There were lots of preconceived notions I had for being a professional photographer. Some were right, some were wrong, and most were somewhere in-between. But there were aspects that I hadn't even considered.
Before I do anything, I research; from writing a book to watching a TV show, much to the annoyance of my girlfriend, I'll look into it first. The are pros and cons to this, but one such pro was when I made the transition into photography as a full-time career, I was prepared for most of it. I was prepared for the first few years to be financially strenuous. I was prepared to work long hours to forge relationships and networks that I needed to survive. I was prepared that I'd probably have to do a lot of things I didn't want to, for the greater good of my career. But this week, I reminded myself of one fairly important element to a career as a professional photographer that I hadn't dreamed of being in any way necessary.
This week, I had a shoot I've done multiple times before: I do headshots and environmental portraiture for a large financial company in London. It's reasonably high pressure due to the clientele and the environment, but as I flopped into my desk chair last night to back up all my files after 13 hours of pretty much nonstop movement, I started wondering how people older, less fit, less mobile, or less energetic could manage.
I've been in reasonable shape for a decade or thereabouts, and so, when I decided to go into professional photography, the thought of the physicality of the job didn't cross my mind. After all, it's not a physical job, is it? Then, I shot my first wedding. I soon realized that your days could be 12-18 hours on big shoots (I do many of these every year), and you're on the move a lot. Furthermore, you're hauling around heavy equipment. Even with a stripped back kit it's not insignificant. Being a photographer is hardly like being a fireman or a laborer, but it's not a desk job either.
The physical nature of a lot of the shooting side of photography isn't a gripe, per se; whether you're trekking to a landscape location or on your feet for so long your shoes start fusing to your flesh, it isn't thankless work. I enjoy that dynamic to my job, and I embrace it, but it wasn't a consideration I knew existed before I was already waist-deep in the profession.
So, what sort of fitness plays a role in professional photography?
As I mentioned above, shoots can go on for a long time and be highly demanding. To date, my most challenging had me leaving the house at 6 am and getting home for 2 am with just two or three 15-minute breaks for food. I've never used a step counter, but I suspect on days I have big shoots, I rake in the numbers. Not only that, I'm bending down and reaching up to fix and adjust things constantly. Whether I have assistants or not, I seldom stay in one spot for more than a few seconds. I've started bringing Lucazade, water, breakfast cereal bars, and other bits and pieces to tide me over and keep me firing on all cylinders, though it can't stop the next day's aches.
To be on your feet, moving around, and carrying things for many multiples of hours is taxing on even the young and virile. You can, of course, avoid "big shoots" that require that sort of highly concentrated workload, but in my experience, that's often where the good money waits.
Another good example of required stamina was this magazine shoot with Afrojack. I had to be up at an ungodly hour to catch the Eurostar to Paris, then spent the next eight hours walking around the city either shooting, scouting locations, or moving between places. It was a fantastic day, but I definitely felt the strain the next morning.
I have hiked up mountains, I've walked around cities, and I've lugged lighting to locations; every time, I'm reminded that I need to go to the gym. Admittedly, a lot of this can be avoided with help or careful planning, but it's a lot easier if you can move everything you need yourself. You will regularly find me carrying over 15 kg of equipment to my shoot location, or putting large lights on stands, or moving furniture and props. You don't need to be a bodybuilder, but you could be fooled from the outside of photography into thinking it's an arty profession with no physical bar for entry. There will be niches where that may be true, but for the majority, I would say that's not the case.
Mobility might be the most difficult to bypass as a photographer. I hadn't really thought about my movements until yesterday. On most of my shoots, I am walking around, climbing on things, crouching down, going up and down stairs, and so on. I know from photographers I've worked with that that isn't unique to me. I'm not saying you need to be a yoga instructor, but having the freedom of movement to be able to change the angle of your shot and move around is highly valuable. That's before getting into the behind-the-scenes moving around you need to do that I've mentioned above.
I'm not writing this to put anyone off becoming a professional photographer — quite the opposite, in fact. I want people to be prepared. While vast swathes of your responsibilities as a photographer are sedentary, conducted in front of a computer, those big shoots can put a real strain on your body. Make sure you look after yourself, or it could catch you out!
Did the physical nature of photography surprise you? Has it ever held you back? Share in the comment section below.