Category Archives: Gear

Cross Country – Things Learned Driving East to West (Parts 1 and 2)

Last revised 6/14/2019

San Jose to East Coast by plane and then driving back over 15 days

Steven’s father passed away last December and the family decided to hold a memorial in Smith Mountain Lake, Virginia on Memorial Day weekend. Seemed entirely appropriate as that is when all of dads cross-country scattered kin could convene… that and dad also served in the Army during the Korean War era. What I hope to illuminate in this article are some of the considerations to consider to take a multi-day or longer car trip. In this case, we flew to Roanoke Virginia via Chicago (the upper line) and then drove my fathers car back from Smith Mountain Lake through Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Utah, Nevada and finally California.

I’ve divided the discussion into the following sections:

  1. Trip Planning Tools (Excel and Google Maps proved to be the most useful)
  2. Supplies and Provisions
  3. Booking Lodging and Excursions
  4. Photography and Night Photography Considerations
  5. Lessons Learned (What went wrong, what went right)

Trip Planning – Google Maps + My Scenic Drives + Excel

The way I started was simple: fire up google maps, enter my beginning city, added known stops (arranged east to west) and see what happened. To travel directly from Moneta, Virginia (Smith Mountain Lake) to San Jose mapped out as 40 hours of driving over 2722 miles. Since our actual mileage was 3982, clearly we did not take the “straight path” which would have been I40 nearly the whole way. One of the limitations with Google Maps is that you can have a maximum of 10 stops – unless you’re willing to do strange unnatural acts (or create your own map). But the key here was to see what the total distance was. Next I looked at breaking the trip up into digestible bits. The goal was to NOT drive more than 8 hours total in a day. And more significantly, to not be “on the road” more than about 10 hours including stops for sightseeing meals and potty breaks. Google maps was a bit unwieldy as I added more destinations and re-routed the segments to include driving to and through places of interest. One of the nice side benefits of using Google Maps, though, is that I could pull up the map on my laptop and send it to my phone directly. The phone then served as our GPS since the 12 year old navigation system in the car was clearly out of date.

One tool that I spent a lot of time on, and certainly helped was “My Scenic Drives“. The interface is a little clunky but My Scenic Drives can automatically divide up your driving based on time, but its method is not ideal. Indeed, the best use of My Scenic Drives was to “Find Nearby Attractions”. That proved to be it’s forte. “Avenue of the Ancients?” Why yes, thank you. “Valley of the Gods?” OF COURSE!, Chaco Culture, Mesa Verde, Bisti Badlands…. nearly all of these were suggested when searching in New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. At one point I had at least 70 items “on the map” as potentials, and I paired it back to a mere 50. Reality eventually set it and I paired it back much further.

My Scenic Drives was quite useful for finding places of interest near or on the route.

I had a core list of must go places which included White Sands, NM; Monument Valley, UT; Lake Powell, AZ/UT; Lower Antelope Slot Canyons, Page, AZ; Toadstool Hoodoos, Kanab, UT; Valley of Fire State Park, NV. To that list there was a long list of LIKE-to-GOs that included Chaco Culture, Avenue of the Ancients, Mesa Verde, and many more. Since my wife traveled with me, it was also important to include stops and destinations that were of interest to her as well.

El Paso, We Have A Problem

Ultimately the reality of the distances, vehicle choice and time constraints dictated what stayed in and what fell out of the plan. And THEN it got even tougher… Scheduling it on some days required to-the-HOUR timing. To be clear, not every day needed to-the-hour scheduling, but 2 of the 14 did… and that’s when I turned to creating an Excel spreadsheet. The spreadsheet helped in a number of ways: accumulating miles (and thus predicting fuel costs and tracking lodging costs), accumulating time, and also keeping a record of addresses, reservation numbers and status… and more. The reality of one of the days made me realize that from Farmington, NM to Monument Valley, AZ, it was just not possible to go through Avenue of the Ancients AND Valley of the Gods as well. The reason: I had booked an overnight photography tour of Monument Valley and HAD to be at the View Hotel in Monument Valley by 2:30 PM or the photo tour was in jeopardy. It worked out just fine, however, as the Mrs. wanted to visit Four Corners, so we timed our Farmington, NM departure to arrive around opening time at Four Corners (a Navajo nation stop) and then budgeted time at the additional stops. Fortunately we ended up about an hour ahead of schedule on that day, and were able to take a brief detour into Valley of the Gods.

