Dump Your DSLR And Save Your Back

Spine MRI

If you need another reason to dump that heavy DSLR gear, I am going to give you an orthopedic perspective: think about your back.  The title may be a bit hyperbolic, but I’m not feeling particularly charitable towards larger and heavier cameras right now.

This image above is my back.  There are many others, but this one is mine.  Looks pretty good except for some narrowing of the lumbar vertebrae on the right of L4-L5 and S1, due to years of hauling around heavy bags full of DSLR gear, often on one shoulder…  Yeah, my fault on the one shoulder carry, but still.  But I might *need* all that gear on those trips and assignments, and sometimes the heavy bag had to go down fast to get the shot, right?  Well, the result of all those years of hauling around big camera bags packed with gear over hill over dale has left me with two herniated disks in my lower back requiring spinal surgery to fix it.  No big deal these days, but still…

I first talked about my switch to smaller, lighter gear in the Fuji, post-SLR future post, but an admonishment to carrying lighter gear can be summarized by saying my SLR camera pack with Canon 1DX bodies and lenses can weigh upwards of 40 lbs for long trips and the Fuji camera system I’ve been carrying lately weighs less than 10% what that bag with DSLRs weighs.   What initially got me considering smaller form factors was watching my friends Duncan and David carry small, light cameras in Cuba where they absolutely killed it with Sony and Fuji cameras, respectively.  So, for the last few trips to Seattle (x2), Olympic National Forest, London, Southern Utah, New York City and more, I’ve not brought along the heavy DSLR gear…  Rather, I’ve taken a small Think Tank TurnStyle 10 bag filled with my latest photographic obsessions, a Fuji X-Pro 1, a Fuji 35mm lens, Fuji 14mm lens, a Samyang 8mm fisheye, the Fuji 55-200 zoom lens, a few batteries, memory cards and a couple of cables.  It also fits passports and travel ephemera along with an iPad Mini.  This combination weighs well under 4 lbs, is very comfortable and is just about perfect.  Its also comfortable enough to run with as I tested at 2am one night in London running ~6 miles back to my apartment after a particularly late night meeting.  Even though the Fuji X-Mount system is the one that has me most excited, this is a truly exciting time for mirrorless cameras with new, truly small full frame cameras just announced from Sony, new systems from Olympus, Ricoh and more.  Its hard not to be excited for photography in a time when there a multitude of options available to photographers in a new space that the big two companies seem to have largely ignored or not taken seriously.  Because of this, we all win and if you pay attention now, perhaps your back will be better off for it down the road.

Because of the smaller size, I am more likely to grab the mirrorless cameras when walking out the door.  And if its lighter and smaller, its easier to manage and produces less wear and tear on the framework that holds your body and everything your body carries along with it.  Bonus: You’ll take more pictures with a camera you have with you.

Its funny, but photographers make images because its either our jobs, or its a hobby, or we *have* to.  For some photography is a calling… There is something about photography that compels us to capture those ephemeral moments in time that will never come again.  This means often we will take more gear than we need for a particular job or assignment, but this has a greater cost than the immediate weight or hassle.  For some carrying tons of gear its a weird badge of honor that embarrassingly, I’ve worked hard for.  I am thinking of one particular assignment with a USMC reconnaissance team hiking up the side of a mountain with Marines that were almost half my age.  As I sucked air towards the top of the hike, one of the Marines started giving me crap in between his labored breathing until I offered to trade him packs… He was truly surprised that my pack full of camera gear weighed the same as his combat pack.  Did I need all that gear for that assignment? Yeah, I thought so… but that was then and this is now and there are three lessons I am taking from this:  1) I have one spine and I should have been more considerate of it and less of my ego.  2) Less can often be more.  3) Technology sure has opened up a new revolution in smaller, lighter gear that renders technically phenomenal images rivaling and exceeding those from the big dollar, heavy SLRs.



Face it… As we go through life, we create wear and tear on our bones.  Some of us seem to be harder on our bodies and camera gear than others, but the wear and tear on our musculoskeletal system can happen from traumatic injury, from arthritis or other degenerative disease, stress, sports and ironically, an inactive lifestyle.  But the reality is:  the more weight we carry including our cameras, the more wear and tear on our bones and the spine that forms the central core of our support structure.  So, what can you do to minimize the wear and tear and avoid some of the truly crippling pain that can accompany neck or back strain/stress/accelerated wear and decrepitude?  It sounds silly to reduce this to 4 simple steps, but if you are going to carry a camera, you have made a commitment to spending time with added weight, wear and tear on your body, so I give you 4 points to follow that will hopefully minimize problems down the road.

