fair bit of hiking on uneven terrain and some climbing up 45 degree inclines of crumbling hillside.

Was super fun!

I think biggest size, listed below, would have easily fit all of your gear, and then some:

Boundary Waters Roll-Top Dry Bags:

5L - 10" x 7" ................... $25
20L - 21" x 9" ................. $35
37L - 25" x 11" ................ $45
57L - 28" x 12.5" ............ $55
128L - 36" x 16" .............. $65

Thanks for the reply Tom, I appreciate you taking the time.

It looks as if the 57L or 37L may work, but that brand isn't available locally and importing from the US is unreasonably expensive.

Locally, I visited a handful of stores and finding dry bags wide enough and tall enough wasn't the issue. The issue was finding ones that were wide and deep enough. The depth was always way too small.

Prices weren't great either, around $100NZ (~$60US) for the larger ones, that were still too small to work because the AW450II with MOLLE packs is fairly fat. All the bags I saw were aimed at standard packs, which are taller and skinnier.

I don't think I'm likely to need one in the near future, not planning any high risk water activities, but I may have to see what's available from China. Keen to head back to Malaysia next year or the year after.