The Photographer's Comfort Zone - by Chris Gamel

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I want to begin by thanking Rick for accepting my offer to write a guest post. I have been a fan of Rick and the DPE podcast since it started and am excited to contribute something back to the "Godfather of Photography."

Every photographer has a comfort zone. We like to photograph certain subjects, prefer certain equipment, and avoid certain situations. Having a comfort zone isn’t a bad thing; it is a way to deal with the countless photographic opportunities that occur around us. By focusing on a single aspect of photography, we are able to develop a highly specialized skill set that compliments our chose specialization.

Take me as an example. My photographic comfort zone is easily defined. I am a wildlife photographer who tries to capture intimate, behavioral images of wildlife. To accomplish this, I use telephoto lenses. My photographic vision starts at 300mm and goes up from there. Sure, I have dabbled in other areas of photography, but my passion is wildlife.

My photographic comfort zone is the creation of intimate, behavioral wildlife images.

While comfort zones are great, never moving outside of your comfort zone is a bad idea for any artist. As photographers, we occasionally need to step outside of our comfort zone and explore different creative possibilities. This was clearly illustrated during my recent trip to Antarctica.

Antarctica is one of the world’s harshest environments. It is also a wildlife photographer’s dream. Wildlife is abundant, and since there are no land predators, most animals allow a close approach. Penguins will actually walk up to check you out!  I had been dreaming of Antarctica for over 15 years, and I had high expectations as I boarded the ship in Argentina.

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Antarctica is a harsh, yet beautiful environment that combines wildlife, landscapes, and the unexpected into amazing photographic opportunities. You just have to be willing to step outside your comfort zone to full take advantage of what Antarctica has to offer.

Antarctica’s Urban Zone

The landscape of Antarctica contains a unique contrast of harshness and beauty. With glaciers and icebergs in every direction, photographic opportunities abound. Imagine my surprise, however, as we were given the shore briefing before landing on Deception Island. The key points went something like this, “…abandoned buildings…geothermal area…no wildlife.”  What a minute!  I was in Antarctica to photograph wildlife. How did I get tricked into spending time at an abandoned whaling station? Once on shore I was going to spend four hours in an old urban environment. Did I mention we were landing during a blizzard? 

I had three choices. First, I could stay on the ship and call it a day. This was not really an option. I had spent the time and money to come to Antarctica and I was going to see it, even if there weren’t any penguins around. Second, I could walk around in the snow complaining about the lack of wildlife. Again, not a good option. I’ve never been a fan of feeling sorry for myself, and this didn’t seem like a good time to start. Third, I could accept the situation and see what type of images I could create. Ding, ding, ding!  We have a winner.

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Don’t limit yourself to a particular subject. As a wildlife photographer, I was hesitant to explore this abandoned urban environment, but the images reflect the harsh realities of life in Antarctica.

I spend the next four hours walking through collapsing buildings, exploring an old cemetery, and crawling under abandoned lifeboats. It embarrasses me to admit it, but I had a lot of fun (don’t tell the other wildlife photographers). I also created a number of images I really like. They document the harsh realities of living in Antarctica and drive home the challenges that must be overcome to simply survive. Was it a subject I would have chosen to photograph on my own? No. Was stepping outside of my comfort zone worth it? Absolutely.

Check Out That Landscape

The next opportunity to jump out of my comfort zone arrived with a zodiac cruise. Unlike most landings (where wildlife was abundant), zodiac cruises involve hours of cruising between icebergs and exploring hidden channels Icebergs are beautiful, but wildlife sightings are rare. Once again it appeared someone was trying to sneak landscape photography into my wildlife adventure! 

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While landscape photography is popular, it requires a different skill set then wildlife photography. By paying attention and using the photographic skills I do posses, I was able to create some pleasing images that reflected the beauty of Antarctica.

I say that half-joking, but it also contains an element of truth. While I love being outdoors and experiencing beautiful scenery, I have always struggled when photographing landscapes. Wide-angle lenses enhance the sense of depth in an image, and require a different skill set then the telephoto lenses I usually work with. Fortunately, given the beauty of Antarctica, it is difficult to capture a bad image, and even a wildlife photographer like me can pull off a successful landscape image.

When in Doubt, Get Closer

Over the years I have come to the conclusion that a little boredom is a good thing for creative individuals. It forces us to come up with new ways of seeing old subjects. This is especially true when photographing penguins. There are only so many ways to photograph a penguin. They can stand, sit, jump, and slide on their belly, but they are not the most expressive birds. After almost three weeks of photographing penguins, all the images were starting to look the same. How to mix things up and create something different?

Once again, the solution was to step outside of my comfort zone. I had thousands of cooperative subjects, but I had been photographing them in my normal way. One day I took a new approach. Instead of using my beloved telephoto lens, I left it behind. In its place, I took my trusty Canon camera, a 17-35mm wide-angle lens, and nothing else. I loved how light my camera bag was, but I was also nervous that the afternoon would be a complete disaster. 

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After creating thousands of penguin pictures, I decided to mix things up by switching to a wide-angle lens. How might you photograph old subjects in new ways.

I shouldn’t have worried. The images I created that afternoon were very different them my other penguin images. While using the wide-angle lens created additional challenges (tilted horizons anyone), it also created a sense of depth that is largely lacking in wildlife photography. The combination of approaching very close (sometimes I was only a few inches from the subject) and the exaggerated depth resulted in a unique perspective that would not have been possible if I had continued to do the same old thing. Not only did it result in some great images, but it also expanded my range as a photographer.

What is your comfort zone? Is it based on a particular photographic subject, a favorite piece of equipment, or a trademark technique? Stepping outside your comfort zone is challenging. It is uncomfortable and involves constant doubt. It is also one of the best ways to expand your photographic skill set and enhance your creativity. So, how are you going to step outside of your comfort zone?

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Chris Gamel is a storyteller who combines photography and filmmaking to tell stories about the natural world. His wildlife research and award-winning photography has taken him to all seven continents as he strives to share the beauty and biology of the natural world. To see more of Chris’s wildlife images, and to learn more about wildlife photography and filmmaking, visit his website. Sign up for his free newsletter and receive a free copy of Transitions: 10 Tips for Transitioning from Photography to Video.

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