Photographer Jeff Faller uses nature and exercise as creative triggers

A while ago, Jeff Pfaller left at 1:30 AM, hoping to photograph the occasional moonlit rainbow at Yosemite Falls. So, in the dark and cold, he loaded his camera gear and hiked up a steep, secluded trail to Glacier Point. His Charge 4, which he always wears on his adventures, told him he had logged more than 10,000 steps. Once he had set up his equipment, he waited patiently until the light of the full moon shone through the mist, revealing a spectrum of colors from purple to red, a rainbow with the stars of the night sky in the background.

“Photography gives me a reason to challenge myself and do the things I love,” Faller says. “I don’t think I could have gone on that hike without an excuse to take pictures.”

Nature photography isn’t Jeff Faller’s main gig, but it’s his primary motivation to explore nature and head mile after mile. Often, the places he likes to photograph are remote. They are on mountain tops or dozens of miles of wilderness. For Pfaller, staying fit means he can enjoy the ride as much as he can while he’s there.

“To find places that retain that wilderness feel, you have to hike where others aren’t willing to go,” Faller says. “I don’t want to spend all my time getting to my destination. I couldn’t do the kind of photography I wanted without being healthy. That’s where my Fitbit comes in.”

To make sure she can continue her adventures, Paller makes sure to stay in shape between trips. He likes how his Fitbit allows him to track his health with 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 measured self,” he says. “It appeals to my personality. I like 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 go 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 make sure I get into my peak zone for at least 20 minutes.

But being healthy, for Pfaller, is about more than being physically fit. His mental health and acuity are just as important. A few years ago, she went through a period where she noticed that she was more irritable and forgetful. Not knowing what was going on, he underwent a full medical checkup that found nothing. He decided to take a more holistic approach to the problem. “By using sleep tracking on my Charge 4, I’ve started to make sleep a bigger priority in my life,” he says. “I worked into a routine where I would go to bed and wake up at the same time. As my sleep scores improved over time, so did my mood and mental functioning.”

Pfaller also noticed how physical activity, especially walking, boosted his creativity. “There’s something about the rhythm of walking and the way your body goes on autopilot that frees your mind,” he says. “You suddenly find this extra mental bandwidth to freely collaborate and make new connections. That’s when 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 all knew that walking boosted their creativity. Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously said, “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.” There is empirical research to back up the connection. A Stanford University study found that walking can significantly increase a person’s creative output by 60 percent.

While walking a few years ago, Faller had a crazy idea. He wondered how far he could walk if he stayed awake for 24 hours. She decided to try a fundraiser for 826CHI, a Chicago-based writing and tutoring program. Starting at 5 AM, he walked more than 60 miles, documenting the effort on social media by sharing his Fitbit dashboard. “By the end, my legs felt like they were on fire,” he says. “I had a sore under my big toe that took months to heal.”

Pfaller’s next hiking adventure comes this fall: Pfaller with his 16-year-old son at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, the wilderness where Pfaller hiked with his friends in college and where he fell in love with camping and backpacking. “I hope I can give him the same positive association with hiking so he’ll be my backpacking buddy for many more trips,” he says.

It will be a multi-day adventure covering 42 miles, his son’s longest ever. Along the way, Pfaller will patiently search for a shot that will capture a moment and create memories of the trip. The photographs he likes reveal how nature can be timeless and change instantly. He looks to capture fleeting moments like a flash of lightning across the South Dakota badlands or the synchronized flash of a thousand fireflies in a grove of trees in the Great Smoky Mountains. On this trip with his son, there is a rock outcropping called Miner’s Castle that he has his eye on. It has been photographed many times, but Faler is looking for that extra something that will make his photos special.

“I’ve never seen the Northern Lights,” she says. “Maybe we’ll be lucky and there will be a magnetic storm and the background of the picture will be the colors of the aurora borealis. But you can never predict what nature will give. I’ll be happy to settle for whatever the Milky Way or the moon is doing that night.”

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