Well, I’m back. It’s been over two weeks since my last post, but I can explain (I swear). I just returned from a week rafting the Grand Canyon with a group of 25+ photographers (and friends/loved-ones). Before that Don Smith and I were in the Columbia River Gorge for two workshops, and before that I was in Yosemite for a workshop. Needless to say, I have much to share. For the next few weeks it will be mostly Grand Canyon images and stories that I’m afraid won’t even come close to conveying the magic we experience on these trips, but I’ll do my best.
Never say never
Anyone who’s been to the bottom of Grand Canyon, whether on foot or by boat, comes away changed. But I must say, this year’s trip inspired a change that I (and all who know me) never believed possible: I took pictures without a tripod. (Forgive me for I have sinned.)
I’d love to say that it happened in a moment of weakness, it meant nothing to me, that I was thinking about my tripod the whole time. But honestly, even though I’m fully committed to my tripod, I now realize that it no longer meets all my needs.
There are simply times when a tripod just won’t work. For example, sport and wildlife shooters dealing with moving targets can’t be tied down by a tripod. And climbers usually have better things to do with their hands, not to mention that tripods perform less than optimally on a vertical surface. On the other hand, because I shoot stationary landscapes on solid ground, my style has adapted to incorporate the tripod’s many benefits. But no matter how stationary the subject is, adding a moving river to the equation pretty much negates the tripod.
Because I’ve always been quick to proclaim that I never take a (serious) shot without my tripod, my first two years rafting Grand Canyon I was content with low-res, “I was there,” jpeg snaps from my waterproof point-and-shoot—fine for Instagram and Facebook, but far from the quality a professional photographer requires. This year I upped my game, jettisoning the waterproof point-and-shoot for a Sony RX-100—not waterproof, but small enough to slip into a waterproof pouch I could carabiner to my life vest, a high-end point-and-shoot that delivers raw images good enough for virtually all of my professional needs.
And for the first three days on the river that was fine—I clicked away, quite satisfied that my RX-100 was giving me much better snaps than previous years. But on our third night it rained, and it wasn’t until we were on the river for day-four that I realized, in my frantic in-the-dark scramble for cover, my RX-100 had ended up at the bottom of my duffle bag, now completely out of reach until we set up camp at the end of the day.
Since the views that day were too spectacular for a photographer to ignore, and there was only one camera within reach, as soon as we reached a quiet stretch of river, I dipped into the (much more accessible) dry-bag sheltering my serious camera gear and extracted my Sony a7RII and 24-70 lens. With the precedent set, for the rest of the trip I kept this camera/lens combo nearby, shooting whatever moved me a we cruised downriver, slipping it into a waterproof storage cabinet when rapids approached.
And honestly, shooting without a tripod really underscored why I prefer using a tripod. As this image demonstrates, today’s stabilization and high ISO technology obviates the tripod’s formerly primary value: eliminating motion blur—it is just as sharp as it would have been with my tripod. But what I loose without the tripod (or at least, without the stationary world that allows me to use a tripod) is the ability to craft my image, to take a beautiful scene like this and find that little something extra that takes it to the next level.
As much as I appreciated the ability to fire at will as I floated beneath canyon’s towering red layers, the photographer in me missed the ability to savor the scene and be the one who decides when it’s time to move on. But I so prefer having this scene to having nothing at all. When I return next year, I know I’ll have my tripod and be using it whenever possible, but I also know that won’t hesitate to fire away without it when the situation dictates. Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?
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