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A Righteous Set of Sticks

Text and photography copyright © Richard Bernabe. All rights reserved.

I once lost a tripod in Montana’s Beartooth Mountains. I should say, for the sake of accuracy, I left it there by accident. Tripods don’t just walk off and get lost on their own.

Returning to the trailhead after an overnight backpacking trek, I tossed my gear into the rental car and drove away, leaving in my wake a perfectly good tripod in full view of the public parking area. I wasn’t even aware of this oversight until four hours and 200 miles later when a wave of intuitive dread fell over me. An inventory was performed and my fears were borne out.

The futile idea of driving all the way back to find it was quickly dismissed and replaced it with better one: I went to a bar. My tripod was just as likely to be found under a barstool at the Old Faithful Tavern as it would at a popular trailhead on an Indian summer weekend in mid-September.

The next morning, I dashed into Bozeman’s only camera shop and began inspecting their meager tripod selection. I needed something sturdy, practical, and cheap – enough support to get me through the next 9 days until my flight back East.

A salesman approached with a demeanor I recall being a bit too upbeat.

"Lookin’ for a tripod today, buddy?"

"Yeah. I lost mine while backpacking yesterday."

"Oh. I bet there’s a good story there," he said with a laugh.

"No story," I snapped back. "And it certainly wouldn’t be a good one if there was."

For nature photographers, having no tripod is pretty much…well, like not having a camera. In other words, it’s an essential piece of equipment. Yet for many beginners, a tripod remains the object of an intense love-hate relationship. They love it because they’ve been told they should love it, but they hate it because they really hate carrying and operating the wretched thing. Eventually, that relationship evolves into one of tolerance, soon followed by tepid acceptance, mild appreciation and finally, love.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

The benefits of a tripod are patently obvious to most nature photographers and, as I mentioned, will become more obvious with time and experience. Camera stability will always be the primary benefit and cannot be overstated. No matter how steady-handed you are or how good you think your image stabilized lens or camera is, be assured that comparing results on a set of large prints will humble you.

Another often cited benefit of using a tripod regularly is that it slows the photographic process down, forcing you to think through your compositions in a more contemplative way. While I believe there’s plenty of truth buried in that notion, I do have to wonder how any device that forces you to do anything can be good for the creative process. Not using a tripod and being contemplative are not necessarily mutually exclusive deeds.

Nevertheless, for the beginning photographer, slowing down the process, if feasible, can only lead to better and yes, more contemplative results.

But a tripod can have many other non-conventional and under appreciated accruements that you’ll probably never read on the glossy pages of a product catalog.

For example, a tripod can be used to reach and remove a distracting limb or branch in mid-stream that you otherwise would have to get wet to reach. Who hasn’t performed this little trick before? I always grasp the tripod firmly near the head, and telescope a leg (always one) to the desired distance. It sure beats a day’s worth of walking with soggy, squishy boots.

A tripod also functions as an adequate wading staff or trekking pole in a pinch. You’re missing out on much of your tripod’s hidden value if its never helped steady you while hiking a particularly steep descent or provided additional balance as you rock-hop from one stream bank to another.

Death Valley National Park, California

There are also some dark undertones of weaponry incorporated in its design, although you hope to never employ one in this capacity. I’ve not needed to fend off a crazed madman yet nor even a rabid squirrel for that matter. Perhaps the deterrent of being visibly armed with a tripod has something to do with that. Nevertheless, there have been two instances where I can recall needing to apply my tripod directly to a wild animal: a lovesick bison in Yellowstone and five-foot timber rattler in the Smoky Mountains.

The former simply invaded what I would consider my personal space and I used my tripod as a makeshift shield as I turned away each of her (his?) amorous advances. The latter was stretched out across a rocky section of a trail, peacefully soaking in the late summer sun. I carefully lifted and relocated her to a safer location, since the odds of the next hiking party being as charitable as I were not nearly as good. When it comes to dealing with snakes, humans usually kill first and ask questions later.

You might learn rather quickly that having a tripod immediately grants you professional status in the presence of certain company. In the vicinity of tourists, be prepared to be asked if you are, in fact, a professional nature photographer and how can they become one too.

This misconception will be sure to present some complications from time to time. A certain state park in Florida, for example, requires photographers to have a commercial use permit (for a nominal fee, of course) if one is in possession of a tripod. The inference being, that if you’re determined enough to lug the thing around in the standard 94-degree heat and overbearing humidity, there must be a damned good reason to do so and they want their fair share of whatever that reason is.

While leading a tour in Belize last winter, the guards at a classic Mayan archaeological site, Xunantunich, wouldn’t allow us to enter the premises with tripods. Not on the grounds of aesthetics, environmental impact, sacred tradition, or limited working space, but rather it was assumed we were a group of professionals and that was somehow a bad thing. The guards had semi-automatic machine guns (Publisher's note - there is no such thing as a "semi-automatic machine gun" but I'm giving Bernabe a pass on this one because I'm thoroughly enjoying the article anyway) so I didn’t feel it was an appropriate time to argue a point of principle. Instead, our group assembled some improvisational tripods from sticks and rocks and that seemed to get the job done well enough, considering the circumstances.

Xunantunich, Belize

Like my experience in Montana twelve years ago, you really learn to appreciate a tripod when you don’t have one.

At this moment, I am looking at several tripods leaning against a corner of my office – each with a specialized purpose. For example, there’s a compact, lightweight model for multi-day backpacking trips only. My everyday workhorse, however, is a Gitzo 1325 carbon fiber model that’s at least 8 years old and has since been discontinued by the manufacturer. It’s scarred, dinged, dented, taped up, rusted, and getting a little squeaky in the joints – not unlike its owner these days.

