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Photography

Accessing the world of photography

Photographers who are quadriplegic or legally blind are taking amazing images using ingenious hacks and other senses.

Greg Wickenburg

Tara Miller sees the world through the diameter of a straw, but that doesn't stop her from capturing the exact moment when a new bride throws her bouquet into the wedding crowd.

Miller is a legally blind commercial photographer in Winnipeg, Manitoba. You might think photography relies on seeing the moment, but Miller uses hearing and instinct. If shooting baseball, "I hear the contact of the ball on the bat," she says. "I have my camera facing the same way and everything is set perfectly, I know I have that shot."

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Born with congenital rubella syndrome, Miller became a keen photographer during her teenage years even as her vision was deteriorating from glaucoma. Later, she had a corneal edema and macular degeneration and in summer 2017, Fuchs syndrome clouded over the remaining 3 percent vision in her left eye.

Miller is not alone in using nontraditional methods to capture her shots. Other professional photographers and videographers lack use of their hands, forcing them to rely on their other senses and develop new ways to use a camera. Some methods are homegrown, but camera makers are also responding with customizations to suit their needs.

Getting the shot

To know when her camera is ready for a shot, Miller feels the vibration of the lens when it focuses, whether that's on the sports field or in the kitchen shooting a celebrity chef. Once she has her photos, Miller brings them into Adobe Lightroom to make her edits, zooming in to 300 percent, then using her remaining vision to make sure everything is sharp.

Miller likens her process to working with film where, unlike with a digital camera, you don't know if you have the shot until the photo is developed. She knows what the images should look like in her head, but has to wait for them to be "developed" before she can actually tell. "I used to get jealous because [sighted photographers] could look at what they had on their screen and shoot again," she says. "Being sighted or not sighted, you're still going to have that chance of not getting it."

More often than not, Miller gets the shot. She won the Canadian National Institute for the Blind's Eye Remember photography competition with her image "Fortuitous Twilight" in 2011. The contest was open to both blind and non-blind entrants, and Miller was the only visually impaired finalist. The judges didn't know she was blind until after awarding her the prize.

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Miller's award-winning image, Fortuitous Twilight.

Tara Miller

Focus on the body

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Bob Ness and his camera setup.

David Kindler

Bob Ness has full use of his eyes, but faces other physical restrictions. A producer and principal at Sliding Board Productions in Chicago, Ness is a quadriplegic as the result of a car accident in 1987 that left him paralyzed from the chest down. He's able to move his arms, but his hands are in a fist position, making it time-consuming to turn knobs and press buttons.

Ness started editing video when he graduated college after his accident. Yet, he always wanted to get out into the field to take photos and video himself. 

He bought his first DSLR in 2011, but had to develop a way to use his camera without his hands before he could start shooting. His solution? A potato peeler that he modified into a camera holder by removing the blade, placing a screw through the middle and attaching the screw to the bottom of his Canon EOS Rebel T3i. Then he could grab on to the handle.

The setup worked for still shots, but it didn't let him capture the video he wanted. Then in autumn 2016, his friend David Kindler linked a Canon 5D Mark IV to the Canon Camera Connect app, which let Ness control focus and exposure and record video remotely from a phone while Kindler moved the camera around the room to film the scene.

"I almost fell over with glee," Ness says. "It was the first time I'd ever been able to control the focus on a camera. It was fantastic."

Since then, he's used the app to control his own Mark IV. A different friend made him a monopod that can be mounted on his chair, hooking underneath the frame to sit on the footrest. It allows him to do his own dolly shots, where the camera records as it moves with him.

"Subtle movement is really important when you're shooting video," he says. "This is an interesting way to get a different shot."

Another custom modification came from engineering students at Northwestern University when Ness was hired to produce video of its Makeathon, an event where students showcase inventions for disabled people. When one of the university staff asked Ness if there was a specific item he wanted to invent, he requested a tool to hold the camera in front of his body. Students crafted a solution in 12 hours by putting a camera head on the arm of a desk lamp.

The arm, which hooks onto the back of Ness' chair, also lets him sweep his camera from side to side. Though the arm's springs make the motion not as smooth as he'd like it to be, he's been able to take footage from the camera and apply image stabilization in the edit to remove wobble. 

He's grateful for all the modifications that give him the freedom to operate the camera himself. "I don't have to call friends, neighbors, I can just grab my camera and go," he says. "It's been so liberating and so fantastic."

Declaring independence 

Greg Wickenburg, who has been a quadriplegic since a car accident in 1982, thrives on such independence. He often drives around his Chandler, Arizona, neighborhood in his wheelchair looking for inspiring sights among parks, wildlife and plants to use as subjects in his photos.

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An example of Wickenburg's double exposures.

Greg Wickenburg

Wickenburg specializes in multiple exposures, a camera technique where the photographer opens the shutter more than once to expose a single image. Two or more photos are superimposed on top of each other, which lets the photographer achieve creative effects like adding people to a scene who weren't originally there, or filling silhouettes with patterns and textures.

While multiple exposures are possible through software like Adobe Photoshop, Wickenburg makes his images in-camera using a Canon 70D, a 55-250mm lens and a bite switch, a shutter release he puts in his mouth. To compose his images he uses the camera's LCD screen rather than the viewfinder.

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Greg Wickenburg

An Edelkrone Wing 15 camera slider attaches to his chair to support his camera. Shaped like an arm, the slider can move smoothly to an elbow, wrist or shoulder position. Most of the time he relies on natural light and uses shutter priority mode on the camera to prevent motion blur caused by movement from his chair.

Wickenburg also relies on shutter mode due to one of the big challenges he faces with his current setup: being unable to push the button down and turn the mode dial knob to switch to manual or aperture priority mode. When he really wants to turn the dial he'll ask a stranger for help.

Miller faces a comparable problem on her Nikon D4 and D4S DSLRs. When she shot on film in high school, she'd know her camera was in manual mode by turning the mode dial all the way to the left or right until it stopped. That's one design feature she hopes camera makers will bring back.

"On these [new] cameras they just keep going around and around and you don't know," she says. She also wishes that there were an option for the camera to buzz when you're choosing settings, or that she could plug a headset into the camera so that it would speak in accessibility mode.

Eyes on the prize

Camera makers may not be able to address every need through hardware, but interface tweaks may help. To overcome the mode dial issue, for example, Drew MacCallum, senior technical specialist for Canon USA, says that users can customize screens on Canon models like the 5D Mark IV to suit their needs. 

"If you need just shutter speed, aperture, ISO, you can have those [settings] on the back of the display so they are large, they are accessible, they are easy to get to," he says. Users also can call the Canon support line, where specialists can provide advice based on the individual's situation (such as suggesting a lens with image stabilization for people struggling to get a steady shot). 

Many phones have accessibility options, such as Apple's VoiceOver technology on the iPhone, so low-vision users can take photos. But phones don't offer the flexibility of digital SLRs for professional photographers.

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For anyone new to photography, learning about basics like exposure and camera handling can be tricky, but it's even more challenging for someone with a disability. Wickenburg suggests finding someone with a similar set of needs and talking to them about their setup. "It's so hard to recommend anything for another disability because there's such a variety," he says. "You've got to find someone who's like yourself who's done it."

For Miller, her disability has its advantages. "I wouldn't be as good a photographer if I didn't have the ability to use my hearing to take my images," she says. "Maybe I would have taken my eyesight for granted if I was fully sighted." 

This story appears in the Spring 2018 edition of CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, click here.

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