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Backcountry Photography

Steady On! More Ways to Shoot Straight and True Crossing the Bar

By Tamia Nelson
tamia@paddling.net

June 4, 2013

There's a nearby reach of The River where the current runs shallow and swift on a gravel bed, and I wanted to get some photos of the water as it glides around the stony bars. But I couldn't just hop in my canoe and paddle there. The River tumbles over several cascades along the way, and while the resulting Class IV–V drops offer creek boaters good sport, they're a little too lively for me to attempt in a 12‑foot pack canoe.

The alternative? A three‑mile portage. I didn't find that very attractive either, truth to tell, especially as Farwell was laid up with one of those "painful illnesses, started or continued by doctors," that Hilaire Belloc used to rail about. If there's anything worse than a long carry, it's a long carry without the diversion of company. So I decided to make my way to the chosen reach of The River on shanks' pony, unencumbered by a canoe. It proved to be a happy choice. The walk was delightful, involving as it did an extended bushwhack through the awakening woods. (I had to exercise great care in placing my feet, of course. Spring wildflowers are things of rare beauty, and the eggs of ground‑nesting birds are fragile.)

Once I'd made my way down to The River, the shoot went well. It would have gone better if I'd remembered to bring a tripod, however. This wasn't so much an oversight as a case of bad judgment. I'd briefly considered tucking the tripod under the flap of my getaway pack, but it seemed an unnecessary precaution. Needless to say, I was wrong: I found myself shooting at speeds as low as ⅛ second. A tripod would have been very helpful, indeed. Still, I made the best of things, employing all the tricks I know to steady my shooting hand, and the results weren't bad, though the experience left me wishing — and not for the first time — that I'd followed my own advice.

At the very least, I should have brought a walking stick. I often carry a cane or trekking pole on backcountry outings, after all, and it's easy to press either of these into service as a makeshift monopod. (A ski pole does the same job in snow country.) And a monopod is almost — almost — as good as a tripod in many situations. I've explored this subject at some length in an earlier column, with the able assistance of retired professional photographer Ken Abbott, who's found that a gamekeeper's shooting stick makes an excellent camera support, in addition to serving as a trekking pole.
 

Now a second reader has driven the point home. Rather than relying on a store‑bought prop, however, Jan Carol designed a …

DIY Walking Stick–Monopod

And it's not just a versatile piece of kit. It's a thing of beauty, too. But let's allow Jan to tell her story in her own words:
 

Several years ago, as I was wandering the woods doing some photography, I came across a very mucky creek. Luckily, a tree had toppled and created a narrow bridge. Alongside the creek were several long branches fallen from a wild cherry tree. I chose one to use for balance and continued walking, holding tight to my newfound walking stick.

When I arrived home, I allowed the branch to dry after removing the bark and exposing the lovely grain of the hidden wood. When it was dry, I smoothed the grain with sandpaper, then stained and varnished the pole.

[Though] I am an avid photographer, carrying a tripod through the bush can sometimes be a pain. I'd been looking at monopods and poles for some time but couldn't find anything lightweight enough to suit my purposes. So I proceeded to carve the top of the stick to fit in the hollow center post from a crappy tripod. I then covered the grip with leather for comfort and left long laces to create a wrist strap.

I've been using this trekking pole–monopod now for several years and I love it! Total cost: zero dollars. (The crappy tripod cost USD14 at Walmart originally.) Total labour: about two hours. Total support and usefulness: priceless. (I even strap it along the length of my kayak with Velcro bands, and it comes with me everywhere, ready for use as either a trekking pole or monopod.) ...

I left the knot on the grip area as a place to rest my hand, as it seemed to be a perfect fit. The head and center post from the old tripod stay on the camera when I'm not using the monopod. When I slip the center post over the carved wood tenon, it sits at the perfect height for my eye. When I want to continue along the trail, I just quickly pull off the whole camera–tripod head–center column assembly, and the pole is ready for hiking.

 

What did I tell you? Jan's DIY walking stick–monopod is simple and good. And it's also lovely to look at. Here's the leather‑wrapped grip, showing the carved tenon that slips into the salvaged center post from Jan's "crappy" tripod:

Getting a Grip

And here's how the transformation between walking stick and monopod is accomplished:

Now You See It...

Mathematicians often speak of equations in terms that celebrate the aesthetic, so it's not unusual to hear them describe a solution to a problem as "elegant." Well, Jan's solution to the problem faced by peripatetic photographers is similarly elegant. And it's within the reach of anyone who has a disused or about‑to‑be discarded tripod lying around the house. Seldom can elegance be had at such low cost.

 

Of course, there are times (and places) when a walking stick is an unwanted burden — when climbing, for instance, or while on "amphibious" treks, when every ounce of gear must earn its keep. Yet even in cases like these, the ingenuity of In the Same Boat readers provides answers. Take, for example, this …

Simplest Helping Hand of All

It weighs no more than a couple of coins. It will slip into a pocket with room to spare. And it's the brainchild of reader Bob Wright. Stumped? I was. But once Bob explained it to me, I was amazed I'd never thought of it. (As Jeremy Brett's Holmes once chided David Burke's Watson, "Every problem is absurdly simple when it is explained.") Here's how Bob described his creation:
 

Another sort of fun camera-steadying technology is a simple string attached to a camera-mount screw with an eyelet (a thumbscrew with the correct thread and a hole drilled through for the string works well, for about 50 cents). Stand or kneel on the string and pull the camera up against it. (A knot on the end of the string can help keep it from slipping out from under your boot. Using webbing instead of string would help, too, I suppose.) Very much the same as the monopod, but working in tension instead of compression. Probably not quite as steady, but on the other hand, it's much more portable. Even carrying just a suitable mount screw is sufficient — you can always find a bit of line if you need steadiness in unexpectedly poor light or whatever.

 

It goes without saying that I wanted to give Bob's string brace a try, but I was handicapped by the lack of a suitable thumbscrew or eyelet. Casting about for a likely substitute, my eye fell on a spare camera post for my Slik tripod. Once I'd tied a length of braided nylon cord to the post, I was ready for a field trial. (Since the cord I used was too fine to make up into a bulky stopper knot, I tethered a split ring to the bitter end with a figure‑eight loop to serve as the underfoot anchor.) You can see both post and ring in the photos below:

Stringing Along

The trial went well. While Bob's string brace is no substitute for a tripod, it does help to steady your hand. And it's hard to think of a time when a couple of ounces of string and steel would prove an impossible burden. As Bob might have said, "Elementary, my dear Tamia."
 

I Am a Camera

 

A shaking hand won't help you get good pictures. Which is where the tripod comes in. But tripods can be a nuisance to carry around, and even a monopod can seem like too much trouble at times. That's when paddlers will want to give careful consideration to the alternatives described by Jan Carol and Bob Wright. Each has something to offer. And both will help you shoot straight and true.

 


 

Further Reading

From In the Same Boat :

 

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