Photography 101: Don’t Let Fear Paralyize You

Stephen F. Dennstedt

You love photography and the great outdoors but you’re afraid of being out in nature by yourself. Fear can ruin your life. Its been my experience that fear, when faced head-on, is in most cases ephemeral and goes up in a puff of smoke (fear is mostly a mental construct). Buddhist philosophy is full of advice when it comes to dealing with an overactive mind (often called a Monkey Mind)—but bottom line your mind can be your greatest enemy when given free rein.

I am primarily a wildlife, landscape and travel photographer ( and the wilderness is my second home. I’ve loved nature since I was a kid and I’ve relished the solitude and peace it can give for many years. I can remember as a five-year old boy (in 1952) hiking down into our local canyon at sunrise completely alone. From that point on I’ve made it point to get out into nature as often as possible.

The photo inset of me in the upper left corner was photographed in the Northern Amazon River Basin in Cuyabeno, Ecuador. I spent an amazing week in the rainforest photographing the extraordinary wildlife and scenic beauty of the basin. Each natural environment has its own unique wonders and charms (and yes even some danger for the unprepared). I prefer shooting solo with my camera when out & about but an experienced wilderness guide is often essential when you’re trekking off the beaten path. Growing up in San Diego, CA I knew our local deserts intimately and spent long days hiking them with my German Shepherd Major-san (may he RIP).

Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

But when I’m in the jungles of Yucatan, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama I rely on local guides for a safe and productive experience. The same holds true for treks into the Andes Mountains, the Atacama Desert or the Patagonian wilderness of South America. They know where the critters are and the best way to find and photograph them. In my youth I was an avid backpacker and U.S. Marine so I’ve spent plenty of time in the field. Now at seventy I’m getting a little long in the tooth—as Clint Eastwood stated in the movie Dirty Harry: A man has to know his limitations.  

Valle de la Muerte – Atacama Desert, Chile

I can’t physically do now what I could do in my teens, 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s and even early 60s. Time has finally caught up with me but I continue to do what I can do (I now know my limitations). I am not afraid to be in the wilderness (and still revel in the experience) but I am more prudent and patient these days. No more hiking up volcanoes or trekking days on end with a heavy pack on my back (but the memories of such adventures remain ever-present and uppermost in my mind). And I ain’t dead yet and can still do a lot relatively speaking, and I plan to do a lot more before I take my last breath on this small blue marble we call planet Earth.

Nesting Magellanic Penguins – Tierra del Fuego (Patagonia), Argentina

Have I ever faced danger in the wilderness? Sure. Did I survive? Obviously I did. When I was an eight-year old kid I was bitten by a small Southern Pacific Rattlesnake and I enjoyed the experience so much (just kidding) I repeated the process with a very large Red Diamond [back] Rattlesnake when I was ten-years old. A week in the hospital followed by a week of bed-rest at home each time along with 15 to 20 doses of antivenom (and a tetanus booster) plus recovery from the traumatic Cut & Suck treatment no longer prescribed (cutting the wound site with a scalpel and then sucking out the venom with a suction pump).

Male Cinereous Harrier – El Calafate (Patagonia), Argentina

I was also false-charged by a very large Bull Moose in Alaska in 1997 (when getting too close for a photo), an experience that seemed downright wimpy when compared to my brother’s experience of being false-charged by a Grizzly while hiking solo in the Alaska mountains. An experienced wilderness guide can help you avoid some of these amateur mistakes (or just plain common sense helps too). Compare these examples to what you face everyday in a modern American city and they don’t seem so bad. How many people are killed on American freeways or gunned down by senseless violence for no reason at all? The answer is thousands—trust me you’re better off in the wilderness.

Uru Indian Girl – Lake Titicaca, Peru

The video below is produced by Thomas Heaton a Landscape and Travel Photographer based in the UK that I follow on YouTube. You should checkout his YouTube channel if you’re interested in any genre of outdoor photography. They’re both entertaining and chalk-full of good useful information. This particular video speaks to fear and more specifically the fear of being alone in the outdoors. Don’t let fear prevent you from realising your dreams—quell your Monkey Mind and enjoy the solace and peace that comes from photographing Mother Nature in all her glory. Remember—fear is mostly a mental construct that goes away when faced head-on.

3 responses to “Photography 101: Don’t Let Fear Paralyize You

  1. I know exactly what you mean with this entry! I have a few shots that I am proud of because of my stubborn ability to ignore fear for the sake of getting the shot I wanted. If it meant climbing to the rooftop of a building and then dangling from a billboard then so it was!

    • It’s sometimes a fine line between taking a calculated risk and being foolhardy isn’t it? I will often take a calculated risk with my photography but cringe when I read about folks walking off cliffs or doing other stupid stuff trying to get a “Selfie” with their cellphone. Taking a calculated risk involves complete attention and awareness whereas a “Selfie” usually involves distraction and inattention. I applaud the one and abhor the other . . . and I’ve seen many examples of both. GOOD FOR YOU fearlessly taking an occasional risk to get your photo, I love it.

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