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Nature Photography Conditioning
C. W. Schurman October, 2010
I can hear you now: “Oh come on, photography is NOT a sport!” But stop and think about it a moment. If you are serious about getting wonderful shots of birds, flowers, mushrooms, animals, season changes, or landscapes, and you want to take them all yourself instead of seeing them in a book or magazine, you will have to visit the backcountry. Many outdoor enthusiasts start as hikers and add photography to their list of interests; others start as nature photographers and get to the point where they wish to explore new areas of the world.
In either case, gear beyond a Point-and-Shoot camera requires strength and endurance to carry it all. Long gone are the days when a photographer had to carry his entire photographic lab to the backcountry (like William Henry Jackson on the way to Yellowstone’s Artist’s Point in 1871) however many people will find it advantageous to carry a DSLR camera and multiple lenses to cover various subject matter such as landscapes, macro, points of interest and wildlife. There are also additional accessories that can be helpful such as a tripod or monopod, flash, a second camera body, and various specialized accessories. Add in a carrier of some sort, on top of the usual Ten Essentials and backcountry gear you already need to comfortably and safely access remote areas and you can get a pretty hefty load.
By including conditioning for both strength and stamina specific to the photography desires of your chosen wildlife or nature destination, you will likely have more photographic opportunities and have more fun doing it due to your improved fitness level.
Start with the End Goal in Mind
Consider first the type of photography trip you are planning. If you will be taking a photojournalism trip to the Serengeti in Africa where, for safety reasons, you will likely remain in a vehicle for most of your shots, your preparation will look significantly different than if you will be shooting pictures of the shrinking ice caps on the top of Kilimanjaro. If you will be taking a sedentary driving trip through Yellowstone National Park in the heat of the summer, your program will look quite different from the person who plans to venture out in the middle of the winter on cross country skis in search of hot springs, wolves, moose, and elk.
As with any sort of adventure that requires some element of physical conditioning, start planning your training program with your end goal in mind, whether that is a strenuous, remote multi-day backpack, a high-altitude porter-supported trek, or a luxurious week-long trip that includes some short day-hikes from the car. Consider how many lenses (and cameras) you need to get the shots you want, and how much weight you will carry over what distance. Determine what you think your heaviest pack weight will be and then plan to reach the point in your training where you can comfortably carry 5-10% more weight above that target. By building more strength and endurance than you think you might ever need, you will have enough reserves to handle the unexpected that inevitably pops up.
A training program for a single-day trip looks considerably different than one designed for an overnight trip. A program for an overnight trip that involves carrying a load for more than one day should include back-to-back training at least once, about 2 weeks before your adventure begins. A sample wilderness travel conditioning program is developed and described on our Basic Wilderness Travel Conditioning page. By adding a few specifics, below, to target areas you have identified as potential trouble zones for you, you have the makings of a program that will help you prepare.
Next, think of some of the common positions you get into in order to take your shots. If you like to take pictures of small animals, mushrooms, or tiny flowers, you probably are already familiar with kneeling, leaning, and flat-on-belly positions. You might even have to hold unusual positions while a rare bird grows accustomed to your presence. Think about your typical style, the kinds of shots you want to take, and how you might need to contort your body to get into position.
The more core and full body endurance you have for leaning or awkward positions, or for standing for long periods of time waiting for the right shot, the more comfortable you will be and the less you will think about what your body is supposed to be doing. For more examples of core conditioning exercises appropriate for 3-dimensional wilderness travel, see our Alpine Core Training Beyond The Floor article.
Photography Trouble Zones
Perhaps the most obvious area of concern is your neck. As amateurs start out, they typically carry a camera strapped around the neck for ready access. As you get into working with SLR or DSLR cameras, however, and add heavy lenses, you will want to have some sort of carrying mechanism (such as a fanny pack, Cotton Carrier, pocket vest, or other strapping system) that allows ready access, secure attachment, and some protection to the camera as you move around. It should go without saying whatever system you use should be comfortable without straining the neck. However, if and when you do find that your neck is strained from carrying weight, perhaps on one side of the body, or you find yourself spending an inordinate amount of time crooning skyward, add a neck stretch for the Trapezius muscles in the neck.
If you rely on a tripod for all your shots, you may not find this area particularly relevant for you. However, if you use a heavy lens and are taking a lot of shots without a tripod, your dominant arm biceps may actually experience fatigue to the point where you start to have difficulty holding the camera still! The short-term solution is to always look for natural tripods or monopods – logs, big rocks, branches at the right height, propping your elbow on some solid surface, squatting and using your knees for balance, or balancing on a trekking pole to give you some support. Upper body strengthening exercises that can help include basic biceps curls, particularly Hammer curls using dumbbells, with palms facing in toward the body.
Another area of concern is the lower back, which, if weaker than it should be, ends up carrying an inordinate amount of any awkward or unbalanced load. Be sure that the weight of your gear is spread out evenly over your torso, rather than all behind or in front of you, and keep most of the weight low to the body to keep your center of gravity low and to weight the hips rather than shoulders, neck and back. When considering a tripod for your use, keep in mind tripod 1) weight, 2) portability (meaning, ease of strapping and going vs. carrying in your hand), 3) adjustability (tilt head and legs), and 4) optimal extension so that you can easily and quickly adjust the tripod to the right height for comfortable shooting. If you do find that you are straining your back try Hug-a-tree and Torso rotational stretches from our Lower Back Stretches article.
If you will be squatting, kneeling, or crawling into position and you have any sort of trouble with your knees or lower back, for example, there are dozens of good lower body and core strengthening movements on our website that you can add to prepare the body for the held poses while you wait for the prize-winning shot. Several good lower body exercises are the VMO Reverse Step Up, the 1-legged Deadlift and the 1-legged Box Squat.
You may find once you are at your destination that you have to walk quite some distance to track an animal on the move or to reach an animal’s favorite hangout, which can be a challenge if you are on rugged terrain with boulders, downed logs and scree. For any outings that include walking for longer than 1-2 hours, and pack weight greater than 10-12 pounds, you will need to include a periodized training program that includes gradually increasing distance, elevation gain, and pack weight to reach your target. A good rule of thumb is adding no more than 10% time or distance each week. For more advanced hiking and backpacking programs and exercise suggestions, please visit the Hiking Programs section.
While “skill” is not a conditioning concern per se, it can play a role in how comfortable you are on your shoot and ultimately how your body feels at the end of the day. By “skill” we refer to several factors:
- Being familiar with and totally comfortable with all aspects of your equipment, both to be able to quickly get set up for your shots, and to minimize stressful frustration at messing with gear.
- Planning your shots ahead of time and knowing what gear you’ll need, when, to make sure you have on hand exactly what you need to be comfortable.
- Knowing how to load your pack and / or carrying system so that it feels the most balanced and comfortable, so that you have easy access to whatever you need, exactly when you need it.
The three main components to include in a conditioning program to prepare for your photography adventure are:
Aerobic conditioning: be sure to include, at a minimum, walking 2-3 times a week, at least once per week with a pack of gradually increasing weight and distances; add no more than 5% per week for either, to get the core and legs prepared for longer outings.
- Strength training, particularly for the upper and lower back, abdominals, hips and legs. A basic full body training program completed twice weekly for 20-30 minutes each should be sufficient.
- Flexibility training, specific to your body’s needs and the needs mentioned above related to photography. Include stretching for 5-10 minutes at the end of any hike, aerobic workout, or strength workout and as needed when out on a shoot.