To accommodate our desired focus points, we elected to “force march” from Raleigh, NC to Amarillo, TX with no sightseeing except for one lunch stop in Omni Oak Grove in in Asheville.

Oak Grove Inn View, Asheville, NC

That’s nearly 2/3 of the total east-west distance, and we did it in three LONG days (each less than 8.5 hours of driving, however). I micro managed the stops. The locations I picked for lodging initially were Knoxville, TN, Little Rock, AR; and Amarillo, TX. But the Little Rock to Amarillo drive was almost 9 hours, and the Knoxville to Little Rock was similarly long. There was also the matter of potential rush hour traffic, so the plan changed to drive 40 miles farther west on the first day (Harriman, TN), and about 20 miles farther west the next day (Maumelle, AR instead of Little Rock). That evened out the driving a bit more and got us away from major cities during rush hour. Mind you I still had to find cities with decent lodging. While I might be willing to stay alone in a flea bag hotel for a night, that wouldn’t fly with the Mrs. Choosing better lodging made the trip better overall, anyway!

One thing I highly recommend doing is making sure to add in an extra day or two here and there for two reasons: one is to have a cushion in case you run into delays, or find places more interesting than you expected, and the second is perhaps obvious: rest is good! No sense hauling your luggage into and out of the car twice a day every day. We elected to stay two days in Albuquerque, NM; and three days on the Pacific Coast of California – the latter came about because Las Vegas was just TOO hot to stop, and we needed some cooler “wave time”.

What I wish I had done was to pick the same “chain” of hotels as much as possible. But my strategy of not booking everything in advance proved helpful for changing plans as needed. See the Booking Lodging and Excursions (part 3) for the rationale behind each.

Maps Can Lie – BEWARE!

One last comment about using any mapping software (Google Maps, for example), is to inspect the path carefully. I’ve seen mapping software make bone-headed decisions. On the planning for this trip, for example, it routed us over about 50 miles of dirt-road driving until I forced it to pick a different route by adding intermediate destinations. Once in California, the mapping software assumed that the East Pinnacles National Park and West Pinnacles National park were connected by a road – but they AREN’T. The best you could have done is carry your car about 3 miles over a foot path… And of course there are many examples where people have relied on outdated maps of places like Death Valley and ended up in a heap of hurt.

Supplies and Provisions

Because we were flying from the West Coast to the East Coast, we couldn’t possibly take all the provisions we would want on the plane. Some of the things that just were impractical to take included:

  • A cooler for drinks (plus snacks and ice)
  • A tow strap (in case we got stuck in sand or mud somewhere)
  • Bits of carpet for traction
  • Jump Start cables & jump start battery
  • Keurig Cartridges
  • Supplies, blanket / pillow
  • Gallon or more of water
  • Quart of the proper oil
  • Gallon of Bug / Windshield cleaner

And despite my normal camera-bag-full of equpiment (2 cameras, lenses, two tripods, etc), I elected to take ONE camera – the Nikon D600 – and ONE lens (24mm manual focus), and one tripod. I also took my Mavic Drone, but was only able to use it once… most locations prohibited drones, the wind was excessive in other locations, and a complication with the software made it impossible to use in one area that I wanted to use it… more on that in the Photography and Night Photography Considerations chapter.