But I have no plans for a replacement, at least not until it completely succumbs to gravity and fails to stand on its own three legs. If leading a workshop or doing some private guiding, having gear that looks seasoned helps perpetuate that “steely-eyed mountain man” persona that citified clients like to project upon me, whether it’s accurate or not. Guides or workshop leaders who only carry spiffy, brand new gear should be viewed with a healthy dose of suspicion. Either they’re new to this game or you’re being overcharged.

During a workshop this past summer, a bright, personable young man in my group took one look at my heap of a tripod and casually stated, "Whoa, that’s one righteous set of sticks, dude."

I asked if I could steal that phrase for future use, if I gave him proper credit of course. Thanks Darren.

Comments on NPN nature photography articles? Send them to the editor. NPN members may also log in and leave their comments below.

NPN Editor-in-Chief, Richard Bernabe has been a full-time professional nature photographer and writer since 2003. He's had thousands of publishing credits over the past 20 years and he regularly leads photography tours and workshops across the United States and internationally. Richard is a general partner with Mountain Trail Press and also offers regular Online Classes with NPN.

For more information about Richard's photography, be sure to visit his personal website, Richard Bernabe Photography.

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Comment posted by Richard Bernabe on 03/02/11 at 2:43 pm     

Thanks for the correction, Jim (I'll just take your word for it). I'm pretty clueless when it comes to guns. It sounded good, though.  :)

Richard Bernabe
Richard Bernabe Photography
Earth and Light Photography Blog

Registered on 11/24/04, 180 Posts, 1545 Comments   Personal Website    Online Portfolio Member Blog
Comment posted by Jim Erhardt on 03/02/11 at 2:55 pm     

Richard, my pleasure! 

BTW, I lost a tripod the exact same way - a really handy Bogen 3001 with a Kirk BH-3. I  drove away leaving it in a parking lot, got home and tried to find it in the back of my car. Realizing my folly, I drove back to the busy public lot but it was a goner.

Yeah, brain-fade can get expensive...

   Jim Erhardt
Bedford, NH

Registered on 11/01/03, 245 Posts, 2421 Comments   Personal Website    NPN Member
Comment posted by Bill Brennan on 03/02/11 at 4:42 pm     

Enjoyed your story and your confirmation of the importance of a tripod. thanks. Bill Brennan

Registered on 09/24/07, 2 Posts, 0 Comments   
Comment posted by Stan Rose on 03/02/11 at 10:20 pm     

tell me bout 'new' manfrotto is in the shop right now after it recently fell apart. I just got an assignement offer and ive got to pray now that it comes back in time...ive got lots of backups--5 or 6 i think, but theyre either broken too or not sturdy enough for the job. BTW, using a tripod as a walking stick is what has destroyed my 'sticks' the quickest. Good article!

   Stan Rose
Pueblo, Colorado
New! Weather Forecasting for Photographers

Registered on 09/15/05, 836 Posts, 17099 Comments   Personal Website    Online Portfolio
Comment posted by Bill Chambers on 03/03/11 at 10:21 am     

Righteous article Dude!   Just kidding!  Really did enjoy it!

   Bill Chambers
Gulf Breeze, Florida
Please visit Enchanted Light Photography
Landscape & Man and Nature Co-Moderator

“You don't make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.” - Ansel Adams

Registered on 04/10/05, 753 Posts, 21216 Comments   Personal Website    Online Portfolio NPN Member
Comment posted by Emil von Maltitz on 03/03/11 at 1:18 pm     

Brilliant article Richard!

I run regular workshops - predominantly for beginners and novices - in South Africa. I cannot stress enough to my students the importance of a good tripod. Because the workshop has other conservation aspects attached to the photography the organisers downplay my insistance on tripods, and there's always the usual excuse, "Oh I'm traveling so I didn't want to bring a tripod". I go slightly giddy every time I hear this. Henceforth I'm going to point everyone who chirps about the weight or the inconvenience to your article. It made me smile and nod and say, I hear you, Righteous Dude.



Registered on 10/11/06, 52 Posts, 215 Comments   Personal Website    Online Portfolio Member Blog
Comment posted by Kory Lidstrom on 03/06/11 at 11:44 pm     

Great read. :)  I can certainly relate:  in November of '09, I left my tripod on top of my vehicle and drove off, completely unaware, until sunrise of the next morning.  Not only did I not have it for sunrise, I was 140 miles away from where I'd lost it.  We drove all the way back, and there it was, sitting right where I'd left it.  AGAINST ALL ODDS.

   Kory Lidstrom.
Minneapolis in the summer.
Virgin Islands in the winter.
Fine Image Photography

Join me on my next Big Island of Hawaii Photo Tour

Registered on 11/19/08, 49 Posts, 1035 Comments   Personal Website    Online Portfolio
Comment posted by Darren Huski on 03/10/11 at 3:56 pm     

And yes the Gitzo 1325 is one righteous set of sticks is right!

   Darren Huski
Fort Worth, Texas

Registered on 08/17/08, 61 Posts, 340 Comments   Personal Website    Online Portfolio Member Blog
Comment posted by Jason Kim on 03/22/11 at 4:45 pm     

Wonderful article and story, Richard.  Your shot of Xunantunich reminds me of my trip to Belize a few years ago.  The guards didn't hassle me at all, but I was by myself and I suppose I didn't pose a "threat".  I brought my tripod and flash into Actun Tunichil Muknal and our guide spent considerable effort getting me into the best positions to photograph the fascinating ruins inside.  He must have thought I was a professional to be taken seriously, but I was just on vacation and having fun. 

   Jason Kim
San Diego, CA
Jason Kim Photography
My Photo and Adventure Blog

Registered on 07/01/06, 60 Posts, 1233 Comments   Personal Website    Online Portfolio Member Blog
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