Always Expect the Unexpected

When first getting into photography, no one ever predicts what exactly it entails. Sure there are cameras, some lights, models, computers, hard drives, etc., etc. But no one ever plans on all the other calamities that can – and will – enter into daily life as a photographer. Sure duct tape is amazing and can fix most anything, but when trying to fix a gas line, it’s worthless. And what about equipment catching on fire, and strong winds blowing models around, and best of all … being asked to create a summertime photo in early spring. These examples are not far-fetched figments of the imagination, rather are snippets of what 2010 graduate Jim David has experienced since becoming a full time professional photographer. In this post Jim shares a few stories when being able to adapt and flow with a situation allowed him to get the shot.


I recall a story that Bill Gratton, formerly of the MAC Group shared with us in the 2010 Career Training class. Someone in his family (I think his grandmother) showed him a beautiful photo that they had captured and said, “See, I can take photos as good as you can,” to which he replied lightheartedly, “Oh yeah? Do it again on purpose!”

As photographers, that’s what we’re trained and expected to do—take those beautiful photos on purpose. But what about when we’re asked to create a beautiful photo and the conditions are less than ideal, or when circumstances turn the situation into something even more difficult? Shooting commercial, editorial and stock photography, more often on location, I’ve come to realize that this is more the rule than the exception. I must expect the unexpected and always be prepared to solve problems.

Peaceful Paddleboard or Wind-Whipped Whitecaps?

Sometimes the problem can be a single occurrence. During a paddleboard shoot, a strong wind blew in during the last (and best hour) of the day. It was so strong that my model was being blown backwards in spite of her efforts to paddle forward. Unwilling to give up, I switched from the outdoor recreational shot I had planned for to something more fashion oriented that I thought I could still pull off in the wind. While it wasn’t the smoothest shoot I had ever done, the chaos was an opportunity to think quickly on my feet and I was fortunate enough to have a model and assistant who were willing to roll with the punches.

Not Your Average Campfire

On another occasion, I recruited my wife as a model for an outdoor camping scene. I was standing down a hill and about 50 yards away, firing the flashes with PocketWizards when I noticed a distinct change in the output of my flash. I asked my wife, who had her back to the equipment, to check it out. “It’s on fire!” she yelled. Actually, it was the makeshift modifier that was burning. The flash had overheated and was no longer usable. Moving past the frustration of an expensive piece of equipment not functioning, once again, I had to make changes. In this case, I changed the scene to a silhouette against the sky.

Summer Getaway Before Springtime Blooms

945646_10151702728706177_1081654662_nOther times, an assignment can be plagued with problems from the start. I was asked to create an image for the “Summer Getaways” issue of Phoenix Magazine. The first hurdle was the early April due date. At the lake to be shot, in the higher elevations of Arizona, nighttime temperatures were still into the 30’s and you would be hard pressed to see anything green on the aspens surrounding the lake. Fortunately, I had time to scout and formulate a plan of attack. A week before the shoot I walked the four and a half mile shoreline, observing the light and looking for ways to minimize the feeling of winter. On the bright side, I knew the lake wouldn’t be filled with the busy summer crowds. I sought out compositions to downplay and minimize the barren aspens and focus on my planned subject—a couple in a canoe. A wide-angle lens would help me minimize the background, while other locations were better suited for a long lens to help me pull in the evergreen Ponderosa Pines that sat behind the aspens.


On the day of the shoot, I had my usual butterflies, but I was feeling confident in my preparation. I brought my 14-foot fishing boat with a small trolling motor to transport the equipment and lighting gear to the pre-scouted locations. At the lake, we wasted little time getting the canoe and the boat into the water. As we were about to push off, I turned the motor and heard a loud “snap”—the gas line broke in half. I was stunned! Surely that didn’t just happen. I had had the boat for years without a problem—had even used it a just few weeks earlier.

It would have taken considerable time and cost optimal lighting and wind conditions to use the backup oars to row the boat laden with three bodies and considerable equipment across the lake. Searching for solutions, I considered duct tape and quickly learned that gasoline is like kryptonite for the famous fix-all tape. Considering my options, it appeared I might be able to hold the line together as I steered—it was thick and broke in a sort of jigsaw puzzle pattern. I decided to give it a try, so off we went and, surprisingly, it worked (although I knew the art director was a bit uncomfortable when he asked me if I, or all of us, might erupt in flames).

Jim_David_Photo_262707We made it across the lake when I was hit by another surprise. A large branch (more like a small tree) had blown into the shooting location. Seriously? I would like to tell you that I threw on my cape, picked up the tree, flew it to another location and saved the day. In fact, the true battle was taking place within as emotions threatened to become my primary enemy, cloud my judgment and sabotage the shoot. There was a lot at stake and my expectations were being smashed left and right. I took a deep breath, said a prayer and resigned myself to the fact that the shoot wasn’t going to go as planned. That didn’t mean it was going to be a bad shoot, but I had to re-set my expectations, use my skills, training and preparation to make the best decisions for the here and now. In my opinion, these internal resets are vital to turning such situations around. I needed to quickly decide if I should detour to one of the other locations selected during my scouting trip or spend the time trying to move the tree. I still felt the first location was the best place to start, so we towed the tree out of the scene and got to work.

Jim_David_Photo_263001My plan had been to shoot at three locations and finish by noon, but due to the lost time and dependence on the oars to get around the lake, there would only be enough time to shoot one more location and I was determined to make the most out of it. We headed to a dock, which was operated by a cafe/boat rental company on the lake. I had obtained their permission in advance and was pleasantly surprised when something finally went my way on the shoot.

Jim_David_Photo_263144The staff not only accommodated us, but helped us relocate extra rental boats to clear the scene. I was able to shoot a couple of my desired scenes, and I came away with images that I thought would make someone want to make it their summer getaway. In the end, a shot from this second location landed on the cover and nobody would ever know it wasn’t a warm summer day (well, maybe until now).

In any of these situations, if I had allowed myself to be consumed by frustration and disappointment, I know the shoot would have ended very differently. I may not have a cape, but, like you, I have sound training, good skills and, most importantly, a mind that can overcome obstacles and solve problems to be able to take those beautiful photographs on purpose.





Jim David is a graduate of the 2010 class of Career Training at Rocky Mountain School of Photography. Based in Phoenix, AZ Jim shoots commercial, editorial and stock photography. His work has been used by clients including Allied Services, Verizon Wireless, Panasonic, USDA and has been published in Men’s Health, Women’s Running, Phoenix Magazine and Inc. Magazine.

You can see Jim’s work at