Move Out of Your Comfort Zone and Expand Your Expertise

Learning to shoot outside of your specialty means learning new
and valuable camera techniques, and perhaps a bit more about yourself.

© Jim Hutchison


We tend to stick to what we're comfortable with, right? My first love is shooting landscapes, and I was fortunate enough to cut my teeth as a photographer in the Canadian Rockies. The slow pace, the incredible vistas… I avoided people as serious photographic subjects for a number of years. But now I'm comfortable with weddings and action sports, and glad I am. If you're primarily a landscape photographer and have never shot a wedding, consider learning this very different shooting style. If you're a sports photographer, try shooting landscapes for a week, even if the prospect sounds a little slow paced for you. The new skills, experiences, and growth are worth the challenge. Yes, we should maintain our areas of specialty and expertise, but there's something to be said about versatility.

New Digs Mean New Work

After a recent move from Alberta to Ontario, no more than a few months pass when someone found my website while searching for a photographer. Voila! I land a twelve-month photo gig at a local resort. Most of my clients find me this way, so the lesson: keep your web site current!

In preparation for eventual retirement, I decided a number of years ago that moving out of my comfort zone and photographing weddings was my next step. As someone interested in challenges, I occasionally engage myself in something that stimulates my usual – and comfortable - pallet of creativity. Learning to shoot weddings is no small feat, and the education never stops. But I do feel comfortable in my skin doing it, so sports and action photography were a natural next step.

The first assignment at the resort was the most challenging because it was all so new – here I am being shuttled about on the back of a ski-doo, designing shoots, conducting scenes with models, all the while trying to anticipate what the marketing director wants for their brochures, newsletters, and web page. Different kinds of shooting environments all share the same basic set of preparation rules: clean lenses, fresh batteries, etc. But this is where the similarities end, both in equipment and psychological preparation. I'll share with you what I have learned.

Landscapes and Firemen

As most of us know, landscape photography can sometimes mean spending a lot of time in the same spot, waiting for just the right light. When it happens, it can disappear in a flash… Rather like being a fireman, with boredom occasionally punctuated by frenzied activity. I was also taught how to scope out a location with a compass, map, and a sunrise/sunset table, predicting with some accuracy how morning light would wash over the mountain peaks. If the weather cooperated, I'd get lucky and show up in just enough time to capture the beautiful alpenglow.

For landscapes, I shoot in manual mode, on a tripod, with mirror lock-up, a remote trigger, and any combination of filters such as polarizer, neutral grad or neutral density for long waterfall exposures. Wide-angle lenses to include an interesting foreground element always paid off, generally set to f16 or f22. And, I learned from experience to turn off image stabilizers and auto focus.

Weddings: Lots of Action

How different from landscape photography! You have to be hyper-vigilant to capture poses that can never be re-staged. There's both the obvious and subtle moments, and each are just as important when delivering a wedding album to your client. Anticipating the next shot is the name of the game here, anywhere from the ring exchange to the garter toss. On one occasion I did get a second chance - a very observant officiator saw my timing was a bit off for the first kiss, so he winks at me, and actually made them kiss again! They didn't mind lingering for the photographer…

Equipment backups are vital, as the probability of something failing increases the more you shoot. And don't shoot the whole day on one card, as I had one fail, costing me the entire price of the wedding for data recovery. Such failures are extremely rare, but luckily I had shot on a number of cards, minimizing the recovery cost. My clients got their product, and I kept my reputation. Other than that, I've been lucky so far; owning good gear does truly pay off in the long run.

For weddings, I shoot in aperture-priority mode with some fill-flash, the camera usually at 400 or 800 ISO, with both image stabilizer and auto focus on. I carry two camera bodies, one with a long zoom such as a 70-200, the other with a 17-85.

On to More Action

Outdoor action photography often means shooting mid-day, which I had never made a habit of while shooting landscapes. So even just reading the LCD display is a challenge because of the ambient brightness! With a snowy background, over-exposing by a full stop is often necessary. Thank goodness I made it a habit to shoot RAW (not me, the camera…) for it's ability to capture light in such a wide dynamic range. With layers and masking, I often combine two different exposures of the same photo from my RAW converter to get the best of all the highlights and shadows. The contrast and textures from bright sunlight turns out to be best for action shots, as shooting on overcast days may be good for portraiture, but action shots look drab in comparison. A bright blue sky seems to add to the positive, fun energy of sports.

For ski and board jumpers flying through the air, pre-focusing helps immensely, as you can then concentrate on composition. Setting up the shot includes the usual considerations of background, sun position, and a discussion with the subject if possible.

For action and sports, I shoot in aperture-priority mode, generally at f-8 if I don't need to throw the background out of focus. There's a great reference website* to check for your lens's sweet spot, which has been very helpful. Using auto focus depends on how fast or slow your camera/lens combination is, but I've found manual focus to be more dependable even with good lenses. Image stabilizing technology is a good friend to have though; "Mode 2" for you Canon shooters with L-series lenses, such as my 70-200 f2.8 IS USM zoom. Lastly, have the shutter in rapid-fire mode. Killer action shots are very fleeting, so it's not unusual to come home with hundreds of exposures after a days' shooting.

Expand Your Horizons and Have Fun

So, do I prefer one style of photography over another? Landscapes win hands down, but there's enough other shooting styles to learn that will keep me engaged and challenged. Tackling the challenges of various shooting styles will expand your repertoire of skills, enabling you to be more prepared, and perhaps less reluctant, to try something new. Next up for me: aerial photography. I couldn't have imagined that preparing for retirement would be so much fun!



Jim Hutchison is a part-time photographer who resides in Burnstown, Ontario, with his wife Moira. You may visit his web site at