Tripod Shoulder Pads for a Safer Technique
For tripods with no center column

     If you have read through my "Better Tripod Shoulder Pad" article, you know about my solution for a more comfortable way to carry your tripod and heavy super-telephoto lens across your shoulder. However, carrying such a heavy and expensive lens (and camera) slung across the shoulder like a shovel is an extremely precarious proposition. It was hardly any safer just because it was more comfortable. Though it seemed the commonly accepted way of doing things, I never liked the idea at all.

The original "across the shoulder" pad
     Then one day I saw another photographer carrying his tripod (a tripod with no center column) in a different way. At that time all my tripods had a center column, so I knew his technique would not work with mine. And even though his camera and lens were not mounted to the tripod while he carried it, it still gave me an idea for a better way to carry my big heavy lens on a tripod. In order to try out my idea I would first need a tripod with no center column. I had already been eyeing the heavy duty Gitzo carbon fiber tripods for some time, hoping to find something sturdier to put under my 500mm Canon, but they were simply not a luxury I could afford.

First new prototype

      Almost a year passed before I found an affordable second-hand Gitzo 1548 carbon fiber tripod (no center column). Finally I could try out my idea. It was an easy matter to make pads for the tripod legs, shown in the photos at right. This first prototype is simply a thick pad between two smaller pads with velcro straps to attach around the legs. The two leg pads have firmer foam padding, while the center pad is thicker, but uses softer foam.

     This first prototype was extremely comfortable, except that the leg pads would not grip the leg tightly enough and had a propensity for slipping around to the side. In that position the padding was doing no good at all and required constant adjustment. Eventually I decided to make different shaped pads to see how well they would work.

     Second new prototype

     These second prototype pads are shown in the left photo. They look similar to the "leg warmer" type pads, but these are much thicker. They are actually made from flat foam, about 8 inches square, which was covered and then wrapped around the upper leg sections. Because the foam padding was rather firm, I didn't think velcro would hold the ends that butt together, so I decided to lace the ends together to insure a snug fit. They butted up into the tripod spider so there was no need for the pad under the spider, which meant they were simpler to make.

     Even with this new version, I still had the issue of the pads spinning around on the leg. The carbon figer legs were simply so slippery nothing would grip them. The pads would slip around so the laced-up side where there was no padding would turn against my shoulder. I was back to constantly adjusting them to turn the padding the right way.

Leg pads with web strap attachments Fitted spider pad conforms to shape
     Eventually I found the time to make a third style, combining the spider pad with the round "leg warmer" style pads. I used a bit softer foam in these leg pads so they would wrap around more easily, though I could not make them grip the leg any tighter than before. I made the spider pad in a fitted shape so it would snug up neatly between the leg hinges. To counteract the tendency of the leg wraps to spin around, I attached them to the spider pad with strips of nylon webbing as seen in the two photos at right.

     This time I made pads for all three legs, so it doesn't matter which way the tripod is turned. With the web straps attached, if any pad tries to spin around, it can go only so far before the spider pad stops the rotation. This keeps them from spinning around too far, keeping the padding against my shoulder. I no longer have to make adjustments. Finally, these pads do exactly what I want them to do. It took three tries, but I now have a design that works as I originally envisioned.

     I have provided no step-by-step instructions here on how to make the pads, as they are quite simple enough that no instructions should be needed. Anything similar will work as well. The whole point of this project is not so much about the pads though. The important point to keep in mind is what the pads allow me to do....carry the tripod vertically. This vertical method is safer by far than the nerve-racking way I see so many photographers carrying their lenses......with the tripod slung over the shoulder like a shovel. That's not so much of an issue with smaller lenses, but when you get into the much heavier f/4 and f/2.8 primes, safety becomes a real issue.

The Safer Technique:

      Take a look at the enlargement of the lower left photo. The improved safety of carrying the tripod vertically with lens and camera attached should be quite obvious. No more fear that a loose clamp or weak screw will give way and leave my lens and camera smashed on the ground, or maybe worse, in water. I quickly realized there were also several other important advantages. As it turned out, the thick pad between the leg hinges barely touches my shoulder. There is absolutely no weight on my collar bone, completely eliminating that painful nuisance. All the weight is divided between the chest and back pads, effectively making the weight nearly disappear. The comfort factor, just like the safety factor, jumped by a thousand percent. The sensation of weight is also minimized by the center of gravity being directly above my body, and not way out behind me putting strain on my back muscles.

      The right photo shows how easily I can control and manage the whole thing with just one hand. Of course, I can use two hands if I wish. Either way is quite comfortable and natural as there is no strain on either arm. Gripping the tripod legs falls into a natural position for my arms.

     Those advantages alone should be reason enough to switch to this method, but it gets better. I soon realized that with the lens pointed forward and riding just above eye level next to my head, as seen at the right, I can easily see the lens in the corner of my vision. This makes it easy to watch the lens when I come to branches or other obstructions. When carried the old way, I could never see which way the lens had turned, and it was impossible to judge how to handle it when maneuvering around limbs and high brush. This technique of carrying it vertically greatly reduces the risk of banging my expensive glass against something hard.

To sum it all up, here are the pros and cons:
  • Safety - Significant reduction in the chance lens & camera (or head) can loosen & fall from tripod or mounting clamp
  • Safety - Lens position easily visible - avoids bumps and damage
  • Greatly improved balance - less stress on back & shoulder
  • Ease of control, one-handed or two-handed
  • Significantly improved comfort - less sensation of weight
  • Improved mobility - quick setup with legs already extended and spread, easy & quick to pick up and move
  • Disadvantage
  • Requires using a tripod with no center column, or at minimum a very short center column

  •      Another plus with this carrying technique is the ease of setting up and getting into shooting position. In these photos I happen to have only one leg section extended, but as you can tell, even if I extended the legs fully, they still would not hit the ground. Using this method with the legs fully extended, I only have to bend a little at the knees to set the tripod down. Because the legs are already set and spread, getting into shooting position is much faster, easier and safer than when the tripod lays across my shoulder with the legs closed. Inversely, when it's time to move on, I only need to bend at the knees and put my shoulder between the pads, then straighten up. Basically I just "step under it" and raise up, and I'm on my way.

          Looking at the photo below of my camouflage suit with camouflaged lens and tripod, you might expect all that camouflage would get in my way when carrying the tripod on my shoulder. Actually, it did used to be something of a hassle when I carried the tripod horizontally, but not any more. The tripod skirt is open on the third side so that I can sit on my comfy "walkstool" with my legs and feet under the tripod. That makes it easy to just lift the rig onto my shoulder, spin the lens forward and I'm on my way. It is so much simpler now. In fact, carrying the tripod and lens vertically is just as easy with or without all that camo covering, and far easier than the old way. I no longer have to close and open the legs or fiddle with the tripod skirt.

         The only disadvantage I can find with this method is the same problem I had in the beginning..... it requires a tripod with no center column. I suppose you could use this technique on a tripod with a very short center column (perhsps 12 inches or less). Even then it would require the column be run all the way up, with no more than an inch or two below the spider. However, that puts the lens higher in the air, which becomes more of an issue to balance and control, especially with a heavy super-telephoto lens. You would also have to look up higher to watch the lens around limbs, etc., thus taking your eyes off the ground instead of watching where you're stepping. Lowering the center column every time you stopped to shoot, and then raise it when you're ready to head out again wouldn't be very convenient. With lenses of 400mm or less, this technique might work fairly well with a very short center column because of the reduced weight. In any event, using a long center column with this carrying method simply would not work.