Rethinking Photography Gear After an Injury

Rethinking Photography Gear After an Injury

The pain came on like a sharp knife digging into my back. In a moment, years of lifting heavy lenses and avoiding exercise caught up with me and I couldn’t move. A hospital visit and an MRI later, and it was discovered to be a bulging disc messing with a nerve. That meant no photography for a while and lots of physical therapy.

The first thing I did is call clients to inform them about the situation, offering replacement photographers where I could.

The second thought I had is: What am I doing?

That Guy

Like the sneaking up of the Freshman 15 when you go to college, or the “dad bod” after kids, my gear slowly increased in weight. What started as a point-and-shoot camera when I went out and about 10 years ago became an APS-C camera with a prime lens became a full-frame DSLR and 24-70mm f/2.8 zoom lens, which became a few extra lenses and a flash in the bag all the time, because I just couldn’t afford to not have the big guns for every single moment in my family’s life.

Is this any way to treat my back on a simple family outing? Is it really a fun family outing with this much gear anyway?

And that was just in my personal life. When on a wedding shoot, I’d add a Pelican 1510 case full of more flashes and lenses, and then lighting supports and tripods on top of it. For sports I’d add heavy telephoto lenses. Between all of that and a sedentary job and lifestyle, I was doomed.

I’m not the first and certainly not the last photographer to feel the pain. Famed filmmaker Philip Bloom suffered three herniated discs in 2016 and had to sell some of his gear to cover costs. Luckily he seems to be back in action, though the danger is always lurking when we’re lugging around lots of gear. I’m just lucky that photography is not my sole source of income.

Seeking En-light-enment

I couldn’t go on carrying all this stuff all the time. For a couple of weeks after the inciting incident, I couldn’t even walk or lie down easily, let alone carry equipment. A couple of months after, and carrying heavy gear is still not an easy prospect.

A few years back, I bought some amount of Micro 4/3 gear to shoot video. While my Panasonic Lumix GH3 has been my main squeeze for the occasional video for all that time, I didn’t really lean on it or the system for photos, poo-pooing the smaller sensor. Sure, I took it out on the occasional vacation, but nothing close to a daily driver. But now, that system seems much more appealing. My Panasonic Lumix GM1 is the size of a deck of cards, and at 9.6 oz., a third of the weight of my Nikon D700 (29.1 oz. without the grip!) or my D750 or Canon EOS 6D (both about 27 oz.). When you add up the weight savings in the lenses as well, it’s a lot easier on the back. I looked back on some old photos I took with it and remembered why I bought it in the first place, besides the fact that it's orange.

London's Paddington Station shot with the Panasonic Lumix GM1.

While it’s great that Canon and Nikon have entered the mirrorless fray (for real this time), it’s a shame to see that smaller and lighter bodies aren’t really in the cards. After my injury, I had the chance to try a Nikon Z7, and it was excellent in the hand and a joy to use, but it sure was heavier than I was expecting or hoping for. I looked it up later and it was still a rather hefty 23.8 oz. The EOS R isn’t much lighter at 23.3 oz.

I’m realizing the benefits of Micro 4/3 more and more as I’m (more or less) forced to use it for weight reasons. Looking at Panasonic’s current lineup, it’s a shame the system seems to have bloated over time; there’s nothing as svelte as the GM1 in the lineup. While Panasonic is pursuing full-frame these days, it would be great to see them play to the original strengths of the Micro 4/3 system — small and light bodies and lenses that punch well above their weight. And weight is a real concern when you can feel the toll of every ounce on your back. When you’re carrying your kids, their stuff, and a camera on top of it all, it’s nice to know that you can get something like this moment with a camera that fits, quite literally, in the palm of my hand:

It's much easier to keep up with the kids when carrying a smaller, lighter camera. It's better for the back, too.

Have you had a photography-related injury? How has it affected your work or hobby? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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Rob Davis's picture

I had my back spasm to the point I couldn't stand at a wedding. Thankfully this was during the meal and I had time to slam a few ibuprofen and somehow managed to finish the gig. I was laid out for a good week or two after that though.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

That is hardcore, my friend. You are a trooper - I hope the couple liked the photos!

