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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The Bag That Saved The Day.

When the going gets tough or when things go wrong, you discover what gear is truly well made and designed and what gear isn’t. On my latest trip (read my last post Neacola Nightmare) most of my gear was put to the test. One piece of gear that truly saved the day was my Sea to Summit Dry Sack.

I had my camera gear, sleeping bag and dry layers in two of those bags and everything was dry. Everything else I owned was soaked to the core, even items in thin, Ultra-Sil style, water-resistant sacks with taped seams.

Unfortunately, most outdoor gear isn’t meant for expedition use, especially multiple expeditions a year. The Sea to Summit Dry Sack however, is well built and does exactly what it claims to do, keep your stuff dry!

Nikon 70-200 F4 Review

Most people think mountain photography is all about wide-angle lenses. But over half of my mountain images are taken with a telephoto. My go to lens is my Nikon 24-70, which is great when you’re in tight with the mountains. However, when I know I am going to be a far distance from the mountains, or think there will be plenty of tight detail shots of glaciers, I prefer to bring a telephoto. My new go-to telephoto is the Nikon 70-200 F4.

Last light on Mount Hunter and Denali.

Last light on Mount Hunter and Denali. Nikon 70-200 F4 @200mm F8

When I began using digital in 2006, I went with Canon and purchased their 70-200 F4 right off the bat. When I switched to Nikon for this project (after a few years using Sony) I was bummed that Nikon didn’t have a light, high quality zoom. Luckily for me, they came out with one right when I began investing in the their system.

Is it sharp?

Really, that is all I care about. Telephoto zooms aren’t known for their stellar performance for landscapes. The edges tend to get really soft. But before we talk edges, I just want to say that the center sharpness of this lens is wicked sharp, just fantastic with tons of resolving power to match the D800e. Its performance at middle distances is off the chart, and pretty good at infinity, which is what most mountain shots are at.

It may be sunny, but its still cold! Sy's icy beard.

Sy’s  beard. Nikon 70-200 f4, 145mm @ f5, tripod

100% crop, 145mm f5

100% crop, 145mm @ f5, wicked sharp, you don’t want to photograph your teenage daughter with this lens!

The light is at the right angle to reveal the mountain's fractured surface and to reveal the warm color of the rock.

Thunder Mountain, Nikon 70-200 F4, 200mm @ f8, tripod

North Face of Thunder Mountain

100% crop, not as sharp has the one of Sy’s beard, but pretty nice. There is some color noise in the shadows, mainly from the jpeg conversion, noise can’t be seen  in any size prints.

Okay, the edges. It does pretty good job up to about 120 or so, then the edges tend to get pretty soft, not unusable, but noticeable, especially when making big prints. Kind of a bummer, because I shoot a lot at 200mm. Obviously, stopping down to f8-f11 helps a lot, making the images very usable. One of the problems is that the center is so good that the edges just stand out.

Unnamed Peak, Denali National Park. Nikon 70-200 f4, 200mm f4

Unnamed Peak, Denali National Park. Nikon 70-200 f4, 200mm f4, hand held with VR on.

Upper Left corner, 100% crop, still soft even at f8, but doesn't look too bad in a print as long as you don't go huge on it. Fine for a full page book image.

Upper Left corner, 100% crop, still soft even at f8, but doesn’t look too bad in a print as long as you don’t go huge on it. Fine for a double page book image.

Vibration Reduction

Not something I thought I would use much, being a tripod type of guy. But during my latest Alaska Range trip it was so cold that it wasn’t fair to my climbing partners to constantly stop and set up a tripod every time I wanted to take a shot. Then I went on a flight with my friend Dan Bailey and used it for the entire flight. I really didn’t think any of the shots would be sharp, especially ones at 200mm, but I was wrong, the VR worked great!

Cathedral Peaks and Kichatna Spire. Taken hand held from a plane going 80 miles an hour, VR on and did aa awesome job.

Cathedral Peaks and Kichatna Spire. Taken hand held from a plane going 80 miles an hour, VR on and it did an awesome job.

Other Things

Its bulky, kind of heavy, focuses fast with my D800e…

At this moment, the 70-200 F4 is the best Nikon option for telephoto mountain images. If you shoot portraits or back country sports, you will be blown away by its center sharpness.

If you are interested in buying this lens (or anything from B&H), consider using the link through the banner below.

Nikon D800e Review

UPDATE 4/20/2013 I have had some serious issues with this camera since I did this review, please have a look at my other post, especially the Kahiltna Trip Day. It appears that certain cards can crash the camera, the culprit for me was a Lexar Pro 64gb 800x.

Is this the best digital camera for mountain photography?

I have now owned the Nikon d800e for about five  months and I feel comfortable reviewing its abilities. I will only be discussing it as a possible wilderness-mountain photography camera and won’t be doing a general review of its features or broad appeal.

I have written before on what I look for in a digital camera, it is a short list and I will go through my requirements and discuss whether or not the D800e fits my needs.

If you are patient and practice solid techniques, the D800e delivers stellar quality.

