The first commandment reads that you should never, ever travel anywhere without a tripod and woe betide anyone who does. Nick Smith has just returned from an assignment where he forgot to take his three-legged friend…
I was once told by a veteran professional that the best piece of advice he could give any aspiring outdoor photographer was to always have your tripod with you. There wasn’t a single photograph, he insisted, that couldn’t be improved with the assistance of this indispensable stability-providing device. Doesn’t matter how steady you think you are, a tripod will always do it better. In fact, the answer is always: ‘Yes, you will need a tripod. Now, what’s the question?’
I’ve always tried to remember this. And so when a few weeks ago I stepped out of Ho Chi Minh City’s airport and into the solid wall of heat and humidity I was dismayed to find that I was without my faithful three-legged friend. Had I left it in the transit lounge in Kuala Lumpur? Had I somehow become separated from it in one of those interminable security checks that humiliate the innocent without ever uncovering a terrorist? No, it was exactly where I’d left it twenty-four long hours before. In my front room, along with all those other bits and pieces you leave behind because you can only carry 20Kg with you.
I remember now why I left it. My thought process went like this: tripods are big and heavy (even my state-of-the-art carbon fibre one that cost almost as much as a fish-eye lens); even the most well-intentioned of us hardly ever use them; they’re time-consuming and fiddly to set up; they get in the way of the creative process, and to cap it all, whenever you really desperately need to use one, there’s always a sign saying ‘no tripods’ because someone, somewhere has decided that they break health and safety regulations or something stupid like that. So I decided to take my monopod instead. But I forgot that too.
Now, I don’t know if I decided to punish myself for this laziness by looking for shooting opportunities where only a tripod would do, but pretty soon I found myself spending more time rueing its absence than taking photographs. I couldn’t adopt the simple solution of buying a new one because you can’t get a decent tripod in Ho Chi Minh City for love nor money, and even if you could I wasn’t going to lash out because I had a perfectly good one at home.
For anyone who’s not been there, Vietnam is brimming with caves stuffed full of Buddhas, enticing interiors of traditional brick factories, as well as countless museums and cathedrals where tripods are welcomed with open arms. Just about every low-light condition demanding a steady hand for a lengthy exposure rears its head at each turn. I burnt up energy looking for shots I couldn’t take, rather than working out how to improvise with the gear I had on me.
Psychologists will no doubt say that the importance of such shots was amplified in my mind precisely because I didn’t have a tripod and that I’d started to acquire an obsessive-compulsive disorder about it. And I think they’re completely right.
I’ve never liked the aphorism ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ because it hardly ever applies in the real world. After all, you can’t invent a wide-angle lens just because you need one, and a full flash card won’t suddenly invent for itself a few extra gigabytes just because you want it to. But you can, I discovered, with a little patience and practice, jury-rig quite nifty solid platforms for your camera with a little lateral thinking.
I soon became an expert with a big plastic bag full of (uncooked) rice and a self-timer, deftly stacked piles of lens caps and the occasional blob of Blu-Tack. And because in Vietnam there are very few convenient or level pillar-boxes, fence posts or any other sturdy platforms of a reasonable height, I drew the conclusion that the ground beneath my feet was my best friend. Wide-angle floor-shots became the order of the day, and as I reviewed my work on the Mac in the evening I found that I’d invented something of a ‘perspective idiom’ for my assignment in the Far East. Of course, from time to time there were clefts and niches in geological formations I could jam the camera into for – quite literally – a rock solid base, but mostly I lay on the floor, sweaty, dusty, attracting bewildered looks from people with fully automatic point-and-shoots, and thoroughly enjoying myself.
Of course, in the process my camera body got horribly scratched, but I told myself this gave it the ‘lived-in’ air of an instrument that had served its time on the road. As another long-serving travel snapper once told me: ‘you can always tell the real old pros because their gear looks so beaten up.’ Now I know why.
This article first appeared as an ‘Inside Track’ column for Outdoor Photography magazine