Chapter 4


While the choice of a good camera and a good lens (or lenses) are paramount to beginning your career as a serious bird photographer, there are a number of important accessories that you should at least be aware of, even if you don’t need (or can’t afford) all of them right away.  Of these, the two most important are, without a doubt, the tripod and the external flash.  In this chapter we’ll consider both of these important accessories in detail, with the emphasis on explaining their utility and offering advice on purchasing the ideal model(s) for your situation.  In the case of external flash, instruction on the proper operation of the unit will be deferred to chapter 7.  The present chapter will also briefly review a number of other, less sophisticated but nonetheless important accessories that you may at one point need to consider purchasing or upgrading.

4.1 Tripods

For lenses that are either long, or heavy, or both, the use of a tripod (or monopod) may be necessary, or at least desirable.  The use of a tripod can potentially improve image sharpness (by reducing camera shake), reduce muscular fatigue during long sessions in the field, and potentially reduce the chances of equipment damage due to accidents (i.e., dropping the lens on a hard surface).  These benefits depend, of course, on the particular tripod selected, and on its proper use in the field.

Fig. 4.1.1: A tripod supporting a large lens.
Tripod quality is affected by a number of factors,
including strength, ease of adjustability, maximum
height, and maximum leg angle.

    An obvious first question is whether you need any tripod at all.  Though some authors would frame this question in terms of focal length (i.e., whether the focal length of your lens is large enough to warrant using a tripod), I feel that in practice it’s best considered simply in terms of weight.  If your lens weighs more than, say, about 4 lbs, and if your biceps are significantly smaller than those of Conan the Barbarian, then you will almost certainly want to keep your lens tripod-mounted, at least during extended periods of heavy use in the field.  Any 500mm f/4, 600mm f/4, or 800mm f/5.6 lens will need to be tripod-mounted for extended use, since these typically weigh over 8 lbs.   In contrast, 400mm f/5.6 and some 500mm f/5.6 lenses are ideal for hand-holding (i.e., with no tripod or monopod), due to their light weight (3 to 4 lbs) and small overall size.  The somewhat larger 400mm f/4 and 400mm f/2.8 lenses typically require a tripod, with the exception of the Canon 400mm f/4 DO (Diffractive Optics) lens, which utilizes a special optical design that renders the lens much lighter (~4 lbs) and less bulky than what would otherwise be possible.  Note that even hand-holding a 4 lbs lens (plus camera and external flash) can be a bit challenging for some individuals, depending on their overall physical strength and stamina.
    In practice, it’s a good idea to have a tripod (or monopod) readily on hand, even if you don’t expect to use it much.  Most tripods can be collapsed so as to be very portable, and even with small focal lengths (i.e., 400mm) it’s not uncommon at some popular birding sites to encounter large birds that remain stationary for long periods of time; for these it’s useful to be able to mount the lens on a tripod while waiting for the bird to do something interesting. 

4.1.1 Tripods Versus Monopods

While tripods should be familiar to most readers, monopods might not.  The difference is simple (if not obvious from their respective names): a tripod has three legs, while a monopod has only one.  In practical terms, one consequence of this differences is that a tripod-mounted lens can be considered
hands free, while the monopod can’t: if for some reason you need to step away from your main lens (perhaps to use a second camera mounted with a hand-held flight lens), you’re free to do so when using a tripod, but not so with a monopod.  For this reason, I prefer to use a tripod rather than a monopod for my big 600mm and 800mm birding lenses.
    However, there are specific circumstances in which a monopod can be a better choice than a tripod.  The first is when trying to get flight shots of birds that spend most of their time perched and only occasionally take to flight.  While the bird is perched, you may want to keep your camera trained on the bird so that you’re ready to begin shooting as soon as the bird jumps from the perch.  Without a tripod or monopod, the effort of holding up the camera and lens (even a small lens) will start to strain your muscles, eventually causing muscular tremors that can result in blurred images when the bird does finally fly.  Though a tripod would typically provide a steadier support in these cases, a monopod may be preferable for the increased freedom of movement when tracking the bird in flight.  Rotating your body around a tripod while tracking a bird can be very difficult, due to the potential for tripping over the tripod’s legs.  And with a light enough monopod there may be the option of just lifting the entire camera/monopod assembly off the ground when the bird takes to flight, effectively transitioning to a hand-held mode precisely when hand-held work is called for.
    There is another practical, if unconventional, use of the monopod that is worth mentioning here.  A number of bird photographers have started to use the monopod in a novel way, which I refer to as the
halfpod technique.  Rather than extending the monopod fully and setting its foot firmly on the ground, these resourceful birders have found that by compacting the monopod down to a single arm-length section, they are presented with a number of additional options for supporting their lens in the field.  One of these options, illustrated in the photo below, involves planting the foot of the shortened monopod (or halfpod) into the photographer’s midsection, or supporting it via a belt worn at the waist.