Rob Davis's picture

I've had a herniated disc before. Physical therapy is the only thing that worked. The good news is it did work. While I'll probably always have to be careful about how I do things, I'm mostly pain-free. A good lumbar support back brace (I have a Mueller brand one I like) may limit mobility a bit, but will allows me to still shoot a full frame camera with a 70-200 f/2.8.

user-208255's picture

I did the gear weight reduction thing for my hiking, and now my entire kit is under 1kg (2kg including a tripod).
Weight of gear aside, preventative maintenance in the form of core strengthening and flexibility is pretty important (this equally applies to after sustaining an injury). Yoga is pretty good in that respect.

In any case, a back injury can have catastrophic consequences, but few think about it until they can barely walk.

Rob Davis's picture

I was going to say, I can injure my back just standing up the wrong way if I'm not doing my exercises.

Mark James's picture

Sorry for your pain. I've shot as a semi pro/weekend warrior for years and I only had a person ask about my gear one time. I'm sure in the hands of a pro they are very capable. I agree on the size thing. For me, the GH2 was the perfect size after I got use to using it. The GH3 and so on have all been disappointing from a size standpoint. Love my orange GM1 ;) .

Wasim Ahmad's picture

I loved shooting video with the GH2, images and video were great. Could never get used to the feel of the body in the hand though. I liked the GH3 better, but not the weight and size. Just held a friend's GH5 and it's pretty much the same size and weight as my full-frame DSLRs. I hope Panasonic releases more gems like the GM1 again.

Jeff Burian's picture

Great article, Wasim! I got tired of the weight of my Nikons a couple of years ago, and have found that the Olympus Micro Four-Thirds system works great for me. The colors are incredible and the size has stayed true to the origins of the format.

Spy Black's picture

Recent motorcycle accident has my back out for lunch. I keep FF mostly in the studio. Otherwise I'm M4/3 and 1-inch.

Jacques Cornell's picture

Gee, if you'd worked out regularly and watched your diet, maybe you wouldn't have had time to ride a motorcycle and get injured. ;-)

Spy Black's picture

There was an article about 10 years ago in the British BIKE magazine about the beneficial exercise benefits of motorcycling. They had intended it to be a comical tongue-in-cheek article on the subject, very usual of the wry humor common in the rag, because after all,you're just sitting on your ass on a bike, right? They decided to dig up any real scientific data they could find to improvise their gag lines for shits and giggles. When they were done they were stunned to find all sorts of actual beneficial aspects of riding, and wound up posting it as an real article on the topic. :-D

Jacques Cornell's picture

I'm not surprised. I used to ride. Balance and hand-eye coordination are key.

I wish I could go smaller than FF but I prefer high resolution and not thrilled about having to pano stitch every picture.

Jacques Cornell's picture

Nothing wrong with that. I take it you regularly print larger than A1. 'Cuz my A2 prints from 16MP MFT RAWs are sharp & detailed as I could want, even with my nose on the paper.

There are tonal problems with MFT - in fact Oly admitted it with the EM1ii where part of their pitch was that they had corrected for them. The combination of small sensor pixels and a deep filter stack means that there's an especially fast fall off of detail as contrast diminishes. I keep a GM1 around, but when shooting human beings then I prefer any of the apsc sensors.

And having shot a GM1 against a Sigma Merril (which has A7R class resolution) you may ***think*** that your A2 prints are as detailed as you could want, but they could still be blown away by a better camera - the difference between m43 and the really high res systems is easy enough to see even on flickr images after all. (Really - go take a look at the flickriver for say the Sigma Dp2.)

There's nothing wrong with mft. But the idea that you can't get more image quality at small image sizes is wrong.

Jacques Cornell's picture

I don't have any "tonal problems". My corporate portraits look fine and my clients are happy. I know there is a technical difference, particularly with medium format, but it's not a practical difference of any consequence for my work. As for detail, there is a limit at which any technical increases in "image quality" are imperceptible. I'm comfortable that limit for MFT is at least A2 size prints. Most folks think more pixels will make their A3-A1 prints look more detailed, when, in fact, proper sharpening for a specific print size and medium makes a much bigger difference than having more than 16MP. No art buyer is going to examine your prints under a loupe.

>> I don't have any "tonal problems". My corporate portraits look fine and my clients are happy <<

Sure. But that's about you and that market. To be honest, you could easily get a decent corporate headshot with a compact. You're confusing "MFT is a goo enough option for some tasks" with "MFT has no disadvantages compared to larger sensors expect at big print sizes". That's not valid logically.

