Behind the Lens: Thinking on Your Feet


by Clint Thayer

I recently had a master class assignment in which the premise was to toss you outside your comfort zone.  We were to imagine that all our photography gear had been lost in travel yet we still needed to “nail the gig” sans lighting equipment.  The gig was simple - but it still needed the bare minimum of lighting to be an effective piece.

Photographers often hold a fundamental rule: carry two of everything.  But sometimes circumstances don't work out in your favor and you're left with the only thing you can’t really lose, forget, or misplace... you.  

I grew up in rural northeastern Ohio on the shores of Lake Erie, a travel destination for vacationing families.  A local tourist trap named Mystery Hill was prominently placed to lure travelers in on the way in or out of the beachfront areas in Ottawa County.  Though no longer in operation, the 2-story-tall, garishly painted fiberglass dinosaurs at the entrance of the Mystery Hill and Prehistoric Forest roadside attraction just begged to pull you and your 9-year-old kids in. The place existed primarily to suck the cash right out of your wallet.  

After a quick stop at the ticket booth you were sent to me: a young tour guide working a summer job to earn cash for college. My responsibility as a tour guide was to use my wits to give you and your family an “unforgettable” afternoon. The gag of Mystery Hill was that the building was constructed on a 45 degree angle to the ground and surrounded with tall fences. It was constructed to immerse the participant fully in the sensory illusion of water appearing to run uphill, building angles that didn’t make sense at first glance, and the like.  As I walked guests through the slanted house using phrases like “7thwonder of the world” and “UFO crash landing site” I could often see the hint of dismay arise on Dad and Mom’s face. (The kids, in contrast, were usually happy as clams.)  

Every photographer who has been shooting long enough has seen at least one moment like this - a flicker on a subject’s face that might indicate loss of trust, confusion, questions, and maybe even anger. Making a photograph is a dance between subject and photographer, and even Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers stepped on each others’ toes from time to time. The vulnerability of those moments is never fun to experience, but it’s times like those - the uncomfortable moments - that remind me of Mystery Hill and those moms and dads.  If I had never learned how to read a situation, accommodate the unknown, and set people at ease and start them laughing again, I doubt I’d be half the photographer I am now.

That’s the moment you lost all your photo gear.  The moment when you lost your primary and secondary camera, the lights, and the assistant.  (Yep - I always pack my assistant in my carry-on luggage.  Rollers make it easy!)

It forces you take a step back and think.  Not about the mistake (there will be time to pick that apart later), but how are you going to pick up the pieces in the moment and move forward.  It helps to have life experiences like good old Mystery Hill to fall back on, but don’t just rely on that. It’s never a good idea to self-induce this situation with your trusted clients.  Plan ahead.  Pick a free afternoon and stage a “worst case scenario.”  Plan as far as you feel you need to gain some experience but make it really, really tough on yourself. Then put your mock “gig” in action, take yourself far outside of your comfort zone, and see what happens.

Here are some things that have always helped me:

  • Keep a positive attitude.  It’s the root of success, and if you don’t have it in the worst of times, you will fail to turn around the situation.
  • Trust yourself and the people you work with.  If you are spending more time questioning yourself, that’s valuable time lost to finding a solution.
  • Always, and I mean always - arrive early. Time is your biggest asset aside from the grey matter between your ears.
  • Really understand light.  Know how light works through common materials like glass, plastic, and bed sheets.
  • Last, and likely least, know where the closest convenience store is located near you.  I’ve saved an entire day’s shoot with one stop at a Walgreens.

You might find the more you push yourself into the uncomfortable zone - the more it might feel...  comfortable!