Fig. 4.1.2: The “halfpod” technique.  A compacted
monopod is anchored in the photographer’s mid-
section, providing support for the lens while also
affording greater mobility to the photographer.
(Thanks to Ed Keenan for posing for this photo!)

In this particular case, the photographer is using a belt-mounted flashlight holster (manufacturer: BlackHawk), as used by U.S. military and police personnel.  The foot of the monopod not only fits in the flashlight holster, but snaps into it and stays put, simplifying the task of adjusting leg height on-the-fly.  Finding an appropriate receptacle with such a perfect fit for your particular monopod, may, of course, require some effort.
    The advantage of this setup is that the photographer is highly mobile, and can very rapidly move about in the field while following a bird, without having to re-plant the foot of the monopod on the ground after every step.  Also, the photographer is better able to quickly apply large or small adjustments to the lens’ position and angle (both horizontal and vertical) while tracking a swiftly moving bird.  Note in the illustration above that the camera is also on a neck strap, providing an additional level of support and safety.  Obviously, since all of the support for the camera is provided by the photographer’s body, some additional muscle strain may occur (i.e., use at your own risk).
    I’ve also seen the
halfpod technique used with big, 500mm f/4 lenses, with the photographer either planting the halfpod’s foot into his midsection or letting the foot float freely while using the halfpod more as a handle for the lens.  In the latter use, the right hand would be grasping the camera while the left hand would hold the halfpod about midway along its length.  The few people I’ve seen utilizing this technique swear by it, claiming that their ability to quickly move about in the field and track flying birds such as eagles is enormously enhanced.  It goes without saying that the use of this technique with large, heavy, and expensive camera rigs involves a fair bit of muscular strength and coordination, and that the risk of damage to the camera and lens (or possibly even the photographer) may be considerable.  I now use a similar technique, based on the Black Rapid strap system (see photo below).  My 500mm f/4 lens (typically with 1.4× TC attached) dangles from my sling strap at my hip and is always ready to be rapidly raised to my eye for shooting.  With the right coordination and balance, muscle fatigue can be kept to a minimum when shooting; I balance the lens tripod foot on my left palm and plant my left elbow against my ribs.  I keep a monopod clipped to my belt (not shown in the figure below) with a carabiner clip just in case my arms do get tired and I need external support.

Fig. 4.1.4: The author with his 500mm lens attached to the
Black Rapid sling strap.  This is for hand-held work.  The
sling strap allows the lens to be rapidly raised to eye-level.
Not having to use a tripod results in greater mobility, while
a monopod can still be carried along just in case its needed.
(Photo by Caroline Gilmore, used with permission.)

    In terms of individual models of monopods, many of the choices mirror those available or tripods.  One feature specific to some monopods is the spring-loaded leg extension cabability, which allows you to raise the level of your monopod-mounted camera using only one hand; without the spring, you’d have to grip both parts of the monopod and pull them apart to extend the length of the leg.  The same (or similar) maneuver can be accomplished, however, with a springless unit having well-lubricated joints and a heavier foot unit, so that gravity mimics the effect of a spring.  The latter is the solution I
ve opted for with my monopod.

4.1.2 Carbon Fiber Versus Aluminum

While most affordable tripods/monopods are made of aluminum, the more expensive models are often made of a composite material known as carbon fiber.  The two most commonly cited reasons for preferring carbon fiber over aluminum are the lower weight and the greater absorption of vibrations.  In terms of the weight, the difference between a carbon fiber tripod and a comparable model made of aluminum is often relatively small (perhaps one or two lbs), while the cost difference can be in the hundreds of dollars.  Keep in mind also that while lighter tripods are easier to carry in the field, a heavier unit may be preferable in terms of stability, once you’ve got a long lens mounted on it. 