My father’s car is an older model Lexus and so it wouldn’t be suitable for going down the bumpy off road areas where I might take an AWD high clearance vehicle like my Subaru. I also knew that some of the destinations included driving on unpaved roads. Indeed, some of the destinations that we removed from our itinerary were removed because of the off-road driving required. Since we clearly couldn’t take all needed provisions on the plane with us, and it was not clear that we would be able to acquire all that we desired, I used Amazon to order and have shipped to my father’s house the hard-to-find supplies that I needed. We figured we could pick up a cooler, snacks and drinks, water, oil and windshield cleaner along the way. Indeed, after we noticed that the first two lodgings had in-room Keurig machines, we bought Chai and Pete’s coffee cartridges. I am a Chai drinker, and my wife is a coffee snob. Only about 40% of the places we stayed had such machines, but when they had them, it meant we could enjoy our normal morning and evening beverages.

In Case of Emergency

For our peace of mind, I purchased and activated a plan on a Garmin InReach mini. I had the device shipped to my home before we left so that I could make sure it worked, and the service was active. The Inreach mini is a portable satellite communication device that can be used to track your location –

Emergency Communication and tracking

indeed that device supplied the tracking information for the map presented at the top. One of the plans allows you to track your location every 10 minutes – you can see I turned on tracking somewhere over Nevada on our flight out. The mini can also be used like the SPOT emergency location device to send 3 different canned messages to pre-canned destinations. The mini is about twice the cost, but it’s bi-directional. The messages I chose were: All is well, just checking in when arriving at lodging for the night; Look what I found to mark a particularly interesting place for posterity; and Delayed, or rerouted to indicate we were fine, but not going to arrive as planned. The device also allows an SOS to be sent, and you can then communicate by text with the emergency personnel to indicate what your needs are, and they can text you to indicate their status. Fortunately we had no need of sending an SOS, but there were many areas where we had little and NO cell coverage on either Verizon or ATT (my wife and I have different plans on purpose), so the peace of mind was worth the about $50 of service… and no doubt I’ll use the $300 device in the future.

Enroute Planning

Strorms Ahead. (Actually the blue is from shooting through the screen in the top of the windshield ;-), but it did dump a heap of rain and hail on us just a bit father down the road in Oklahoma.

It wasn’t enough, of course, to merely plot out the path. We also had to be mindful of the weather and road conditions. I’ve written extensively about how I >> plan for weather << so visit that link to learn how I use Weather.gov to be aware of what is going on. On this particular trip, we drove through the middle of the country prior to and during tornado and flooding events. Without the maps, we might have ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. As it was, a tornado struck 1 mile away from our path two days prior to arriving (El Reno, Oklahoma) and major flooding was experienced in Little Rock and Fort Smith, AK the days of and following our trip segments there. Amarillo, TX and Roswell, NM were also hit with violent thunderstorms, and we used the forecast to refrain from heading up into Santa Fe, NM due to severe storm warnings. One Android tool I picked up and used was the NOAA Radar app. That offered alerts about nearby events – it was worth one month of subscription at $3 just to get those!

One of the other things that I discovered, but wasn’t aware of is that Google Maps in addition to notifications of slowdowns and road construction also has notifications about speed (radar) traps. We weren’t speeding anywhere, but the heads up certainly came in handy in case we decided to “blow the doors off a slowpoke driver” at an inopportune time.

Keeping Cool

Sugar free beverage + excellent “ice bottle”

We did acquire a decent cooler, small enough to fit in the backseat, but with a velcro latch so that it would be easy to open while underway. It had to be spacious enough to hold a half dozen drinks, ice AND chocolate. Since it was quite hot during our trip, even a short stint with the A/C off would result in a choco melt-down. I employed a trick I often use when hiking. After finishing an Ice beverage (sparkling sweetened drink), I rinsed it and refilled it with tap water. In lodgings that had a freezer component of the mini fridge, I put the refilled bottles in the freezer. Those frozen bottles then served as ice, and in a pinch, cold drinking water on some of our hot hikes. Do not try this with your average bottled water, however, they are too thin and flimsy to stand up to freezing.

