Health vs Photography

16/03/19


I went to the gym the for the first time in a long time the other day, so by the standards of modern social etiquette I now have the right to preach about the benefits of health and wellbeing, don't I?

On Stage with The Gift last year

Untitled photo

Only joking, I'm no position to preach about healthy living, but the part about returning to the gym is true. At the beginning of the year, I made a serious plan to improve my photography and develop a legitimate business which largely focusses on personal and brand development. One important part of my plan that I have yet to elaborate on yet is my personal health, but what has that got to do with my photography?

The casual photographer I doubt will feel any significant effects on their body from taking pictures, particularly if using an entry level camera or smartphone and taking a leisurely pace. Those who have witnessed me in action would probably agree that my shooting is far from casual. From experience I can say that my body goes through some serious punishment during the course of a photo session, be this my travel and street, or band and event work.

So what are the health implications of serious photography then? Not from a hi-vis wearing, clipboard-wielding health-and-safety aspect, as some of the best images in the world have been created by taking risks*. Here I am referring more to how your health and fitness may be affecting your photography through my own experiences, because ultimately the goal of any photographer is to take great images, and you wouldn't want anything to get in the way of that especially your own body!

Over the last year, this is exactly how I have felt, that my physique and level of fitness was subtly impeding my ability to perform fully as a photographer. I'm not a health enthusiast (to say the least), I have no training in nutrition nor am I an expert in any form of physical training, but I have in the past positively transformed my body and have a strong idea of where I need to improve and how to achieve it.

To give you some background, I am not a huge guy, but I have been. Many years ago, I used to tip the scales at close to 19 St, but embarked on a big lifestyle change over two years,  shed 6st and became a new man. By the end of last year, I had crept back by up to 16st, which at around 6' tall isn't exactly obese (doctors may disagree), but my clothes were tight, I was lethargic and constantly fighting against my own body; not a comfortable situation to be in.

This weight was shed by following the Slimming World regime, which as a bloke, I found very easy to stick to. The plan has some simple rules that underpin a complex matrix of measuring and counting, which if followed carefully yield huge results. By some miracle, I achieved the loss without any form of physical training, so despite being slimmer, I wasn't exactly fit. 

It was then time to hit the gym. I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with the gym, in as much I love it when I'm there, but have this real struggle getting myself in there! Throughout my life, I have been able to significantly increase my stamina, build great strength and definition through working hard and dedicating myself to the gym, but then something switches in my mind and I lose it all in a fraction of the time it took me to build it. 

The image above is a fairly recent shot taken by one of the band members on stage during soundcheck, and it's a pretty honest take on my current physique. This is not the guy I want to be for the reasons we will explore together now. 


That's where I am and where I've been, so let's get straight into it with...

Stamina

When working on my travel/street work I can typically cover between 8-12 miles in a day; around Hanoi in Vietnam, I recall this being closer to 20 miles in a single day! This isn't a marathon and not covered at great speed, however when you factor in the weight of my kit and my personal weight the strain in my legs is soon evident come the end of the day, especially if the going is rough. To ensure I can continue shooting from dawn to dusk I need to maintain strength in my legs and avoid premature fatigue which may force me to call time on the day's shooting.

When it comes to band/gig shoots, speed is more relevant as I have to rush around different locations to capture various angles throughout the performances. The most extreme example of this was shooting a full day event at the O2 Academy in Islington, with multiple bands performing throughout. This in itself was not a problem, the real challenge lay in the secret mountain hiding in plain sight. The dressing rooms, loading bay, photo pit, stage, and upper viewing platform were all on separate levels; I had to traverse these stairs multiple times throughout the 12+ hour shoot! This was all carried out at speed so as to capture each of the six bands from various angles throughout their set's. That was a workout like no other!