Fig. 4.1.3: Close-up view of a carbon fiber tripod leg.
Note the composite nature of the material.  Composites
can provide greater strength, lighter weight, and greater
absorption or dissipation of vibrations.  When subjected
to extreme stress in very cold temperatures, however,
they have been known to shatter.

The other oft-cited advantage of carbon fiber is its ability to absorb or dissipate vibrations, due to the composite nature of its construction.  Since vibration can reduce image sharpness by moving the camera during an exposure, dampening of vibrations is obviously desirable.  However, actually determining the extent to which a particular carbon fiber tripod dampens vibrations, relative to any particular aluminum model, is difficult—especially if you don’t yet own either of the two models.  While composite materials may indeed dissipate vibrations more effectively than solid metals (like aluminum), vibrations may also dissipate to some extent via leg joints and through contact with the ground.  I’ve yet to see a thorough, scientific analysis of tripod vibration with a breakdown of dampening sources (i.e., material of construction, leg-joint design, etc.), so it’s difficult to say anything definite about the effect of carbon fiber on image quality at this time.

Fig. 4.1.4: An aluminum tripod leg with an
artificial texture suggestive of a composite.
Don’t be fooled!

    It’s easy to be misled by all the hype about the strength of carbon fiber.  Some manufacturers use a designation such as, e.g.,
6× to denote that their composite material is formed of six layers, thereby providing greater strength due to the oblique patterning of adjacent layers.  While it might (or might not) also follow that such a material is in theory 6× (six times) as strong as some rival alloy such as aluminum or steel, manufacturers typically trade off any increased strength (per millimeter width) by thinning the walls of the tubing so as to achieve a decrease in weight without reducing strength below that of aluminum (for example).  So in the end you get a lighter tripod made of an expensive material that’s about the same strength as aluminum, despite being thinner (and lighter).  Note that there have been anecdotal reports of carbon fiber tripod legs shattering when subjected to extreme forces in extremely cold temperatures (e.g., struck hard against a rock in Antarctica).
    Unfortunately, the weakest
link in any tripod is the folding leg joint—the place where the leg joins the central piece of the tripod.  In a number of carbon fiber tripods, this joint is not made of carbon fiber, so any strength benefits of carbon fiber are meaningless in terms of reliability for the overall structure.  Obviously, the last thing you want is for a leg to snap off while supporting your expensive camera and lens.  This has happened to me twice now.

Fig. 4.1.5: An aluminum tripod leg that broke while supporting an $8000 lens. 
The point of the break was at the leg joint
the weakest part of any tripod. 
Note how thin the metal is at the joint; also the screw hole in the center.

    The first time was when I was using a Gitzo aluminum
Explorer tripod—a very popular model made by a highly trusted manufacturer.  I accidentally bumped one of the legs with my foot and the leg snapped completely off.  I was fortunate enough to catch my Sigma 800mm f/5.6 Sigmonster (an ~$8000 lens) before it struck the paved walkway.  The second time was at the legendary Venice Rookery in Florida, when my Induro carbon fiber tripod broke at exactly the same place as my aluminum Gitzo had: at the joint where the leg articulates with the central column ring.  I had again bumped the lower leg with my foot, and was lucky enough to catch my 600mm f/4 lens before it struck the ground.

Fig. 4.1.6: A
6× carbon fiber tripod held together by duct tape.  The leg snapped off while
the author was traveling hundreds of miles from home.  The use of duct tape allowed the
author to continue use of the tripod till another could be procured (which took over a year).

    The moral of the story: though carbon fiber may be theoretically stronger than aluminum, if it’s thin enough (for the purpose of reducing weight), or if it’s not used at all points in the tripod’s construction, then the much-bandied strength benefits of carbon fiber may do no more than lull you into a false sense of security.  Beware!

