Shoot From a Solid Camera Support
Use a Tripod! I am pedantic about this. But I can’t say it enough. A tripod will improve your imagery, even on days when there is plenty of light for handheld exposures at fast shutter speeds. There are only 2 or 3 factors that govern sharpness. A good quality lens will resolve the image and a decent quality medium (sensor) is necessary to capture it. After that, it is all about lack of movement (shooter and subject). Once you have chosen your equipment however, the first two are no longer within your control. But the movement is. In almost every instance, the tripod (or some kind of solid support) will aid in critical image sharpness.
The cost of a good tripod will rival the cost of your other equipment
This is only true if the tripod truly provides a rigid support for your camera. Cheaply built tripods or tripods that are too lightweight for the size and weight of the camera or the length of the lens, can be like having no support at all. Indeed, without understanding the function of the support, you may actually take worse images, because you are falsely relying on the fact of a tripod rather than its function. Buy a good quality tripod. In some cases, the cost of the tripod and an appropriate head and camera mounting system will rival the cost of the camera itself. Comparing the technology, look and “wow” factor of a nice SLR body and lenses, it is very difficult to appreciate the value of the tripod. But it is there!
One test that works well is to take your longest lens and mount the combination on the tripod. Without otherwise touching the setup, look through the viewfinder and gently tap on the lens barrel with your fingers. Then, tap the legs of the tripod. Observe the amount and nature of the vibration. This movement is what we are trying to eliminate. Sometimes a hand on the lens during shooting gives extra damping. Some people hang a weight from the tripod during shooting (e.g., a camera bag similar weight). The key here is that we have to be thinking. The best camera/tripod combination available will not do that part for us. When we are in the field, we must be aware of movement. Again, we often have little or no control over subject movement but we usually can control the movement of the camera.
A large tripod is heavy. It is a pain to carry it around. It is a nuisance to take the time and effort to set the tripod up and get the camera squared away every time we want to take a shot. And some feel that it hampers freedom while shooting. Folks, in most cases, all of the above are merely excuses!As I said, there is work and inconvenience involved. There is no rule that says you cannot walk around with your camera off the tripod and look through the viewfinder. In fact some of us think that is the best method (I will address this in an upcoming post on “pre-visualization”). But once you see the image, it is time to stop and get the tripod setup underneath the camera position you have chosen.
There are times when we have to improvise
There are also going to be times when you need the solid platform and cannot use a tripod. In those cases, we need to learn to improvise. Remember that it is movement and vibration we are trying to eliminate. I have built myself a window mount for my long lens shooting from my car (remember that if the engine is running, it is also harmonizing its vibrations into your “platform”). Sometimes a “beanbag” apparatus will allow us to “rest” the camera or lens on it and steady it. I recently purchased a “table-top” tripod for use in some outdoor areas where tripods are not allowed. Look for a wall, or stump, or monument or something to either set up on, or at least to brace the minipod against laterally (even a tree).
The human platform is simply not going to be a solid shooting platform
Clearly there are cases in which my “always shoot from a tripod” guideline will not apply. For example, shooting from a moving platform, such as a boat, does not generally lend itself to the use of a tripod. In fact, if there are engine or other vibrations, they can sometimes actually be translated up through the tripod legs. There will be times when you are walking around cities or indoors where tripods are either impractical, or simply forbidden. It is the reason why handheld technique is important to master, and why understanding how your gear works is so important. It is also the reason for the development of “image stabilization/vibration reduction” technology. I acknowledge that there may come a day when our technology makes a shooting platform obsolete. We are not there yet. In today’s technology, the human platform is simply not going to be a solid shooting platform.