Last Sunday afternoon July 21, while on my fourth day out on a 5-day backpacking trip into the John Muir Wilderness, I was confronted by something all we photographers dread and hope never happens. My tripod toppled over with view camera atop it. Yep $3,000+ splatting on the earth! Although I've been doing considerable work in all manner of rough field conditions for nearly three decades, this was the first time I can recall a tripod of mine ever actually falling over. I've had a few near misses when standing next to my setups when I've been able to grab a tripod before it fell over. Those events were mainly situations where maybe a leg was still loose while I was setting up and a tripod was unstable. I've had quite a number of camera systems over the years and early on began consistently using tripods. Way back when my system was a 35mm SLR camera I used a Benbo Trekker, one of the most notorious tripods for potentially damaging one's camera if not careful yet never had an accident through many years.
The accident occurred while I was set up to take a reflection image at a shallow shrinking pond at about 11,000 feet altitude. It was about 4pm when we arrived at this pond, one I'd visited years ago in 1994 that had an aesthetic black and white striped ridge in the background. The pond bottom itself had areas of soft brown granite sand mud with raised grass hummocks breaking the mud surface here and there. I have a big Gitzo G-1325 with a G-1318 center column with ball head atop that. My wooden field camera is an old Wisner 4x5 Expedition. In order to take the desired image, I had to tripod right on top of some low willow bushes that complicated tripod leg positioning since I needed to weave the legs through some branches. Under the willow was pond mud that walking on left one to two inch deep boot prints. I don't recall what I did when seating the tripod legs in the mud though expect I probably didn't test them per usual by forcefully pushing down on the tripod from the center to check they were actually stable. After composing and focusing, I decided to wait an hour before exposing any pricy film because it was still a bit too early versus better later afternoon light. Normally I'm quite careful that my tripod is well balanced and stable anytime I leave its vicinity for more than brief moments. Thus we wandered off to a nearby viewpoint for about 15 minutes.
When we returned, I could see from a distance the tripod had toppled over to the right with one leg sticking up in the air. After hurredly returning to the spot, I found the camera had quite burried itself in the pond mud such that the front right corner of the bed was down 6 to 8 inches into mud with my 150mm Nikkor lens half under the mud. Yikes it must have toppled with quite a force I thought. A quick visual check erased my two worst fears, that the groundglass or lens glass had shattered. Knowing muddy water had likely been seeping into the lens, I quickly pulled the whole tripod out and carried it to the shore. Half the camera body was covered by coarse wet mud including the lens and part of my wide angle bellows. My immediate strategy without much consideration was to crudely wash the mud off. Thus I went into my large camera daypack and emptied a Ziploc bag full of small camera items, that I then used to fill pond water with. The pond water itself was moderately clear with tiny red fairy shrimp the only things obviously visible in its clarity. After about a dozen bag-fulls of water later, I had done a quick job of removing most of the mud.
I carried the tripod with camera a bit higher on the shore to a slab of flat granite where I proceded to first remove the lens, remove its front UV protection filter, and the front lens element that left the Copal shutter and back lens element on the mounting board I layed them out on the rock temporarily then went about quickly disassembling the rest of the Wisner. Thus off came my custom dark cloth, groundglass, bellows, rear standard, front standard, leaving the bed. They all went out on the rock. I brought my lens parts down to the lake where with sponge foam pad, pocket knife, lens brush, and synthetic cleaning cloth I went about cleaning the lens up. I was glad the front lens element was well sealed. The only part water entered was the shutter and the UV filter. Each time I actuated the shutter, small beads of water appeared on the shutter blades indicating more was inside. I brought the lens parts back up to the rock and put them in the sun to dry out. Fortunately a consistent mild breeze had been blowing that help the drying.
I went to work cleaning as best I could the other parts. The bed and standard gearings all had sand stuck in the gear slots that I used my knife to flick out. The dark cloth would remain a bit wet into that evening though that was of little concern. All were then placed out in sun and breeze too. My sheet of synthetic sponge had been quite useful quickly soaking off the water that I'd washed the mud off with. I feared if any water got past the finely varnished wood surface and soaked in, that it might cause warping. The dry high altitude alpine air didn't take long to dry all the parts. I went back to the lens taking care to clean its surfaces carefully. I was surprised the inside of the Copal shutter had dried out so quickly. Within an hour of discovering the disaster, I had the camera back together and was beaming with the reality it was probably fine and I could go back to taking some shots. Well I left off the UV filter that still had water inside its threading. Thus set up in the same place where the tripod had toppled over and exposed the sheet at the top of this page that seemed to develop fine. A rather nice image though not excellent enough to ever market anytime soon due to a slight shimmer on the reflection on the right side of the pond and lack of interesting clouds. I have so many strong lake and pond reflections that an image has to be rather exceptional for me to bother drum scanning and processing an image for a large print to market.
Why did the tripod topple? I suspect the right tripod leg slowly sank further into the mud until the whole thing toppled. My mistake was evidently not adequately checking how stable the platform was probably because I became distracted with adjusting the tripod for the composition. In any case I was quite lucky to escape without any equipment prolem. ...David