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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?
Outside Magazine Fitness Center
P90X – workout program
iPhone and iPad Apps
Streaks – motivational calendar
This Post Has 17 Comments
This post comes at a good time after the languid, feasting holidays. Interesting that push-ups are also good for your core. It’s obvious now that you say it, but I never would have thought of push-ups that way. I’m in particular danger of not staying in shape because I am writing and promoting photography more than photographing. I find that when I am out making photographs regularly I feel much better physically and psychologically. Good physical health often brings a better mental outlook and sharper thinking.
Thanks for the feedback Dave – and you have touched on exactly the point I was hoping to make about the holistic benefits of fitness. No question when mind and body are in sync, our ability to stay open to nature is vastly improved. Push ups are under rated by many when it comes to whole body fitness, but here are some more reasons why to do them regularly. Best of luck!
This is a fantastic blog entry and very essential to everyday life. I think I do just about the same things you do: Cycling, snowshoeing, lifting, hiking, push-ups, and yoga. I’ve been using the “100 pushups” iPhone app for push-ups on the days I don’t lift at the gym. If I had to pick only one from the list it would be yoga. I do Bikram Yoga at least once per week. This is the yoga where the room is 110 degrees. It has eliminated all my hip pain, lower back pain, given me amazing flexibility, and most of all relieves my stress and calms my mind. Thanks again for a great blog!
Hi Jamil, Thanks for the feedback and for sharing your own personal fitness routine. Yes I agree that yoga has been the most beneficial for me, though I do not practice the Bikram version – will have to look into that at some point for my own sometimes aching lower back. The 100 pushups app is also great, and more info can be found here for those who are curious. Love your Point Judith images, will have to visit someday.
Totally inspiring! I’ve always been a “gym nut” but I am blown away by your discipline and dedication. If you are ever willing to wait up for an enthusiast who is not as in shape as you to hike that mountain, I am totally willing to be your morning hiking buddy. Meanwhile, I hope to beat myself into better shape because you are absolutely right. Thanks.
Thanks Chris – always great to get your feedback and know that it inspired you…of course you know that much of what we do as photographers is so dependent on dedication, and to me this is so worth it on many levels, especially when you consider the mental benefits.
I’d love to have you come on a local hike, I’ll keep you posted for sure with all this snow we’re getting this winter!
thanks again, Rob
Hi Robert, thanks so much for this post. After years of playing rugby I certainly know how to get in shape for that. But now it’s winding down for me I am varying my fitness regime more to account for a more varied lifestyle. I would say you’ve got your almost spot on and would also wholeheartedly certify that yoga is extremely beneficial for recovery after injuries – I’ve dislocated the left shoulder twice and torn the labrum in it too which resulted in one op, and had an ACL tear which resulted in my second op. Yoga really helped me get flexibility and strength back in those joints AFTER the prescribed rehab. I have a couple of suggestions too though: I would incorporate one dedicated strength session with bars and dumbbells if you could, maybe at the expense of a hike. It will certainly help keep your back and shoulders fit and strong to carry your equipment if you include deadlifts etc. If you keep the pace of the routine up and the rest minimal the session acts as a good metabolic burner too. I am also becoming a fan of Pilates for core strength and keeping your musculo-skeletal alignment in shape – in this respect it acts for injury prevention.
Like Chris I would also love to get in a hike with you if possible. In fact, I don’t know if you got my email through your contact form but I’ve been trying to figure out some Hudson Valley hikes that are accessible from New York city, e.g. trail routes from MetroNorth stations as well as trail conditions. The websites I have found were not very transparent to me at least. If you can help that’d be great.
As the ancient Greeks then Romans espoused, and ASICS incorporated into their name: Anima Sana In Corpore Sano – a sound mind in a sound body.
Really enjoying your blog. Regards,
@Ed – thanks for the great feedback and suggestions. I certainly agree with you about the weights for upper back strength – I tend to get sore on long hikes with an extra heavy pack, so always looking for something to help with that. Sometimes something as simple as adjusting the straps to a different position helps tremendously, but for sure stability helps.