It is also a good idea to buy a one or two gallon bottle of water that you can use for drinking (when the tap water is sketchy), and as an emergency source of coolant should your car need it.

Stay Tuned for More

Stay tuned for parts 3, 4, and 5 along with many photos! You’re also welcome to use my excel planning sheet for yourself. The sheet contains links to the maps I used (divided into daily segments), a TODO list, as well as a heap of web references I used to select the events and locations I visited.

Sky Drift

Geminid Meteor (and other) Shower Tips

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Psst. It’s not a secret but we love meteor showers here at StarCircleAcademy.com. So much so, that we frequently schedule expeditions to capture meteors in interesting dark sky locations.  The latest expedition is in a few days. But if you look through our catalog of events, (e.g. the latest and this one) you’ll see we’ve been hunting meteors for quite a long time.

Star Man and Perseus [C_059960-1]

The things you want to happen for a meteor shower include a non-intervening moon. Showers peaking on or near full moons are usually disappointing. Then, of course you’ll will want good weather, and an interesting foreground.  However there is no cookie-cutter approach to getting that to all work out.  For the Geminid meteor shower, it’s useful to know that Gemini rises in the East a little after sunset and sets in the west around sunrise. If you want to get the MOST meteors, you generally want to shoot after midnight and before dawn (so southwest), and thus southwest is the direction you’ll want the darkest skies. But if spending midnight to dawn somewhere is not practical for you, consider finding dark skies facing the south East instead.

Meteors CAN appear anywhere in the sky, however, so even when we suggest dark skies to the south, do not let that stop you from finding dark skies in any direction.  The interesting foreground you want may only work with a Northern view.

We describe at length how to find dark skies in this article and in the discussion consider alternatives, such as  distance, weather, and goals. In that article we also link to a resource to help you find dark skies. But do not be mislead: not all dark skies are created equal and there is really no substitute for having been in a location a time or two to know how “dark” is “dark.” Understand that weather conditions significantly affect the darkness of skies. Dry, arid places as a rule will be darker than moister climes.

Once you have landed on a place, you need to know how to shoot those meteors – so we have an article for that, too!  And once you get those little streakers, you will want to be confident that they really ARE meteors (most of the time they are not). So if you want to know that what you got are indeed meteors, please read our article on identifying those streaks accurately.

Satellite Flash (Iridium) [5_033852-4br]

 

To fully enjoy a meteor shower we suggest the following preparations:

  1. Dress appropriately. Assume it will be 20 degrees F colder than the stated overnight low. Not because it will be colder, but because with no sun to warm you at all plus little activity it will FEEL colder.
  2. Bring a fully reclining chair or sleeping mat so you can lay down and look straight up (or toward the darkest skies).
  3. Bring a blanket or sleeping bag and a pillow.
  4. Bring some hot (and/or cold) beverages in a thermos and some snacks.
  5. Set up you camera with an equatorial mount to track the skies, or just point it toward the dark. Use an intervalometer to automatically take photos (using the settings we suggested in this article – don’t want to read that: try ISO 6400, maximum aperture, 20 seconds or less).
  6. Bring a friend. You will be encouraged to hear your friends going OOOH and AAAAAH when you do – and if nothing else, you can keep each other awake and share stories.
  7. Be sure your family knows where you’re going and when you’ll be back (if they aren’t coming with you).

There is always more, of course, but ultimately we suggest that when possible, you consider joining us when we schedule a workshop or field expedition.

Happy space debris hunting to you!

