Every photographer eventually runs into unexpected problems on set and on location. Here’s how these seven pros overcame obstacles and what they took away from their struggles.

Photography is full of challenges. The legendary photographer Edward Weston put it simply when he said, “It is work, and hard work too.” Successful photographers devote time and energy to making their images look simple and easy. In reality, they’ve spent countless hours behind the scenes, dealing with one obstacle or another. But there’s a silver lining: at the end of every daunting task, there’s a lesson to be learned.

We asked seven top Shutterstock contributors to tell us about the most difficult shoot they’ve ever completed. Some of them conquered their biggest hurdles in the studio, while others ventured to remote corners of the world to encounter unexpected complications. All of them will remember their experiences for a long time to come. Below, they share the wisdom they’ve gathered along the way.

1. “If it helps to tell a story or convey a certain mood…it’s worth it to spend a lot of time preparing and building things for your shoots.”

Fer Gregory

7 Lessons Photographers Learned from Difficult Shoots — Give Yourself Time to Prepare

Image by Fer Gregory. Gear: Canon EOS 5D Mark III camera, EF 24-70 f/2.8L II USM lens. Settings: Focal length 61mm; exposure 1/125 sec; f8.0; ISO 400.

What’s the most challenging shoot you’ve done?

I would say that the most challenging shoot I’ve ever done is part of a series about Mexican objects. The challenging thing about this shoot wasn’t the objects but the town itself. I live in the city, and traditional folkloric Mexican towns are hard to find. They are also filled with cars and people, so my solution was to build a scale model from my idea of what a typical town might look like.

I started by doing a sketch of the elements that would be nice for the picture, and then I asked for help from one of my best friends, who also happens to be the model for almost all of my shoots. He is a really talented guy. Both of us built the town from scratch, put Christmas lights inside every window to make another version of this image at night, and painted the whole thing. It took us almost three weeks to complete, and when it was done, the shoot took me about one hour. We then destroyed the town because I didn’t have anywhere to keep it.

I was really happy with the result, and when I saw a picture from that series on the cover of a magazine, I felt it was all worth it.

Pictured: [1] Fer Gregory [2] Fer Gregory

What did you learn from this shoot?

If it helps to tell a story or convey a certain mood that you are not going to find anywhere else, it’s worth it to spend a lot of time preparing and building things for your shoots.

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2. “I learned that in any location, it is possible to take interesting photos, even if it seems that conditions are not perfect and you don’t know what else you can do.”

Ditty_about_summer (Anya Berkut)

7 Lessons Photographers Learned from Difficult Shoots — Things Don't Have to Be Perfect

Image by Ditty_about_summer (Anya Berkut). Gear: GoPro 3. Settings: Focal length 2,5mm; exposure 1/1800 sec; f2,8; ISO 100.

What’s the most challenging shoot you’ve done?

This photo was taken during a sailing expedition to Antarctica. We were on a small 20-meter yacht, and we had to wait a few days for good weather conditions to be able to sail again. We stayed in the same spot near a small island for a long time, and I felt that I had already photographed everything many times. But then I decided to try something new, and I took just my GoPro and a long selfie-stick. I stood in nearly freezing water for two hours, holding the stick with the GoPro camera at the end and waiting for penguins to approach me. I was taking tons of photos, as I couldn’t see what the camera was recording (my GoPro had no screen).

The curious gentoo penguin chicks were learning to swim and were not afraid of me at all; some were hitting my legs underwater, as they were not controlling their trajectory very well; others tried to bite the camera and the stick to check if they were edible. In the end, I had around 7000 images, most of them just with a random piece of sky or a penguin leg, but also a few funny ones.

7 Lessons Photographers Learned from Difficult Shoots — It's Okay to Try Again

Image by Ditty_about_summer (Anya Berkut).

What did you learn from this shoot?

I learned that in any location, it is possible to take interesting photos, even if it seems that conditions are not perfect and you don’t know what else you can do. Just try again, and be creative.

