Photography is killing you: Health tips for photographers

Tips to save your body from your bag, your gear and yourself.

man holding camera to eye
Camera pain
Wrapping your camera strap around your wrist and gripping the body can help prevent neck and shoulder painJeanette D. Moses

A photographer puts more on the line than their reputation and expensive gear. Bad habits and poor equipment choices can lead to a number of painful and potentially career-ending injuries.

Slipped discs, muscle spasms, rotator cuff syndrome, tendinitis and carpal tunnel are just a few of the occupational hazards that can come from lugging around a heavy bag of gear and turning yourself into a human tripod for a living.

Diana Haskell has photographed animals for 15 years and says for her shooting is a physical workout. "I'm on my stomach a lot, crawling around… I often have my arm suspended for a long time or I can be on my back shooting up," she says. "These sustained positions do a lot of wear and tear." Haskell regularly visits a chiropractor, an acupuncturist and stretches before, during and after shoots to prevent injuries. "I'm always monitoring aches and pains," she says. "It's about maintaining my body so there is no persistent or chronic injury."

Dr. Karen Erickson, DC, a chiropractor who owns Erickson Healing Arts in Manhattan, says that photography related pain is a regular conversation she has with clients like Haskell.

But there are many photographers who don't realize the damage they are doing until an injury. Freelance photojournalist Phyllis Dooney was on assignment in Japan on her way to catch a train when one of her ribs shifted out of place. "I had a backpack, a shoulder bag and a rollie and I had to walk a pretty long distance," she says. "All of the sudden I felt this ice pick sensation in my back." Her injury took nine months to heal.

Dr. Gerard Varlotta, a NYU Langone Medical Center Clinical Associate Professor and expert in rehabilitation medicine, says that many of the photographers he sees are unaware of the harm they are putting themselves in. “They are so fatigued from doing their work, which can be for long hours, that they don’t do the maintenance,” he says. “They are constantly working the long shifts and long hours and carrying equipment and they feel that they are too tired to exercise.”

We asked these experts to share their advice on staying pain free while working in the field.

Choosing a bag

“You want to be able to have a certain amount of balance.”

- Dr. Gerard Varlotta

There are a variety of camera bags to choose from, and picking the right bag depends as much on what you are shooting and what equipment you use as the way your body is built. According to Dr. Karen Erickson, DC many bags are just too bulky for certain body types. Here are some tips on how to pick a bag that won’t break your back.

Equilibrium is Important

“If you have a heavy item and you are carrying it on one side then you are twisting and tilting and that creates asymmetry, which then can cause problems and irritation.”

- Dr. Gerard Varlotta

Unbalance happens easily with over the shoulder messenger bags, which is one reason Dr. Karen Erickson, DC says to avoid them, but it can happen with backpacks too. Dr. Varlotta says over the shoulder bags are okay as long as they aren’t overstuffed. He warned that photographers should avoid any bag with an asymmetrical design. Backpacks that have large compartments on only one side can be problematic.

Don't Overload It

“When you are overloading a bag you are going to have some asymmetry in how you’re carrying it.”

- Dr. Gerard Varlotta

Dr. Karen Erickson, DC says the American Chiropractic Association advises that people avoid carrying more than 10 percent of their body weight, which means a person weight 150 lbs. shouldn’t carry more than 15 lbs. “Truth be told most people end up carrying a lot more than that in backpacks,” she says.

Fit Matters

“The closer to the body the better.”

- Dr. Gerard Varlotta

According to Dr. Karen Erickson, DC the backpack should end near your ribs, with the weight being distributed between your shoulder blades. If the backpack hangs too low on your body you can put a lot of tension on your low back. Look for straps that are wide and padded. The straps should be snug enough to bring the material of the bag close to your body. A backpack with a waistband that sits on the hips can take stress off the shoulders, neck and low back.

A proper fitting backpack
A proper fitting backpack should end near your ribs. The weight should be distributed between your shoulder bladesJeanette D. Moses
backpack hanging too low on back
When a backpack hangs too low on your back like the one pictured above, you put yourself at risk of injury.Jeanette D. Moses

Put it Down

“Carrying a bag for longer than 20 minutes that is heavy, is probably counterproductive, after 20 minutes the muscles are going to fatigue.”

- Dr. Gerard Varlotta

Dr. Varlotta recommends putting down a heavy bag of gear as often as possible.

Don't Write Off Wheels

"Using wheels is sort of the gold standard.”

