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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Michael Jin's picture

I had back surgery when I was 20 years old for Cauda Equina Syndrome and I am currently living with 3 more herniated discs which have luckily not warranted more surgery.

I've used some heavy gear for the majority of my photography life (which actually began years after that surgery) and gotten into many arguments with people who keep pressuring these companies to unnecessarily release gigantic lenses made with metal barrels just because they need the perception of value or build quality via weight. I told myself through that time that I simply had to bear the burden because that was the price of using the best optics and I wouldn't want to compromise my image quality, even if it caused pain. I guess I was younger and more stubborn back then...

For a while there, I would always carry around by best lenses (a full set of f/1.4 primes including the 105mm f/1.4 from Nikon), but nowadays I only break out the f/1.4 stuff if there's a specific job that requires it. More often than not, I'm rolling around with the slower variants to benefit from the weight reduction for my everyday shooting. I've also reduced the number of lenses I carry around to 3 at MOST (35, 55, 85), more often just going out with a single lens (these days usually my Sony 55mm f/1.8).

My physical condition has certainly deteriorated from when I started photography and I would attribute some of that to irresponsibly carrying around my whole kit in a sling or messenger bag because I thought they looked better. Now I just use a backpack for even weight distribution. Again, the concerns of a younger me.

While I haven't gone down to M43 (I've certainly considered it along with APS-C), I've recently traded in my D850 for an A7RIII for unrelated reasons and I've certainly enjoyed the side benefit of having a load off my camera bag. It's a little annoying because my hands are so used to holding onto the larger camera bodies that I find smaller cameras uncomfortable, but I guess it beats constant pain or occasional numbness (which is when I get real worried).

One thing that has really attracted me in the past year or two has been vintage lenses. Yes, they're often made of metal, but they are also a hell of a lot smaller and lighter than the lenses that companies are generally putting out today (I love the quality of the ART and Milvus lines, but WTF... do they have to be that big and heavy?). Having a MILC now makes these vintage options a lot more practical to use and not really worrying constantly about sharpness or image quality has freed me to focus on other aspects of my photography.

I think I was pretty bitter about finally realizing that carrying around everything under the sun all of the time was just not going to be sustainable for me. I'd certainly be lying if I told you that I didn't miss the quality I could get with a lot of those really heavy lenses... It's really not easy to see other people being able to carry all of this stuff around and realize that it's not really realistic for you to do the same. Now that I have a kid, though, I find myself a lot more interested in making sure that I don't end up hospitalizing myself again and for me, part of that is not straining my body so much.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

I hear you, especially on that last part. Kids change the whole game. I want to be able to keep myself upright to carry around my son and daughter and do what I need to for them, so if that means sacrificing a little on the gear it seems like a fair tradeoff.

Jonathan Brady's picture

Every time I see someone talk about "big" "beefy" gear and "adding a grip" for "heft" my eyes roll back so far in my head I can practically see my brain. It's a perfect example of machismo. Especially given that, ideally, the bulk of the camera and lens weight should be supported by the left hand with the right hand gripping the camera for fine-tuning direction and button/dial operation.
On to the topic at hand...
SO many photographers eschew physical fitness to their detriment. Even many of those that embrace it after their body fails them, will only do just enough to get back to what they were doing and then they abandon it once again. There's nothing in this world more important than one's physical, mental, and emotional health. Without these three things, you're no good to yourself or anyone else. One's health is literally the foundation for everything else that's important in their life.
In my opinion, everyone, not just photographers - but photographers should be among the MOST dedicated, should exercise DAILY. Daily? Yes! Daily! The basis should be resistance training with, depending on your resistance program and desire, cardio as a supplement. Stretching and/or yoga/pilates should also be included. And NO! You DO NOT get enough exercise from photography, regardless of what you think.
Here are the basics of a good exercise program:
-Training the total body (duh!) with resistance (aka, weights and/or bodyweight) exercises. This should include (in no specific order as they're all equally important):
a) vertical pushing and pulling movements (where you push weight up and pull weight up - aka: overhead presses, pull-ups/chin-ups/pull-downs, shoulder shrugs, dips, forward/lateral/reverse arm raises, etc.)
b) horizontal pushing and pulling movements (push-ups, bench press, rows, inverted rows)
c) legs (squats, deadlifts, hip thrusts, back hyperextension [which, if done properly target your hamstrings and glutes primarily, but also your lower back], sagittal [side-to-side] movements, frontal [back-and-forth] movements, etc.)
d) stretching/yoga/pilates (incorporated however it makes sense - I personally perform "active stretches" prior to working out - stuff that looks like an aerobics class with a focus on crossing the sagittal, frontal, and transverse planes, and then do static stretching after my workout. Static stretching is the stuff that people typically think of when they think of stretching [ie, long holds to elongate a muscle] and I usually throw in a dedicated stretching and foam rolling day once per week)
-Use appropriate resistance for each exercise (ie, have a set number of repetitions you want to achieve [8-12 is a standard goal but there are reasons to target more or less, for sure] and pick an appropriate resistance so that you either "fail" at that number or have maybe 1-2 more repetitions left with good form before you fail. If you can reach your target number of reptitions easily, add more resistance or slow down the movement).
-Perform each repetition with proper form and speed (ie, explode against gravity and squeeze/flex the target muscle at the end of the range and then take 1-2 seconds to return back to the "bottom" position while keeping your core tight the entire time <-- this is where your core work comes in).
-Take 2-7 days off periodically to allow your body to recover and during this time, be more active in other parts of your life (ie, go for a couple of walks per day lasting 15 minutes each, ride a bike, get in a jog, etc.)
-"Cardio" is tackled by resting as little as possible between sets and exercises. If you enjoy traditional cardio, don't do what's called "steady state" cardio (where you keep essentially the same pace for a long period of time). Instead, do what's called "HIIT" (High Intensity Interval Training) or even "Tabatas" where you go as hard/fast as you can for a short period of time (20 seconds to 2 minutes, depending on your program and goals) and then rest for a short period of time and repeat only a handful of times. This should only take 4-10 minutes and your cardio is done. Cardio performed in this fashion will literally melt fat off of your body while "steady state cardio" (ie, cycling/jogging at the same pace for 30 minutes) will likely keep you at the same weight but ironically decrease muscle and increase body fat.