4.1.3 Number of Sections and Maximum Height

Tripod (and monopod) legs typically have either three or four sections.  Both varieties have their advantages.  Four-section 
pods (tripods/monopods) often pack up smaller than three-section pods, which can be an advantage when traveling (especially via airplane).  On the other hand, three-section pods have fewer leg joints that need to be adjusted when setting up, possibly resulting in faster set-up times during critical shoots.  Also, fewer leg joints means fewer places for potential failure (i.e., breakage), and possibly better overall stability in terms of resistance to perturbations such as those induced by wind or the occasional misplaced elbow.  I personally use a four-section tripod because the extra section allows me to extend the legs to a ridiculous height (6.5 feet, not including the gimbal head), which is useful when shooting birds high in a tree.
    In terms of set-up time, there are models that use so-called
flip-locks rather than the twisting kind—i.e., you simply flip a lever when the leg section is in place, rather than having to painstakingly rotate a screw-ring.  I’ve found the flip-type locks to be much, much faster than the twist-type, though in all honesty, I rarely ever adjust the leg extensions on my tripod.  The birds I photograph are typically at or above eye level, and for these situations I want my tripod’s legs extended either fully or nearly so; thus, I rarely adjust the leg lengths except when putting the tripod back in my car.  Also, some flip-lock designs loosen over time, requiring regular adjustment to keep them tight.  The screw-type locks generally don’t suffer from this problem.

Fig. 4.1.7: Screw-in type leg lock.  Notice the ridge on on the
lower leg segment (at right), which is intended to keep the leg
from rotating during setup.  These rarely seem to work
as intended, even on expensive models.

    When photographing a bird that suddenly drops below eye level, there’s a useful trick that often reduces the need to collapse your tripod’s legs: by instead widening one or two legs (rather than shortening them), you can rapidly reduce the overall height of the tripod.  Many tripods permit faster adjustment of the angle of their legs than the legs’ lengths (often using flip-locks or a similar mechanism).  I frequently adjust my tripod’s height by unlocking a single leg and pulling it out to an extreme angle.  Note, however, that while this can quickly reduce the tripod’s overall height fairly dramatically, it also substantially reduces the stability of your camera/lens rig; for that reason, I only use this as a temporary solution, and am always careful to keep both hands on the camera/lens when one of the legs is askew.  Note that this also complicates panning with the camera, since you’ll generally need to rotate the lens in its collar while panning, to keep the image level.

Fig. 4.1.8: A flip-type leg lock for adjusting leg
angle.  This mechanism is very fast and convenient,
but is not as unyielding as other mechanisms, and
requires regular maintenance.

    In many tripod models, the maximum angle of the legs is either fixed or can be set to one of only two or three different settings.  Flip-lock angle controls typically allow the legs to be set to an any arbitrary angle, which is a definite advantage.  However, these flip-locks typically don’t provide the same degree of support as other mechanisms: even with the flip-lock in the locked position, you may be able to move the leg by simply applying more force.  Other mechanisms for setting the leg angle typically rely on a set of two or three preset machined tabs or ridges that provide fewer options but far more unyielding support—i.e., pulling hard on the leg will fail to move it, though if you apply an extreme amount of force you’ll of course snap the leg completely off.
    Another feature worth mentioning is the ability to adjust the center column via a geared hand-crank.  In all the tripods I’ve used, adjusting the center column height requires some fairly extreme strength and dexterity, at least with a large, heavy lens mounted on it.  For non-crank center columns, you have to loosen the screw-in dial for the center column, then lift the entire camera/lens rig with one hand while using the other hand to hold down the tripod (since for lightweight tripods they tend to lift along with the camera/lens, even with the dial loosened).  For a big 500/600/800mm lens rig, this can require a fair amount of effort.  Some tripods make this task easier by providing a geared crank that you can turn to raise or lower the center column.  Although these types of mechanisms may be slower in some cases than the dial-type method, they do offer the additional advantage of precision, since they allow you to carefully adjust the height with fine crank movements.
    Regarding the center column itself, there are a few things to consider.  First, the center column tends to be the most wobbly part of a tripod.  I find that my tripod is the most stable when the center column is adjusted all the way down, so that the camera/lens is effectively resting directly on the lower leg assembly rather than on the center column itself.  The higher I raise the center column, the wobblier the whole thing becomes.  For this reason, it’s a good idea when assessing the maximum hight of a prospective model to consider the height with the center column not extended.  A number of manufacturers report the maximum height both with and without the center column extended.  The higher you can get without having to use the center column, the better. 
    The figure below shows a rig with no center column at all
the head simply attaches directly to the plate where the legs articulate.  This configuration maximizes stability.  I switched to using this rig after finding that the lens mount of my Induro carbon-fiber tripod was attached to the center column with no more than glue (!).  The problem with not using a center column is, of course, that you can’t raise your lens by extending the center column.  The solution I’ve adopted is to use a four-section tripod with a very large maximum height (78 inches, or 6.5 feet), and then to spread the legs extra wide when shooting birds at eye level; when I need to switch to shooting a bird higher up in a tree, I can simply pull one or more of the legs in to increase the height of the lens.  This system is faster than using a center column and far more stable.

