Sunday, August 19, 2012

The camera gear that we often neglect

The internet is inundated with camera review websites. Among the common ones which I visit are dpreview, Ken Rockwell, Nasim Mansurov, photozone, lenstip, luminous landscape etc. They list out the best and latest gear on the planet and give all sorts of reasons why you should have them. The understated advertising by photographic suppliers is pretty powerful and subconscious at the same time I guess.

People always say that the 'best'* photography gear are built without compromises, and are often heavy. So what sort of physique do you need to lug around a ton of heavy equipment ? Sturdy legs, a good back, and strong hands. And unfortunately, those aspects are seldom mentioned as essential tools for a photographer. But what if one of these essentials is lacking ? OK.. I've seen a Malaysian paraplegic (complete paralysis of the lower half of he body) on facebook going up and about shooting great photos like nobody's business. He even went to Bersih 3.0 (and if you were there, I'm sure you have experienced what happened when all hell broke loose.

But what about your hands ?  Can you still function as a photographer if your hands are compromised ? I have first hand knowledge about this aspect, and if you're interested in the long story, please read on.

Almost 3 weeks ago, I was in Melbourne on a wedding job. It was about 8 pm, and I was walking along the pavement on Swanston Street opposite the RMIT main building. There's a Malay proverb which says 'malang tidak berbau' or 'misfortune has no smell'. In a split second, I lost my balance and crashed onto the pavement with my Lowepro stuffed with camera gear. I was bleeding profusely from a cut on my chin, and there was red liquid everywhere.** I knew I also injured my wrists. If I didn't used my wrists to shield my impact, I would have suffered a broken jaw, and perhaps some missing teeth. Oh well, I had to choose the lesser of two evils anyway. Passerbys helped me immediately and offered tissue to soak up the blood stains. They even almost called an ambulance for me. I declined politely to their amazement. Getting picked up by an ambulance, even though you're only minutes away from the hospital  is amazingly pricey.

A kind taxi driver dropped me off at the Royal Melbourne Hospital. After hobbling to the Accident and Emergency Department, I was told that just to see an appointed doctor would be a ridiculously expensive amount. It didn't even include treatment and medication ! I was dismayed. I didn't have that much money around (Malaysian currency is quite weak compared to the Australian Dollar), and I was left at the A & E area with blood stained tissues for at least half an hour.

Fortunately, some concerned friends came to my rescue and brought me to a 24 hour clinic to have my chin stitched up. It was my first time too having being jabbed with anesthetic, getting stitched up, and getting jabbed again against tetanus infection. I didn't do anything with my hands however. I would leave it until I come back to Kuala Lumpur. Its still expensive, but at least it would be much more affordable than getting treated in Melbourne.

I conveyed the bad news to the bride and groom. They were obviously dismayed. 'Are you alright?' 'Can you take photos tomorrow?' I didn't know. But I knew I had a monumental challenge ahead of me in a few hours time. I had to lug a few kilos of heavy gear around with me the whole day with both of my injured wrists. It wasn't just camera gear - I had a duffle bag stuffed to the brim with lightstands, tripods, reflectors, a monopod- just in case I had the opportunity to use them.

I arrived at my accommodation after midnight. It was almost impossible for me to shoot anything (and if I used common logic, I shouldn't be shooting at all). I felt helpless and broke down briefly before I went to sleep. I woke up feeling sleep deprived a few hours later. Before I headed out on my mission, I downed several Neurofen / Voltaren (pain killers which don't seem to work very well for me), said a short prayer and headed off to the bride's base.

From a photographer's perspective, its extremely risky and painful to do a shoot with busted wrists. My Nikon pro camera weighs 1.4 kg body only, and if I add a flash and a exotic f2.8 Nikon zoom, the weight would be unbearable. I got the pro camera body due to its ruggedness and reliability, but now it is really working against me like a double edged sword. The Nikon 70-200 VR was out of the equation. I had no choice but to use the bare minimum set up with some prime lenses. I had to change lenses slowly - any lapse of concentration would send a lens crashing down to the floor, resulting in an incredible repair bill. I held the camera sparingly in my hands, and if I had to sustain holding it for my shots, I simply breathed in deeply and hung on as the pain seared through my wrists. If I didn't hold my camera steady, I would have missed the moment for a great shot forever. Every single click and second that I held the camera mattered. Any sudden twitch of my wrists would have me incapacitated for a few seconds (or minutes ) that will make me miss the shot.At the end of the wedding dinner after the last guests left, I was in so much agony and exhaustion that I couldn't hold up my camera any longer. The assignment was finally over.

