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Photography

Ergonomic Principles and Practice for Photographers

It happened early one beautiful July morning. I was racing to make a fitness class and tripped over my shadow. I landed on the concrete sidewalk. Hard. I broke my right arm and damaged my wrist. Less than two months later, I was due to be in Italy for a week-long shoot. And I'm right-handed.

I learned a great deal about my body that summer. In particular, I learned how photography uses my body. I also learned it’s difficult to shoot when hurt.

This article looks at how we may unintentionally hurt ourselves when shooting and explores how we can prevent injury by changing our posture and how we carry our equipment. A short series of exercises at the end of the article offers an opportunity to start on a mini-conditioning program for photographers.

Photography and the Potential for Injury

Juliette Hunter, an athletic therapist who specializes in helping individuals restore fitness and function for everyday life, equates photography to fencing or boxing. Thrusting her arm at me with a mock camera in her hand, Juliette said, “Just as a fencer holds a sabre in a certain way and reaches out to attack and then pulls back, so does a photographer hold a camera in a certain way, reaching forward - or sideways or around - to shoot, and then pull back.” A photographer’s moves can also be compared to a boxer’s, she added. Both shift their weight forward and back, leaning in and out of posture to get the perfect angle for a shot.

While there is much attention paid to overuse injuries - physical damage caused by repeated movements in the same pattern - less attention is paid to the physical damage caused by holding a certain position over time,. Photographers - and fencers and boxers - are at risk of these “holding injuries” - technically called “excessive positioning injuries” - which can cause the same physical damage over time as overuse injuries would. Juliette maintains that holding our bodies at the ready with our cameras always held the same way, with the same eye always to the viewfinder, sets us up for these holding injuries. Worse, she added, we break out of these held positions to thrust and parry, bob and weave, oblivious to our postures as aim for the best shot.

The Importance of Posture

I've learned to schedule a day off after a big shoot. Without fail, I'm sore and tired afterwards. The next morning I wake up to that I-worked-out-too-hard-the-day-before feeling and a headache. I'm never aware of being so physically active when I have my camera in my hands, but after, when I think back, I realize that I was climbing, crouching, bending, standing, leaning, twisting, and reaching around with abandon.

Juliette identifies poor posture as a leading cause of physical injury, mental exhaustion, and accidents. As she described the litany of miserable feelings that follow on poor posture, I mentally checked off the list of complaints my body and mind toss at me after every big shoot. 

Poor Shooting Posture

Swelling and heat in joints, physical stiffness and discomfort, headaches, jaw pain, and chronic neck or low back pain are all signs that our bodies have taken a beating and need care. Rest, fluids, a hot bath with epsom salts for sore muscles, and ice applied to sore joints are a good start for recovery. Full rehabilitation may require more care, which should be arranged with someone knowledgeable and trained to offer that kind of support. The very best way to deal with injuries, however, is to prevent them.

Conditioning for Healthy Photography

Repeating her association of photography to athletics, Juliette recommends that photographers embark on a program of basic conditioning. “It seems to me that photographers love what they do, so why wouldn’t they do what they can to keep their bodies healthy for a long time in the profession?” Juliette said. “It also makes sense to avoid injury in order to be healthy for other activities.”

Conditioning does not require pumping iron and running marathons. Juliette recommends a basic program consisting of postural awareness, stretching and strengthening, fluids, and common sense.

Posture

Better posture uses muscles instead of joints. Our joints can’t work harder and they only have so much life in them. We can take the pressure off our joints by using our muscles more. Our muscles may get sore, but that can be relieved with stretching.

To get into good posture:

  • Start with a wide base of support. Spread your feet moderately wide for stability and bend knees slightly to soften joints and lower your body’s centre of gravity
  • To protect your low back, keep your pelvis in a neutral position. Juliette recommends imagining your pelvis as a bucket filled with water, almost to the rim. If you tip too far forward or back or to one side or another, the water will spill out. Keeping the bucket horizontal will keep your pelvis in a neutral position and keep your low back happy

We think of these principles when we set up equipment. We spread tripod and light stand legs wide to ensure a stable support. We place one leg of the tripod or light stand under the lens or extended light to ensure the setup is balanced and doesn’t tip over. We also place sandbags strategically to lower the centre of gravity and ensure our setup isn’t top heavy. Just as we care for our equipment setup, so should we care for our bodies.

  • Keep your core - not just abdominal but also side and back muscles - taught. Juliette is emphatic about maintaining a strong, balanced core as key to full body balance in not just photography but in everything we do
  • Drop shoulders down and back, and keep your chin tucked in

A typical photographer’s pose is with our upper body forward, shoulders rolled in, and neck bent forward with chin extended as we lift our eyes out of this rolled inward pose. In addition to neck pain and headaches as a result of the unhealthy bend we create in our necks, this pose sets us up for a loss of resilience in our upper bodies and a progressive curve in our backs.

  • Hold your camera with a light grip with elbows tucked in 

Photographers are at risk for holding injuries to elbows, upper arms and wrists. We keep our arms bent when holding a camera, which is usually bulky and heavy. Also, we typically hold and grip our cameras tightly - intentionally for stability and unintentionally with tension. And to compound the insult to our bodies, while holding our cameras in a tight, bent position, we twist our elbows and wrists to change the zoom or focus on the camera lens. The result is potential for any of a number of “-itis” injuries - all involving swelling, pain, and heat in tendons and joints.

