I have long been convinced that putting up with momentary discomfort – even misery – can often lead to more compelling images.

Many times, finding a better composition can be achieved by taking the shoes off and shocking the feet for a second, or bushwhacking for a couple of minutes, or walking uphill for 50 metres. The vast majority of photographers can physically accomplish those things, but they shy away from getting out of their comfort zone for a moment. And I believe that going that extra mile is what makes the difference between a good image and a powerful one, and by extension, between a good photographer and a much better one.

Discomfort is very underrated in photography. I bet it’s one of the main limiting factors for a lot of people, whether they’re aware of it or not.

When it comes to my own process, my thinking in the field goes something like: “If I’m not willing to get a little wet or cold, or get my blood moving a bit; if I’m debating whether to push a little harder, then I probably don’t really believe in the potential of the image in the first place.” Conversely, if I’m really fired up about a possibility, I’ll do a lot more than walking uphill for 50 metres to see what could be.

I’m not talking about safety matters and assessing risk in getting an image. That’s a whole other topic (that I would like to discuss one day!). I’m simply referring to those fleeting moments of being a little wet, cold, working hard, dirty – all things that can be mitigated if we are prepared, and that quickly pass.

Fellow OFFBEAT co-founder shooting photos inside an ice cave. Photo by Paul Zizka.

I’m going to sound like a nut here, but I think it’s beneficial to up the ante when it comes to the amount of suffering that goes into your images. By that, I mean that next time you’re in the field and in that situation where going ankle-deep in water affords you that amazing composition – do it. If you’ve never taken that extra step, try it. It’ll become your new norm. And weeks later, you’ll go waist deep and it’ll seem normal. You’ll raise your standards and my guess is it’ll show in your work. You’ll be willing to accept more and more discomfort as you create, and you’ll likely prepare for it knowing your new tendencies (I usually have a second set of clothes and footwear in my vehicle, and a towel). You’ll be willing to do more and more (and without thinking twice) to allow your creativity to blossom, and your “normal” will change. Bystanders will scratch their heads as you casually brave the elements, but you won’t notice because you will go home with better raw files.

Of course, discomfort is not a guarantee of a stronger image. That’s an easy illusion to get caught up in. Just because you filled your boots and ripped your fleece to get an image doesn’t make it a stronger photograph. But I think, with time, one gets better at assessing how much blood, sweat, and tears is worth putting into an idea.

Unless you want to tell your audience the entire backstory behind an image, nobody will ever know what you went through to get that photograph. If you got what you envisioned, though, it won’t matter to you.

Let’s up the ante in our photography. Get a little wetter, sweatier, dirtier, colder. And let’s see if it shows in the images. 

Written by Paul Zizka

Paul Zizka is a professional mountain landscape and adventure photographer based in Banff, Alberta. Specializing in photographing in difficult conditions and hard-to-reach places, Paul has a passion for shooting alpine sports and backcountry experiences, capturing the spirit of adventurers and finding unusual angles of common mountain subjects. Paul’s award-winning photos have been featured in a variety of publications, including Maclean’s, National Geographic Adventure, Canadian Geographic and Alpinist.