Situational awareness is the key to better photography

I teach workshops overseas and domestically. I photograph overseas and domestically. In both cases there is one skill that I practice over and over that makes a huge difference when I photograph. It is the one thing that every photographer should master, whether or not they are attending one of my workshop (or anyone else’s.)

The number one tool that every photographer needs is to master situational awareness, ideally BEFORE traveling to a workshop. This is a skill that will make you a much better photographer AND better insure you will not have any incidents while traveling.

I am defining situational awareness as, according to Wikipedia, “…being aware of what is happening in the vicinity to understand how information, events, and one’s own actions will impact goals and objectives, both immediately and in the near future. One with an adept sense of situation awareness generally has a high degree of knowledge with respect to inputs and outputs of a system, an innate “feel” for situations, people, and events that play out because of variables the subject can control. “ Situational awareness is vital to law enforcement, the military, pilots and the like. It can be just as useful for photographers.

In preparing this blog, I thought about how I might teach someone situational awareness. There are many routes you might take to achieve the mastery of situational awareness. A great deal of what’s written about situational awareness involves the military and other high risk situations. The best blog entry I found on situational awareness for the rest of us is at:

This is just my suggestion:

Walk into a place with a lot of people. It can be a street in a city, the entrance to a shopping mall, a train/bus station or some other place with many people and lots of activity.  Put your phone away and concentrate on simply being in that place. Note the paths that people walk as they pass through that space. Also note if they are aware of you. Frequently just standing still and slightly out of the lanes of traffic is enough for you to “fade into the woodwork.”

After a few minutes, shift your stance slightly more into the flow of traffic and notice how people slightly alter their paths to avoid you. Shift back out of traffic. Practice this back and forth till it becomes intuitive.  If you do it enough, shifting in and out of traffic and subtly shaping the movement of those around you will be the first step in greatly increasing your situational awareness. Practice that a few different times over a few different days. What initially takes a lot of energy and concentration will eventually become intuitive and require little energy.

Then try the same process while walking in some of the same places that you did your first “practice rounds.”  Keep your attention on what is happening in front of you.  If you do this enough times, you will become much better at gliding through traffic/crowds by anticipating potential collisions and avoiding them by slightly altering your path. You may have ” the right of way” in given encounter-to-be, but if the other person does not appreciate that fact, you have a collision.  So, shift left or right just a bit to avoid the collision. When you get good at this you will never even have to make eye contact with the person you are trying not to collide with. As you go further, you will also be able to shift sooner rather than later, so any potential collisions never even start to happen. Again, practice this over a few sessions. Eventually, what took lots of concentration and focus will become intuitive and easy. You can practice this pretty much every day.

Now that this improved situational awareness is almost automatic, add a 360 degree view of the world to your newfound awareness. Do everything described above but now add looking left and right as well as over your shoulder and behind you. Looking left and right require nothing more than a slight turn of the head. In that movement, you can see and anticipate the paths of people about to cross your path from the left or from the right. Once you are comfortable with that, having practiced few times over a few days in different places, challenge yourself by intentionally walk into an intersection with lots of people, such as a street corner, but walk perpendicular to the flow of cross traffic. This way you will be forced to analyze and adapt to the cross traffic.

As far as keeping track of what is behind you, I never fully turn my head or torso back. I turn my head left or right, then I look out of the corner of my eye to see what (or whom) is behind me.  If I “know” what is behind me, I adapt my plans accordingly. If I am not sure, I usually stop, press myself against the wall and get as far out of traffic as I can. Then I evaluate the situation and proceed.

I am practicing the processes constantly, regardless of whether I am out photographing, doing something else or just walking. One key is not having a phone out or anything else to distract you from “being present” and  ”in the moment.” If you practice this over and over it will make you safer, since you will have a better sense of what is around you. It will vastly improve your photography because you will be better at anticipating what you are about to encounter, so you can plan how you will photograph that subject before you “get there.” General situational awareness will also give you a general better experience of life itself. What more could you ask for?

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