Basics: Setting Up Your Tripod

Hello folks. I’m not going to get all parochial on you here, but in teaching workshops and rubbing shoulders with other photographers I see lots of people struggling with setting up their tripods – some of them don’t even know that they are struggling. If it makes you feel any better, I once set up my tripod in such a way that it flopped over and snapped a $1400 lens in half. I’ve also witnessed a fellow photographer’s rig topple over, fall on to rocks below and in the process smash his lens to smithereens and create a hole in his camera body. Need more motivation?  Six students had their tripods topple over when shooting at an event where there was gusty wind. None of them had done what we recommend below.

If you’re sure you know how to solidly set up your tripod and how to prevent an expensive catastrophe, well, you probably stopped reading when you saw the title of the article.

Rock Garden - Wide Range

Using a tripod correctly in terrain like this is a valuable (sanity preserving) skill

Still here? There is no substitute for using a sturdy tripod as we described earlier. However an improperly set-up tripod will give you a false sense of security.

Lets be sure we have terminology straight:

Feet: The part of the tripod that touches the ground – the bottom of the legs.
Legs: The (often telescoping) section of the tripod. Legs are made secure using
Leg Locks: which are of two general types: flip locks and screw locks (shown). We prefer the latter.
Leg Pivots: The upper side of the legs attach to the BASE where the legs can be made to pivot inward or outward. Usually there are options for specific pivot angles.
Tripod Base: The leg pivots are on the underside of the base.
Center Column & Center Column lock: If the tripod has an extensible section separate from the legs, it usually fits through the base and has a lock to secure the center column height. Some center columns also have a hook at the bottom (as shown).
Base Plate: The top surface of a center column (or the top surface of a base) to which the head is attached.
Head: The purpose of the head is to allow the camera to rotate and tilt. There are two principle types of heads: ball heads (shown) and pan/tilt heads.
Quick Release Clamp: the upper surface of the head usually has a clamp/plate system to make it easy to mount and unmount a camera. Arca-Swiss is the most popular clamp/plate system.
Quick Release Plate: attach securely to the camera and is held by the QR clamp.
Camera: the reason you have all the preceding stuff.


The Basics

Vertical: Your tripod should be vertical, specifically the center column (if you have one) should point straight up and down. The more vertical, the more stable the tripod is. By vertical, we don’t mean perpendicular to the ground – the ground may be sloping or irregular. The most common mistake people make is to set their tripods up so that it leans toward them.  Before you put your camera on your tripod, walk around the whole thing (safely) to judge the verticality.  You can even use a level (e.g. a smart phone app) against the center column to be sure it is vertical. Some tripods have a bubble level on the base – and some heads have a level on their base – that you can use to be sure your tripod base is level.

Notice tripod in the distance is leaning to the right (click for a bigger view)? That’s wrong!

Level: For many reasons, you want the base to be level (perpendicular to vertical). If your tripod is vertical, the base will be level. A level base makes panning (and thus panoramas) more accurate. If the base isn’t level rotating the camera may change the center of gravity causing wobble – or worse.

Legs: There are two adjustments here: the leg length and the leg spreadDO NOT fully extend the leg lengths – unless you are on flat, level ground. Adjust the legs so the base is level.

  • When on a slope, put two legs on the downhill side of the slope and one leg on the uphill side.
  • Place two legs at the front (that is where the camera is pointing) and one leg toward the rear.

If these two goals conflict, prefer two-legs downhill. A single leg at the front may intrude into a wide-angle shot. Most tripods have adjustable leg spreads. Each leg can form a medium, moderate or severe angle to the base. On irregular terrain, you may find that stability requires setting one or more legs at a different spread and different lengths. E.g. one leg is kept short at 90 degrees to allow that leg to rest on a boulder while the other two are more vertical. In a multi-segment tripod leg, the wider leg segments are more stable than the narrower ones, therefore:

  • Extend the wider leg segments fully before extending the narrower leg segments.