Personally, my goal is to get stronger and add muscle bulk and with that goal and the above basics, I exercise/lift for an hour per day. If your goal is to simply make your body more functional, resilient, stable, etc., you could easily accomplish those goals using the basics listed above in 30-40 minutes per day, including a warm-up and cool-down. You can even do all of this at home, without a single dumbbell/barbell/machine by simply using bands (I can recommend a GREAT set on Amazon for $23) and an inexpensive, removable pull-up bar that (temporarily and simply) mounts in a doorway ($20-$30). I've even flipped the door-mounted pull up bar upside down on the floor and used it for push-ups with a greater range of motion.

If you do what's above, your physical health, strength, and mobility will improve DRAMATICALLY in 30 days and continue getting better over time. Your current camera gear will begin to feel much lighter and easier to carry as well. But, because you'll look and feel great, you won't feel the need to carry all of your equipment to prove the point that weight/bulk doesn't matter and that your machismo is in full effect. Your self-confidence in your appearance and capabilities will be all the reassurance you need.

Also, keep posture in mind. SO many of us sit for long periods of time with our heads lurching forward/down. This can wreak havoc on your spine. It's very important to sit with proper posture, take frequent breaks and walk around, and even do corrective exercises (ie, put a towel around your neck like you just finished working out and pull on both ends and then move your head from a forward gaze to looking up to the ceiling and back down again and repeat for 20 or so reps times 3 sets. You can also do this to both sides and diagonally back as well).

Leigh Miller's picture

This.

Photography is largely a sedentary occupation that does nothing to keep the body...or mind for that matter, fit. I personally do an hour per day of exercise - load bearing and opposite day cardio. Also gotta watch the diet.

Jacques Cornell's picture

Good for you. My work is anything but sedentary. I hike miles when shooting landscapes, and I do probably several hundred deep knee bends and squats in the course of an event job. Your attempt to blame photographers for injuries arising from long-term use of heavy gear is just a typical "Me Tarzan" defense of your own gear choices. The author of the article found that MFT works for him, as I did. You got a problem with that?
Also, if photography doesn't keep your mind sharp, you're doing it wrong.

Leigh Miller's picture

Hyperbole....

I used similar "heavy" gear for many years and my on-going fitness in addition to bearing heavy loads prevented injury.

Don't take things so personally. You will live longer.

Jacques Cornell's picture

Check "hyperbole" in a dictionary.

Jacques Cornell's picture

Sure. Fine. But, the idea that we should all do this SO THAT we can continue to use gear that's heavier than we need for our particular uses is kinda silly and smacks of blaming the victim. Too, there are some injuries that no amount of exercise can prevent. Compressing the nerves in your shoulders by carrying a heavy shoulder bag for decades is one example, as I learned the hard way.

Jonathan Brady's picture

I didn't say people should do this SO THAT they can continueusing gear that's heavier than needed for their particular use. In fact, I advocated for the opposite when I said "But, because you'll look and feel great, you won't feel the need to carry all of your equipment to prove the point that weight/bulk doesn't matter and that your machismo is in full effect. Your self-confidence in your appearance and capabilities will be all the reassurance you need."