  • Keep your camera as close to your body as possible, whenever possible, and manage your camera and equipment with the same principles you would use when lifting boxes or other heavy objects. For example, instead of reaching up to adjust equipment, raise yourself to the equipment or bring the equipment down, make the necessary adjustments, and then put the equipment back up.
Good Shooting Posture
Kneeling with Good Posture

Our equipment is heavy and awkward. Juliette cringed when I showed her my collection of lovely camera bags - all shoulder or messenger bags. She recommends using a backpack or rolling bag instead to move equipment from place to place. Ideally, peripherals such as tripods, water bottles, and extra lenses, should be secured in the camera bag or strapped tight to the bag. Juliette recommends using a camera vest harness to hold equipment when shooting outside of a studio. If a vest harness is not practical or available, she suggests carrying equipment cross body with equipment shared between shoulders. Using a rapid strap connection allows equipment to be carried cross body and still be quickly available for shooting.

How to Carry a Camera

Stretching and Strengthening

Photography requires that we be strong and flexible for longevity and health. When we understand what muscles are being used we can strengthen weak muscles and stretch muscles that are tight. “A muscle can only be as strong as it is flexible,” Juliette warned, emphasizing the importance of balanced conditioning. She offered the following five exercises as a starting place for a conditioning program and as a quick “stretch and tune” during breaks in a shoot.

Corner Chest Stretch

Stand facing an empty corner with feet together, placed about 1 foot away from the corner. Raising arms and bending elbows to 90 degrees, place forearms and palms against the wall. Lean into the corner until you feel a gentle stretch in your chest and front of shoulders. To intensify the stretch, lean further into the corner, being careful not to hyperextend (arch) your low back. Hold the stretch for 20 to 30 seconds and repeat for a total of three stretches.

Corner Chest Stretch

Monkey Stretch

Stand with your feet shoulder width apart, hands stretched out in front and elbows straight. Cross one arm over the other and turn arms so palms are together. Drop your chin towards your chest. Lean forward slightly to feel a stretch in your upper back and neck, especially between your shoulder blades. Hold the stretch for 20 to 30 seconds; repeat for a total of three repetitions.

This exercise will give you an even better stretch if you can use an open door. Stand at the open door with feet shoulder width apart and one hand holding each of the door handles. Lean back into a squat position while dropping your chin towards your chest. Feel the stretch in your upper back and neck, especially between the shoulder blades. Hold the stretch 20 to 30 seconds; repeat for a total of three repetitions.

Monkey Stretch

Body Squat

This exercise is best done beside a mirror, when possible, to check positioning and posture.

Stand with feet shoulder width apart. Engage your core and tilt your pelvis back slightly (tuck tail). Focusing your body weight through your heels and inhaling, send your buttocks back and slowly lower your body down to a squat position. Make sure to keep your knees over your ankles. Never allow your knees to move forward over your toes. The goal is to get your knees bent to 90 degrees, but begin by just focusing on pushing your buttocks back and getting your knees as close to 90 degrees as possible, pain free. Progress as your flexibility and strength allow. 

Hold the squat for 3 seconds (working up to 5 seconds), then return to the start position by, again, concentrating on putting your weight through your heels and keeping your core tight. Squeeze the muscles in your buttocks (imagine squeezing the juice out of a clementine with your buttocks) and exhale as you return to a standing position. 

Do a total of 10 squats and repeat for a total of two sets.

Body Squat

Lunges

Stand with your feet shoulder width apart, your right foot forward and your left leg back. Your feet should be about 2 to 3 feet apart, depending on your leg length. This split stance requires balance, so hold onto a wall or chair if you feel wobbly, or as you feel more confident, increase your stability by tightening your core to balance.

Make sure your torso is straight, your shoulders are back and down, and your core is tight. Lift your foot on your back toe. Bend your knees and lower your body down, keeping a straight line by not leaning forward. Your goal is to get your front thigh parallel to the floor with your weight through the heel and your buttocks engaged. Your back knee should point slightly toward the floor. Keeping your weight evenly distributed between both legs, exhale and push through the heel of your front foot as you use the muscles in your buttocks to push back up. Do a total of five lunges, switch legs and repeat. Repeat both sides for a total of three sets.

Lunges

Standing Pretzel or Figure 4 Stretch

Standing with one knee bent to 90 degrees, turn that hip out and place the lower part of the bent leg against the opposite thigh, just above the knee. Bend forward from your hips, supporting your bent leg at the knee. Hold on for support if needed. As you bend forward, you can also push back into your buttocks to get a good stretch along your outer thigh. To increase the stretch even further, push your bent knee slowly down toward the floor. Hold the stretch for 20 to 30 seconds. Repeat for a total of three stretches for each leg.

Standing Pretzel or Figure 4 Stretch

Conclusion

When shooting, photographers are focused on what’s through the lens, not on what is holding the lens. We climb and twist and reach in our pursuit of the right perspective, unaware of how we may be injuring ourselves. However, with some persistent attention to posture - it does become second nature, Juliette assured me - we can minimize our chances of injury. A few basic exercises can also stretch and strengthen those muscles we work hard on a shoot.

A special thanks to Juliette Hunter, owner of A Better Fit, for her insights and contributions, and to Richard Lawrence of Richard Lawrence Photography for photographing the photographer.


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