How much equipment do you really need to bring back great outdoor photographs? I've seen several talented photographers who followed their obsession to own all the latest stuff and take it to every location burn out after a few years. Much of my genuine excitement every time I'm out in the natural world with a camera is due to carefully moderating my gear for each situation, even if it sometimes costs me an image I dearly want.
I recently packed just five pounds of camera gear in my carry-on luggage for flights to major cities for book promotion. On a free morning, I drove into the country and shot several rolls of wet maple leaves oozing saturation amidst old-growth evergreens. As I jumped back into my rental car, I congratulated myself for making images every bit as fine as I could have shot with the five cases of gear that some pros always take on location.
Around the next bend my smug satisfaction vanished. An even better foliage situation across a brushy roadside ditch cried for either a much longer lens than my trusty 24mm f2.8 or a much taller tripod than my 026 Gitzo that extends less than waist high with good stability.
As I berated my laziness for not checking at least one bag with a bigger tripod and personal effects, which would have freed me to carry on my normal bag with six lenses plus accessories, I realized that all my problems could have been solved by an item light enough to carry in one hand onto the plane or down a trail. Out of habit, I had brought my short Gitzo aluminum tripod instead of my recently-purchased Gitzo 1226 Mountaineer. Made out of ultra-light carbon fiber, the four-pound wonder extends to eye level with the stability of a metal ten-pounder. I left it home because I had pigeonholed it in my mind as a lighter big tripod, rather than a taller and more stable light tripod. The difference is significant.
For nearly a year after its introduction, I resisted spending over $500 just to get a set of lighter legs without a ballhead. I stuck with my metal two-pounder for casual use and seven-pounder for more serious work. I have yet to see a metal unit between these weights that extends near eye level with sufficient stability to consistently make sharp images with heavy zooms or big telephoto lenses in low light.
The decisive moment came as my wife, Barbara, began packing for a long trek through the Peruvian Andes. She wondered if she should take her light or her heavy tripod. She thought about taking both, because she wanted a light one for the trail and a more stable one for important shots close to camp or a vehicle. Then she remembered seeing the Mountaineer at a photo show. She had been impressed by its light weight, sturdy legs that flexed much less than equal-sized aluminum ones, and improved collars for easier operation. When I confided that I was thinking of bringing two or three Gitzos for similar reasons, we decided to make our biggest photo equipment expenditure of the year: two Mountaineers at once.
At first, I kept my old-standby Arca-Swiss ballhead. I switched only after I shot critical comparisons against Barbara's lighter and more compact Kaiser ballhead specially modified with an Arca-style quick-release that we bought from Kirk Enterprises (800-626-5074). I found no sharpness difference, because the Kaiser has an equally thick support shaft, with only slightly reduced smoothness of motion due to its smaller ball.
World's strongest tripod won't stop Nikon's ultra-sharp but hefty 80-200mm f2.8 zoom from giving fuzzy pictures due to camera vibrations at slow shutter speeds because it lacks a tripod collar to center the weight. Several aftermarket brackets solve the problem. For Peru, I gave up on my older and heavier Kirk bracket in favor of a 7-ounce model from F & L Photo (912-925-4675) that saves considerable weight and hassle. It fits Arca release systems, rotates 360 degrees, stays on the lens when it is changed without fussing with a bracket to the camera body, and fits the tight lens compartment in my camera bag. Since then, I've tried Kirk's new 8-ounce "EZ-360" model with comparable features and a bit more stability.
The $2000 worth of tripods, ballheads, and lens mounts we acquired before our long trip to Peru more than paid for themselves within weeks after our return in cash stock sales from results far beyond our expectations. Not only did we significantly up the number of critically sharp "keepers" per roll, but also we found ourselves venturing further afield to make creative images that we might not otherwise have bothered to try.
One unexpected benefit came in sub-freezing weather. My hand carrying the bare tripod actually stayed warmer than my empty hand-quite the opposite of holding an aluminum leg that sucks away heat like ice. In the final analysis, the weight savings of the more rigid carbon-fiber legs should be compared, not only to similar-sized metal legs, but also to the two or more tripods I often brought along on longer trips in the past.
This latter point helps answer an oft-asked question. If weight is so important to me in the wilds, why do I carry a Nikon N90s or F4 instead of a featherweight Canon Rebel X or Olympus OM-4? Because to have confidence that I can bring back the goods for myself or on a professional assignment I don't need to bring two of them. Of course I take an extra camera body on any long overseas trip, but on shorter, particapatory adventures where weight really counts- day trips near home or side excursions during exotic journeys- I want to carry just one camera I can trust.
After more than fifty foreign expeditions to the world's most remote regions, I have yet to have a problem significant enough to stop a Nikon N90 or F4 from giving me well-exposed pictures, while I have yet to lead a foreign photo trek where some other type of SLR didn't expire in the hands of a grief-stricken participant. I've seen many Olympus obituaries, a smattering of lower - end Nikon and Canon casualities, but virtually no full mortalities in top- end pro cameras. There must be exceptions that some readers will undoubtedly feel compelled to relate, but not enough to disprove the general rule that pro cameras give pros the dependability they pay for.
To accomplish this goal, both top-of-the-line Nikon and Canon units forsake light weight for sturdy reliability. While I wish that Nikon would introduce an ultra-light SLR body like Canon's Rebel X (which I have used with guarded success on recreational runs and scrambles where I would have left my heavier pro camera body behind), I'm not holding my breath for the SLR equivalent of my carbon-fiber tripod to appear any time soon.
Expensive 35mm point-and-shoots that combine light weight with reliability severely limit creative options, such as lens choices and positioning of graduated filters. I've made some technically perfect photographs with point-and-shoots, but as a group my best results clearly lack the creative breadth and consistency of top SLR images seen and composed through the lens.
Knowing when less is more—and when it is not—is more important for consistent success in participatory outdoor photography than in traditional journalistic or documentary coverage. When an artist is directly involved in an interpretive personal experience, whether it be climbing Everest or walking through a field, too much equipment interrupts the flow of emotional response that is the essential human element communicated in the best nature photography. Yes. little things do mean a lot.