There comes a time (or several) during every photographer’s life when a horror story unfolds. I’m not talking Hollywood drama horror, but a situation that might make you feel a similar dread. Ever since starting my adventure as a full-time photographer in September 2012, I’ve been relatively lucky. My horror stories have been relatively minimal. But as I looked back, I realized that almost every year threw some sort of challenge my way. Thankfully, I was able to overcome and built backup plans if there’s ever a next time. Consider this an entertaining read with some lessons on how to overcome these situations should you find yourself in them.
1. Appendicitis during a multi-day shoot (1 year in).
About six months into my full-time photography quest, I got hit with the biggest medical scare of my twenties: appendicitis. Of course, this had to happen while I was photographing a 4-day music festival in the desert. If you’re curious about the whole story, I wrote a blog on the experience. In short, it goes something like this.
Over the course of several hours, I went from thinking I had food poisoning to winding up in two hospitals, the second of which removed my appendix at some early morning hour. By 8am the next day, I was released from the hospital and back at the music festival where it all happened, attempting to finish my photography assignment. I somehow power through two more days of the festival before going home and collapsing on my couch for several weeks.
Having (or making) friends on set is crucial.
The very first takeaway is that friends are important! If not for my two photographer friends, Jim and Alex, the whole appendicitis experience could have turned out very differently. Jim and Alex are two long-time friends that I made in the concert photography world, and their friendship meant more that weekend than ever before. While on a photography set, you want to make sure you have friends like them to have your back in case something happens. If you don’t have long-time friends, be friendly to everyone you meet at a photo shoot. You never know when you might need even a small display of kindness to help you out in a time of need.
Know your health limits.
Should you continue your assignment in the event of a health emergency? It depends on your situation and what you have written into your photography contract. In my case, I wasn’t forced to continue shooting, but I did so anyway, for better or for worse. Physically, I felt fine enough to carry on, so I did. But I made sure to tell my client immediately so they could adjust their expectations. If you’re having health issues, your client will totally understand if you can’t deliver at full capacity, but let them know ASAP so they can make alternate plans if needed, or have someone cover for you. At the very least, make sure you have provisions or a backup plan written into your photography agreement if doing paid client work.
Keep an emergency fund.
You’ve probably heard the advice of keeping an emergency fund, just in case. This experience proved the importance of this advice. Over the next six months after my surgery, a slew of medical bills piled up. Who knew that ambulances and a little shot of pain relief could cost so much? Not having insurance at the time, I had to pay thousands of dollars out of pocket. My little emergency fund helped, but I had to set up payment plans that made my first year in business a real challenge. If you don’t have an emergency fund yet, start one! You never know when you’ll need it.
2. Laptop died during a multi-day shoot (2 years in).
As a photographer who relies on lots of technical equipment, the reality of gear failing sinks in pretty regularly. Cameras fail (more on that below), but so do computers. Two years into my photography business, my laptop video card died right in the middle of a 4-day music festival. And yes, it was the same festival as the appendicitis scare. Since my assignment involved shooting, editing, and submitting photos within 12 hours, a laptop was a necessity. Since this festival was again in a desert, my options were limited.
Friends save the day again.
Thankfully, my friends stepped in to help. My friend Alex let me do some edits on his computer, and my friend John drove me to the nearest Best Buy (90 minutes away!) to buy a new laptop. If not already apparent from the first story, hopefully, this drills in the importance of having friends on your photo shoot set. Good friends are best, but at the very least be friendly with every stranger you meet on set. You never know when you might need a favor.
Take care of your laptop.
Before this fiasco, I genuinely did not realize how important my laptop was in my photography workflow. I regularly cleaned and serviced my cameras, but didn’t do that with my computer. Ever since then, I’ve made an effort to do regular maintenance checks on my laptop. I also make sure Apple Care, or some form of laptop insurance, is active in case I need a major repair or replacement.
Have a laptop backup plan.
