The Trail Running Athlete Photographer Balance

Dan Patitucci trail running

During one of the many long days out for Run the Alps Switzerland.

For twenty years, I’ve been both an athlete and professional photographer. The ten years prior to becoming a photographer, I was a full time athlete, keeping busy as a rock climber and road bike racer. When I became a photographer, my two worlds merged. Then, together with my wife Janine, we made a career out of this lifestyle. My “I” became a “we”. Using our strengths as athletes, we’ve become better photographers, and our photo skills have helped us look better as athletes!

Since the 90’s, trail running has been a huge part of what we do. We’re both passionate runners and running photographers. We pride ourselves on shooting real running. It’s only for commercial photoshoots, when the art director is standing behind me, that I shoot running without actually going running.

This summer we’re putting all our skills as runners and photographers to the test for our upcoming trail running book. With massive “to do” and “to shoot” lists, we are running, a lot. As such, we’re dealing with all kinds of challenges. Working in the Alps isn’t easy; they are huge, have fickle, tricky weather patterns, and by our own design, we’ve created challenging routes that we now have to photograph, and run.

Below, in no particular order, are the factors we work with and my advice on how to balance being an athlete and photographer working in big mountains.

    • Weather : This is our single biggest issue and the cause of many grey hairs. When you have 30km to run, and you don’t want to repeat it the next day, the weather needs to allow you to get your work done. The thing is, in the Alps, it changes continually. Maybe that black sky will open up for sunset. Maybe not. Do we stay out, risk getting soaked and freezing, or do we pack it in? There is a forecast icon in MeteoSwiss that I call the, “They don’t know”, forecast. It’s a sun, cloud and raindrop. In other words, yes to it all. Typically with this forecast we postpone going until the last possible minute.

The issue of weather and big, booming thunderstorms are unpredictable and a constant issue to manage.

    • Gear Choice : It’s a fact, as a photographer we’re always going to have the heaviest pack. But it’s not just a camera and lens choice we’re carrying, we also have our personal running kit, food and water. Pay attention to what gear you choose to be sure it is the absolute lightest and best to help offset your camera equipment bulk.
    • Not knowing what you’ll find, or, is it only going to get better? : There is a motto in backcountry skiing, “Never leave good snow to find better snow.” It applies to photography as well. You are in a hurry, see a great location, want to shoot, but wonder if it is only just going to get better. Should we keep moving? Or shoot here? Learn how to shoot quickly and on the fly, ideally you make it all look good.
    • Don’t be the weak link : This was a Jimmy Chin line I always liked. If the photographer is the weak link in a group that they need to photograph, it is not going to end well. Make good decisions about projects you take on.
    • Taking care of your body : You can’t just be a photographer on successive days out, you are also performing as an athlete and need to take care of yourself like one. This means getting enough sleep, eating right, staying hydrated, and taking time to let your body, and mind, recover. When you are on these types of shoots you have to prioritize what needs to be done. For me, this means blowing off computer work at night and getting rest. Producing images on tough days is what you are there to accomplish.
    • Bad light : Long days out mean you are often shooting in bad light. It’s a fact on real trips, you can’t just shoot good light, you have to shoot it all. In the Alps, it’s pretty common for the evenings to turn cloudy, so no firey sunset. Use the time and light you have, and learn how to make bad light not so bad.

Mid-day light made better with a lucky cloud and the right color shirt

    • Color : Having your athletes in the right color is a big step in making the best images. Whether your style is muted tones or punch, get your color scheme down. Use color to make bad light work for you, match the environment you are in, and to set a mood for how you want to portray the athlete.
    • Your models need to be the real deal : This is the number one point to get right. With the wrong people you may as well stay home. Go with people you enjoy being with, are strong and capable, have the necessary skills, and are still happy to stop for a few passes in front of the camera on hour 8.
    • Limited time : There is a lot to do during a run in the Alps… and there will be delays. Maybe we have to climb 2000 meters, make photos everywhere, take notes, check and double check the route, we wait out a cloud covering the sun for much longer than we’d like, and, there are thunderstorms forecast for the afternoon so we need to keep moving. Keep the overall picture in mind, and know where you are with what you have shot. Keep a shot list. 
    • Fatigue : See above for what we have to do each day. Now, manage this for a group that needs to stay productive, possibly even for multiple days. We’ve all underestimated how much food and water we need, and we’ve all had a crisis. Being trained, fit and ready are key. But so too understanding what you need to make it through a big day, or what might turn into a much longer day than anticipated. Caffeine is a wonderful thing.
    • Doing it all over again the next day : I struggle with this one as I’ve found that for me, shooting day in and day out really wears me out mentally. More so than even the physical aspects of what we do. I will sometimes take a break mid-day from shooting, and just try to be one of the group so I don’t think about what to shoot. My mind needs a break or I’ll go nuts.
    • Managing it all : These days it’s pretty tough to remain focused as we have that phone reminding us of all the many things we have to do. In the Swiss Alps, there is service just about everywhere, so I keep my phone on silent to avoid the distraction. Ideally it is off, but I use the phone for note taking and often have shot lists. Remember what you are out there for and focus on that.
    • Be able to photograph what you find beautiful : While this seems quite obvious, I’m not sure many get it right. With friends, go on a run without a camera, hang back, and just watch them move through the landscape. What catches your eye? Why? What gestures and expressions do they make that might strengthen an image? Now, learn how to capture that with your camera, quickly and efficiently.

I was trying to catch back up after shooting something else, saw this about to happen, screamed, “Wait!” – got it, and continued on.

By Dan Patitucci

If you’re interested in learning more about our Run the Alps Switzerland book project, when it will print, where you can find it, and even how you might get involved…,  you can sign up at Helvetiq.

You can also follow our progress via Instagram | Facebook | Twitter

Dan Patitucci trail running photographer

Summer 2017 – chasing light, people, and moments all while being chased by thunderstorms.


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