Preparation Not Panic Gets You The Image

Preparation Not Panic Gets You The Image

An hour or two after the quake the "Community Development and Security Committee" (JKKK) drove up in a group and seemed be rather excited. They quickly looked to see everyone was off the beach and then drive off again. Not sure what their purpose was except to keep us all freaked out.


Yesterday, not far off from where my family lives in Malaysia there was a major earthquake. Actually, there were three major earthquakes all within several miles and minutes of each other, all of them over 8.0 in magnitude. Fortunately they were over 400 km off the west coast of Sumatra, Indonesia. Apparently the type of earthquake they were did not lend itself to a tsunami. Before I go any further, I want to thank everyone who sent well wishes and prayers up on our behalf. All were greatly appreciated. There was a time during and just after the earthquake we were not sure if we would have to evacuate due to a possible tsunami. In preparation for a possible evacuation to higher ground we quickly put together a small bag with a few days worth of clothing, loaded the back of the car with large containers of water and I packed up several of my cameras and four removable backup drives. We reacted calmly and precisely. We’d been through this before and we knew what we needed to do.

In thinking about what to write today I felt it might be a good time to remind all of us to calm down. I can’t tell you how many people have told me stories how they get flustered and excited when something they have been waiting to photograph appears. They shoot the picture quickly and nervously, then look at it later only to find that the ISO was set to some unusable number or some other setting was off. This is a typical result of excitement and panic. We have all done it, we wait for what seems like hours for something to unfold or out of the blue something so spectacular happens and we are caught off guard, we get caught up in the moment and we don’t pay attention to the details. Our reactions are all over the place and our decisions are poor, often just plain wrong. In short – we screw up.

I worked as a lifeguard for seven summers all throughout high school and university and some years in between. As a lifeguard you are drilled over and over to react and to stay calm. You’re trained to sit at a lifeguard stand and fight boredom for hours on end. Then, at any given moment you have to react and quickly. Someone’s life is at stake. You quickly assess the situation and react accordingly. In my seven years of lifeguarding I personally rescued 27 people. The guards on our beach rarely performed mouth-to-mouth or CPR because our reactions were quick and precise and we acted before the situation got that bad. We trained in routines and skills that we used over and over so that they became second nature when the time came to react. We talked to ourselves sometimes even out loud and reminded ourselves to stay calm and think.

When we are photographing an event or a circumstance that gets our heart pounding we can use these same principles to make sure we get the image.

  1. Know your gear. I’ve harped on this over and over again. You need to know without thinking where the buttons are on your camera and what they do. You need to be able to identify each button with your eyes closed so you don’t have to remove your eye from the viewfinder to find a button and risk losing the shot.
  2. Assess the situation and react accordingly. Don’t just start shooting wildly. Shoot with purpose. Photograph intentionally. Yes something exciting is about to happen or is happening but you can remain calm and focused. Think through what aperture you need, what shutter speed you need and what speed is your ISO set at. What lens to you need? Are you in the right position? Are you safe?
  3. Talk to yourself, out loud if need be. Remind yourself to be calm. Take deep breaths. Think through the settings you need. You already know where the buttons are on your camera, now use them. Pay attention to what is in the frame and in the foreground and background. Any poles or trees sticking up out of peoples heads? Any hot spots in the frame? Check your meter if it is set correctly? I use exposure compensation all the time and as such it is often left a stop or two up or down. Look to the viewfinder now and make sure it’s where it needs to be.

Doing just these three things will give you a much better chance of getting the image that you’ve waited for.

Whether it’s calmly packing your bags in preparing for an evacuation or taking a photo that you’ve waited for when it finally arrives, being prepared and calm can only help. Getting excited and freaking out will only cause you to lose the photograph or be washed out to sea.

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About The Author

Matt Brandon

Matt is a Malaysia based humanitarian and travel photographer. Well known as a photographer and international workshop instructor, Matt’s images have been used by business and organizations around the globe. Matt also on the design board for Think Tank Photo, a camera bag manufacturer. In 2013 Matt founded the On Field Media Project to train the staff of non-profits to use appropriate technology to produce timely as well as quality images.


  1. Phyllis Brandon

    This gives me the shivers. It reminds me of our 9.2 earthquake in Alaska in 1964.

  2. Cathy

    Talk about teaching through example! A near-miss tsunami and you turn it on its head to calmly use it as a lesson in photographic practice.
    So glad that this particular earthquake had a happy ending 🙂

    ps all good tips. I am completely guilty of getting flustered at just the wrong moment.

    pps I also was a lifeguard in high school. Luckily our particular beach was in the middle of the National Park (a 45 minute hike down the side of a mountain) and so there were never any members of the public swimming, just fellow lifeguards soaking up the sun…

    • Matt

      Now that was a lifeguard gig I would have loved. The majority of work as a lifeguard was at Kentucky Lake. It is a huge lake and it has a large beach that has a long swim to the buoys. So, people always pushed themselves to swim to the buoys and they often didn’t know their limits. Hmm, sound like another blog post.

  3. Joe Murray

    Matt thanks for the reminder. I was a lifeguard too and you are right in photography and lifeguarding practicing the skills until you can do them without thinking is the key to performing well under pressure.

  4. Andy Wilson

    Never a life guard but I did do a little lifesaving training. Glad that the worst case situation didn’t happen this time. Having been through a big quake (and a few typhoons) the being prepared and knowing what you need to do helps a lot. And yes it does relate to photography in such sitautions.

    • Matt

      Thanks Andy. What was the quake you went through?

      • Andy Wilson

        The 1999 ChiChi quake was Richter 7.6 about 30 kilometers away from where we were living and only a few kilometers deep. Threw me out of bed. Afterwards we got involved in the relief effort organised by local churches. I spent several days driving stuff up in to the hills and hoping the aftershocks (which went on for a month) didn’t bring half the mountain down on you! I missed a 12 storey building coming down on the road I drove by just a few hours. Just had a film point and shoot in those days. Lots of tragedies and lots of amazing storys of people pulling together to help. I’ve also suffered a 6.9 going of not that far away a few years after that.


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