I began my journey in photography nearly 20 years ago as a thought experiment that…
Let’s face it, landscape photography is hard. However, I don’t just mean capturing great vistas, but the physical demands that you face, be it extreme weather, long hours on foot with a backpack, and the difficult terrain we must often deal with to get access to great shooting locations. Physical fitness and overall health has played a huge role in my success as a landscape photographer over the years. It has enabled me to make images with unique perspectives, and discover uncommon views of familiar subjects and locations. And you too can enjoy these benefits with just a relatively small investment in time – and yes, sweat.
As a nature photographer, I like to visit locations that offer as much unique potential as possible, and more often than not, these are usually more difficult to reach. Being as healthy and fit as possible makes it easier and safer for me to explore these locations. I’m certain that without the commitment to keeping my body in as good condition as I keep my camera gear, I would probably not be working as a professional photographer today.
Most of the time I am hiking and sometimes backpacking to a location. But I’ve also kayaked, canoed, and cycled to reach locations that I could not get to any other way. Living close to the Hudson River gives me many opportunities to get out on the water, and the valley always looks and feels so different from that perspective. But most of the time I am on foot, and usually going uphill with a 20lb backpack and tripod. Add 10″ of snow and freezing cold wind, and the effort becomes extremely strenuous!
We can also gain inspiration from some of the worlds greatest landscape photographers. One of my favorites, and a legend amongst the photo community, is David Muench. Even into his seventies, students that have taken workshops with him lately have told me that he manages steep trails like a mountain goat, and is always in position before anyone else. The late Galen Rowell, another landscape icon, combined rock and mountain climbing with photography to produce a body of work that is still unrivaled to this day. He was dedicated to fitness, often running 8-10 miles a day while on photo assignments for National Geographic.
“My mountaineering skills are not important to my best photographs, but they do add a component to my work that is definitely a bit different than that of most photographers.” – Galen Rowell
By no means am I saying that you have to become an extreme athlete or spend 6 days a week in the gym in order to make better pictures. But a regular exercise program will provide enormous benefits that go beyond just being a photographer – it can change and improve your life for the better.
How Physical Fitness Helps You Become a Better Landscape Photographer
- Access remote locations faster and easier – you’ll have access to more locations simply because you’ll be able to cover greater distances and reach remote locations that you might not have attempted before.
- Carry more gear – no question that we carry far less weight than photographers from the past, but being comfortable with a loaded backpack is an advantage, and allows you to carry non-photo gear as well, like food, water, and extra clothing.
- Tackle difficult terrain – many of the most unique viewpoints I’ve photographed required navigating difficult terrain, and having past experience and confidence helps you stay safe and sure footed.
- Stay out longer – if you can get to a location faster, then you can return faster as well, and this gives you more time to focus on photography.
- Recover faster – no question that being in shape, and improving your flexibility helps you recover faster and feel better the next morning, especially when that’s Monday morning!
- More endurance on multi day shoots – being able to get out day after day and feel fresh, especially on a week long workshop, is important for both the body and mind. Motivation is often a combination of both, and when you feel good physically, you’ll think and react clearer as well.
- Feel more positive physically and mentally – to me this is the key to being open to the moment and taking advantage of whatever nature has to offer. When your mind and body are in sync, then you’ve given creativity the best possible environment to flourish, and that is so important to landscape photography.
- Spend more time off the beaten path – if you can navigate difficult terrain, especially at altitude, then you will make images that are unique and original because it’s difficult to get to.
- Improves your Fitness – the more you hike, the better you’ll get. This means you’ll lose weight, become leaner, and improve upon all of the previously mentioned areas -a win win situation.
The Basic Key Areas to Focus On
The basis of any fitness program for hiking and backpacking starts with cardiovascular endurance, core strength, and flexibility. Each of these is important on their own, but together will form a great foundation to build on.
Below I’ll try and outline some strategies that have worked for me over the years. At my current age of 44, I feel I am in the best shape of my life. As with all things, this has been the result of many years of hard work, commitment, and an obsession with health and nutrition. This may not work for everyone, and certainly is not an absolute prerequisite to becoming a landscape photographer. Even if you only adopt some of these practices, you will reap rewards that certainly go beyond nature photography.
My Personal Fitness Goals
• Cardiovascular conditioning – I try to regularly perform exercises that increase my heat rate significantly for sustained periods of time. I live extremely close to 1500 ft Mt Beacon, so 3 times a week I will climb to the top and back down with my backpack – a 50 minute workout that burns lots of calories and improves my cardio conditioning. During the summer months I add cycling and kayaking. In winter I snowshoe which is even more strenuous but provides a great workout and keeps me warm even when it’s very cold out. Just remember to wear the right base layers, and don’t stay idle too long, otherwise your body will cool off and make you very uncomfortable.
• Core Strength – I use a swiss ball combined with many of the routines found in the Core Performance book by Mark Verstegen. These are all fairly easy to learn, don’t require any elaborate equipment, and you’ll experience positive results fairly quickly. In addition, push-ups are one of the best exercises, and if you don’t do anything else, is probably the best single thing you can do for core strength – just ask the military.
• Yoga – Finally, I have a daily yoga practice of about 45 minutes that I have been doing for over a year and has been really beneficial in so many ways, both physically and mentally. Balance and flexibility are tremendously important when hiking, and having a strong core is the key to reducing injury, and improving endurance. In addition, yoga places the entire body into focus and really helps create awareness of how it functions as a whole. Just as knowing how your camera operates is important to getting the most out of it as a tool, so too the body will function so much better for you when you are in harmony with it.
I fractured my ankle very badly over 4 years ago, and while I did try conventional physical therapy, it was a regular yoga practice combined with exercise (and pain) that allowed me to heal and recover to where I am today – probably 95% strength and range of motion (yes this is my ankle with the 5 screws and metal plate that hold it together!)
So during a typical week, I’ll try to get 3 hikes in, use the swiss ball 3 times, and practice yoga 5-6 days of the week. I will also do 75-100 push-ups and 6O-90 sit-ups every other day. Of course this will change depending on travel, and whether I’m hiking for photo shoots which provide plenty of exercise already. Even on an extended photo trip, I will take my yoga mat and a few weights and find the time to practice – it’s all a matter of priority and commitment, just like photography in general. And of course, I hike with my camera, so there is always the opportunity to make great images and get some exercise at the same time.
This is a broad subject, and what works for me may not work for you, but I hope I have inspired you to consider the benefits that health and fitness can bring to your landscape photography and your life. It isn’t always easy, and I need as much motivation as I can get at times, but with small steps and commitment, you will enjoy real benefits that are well worth the effort.
What fitness challenges do you face? Care to share any motivational ideas?
P90X – workout program
iPhone and iPad Apps
Streaks – motivational calendar