It occurred to me about a week or so ago (when I was forced to drop down into an ‘Everest gear’ to grind out one of the big hills on the mountain bike trail that I ride near my house) just how out of condition I am after my time in Antarctica (over-indulgence in good food during the Christmas New Year period has not helped either). During my time in Antarctica, on board ship, I never really did any exercise; yet I regularly stowed away three square meals a day (large three-course meals at that). Since I didn’t suffer from sea sickness, I was able to keep all those meals down (thankfully). My cardiovascular fitness has really deteriorated and it feels like I am missing a lung as I drag myself up the hills on the bike. After 20 kilometers on the trails, my body feels quite battered and broken. Overall, my time off the bike over the Christmas-New Year period has left me feeling quite unfit and out of condition. Subsequently I have actually managed to crack my bike frame and am undergoing a forced hiatus while I wait for my bike to be rebuilt.
The connection to photography may not be apparent at first. But physical fitness plays a major role in successful wilderness photography. A good level of physical fitness enables you to hike faster, further and arrive at your destination ready to shoot, in better condition. It can be the difference between arriving at the top of the hill and getting the shot before the best light is gone and arriving on location exhausted and disappointed. It can even mean your not making it to the top at all. This is not to say the best shot is always at the end of an uphill hike. However, you will never know if you don’t make it up there to see for yourself. You don’t have to be an elite athlete to be a wilderness photographer, but I find a good level of physical fitness certainly helps.
Whilst I was puffing my way up the hill on my mountain bike, I also got to thinking that mountain biking is like photography in that to get good at it you have to do a lot of it. To stay in peak condition you have to be persistent. I have observed this many times when I am out on my photography excursions. My shots continue to improve as the days roll past and my ‘conditioning’ improves. It takes time to get into the ‘groove’ —the right frame of mind that enables me to recognize the good images from the bad. Antarctica was like that: it took me time to assimilate. After extensive international travel, the few days I had in Buenos Aires and Ushuaia gave me the opportunity to wind down, leave the stress of daily life behind, and start to focus on photography. This time was crucial because I had the chance to relax, which is just as important as being fit for the task. Buenos Aries itself didn’t turn me on photographically. It is a crowded and polluted city, quite unlike my expectations of Antarctica. But, at least, I was in the right frame of mind—relaxed—when we eventually left for Antarctica.
Before I arrive this July for my 2012 workshop in Iceland I am going to be spending a couple of weeks travelling through France and Italy (specifically, driving down from France to Venice) photographing the countryside as a precursor to the workshop. I am hoping to use this time to get my eye in, as it were, and ensure my state of mind is at or near its peak when I arrive in Iceland.
Landscape and Nature photography requires a serious commitment. You must be prepared to spend countless hours outdoors, frequently in inclement weather or harsh environments. It also requires hours of patience to get the best possible light. I have spent many hundreds of hours in the wilderness waiting for the right conditions. Nature and landscape photographers who are truly committed are a rare breed; we have to put up with a lot—fitness, patience, vigilance, and an eye for the main chance. It takes a certain mindset and dedication to stand around in freezing conditions and rain for hours, waiting for the right light when what beckons is a nice dinner and a glass of wine in a warm hotel somewhere. You need commitment and dedication to get the shot.One thing I have learned through experience is that it is always worth sticking it out to the bitter end when waiting for the best light, no matter the prevailing weather conditions. Generally, brief moments of special light don’t fill the bill; you have to see it out to the end. All too often, the light changes in the last few moments and in these instances the light is often at its most spectacular. I recall a very poignant example of this, which I have blogged about before in Iceland in 2010 when I arrived at the top of one of the highest mountains in Landmannalaugar in Iceland, more than three hours before sunset. They skies were dull and grey and we were exposed to the full force of the Arctic winds. My friend Dmitry and I decided to hunker down and wait out the 3+ hours before sunset. I just wanted to hike back to the 4-wheel drive to warm up with a hot cup of coffee and a piece of cake, but the wait proved worthwhile. The shoot provided some of the most spectacular light I have ever experienced anywhere. We had distant rain showers, rainbows and light that can only be described as sensational. Lesson learned – Never Give In. Above all, patience!