>> Most folks think more pixels will make their A3-A1 prints look more detailed, when, in fact, proper sharpening for a specific print size and medium makes a much bigger difference than having more than 16MP. No art buyer is going to examine your prints under a loupe.<<

No, but they are going to notice things that you don't seem to understand, like microcontrast, even if they don't know what they are called. Or not, depending on the image. But any time you need to resolve fast changing lower contrast detail, MFT is a dog. I wish it wasn't: I love the GM1 and Panasonic G series

Jacques Cornell's picture

You're the one who's confused. I never said "MFT has no disadvantages compared to larger sensors expect at big print sizes." What I said is "I don't have any tonal problems", "my A2 prints from 16MP MFT RAWs are sharp & detailed as I could want" and "as for detail, there is a limit at which any technical increases in 'image quality' are imperceptible. I'm comfortable that limit for MFT is at least A2 size prints."

I made very specific statements about MY experience and MY uses. I'd appreciate it if you'd stop misrepresenting my claims to "win" a this made-up "argument".

Why is it that every time I say, "I can do such-and-such with MFT", somebody who prefers larger formats feels compelled to chime in with "Mine is better"? It's really annoying.

Also, the tonal problems with the portrait you posted below as an "example" of MFT's "problems" is nothing of the sort, but just the result of a really bad B&W conversion.

And, finally, take your stupid and arrogant "you don't seem to understand micro-contrast" snark and shove it up your ***. You know nothing about what I understand or don't.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

So I’ll definitely agree that, side by side, my full frame cameras get a bit more detail than my M43 cameras, but at a ridiculous cost-to-weight ratio, and only upon lots of pixel peeping.

I’ve printed photos from both cameras up to 13”x19” and haven’t noticed any real difference in quality - the M43 cameras do perfectly fine in this scenario and rarely do I need to go larger.

The only issue I have, and it’s a personal preference, is that I’m not quite a fan of Panasonic colors out of the box, so I have to do a little more work to get the raw file where I want.

You can really notice it actually in these Halloween pictures I posted of my son, one of these a D750 and the other a Panasonic G1:

I also own Fuji stuff, and damn their colors are good right out of the box.

>> So I’ll definitely agree that, side by side, my full frame cameras get a bit more detail than my M43 cameras, but at a ridiculous cost-to-weight ratio, and only upon lots of pixel peeping.

No. You don't have to "pixel peep" to see the difference between say a 6D and a GM1 - I wish you did, I'd much rather use a GM1. For some subjects - eg portraits with a lot of skin details,scenes with fast highlight transitions - the difference shows easily on standard size flickr images.

>> I’ve printed photos from both cameras up to 13”x19” and haven’t noticed any real difference in quality<<

That's about you or the test subject, not the camera.

>> You can really notice it actually in these Halloween pictures I posted of my son, one of these a D750 and the other a Panasonic G1

Actually the G1 is one of the LEAST problematic mft cameras tonally. DR is small, but the 12MP resolution meant that the sensor pitch was bigger, reducing problems from the over-deep filter stack.

...I'd have loved to standardise on mft, but once you're shooting close enough for skin detail to show, you're really gambling. Although maybe the Em1ii fixes the problem enough, like Oly claims.

But, yes, you certainly won't be able to tell the difference in snapshots a head about 5% of the area of the total image and no skin detail shows - the skin is just a generic warm tone. But when you go to something like this -

(Click a couple of times until you see the larger version.)

No, an mft sensor won't cut it. Even though that's far from a headshot, the hard light means and very rapid intensity changes on top of low contrast detail are lost in the small sensor pitch and deep filter stack.

..Ironically the problem isn't sensor size as much as that filter stack. If the filter was thinner and the mft was kept to 12MP, then that type of image quality would probably be great.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Took these photos on the same day. Only thing that changed is the backdrop. Main light on these was the same (2' softbox, Paramount lighting). One was a Canon EOS-1D X, and the other was a Panasonic GH3. Can you guess which one is which camera, and why?

No, I can't say which camera took which. They're both snapshot quality and, as I said, m43 has no problem delivering that. What it can't do is deliver shots like these -

..Again, click on them for the large but still web size versions.

You simply don't seem to understand the point here. Which isn't that m43 can't take snapshots as well as better sensors - it can. The problem is (for about the fourth time now...) that when you are trying to shoot better than snapshot images of some subjects in some conditions (eg skin in hard light) the images very often break down even at small print sizes. Your low detail soft light snap shots are irrelevant - of course the camera can get them. So could a compact or my five year old smart phone. (Which, ok, is a Nokia that was mostly a camera with a phone attached...)