Unfortunately, the contact form has been acting strange the last few weeks, so some emails were delivered very late – all fixed now and I did receive yours – will respond with some hiking suggestions and post here as well. Thanks again, and perhaps you can join us soon for a winter hike!
I’d also be interested in a group hike / photo shoot if that’s ok with you.
@Jamil – thanks for the feedback – sure thing, will keep you posted.
Robert, Thanks for sharing so many tips for successful photography – your generous spirit is most appreciated. From the technical to the physical to the mental, the info you share is fantastic. As an amateur photographer, avid outdoors person and 9-5 desk jockey, this particular blog post is very interesting to me.
I do have a question regarding Yoga practice. How does one move from the studio Yoga class experience to developing a personal, at-home Yoga routine? I’m curious what would be an effective way to make that leap.
It looks like there’s a lot of interest in hiking with you, and I’d be happy to join in as well. I’m pretty well versed in hiking the Gunks, so I’d be happy to offer up a route if there’s any interest.
@Steve – thanks Steve for your feedback and perspective – always appreciate your input. As far as your question about developing a yoga practice at home – there are many aspects to this question that depend on the individual person. But as a general guideline, I would recommend a few things.
1) LIke anything else, practice yoga as often as possible. With a teacher is best, but there is no reason you can not continue to practice on your own, even if it is a few poses. Much like photography, when I first started, I barely knew what I was doing, but practice became the ultimate teacher through experience. Then I began to ask questions from other photographers that helped me along my own creative path. The more you practice yoga, the more it will teach you, and the more you will want to learn. This cultivates your own awareness of what it means to you, and you’ll have a better sense of what you want to get out of it. Also recommend using CDs when you start to learn poses and keep you motivated – especially like Rodney Yee, and the Yogamazing video podcast.
2) If possible, try to start a simple meditation practice. This will also help your yoga practice become more personal and meaningful to you beyond just doing poses and getting sore! Again, a simple 5-10 minutes a day is all it takes. I highly recommend 8-minute Meditation by Victor Davich to get you started – easy to understand and practice for the lay person who doesn’t want to get into any religious/Buddhist study, but just become more mindful for every day life.
3) Have fun – this is really important for me, because if it’s not fun, then it’s difficult to maintain long term. Yoga is like photography in that every one has their own particular way of seeing the world, and similarly everyone can also practice yoga to their own physical and mental ability. It really doesn’t matter where you are in terms of strength, endurance, and flexibility, and comparing yourself to others is ultimately meaningless. Each person has to follow their own path, and achieving some goal, whether a pose, or a “trophy shot” is beside the point. What matters is that you’re growing and learning, and developing your own practice that is unique, beneficial to you, and most important creates a positive state of mind. This is important when practicing on your own since you won’t have that immediate feedback you get with a teacher, and so gaining confidence in your effort is really important for staying focused and motivated.
Hope this helps, and feel free to ask any other questions. Best
I took this post to heart when you put it on your website. I took the Acadia Workshop in October, 2010, and it was a workout for me. I realized then at 52 I was not in very good shape, and the video from that workshop showed that. I started eating much better, but added elliptical training to it in January, 2011. I quickly found out how out of shape I was. Ten minutes was exhausting, but I worked at it and got it up to 50 to 60 minutes a day, five times a week. Nine months later I was 53 pounds lighter, but more importantly, in much better shape. It makes a huge difference in my photography, as I can get to places I couldn’t before. The Moab workshop was a clear example of at 54 I was better than at 50, and my images show that.
I think the investment in yourself is important. We get new gear, but don’t take time to make ourselves better. I walk four flights of stairs each day, multiple times, at work, as part of my workout. Not only does it help me now, I see it as prolonging my ability to keep shooting. As everyone will tell you, it gets harder to lose weight or be in shape as you are older, but you need to make it a priority.
Thanks for the inspiration. You helped my photography, but you have helped me and my health.
Bill Bogle, Jr.
So sorry for the delay in my response, but it certainly wasn’t because I didn’t appreciate it greatly. Thank you for your support all these years and for allowing me to share my experiences in a beneficial way to others. They say it’s not the number of people you can influence, but how you influence them that really matters. I’m grateful to have been helpful.