Fig. 4.1.9: A tripod having no center column is more stable than
one with such a column.  Without a center column, finding a way
to rapidly change the height of your lens while shooting requires
some creativity.  If your tripod has extremely long legs, you can
open them extra wide when shooting at eye-level, and then pull
them in when you need to quickly raise the level of the lens.

    There are a number of models (such as the popular Gitzo
Explorer) in which the central column is actually positioned off to the side, and can be adjusted to different angles.  I’ve never found this feature to be useful for practical bird photography, and suspect that it merely serves to reduce the stability of the tripod.

4.1.4 Support Ratings

It’s important to realize that both tripods and tripod heads are engineered to support only a specified amount of weight.  If you exceed that weight limit by mounting a camera / lens / flash-unit rig heavier than the recommended weight, you risk damaging both the tripod and the supported camera rig.  Unfortunately, just because you don’t exceed the specified weight limit of a given support system doesn’t mean that the support system can’t break.  The above examples of broken tripod joints provide proof of this, since in both cases the supported rig was strictly within the weight limits of the tripod.
    Keep in mind that a particular model’s weight rating may be determined by a complex formula involving the expected failure rate of the tripod under a given load, together with various marketing figures such as the projected profit margin on the model in question, the expected time to first failure (relative to the length of the warranty period), and the projected number of claimants for losses due to damage to equipment (and any legal protections the company may enjoy in relation to such claims, which may vary regionally).  If the projected profit exceeds the projected cost in warranty claims and the like, then the proposed support rating may be adopted and advertised by the manufacturer. 
    Obviously, that doesn’t mean the tripod won’t break if you don’t exceed the weight limit.  It just means the manufacturer is willing to accept the losses stemming from such failures.  The real question is whether you’re willing to accept such losses.  If you happen to be traveling far from home and your tripod breaks, resulting in serious damage to your camera system, the cost to you, in terms of lost photographic opportunities, may be more than you’d like.  For that reason, I recommend being doubly cautious in choosing a tripod and tripod head for your camera rig.  Extensively scour the internet for firsthand accounts of users who’ve used that tripod model with a similar weight load. 
    Most importantly, never assume that your equipment is safe.  If you must walk away from your tripod while your big, expensive camera/lens rig is attached, then keep a constant eye on it.  Keep a lookout for passers-by who may bump into it, especially children.  And try always to keep a hand on the lens itself, so that if the head or lens detaches from the tripod, you can catch the rig before it hits the ground. 

4.1.5 Ground Pods and Beanbags

A serious impediment for a great many novice bird photographers is the tendency to set the tripod-mounted rig in one place and then stand behind it, hoping that the birds will accommodate them by perching directly in front of the camera, at eye level.  I prefer to think of my tripod as a convenience that I am sometimes lucky enough to be able to use.  The problem is that many birds like to loiter at heights other than exactly 5 feet 9 inches.  Many, such as shorebirds and waders, spend most of their time at ground level, and for these I recommend abandoning the tripod altogether.  Although some tripods can be adjusted down to very low levels, I think this is one case where the tripod is simply acting more as an impediment than as an aid.
    When working at ground level, I very often use the camera/lens rig without any support whatsoever, besides the rocks and other natural support that I find on the ground.  However, if I know in advance that I’m likely to spend a significant amount of time lurking on the ground, I’ll bring along a so-called ground pod.  Ground pods provide support at ground level, typically much better than even an extremely versatile tripod can.  A number of companies manufacture ground pods and sell them for upwards of $200 US or more, though I prefer a more low-tech solution: the common frying pan.

Fig. 4.1.10: A frying pan used as a ground pod. The lens’ foot, as well as the flash’s external
battery pack, can be set in the pan while working in wet, sandy or muddy environments, to
keep them clean and dry.  The pan facilitates sliding of the entire rig over rough ground.  A
carabiner clip attached to the pan’s handle allows the pan to be clipped to the photographer’s
belt while hiking in the field.

