The Necessity of Discomfort

 

Originally published in Landscape Photography Magazine Issue 69. I now bring you the full article on my personal blog:

 

The Necessity of Discomfort

 

The venture of landscape photography has many facets: it is an art form, it is a technical craft, but it is also in some ways a sport. We as landscape photographers are hunting for the perfect light and the perfect composition, sometimes even putting our lives at risk and sometimes resorting to more extreme measures to get ahead of the game. Some of these are frequently frowned upon like the over-accentuation in post-processing, and others are deemed reserved for the financially well situated, such as drone photography or the opportunity to visit exotic places like Antarctica, Greenland or Svalbard just to name a few that have been rising to popularity recently.

It appears as if within the myriad of images floating around the seemingly endless realm that has become the social media frame of many photographers – and also occasionally our inspiration – there is a difficulty to keep up with those who have access to these means.

There is however one practical solution I have found over the years, that was able to produce good results, and for me is the very basis for passionate landscape photography. It may sound like a mantra from a motivational post, but it has proven true for me again and again: „It’s worth to get outside one’s comfort zone“. We all enjoy a little comfort may it be a hot shower, a cushiony pillow or a cup of hot chocolate in the morning. Yet I want to argue that giving up these minor things you can have at home on a daily basis for the duration of a photo-trip yields some qualities as well.

 

Often when I’m talking to photographers at meetings and clubs I listen to complaints about „bad light“ and „bad compositions“. In one case only to hear two sentences later that the speaker was too lazy to get up at 5am every day to catch the sunrise, because he had to drive two kilometers from his hotel to the beach he intended to shoot. After only two days without the glorious sunrise he had hoped for he gave up and rather stayed in bed and enjoyed a good night’s sleep.  Other similar tirades have I heard over the years: About not getting great mountain shots without having to walk up that mountain beforehand, or the impossibility of milky way shots without staying up late, or rants on the lack of sanitary installations or shelter at a specific location.

 

Rather than sleeping in the hotel and having to get up early, why not simply sleep next to the beach, or even on the beach if possible? The fact that the warm bed seems so alluring to us leaves two options for interpretation: either the bed kills the urge for that photographic experience because it is so far away from the location, or because a sunrise is so early and we would have to go to bed earlier if we don’t want to be drowsy all day. Both are very probable and I find myself fighting them on a regular basis.

 

In this regard I believe that sometimes landscape photography is more about overcoming one’s weaker self in order to open up new possibilities and not so much only about mere skill.  I would even go so far as to state that landscape photography necessitates a certain level of discomfort.

 

The photographer who sleeps in a tent right on location next to the mountain lake he intends to shoot will most likely not have trouble to get out of his tent at 4am to get that starry sky shot others crave, who may sleep in a hotel in the valley and can’t seem to get their eyelids to open because they would wake up even earlier to a grueling walk up the mountain. Of course carrying a tent and other pieces of equipment up the slopes alongside the camera gear can be tedious, but it is much easier to get out of a sleeping bag 20 meters from your tripod destination than out of a bed that is still an extensive distance away.  The experience also personally enriches the image, saturating it with the victory over yourself, having made it up the mountain. And for many landscape enthusiasts the night on the mountain top is an end in and of itself. The latter is one of my major motivations to keep expanding my horizon. This sort of more immersive photographic experience has also led to a new subgenre of landscape photography somewhat akin to shooting sports sometimes regarded to as „adventure photography“, depicting people setting up their tents, hiking, canoeing and such.

 

There are many photographers out there who put me to shame and track through the wilderness for a weeks to reach to those exotic locations they seek. It’s something I admire and I gradually keep pushing myself in that direction until I feel comfortable in a zone that might have only a few years back made me very uncomfortable. By that I am hoping to catch a location that I always wanted to go to, but never had the perseverance to reach or was scared of the challenge.

 

When I first started landscape photography I had not imagined that I would drive a 4×4 through the barren hinterlands of Iceland at 4am after days of little to no sleep to find a solid composition for the northern lights overhead, sleep 16 days in a row in a compact car, or walk up 1400 meters in altitude only to hope for some morning light on a mountain ridge, then drenched in sweat from the ascend bathe in a mountain lake in sub zero ambient temperatures. Not exactly what I would’ve call comfort, over the years however these types of situations have become one of the driving forces for me to pursue this hobby.

 

At some point I realized I had to do more physically to get those blissful shots I was craving for and I started  successively wanting more, the passion for the craft propelling me forward.  Putting yourself on the spot trying your best to get the shot can offer opportunities to get better results, not always necessarily so but at least it always offers peace of mind: every now and then I look at my pictures today and think to myself, could I have gotten a better picture had I gotten there earlier than an hour before sunrise, or had I walked up the mountain a bit further, maybe carried a bigger tripod to get a higher angle, what if had I invested more time into composing the shot rather than getting back to the tent or car because I was freezing? It’s easy saying that one doesn’t have the resources to get a certain dream picture, it’s harder to try with the resources one has but it is all the more satisfying.

 

This is something I think we as landscape photographers should ask ourselves if in search for improvement, before complaining about not reeling in the images we long for: Could I have gotten better shots if I had challenged myself more?  This is not only limited to getting up early or covering ground on a hike, too much comfort can also kill the intrinsic motivation to shoot altogether. It’s easier not to be disappointed about a shoot which didn’t turn out the way we hoped for, if we did not put too much effort into it to begin with. On the opposite it might be a huge motivational set back, if a long and stressful hike, drive, journey or other venture leads to little or no results at all. Especially for those who’re only occasionally able to invest time into landscape photography.  I had trips that were cut short or bore no benefit due to weather, vehicular problems and even health problems. Still I always attempt to keep the focus on my next endeavor, testing new locations, revisiting old ones to improve and also picking up new techniques, sometimes even new gear so I do have the chance to take the shot I intended, bearing in mind not wanting to battle the pro-photographers whose resources I can’t compete with. But instead trying to challenge myself and seeing how much more I can make of the limited resources I have, be it just my feet and mindset.

 

For me, personally, shots that were hard work stay with me longer. They might not be my most popular shots, nonetheless I cherish them all the more, for they are the manifestation of the toil that went into them and stand emblematically for how I might have improved as a photographer.