Risk Versus Reward in Photography

June 06, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

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by Dusty Demerson

This evening in Crested Butte, Colorado the main street is blocked off and covered with snow. There’s a large bump in the middle of town and a snow grooming machine has been smoothing out the snow-covered street for a crazy annual event called “Big Air on Elk”. It’s lots of fun to watch and a significant challenge to photograph. The street is your basic two-lanes with parking on each side so about 40 feet wide. The “runway” and jump take up all of the street leaving the sidewalk for spectators. Imagine squeezing several thousand people onto two 10 foot wide sidewalks while a snowmobile going 50 miles an hour pulling a skier (like water skiing) down the middle of the street. Sounds like fun huh?

The first year for this event I positioned myself on the roof of a nearby bar. I had a wonderful observation point and captured an “overall” view of the event with our iconic mountain peak in the distance. A near-full moon made shooting the event like a landscape possible. Nobody has seen any of those images. My vantage point made the skiers and snowboarders too small and my distance from them made using a flash ineffective. I got colorful blurs in the middle of a street full of pedestrians. The images were not very good!

The second year I decided to get up close and personal with a wide-angle lens and a position right on the side of the jump. It seemed like such a good idea at the time. There was a nice little step carved out of the snow on the side just for us photographers. There was only room for one of us at a time.  When I arrived my friend Chris Ladoulis was in position on the step as I patiently awaited my turn by putting fresh batteries in the flash and camera. Did I mention it was about 10 degrees? It was a tough night for batteries!

Eventually Chris decided he had what he wanted and climbed down to the street. We traded places and as I climbed to the step I was envisioning these super-cool, close-up images of skiers and snowboarders flying through the air only a few feet away. I found my balance, placed my pack at my feet and stood up to begin making these amazing images I had in my mind. Then WHACK! The next thing I remember was being dragged by my collar down the street and being told by my EMT buddy Shaun to keep pressure on my forehead. I noticed there was blood on my coat. “Hey Shaun, whose blood is this?” I asked. “It’s yours, keep pressure on your head. You’re getting stitches” he said. That’s about the time Chris caught up with us with my camera gear….well, most of it. After handing me my stuff he took my picture. Smiling and bleeding and being escorted down the street by Shaun and keeping pressure on my head. It was quite a sight! I have no idea what happened to the snowboarder who missed his take-off and caught me instead.

I was missing my lens hood for the 17-35mm lens I was using. When asked about it, Chris said “The lens hood didn’t make it!”. I guess I got off easy! I didn’t get any pictures. Not even one! I did get 11 stitches and a nice tiny scar. It’s handy to have a physician who wanted to be a plastic surgeon. But I digress.

The third year I took an entirely different approach. I had “pre-visualized” the photo at the top. There was exactly one place I could stand. I didn’t need to be on a roof or the side of the jump. The only difficulty was trying to keep tall people from standing in front of me. I did need to get the shot pretty early in the event before it got too dark because I didn’t want to haul lights around for such a speculative venture. It turned out that one of the local orthopedic surgeons was standing right beside me this time. I was well protected! I did get the shot! It only took three years, 11 stitches and a lens hood.

So, if there’s a point to this story I guess it’s to try to plan how you want to cover an event. Being too far away and being too close both have their drawbacks. If you’re shooting a speculative self-assignment it’s better not to put yourself at risk. My experience has been shared in local newspapers and all the local photographers have been able to learn from my experience. What they choose to do with that knowledge is totally up to them. As for me, If I photograph Big Air on Elk tonight I’ll be a safe distance away. I may just be a spectator. That could be fun too!

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