One Difficulty of Being a Professional Photographer You May Not Expect

One Difficulty of Being a Professional Photographer You May Not Expect

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.

Fitness

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?

Stamina

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.

Physicality

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

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.

In Closing

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.

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13 Comments

Kirk Darling's picture

Being in my sixties and fit for my age, I'd say you're right. Moreover, being fit at a younger age will put you in a better position when the decline of age inevitably sets in.

I notice you didn't mention sand bags. It's a good idea to be using them on your light stands, etc, despite the hassle of carrying them around.

Steven Magner's picture

I am 33 and I still consider myself in the infancy stage of my career. Long hours and lousy sleep. I also have a 8-month-old whose matured from a fluffy pillow on into a cinderblock. At my age I don’t want to be thinking about back problems.

I used to be pretty active with cycling, hiking, and rock climbing. Obviously I have less or that time. I also dislike gyms, mostly because of the overcrowding. So, I did what any working father would do 2 weeks ago — I bought those Bowflex 5 to 55lb weight sets and a bench. Yes, I’ve become my own father.

Age is funny.

Johnny Rico's picture

If a commercial job is that strenuous, you should probably have budget for an assistant. If you have no budget for an assistant on a 13hr day, you got the job because you were cheap.

The number of photographers with bad backs testifies to this. The worst thing is covering demonstrations and street events where you want to be a little bit discrete and invisible but you're on your feet all day, reacting to situations across a fairly large area. Even with a stripped-down kit that can be challenging.

As a thirty-year veteran, I completely agree. I work hard at staying in shape because I know just how physically demanding shoots are. Even with a cadre of great assistants. If you are in for the long term, join a good gym.

Alec Kinnear's picture

This is a great article. Anyone getting into photography seriously should be quite fit. There may be a nice of paparazzi snapshots from up close (these guys existed in Paris in the sixties) which only require a Leica M and a 50mm lens, but most photography is long hours on your feet carrying substantial gear. That's the gig. Few should consider starting a professional career in photography after forty: the physical routine would be too much.

Most photographers in their late forties should start thinking about a niche where they don't have to do the long hours on their feet or carry heavy gear. I agree with Johnny Rico's comment having assistants on heavy shoots but the photographer him or herself almost has to be willing to pull his or her own weight, if for nothing else but the sake of efficiency.

Maybe female photographers can more easily get away with pushing all the physical work on assistants. If she's shooting weddings though, no one is going to carry her gear. I imagine the career path there would be to move to bigger shoots with two second cameras where she coordinates more than shoots (of course she'd have a 35mm or 50mm or 85mm on her own neck according to taste for the hero shots).

But rarely did anyone carry one Leica or Nikon...

Brian Knight's picture

It's essential for your health that you get up and move on the daily. And I have to say, it's not a struggle. I enjoy it. However, I spend just as much time editing than shooting so it all evens out I guess.

Gregory Mills's picture

I shoot events and try to keep my kit "lite" by shooting without a backpack or case. I just use a Black Rapid Double Harness with two bodies (Nikon D850/800e with grips) and three lens (70-200mm f/2.8, 14-24mm f/2.8 and a 24-70mm f/2.8). I Don't carry any filters, accessories, flashes, extra batteries, etc. Even going as bare bones as I can, my setup weighs 17 LBS. Some events I am on by feet from 6:00 am until midnight walking for miles wearing that. I just turned 50 and switched the D800e out for a Z7 to lighten my load. As Sergeant Murtaugh in Lethal Weapon said "I'm getting to old for this s..."

At 62 I covered one of the anti Brexit marches in London that attracted a million people. I'm also with Murtaugh - I'm done with all that(!)

Graham Taylor's picture

It's funny, as a military photographer I regularly carried more gear than the soldiers I was embedded with! All their equipment, plus mine...

Desmond Stagg's picture

Last November I celebrated my 75th birthday!
Can anyone beat that and is still active? I often think, why am I still doing this - I should be curled up on the couch with my mug of cocoa. Now that is a sure way to the grave!!

Although I am officially retired from my profession as an automotive engineer I am still very active as a photographer, covering headshots, portraits, fashion, etc. As an accredited photojournalist I am particularly active on the political platform with press conferences, events, etc.

Up until 2015, I was an active voluntary rescue pilot for the Bavarian Air Rescue Service - needing a thorough medical annually.

I carried out a fashion shoot a few months ago. This was being held in the atelier of an old historical building in Munich.
Arriving by taxi I unloaded my kit and lugged everything up five floors, arriving sweating and wet through like the proverbial pig. A young man at the top saw me and made a statement, "why didn't you take the lift?"*
Annoyed me somewhat because I wasn't dressed in casuals or sportswear but in a suit, shirt and bow tie for the fashion shoot - i.e. dressed for the occasion!!

I must admit, on this occasion, I did feel my age. Even so, I don't think we need to go to the gym, I am not looking for a girlfriend or wife.
With such escapades as we often encounter on a daily basis, these should keep us in shape?

Perhaps I will post again if and when I celebrate my 85th???

*The lift was a retrofit installation and hence out of sight.