Tips for Using Ultra-Light Tripods in the Field

Last light on Mount Hunter and Denali, central Alaska Range

Even with the constant improvements to image stabilized lenses and bodies along with the amazing high ISO capabilities of the latest digital cameras, a good old-fashioned tripod is still an essential tool to a professional outdoor photographer.

My work takes me to some of Alaska’s most remote and unforgiving environments. The weight of my gear, both camera and outdoor gear, can make or break one of my expeditions. Excessive weight on adventures that involve traveling through rugged or technical terrain can be dangerous. Lightweight tripods are also essential for international  travel, where baggage weight restrictions continue to get stricter. A small, light weight tripod doesn’t scream “pro” and is easier to maneuver through crowds.

Choosing a Tripod

Tripod design hasn’t changed a whole lot in the last few years, but the materials that are used to make them has. The latest carbon fiber can be made thinner and the diameter of the tubes smaller, than their counterparts of a few years ago. Tripod heads have also gotten smaller and lighter without losing holding strength or durability.

When I bought my first tripod, twenty-four years ago, the rule of thumb was “choose a tripod that has a maximum weight capacity that is double your heaviest camera-lens combo”. I have no idea where that theory came from, or if there is any truth to the statement, but it’s been one of those “golden rules” that many photographers have used over the years.

For my expedition work, my heaviest camera/ lens combo is about five pounds, a Nikon D800e and a 24-70 f2.8 lens. My lightest ball head weighs in at about a pound. That six pounds total, if I follow the old school rule, I would need a pair of “sticks” that can hold twelve pounds.  My current tripod, a Gitzo Mountaineer has a maximum weight rating of eleven pounds, close enough! The Gitzo Mountaineer weighs in at 1.6 pounds, add the pound of my ball head and I have a support system that is super compact with a fighting weight of 2.6 pounds.

What about the head? Through my extensive experience and testing I have found that heavier ball heads are essential on really lightweight legs. A little extra weight adds to the stability. I actually double the old tripod rule when it comes to heads. Sure, there are plenty of super-light ball heads that could hold my six pound camera-lens combo but those heads mounted on top of a ultra-light leg set-up are not very confidence inspiring. I would choose a heavier head over a lighter weight one with the same maximum weight capacity.

The less legs extensions a tripod has, the more rigid it will. However, more extensions means it will usually extend higher and fold down smaller.  Yes, light-weight tripods don’t extend very high, often less than five feet. Tall photographers will find this annoying. Working with these little tripods is all about adapting, if you need to get high then you will need to get creative! And honestly, how often is the best composition at eye level anyways?

Setting up the tent as the last light fades on Mount Moffit

A tripod is necessary for long exposures and timelapse work.

 Creating a Secure Set-Up

Small tripods are prone to falling over, not because they are terribly unstable, it’s that they can easy be blown over by wind or knocked over by the photographer who isn’t paying attention.

First and foremost, try to find a solid surface and have the legs as wide as possible, with each leg being the same width apart. I look for a large rock to put the tripod on. Sometimes, I will move flat rocks to where I want to set the tripod up at. If there are no flat rocks and the ground is soft and spongy, which is most of Alaska, I will try to pierce the legs through the top surface into the harder ground underneath. You won’t be able to have the legs  stretched to their widest setting but hitting that firmer ground underneath is crucial. Remember, the tripod will sink down lower, changing your angle of view.

What about that little hook on the bottom of the center post? For years, I couldn’t figure out an effective way to use it out in the field, opting to stack rocks on the legs (be careful, heavy rocks can damage the carbon fiber legs)instead. But then one day I came up with a super simple, lightweight solution. I use a  tent guy-line with a “ladder lock” attached. I bring a light tent stake that I secure into the ground and then attached it to the hook with the guy line. Then I use the ladder lock to create the needed tension to secure the tripod. Sometimes I will need to stack rocks on the stake to keep it from coming out of soft ground. Often, I won’t use the stake at all, instead securing the guy-line to a heavy rock. I have also used multiple guys (taken from my tent).

It was a windy day and the ground wet and spongy. I used my tent peg system to help secure the tripod to the ground. I used the telephotos tripod collar to help center the weight of the camera over the middle of the tripod.

It was a windy day and the ground wet and spongy. I used my tent peg system to help secure the tripod to the ground. I used the telephoto’s tripod collar to help center the weight of the camera over the middle of the tripod.

I often work in the snow which can be frustrating with a small tripod. If the snow is firm or has a solid top crust , I will just set the tripod on top and not attempt to sink it into the snow. If the tripod breaks through with the weight of the camera or the snow is just too soft, I will extend the tripod legs the whole way and then close the legs together to where they almost touch the center post. Then I just thrust the tripod through the snow like a spear. It can work pretty well, but if it’s warm then the tripod will get less stable as it warms up and melts the snow around it.

Helpful Accessories

There are some camera accessories that also help. First, use an L-plate. The easiest way to throw a tripod off-balance is to have all the weight hanging off to one side. L-plates allow you shoot vertical shots with the camera on top of the tripod, putting the majority of the weight in the center, equally distributing the weight to all three legs, the most stable position. Even when using lightweight telephotos, I try to use a tripod collar, which also helps balance the weight.

If you are using a DSLR, use the mirror lock-up setting. Use an electronic release or the self timer option, the less you touch the camera, the sharper the image will be.