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3. “When shooting in extreme conditions, forgetting the smallest item can be more critical than forgetting your camera!”

ChameleonsEye (Rafael Ben-Ari)

7 Lessons Photographers Learned from Difficult Shoots — Small Things Make a Big Difference

Image by ChameleonsEye (Rafael Ben-Ari). Gear: Nikon D7100 camera, Nikkor 60mm f/2.8D lens. Settings: Exposure 1/125 sec; f2.8; ISO 800.

What’s the most challenging shoot you’ve done?

In recent years, I have extensively documented the indigenous culture of Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands. On one of my photo assignments in the Pacific Ocean, I was shooting for Blue Lagoon Cruises in the remote Yasawa Islands in the northwest of Fiji, and I was given exclusive access to photograph a local native tribe performing a sacred cultural Fijian ritual called the “Demon Dance.”

I had to set sail from Fiji’s main island, Viti Levu, traveling from dawn to dusk on a small boat to reach a remote island not far from Turtle Island, one of the world’s most secluded hideaways for the rich and famous. The location for the shoot was in a small clearing on the edge of a tropical island covered with palm trees. The native sacred dance was performed by local Fijian people.

Pictured: [1] ChameleonsEye (Rafael Ben-Ari) [2] ChameleonsEye (Rafael Ben-Ari) [3] ChameleonsEye (Rafael Ben-Ari)

To keep the authenticity of the performance and to avoid creating a disturbance or distraction, I was required to keep myself hidden at all times in the nearby bush. This led to a few problems; firstly, I had to shoot the dancers’ expressions and motions in low light without the use of a flash. It was night, and this was very challenging! To capture these images, I had to stabilize my camera on a light-weight monopod, increase my camera ISO to 800, and set the camera shutter speed to 1/125 seconds.

On top of the technical challenges, I had forgotten to bring my mosquito repellent—a big mistake that almost cost me the photo shoot! By the end of the shoot, the mosquitoes had attacked every bit of my body, which led me to feel ill. It took me a few weeks to recover.

What did you learn from this shoot?

When shooting in extreme conditions, forgetting the smallest item can be more critical than forgetting your camera! Aside from the challenges I faced, I don’t regret taking up this unique experience and documenting these happy people and their culture as they performed such a beautiful and ancient spiritual ritual.

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4. “I learned that if you do your best and stick to your plan, you can overcome the challenges you set for yourself.”

Tono Balaguer

7 Lessons Photographers Learned from Difficult Shoots — Stick to a Plan

Image by Tono Balaguer. Gear: Canon EOS 5D Mark III camera, EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens. Settings: Focal length 30mm; exposure 1/80 sec; f11; ISO 100.

What’s the most challenging shoot you’ve done?

I have faced many challenges in my travels, but I want to share one that might seem less dramatic. It’s the kind of challenge I face on more of a daily basis.

I spent several months in Mexico since I have family living there, and one day, I decided to learn how to cook some recipes. I’m not a professional chef, but I gathered a good collection of recipes to bring back to Europe. Once I was in my studio at home, I served as my own chef, my own stylist, and also the photographer. I went to the market, and I found most of what I needed, but the ingredients for Mexican cuisine are not always handy overseas in non-tropical locations. I spent a week searching for the ingredients and ordering from five different shops.

In the end, I found some varieties of chile, pitaya or dragonfruit, mote corn, a real Mexican silver embroidered hat, and a real volcanic stone molcajete. After all of this, I had to cook all the ingredients as quickly as possible and get an image with all of them together. These days, this photo is among the most successful images in the Shutterstock collection if you search for photos of Mexican food.

7 Lessons Photographers Learned from Difficult Shoots — Follow Your Inspiration

Image by Tono Balaguer.

What did you learn from this shoot?

I learned that if you do your best and stick to your plan, you can overcome the challenges you set for yourself. We can only get the results we want if we try.