1) Fitness and conditioning:  I’m gonna be honest here and say you likely need to pay attention to how you carry your body and increase your fitness level.  Don’t go totally overboard and get obsessive, but do pay attention to your posture, and focus on moderate, incremental changes in your fitness.  I’m in mighty good shape with excellent cardiovascular fitness, but my core strength is not what it used to be.  So, exercises to increase core strength are next up, along with some yoga.  Your spine is supported by a cohort of deep and superficial muscles that keep the spinal column erect and capable of flexing and distributing weight to other portions of the body.  You have two very deep muscles that run along your spinal column called the psoas major muscles and a host of other more superficial muscles that extend from your neck, all the way to your buttocksquadriceps and hamstring muscles.  Also, don’t forget stretching… This is an integral and crucial part of core training and is also critical to both performance and minimizing injuries.  Stretching helps improve flexibility and decreases the risk of injuries when you do something stupid like step in the wrong place while looking through the viewfinder.  Next to last, get rid of that saggy mattress.  Its shocking how much a good, firm mattress can do for your back.  Think about how much time you spend there….  Anywhere from 4-9hrs out of every 24 and spending that much time on your back with a saggy, sway back is a sure fire way to cause a problem.  Finally, we spend huge amounts of time away from the camera and behind a computer screen where if you are like me, your posture can be *horrible*.  Pay attention to your posture when away from the camera just as much as when you are with you camera.  Note: My legal council suggests I include a statement that this should not be construed as medical advice.  If you are having any health issues, you should consult a physician before engaging in any new activity.

2) Carry less weight:  Duh….  I am solving this by going to a smaller form factor camera system with amazing optical options and performance.  There are some amazing mirrorless cameras out there right now from a whole host of companies.  But Fuji has won my heart here and the Fuji X-Mount is the camera system that is most often in my hand these days.  You may have your favorite, but for combination of cost, performance, weight and all out fun, Fuji is where it is at for me.  The Fuji camera is more like a camera that you actually use to make photographs and less like a crew served weapon that the big pro SLRs have become.  These days, any time I pick up a big DSLR, its a bit shocking how heavy and bulky they are.  As I noted above, a complete photo kit has gone from 40 lbs to 4 lbs, step one in a logarithmic curve and most welcome which makes it tough to want to go back to heavy gear.  The other camera that has me mighty intrigued right now is the newly announced Sony A7.  Duncan is going to be picking one up, so I’l live that experience vicariously through him for now.  Hopefully, Sony takes the same approach to new lenses as Fuji has done with a major commitment to an extensive lens ecosystem.  Early indications are that Sony has some good fundamental lenses for this system, so we’ll see how they stack up with the Fuji lenses.

3) Carry your weight smarter:  A combination of well designed, weight distribution systems for carrying your gear.  Lots of companies make good, high quality packs and gear with thought to comfort and ergonomic fit.  I have been buying bags from Think Tank Photo almost exclusively, but your milage may vary.  LowePro, Gura Gear, Maxpedition, Mountainsmith and others make nice gear that I’ve used in the past as well.  But whatever company you choose, try out the bags and think about how it will distribute the weight.  Fundamentally though, you want to minimize that weight on your back so think about waist bags to distribute weight to your hips and legs rather than your spine.  Yeah, this means that your knees and hips take the wear, but they are doing that anyway and wear there is waaaaay more tolerable than wear in your back and is easier to repair surgically than work on your back too.  Does this mean I’m dumping my camera backpacks? No, just going to use them smarter and more judiciously… that is if I ever need the space again given that this Fuji camera is almost never out of my hand.

4)  Invest in a quality camera strap:  For some weird reason, camera companies ship cameras with lousy camera straps.  Why they don’t either make better camera straps or buy camera straps from companies that do it well kinda surprises me.  Fundamentally though, your camera strap is the interface between the camera and your musculoskeletal system when the camera is not physically in your hands.  When that camera is not in your hands, its hanging off your shoulder or around your neck potentially putting stress/strain on your core musculoskeletal system.  You may say that it does not seem like its that much stress, but over time, it adds up.  What you should be looking for is high performance materials that are comfortable, stable and distribute load and stress more uniformly than the cheap, thin straps that come with most…. if not all cameras.  The best camera straps made in my opinion are the Luma Labs camera straps.  They are well designed for many different body types and superbly crafted camera straps that fundamentally distribute the weight of a camera in really smart ways that take into consideration body size and form.  Whether you use an SLR or a smaller, mirrorless camera, hanging anything off your neck, over time can cause problems.  So, take the time to find a good strap and use it.