With all the advanced features that cameras have these days it’s easy to think that tripods are becoming a dinosaur from photography’s past. But it’s quite the contrary, the high-resolution of modern cameras demand stability and in our busy and complicated world, the little extra time it takes to set up and compose an image with a tripod is exactly what we need to get into the moment and create meaningful photographs.

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Where The Peaks Have No Names

Last light on the Neacola Mountains

Last light on the Neacola Mountains

It was the first really clear day in awhile and the wind was absent. I was still feeling down about not getting any good images this year from the southern section of the Alaska Range, when I thought “Maybe I could get one more aerial shoot in”. So I called up my buddy, photographer and pilot Dan Bailey.

“Want to fly tonight?” I asked with lots of enthusiasm. He was hesitant, I am sure he was very busy and wasn’t even thinking of flying.

“I don’t know, let me call you back.” I sat there waiting. I sent an email to another photographer-pilot I knew, Joe Connelly, but he was out-of-town.

Finally Dan called back and agreed to fly.

“Where do you want to go?” he asked.

“Hidden Mountains” I replied.

“Where is that?” He questioned.

“North of Merrill Pass, though we may not make it that far, it’s a long way”. I met him at the airport at 4:30. He went through his pilot checklist, fueled up and we were in the air by 5:00.

Dan’s little Cessna 120 has about four hours of fuel (not counting reserve) and goes about 80 miles an hour. It’s a great plane for photography, it goes slow and low, but it takes a long time to get to the Alaska Range from Anchorage and I knew we would be pushing it.

The flight plan was to go through Merrill Pass and then head north into the Hidden Mountains, a remote collection of mountains sandwiched between the Revelations and the Tordrillos. I have seen very few images from these mountains and only know one person who has been in them. The only peak of any notoriety is Snowcap, which is incorrectly named on the USGS topo map, a common occurrence on those maps from the southern Alaska Range.

Mount Spurr

Mount Spurr

Crevasses, unnamed glacier

Crevasses, unnamed glacier

We flew next to the pure whiteness of Mount Spurr, just glorious in the clean sunlight. As we approached the pass we saw a wall of clouds, hovering around 2000 feet. The clouds stretched as far as we could see. We debated on whether or not to travel through the pass. Before we made our decision about the pass we flew around another known peak, The Tusk, a granite fang that protrudes out of the tundra. I had seen a few images of the Tusk and it looked pretty cool. Because of the tightness of the surrounding peaks, we had to fly above it and honestly, The Tusk, isn’t very impressive from the air, especially with so many huge, looming mountains off in the distance.

Hidden

Peaks 6625 and 6945, just two of the hundreds of unnamed beauties in the Hidden Mountains.

To the south I could see the mighty high peaks of the Neacolas. That was the area I was supposed to have travelled through during my ill-fated July trip, I knew that was where we needed to go.

“Forget the pass, let’s go there” I suggested and Dan agreed.

We flew up the Neacola River towards the Neacola Glacier and peak 9,426, aka Mount Neacola. But then we were side tracked by one of the most beautiful mountains in the entire Alaska Range, Peak 8305. The peak was climbed in 1965 and they called it the Citadel. My friend Dan Oberlatz showed me a picture of that beauty from a ski trip he guided many years ago, it’s sexy shape still imbedded in my mind. The Citadel is the north anchor of a collection of high peaks around the North Fork, Pitch Fork and Neacola Glaciers. The other major monster mountains are Peaks 8908 and 8505, Mount Neacola and the chubby 8105.

The mountain god, Peak 8305, The Citadel!

The mountain god, Peak 8305, The Citadel!

The Citadel and Peak 8505, Mount Iliamna in the distance.

The Citadel and Peak 8505, Mount Iliamna in the distance.

But there were plenty of other beauties around, in fact, everywhere I turned their was a nameless, perfect representation of the word mountain. To add more drama to already amazing scenery Mount Redoubt and Mount Iliamna towered of in the distance.

Peak 8065 and Mount Redoubt.

Peak 8065 and Mount Redoubt.

We flew to the west side of the mountains and ran into the same wall of clouds. As the sun set they became a glorious yellow ocean that stretched all the way to the Bering Sea.

The yellow sea

The yellow sea

Perfect light

Perfect light

We weaved in and out of mountains for an hour until the light left the peaks, only a pink glow remained in the sky. Our absolute amazement of the mountains and the light made our stay out there a tad bit too long and we had to race out of the mountains before it got too dark, we were flying by sight!

Mount Neacola

Mount Neacola

West face of peak 8505

West face of peak 8505

Luckily, we made it to the flats right before dark. We flew in the pitch black of night, with only the lights of Anchorage as our guide. We landed with ease at Merrill Field, exactly four hours after we had left.

last light on Mount Redoubt

last light on Mount Redoubt

I am still basking in the glorious light of that amazing flight. Thanks again Dan!

Also, Thanks to my friend Steve Gruhn who informed me of the names of the peaks that I thought had no names!

15 Favorites from 2013

The season is winding down here in Alaska so I decided I would post fifteen of my favorite images from this year’s Alaska Range trips. If you have been following the blog you know it was a rough year in the mountains. I am mostly disappointed that I got nothing of merit from the southern section of the Alaska Range, except some broken toes, a sprained wrist, lots of bruises and a damaged ego.

I will be posting a larger selection of images on a dedicated page in the near future, along with photographs from my previous work in the Alaska Range. I am already plotting next year’s trips, six expeditions total.

Please feel free to comment on each image and share them through your social networks, the more people who learn about the project, the better of a success it will be when its finished.