Lessons from Behind the Lens of a Legendary Wildlife Photographer: In All Honesty, This Is Really Just a Starting Point
The One Place You Can’t Cheap Out!
I hate tripods. Being stuck on them takes away the freedom that makes photography creative and so much fun. With that said, they are a necessary tool that you simply cannot be without. And they are a tool you can’t cheap out on.
Since day one, I’ve been shooting with Gitzo tripods for a real simple reason: they work. The vast majority of the time, big lenses like the 200–400mm VR and 600mm VR reside on a tripod (though handholding is done with these lenses, as well). The first test in selecting the right tripod is kinda simple: Do the legs open up wide enough, so the distance between the legs where they hit the ground is equal to or greater than the length of your rig (camera and lens)? The next test is: Does the tripod, at its maximum height, come at least up to your nose? The last one is: Does it have a thread on its base, so you can attach the tripod head of your choice? Optional questions are: How many leg segments? Center column? Carbon fiber or metal?
The answer for me is real simple: Gitzo carbon fiber 5560S GT and 3540 XLS. The 5560 is the big bad boy and the 3540 is light duty. Both of these are G-Lock, which in itself makes them more than worth their weight on any project. G-Lock permits you to change the leg length with a simple quarter-turn. You don’t have to hold on to any other leg to do this. You don’t have to hold a leg to lock the G-Lock back in place. One simple turn and you’re good to go. When it comes to making slight adjustments without upsetting a subject, the G-Lock system paid for itself the first time out.
Neither one of these two tripod models has a center column. To get the maximum stability out of your tripod, the tripod head must rest right on top of the tripod base. If you extend a collar, and use that to get height for your tripod head and big lens, you’ve basically put that big lens on a monopod. Many photographers obtain sharp images doing this, but it takes work and means often the tripod is set up on a steady platform to begin with (column costs you more money and means more weight, as well). When it comes to tripod stability, you have to always plan on placing the tripod on the most unstable surface. Working in sand, mud, snow, gravel, and unlevel ground, etc., is very typical for wildlife photographers. For that $10,000 lens to do its job, the tripod must be stable.
The 5560’s main job is to hold the 600mm VR, and it does it very, very well. The 5560 is called “the Giant,” because it can extend as high as 8′5″! For 20 years, I worked with tripods like the 5540 XL, which only extended to 5′. Until I shot with the 5560, I didn’t realize what I was missing all those years shooting with the shorter 5540. It wasn’t a stability issue, it was a back and neck issue. Bending and stooping over at times to look through the viewfinder got real old. Another issue is working on a slope. The shorter legs of the 5540 made working on a slope not only uncomfortable, but hazardous. I always had to keep a hand on the tripod, so gravity didn’t tumble over the rig. The 5560 made those problems disappear. To say I’m hooked on the taller 5560 is an understatement.
The 3540 is my general-purpose tripod. You could say it’s relegated to landscape chores, but it does more than that. The 3540 XLS extends to 6′4″, which permits me to get under it and easily look up through the viewfinder to do star trails. If I didn’t do those, I probably wouldn’t have the XLS version of the 3540. It can easily support the 200–400mm VR or 200mm VR, so it does get a bit of slope duty, which makes that extra leg length a real benefit.
These sticks are the stable platform holding the tripod head, and then the lens, that permits shooting in critically low light possible. The head you attach to your tripod is just as important as the sticks themselves. The 5560 is married to a Wimberley Head II and the 3540 to the Really Right Stuff BH-55. Both are fitted with the Arca Swiss-style clamping system, whose channel groove locks into the plates attached to bodies and lenses. The 600mm VR and 200–400mm VR have had their factory tripod foot replaced with the Really Right Stuff tripod foot, which not only has a lower profile than the factory model, but has an Arca Swiss groove built into it. This system permits quick and assured mounting of the lens onto the heads. (I always double-check security when I mount a lens and/or body to a head.)
Why the two different heads? The Wimberley Head is a gimbal-style head. The gimbal permits solid support without the controls being locked down tight. One thing you want to make sure you do when you work with your tripod head is to not lock it down tight. All movement—horizontal and vertical pan, as well as rotating the lens from horizontal to vertical (via lens control)—must be loose, so you can easily follow any action. At the same time, this looseness keeps any movement from being transmitted through the head and to the lens. How loose is loose? I personally set up the tension so it takes a little force to move the lens in either horizontal or vertical motion, but not so tight there is any chattering while the lens moves. The 600mm VR with body and/or teleconverter attached is also set so it’s balanced out. The goal is to be able to move the rig left, right, up, or down and then let go, and it will stay where you left it. This gives the speed and stability you need to function as a photographer while photographing a moving subject.
The pan action is oh so important. When shooting a moving subject, the smoothness of that panning action directly translates to the sharpness of your images. Any chatter because it’s over-tightened or because the action has been damaged from abuse or neglect, and you can kiss sharp images goodbye. For that reason, the Wimberley wears a LensCoat Wimberley WH-200 cover. And when it’s transported across the country—or just going in the truck to the next site—when no lens is attached, it’s covered by the LensCoat Gimbal Pouch. It’s real simple: you want the best out of that $10,000 glass, so you’d better make sure everything it’s attached to—that includes you—works its best.
The BH-55 is a true ball head. That means it has nearly 360 degrees of movement. When it comes to everything photography, this head just rocks. It is not an inexpensive head for a very good reason: it is a precision tool manufactured with standards that have their beginnings in the Skunk Works (the division of Lockheed Aircraft Corp. formed to rapidly develop a jet fighter during WWII). I rely on this head for doing basic landscape work, studio work, ultra-wide panos (the action is just that smooth), and at times, to hold the 200–400mm VR.
Why the exception there? Since it is a true ball head, with the main control slightly loose like I described for the Wimberley, if the 200–400mm VR is attached to the BH-55 and is not perfectly balanced, gravity will take over. The results aren’t pretty when that happens. Since I can’t walk and chew gum at the same time, remembering to lock down the main control when the 200–400mm VR is attached is difficult. More than once, I have forgotten, only to have the head come down on my finger and pinch me—the wildlife soon knows all the foul words in my repertoire.
Being a precision piece of equipment, anything that gets into its movements destroys that precision. Not that you have to be paranoid about it, but simple things like keeping the head covered when not in use (it comes with a cover), keeping sand out of its mechanisms, and other obvious precautions will guarantee years of service. While the BH-55 is married to the 3540, there are times (for the sake of weight conservation) it will go on a project and be used atop the 5560. While that is overkill, it works great and is solid as a rock.
The main goal is maximum stability. This means keeping the head on top of the tripod platform. At the same time, it means keeping the mass of the lens and/or body over that same point. It’s all very physical (as in physics). Using the Really Right Stuff Arca Swiss-style plates makes this all very simple. Keeping with that, the bodies are fitted with the appropriate Really Right Stuff L-plates (only when needed, otherwise they are in a kit, ready to be attached). The L-plate keeps the camera body, when attached in either horizontal or vertical format, and its mass centered over the main base of the tripod. This brings maximum stability to your shooting.