If you are patient and practice solid techniques, the D800e delivers stellar quality.

Image Quality

The term image quality can be subjective. What  I am looking for are sharp RAW files, excellent dynamic range, low long-exposure noise and good high ISO noise.

The RAW files that come out of the D800e are the sharpest I have seen from a non-medium format digital camera. Yes, you need to either have fast shutter speeds or you need to use a tripod, mirror lock up and a remote release to get maximum sharpness (and of course, excellent glass). The web is loaded with complaints about people’s inability to get sharp images, well I hate to break to them but it isn’t the camera’s fault. Photography and photographers have gotten lazy and impatient. I would love to have heard the laughter if someone ten years ago wrote on a forum saying “I can’t get sharp images from my medium format film camera when hand holding it for landscape images”. The higher the resolution the more you need to slow down and think, pay attention and practice the solid fundamentals of photography.

The D800e asks to be pushed to its dynamic range limit.

The D800e asks to be pushed to its dynamic range limit.

Can a camera have too much dynamic range? Sometimes I think the D800e does. I find myself crushing blacks and boosting highlights just to get some contrast in my images. That is not a bad thing, it’s great, in fact, it even helps lighten up my bag, I can leave all those graduated nd filters at home. Did I just say that? Yep, I no longer carry my trusty graduated nd filters!

Are we talking HDR looking images, no and thank goodness! I really dislike the HDR look. In fact, I enjoy the graphic nature of photography and I WANT deep blacks without detail and pure paper whites.

Star trails and serac. 40 minute exposure and looks clean.

Star trails and serac. 40 minute exposure, iso 200 at 2.8. The image is clean and almost noise free.

I like long exposures and shadow noise from long exposures have always bugged me about digital photography. Guess what? The D800e has almost zero long exposure induced noise. Now let me clarify something, it is winter in Alaska and cold. The main reason noise appears during long exposures is because the sensor gets hot, well,  taking images when its 0f and colder keeps that sensor from getting hot.  So we will see this summer whether the temperature is what is helping the camera’s stellar performance.

Stars above seracs. ISO 2500, 25 seconds at f2.8. Noise cleaned up well but detail suffered.

Stars above seracs. ISO 2500, 25 seconds at f2.8. Noise cleaned up well but detail suffered.

I don’t shoot at extreme ISO’s very often. My main concern is performance between 400-800, which I use when I am hand holding the camera or trying to stop motion. At 400 the camera is great. At 800 I see some obvious loss in detail but noise is easily fixed in post. Above that the camera is good but not great. I found the loss of detail at 3200 almost unusable though noise cleaned up well.

Durability

I hate buying new cameras and I really want a camera that will last. I purchased this camera for a four year book project. I will be on at least 15 long expeditions in Alaska, so it needs to be reliable. On the surface the camera is more than tough enough, not too cheap and not over built. Seals seem tight and so far the lens fits tight and secure, which is very important for wilderness photography, that connection is a major weak spot.

The cold had less of an effect on the D800e's batteries than expected.

The cold had less of an effect on the D800e’s batteries than expected.

Battery life is what plagues digital cameras, especially in the cold. I have a very elaborate system when it comes to keeping batteries warm and working. For the last few months I have ignored my system so I could gauge the D800’s battery ability. One test was an overnight trip where I left the battery in the camera the whole time. I also reviewed every exposure, pixel peeped, used Live View to check focus (a major battery killer) and finally made a bunch of long exposures, some as long as 60 minutes. The verdict? Excellent! I took about 180 photos, between temperatures of 20f to -10f and the battery still had one bar left. Am I going to abandon my battery saving techniques,? No, but I will probably bring fewer batteries on trips.

The true durability test will be in a few weeks when we spend ten days on the Kahiltna Glacier in the heart of the Central Alaska range.

Other Positives

Auto focus on my model has been accurate with the lenses I own. No left sided focus issues that plagued early models. I tested focus tracking on the two hardest subjects on earth, moving kids and dogs, and was pretty impressed when teamed up with my Nikon 24-70.

Keeping things simple is key to me. I was able to simplify the D800e to my style and can work quickly. None of the features I use, need to be dug up from inside of menus and folders. The viewfinder is easy to see through with glasses.

Auto focus was accurate, even under flat conditions.

Auto focus is accurate, even under flat lighting conditions.

Negatives?

Not much to say here except that the camera doesn’t need the majority of the features that are included. Photographers really want (or need) less. Nikon please, follow Fuji and Leica’s lead and make us a super simple DSLR with the image quality of the D800e, like a digital F3 High Eyepoint!

The D800e could be considered heavy and bulky for a digital DSLR, especially when compared to all the mirror less cameras popping up.  But compared to any of the film cameras from my past, its light enough and even rivals the quality of my medium format film cameras (no it doesn’t challenge my 4×5 or 8×10 images but its sure a lot lighter and smaller).

Is this review too good to be true? Hey the camera delivers, to me at least. Don’t worry, I am no fan boy of anything, if I thought something was bad, I would be the first to tell you!

Questions about the camera? Bring them on!