I do notice the strain come to the end of the day and start to feel discomfort in my legs which, and as much as I would like to deny, does subconsciously affect my ability to shoot. As soon as I feel discomfort rise above a certain level my brain starts to fight against my desires to continue shooting with nagging thoughts telling me I'm tired and need to rest which prevents me from continuing. This could mean not making it over that final hill, not quite making it to sunset etc, etc. I strongly believe that your physical abilities have a strong lead over your state of mind, so fixing my stamina will propel me further physically and mentally.

This isn't always the case though, when visiting Laos I got up early to climb a very large hill (basically a small mountain) to shoot the sunrise over Luang Prabang. With plenty of time, I casually walked up one side of the mountain, keeping an eye of the sun breaching the horizon, I was, however, misled by the map (travel tip, avoid Lonely Planet maps, they are utter shite) which indicated the vista I was aiming for could be accessed from either side of the hill.

Having climbed it from one side, I soon realized that I did not have access to the sunrise over the town, and with the sun coming up faster than an 18-year-old shop assistant at Coachella I had to move fast if I was ever to stand a chance of capturing it. This was my only opportunity to capture the sunrise before moving onto Siem Reap in Cambodia, so I had to (quite literally) run down the hill, around it and up the other side to capture the sunrise.

Driven by the sheer fact that I had no other choice other than to walk away without the shot I made it to the top to capture the scene with very little time to spare. When I got to the summit, a small group of travelers that were casually gathered to enjoy the tranquil moment was shocked to see this slightly overweight guy bowl onto the scene panting and wheezing and generally looking like a heart attack was rushing up behind him. Standing there drenched in sweat on trembling legs with tripod in hand I was able to snap away a get the shot I set out for. 

Luang Prabang at Sunrise

So mind over matter is a thing, but this was just one shot. Could I have then rushed off to another location and done the same thing again? Not without causing myself some serious injury, not the best thing to do in a foreign land. 


My fix to this is simply to introduce some regular cardio work. No one straps up their trainers and hits the road or the treadmill and starts clocking up miles right off the bat, not unless they are naturally athletic and of the physical make up that average people would rather pretend do not exist. The first time is hard, really hard, there's no denying it. But the second time it gets easier, and the next is easier still; the compound effect will see your fitness rapidly grow if maintained which will increase the strength in your legs and significantly improve your stamina.

There are multiple options for cardio such as cycling, running, cross training, rowing and even swimming to name a few; depending on your goals you may require a combination of these to train different parts of your body. When starting out I always think it's best to start with something that your comfortable with and stick with it. If you're not comfortable then try something else, but keep sight of the fact that you have to do something. Sitting there wishing yourself fitter doesn't work (trust me, I've tried!)

I'm not a natural runner (far from it!), but because I want to build up strength and agility in my legs, as well as stamina, I find the treadmill is best for me. Starting with a brisk walk on an incline over 20mins, this is usually enough to get the heart beating and work up a bit of a sweat. I then begin to work in short bursts of running, but not enough to tire myself out too soon and build on this until I am able to run continuously for 20-30mins. Past performances tell me I can get to this point in around 6-weeks by going to the gym around 3 times a week.

To mix it up a bit I include some rowing which works more muscles groups such as my core and arms which are all part of the overall plan. Yes, this isn't a routine that covers all muscle groups that increases overall athletic ability, but that isn't the goal here. I'm not trying to be an athlete, I'm just trying to maintain a healthy weight with a reasonable level of fitness and stamina.

The important thing to note is if you need to increase your stamina but are afraid to take the step, don't be. It is hard work, but not as hard as you think. I'm starting with a day a week in the gym to get back in the swing of it, but with an aim to get up to 3 days a week. The goal is big, but by taking the small wins along the way this goal will soon seem close than it first appears!

Strength

Of course, to be a professional photographer you need to be wielding arms like Rambo to carry all your kit like a special forces operative, coiled and ready to attack your subject with dozens of camera bodies and lenses tipping the scales against the weight of a small goat! Well no, that's not true.

A smart photographer will carry enough kit to cover the shoot at hand so as not to be carrying excessive weight which adds unnecessary strain to the back and shoulders. It's very tempting to load yourself up with every bit of kit you own for a days shooting, only to leave most of it in your bag. Strength does still play a part in photography in some places that may surprise you.

