Year of the Tripod?

My final image of 2016, shot at 1/125 of a second, about ten times slower than I would normally shoot birds in flight. Nikon D500, Nikon 200-500 f/5.6, ISO 12800.

I’ve never been comfortable working with tripods, despite my conviction that a solid platform improves the technical and compositional quality of images at pretty much any shutter speed. For birds in flight, tripods limit my range of motion, even with a gimbal head. But the image above, shot on the last day of 2016, reminds me why all of my favorite wildlife photographers are tripod-enthusiasts.

Animals tend to be more active in the morning and evening, when the light quality is plentiful but the amount is not. Even with the amazing high-ISO abilities of the Nikon D500, I’d rather shoot at 6400 than 12800, and I’d rather shoot at 200 than 6400. I also want the fastest shutter speeds I can get, but this photo showed me that a good action photo can be made at 1/125, which surprised the heck out of me.

Now I’ve made plenty of good hand-held wildlife images, and there are plenty of bird-in-flight images I could not have made with a tripod, because of my need to quickly and frequently reposition myself. But I’ve missed a lot of great shots because I got too tired and shaky holding a Nikon D500 and 200-500 f/5.6 lens for hours in the field. Take a look at the photo below:

I knew he would return to this spot, but would I be ready? Nikon D500, Nikon 200-500 f/5.6, handheld, ISO 12800.

With the camera handheld, I photographed this guy throughout the rainy morning, and realized my reflexes were not quick enough to catch him taking off from this perch. I have thousands of images of birds standing around doing nothing, so I’m trying harder now to choose moments of activity. The hummingbird kept returning to the branch, so I thought I could get some “action” shots by focusing on the branch and waiting for his landings. Then commenced our comedy routine: I would focus on the bud until my arms started shaking. Then I would lower the camera to rest and the bird would return. This happened again and again and again. Yes, I eventually got some nice images, but I could have gotten them (or better ones) earlier and gotten out of the rain. With a tripod I could have kept the camera focused on the branch continuously and fired off bursts as needed. And my shoulders wouldn’t hurt so much.

For the image at the top of this post, I used a tripod and gimbal head, pointed the lens at flowers I knew the hummingbird would eventually visit, and fired off a burst when he arrived.

In past years I vowed to use a tripod more often, and consistently neglected to do so. This may change, now that I know I can capture birds in motion at shutter speeds lower than 1/500, even with an effective focal length of 750mm, but not without a tripod. Here is a good article about choosing a tripod.

I enjoy the wildlife photography of Steve Perry at Backcountry Gallery, and he’s very clear about using a tripod for 90+% of his images. So the question I have to ask in 2017 is this: Am I willing to work a little harder for better images (and less shoulder pain)?