Again dumb this down all the way -

- M43 can often take good enough images

- Sometimes it can't - and its limits are NOT just about print size, or even low light. You might not understand the difference between hard and soft light and what it means when I say that an m43 typically resolves low contrast detail relatively poorly, but for some people these things do matter.

No, you might not agree with the second point - but you can't refute it by showing that an m43 can take low detail, soft light shots as well as a larger sensor camera.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

I just described that I used Paramount lighting up there and my bio says I have a master's degree in photography. I'm pretty sure I know what hard light and soft light. No need to dumb it down or be rude about it. It's not like I (or you) made the cameras or something.

It's not going to be today, but I'll see your challenge on this and shoot M43 alongside my full-frame 6D in our studio here at Syracuse and put this to the test. I don't think you're right here - I think that the lighting and careful shooting has more to do with Jason's image than it does the sensor size being full-frame or M43, but it's certainly worth testing out. There's a bigger world of difference between what a cell phone sensor is doing compared to M43 than there is M43 to a full-frame.

Jeremy Rasnic's picture

In 2012 I started having numbness in my leg. That numbness eventually led to pain. That pain gradually increased to the point where I couldn't walk more than 10 steps before having to squat down or sit, albeit awkwardly. I eventually went in for an MRI. The tech said that if my wife gave me a hard time for not helping out around the house, I had the best excuse ever. The best excuse ever was the worst prognosis...A ruptured disc. .

I then made a mistake: I queried Google for ruptured discs and found thousands of horror stories regarding failed surgeries.

My photography career was over. My ability to pick up my children was impossible. My hopes and dreams were dashed all because a small part of my body failed and irritated a nerve.

Given everything I read, I decided to wait it out and let my body heal itself over time... Fast forward a few months and I'm doing my physical therapy exercises; upon completion I start to get up off the floor. My left leg doesn't work. At this point I go to the hospital and after about 5 days of lesser to greater treatment options, I have surgery. The surgery is successful, but because I waited so long for the surgery (trying to let my body heal itself over time) my foot has pregnant nerve damage.

It took about two years for me to get to a point where I thought I could get back out into nature and push the shutter button. Specifically it took a sponsored trip from the USA to Australia to help me realize that my injured body can do more than my mind thinks it can. A three week journey down the Eastern coast of Australia from Rockhampton to Sydney proved that I was capable of long days, exhausting nights and 15 mile hikes.

This sponsored trip was life-changing. It told me I wasn't done yet. If I could carry my gear, I could pick up my children. If I could hike hours on end to get to a location... Well, I'm still in the game.

It's now the dawning of 2019 and my photography career is doing better than ever. There is life after injury, and that life can be as good you choose to make it. Injured photogs the world over, be encouraged... Your career isn't over until you believe it is.

Here's a link to an album containing photos from that life-changing sponsored trip. I can't put a price on that trip.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

I'm truly inspired hearing your story. Especially that part about your body being able to do more than the mind thinks it can - Mind over matter it seems, for sure. Glad to hear things are better for you.

Jeremy Rasnic's picture

I hope that you are inspired to overcome what seems to be insurmountable. Hang in there and listen not for the things you can't do, but listen closely for the things you can. That's what makes the difference between defeat and triumph.

Jeremy Rasnic's picture

By the way, this is the first time I've shared this publicly- you're article inspired me to do so.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

I'm really glad that's the case. Your story gives me hope as well!

Hey hey welcome to the tiny camera world. Pentax Q or Nikon 1 series not counted.

I love my gf7, it’s so tiny and it has a flip out screen. I compared photos from that and my d80 at higher iso, m43 has come a long way. I always shot d7000 d750 in the day but I moved to m43 for travels. Can’t justify the weight walking around the city all day. I really felt the weight of the d750 when I had to squat and stand multiple times for a tea ceremony. Make that 100 reps.

I transitioned to Olympus a while back to try this fancy 5axis thing back then. Completely opened my eyes. I see blue skies in pitch black and stars. Paired with a 25mm f1.4 it was my favourite walk out combo. But that camera died after a few years. Too much water and drops, mode selector would switch automatically. So looking to another Panasonic g85 for my other companion to my gf7. I really love the gf7. Little complaints. Iso performance is good. Almost d7000 like. In that pocket size.

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