A cheap frying pan can be had for about $10 or so at WalMart, and provides features comparable with other ground-pods.  The three features I consider essential in a ground-pod are (1) the ability to slide the pod over rough terrain while stealthily approaching a bird, (2) the ability to swivel your lens easily without incurring too much wear on your lens foot, and (3) the ability to keep the lens dry and clean.  My $7 frying pan satisfies all these criteria.  During a recent trip to Florida, I used my $7 ground pod while photographing shorebirds. 

Fig. 4.1.11: Lesser Yellowlegs photographed at
eye level, using a frying pan as a ground pod.

Setting the tripod foot inside the frying pan, I was able to slide the entire rig smoothly over the terrain as I stealthily approached the birds.  As the birds wandered back and forth along the edge of the pond, I was able to rotate the entire rig quite easily in order to track the birds.  And when I eventually reached the very edge of the pond, the frying pan kept the water and sand away from the lens foot, limiting any unnecessary exposure to abrasive or corrosive elements.  The pan also kept the water from my flash’s external battery pack, which I placed in the pan beside the lens foot.
    Finally, there are two other types of support that should be mentioned.  The first is the bean-bag, which should be almost self-explanatory.  These may be used on the ground or on, say, the hood of an automobile.  Use on the ground may be complicated in wet environments, obviously, and for that reason I prefer to stick with my trusty frying pan.  The other notable device is what I will call the window-pod, which encompasses any manner of support used in a car window.  These are popular among the so-called
drive-by shooters who prefer (or are forced, due to medical reasons) to do the bulk of their bird photography from within the confines of an automobile.

4.1.6 Tripod Comfort

Carrying a tripod in the field is always awkward, especially if you’ve got a big telephoto lens attached to the tripod while you’re carrying it.  There are several features that can be useful in the field.  First, some tripods come with carrying bags that feature a shoulder strap.  This isn’t terribly useful in the field unless you’re hiking to a very remote destination and don’t expect to need the tripod until you get to the end of the hike.  Tripod bags can, however, be useful for air-travel.
    Much more useful are pads that can be attached to the legs to reduce discomfort when supporting the tripod on your shoulder.  You can buy pads specifically sized for individual tripod models, or just go to your local hardware store and buy some pipe insulation.  Pipe insulation is cheap and can be attached to your tripod using duct tape.  I’ve done this and found the cheaper route to be effective, with two caveats.  First, some brands of pipe insulation will become permanently compressed (i.e., lose their sponginess) after only a few sessions in the field, reducing comfort.  Second, real tripod leg pads typically come with a fabric cover sock that protects the padding and may lengthen the life of the pads.
    Though leg pads are a good idea in principle, in practice I often find that the part of the tripod that rests on my shoulder (for optimal balance) is not the leg but rather the joint where the tripod head attaches.  The standard leg pads don’t help in this situation.  However, it is possible to buy special, triangular pads that cover one side of this joint.  I’ve never used one of these, but the ones I’ve seen looked thin and had attachment points that could interfere with the operation of the tripod.  On the other hand, these triangular pads sometimes come with small pockets which may be useful for storing things like memory cards. 
    For tripods with center columns, a novel solution (which I’ve seen used in the field) is to buy a standard toilet plunger, remove the handle, enlarge the hole where the handle was attached, and then slide the rubber piece up under the tripod around the center column until it’s nestled just under the tripod’s top support plate.  For a large enough plunger head, the rubber will protrude enough between the tripod legs to allow you to rest the rubber part on your shoulders rather than the tripod itself.
    Note that the standard tripod leg pads can be useful if your tripod is very heavy in relation to your camera/lens rig.  The relative weights of the tripod legs versus the camera/lens dictate the optimal balance point of the whole assembly.  For extremely light tripods (such as carbon fiber models), the balance point is typically very high, often above where the leg pads are located (rendering the leg pads less useful).  But for very heavy tripods, the balance point should be lower, and in these cases the leg pads can be very useful indeed.
    One solution is to simply sew some padding into the shoulders of your camera vest.  Then it doesn’t matter how you balance the tripod on your shoulders, because your shoulders are always padded.  I’ve found this approach to be very effective.