TIP 1: We find the screw-type leg locks to be the most secure and easiest to adjust. What we do is to grasp and loosen all the leg locks at once by a quarter turn. Fully extend all sections. Tighten the top locks fully (and middle locks – if you have 4 segment legs), then loosely tighten the smallest leg locks. When setting the tripod down you can gently push down each of the legs until it is vertical and level, then fully tighten the lower leg locks. Minor fine tuning can be achieved by loosening the upper leg locks.

  • If in windy conditions, set the tripod lower than normal and spread the legs wider. Also weight the system more heavily (see Weight, below).

Center Column (and tripod height): DO NOT extend the tripod fully just because you can. Extend the column as little as needed. The center column is useful for fine-tuning the height of the camera, but it raises the center of gravity and makes your tripod less stable. Likewise making your tripod as tall as possible makes it easier for gusty wind or and inadvertent bump to topple everything.

Tie-Stake Useful in some terrains

Weight: We HIGHLY recommend adding weight to your tripod. Many tripods have hooks on the underside of the base or on the bottom of the center column. We regularly hang our camera bag from that hook. But beware: if your camera bag is too light or bulky, you may end up adding a sail that catches the wind and creates instability. Some people bring weights, or bags they can fill on site with rocks or sand. But there are yet two more tricks you can employ:

  • Hang your camera bag so that it nearly touches the ground (by using a lower tripod position, or a strap between the bag and the tripod). Then place rocks or logs around the bag to keep the bag from swaying. Add heavy things in to the bag if you need more weight.
  • Bring a tie-down stake and a bungee cord. Screw the stake into the ground below your camera and snug the tripod hook to the stake with a bungee cord.

 

Straps: If you have shoulder or wrist straps on your camera we recommend using removable ones OR use twist ties or velcro wraps to secure the straps to your tripod so the straps do NOT catch the wind (or nearby objects). Shoulder straps can become like sails and even if they don’t catch enough wind to topple your tripod, they can induce vibration. We really like OP/Tech products, by the way. They are well designed and have never failed us.

Tip 2: One way to practice setting up a tripod is to do it indoors. Create un-even scenarios by resting one (or more) of the legs on a chair, wastebasket, etc. Practice getting the legs adjusted in a way that keeps the center column vertical and the base level.

Sailors

Sailors: Timestack of 114 images during sunset/blue hour in Alabama Hills, California

Safety Checks

After setting up your tripod as described above, you can and should test the stability of your tripod/camera. WHILE HOLDING ON TO THE CAMERA STRAP(s) do each of these checks:

  1. Pull down on each of the legs gently. Make sure they don’t collapse/fold.
  2. After clamping the camera to the head and tensioning the head. Hold the camera snugly and try wriggling the camera out of the clamp. Watch carefully for wobble and hold on securely in case the camera does come out of the clamp.
  3. Hold the camera, release tension on the head and let the camera gently flop. Make sure that when the camera flops the system doesn’t topple.
  4. Leave the camera in its flopped state and rotate 360 degrees checking for wobble.
  5. Repoint the camera, tighten the tension and gently bump the camera. Make sure there is no wobble.
  6. Bump each of the legs. Make sure the legs don’t become dislodged and the spread doesn’t change.
  7. Take one more lap around your camera checking for verticality and possible instability – e.g. a log, tree branch, stick or rock that could bump your tripod.

Is all of the above really necessary? Well, no. You don’t have to do any of that… unless you want to protect your equipment and take nice stable photos.

Here is my son with the tripod legs set wide, and the center column inverted to get the camera low to the ground.Photographer at Work [5_005398]

Want tips on other gear to carry… see this article. Would you like to see all of our best tips in one place? Try this article. Have a great tip on tripods we should know? Please share it in a comment!

You Need a Good Head and Great Legs

Published: December 24, 2017

Me (to wife): “My head is unstable and I have ordered a new, $300 one.”
(wife): “I knew about the instability, but I didn’t realize you could buy a new one.”