Strangely, the best photos I've produced so far arise from the most difficult circumstances. I showed my clients the results the next day at a luncheon. I just copied and pasted the image files directly from the memory card. I didn't have the time to edit them anyway. They were visibly impressed much to my relief. I too was amazed at the shots that I did. The shots aren't mindblowing, but considering the dire circumstances I was in, I think I did a decent job. I think this is the case thanks to God's help. I also had to push myself further and harder than ever before, both physically and mentally. 

After I went to a specialist hospital, the extent of the damage finally dawned upon me. I tore through not one, but both of the tendons on my wrists from the immense impact of the fall. It would take some time to heal naturally. But if it doesn't , I'm left with no choice but to go to the operating theater (which I dread and I hope will not ever happen). The consultation fees for the specialist doctor, as well as the x rays scans, and medication also left me dismayed, to some extent.

Even normal routine activities are so hard to do with compromised wrists. For example, when I wake up and need to go out of my room, I have to twist the door knob with my wrists, and it hurts. I eat with difficulty. I drive enduring the anguish because I use my wrists to change the manual gear box and turn the steering wheel. *** Even as I am typing this blog post, I am doing it with some degree of difficulty.All sorts of daily activities are made difficult just because of a silly, simple fall.

Am I going to get well ? I really hope so. So for all of you photographers aka.gear hoarders, pixel peepers and measurebators (hey, we do have these qualities to a certain extent if we're honest) out there who are busy checking out those camera  review sites, PLEASE freely check them out and purchase the products from the camera dealers out there if you know what you are doing. But while you're thinking about insane frame rates, full frame rugged camera bodies and exquisite lenses, do remember one of the most important camera gear is your body. Unfortunately, this precious asset isn't transferable. No matter how much you try to repair it, it will never be as good as new once an incident happens. If you aren't careful and take them for granted as I did, you will encounter various difficulties in your already stressful life when a misfortune occurs, especially if you are working as a photographer.

* The definition of the best is always subjective depending on one's tastes. Great performing gear need not be that heavy. The Leica M system and the Micro 43rds system by Panasonic and Olympus is a good case.

** There's a verse in the Malaysian national anthem which says 'tanah tumpah darahku', or the land where my blood is spilt. Ironically, I spilt the most liquid in my entire life to date overseas in Melbourne, Australia. Its not even in front of my alma mater ! (I went to Melbourne University)

*** I even drove myself to the specialist hospital. Extremely risky with injured wrists, but I had to do so nonetheless.


Richard T said...

So sorry to hear about your ordeal Brandon. Your blog is in my RSS reader since I followed your Olympus postings. I've since given up 4/3rds and am currently eying the Sony RX100 (talk about light gear...). Really admire you were able to do the photoshoot. Hope you recover soon, and you have help in this period.

DC said...

I'm very touched and glad beyond words to see your progress and growth. God will heal you and bring you to greater heights.

Ananda Sim said...

Friend, and I mean that, take care of yourself. To cari makan you need both hands and wrists working properly. My best thoughts and sympathy are with you and I know I can speak for your Melbourne friends the same as well. Keep us informed of your progress.

The shots I saw and this one on the blog, they are really awesome and show great moments and technique.

Anonymous said...

You are showing great courage and fortitude. Impressive!

David Williams said...

Sorry to hear about your accident mate. Best wishes for a complete & speedy recovery.

Richard Ling said...

I'm sorry. Get well soon, brother.

UltraOffie said...

I just read your post Hope you are getting better. You photos are very inspirational. You do very good work. Thanks for sharing and inspiring. Best Wishes for a speedy recovery!!!!


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