Not All Knee Pads are Created Equal
Last week, I wrote that some of the best shots are only possible to those willing to get down low and really explore their subject and its surroundings. Several readers already guessed that the next topic I planned to cover would be knee pads. The point I want to make this week is that not all knee pads are created equal.
Last week I described my approach to landscape photography as being akin to a contact sport. After a morning sunrise crawling around on hard rocks looking for just the right backdrop for some mountain wildflowers I can end up feeling a bit sore. I'm sure you'd agree that none of us are getting any younger. Long ago I discovered that my knees would thank me if I protected them a bit while crawling around.
I bought my first pair of knee pads many years ago now in the gardening section of a local department store. They were light weight and comfortable. Consisting of simple elastic straps with cloth covered pads they were also fairly inexpensive. They were also completely ripped up and trashed after just one use in the field. Turned out there are a lot more rocks and such halfway up a mountain than there are in the typical suburban garden. Obviously after the fact, but not back when I was shopping in that local department store.
And there are even more rugged landscapes out there with great shots to be had so those failed gardening knee pads weren't even undergoing all that rigorous of a test. There will always be the occasional terrain that would be a true torture test for any gear, but the most difficult surroundings in which I regularly shoot would definitely be the rocky tide pools of the Olympic peninsula. As is true for much of the northwest, the Olympics were once volcanically active. When hot lava flows hit cold oceans, the lava rapidly cooled, spreading out to form a rocky shelf just below the waterline. This resulted in numerous depressions that persist to this day, creating a series of ideal environments for intertidal life such as sea stars, urchins and more exotic sea creatures. It also resulted in a series of agonizingly sharp edges that can poke and prod, stab and even cut the unwary. Talk about a place where good knee pads would come in handy.
A bit of research on knee pads turn up several types beyond the common garden variety ("garden variety" being both an adjective meaning "common" as well as an accurate description of the backyard horticultural tasks for which they are sold in my local department store). Removable knee pads intended for construction workers are similar to gardening knee pads but much, much more durable. Knee pads made for BMX biking and skate boarders are another option, but these tend to protect just the cap of the knee itself. Kneeling on uneven ground puts much of your weight on the upper part of your shin, just below the knee where this type of pad provides little support. You can also buy pants with knee pads built in, but they wouldn't likely be any more durable than gardening knee pads and would have the added disadvantage of not easily being removable, at least in public. Many good shooting locations require at least a bit of hiking to get to and I've never been too keen on wearing knee pads the entire way there. Some pants made for construction workers, along with football and other sport uniforms have removable knee pad inserts but it really doesn't seem like they would work much better.
When shopping for knee pads, don't neglect the straps either. Not only do you want pads that cushion your knees and last, they need to be comfortable and simple to adjust. Some knee pads have only a single narrow strap that does a poor job of keeping the darned thing on your knee. In my experience, such straps have to be ridiculously tight to even have a chance of stopping the pad from slowly working its way down your shins if you walk around at all with them on. Other knee pads attempt to address this deficiency by providing two straps, one above and one below the knee. While an improvement, these can be complicated to fit comfortably, especially if they use buckles or similar fasteners. If possible, shop for knee pads as you would for shoes. Go somewhere where you can try them on.
The best knee pads I've found are those made for roofers. Of all the building trades, those would shingle roofs for a living are likely on their knees the most. And a typical composition shingle roof is a lot like sandpaper so roofers need knee pads that are comfortable and last. The ones I have are called Monster Knee Pads and have a hard rubber face that almost resembles the lugged sole of hiking boots but with a bit more give when pressed on. They have a single wide strap made from neoprene, fastening with Velcro. They are easy to put on and adjust and stay there pretty well until I take them off. I've been using this type for a number of years now, and so far, I'm happy. I have no knowledge of where the Monster Knee Pad name came from and similar pads under this name are made by several companies. You should be able to find them if you shop around.
You can also get construction knee pads with hard plastic outer surfaces and rely on gel inserts for padding. You might think this would be the ultimate design for durability which may indeed be true, but consider that you'd need a lot of gel in those inserts to be comfortable for extended use. Such pads also tend to be heavier than the Monster variety. I've seen other photographers using this type though so check them out to see what you think.
None of these knee pads are all that expensive so resist any temptation to skimp on quality or performance. And just as with all gear, it's worth putting some thought into what would best meet your knees. Um, I mean, what would best meet your needs. Well, on second thought, perhaps I meant both. I think you get my point.