- Dr. Karen Erickson, DC

Although a roller bag won’t always be convenient in the field, according to our experts they are the best option for photographers traveling with tons of gear. “If you can wheel it that is always better,” says Dr. Gerard Varlotta.

Other Options

“Once you have a shoulder problem it can almost be a career ending injury.”

- Dr. Karen Erickson, DC

Photographers with existing shoulder problems may be better off forgoing a bag all together. Fanny packs and camera vests can be good options for someone who wants to avoid carrying weight with their back and shoulders, but these have some limitations. While Dr. Gerard Varlotta says vests are good for keeping gear close to your body, there isn’t really adequate space to hold a large camera with a telephoto lens.

Shooting techniques

“The idea is to constantly be shifting the way you are using the camera.”

- Dr. Karen Erickson, DC

The bag you lug your gear in isn’t the only thing to be wary of though, a photographer’s shooting techniques are just as likely to cause a repetitive stress injury. Dr. Karen Erickson, DC says that a single muscle group should never be constantly holding the weight of a camera.

Shooting Accessories

“The industry is paying attention and trying to come up with new products that solve some of the common problems.”

- Dr. Karen Erickson, DC

Photography equipment is often bulky and heavy which can add too discomfort. Dr. Gerard Varlotta recommends using a monopod when shooting with a heavy lens to take some of the weight off your muscles. Dr. Karen Erickson, DC is a big fan of camera grips with shutter buttons that keep photographers from lifting their arm over their head when shooting vertically. “For people who have chronic shoulder injuries from photography this is a game changer,” she says.

Holding the Camera

“The other issue is how to hold the camera so it doesn’t wreck your neck, shoulders and arms.”

- Dr. Karen Erickson, DC

Wrapping the camera strap around your wrist and gripping the body with your hand can be a good alternative to hanging the camera around your neck.

hanging camera around neck
Allowing the camera to hang around your neck for long periods of time can lead to neck pain.Jeanette D. Moses

Get fit

“The photographers I know who don’t have injuries are people who are almost body builders.”

- Dr. Karen Erickson, DC

Good gear only goes so far: If you are out of shape the chances of hurting yourself while shooting increase.

Start a Regular Exercise Program

“If you are also not exercising and you are deconditioned then that can cause the muscles to fatigue.”

- Dr. Gerard Varlotta

According to our experts, maintaining a regular fitness program can go a long way in preventing injury. “It’s kind of like driving a car and never taking time to bring it to the shop and get tuned up or put more gas in,” says Dr. Gerard Varlotta referring to photographers who don’t regularly exercise. “It’s just not going to run right after a while.”

He recommends a combination of planks, bridges and arch ups. “You can also strengthen your gluteal muscles, which will have a beneficial effect on the lower back,” he says.

Drink Water

“When you are dehydrated the body injures more easily.”

- Dr. Karen Erickson, DC

Dr. Karen Erickson, DC understands why professionals may choose to not drink water while working, but says it is an easy way to prevent injuries. “It sounds kind of silly but it’s actually really important for soft tissue injuries and even the joints themselves,” she says.

Stretch

“A really simple beginning yoga practice is really fantastic for most photographers.”

- Dr. Karen Erickson, DC

Your hamstrings, shoulders and arms will thank you if you stretch before shooting. Dr. Karen Erickson, DC recommends simple shoulder rolls or basic yoga stretches. “The rule of thumb is if something hurts when you are doing a stretch or an exercise don’t do it,” she says “You never exercise into pain. It’s your body’s way of telling you that you are tearing something or injuring something more.”

Dr. Gerard Varlotta recommends using a foam roller before shoots to loosen the muscles and joints so they aren’t prone to injury from being tight.

stretching shoulder muscles
Simple shoulder stretches before and after shooting can go a long way in keeping your body healthy.Jeanette D. Moses

Be Aware of Warning Signs

"It is better to prevent an injury than to try and take care of it once pain and inflammation occurs.”

- Dr. Gerard Varlotta

Pain or losing range of motion are both signs that you are pushing your body too far. “I think it’s really important to check those injuries out and really understand what they are,” says Dr. Karen Erickson, DC. “With a lot of camera injuries you start to get tendonitis, which is where the tendons get inflamed. Inflamed tendons are more likely ruptured or easily torn.”

Dr. Varlotta urges any photographer to be critical of their work habits to avoid overloading sensitive areas and causing repetitive pain. “The more pain you are in the less you are going to work comfortably as a photographer,” he says.

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