Lesson learned: Don't be the weakest link

Tessa Strain near the summit of Stac Pollaidh at sunset in the North-West Highlands of Scotland

Tessa Strain near the summit of Stac Pollaidh at sunset in the North-West Highlands of Scotland

A cardinal rule of outdoor sports photography is not to be the weakest link. When photographing athletes practicing their craft, this can range from being skilled enough to follow mountain bikers down rocky trails, technically proficient enough on rock to take care of yourself whilst taking shots of people scrambling, to being fit enough to keep up with runners as they cross narrow mountain ridges.

Overall, I'd say I'm fairly competent keeping up with the majority of sports I photograph and I'm used to being out for multiple 12+ hour days. Occasionally though, I teach myself a lesson. On this occasion, it was about making sure I rest and fuel myself properly both before and during a shoot.

The above image was taken at 2200 hours atop Stac Pollaidh, a small but dramatic mountain in the Inverpolly region in north-west Scotland. I was photographing Tessa Strain (née Hill), an Arc'teryx and Silva-sponsored sky runner, for a mountain running shoot.

Stac Pollaidh is a really, really easy mountain - small children climb it - so there would be no reason for you to think that I'd be ridiculously tired behind the camera, thankful for just having made it to the top. What the photo doesn't show is a somewhat broken me, 18 hours into a 20 hour work day, concerned about the 500m descent and 60min drive back to our accommodation, acutely conscious of the lack of sleep I'm going to have before we rise again for my third pre-dawn shoot in a row, on a much bigger mountain.

The cause of my poor physical and mental state was entirely due to a lack of sleep (I'd only had 4 hours sleep in the last 24 and had already missed out on a lot of sleep that week) plus my failure to eat and drink appropriately throughout the day.

Tessa and I had met for the first time the day before. Our long drive to the far north of Scotland was great for getting to know each other but it meant we'd only had a small amount of sleep when our alarms went off for the start of our shoot at 4.30am. We rose early to meet experienced mountain runner and local climbing guide, Paul Tattersall (Go Further Scotland). For our running photo shoot, Paul and I had chosen Liathach, a nearby Munro in the Torridon region, for its spectacular views and potential for great mountain running shots along the narrow path traversing beneath its rocky summit pinnacles.

As the day dawned, we had perfect weather for our photo shoot. Despite usually wrapping up shoots once the sun has risen (as the light is too bright) we reasoned that, as we were up high, we might as well stay out for the day. The temperature quickly sky-rocketed and we were soon shooting in 30+ degree C temperatures under a blazing sun.

Despite the heat, Tessa and Paul were repeatedly awesome, running 'on demand' either across the crest of the ridge or along the exposed trail as we traversed along the 1000m high, 4km long ridge. Everything was going to plan but, as the day progressed, I became so engrossed in mentally ticking images off my shot list that I failed to eat properly.

Carrying heavy camera and lighting gear up and down steep mountains is hard work, doubly so in hot weather. Although I was careful to drink lots of water (we carrried all our water for the day too), I failed to recognise that I was not adequately replacing the calories and minerals I was losing through exercise and dehydration.

By the time we'd wrapped up the first part of our shoot and descended 1000m, my legs were like jelly. My brain felt like it was fried and I was feeling decidely ropey. After agreeing to meet Paul again early the next morning, Tessa and I returned to our accommodation. As I backed up my shots for the day, something failed (I can't recall what) and I was forced to start again. By the time I finished, it was time to leave for our second shoot of the day, capturing running shots and the sunset over the west coast. I still hadn't eaten.

On our way up Stac Pollaidh, Tessa was brand new and powered up the hill. I, on the other hand, struggled massively, even though I'd pared my kit down to the minimum. After 400m ascent, I was finding it difficult to put one foot in front of the other. Eventually I came to a complete standstill (I believe the term is 'bonked') and I was really concerned that I wouldn't reach the summit at all, never mind before nightfall. On a tiny hill such as Stac Pollaidh!

So slowly was I moving that I said to Tessa to continue on her own. After a rest, I could see her near the summit (sky runners move quickly when unimpeded by photographers). This, along with a strong personal pep talk, gave me enough motivation to get my sh&t together and get up the hill. Not long after, I reached the summit and we spent the remaining light shooting as the sun went down over the western seaboard.

When I think back on the shoot, on one hand it was a good result. We got the shots we needed (which some would say is all that counts, really). But in regards to my not being the weakest link? Definitely not my finest day. 

My lesson learned was, when it comes to being professional, it's not solely about making images. You need to be good at everything involved in the photography business and, for outdoor sports photography, a pre-requisite is ensuring you stay fit and healthy. These days, I'm even fitter than I was last year but I still make sure I rest properly before a multi-day shoot and eat long before I don't want to (I noticed there comes a time during exercise when my appetite goes completely, even though I feel otherwise fit). In addition, I take regular, small mouthfuls of food to keep my energy levels topped up and add electrolyte tablets to my water help to balance my body's natural state. Putting it all together, it helps me shoot for longer and better and continue to deliver great adventure sports images for my clients.