Tripod and Panoramic Head in action

If you search around the internet you will find plenty of product reviews. One of the best reviews I ever read said something like this: “Save one thousand dollars by buying the right gear now instead of later”. He proceeded to describe how cheap tripod legs and cheap heads ended up costing more than had he bought the good gear from the beginning.

Wait, “heads?”, “legs?”

There are four parts to a tripod that are important to get right: legs, head, release, mounting plate.

 

But First… A Short Commercial

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays! Harold Davis and I will be conducting a workshop that you may want to attend. Registration is through Harold’s web site.

Tripod Anatomy

  1. Legs – The part that touches the ground, and yes the bottom of the legs is called the feet.
  2. Head – The part that is attached to the top of the legs and provides the ability to rotate and tilt the camera at various angles.
  3. (Quick) Release system – The method by which the Head can attach to the camera via…
  4. Quick Release plate – the part that you attach to the camera and mate to the release system. You can directly screw your camera on to many different heads, but you do not want to do that because it is really, really inconvenient.

If any bit of those is wrong, you have an unstable or even equipment-hazardous situation. Trust me, I started with “K-Mart” tripods (had 3 – each of which didn’t last long), 2 Manfrotto aluminum tripods (one is broken), and ONE Gitzo carbon fiber tripod. I have also owned at least 9 different heads including a pan-tilt head, SunFoto, Manfroto, Acratech, and a gaggle of off brands. The ball heads were bought for various purposes. I have also dealt with 3 different kinds of attachment systems: direct screw-in to the camera (really inconvenient), Manfroto style plate clamp (better), and Arca Swiss clamp (best of the bunch). I have also used a gaggle of different “quick release” plates from cheap off-the shelf, to custom made for my camera(s), including L-Brackets.

Trial By Fire

Trust me when I tell you I have discovered a lot of what not to buy, and can say confidently that if you want a stable, good quality camera support system you need to get all four components right. And doubly so for night photography where long exposures REQUIRE a tripod or other solid support system. My tripods have been to the top of Half Dome, Mount Whitney and Clouds Rest. I have used the “legs” as a walking stick to keep me from falling into rivers and ravines, to test stability of the ground before taking a step.

Many Paths to Failure – Plate and Clamps

Let me provide some examples of the myriad of ways things can go wrong: all of them have happened to me, by the way.

If the quick release plate is attached with a low quality screw or bolt… the bolt could snap and your camera and lens will tumble to the ground.

If the quick release plate is difficult to get a snug fit (or requires a special tool that you do not have with you), your camera will wobble or twist in the breeze no matter how stable everything else is.

If the plate is difficult to get into the latch (release clamp), you may think you have it ready to go, only to see your camera fall off the tripod onto the ground or down a granite staircase.

If the plate you have on the camera does not mate with the clamp on your tripod… oops. You’ve lugged your equipment for nothing.

If everything is solid except the clamp does not snug down well, you have wobble and ruined photos.

… and we have not even gotten to the head or the legs yet!

More Failure: Head and Legs

If your head requires superhuman strength to keep it from creeping under the weight of your camera and lens (or super human strength to undo it)… you get either painful fingers or a “sinking” camera angle.

If the tensioning on the head is either locked-like-super-glue or floppy-as-a-wet-rag, you may either have to give up aiming the shot as you want, miss the shot, or have the rig flop over when the camera does. And the flopping camera may pinch your hand, or mash your fingers or smack you in the face (Reminder: All these have happened to me!)

Even if the leg locks seem to be working well, unusually cold (or hot) weather may render the locks ineffective and your tripod may slowly – or suddenly – fall over.

If the legs cannot be adjusted wide-enough or accurately-enough or low-enough, a breeze or strong gust of wind may blow your rig over.

If the fully extended legs are so short that you fully extend the center column to keep from hunching over and hurting your back – you have turned your tripod into a wide-stance monopod that may not be able to bear the load.

