As outdoor photographers, we are defined, or define ourselves, not only by the images we produce but also by the challenges we overcome in order to achieve them: navigating past the obstacles thrown in our winding, steep paths through the natural world; enduring in the face of discomfort, disappointment, malfunctions and miscalculations; outsmarting the weather; cautiously entering the unknown environment that belongs not to us but to our subjects; and mastering the tools and techniques that help us to realize our vision. Nature photography takes perseverance, determination and a unique artistic imperative — that indefinable, personal quality that gets us up and out there again and again, to challenge the elements and bring back the images that validate our vision and skills.
But what happens when a photographer’s passion to capture and create is stymied by physical disability or thwarted by the inevitable, creeping loss of strength and stamina that accompanies aging? Even those among us who are young and strong can learn from the answers disabled or aging photographers have found to these questions — answers found not only in personal fortitude but also in the adoption of techniques and tools that enable quality capture while also encouraging new perspectives and approaches to the photographic enterprise.
In fact, I myself have achieved a certain age, and while we would not want to say that I am getting old, there is no doubt that I’m facing many of the challenges that aging brings. More in defiance than acquiescence, I’m making different decisions about locations, subjects, equipment and risk than I might have made even five years ago. While this reality is up close and personal every single day, we were recently inspired to take a wider look at the subject this spring when Canon USA participated in the California State University, Northridge, Assistive Technologies conference that showcased products and services for people with disabilities.
At the conference, our friend and fellow Canon Explorer of Light Darrell Gulin discussed and demonstrated the ways that Canon’s Image Stabilizer and autofocus technologies have supported his highly successful career in outdoor and travel photography despite experiencing advancing symptoms of a neurological disorder, essential tremor. As Gulin notes in his recent EOL video for Canon USA, the onset of tremors in his hands more than a decade ago coincided with the dawn of the digital age; rapid advances in the field, along with steadfast use of a tripod, have enabled him to continue to produce photography that meets his very high quality standards in challenging environments all over the world. (See his beautiful images at GulinPhoto.com.)
Since then, we’ve encountered a number of dedicated and accomplished photographers who continue to work despite challenging physical issues, many of which are associated with normal aging. These include not only unsteadiness or tremors, but also degradation of vision, arthritis or other joint problems, limited mobility, and diminished strength and endurance. Following are some ideas for tools and approaches that can help to mitigate the impact of these disabilities on photography.
Reduce camera/lens weight with thoughtful combinations. We all reach a point where we’re looking for lighter gear that is easier to carry into the field, but we don’t want to give up the capabilities offered by professional DSLRs and long lenses. I am driven to photograph birds in flight, requiring a camera with very quick autofocus and a fast capture rate. The best camera at my disposal is the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II — as heavy as any DSLR out there, but it really gets the job done, with support from a great tripod or monopod. More weight comes with a big, heavy lens to reach out to wildlife. Sometimes, it hurts.
But honestly, it doesn’t have to be so hard. You can lessen the load by using a lighter lens with a teleconverter to give extension without weight. A combination I’ve been recommending to a number of Canon photographers is the new EF 100-400mm Mark II and a Mark III 1.4X teleconverter. Combine this with a camera having an APS-C sensor, like the EOS 7D Mark II, and you have 896mm at ƒ/8 with excellent AF and a lot less weight. Other manufacturers have similar combinations.
Carrying lots of equipment can really weigh a photographer down and even make it impossible to travel very far, so consolidate. Zoom lenses in general have improved, and radical zooms like a 28-300mm can do a good job. Kathy has a Canon EOS 70D with a 10-18mm wide-angle, 18-135mm middle zoom, and 70-300 longer zoom. Considering that the 70D has an APS-C sensor with a 1.6X crop factor, that gives her a range of 16mm to 480mm, and it all fits into a small photo pack. When I want to (or have to) travel light, I carry an EOS 5D Mark IV, 24-105mm Mark II and 100-400mm Mark II with a 1.4X TC. That’s 24mm to 560mm in a medium photo pack. If I can take a bit more weight, I’ll add the 11-24mm lens, which is almost as heavy as the 100-400mm. A smaller, mirrorless camera can be another choice, although there are considerations, such as slower AF and refresh rate in the electronic viewfinder, that could affect that choice, depending on your subjects.