I do hope that you are never beset by problems of this sort as they truly are debilitating.  I’m pretty solid with pain and able to push it from my mind pretty much any time it comes up.  But this is a different kind of pain… Its exhausting and forces its way to the front of your mind without relief.  Good news is that it can be fixed, though it would be better if we had not gotten here in the first place.  Don’t find yourself here if it could have been prevented, so follow these basic steps and you’ll save yourself pain, cost and hassle.


Disclaimer:  I have no financial interest in any of the companies I mention.  No bull.  I just talk about what I use and why I use it.

23 Replies to “Dump Your DSLR And Save Your Back”

  1. I developed scoliosis in my mid-teens, bad enough that I had to have two, two foot long steel rods put in my back. In my mind, I blamed it on the 35lbs. of books I had to carry to, from, and around school. I carried them in a book bag on a single shoulder during the fastest growing period of my life.

    My ortho said this was a ridiculous explanation. Still, I am very careful how I distribute the weight of my DSLR equipment these days :)

    1. Well…. Studies are coming out now on the orthopedic issues associated with packpacks in children. It might not have been *causative*, but it could have been contributory. Still, worth considering.

    1. Its a neat camera for sure. Lots of features to love. For me, it does not quite hit the sweet spot and honestly, I’ve fallen in love with the Fuji lenses. There is a 23mm f/1.4 coming out that I shot with a few weeks ago that has me all twitterpated.

  2. Great commentary. The Fuji X cameras have been a revelation… that still falls short mainly in focusing. But they are getting there. IQ (even JPG right out of the camera) is pretty stunning.

    I especially like that you start your list of “fixes” with fitness. This is a big deal, and based on my observations over time, something that is ignored by a good percentage of photographers.

  3. I’ve been having lower back problems (sciatica & now spinal stenosis). Neurontin is definitely worth checking out. I’m trying to avoid the surgery route (and I have a neurosurgeon in the family!!!).

    1. Hey Jerry! I had the surgery last week and it turned out spectacularly well. It depends upon application, but in my case, it was a simple decompression of herniated disc material onto the nerve root. I felt better immediately post-surgery. Other folks milage may vary, but I thought it was a spectacular surgery. Of course that says quite a bit about the surgeon…

      1. That’s great! My GP has been resisting even getting an MRI (“it’s the path to surgery”?!?) My son says that surgery is the last resort. Six months ago I was in tremendous pain, could barely walk. GP says it takes a few months. After 2 months, I asked for Neurontin (the hydrocodone was doing nothing). The next day pain started to ease. Now, after 6 months, just beginning to get some of my strength back, so hoping that I don’t have to go the surgery route… we’ll see. Your experience is encouraging.

  4. Thank you SO MUCH for this article! I have bookmarked it. I had a lumbar fusion six months ago, after 20+ years of degenerative disc disease. Years of lugging a heavy camera bag (backpack) around and years of teaching did not help the condition. The surgery, however, I think has been LIFE CHANGING (the jury’s still out, as I’m not fully fused yet). At least for me it has. But now that I’m back out there with my camera, it’s imperative that I lighten the load. I am seriously considering switching to mirrorless, and it is the Fuji X-T1 I am looking at. I am really nervous about making this jump. I just bought a Nikon D7000 a year and a half ago, and I’m still learning it’s bells and whistles! I’m also hesitating because the “better” lenses for the system haven’t even come out yet. Alas, 40 lbs. to 4 lbs. is very compelling.

    1. Glad this could help. I have not completely dumped the heavier Canon gear, but when I have to take it, it goes in roller bags. So happy with the X-T1 though. Great little camera system. Stay strong and keep your back healthy!

  5. Thx for this article. I have Cervical Spinal Stenosis.
    Thoughts on an ext viewfinder or tilt screen to save someone’s neck from the daily unhealthy position of the actual taking of and framing the photo (neck forward etc.? THX

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