I am often asked: What is the most important factor for producing better photographs? There are multiple theories: talent, expensive equipment, Photoshop, “getting closer”, but my pat answer is access.You can teach yourself to make better compositions or just get lucky, but if you can’t get at what you need to photograph you have little chance to succeed.
Permissions, press passes, permits, chutzpah can be employed in varying amounts to “be in the right place at the right time”.
Nothing supplants actual permission. Having an assignment or knowing someone in authority is worth its weight in gold. If a friend or acquaintance opens the door, everything is easier. However, it is still up to you to make good. I have made phone calls to perfect strangers to explain my mission throughout my entire career. Sometimes it is as easy as that. But sometimes what you want is seen as an imposition. You always have to be prepared to explain why your request will be beneficial for your subject. I tell my assistants you have to coerce people to do what will cost them time and money but in the end, they’ll feel the need to thank you.
“We don’t need no damn badges”
In some locations security is so tight that you have to wear a credential to get past guards. Egotistical hangers-on will prance around wearing them like a badge of honor. “Backstage passes” have the cachet of hierarchy. But there is no universal press pass, as some amateur photographers seem to think.
You may need to apply for credentials well before the event and there’s the rub. Knowing who to tap and how becomes an art form. Credentials don’t guarantee access though. They only get you through the gate. I have had to open up my background to get security clearances to such things as papal visits and national political conventions.
“How much will that cost me?”
Many locales have started restricting when, where and how you take pictures. Private property requires permission most of the time. Stores, places of business, homes, malls, factories all have the right to prevent photography. But many cities, airports, national parks, and sporting events require permits to put down a tripod, bring in models, impede pedestrian or vehicular traffic, etc. Sometimes there is a fee involved. Many photographers avoid the inconvenience of applying for permits, but consider the damage to your budget and reputation if you get caught and bad people with badges shut your operation down.
Gift of Gab
The majority of photography is spontaneous. See something, take a picture. Ninety percent of the time there is no additional consequence. To stop and ask permission may alter the situation forever. To acquire a permit may be impossible. Personality, rationality and the law may be of no help in the heat of the moment. Good photographers develop a brazen attitude that convinces people that their intentions are reasonable. Some call it chutzpah. Others gall. Applied with finesse, it can get you good pictures. Done badly, it can get you into trouble. Nothing is worth physical harm or worse. I have spent time in jails all over the world and I can categorically say it is not worth it.
There are many explorers and adventurers who are taking photography to places beyond all human endeavors. Humanity is advanced by these courageous acts. Many fail. Lots of people can get there but the glory goes to those who come back with proof. What is legal? What is blood?
Social networking has attracted a new brand of thrill seeker whose only interest is attention with little regard for propriety, property, physical harm or personal safety. URBEX (urban explorers) are diving, flying, and climbing all sorts of challenges: caves, cliffs, super skyscrapers. Similarly, others are chasing wars, drug cartels and the unknown with little preparation. Every photograph we take has a risk/cost analysis that goes with it. Sometimes the balance is not right.