Jacques Cornell's picture

Understood. But others here seem to think that we should exercise so that our bodies can better sustain the abuse of heavy gear, which is absurd given that some people are always going to be slender or frail, and some injuries simply are not avoidable through exercise because they involve soft tissues, cartilage and nerves damaged and inflamed by pressure and friction.

Jonathan Brady's picture

So you didn't mean to reply to me?

Jacques Cornell's picture

I did, but your clarification made it apparent to me that I'd misunderstood your broader point.

Jacques Cornell's picture

Or, when possible, just use gear that isn't an unnecessary burden. Duh.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Much appreciated advice here. I wished I had kept everything up before all of this, but now I'm going to work hard to make sure I don't just reach a point and stop again because the scenario you describe up there is entirely likely for me if I'm not careful. In fact, I'll probably think about this comment as I force myself to keep going. Thank you.

Leigh Miller's picture

The real story is....lack of exercise/crap diet etc. Gear choices is an escape..after the fact.

Jacques Cornell's picture

Wrong. I've been fit all my life. I'm 54 now. Carry too much weight in the wrong way for too long and you'll ruin your body, exercise or no.

Jacques Cornell's picture

Bursitis in my right shoulder was like a shot to the nuts that went on for two weeks. Couldn't lift my hand above my waist. Guess which shoulder has been carrying 5-15lb. shoulder bags of 35mm and medium format cameras for two decades?
Did PT and traded in my Canon lenses and 1-series bodies for an MFT kit. My walkabout kit is under 2lbs. My travel kit under 5lbs. When shooting events, I carry two cameras on an OpTechUSA Dual Sling (a must for any multi-camera shooter) and my shoulder hasn't complained in the five years since. FWIW, IQ matches what I got from my 1Ds MkIII in almost every respect, and many other performance parameters are better.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

I hear you. Sold my 1DX after a few magazine shoots dragged me through long walks in woods. Don't know why the manufacturers make us carry the most weight for the best image quality, when they could easily stuff it into a smaller body (Like Nikon did with the D700, which was a baby D3 basically).

Jacques Cornell's picture

As usual, some folks who are afraid that others can be successful with smaller formats chime in to tell us all that we need to live the way THEY think we should live so that we can use the gear THEY think we should use. Ignorant, offensive, autocratic and narcissistic. Thanks for the "concern" for my welfare, but no thanks. Jump in a lake and take your "advice" with you. If can't handle the fact that folks can have success with small cameras, that's YOUR problem. Shall I recommend a meditation regime to "help" you get over it? Jeez.

For me, tendonitis in my right forearm forced me to choose my MFT for a recent Europe tour. I was pleasantly surprised at how many shots were what I had envisioned and ultimately happy about my decision to take the crop sensor over the full frame camera.

I can relate to your pain issues and wanting lighter gear. After 25+ years hiking long distances on the lava flows of Kilauea with a 50+ lb pack my body couldn't take it much more. Of course, the first thing was leaving certain gear behind but, I'd usually regret it later. Then I decided to give MFT a try. The bodies are lighter but, the big thing is the lenses being much smaller and lighter. I cut my weight from 22 lbs for FF gear to 7 lbs for the MFT gear and cover a broader focal range. This allows for a smaller pack too. My issues were the hips and both were replaced this year when it got to the point I could hardly walk. No injury or wear and tear. Balls of the hips suffered unusual bone death.

The horror stories I could tell you about many of my hikes over the past 6 years and hips locking up with 8 miles to get back to my Jeep carrying a 50 lb pack.

I'm a very fit person who rides a bike, walks, hikes and surfs. I'm always active with an occasional relax/recover day. Well, used to. Slowly getting back into it all right now. I love the MFT system and rarely touch my FF gear anymore. I was fortunate enough to have a chance to work with Panasonic on an Ad campaign back in 2017 that allowed me access to a wide range of their gear and I was sold. At the time my hips were at the breaking point and the hikes I did during filming wouldn't have been possible with an FF outfit.

I'm still young being only 58. The saved weight will allow me to continue doing extreme adventures for many years to come. I envision someday maybe only having to carry 2 fixed prime lens cameras. Like a 16mm and maybe a 50mm and a zoom fixed lens for 200mm+ and getting plenty good enough images for 40 x 60 prints and only weighing in at 5-6 lbs total.

MFT works just fine for me. I like being able to ride my bike down to some local surf spots with my GH5 and Leica 100-400mm in a small hydration pack. Can't do that with my FF equivalent without needing a pack the will weigh more than the GH5 setup itself. My latest YT surfing video shows how well the GH5 setup does.
I've never cared what people thought about the gear I used. I've only ever cared about getting the shot with whatever I had at the time.

My back has issues too from too many years of const work when I was younger. Inversion tables are great for back issues. Strengthen your core and save your back.