If your center column has a tightening collar or wing nut directly below the weight of your camera, you may accidentally over loosen the column causing the camera to slide down and pinch the living daylights out of your hand.

If your legs are spindly, they may induce vibration, or just snap when you accidentally bump them.

… I could go on … but I am hoping you understand how hard knocks, broken lenses, and broken tripod components all add up to a severe lack of enthusiasm for all but the best built of components.

Recommendations?

So here is where you might expect me to make recommendations, right? I usually avoid making recommendations because gear changes, and people have different reasons for choosing what they do. My criteria are pretty simple: I want stability, versatility, durability, and light-weight – in about that order.  While the first three seem to be pretty obvious criteria, the light-weight aspect was something I learned over time, too. It was a chore to lug my > 8 pound aluminum leg Manfrotto with a Manfrotto head to the top of Half Dome. By comparison my < 4.5 pound Gitzo plus Acratech head seemed like a feather. Manfrotto made a smart move when they bought Gitzo.

You might have noticed that I did not list price as important. It used to be, but too many failed choices made me realize that choices that are less than great become costlier in the long run.  In a similar vein I bought half a dozen sleeping bags hoping to get something lightweight and WARM until I finally spent almost $300 on a bag (Big Agnes Lost Ranger) and pad that provided the most comfortable, warm sleep – and was also lightweight. I’ve spent more for a single night in a hotel than for the sleeping bag, but that bag has kept me snoozing on many chilly nights in the wilderness. Indeed one night I had TWO cheap sleeping bags nested inside one another while in a tent in Grandview Campground at 8,600 feet on White Mountain and I was still shivering. The next time I went with my Big Agnes. The night was even colder, but I was snug as a bug in a rug.

I had similar experiences with camera backpacks. I liked the design of a Tamron bag. It lasted about a year until the zipper broke. The second bag lasted less than a year. By contrast, my F-stop Tilopa bag has been all over the world over 4 years now – sometimes as my primary and only luggage. To say I’m happy with its durability would be an understatement – and that it cost me 4 times as much as one Tamron bag ($320 vs $95), means I’ve broken even so far – without the inconvenience of dealing with broken gear.

What About A Ball Head And Tripod Legs?

Acratech GPS-s

  • Acratech Head (pretty much any one), but the GP-s is a nicely designed lightweight capable head unless you have a huge camera.
  • Gitzo carbon fiber legs, but NOT the Traveler series which is too flimsy and too short.
    I specifically recommend the Mountaineer Series 2. It is the best trade-off between weight, stability and usable height.  If you’re willing to pay a penalty in extra pounds, the Systematic series (3, 4, or 5) are good except for two things: The Systematic doesn’t have a center column and sometimes that column is useful – like when trying to shoot straight up since the camera may end up hanging partially below the level of the head. The other thing about a series 5 Systemic that bothered me was that I was shocked to discover that the leg locks must be untightened in a specific order to fold it all up because if an upper leg is not tight, the lock on the lower leg will just spin. The mountaineer doesn’t require that silliness.
  • Really Right Stuff with carbon fiber legs. Pretty much all of them are well done, light and sturdy.  The RRS ball heads are good too, it’s just that they are all heavy, heavy, heavy.

But, but those are expensive choices! Yes. I suppose paying $430 USD for a good head and $950 USD for good legs sounds like an excessive amount of money. But: how much did your camera and lens cost? How much will your back thank you for carrying a smaller load?  And finally, how much are you willing to risk watching your camera and lens flop over in a gust of wind?

Disclaimer

I write what I know – not what people or manufacturers or merchants ASK me to write. I paid retail price to purchase all the gear I’ve discussed. In other words, these are honest, unbiased, hard won evaluations of various gear. If you can purchase this gear at a local store, I recommend that you do so. You may spend a little more, but there is serious value to talking to real people, testing out gear in person, and in keeping a local business viable.

One Reason To Consider the Alabama Hills Workshop... The awesome landscapes