Some mistakes you make as a photographer over and over again, learning a little bit each time you make them. But this is one mistake I can't afford to make again.
It was a bleak morning in England, the rain pattering at the car door window. I'd been up all night preparing and getting to my location for a spectacular sunrise landscape shot. The snow had fallen the night before, and the cold wintry air had frozen patches on the ground into glassy, black ice.
The whole area looked like it had been rendered in a Disney film. Intricate, lace-like hoar frost clad the trees all around me en route to the spot. I headed out in the dark blue glow of twilight, the bags under my eyes hanging heavy from the lack of sleep. It took around an hour to get to my spot as I kept stopping along the way to capture the awesome scenes the season was giving me.
Each time, I set up my camera on a tripod so that I could keep the camera steady enough to set a long exposure and low ISO to avoid noise. Between each shooting position and in a bid to forgo the lengthy delays I would inevitably rack up by making multiple stops along my journey, I simply folded the tripod legs up, placed it on my shoulder, and let the camera rest, lens facing down towards my back. I know many photographers that do this, especially wildlife photographers who have long telephoto lenses. It just doesn't make sense to pack it up in the bag or carrying case every time you shift positions.
This was my greatest mistake. Because what I'd neglected to check was the exact size of my tripod footplate. I normally just use my Gitzo tripod, which has an Arca-Swiss plate method, which is affixed to the tripod head using a tension screw. However, on this occasion, I was switching between bodies and lenses, so I just used an old Vanguard Arca-Swiss plate, which looked to be the same when I eyeballed the comparison.
I was clambering over some rocky terrain when I slipped on a patch of undetectable black ice. I threw my hands out to save myself and quickly jarred my arm back to prevent the camera from crashing to the ground. However, the Vanguard plate must have been ever so slightly thinner or perhaps more worn than my standard Gitzo plate. The jarring slid the footplate and camera off the tripod's head, and they fell onto the rocks.
Fortunately, the metal lens housing bore the brunt of the collision, and although the exterior was covered in scratches, the glass remained intact. I quickly got to my feet and studied my kit to find that the lens still worked fine. But it could've very easily ended up costing me a lot (or an insurance claim) to repair and potentially replace.
So, what's the moral of the story? Well, I would urge you to pack up your kit when walking between locations, especially if you plan on going over rough terrain or in inclement weather. It might be a pain, but it's much more of a pain to have your kit completely ruined just because you slipped. If you don't want to do that, then at least throw a lens hood on to protect the front element of the lens. You may find the impact breaks the camera or rips the lens from its mount, but at least you'll have tried something if you're not willing to go the whole way and pop it in the bag.