Sleep and the Nature Photographer

by Juan Bahamon | December 1, 2003

NatureScapesAs nature photographers we love the sweet light of early morning. We often endure long and odd hours to maximize our shooting time. How can we ensure that we are fully vigilant and have quick reflexes to capture those fleeting moments of beauty when in the field? What can we do to overcome the so called jet-lag syndrome? Why is sleep important and how much do we really need?

The Sleep Process

To fall asleep we cannot just consciously tell the brain to shut down. Sleep is a highly sophisticated chronology of events that the body has to go through to assure our mental and physical well-being. Chronic sleep deprivation has serious consequences, not only on our level of alertness during daytime, but deprivation can also affect energy, hormonal, immunological and mental functions. When rats are sleep deprived for several days, they die of overwhelming infections. Have you ever wondered why you are more susceptible to illness when your sleep time is being shortchanged?

Sleep Deprivation

The simple way to know if you are getting enough sleep at night is to honestly evaluate if you are sleepy during the day. There is a range of normal length of sleep time in the general population, with an average of roughly eight hours. The main cause of excessive somnolence (sleepiness) during the daytime in America is voluntary sleep deprivation: trying to outsmart human nature by robbing ourselves of necessary rest time and trying to compensate with caffeine and other stimulants. Driving or performing monotonous tasks while we are sleep-deprived is extremely dangerous. Public perception is that the Exxon Valdez ran aground on a clear night due to alcohol consumption on the part of the captain. In fact, the accident occurred because of severe sleep deprivation on the part of a shipmate who was at the helm; he’d slept for only six hours of the previous 48. The captain was not on the bridge when crucial steering miscalculations were made that prevented the Exxon Valdez from turning because it had mistakenly been left on autopilot. It is better to halt our activity and catch up on sleep than to become another statistic.

Sunrise, Sunset

How can we be lucid and alert for early morning photography? The best way is to provide ourselves those necessary hours of sleep, around eight, the night before. Human experiments have shown repeatedly that reaction time, measured in milliseconds, is inversely proportional to sleep time in hours. What about dusk, and being prepared for those moments of intense yellow and red hues of which we all love to make silhouettes and sunset landscapes? Unless you are a photographer significantly advanced in years and suffering from a condition called Sleep Phase Advance Syndrome and getting very sleepy around 5 PM, you should be fine as long as you are not voluntarily robbing yourself of precious sleep time.

Long Hours

Caffeine can help with long hours in the field as long you have not already completely saturated the brain receptors due to chronic use. If you want that espresso to perk you up, just decrease or eliminate caffeine consumption one to two months before your dream photo vacation. Another solution is to take “power naps” as long they are less than 50 minutes. During longer naps your brain will reach deeper sleep stages and when you awake you will be more confused and irritable than before.

Jet Lag

Nature photography sometimes requires flying long distances to reach remote locations covering a multitude of time zones. When we arrive at our destination we don’t feel well: sleepy during the day and at night we cannot fall asleep! How can we combat the effects of jet lag? We can train our bodies in the weeks before the trip to be awake during the expected daylight time at our destination. Melatonin is also available over-the-counter in health stores and one or two milligrams can be used at night to assist our sleep during photo safaris. Please note: people with nocturnal asthma should use caution when taking melatonin.

Returning Home

Upon returning home from our expensive, distant and hectic photo expedition, our sleep-awake cycles may be all messed up. When we try to sleep we stare, restless, eyes wide-open. When we attempt to stay awake, we feel an overwhelming desire to doze off. The best solution is to train our own unique ultra-sensitive light sensors located behind our optic nerves by exposing ourselves to bright sunlight in the morning (f8 at 1/6000 for example) and to avoid exposure to bright lights at dusk. This also includes avoiding exposure to a high luminosity light table or a monitor while editing images from the trip.

Long-Term Effects

How we can assure successful longevity as a nature photographer? As we age, the very deep sleep stage called delta sleep gradually decreases and becomes very fragile. Research has shown that it is only during delta sleep that we produce bursts of growth hormone. Although we no longer grow in our adult years, this substance is necessary to repair tissues. So, my fellow photographers, if you still want to shoot in your seventies or eighties please don’t overlook your sleep. Don’t fall victim to the “twenty-four hour society” and over-schedule; now is the time to get your restful sleep.

Your Significant Other

One final word about quality of sleep: if your partner snores, especially in a crescendo pattern—rr rrrr rrrrr RRR RRRRR—followed by a pause in breathing and a grunt afterwards, he or she may have sleep apnea. This is a very common condition which, when successfully treated, can improve the quality of sleep for you both.

Good night!

About the Author

Juan E. Bahamon, MD is a nature photographer as well as a Neurologist and is Board Certified in Sleep Medicine.

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