Photographer Jeff Pfaller Uses Nature and Exercise To Resist Creative Setbacks
Not long ago, Jeff Pfaller set out at 1:30 AM, hoping to photograph the rainbows sometimes created by moonlight at Yosemite Falls. So, in the dark and cold, he loaded his camera gear and hiked a steep, deserted trail to Glacier Point. His Charge 4, which he always wears on his adventures, told him he’d logged over 10,000 steps. Once he set up his equipment, he waited patiently until the light from the full moon angled through the mist to reveal the color spectrum from violet to red, a rainbow with the stars of the night sky in the background.
“Photography gives me a reason to challenge myself and to do the things I love,” says Pfaller. “I don’t think I would have gone on that hike without the excuse of taking a photograph.”
Nature photography is not Jeff Pfaller’s main gig, but it is his primary motivation to explore nature and keep heading down the trail mile after mile. Most often, the places he likes to photograph are remote. They are on the tops of mountains or dozens of miles into the wilderness. Staying fit for Pfaller means that he can enjoy the journey to the location as much as being there.
“To find places that retain a feeling of wilderness, you’ve got to be able to hike where others aren’t willing to go,” says Pfaller. “I don’t want to be completely spent when I reach my destination. I couldn’t do the type of photography I wanted to do without staying healthy. That is where my Fitbit comes in.”
To make sure he can continue his adventures, Pfaller makes sure to stay in shape in between trips. He likes how his Fitbit lets him gamify and track his health, including his daily step count and Active Zone Minutes. He often has friendly competitions with friends to keep himself and others motivated.
“I’m a sucker for the quantified self,” he says. “It appeals to my personality. I love the data I get and I try to improve over time. Even on days when I don’t have a lot of time and can’t get to the gym, I make sure to get what I call my ‘minimum effective dose’ of exercise. I use the heart rate tracker on my Fitbit to ensure that I get into my Peak Zone for at least 20 minutes.
But staying healthy, for Pfaller, is more than just staying physically fit. His mental health and acuity is just as important. A few years ago, he went through a period where he noticed he was more irritable and forgetful. Not knowing what was happening, he had a full medical checkup that didn’t find anything. He decided to take a more holistic approach to the problem. “Using sleep tracking on my Charge 4, I started making sleep a bigger priority in my life,” he says. “I worked on a routine where I’d go to bed and wake up at the same time. Over time as my Sleep Scores improved, so did my mood and mental functioning.”
Pfaller has also noticed how physical activity, particularly walking, boosts his creativity. “There is something about the rhythm of walking and the way your body goes on autopilot that frees up your mind,” he says. “You suddenly find this extra mental bandwidth to free associate and make new connections. It’s in that state that I feel most creative. That’s where I come up with my crazy ideas.”
Many great thinkers from history, it turns out, have made the same observation. Steve Jobs, Charles Dickens, Aristotle, and the poet Wallace Stevens knew that walking boosted their creativity. Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously said, “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.” There is also experimental research to back up the connection. One study out of Stanford University showed that walking could increase a person’s creative output by a remarkable 60 percent.
While on a walk a couple of years ago, Pfaller had one of his crazy ideas. He got to wondering how far he could walk if he stayed up for 24 hours. He decided to make an attempt into a fundraiser for 826CHI, a Chicago-based writing and tutoring program. Starting at 5 AM, he walked over 60 miles, documenting the attempt on social media by sharing his Fitbit dashboard. “By the end, my feet felt like they were burning,” he says. “I ended up with bruises underneath my big toes that took months to heal.”
Pfaller’s next walking adventure comes this fall: a hike with his 16-year-old son to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, the wilderness where Pfaller hiked with his friends in college, and where he first fell in love with camping and backpacking. “I hope I can give him the same positive associations that I have with hiking so he’ll become my backpacking buddy for many more trips,” he says.
It will be a multi-day adventure covering 42 miles, the longest his son has ever hiked. Along the way, Pfaller will patiently look for a shot that will capture a moment and create a memory of the trip. The photographs he favors reveal how nature can be both timeless and change in an instant. He looks to capture fleeting moments like a lightning strike across the Badlands of South Dakota or the synchronized flash of a thousand fireflies in a wooded grove in the Great Smoky Mountains. On this trip with his son there is a rock outcropping that’s called Miners Castle that he has his eye on. It’s been photographed many times, but Pfaller will be looking for that extra something that will make his photograph special.
“I’ve never seen the Northern Lights,” he says. “Maybe we’ll get lucky and there will be a magnetic storm and the photo’s backdrop will be colors of the aurora borealis. But you can’t predict what nature will offer. I’ll be happy to settle for the Milky Way or whatever the moon is doing that night.”
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