If a DSLR and associated lenses are too much, look to compact digital cameras with built-in zooms, 35mm focal length equivalents that reach from a wide 24mm to well over 1000mm. A good example from Canon is the PowerShot SX60 HS. The sensor is small, but for smaller prints and digital display, it’s a good, lightweight option.
Don’t let impaired vision stop you from looking. In our research for this column, we talked with two inspiring men who keep on photographing despite significant vision impairments. The first, an avid nature photographer, has lost all vision in one eye and has diminished capacity in the other. He had given up on photography but now his mirrorless camera offers both a large LCD and a bright electronic viewfinder; autofocus greatly increases his percentage of sharp images; and a 27-inch iMac with 5K resolution gives him outstanding display for viewing, editing and post-processing. He is traveling, exploring and photographing again.
At this year’s North American Nature Photography Association Summit, we were delighted to meet a couple whose photography is a joint endeavor. His color blindness (also known as color vision deficiency) keeps him from seeing the natural color palette that most of us take for granted as being at the heart of photography. But his different perceptions do not stop him. He often chooses to work in black and white, eliminating all reference to color and concentrating instead on tonal values and composition. When he photographs in color, his wife helps him to post-process for optimization of color. Their work, both individual and collaborative, is beautiful.
All of us can use great digital tools for sharpness. Back in the ‘90s, a close friend who had coped with essential tremor most of his life was blown away by Canon’s innovative image-stabilized binoculars that allowed him to see the details of the natural world he loved. Over the years, I’ve worked with many students who are challenged by tremors caused by neurological conditions or medications, and I admire the patience and determination that they apply to their photography. Here, the key is to employ all the excellent technology dedicated to sharpness. Image stabilization neutralizes vibration to enable sharp captures at slower shutter speeds. The expanded ISO capability of the latest digital sensors enables faster shutter speeds, even in low-light situations. Mirror lockup and live view mode help to eliminate internal vibrations that can degrade images. Wireless shutter releases and wireless transmitters such as the CamRanger allow the photographer to program and capture from a tablet or smartphone, without touching the camera. And, of course, the use of a tripod or monopod becomes a way to minimize movement, particularly during long exposures.
Mount a camera on a wheelchair. There are those among us who deal with more than a little disability. This spring, while photographing in British Columbia’s beautiful Butchart Gardens, we encountered a woman whose DSLR was mounted to the arm of her wheelchair via an ingenious bracket. She positioned the camera by moving the chair. I’ve also seen chair-bound photographers controlling camera systems via wireless connections that transfer the viewfinder and capture settings to tablets and phones.
Rethink subjects and locations. There are plenty of photographic subjects that are not at the top of a peak. The trick is to keep adapting our photography to the realities of our physical abilities, learning new techniques, embracing enabling technology and meeting new creative opportunities. This may mean exploring cultivated gardens rather than fields of high-mountain wildflowers; photographing from the shore instead of the river raft; rediscovering the challenges of black-and-white composition; or focusing on landscapes or macro studies rather than tracking fast-moving wildlife. In recent years, I’ve begun to concentrate much more on in-studio, high-magnification macro photography — work that can be extremely complicated, challenging, creative and satisfying.
If photography is your passion, you will find a way. It’s a bit ironic, but we love it that digital photography, once disdained by older photographers as a passing fad that simply distracted us all from "real" — meaning film-based — photography, is now the key to sustaining our photographic productivity in our later years. Digital technology has not only lengthened the span of our creative lives, but it also enriches the experience of many whose disabilities, in the past, would have denied them access to photography.
So here’s to all of you who persevere, who pursue your photographic passion, your window on the natural world, your means to artistic vision and creative expression, despite the obstacles. You inspire us.