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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Previous comments
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'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.

Im a longtime canon shooter and still have my kit. 2 years ago was my first twinge of my back while shooting a wedding and seem to repeat similar injuries every couple of months especially around family photo season (fall). That's when I started to look for something smaller. To my surprise I fell in love with the fujifilm Xpro 2. I have to say since the transition, I use my Canon gear pro portraits and fuji for everything else. I will also say I find myself stretching before shoots. Getting old sucks.

Adam Palmer's picture

a7rIII with a 28mm 2.0 is a pretty light combo I love to hike with. AF is fast. Low light is awesome.

frankabbott's picture

Having sustained a rare spinal cord injury during a routine SCUBA dive in the early 1980’s, resulting in quadriplegia, and a massive disc herniation in 2014, the majority of my photography is taken from the front seat of my SUV, boat, or wheelchair. I photograph nature and landscapes in common areas unrecognized by many for their incredible beauty and the interesting wildlife that exists there. I like giving the illusion of being in remote places. My photography expresses my love of nature, the outdoors, and especially water, all underpinned by my artistic vision of color, forms, and patterns. I still use full framed DSLR's and long prime lenses that are balanced with beanbags on my car door frame or with carbon fiber tripods wedged into my wheelchair. I hate the word can't

I'm very happy with my D750 and a good selection of lenses, but to be honest is quite impractical to carry around all day long. I'm very happy (also) to have a Lumix LX100. I bought for around 500 euros some time ago, and is the money best spent in my life. Don't even consider an interchangeable lenses M4/3 if you are after a really compact system capable of delivering outstanding pics. Macro capabilities, wide 24mm 1.7 to 75mm 2.8 (equivalent focal lengths) , leaf shutter, customizable controls, proper aperture, speed and multipurpose (I use for focusing) rings and wheels, focus peaking etc etc. It is a really understated camera, but everyone I know that uses one, agrees with me. For sure it has many shortcomings but not really remarkable considering the price and size.