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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


Second Looks

Waterbury River, Smuggler's Notch

When I return from a photo outing, I usually go through my images in Adobe Bridge and make initial selections. Back in the days film, I used to do my selections with a large wastebasket and pitch out the clearly “bad” images. The “select” images would go in a pile and then I would save the “unsure” images for a second, later review. With digital, the workflow is much the same, except that I probably don’t discard as many of the images.

Pond on U.S. 5 near Barton, Vermont

We are experiencing the first “Midwestern snowstorm” of the season. Now the winter has “officially” arrived, today was a good day to start reviewing the “unsure” images from 2010. These are the images that did not have any obvious flaws, did not immediately impress me as an image worthy of website posting or other use. But experience has taught me that sometimes an image that you review again after some time and space, may be worthy of a second look. Here are a few images I found that had some merit.

On the first morning in Vermont, we started our day at a small, unnamed pond along the highway just south of Barton, where my good friend and talented photographer, Carol Smith and her husband own a vacation home. A small group of photographers gathered in her kitchen in the pre-dawn darkness that morning, and then carpooled to this roadside pond. While it is not, in my view, the best of my images of this subject, I like the fog rising above the water and hanging above the tree line. And of course, it’s a reflection!

May Pond

We next went to Carol’s favorite destination near Barton, May Pond. We could all see why, but that morning, the sky was gray and I struggled to find any compelling images. I shot a couple, but was quickly ready to move on. On review of “seconds,” I thought this image was worthy of further work. The reflection and the steam rising on the water make the image interesting, in my view.

Common Road, Waitsfield, Vermont

The Common Road, above Waitsfield, Vermont is a short road with some impressive views down into the valley. Weather and foliage were challenging this fall, but several images made the first cut. This image is perhaps not as compelling as the “select” images were, but it has some interesting elements.

Mad River

In 2006, I stumbled on a spot on Route 100 south of the Waterbury exit on Interstate 89, on the Mad River. I spent about an hour there, but it was a magical hour. I vowed to go back and this past fall, I spent a drizzly morning standing in various parts of the river with rubber boots on photographing it. I was pleased to find several “second look” images that I think are pretty nice.

Farm on 9 West, Vermont

On the way home after a week in Vermont, I found this image along the road driving west out of the state.

Mad River

Most often, the initial selections are correctly, the best images of a shoot. However, there is something to be said about a second, later, review that is done after some time has elapsed. I this case, there are several images I am glad I went back and looked at.


Reflections; Cascade River, Minnesota

Water is one of my favorite photographic subjects. Water is essential to the world we inhabit, and the one we photograph. Water covers nearly 80 percent of the Earth’s surface. So it is not surprising that water is often an obvious part of the images we capture. But there are also some very subtle ways in which water occurs photographically.

There is almost always a connection with photographic images and water

There is almost always an indirect connection with photographic images and water. Water is used in many industrial applications for heating and cooling, as a solvent and cleaning agent. Indeed, water has been referred to as “the universal solvent.” Water is also an essential nutrient for humans and most other animals, as well as the majority of plant life. Thus, whenever we photograph wildlife, people or flora, it is likely that water has played a part. Water is often the basis for recreational activity, including swimming, boating, canoeing and kayaking. And what about skiing and snowshoeing? Even when water is not a primary element, there is still an indirect connection. For example, photographs of desert sands and other arid environments signal to us the lack of water.

The water droplets on this daylily add photographic interest and suggest the healthy growth of plant life following a fresh spring rain.

Photographically (and scientifically) water takes on 3 forms, each of which present unique and inviting photographic opportunities. Water in its liquid form is perhaps what first comes to mind. As such it is probably the most often found reflective surface for reflection images. I routinely look for ponds, rivers, pools, fountains and even puddles for reflections, either as an image in and of itself, or as a foreground object of interest.

Fountain in front of Texas State Capitol, Austin, Texas

Water in motion is equally captivating, in my view. One of my favorite subjects is waterfalls. Whether a steep, powerful cascade, or swirling rapids, moving water can present some intriguing compositions. We use shutter speed to control the “look” of the water. There is something beguiling about silky, dreamy, flowing water blurred by slow shutter speeds of 1/15 second or longer. Use of neutral density filters in front of the lens can achieve even slower shutter speeds, further blurring the movement of water, or controlling light conditions to produce the slow effect. Moving water can also contain swirling reflections; a double benefit in my view.

Mad River, the namesake for "Mad River Canoe," is really just a small stream, not navigable by canoe. However, this part of the river contains several series of dramatic drops and riffels, making is a wonderland for photographic images

Other times, the photographer may wish to do exactly the opposite, using very fast shutter speeds to “freeze” the powerful or whimsical motion of moving water. Thundering waterfalls or high, splashing waves are sometimes exciting subjects. I used a fast shutter speed and a burst of exposures to capture this crashing wave on the rocky shoreline of Acadia National Park.

Atlantic Ocean surf, Bar Harbor, Maine

Light is clearly the secret to compelling images. Nothing reflects and shows light at its best like water, especially if it is moving.

Bartlett Falls, Bristol, Vermont: Getting a "just right" shutter speed in difficult, but dramatic lighting conditions makes this image unique

Water takes another fascinating form as a gas. Clouds, ground fog, and steam rising off water surfaces are all mesmeric elements in photographic art. These conditions come with a combination of elements. Generally, a rapid change in temperature, preceded by extremely moist circumstances, creates fog or steam. I look for a cool, clear morning following a particularly rainy period, for example, to create these conditions. Also, a precipitous change in temperature will create fog. When in Vermont in October, 2010, I followed the remnants of a tropical Hurricane which dumped several inches of rain on the state. Cool morning temperatures created wonderful ground fog conditions every morning.

Cool early morning temperatures following a heavy rainfall created magical atmospheric conditions for this image

Foggy conditions and clouds filter sunlight and often create vivid coloration in skies. Changes in weather conditions will often yield some of the most dramatic skies one can imagine.

Cool (32 degree) temperatures following a very wet period created wonderful steam and colorful morning cloud conditions on this pond near Barton, Vermont

In its frozen form, water has great photographic possibilities. The obvious is snow. However, ice, icebergs, flow ice and icicles all can be entrancing. And frozen water can even make dirt look interesting!

Margerie Glacier, Glacier National Park, Alaska

Thanks for reading………