This is a tough one, but it’s essential to have some sort of computer backup in case your main laptop goes down.In the laptop story above, I did something VERY risky that I wouldn’t necessarily recommend doing. My friend drove me to Best Buy and I bought a brand new laptop, the only MacBook they had in stock. I used the laptop for two days to finish my assignment, then returned it to Best Buy for a full refund. Not the most reliable plan, but it worked at the time. Most of us, myself included, can’t afford to have two MacBook Pros, and most of the time it will be overkill. But at the very least, you need access to a computer where you can perform basic tasks related to your business. Currently, my backup plan is to use one of my husband’s computers if I really need to.
3. Breaking a camera and lens during a shoot (numerous times).
One of my first big breaks as a concert photographer was shooting Seattle band Fleet Foxes for Pitchfork. It was my very first assignment for an international publication and I was stoked! About midway through my shoot, something awful happened: I dropped my camera on a concrete floor. It was a Nikon D700 and 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, and the sound of that falling to the ground was heartwrenching. This was before I went pro, so I didn’t have any backup gear or insurance. All I could do was take it to my local repair shop, who took 5 whole months to fix them (claiming certain parts were hard to source).
Fast forward several years, and I’ve lost track of how many times my DSLRs, lenses, flashes, and other accessories have had accidents. The rule of thumb here is that breaking gear is pretty much inevitable. It will happen multiple times, so be prepared. Here are some lessons I’ve learned from my own accidents.
Have photography insurance.
The very first thing you should do before your first paid photography job is to buy insurance. At least two types are needed. First is camera gear insurance that will help you out in case your gear breaks. All policies have different terms and exemptions and there’s often a deductible that has to be met. But gear insurance will at least protect you from really big costs. Also note that if you make money from photography, personal property insurance no longer covers your camera gear; instead, you’ll need professional photography insurance. The second type of insurance you should have is some kind of liability insurance. Consider this: you drop your camera and it not only breaks, but it injures your client. Liability insurance will offer some protection in cases like this. Currently, I get both types of insurance from the PPA (Professional Photographers of America).
Get additional camera gear coverage.
Some camera brands such as Nikon and Canon offer professional service programs with discounted, expedited repairs. There’s usually an annual fee and the requirement of owning a certain amount of “pro-level” gear. But as a working professional, membership in these programs is essential. I’ve been a long-time member of Canon Pro Services (CPS) and regularly send them my gear for maintenance at the very least. Both times, they detected worn out shutters in my DSLRs and replaced them at a slight discount.
Know where your local camera repair store is…
On the note of camera repairs, it’s also a good idea to have a relationship with the local repair stores in your area. Here in Seattle, Camera Techs is my go-to source for getting my gear quickly assessed if I suspect a problem. They can also do a certain level of repairs in-house, or sometimes they recommend sending the gear back to the manufacturer (when I’ll use my CPS membership).
..and your local gear rental store.
While your gear is being repaired, you’ll almost definitely need replacement gear. Backups can help to a point, but you may also need to rent gear, especially if your primary camera body or lens is in the shop. I rent all of my gear from my local camera store, Glazers Camera. Another solid option for rentals if you don’t have a local store is Borrow Lenses.
Always have backup camera gear.
As a professional photographer, you must always have backup gear, ideally on hand with you. My main shooting body is a Canon 5D Mark III with a 24-70mm f/2.8 and Canon 580EXII flash. But I always carry a backup with me in the form of a Canon 6D, 50mm f/1.8 lens, and 430EXII flash. This backup sits in my camera bag and is there in case my primary setup malfunctions. Buying backup gear is costly but still better than finding yourself in the worst case scenario of telling your client you can’t finish a shoot because your gear failed. I also make sure to carry a spare camera body and lens cap. If gear gets damaged, you need a way to protect what’s salvageable until you can hit a repair shop.
4. Losing data right after a shoot.
Last year, I scored one of my dream clients. The assignment involved traveling with them and documenting a special multi-day event. If all went well, there was a chance of getting invited back to do it again the following year. The shoot itself went splendidly and I did my usual routine of dumping SD and CF cards onto my rugged external hard drive. After getting home, I plugged that hard drive into my laptop started editing away. About an hour into editing, Adobe Bridge started acting weird, showing that my images were corrupt. Soon, the images started to rapidly disappear from Bridge. In a panic, I summoned my IT-savvy husband who did his best to figure out what was going on. In short, my hard drive killed itself before my very eyes. It only took a few minutes for it to be completely unresponsive. I’ll never forget that feeling of panic when I realized all of my data was gone.