Good luck with your recovery.

When I was younger, eyeglasses were super heavy and very thick. My grandmother had permanent imprints in her nose from them. Now they are featherweight because they are plastic. And still, the optics are terrific, and they even incorporate progressive focus points.

My hope, probably not in my lifetime, is that camera lenses use plastic elements. The enormous weight is my biggest complaint about my pro photo gear. And as much as I tend to think it's impossible, I look at my eyeglasses and have to think technology can get us there, someday.

Sorry to hear about your situation. It's tough. I've had two accidents, the first rearranged my back and the second caused a lot of damage to my right shoulder. Weight has been an issue for over 30 years. After the second accident, I dropped my D810. A shooting pain went down my arm and my hand just opened. I was picking the camera up off the table and didn't even have time to put the strap around my neck. Fixing the mirror mechanism cost $400.

I came to a similar decision to yours. My choice was a Fuji X-E2 and their smaller primes. With the 27mm pancake it's a fraction over 15 ounces. I can't print quite as large, but am very satisfied with system. The thing about full frame being necessary is mostly urban legend, and the "need" for super shallow depth of field a fad. For most of history, a wider DOF was what people wanted.

I'm still using Nikon for studio work, in large part because I have the lenses and flash system. But, using a tripod or monopod, I don't have to support the camera for long. I also always support the camera with my left hand.

"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." — Actually, Canon's M50 is pretty small & light.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Not wrong about the body being light, but Canon has seriously neglected the M lens lineup to make that move worthwhile. There’s a lot more lens love in Fuji and M43 land. The RF mount makes it seem unlikely the M series lenses will ever reach parity with Fuji or Olympus/Panasonic.

John Belknap's picture

I'm a C5/6 Quad which means I'm paralyzed from the chest down. With my limited hand grip and strength I find ways to keep shooting. Although it adds more weight I always use a battery grip on my cameras as it helps with how I hold the camera. A lighter setup would be nice but my favorite combo for years has been my 5D3 with the 70-200 f2.8 lens. Hopefully I still have many more years of shooting ahead of me.

amplighter's picture

Early 90's while riding my bicycle home from work, I rounded a corner only to meet a car which crossed the center line & hit me head on. Although I didn't enter the windshield and fell off to the passenger side of the vehicle, I've had a life time of heath issues thereafter. Mind you before all this happen I was using gear like the Pentax K1000, Nikon FE2 and after getting hit, I though I could manage with the Nikon D50. The D50 would prove I wasn't able to carry the equipment any longer. Thus I was forced to resort to lighter "Main Stream" type pocket cameras. Although I wasn't please with these pockets, I did get a few nice images, but these cameras don't allow me to truly capture the moment. After 40 or more years, I've been without a camera since this past Sept. With 2019 just around the concern, I feel It's time fro something new. I've set my sights on the Canon (my first Canon) M series cameras. Along with this I'll be returning to my old ways Going old school on a new digital body. We still have a few more months until I'm able to make any sort of purchase, But once I do, I'll post images on my instagram. Otherwise, I will continue to suffer with numbness, chronic back and neck pain. if it wasn't for my wife pushing me back into this, I probably never would have picked up another camera.

New Group Created: https://fstoppers.com/groups/209859/handicapped-photographers

Paul G's picture

Rather than change gear, why not do more exercise? I have had cancer requiring surgery to my neck area, radiotherapy and chemotherapy, two broken collarbones requiring surgery in the last 4 years. In my early 60s, I still manage to carry around a 5d4 with 24-70 and a 7d2 with 100-400 and a 100L macro etc when I am out walking in the hills/mountains. It is not the weight of the gear that is the problem it is a sedentary lifestyle that is the problem. I cycle and Nordic walking to keep fit so I can continue with my photography. Since my treatments, I need to do a range of physio exercises to keep my neck and shoulder mobile and do these regularly. Also carrying the gear contributes to my fitness so a win-win situation.

Jacques Cornell's picture

"Rather than change gear, why not do more exercise?"
Why not do both if it works for you?

Greg Baker's picture

I can relate, after being in the Military for 20 years, I left suffering from 4 prolapsed discs, Sciatica and Lumbar Spondylosis. My trouble isn't so much that I can't carry the gear, although I limit what i carry...it's more that I can no longer bend over or get low for those close to ground Landscape shots anymore. I recently purchased a Canon 6DMkii, instead of the 5D MkIV, solely because it has a tilt screen which allows me to get some low shots. I also have to use a tripod for ALL of my bird and wildlife shooting as I can no longer hold up the long tele lens for long. I always carry a small, lightweight, folding stool as I need to sit down most of the time. The back issues have certainly impacted my photography but it also gets me out of the house and off the couch.

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