Photographers can be a gearheaded bunch. Some shooters brag about having the latest and greatest while spouting specs and sounding support for Team Nikon or Team Canon.
Something that gets overlooked in being prepared for any assignment is what you wear. I've heard horror stories about shooters wearing shorts to cover a funeral. And while dressing appropriately can swing the gamut from casual to classy in this job, helping you gain access by fitting in, sometimes what you wear is a more solid barrier to entry.
Last week, reporter Ty Beaver and I had the rare opportunity to visit Pacific Northwest National Laboratory's Shallow Underground Laboratory. Being shielded from cosmic rays allows scientists there to fabricate and store materials used for highly sensitive radioactivity detectors. This meant donning some clean suits and nuclear physicist Bob Runkle was kind enough to shoot a portrait of Ty and me (damn you, grammar for ruining an easy rhyme):
I was slightly disappointed that we didn't have to gear up to the usual extent that scientists working in the labs have to,
but I was glad to have a little extra time to get used to the Nikon D300 I was borrowing since it would have taken hours to clean off my filthy, radioactive work gear. I shoot Canon at work and personally own Canon stuff, as well, but don't really buy into the endlessly pointless arguments that rage online and I've found that the people who make the biggest deal about which brand they buy aren't good photographers.
The only real problem is how everything is reversed when you switch systems. Everything from the zoom and focusing rings to the built-in light meter are backwards, making a sudden jump somewhat jarring. I spent a good 10 minutes digging through the menus to try and set it up to be as familiar as possible and it didn't end up being a big problem.
I certainly won't blame the camera for my mediocre set of images from the lab. Maybe it was overhyping how cool the assignment was, and there's nothing glaringly bad about the photos. It just didn't have the snazzy wow factor that I felt and tried to convey. Here are a few I liked and you can see the rest in the photo gallery.
As Finley flared up on Monday, I threw on a much dirtier jumpsuit that was more about protecting me than protecting my environment from me:
I wish I had a full body shot to show you, but I didn't have time to set up a tripod and some lights to shoot a selfie while doing my best impression of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.
It's more than just protection, however, as gearing up in this manner shows the firefighters on scene that you respect just how dangerous and unpredictable wildfires can be. It opens up more access than passersby can get,
which is about the same level as you can expect showing up in normal work clothes. I've seen media show up in high heels to cover a wildfire, which isn't going to get you very close.
I made sure to park upwind and much farther from the fire than I thought I needed to, knowing that the fire was going to burn for a while and that jamming up sparse country roadway would be an easy way to get kicked out. Even with a hefty 10-minute walk back toward the fire, many crews were still arriving:
Richland Fire Chief Grant Baynes showed up soon after to offer me a ride out as the blaze grew larger:
He was nice enough to shuttle me around as he did his job,
and I ended up at command central, which was through the thick smoke blocking Meals Road:
Firefighters there were clearing fuel from the bases of utility poles since those were in the most danger:
Baynes told me to stay close, but didn't confine me to central command and after a while, he was willing to help me find the firefighters who were assigned to protect nearby homes. On the way, we saw more fire,
and more aftermath,
as the smoke and sun made for a smelly, hot assignment:
He ended up having to make a run out of the area, so we parted ways and when I found the structure protection teams, I also found he was right about there not being eminent danger. Crews were there as a precautionary measure and on standby only if things went horribly wrong:
Based on listening to the scanner, talking with those crews and zooming in as far as possible, I gathered that they were digging some trenches in the now-distant fire:
I started hoofing it through the field to get closer to the action. Not knowing exactly how under control the fire was made me pass up on this path through a wheat field:
That could have turned dodgy if things went south, which I'm always assuming is a possibility. I don't have a lot of experience or training in dealing with wildfires and this 500-acre blaze sounded like a non-story just three hours earlier as a small fire seemed to be pinned between the railroad tracks and the river. It only took a shift in the wind to blow it up.
I started wondering how much farther I should bother going after a half-mile trek and without seeing any fuel-free paths to the action. That's when Pasco Fire Chief Bob Gear came driving the opposite direction and told me it would be safe to head toward the orchard ahead.
That's where I found some more scorched earth,
and firefighters keeping the flames from getting into the cherry trees:
The panorama and square Hipstamatic snap above weren't the only iPhone images I made, as I was sending stills and video back from the field throughout. Photographer Paul T. Erickson was catching my clips and cut together this little video montage, updating it as I sent back more stuff:
I dragged the mile or so back to my car as the smoke dissipated and the briefly endangered herd of cows moved into a much safer pasture, snapping a shot of them before heading back to the office:
You can see more of my take in this gallery, which I thought turned out OK. I always look back at my take and wish I could have more accurately captured the feeling of being out there, but the limits of my skill and a silent 2D medium always seem to overpower that goal.
Like photography gear, my special clothing only takes me so far. Skill, experience and professional relationships are still the most important parts of photojournalism. Having worked here for five years means I've met many of the firefighters and I've proven myself to not be a reckless liability out in the field. They even went so far as to help me get closer, and I'd like to give a big thanks to Richland Fire Chief Grant Baynes for shuttling me around, Pasco Fire Chief Bob Gear for pointing me in the right direction and Benton Fire District 1 Capt. Jeff Ripley for making sure I could get in contact with him if I got stuck somewhere.
I would have thanked Benton Fire District 1 Capt. Devin Helland too, if only he would have retweeted me.
So don't expect to throw on a yellow jumpsuit and go stomping through the burning brush in search of hot photos unless you really think the fancy cameras that pros use are the key to their success.
For a much more accomplished point of view...
Check out this Q&A with the Minneapolis Star Tribune's Brian Peterson. Especially noteworthy are his closing thoughts:
Photojournalism is one-dimensional and you must avoid dedicating your entire life to it. As much as we all love the craft, it will never love you back. Keep your life in balance: faith, family, friends and fotojournalism. When times are tough on the job, you will have your faith, family and friends to keep you grounded. When you have the time and passion to dive into a subject it will be your life experience with family and friends that will help you relate to your subjects. Nurture all three dimensions of your life; your photography will be better for it. Keep the faith.
DVAFOTO has a great interview with Scott Strazzante about his Common Ground project, which is still well short of funding on Kickstarter. The interview covers some background of the project and some business logistics I hadnt seen before. Its well worth a read and $50 (or more, if you can swing it) to essentially pre-order a signed copy and make sure this book comes together.
For a crazier Q&A, see Tim Bartlett's series of a wolf chasing him during a motorcycle ride.
Caveman Circus has a cool series of portraits showing how fans of certain concerts emulate their idols. Sadly the photographer isn't really credited except via a tiny via" link on the bottom taking you to James Mollison's page. Here's hoping they legitimately licensed the photos.
If not, they could be facing a hefty lawsuit like BuzzFeed, as Idaho photographer Kai Eiselein is seeking $3.6 million for BuzzFeed's use of one of his soccer images.