Lessons from Behind the Lens of a Legendary Wildlife Photographer: In All Honesty, This Is Really Just a Starting Point
Making ‘em Work for You
The tripod is this silent miracle tool to wildlife photographers when used to its fullest. There is actually more to getting stability than simply shelling out the bucks. Let’s start with setup.
When you extend the legs of your tripod, I highly recommend you extend the last leg—the leg that hits the ground—to its fullest, so it takes all the abuse of the terrain. Mud, snow, sand, and everything else we set our tripod in, can take a toll on the leg joints. Contrary to logic, you’re not forsaking the stability of the tripod by putting the skinniest leg to its fullest. You are guaranteeing that when you need it, the tripod is working.
Setting the length of the rest of the tripod legs can be done many different ways based on your height, the height of the tripod head, and the number of leg sections on the tripod. I would suggest that you get a tripod that is 6–8″ taller than you are, so the uppermost leg section doesn’t have to be extended for general shooting. Setting up the tripod in this way, when you need a longer leg(s) for working on a slope or uneven surface, you can quickly and easily extend this leg(s). Being the beefiest, you have the greatest amount of stability as you reach the tripod’s limit, and at the same time, limit your movement extending the leg, which might scare the subject.
When you set the tripod down, make sure it has as stable a platform as possible. If there are any little rocks around, wiggle the tripod so it settles onto solid ground and not on the little rocks. This needs to be done every time you put the tripod down, no matter the size of the tripod or the ground you’re setting up on. Shaking the tripod leg is a good habit you need to establish.
Again, we often find ourselves shooting in mud, snow, and the stuff you find in marshes. These surfaces have an inherent surface tension, enough of one that despite the weight of our gear, it rides on top of this stuff. This is not a stable platform the majority of the time. So, every time you set up your tripod, along with giving it a wiggle, you’ll want to push the leading leg down into the muck. The leading tripod leg is the one that normally is directly under the front of the lens barrel. By doing this, you break the surface tension and provide the tripod with a maximum stable platform.
The last thing to think about when putting your tripod down is to put it down so you’re shooting between two of the tripod legs. You don’t want to be straddling a tripod leg when you’re shooting. Set up everything so you’re ready for action, even if you’re photographing a rock (you never know what might pop up from behind it), and so you can move left and right as you pan. Personally, I take this to the extreme and, when a subject moves from its original position, I will pick up the tripod and reset it, so I am basically standing in the middle of two legs all the time. There is nothing worse than having a killer subject move in such a way that you get all twisted up in a tripod leg, either kicking the tripod or doing a dance, causing the loss of a sweet image.
Walking with the tripod in the field is just something that doesn’t come naturally. There are many ways you can do it, but I can only relate the style I use. The vast majority of the time, when the 600mm VR is attached to the 5560 and I’m off for a walk, it rides over my left shoulder. Prior to hoisting it up, I make sure everything is secure. That’s because once I didn’t, and I saw out of the corner of my eye the 800mm f/5.6 and brand new Nikon F4 come off the tripod and hit the ground. So, when I first connect the 600mm VR to the Wimberley, I shake the lens to double-check it is locked into the clamp of the Wimberley. Then, when I go to carry the whole rig over my shoulder, I lock down tight the horizontal and vertical pan of the Wimberley. This is so the 600mm VR doesn’t swing and smack me in the back of the head (a gentle re-minder to lock down the knobs). With the front element pointing toward the ground and the body up in the air, the rig is balanced, so it can ride on one leg on my left shoulder. Now my shoulder has a permanent dent in it from all the years of doing this, which helps. But at least that is how I can walk for miles with this rig ready to shoot (I’ve done that on more than one occasion).
I don’t walk with all my gear in a photopack on my back and my tripod in hand, because if I come upon wildlife, getting it all set up and not scaring off the subject just isn’t possible the majority of the time. It’s all set up as described, which makes it a rather large “thing” walking toward a subject. So, when it comes time to put the tripod down to shoot the subject in front of you, you want to lower it slowly and deliberately. I tend to bend at the knees until one tripod leg is on the ground and then lift the rest of the tripod off the shoulder and set it up. We want to approach every subject as if they are shy until we know otherwise. This method, I have found, keeps our profile to a minimum while working with these tools.