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The Healthy Photographer: Injury Prevention Optimizes Business Success

By Serge Timacheff with Peter Harmer, Ph.D., ATC

It’s not uncommon to catch sight of a photographer skirting a football field, squatting on the sidelines of a basketball court, or crouching in the midst of a wedding reception and carrying multiple camera bodies and lenses, a camera bag, a tripod or monopod, and wearing a vest containing who-knows-what. Equipment is a heavy burden, but carrying it is better than having to run across a room or field to change lenses or attach a flash.

Photography is an athletic occupation. Indeed, it can place many of the same rigors on a photographer as sports do on athletes. Professional photography in the field often requires endurance, strength, flexibility, and even (on occasion) speed. The problem is that many photographers are in less-than-optimal physical condition—much less athletic—and, unlike athletes, they seldom do much to prevent injuries or career-threatening conditions. And despite of the advent of the digital age, photography equipment hasn’t gotten substantially lighter or less bulky.

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Lift with the legs from a steady position. ©Amy Timacheff

For example, many professional photographers complain of back and neck problems as well as sore elbows and wrists from carrying and holding equipment. In addition, poor dietary habits can result in weight problems, which exacerbate back and neck problems. Unlike job-related injuries in more formal corporate settings, little has been done to quantitatively or qualitatively research the rates of injuries and illness or their associated risk factors in the profession. And few photographers have the option to file for Workers’ Compensation.

Moreover, digital photography has the added threat of repetitive-stress injuries such as carpal-tunnel syndrome due to hours spent in post-processing time on the computer. Anecdotally, both acute and over-use injuries are becoming more common in professional photographers.

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When transferring a load from a vehicle, pull the load near to your body before
lifting and then lift with your legs. ©Amy Timacheff

This situation has become increasing obvious to me as I have investigated, discussed, and observed photographers around the world in my role as photographer for the International Fencing Federation. Greater physical demands of the job and decreased physical fitness in professional photographers is resulting in injuries and disability severe enough to limit, or even end, shooting careers.

Professor Peter Harmer is chair of the Department of Exercise Science and Sports Medicine at Willamette University in Salem, Ore., and a Fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine. He characterizes the problem this way: Acute injuries and overuse pathologies are a result of a mismatch between the demand of a physical act and the body’s functional level. When the demand exceeds the functional level, the body is unable to adapt appropriately and some type of dysfunction results—blisters, sprains, strains, tendinitis, contusions, etc. The magnitude of the demand is the net result of the interaction of three elements – the frequency, intensity, and duration of the action. Variations in one or more of these elements can be the difference between a positive response of the body (e.g., developing a callus over a high-friction area such as a finger) and a negative one (e.g., developing a blister).

It is the intention of Dr. Harmer and myself to conduct formal research into the health and job-related injuries of professional photographers in the coming year, and to report our findings to the professional photography community. In the meantime, we would like to offer photographers a set of basic guidelines for practicing their craft as safely as possible. Ideally, this information will optimize both the quality of photographers’ images as well as their working lives.

Prevention

As the adage goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, especially if the time it takes to recover from an injury is time away from working on paying assignments. The most simple model for preventing injuries and overuse problems is to ensure the magnitude of physical demands is lower than the body’s functional level. This can be done by: a) lowering the total demand (by decreasing the frequency, intensity and/or duration of an activity), b) increasing functional levels (by engaging in a well-structured physical fitness program suited to the individual’s needs), or c) doing a little bit of both.

Learn how to lift and carry in ergonomically advantageous ways by keeping loads close to the body and well balanced. Treat problems while they are small to minimize the probability that they will become major impediments to work. This is especially important for overuse conditions such as tendinitis of the elbow, impingement syndrome in the shoulder (a result of injured rotator cuff muscles), and plantar fasciitis in the foot. These problems can become debilitating very quickly and be extremely difficult and time-consuming to resolve.

Here are a few practical suggestions to lessen the likelihood of developing an occupation-related pathology in professional photography:

In the field
• Use rolling equipment bags when possible.
• Limit what you carry around your neck.
• Rest your hand; using a hand-strap can help alleviate pressure.
• Consider a fanny-pack instead of a backpack.
• Don’t carry backpacks on one shoulder.
• Use a monopod for heavier lenses.
• Stretch before and after a long shoot.
• Begin a fitness program tailored to your needs.
• Limit fatty, high-calorie diets and eat more “foods of color” such as vegetables and fruits.
• Stay adequately hydrated. Drink water or fruit juice; limit alcohol, coffee and soda.
• Don’t smoke, or try to quit.
• A regular massage can be therapeutic.

In the digital darkroom: Practice good ergonomics
• Sit in a supportive, well-designed chair.
• Use a pointing device (mouse, trackball, digitizing pen) that is comfortable and suitable for your style of working and your hand size.
• Position your monitor at the correct distance and angle to avoid craning your neck.
• Use a comfortable, ergonomically-correct keyboard.
   o If you use a laptop, use a separate, full-sized keyboard at your desk.
• Try to take 5-10 minute breaks every 30-45 minutes. Stand, stretch, walk around.
• Limit backlighting, such as a large window behind your editing screen.

Thumbnail image for 200910we_stretches.jpg Simple stretches before and after a job can help prevent soreness and injury. Hold each stretch for 10 seconds. Do not force the stretch to the point of discomfort. ©Amy Timacheff

It’s important to realize that getting in shape takes time and commitment, and unlearning bad habits doesn’t happen overnight. Coaches and trainers will tell you that the old saying that “practice makes perfect” is actually incorrect; what’s more precise is that “practice makes permanent.” That’s because it’s just as easy to practice something the wrong way, until it becomes a bad habit. So practice carrying equipment, holding cameras, and sitting correctly in order to receive maximum benefit.

Before embarking on an exercise and diet program, especially for anyone who’s out of shape or doesn’t exercise regularly, be sure to see a doctor and get a physical. Assess any old injuries or issues with your doctor, and discuss the best workarounds to ensure the maximum benefit while taking into account your personal limitations and capabilities. The worlds of physical training, nutrition, and exercise science are constantly evolving, and it’s good to know the latest information.

For many photographers, their craft is their life and passion. Being in shape and healthy is more than just a career-enhancing change—it can make life more fulfilling, happy, and productive. It paves the way for being able to get the very most out of the lifelong pursuit of photography.

Serge Timacheff is a professional fencing photographer for the International Fencing Federation and covered both the 2004 and 2008 Olympic Games and dozens of world events. He is also an active and competitive fencing athlete.