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Taking Your Photography to the “Next Level” (2)

An image like this is simply not possible without a tripod

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.

Using the tripod here allowed me to be prefocused and ready to capture a sharp image when the expression was right

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.

A solid support is crucial to sharpness and detail in this early morning light image


8 Responses

  1. Amen and Amen

  2. Check, check, and check. You’ve covered the bases with tripods, Andy.
    My tripod is my most valued equipment. At nearly four decades age it’s also my oldest friend. As you know I recently replaced it.

    You talked about a tripod system being an investment–it is! But, it will easily outlive the camera body so it’s a sensible and wise investment that will last a lifetime with proper care and maintenance.

    FYI, my new one with a few accessories breaks the $1K ceiling, and that’s without a new head, which I don’t need (another wise and sensible lifetime investment). But, it’s far less than a pro grade lens which would essentially be useless without a solid platform of support under it.

    Can’t wait to read round #3 of this series–great job!

  3. I hadn’t thought about the tripod investment in terms of its longevity. Really good point that you will probably buy one or two in a lifetime — IF you buy right the first time!

  4. You mentioned mastering hand-held technique. I think I have it down but can you give a few brief tips about what you think is important?

    • Hi Tim. Thanks for reading my blog. You can probably tell that I am not a big fan of hand-holding. My flippant “pointer” is don’t do it. :-). There are clearly some very accomplished photographers who took spectacular photographs handheld (Henri Cartier Bresson comes to mind). However, they generally did so knowing exactly what causes unsharp images and what kind of equipment they could successfully handhold. They are generally using wider angle lenses at faster shutter speeds. There is an old rule of thumb that says that you should always shoot a minimum shutter speed of 1/the focal length of the lens (e.g., with a 100 mm lens, no slower than 1/100 sec). This is a minimum. In some cases, the new VR/IS technology may allow slower shutter speeds. Finding something to brace yourself and/or the camera against is also important, as is breathing and smooth actuation of the shutter. But for the vast majority of images I make, I am not even seriously considering handholding.

      • Just now realized where I know you, Tim! I am not always as “quick a study” as I could be :-). Hope your annual Fall Foliage Trip to Vermont is a great one. I am hoping that in spite of the “bad” that the conditions will be right for spectacular foliage this year. Only problem for me is that I’ll miss it :-(. Best regards.

  5. […] was to go over to Sault Ste. Marie, Canada, a city large enough to support camera stores (I think I have probably beat to death the concept of the need for a quality tripod elsewhere here – not one of the big box store cheapies).   So with a change in plans, we […]

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