On a typical gig shoot, I will crouch for extended periods and have to jump up and move position to capture different angles, bend over the stage, lean around other people or stage objects,  all of which requires a reasonable amount of core strength to maintain balance. A sturdy frame begets a sturdy frame, the last thing you want is to be shaking as you struggle to maintain your own composure when composing a shot. I have experienced this many times as I look through the viewfinder, just waiting for the perfect moment and praying my body doesn't buckle before I get the shot!

The punishment on the body doesn't stop there, oh no. The weight of holding the camera and lens at eye level throughout a 10+ hour day takes its toll on the arms, seems ridiculous I know, but I have felt that burn the next day. I noticed this after shooting my personal project around the Docklands area (to read more about that day click here),  wherein the next day my arms burned like I had been doing weights all day! It's not because the camera is particularly heavy, with my all-around lens attached I think I'm at around 4kg, but the act of lifting the camera to eye level thousands of times in a day starts to take its toll on my unconditioned muscles.

London City Airport - 0700

Untitled photo

Silvertown - 1700

Untitled photo

Shooting around London's Docklands from 6:30am until  6:00pm, clocking up over 10 miles on foot

So back in the gym, I need to develop my core, build some resilience in my arms and legs and generally increase my overall strength. With so many variations of weight training for the purpose of building strength I don't think it's worth listing them here, you know what's in the gym. If you don't, then I'm sure your local gym will welcome you with open arms for a consultation. ( OK, that was a little condescending, here's me moaning about holding a bloody camera!)

As I said, I have been back to the gym for a grand total of 1 session at the time of writing, but this a mere stepping stone in the grand plan. The biggest challenge I face is getting to the gym;  once I'm there I crack on with it and actually enjoy myself, but it's too easy to find excuses not to go. I work from home 90% of the time and got into a really bad habit of getting up much later than I should which is in total contrast to the old me who would have been up with the lark with no problem. I have completely altered my routine to ensure I get to bed at a good time and up by 6-6:30 so that I can get to the gym before I start work in the morning.

By adjusting my routine I have removed a mental obstacle that can be used as an excuse not to get to the gym. With this mental obstacle removed the only thing stopping me from going is me, how can I possibly accept that I am the one stopping me from achieving my goals? 

It's easy to say I can't take that shot because my legs are too sore, I can't each that, I'm too tired blah, blah. I genuinely don't want to be able to make those excuses, I'd rather reduce or eliminate them and make the shot. If I still don't nail it? Then I'll know I have some other area of development that I need to work on, not just a physical limitation. It's not about challenging Arnold Schwarzenegger to an arm wrestling match, but more like an F1 racing driver; making tiny improvements to all aspects working towards a common objective, winning the race!

Weight

Hands up, I must confess that I have used my weight and lack of flexibility as an excuse for failing to properly capture some images. Is it an excuse? Yes definitely. Is it genuine? Well yes, I believe so. I recall one particular image during my first visit to NYC when I was crouched right down to the pavement to capture the classic yellow cab from the tarmac up. I failed miserably to nail the focus on what was a brilliantly composed shot, and my reason/excuse for this? My belly preventing me from getting low enough to check my focus in the camera. My options then are to keep making the excuses or do something about them. (Buying a camera with a 360° flip screen isn't really the solution, but would be handy if Sony could think about that in the future!)

Weight has so many implications to the serious photographer which creep in every now and then and have the potential to spoil the next shot. As indicated above, having a bit of a belly does prevent your ability to be flexible or having to exert disproportionate energy to achieve the same result, such as crouching and climbing where this additional weight has the ability to slow you down and put unnecessary strain on the body.

Balance is also seriously impeded by being overweight, and more energy is required to keep you stable when shooting. Towards the end of last year, I was crouched down on the balls of my feet shooting a band right between the front of the stage and the crowd. I then had to jump up and move quickly, but because of my weight, I lost my balance and nearly fell backward into the dancing throng behind me. I did that sort of awkward backward hop, still crouched, and bounced towards the crowd; not very professional. I doubt I heard it at the time over the sound of the music, but I can still hear worried gasps in my head from the gig-goers as I think about that moment. So embarrassing!

