A Righteous Set of Sticks

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 trunk of 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 quickly 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, 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 think you are or how good you think your image stabilized lens or camera is, rest 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 some 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.

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 benefits 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.

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 nor even a rabid squirrel for that matter but the deterrent of being visibly armed with a tripod probably had something to do with that. Still, 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, for example, be prepared to be asked if you are, in fact, a professional 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 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.

Xunantunich, Belize

While leading a tour in Belize several years back the guards at a classic Mayan archaeological site, Xunantunich, wouldn’t allow us to enter the premises with tripods. Not for reasons 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 automatic machine guns so it wasn’t exactly an appropriate time or place 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.

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.

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  1. Posted January 9, 2011 at 7:51 am by Roland Jamison | Permalink

    Funny, funny stuff. I almost fell out of my chair. Thanks for the laugh on this cold morning.

  2. Posted January 9, 2011 at 8:58 am by Deborah Gillespie | Permalink

    I always enjoy your light-hearted and informative blogs.

  3. Posted January 9, 2011 at 10:11 am by Tom Biggs | Permalink

    Well I’ve yet to leave my tripod at a trail head but most everything else you mentioned I’ve done!! 🙂
    Great blog as well!

  4. Posted January 9, 2011 at 2:41 pm by Kate Silvia | Permalink

    I’ve had a Love Love relationship with my tripod since day ONE! Anything that would help my meager first images look better was a winner to me! I just had to find a better fit and ended up with a Gitzo too. I see they have an Ocean series (or something like that) now that’s almost totally dunkable! May be in your future…no more salty gears!

  5. Posted January 9, 2011 at 5:02 pm by Jane Lurie | Permalink

    Great article, Richard, and thanks to you, I’ll be using my tripod on my next trip!

  6. Posted January 10, 2011 at 1:39 pm by Ray Sone Hovijitra | Permalink

    Thanks for the stories 🙂 Always have my tripod on me 😉

  7. Posted January 29, 2011 at 5:28 pm by Mark | Permalink

    Great post Richard. I can relate to much of what you have described here with a smile. Leaving my tripod home often feels like I have also left one of my shoes at home.

    And what a great phrase … nothing like the young hipster to implant something catchy in your head! 🙂

  8. Posted February 7, 2011 at 10:59 am by Donald Withers | Permalink

    Richard –

    Thank Darren for me too, I’m sure it will become part of my arsenal..

    I always keep one in the truck and I never leave home without one. It only took one outing without one to make it a mantra of mine..

  9. Posted December 26, 2011 at 1:15 pm by Rebecca Pizzo | Permalink

    You are a FANTASTIC photographer with a very interesting blog. Thanks for the great article!

  10. Posted March 9, 2012 at 7:40 am by coast72 | Permalink

    Still wait on that moment where i can embrace mines without the risk ending up hurt..Thanks again for another great story to read and great picts to look at..;-)

  11. Posted March 9, 2012 at 10:11 am by Jeanette | Permalink

    I find myself with a stupid grin on my face as I read your stuff, Its because there is always something that hits home, not so much with the photography end of things as you are in a world I just play at, but in the world of outdoor adventures and hunting, yes, i did say hunting, there are so many things in the preparations and essential gear and
    Knowledge of outdoors that are similar and then you have the young pups (hunters) who have all that ambition and remarks that
    Remind you of where you were a few decades ago. It’s just fun to see how many joys in life are shared in different
    Ways by different people, we are all different but yet the same. I love the young mans term for your tool of the trade:
    Keep the smiles coming.

  12. Posted August 22, 2013 at 1:55 pm by Patrick Downs | Permalink

    I thought you’d abandoned Gitzo (after several failures) and gone to something else … RRS or other. I must be getting CRS at my age. I am tripod shopping now, and trying to resist the tractor-beam pull of a RRS 24L!

    • Posted August 22, 2013 at 1:57 pm by Richard Bernabe | Permalink

      No, you’re right Patrick. But this was written 3 or 4 years ago. I use RRS now and couldn’t be happier.

  13. Posted August 22, 2013 at 2:24 pm by Sharon | Permalink

    Thanks for the insight! Good stories to back up the need for a tripod… now, I know I have one somewhere… I better start using it!

  14. Posted August 22, 2013 at 2:27 pm by D. Culp | Permalink

    Don’t forget using the sticks to move a Cotton Mouth onto the path for a better photographic opportunity after you narrowly missed getting tagged in the leg by it at the Outer banks! Ahh, good times.

  15. Posted August 22, 2013 at 2:46 pm by C Brown | Permalink

    A tripod also makes a great tent prop. I headed out to a primitive beach with my son-in-law and two grandchildren for some fun and photography. Some serious hiking was involved. It got very hot and sunny and after a couple of hours we were looking for any shade we could find. There was none…so we took a blanket I had brought and draped it over the two tripods.
    I have essential tremors (shakey hands) and without a tripod I would not be able to shoot photos at all. I’ve been accused of being a professional several times and am considering carrying a note from my doctor!

2 Trackbacks

  1. […] Meanwhile I had read an article from a famous professional photographer who had underlined the importance of using a tripod.  I owe one but basically never use it, did […]

  2. By Gitzo and I: A Coda on December 2, 2012 at 4:38 pm

    […] readers believed I was being a bit unfair. After all, how about my beloved Righteous Set of Sticks? OK, fair enough. The Righteous Set of Sticks, however, is now officially semi-retired and it only […]

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