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5. “Whenever you are planning an experimental shoot, it’s important to take test shots and edit them.”

espies

7 Lessons Photographers Learned from Difficult Shoots — Take Test Shots

Image by espies. Gear: NIKON D810 camera, Nikon 24-120 lens, Tripod. Settings: Focal length 85mm; exposure 1/125 sec; f9; ISO 100.

What’s the most challenging shoot you’ve done?

Every year, I love to spend vacation time with my family on the beach. I’ve always wanted to shoot on location at the beach, but I haven’t been able to make it work during my holiday time. Shooting a real beach would be a challenge, given that my studio is 1500 kilometers away from the shore in Nagpur. My wife is an interior designer, and she helped me by making an artificial beach set in the studio. We used a long seawater backdrop to enhance the set, and we experimented with seven models, who together made a family.

With much excitement, I opened the first image for retouching. In that moment, I felt that everything had gone to waste, including my time and hard work. The background I made was not sharp, and the texture of the material was clearly visible. I accepted this second challenge and spent almost a week retouching the background in detail. I barely saved the shoot, but the resulting picture is my best and highest-selling picture on Shutterstock.

Pictured: [1] espies [2] espies [3] espies

What did you learn from this shoot?

Whenever you are planning an experimental shoot, it’s important to take test shots and edit them. That way, you can make the final adjustments before the actual shoot and achieve the best results possible.

6. “Be ready! I never know what camera or lens will be the one that allows for a successful shot.”

karamysh (Slav Karamysh)

7 Lessons Photographers Learned from Difficult Shoots — Be Ready for Anything

Image by karamysh (Slav Karamysh). Gear: Nikon D7000 camera, Nikon AF-S Nikkor 28-300 f/3.5-5.6 lens. Settings: Focal length 98mm; exposure 1/320 sec; f8.0; ISO 200.

What’s the most challenging shoot you’ve done?

Photography is challenging, and some shoots are even more challenging than others. When I travel, I always bring two cameras, so my bag is bulky and heavy. This picture from Vernazza in Cinque Terre was taken at the end of three hours spent on a mountain trail. My main camera at that time, a Nikon D800 and Nikon 16-35 f/4 lens, was useless at such a distance. Luckily, I had my second camera, a Nikon D7000 and Nikon 28-300 f/3.5-5.6 lens, in my heavy bag. I made this shot, and I was very happy.

7 Lessons Photographers Learned from Difficult Shoots — Carry Multiple Cameras and Lenses

Image by karamysh (Slav Karamysh).

What did you learn from this shoot?

Be ready! I never know what camera or lens will be the one that allows for a successful shot. Also, the reality is that I never have the time or stamina to change lenses, so I keep two bodies with two lenses attached and ready.

7. “…I was educated on the importance of being patient, planning well in advance, and being able to adapt to changing situations.”

solarseven (James Thew)

7 Lessons Photographers Learned from Difficult Shoots — Adaptability is Key

Image by solarseven (James Thew). Gear for the campfire image: Nikon D600 camera, 24mm prime lens. Gear for the Northern Lights image: Nikon D800 camera, 24mm prime lens. Settings for campfire image: Exposure 1/125 sec; f2.8; ISO 400. Settings for Northern Lights image: Exposure 5 sec; f2.8; ISO 800. This is a composite.

What’s the most challenging shoot you’ve done?

Capturing the Aurora in Sweden and Norway is tricky because there are so many variables in nature, and you have a limited amount of time on location. You are up against the weather and the clock. Researching your trips and planning ahead will give you the best chance, but nature can and often does have different ideas. For this image, I took a few trips late into the night in freezing weather conditions for hours on end before any decent results were yielded. Ironically, though, one of the finest Aurora displays I have ever photographed was from an open window in the comfort of a hotel room in Tromso.

Pictured: [1] solarseven (James Thew) [2] solarseven (James Thew)

What did you learn from this shoot?

In this case, I was educated on the importance of being patient, planning well in advance, and being able to adapt to changing situations.

Top Image by Tono Balaguer.