For many going to the gym is the holy grail of weight loss, but not for me. Physical exercise affects my body in stamina, toning and strength building, but it's controlled diet (sounds worse than it is)  where the real results are made. My previous losses were achieved by following the Slimming World regime, which I can recommend from personal experience! You might argue that having come off it and putting on 3 St isn't a shining example, but that has nothing to do with the plan, but my returning to bad habits. After hitting my target I gradually slipped back into a fairly unhealthy lifestyle and the pounds soon found their way back. I have not returned to Slimming World, but I am now loosely following the regime, and since mid-January, I have lost over a stone.

My do's and don'ts based on the Slimming World regime are as follows:

Eat:

👍 Fruit and veg

👍 Meat and poultry (remove visible fat)

👍 Carbs (yes, carbs, trust me!)

👍 Eggs


Drink:

👍 Water

👍 Tea coffee (no milk/sugar)

👍 Diet/sugar-free drinks

Don't:

👎 Eat anything that contains fat

👎 Add fat/sugar to anything (including butter!)

👎 Cook with fat

👎 Eat pre-packaged meals (ready meals)

👎 Drink fruit juices or high sugar drinks


Significantly reduce (or avoid):

👉 Dairy

👉 Bread


If you're vegetarian or vegan, well, I guess the same goes without the meat I suppose?


In a nutshell (don't eat too many nuts though, high in fat) that's pretty much it. Of course, there is a deeper model here of complex weighing and counting, but this basic model is what works for me. If weight is an issue for you I do recommend you discuss your requirements with a dietician and take advise from a professional before beginning a weight loss plan.

Confidence

This I saved this for last, not because it's the least important, but because it is a consequence of all the things discussed above. It's no secret that if you feel good, you will feel confident, and good photography comes from having confidence. Being able to approach a subject and comfortably photograph them, particularly someone on the street, is powerful and creates strong images.

Take street photography, and imagine two photographers (I'm using male examples because that's what I know. I'm not sure if this works the other way round, but hopefully you get the point). Our first example is an overweight unhealthy looking guy, hunched over his camera with a zoom lens taking pictures of people in the street; the second guy is trimmer, healthier looking, straight standing with a wide angle lens who approaches people and ask for the photo or captures images last minute up close being prepared to engage with the subject should he have to. We don't live in a perfect world, but generally speaking who of these two examples are likely to make you feel more uncomfortable, and who is taking the stronger photographs?

Untitled photo
Untitled photo

2008, Weight >17st

Lacking very little self-confidence. 

2015, Weight 13st

Dj'ing for Select Radio, probably too confident

I don't think that I am this first guy (I really hope not), and I am certainly not the second guy but somewhere in the middle. I can closely track my level of confidence against how I feel in myself, so I know that to take better photos I need to make myself feel better. This would naturally have benefits in all aspects of life, and so is a really good reason to push forward and work on.

Being confident and having a positive frame of mind has a massive impact on how you perform as an individual, and if you want to perform better as a photographer, wouldn't you want to be in the best frame of mind? 


So there we have it,

I know what I need to do, and that is to lose weight and make myself nippier, improve strength and stamina, particularly core strength. It is a big challenge and a constant battle as I do like to eat and can be accused of enjoying a beer or two, but my goals are bigger than my desire for a scorching curry and a few pints. The course is set,  and there will be some minor deviations along the way, but so longs as the trajectory is pointing towards the goal I will get there.

If you have your own mountain in front of you, I wish you luck and know that the journey may be long but it will be worth it to reap the rewards at the other end.

Do you recognize any of the points here? Have an interesting story or even some tips you'd like to share? Drop them in the comments below and join the conversation.


Until next time, be healthy! I'm off to the gym.


6


  • No Comments
Powered by SmugMug Owner Log In