For The Love Of Photography; Don’t Allow The Challenge Of A Disability Stop You From Making Great Pictures

My life in photography changed one fall morning at the Frederick County Fair. A numbness on my right side indicated that I was joining the more than 600,000 people nationwide who suffer from strokes each year.

Thankfully, others around me recognized the first signs of my stroke and rushed me to a nearby hospital. During my 25-day hospital stay, I had ample time to ponder both recovery and photography. I was one of the fortunate; I temporarily lost only the use of my right arm and right leg. Today, I continue on the path to recovery with slowly returning function in both limbs.

Among the thousands of victims who suffer from strokes and other disabilities are professional photographers and others who share a passion for photography. You may be one of those whose life and creative talents revolved around photography. Even with limited use of your body, there is little reason that you should be forced to abandon that love of the craft. True, it will require some compromises and changes, but photography can be the best physical and mental therapy available.

After a realistic assessment of your limitations, you need to spend your efforts focused not on what you can't do, but rather on those things you can do. In my case, I had a good left hand, a left leg, a wheelchair, and a supportive wife. My wife and the wheelchair provided the mobility to find potential photographs and the left hand could support a camera. I had all I needed to get back to work.

The Importance Of The Right Gear
Like an old friend, familiar equipment is a comfortable way of restarting your photography, but it may present difficulties. Look at your current photographic equipment and see how it adapts to your disability. The new technology built into even the simplest point-and-shoot cameras can be invaluable to a photographer with disabilities. Technology that we have accepted as standard, such as motorized film advance, accurate and automatic exposure settings, autofocus and zoom lenses make photography possible for photographers with hand problems.

Just as the debate of film vs. digital seems to have faded away, there is little doubt that digital offers definite advantages for a person with limited hand use. Digital cameras are smaller, lighter, and offer good zoom lenses. Best of all, these cameras eliminate one-handed film loading. Insert the media card into the slot, and you're good to go. One key advantage of digital photography is the ability to immediately review your work. You can freely experiment, revel in your successes and delete your failures with no cost.

We have all laughed at tourists shooting one-handed as they hurry past scenic overlooks. Now, you may be that one-handed shooter. Suddenly you may realize, as I did, what our left-handed friends have always known: cameras are designed for right-handed people. Now it is your challenge to adapt this design to your abilities, whichever hand you are able to use.

These are the very personal decisions that will help form techniques for successful photographs; so take your time and enjoy the experience. Here are some of the things I've learned along the way:

1) Always use the neck strap or wrist strap to prevent dropping the camera but also to help you with the controls.

2) Decide how best to hold and balance the camera for both horizontal and vertical compositions and then to reach the shutter release with the camera at eye level. Despite what the instruction manual says, there is no one correct way to hold a camera and make photographs. Now is the time when you must invent the best solution for your hand, your camera, and your ability (#1).

#1. Experiment until you find a comfortable way to hold and balance your camera for horizontal and vertical exposures. (Nikon Coolpix 5700, f/3.5 at 1/50 sec.)
© 2006, Scott Adkins, All Rights Reserved

3) Your goal is to be able to raise the camera to your eye and hold it steady and level long enough to release the shutter. Make all camera adjustments with the camera in your lap or dangling around your neck. Composing the picture and releasing the shutter will be quite enough at eye level as you begin.

4) Use a higher ISO value and a faster shutter speed to eliminate some of the shakiness that comes with using weakened muscles. Lenses or cameras with Image Stabilization features make it easier to get sharper images.

5) I tried to use a tripod when possible but found it heavy, awkward, and difficult to manage with a cane and a wheelchair. With one hand, it is not easy to set up and mount a camera on a tripod. If you have someone to help you carry it and set it up, by all means, use a sturdy tripod. However, there are a number of new lightweight and stable tripods, monopods, and other camera supports that are valuable for a photographer with disabilities. A folding pocket tripod may be more helpful with a light digital camera and you can put it on a rail, rock, or picnic table (#2).

#2. A pocket tripod with a light digital camera makes a convenient combination offering good support when a rail or a table is available. (Canon EOS 20D, Canon EF-S 17-85mm lens, f/8 at 1/200 sec.)
© 2006, Ralph J. Adkins, All Rights Reserved

Your Mobility
Often the disabled photographer has lost the use of a leg or foot and has limited mobility. In addition to supporting the camera on a tripod we must also think about supporting the photographer as he or she begins to make photographs. With limited mobility, you must explore areas that can be safely reached by wheelchair, walker, or cane. We have all read the articles that recommend exploring our own back yard for photographs--now is the time to do that. You might start by using simple window lighting to photograph family and pets from the stability of a chair (#3). With practice, you can move to a deck or to the back yard itself and photograph flowers, birds, and other things close by home. Anything that stays reasonably still is fair game for the photographer with disabilities (#4).

#3. Children with simple window lighting make good subjects if you can follow the action. A chair or stool helps to get down to their level. (Canon EOS 20D, Canon EF-S 17-85mm lens, f/6.3 at 1/80 sec.)

#4. The wheelchair can provide the necessary mobility to shoot from a business parking lot. Keep a careful watch on the traffic using the lot. (Canon EOS 20D, Canon EF-S 17-85mm lens, f/11 at 1/200 sec.)