Never delete your memory cards until you’re finished editing.
In my case, I got extremely lucky. I still had all of my original files on my memory cards, which I still had access to. Ever since then, I am more diligent than ever to make sure my memory cards aren’t formatted until I’m done editing and delivering those final photos to the client. Photos on the original memory cards can serve as one form of a backup. If you take this approach, be sure to clearly label all of your memory cards (I use a silver Sharpie) and have a memory card wallet for keeping them safe and organized.
- My go-to SD card for photo and video: SanDisk Extreme Pro 64GB
- Best memory card wallet: Think Tank Photo Pixel Pocket Rocket
Backup your data at least twice more.
The reality is that pretty much everything related to photography breaks, including memory cards and hard drives. It’s not a matter of if, but when. I had a “rugged” hard drive that served me well for 3 years before it died unexpectedly. In this particular scenario, I did what I had done for 5 years: backed up my SD and CF cards to a single hard drive. This was the one time my strategy failed me. Today, I carry two external hard drives with me to all shoots, and my memory cards are backed up on both devices. One hard drive stays in my camera bag, and the other in my laptop bag. By having two copies of my data in two separate places, this keeps it more secure than banking on a single source.
Have a data recovery plan.
If you don’t have a backup plan in place yet, there are a couple options for attempting to recover lost data. The first is using online programs such as Image Rescue. These programs go through your memory cards and supposedly find previously deleted files. I’ve had luck with these programs in the past, but find them largely ineffective today.
In the case of my corrupt hard drives (I’ve had several over the years), I take them to my local data recovery team, but this also has its pitfalls. The first two times, they were able to fully recover my lost data. But this time, they said the problem was so extensive that the attempted recovery (with no guarantees) would cost $2,000. Luckily, most of that dead hard drive had been backed up, but there were several folders of RAW files there that were lost forever.
5. Flat tire 12 hours before needing to drive to a shoot 3 hours away.
My last photo assignment for 2017 involved driving to a small town 3-hours south of Seattle. The evening before the trip, I was leaving another photo shoot when a parking attendant informed me that he suspected my car had a flat tire. Sure enough, I took it to my local mechanic who confirmed my car wasn’t in any condition for the long road trip I needed to start in 12 hours. One of my worst nightmares was a reality.
Know your local car rental options.
In my 10+ years of car ownership, I’ve been lucky to never have a major automobile incident. Never before have I had to rent a car in Seattle, so I had to start from scratch. Luckily, a quick Google search pulled up a Hertz office nearby plus the ability to book online. An hour later, I had a bright red Toyota Corolla parked outside, ready for my road trip for a mere $65. Now I know where my local car rental offices are if I ever need them again.
Consider other transit options.
Traditional car rental companies seem to be here to stay, but there is also a myriad of alternative transit options. In particular, Zip Car, ReachNow, and Silver Car offer car rental services are competitive prices. They also let you drive in style, renting vehicles such as BMWs through ReachNow and Audis through Silver Car. Finally, rideshare programs such as Uber and Lyft also offer long-term drivers willing to go the distance. This probably would have been my worst-case option if renting a car hadn’t worked out.
Service your car regularly and know your roadside assistance options.
A car is another tool that is incredibly important for your photography business, so it’s crucial to keep is regularly maintained. Had I taken my car in for a service check the week before, my tire situation would have been identified and fix as it was a slow leak, not a sudden flat. Also, it was important to know my roadside assistance options since the leak could have easily presented itself while I was driving to my shoot.
If you’ve made it this far, hopefully, you can learn a few things from these photography horror stories. It’s often not possible to have backup plans for every worst-case scenario out there, but these are relatively universal situations that many will find themselves in. At the very least, be sure to consider these situations and write them into your photography contracts or client agreements to cover yourself in case they happen to you.
Have you had any photography horror stories or worst case scenario situations? How did you handle them? Let me know in the comments below!
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