Don’t Be Neutral About Your Filters

By Mark

Roger and I went to the Great Smoky National Park on a mission.  We wanted to force ourselves to get out and actually shoot some photos as this year has just been crazy, and we wanted to practice some new techniques.  We have been seeing a lot of images of smooth silky streams of water and knew we could capture them ourselves.

Shooting flowing water generally pushes you into shooting in Shutter Priority mode.  Either a fast speed; 1/1000th of a second to catch the spray, or slowly at less than 1/30th to slow down the movement.

1/1000th of a second

1/1000th of a second

1/100th of a second.  Still not "silky"

1/100th of a second.  Still not "silky"

Both are fine, but didn’t deliver the kinds of shots we wanted. The trouble with using longer exposures is that you tend to get skies and even the foam on the water completely blown out.  That is where neutral density (ND) filters come in to play.  ND filters are darkened glass, which acts to reduce the amount of light which gets through, but which won’t change the colors.  Filters come in two basic style, graduated or solid.  The graduated filter is clear glass on one end and darkens towards the other.  You can adjust where that line is depending on where your horizon line sits.  The solid filters block the light evenly and are used for really, really long exposures. 

A few words on the equipment itself, filters come in different sizes and sit in a holder, which mounts onto the front of your camera.   Each lens can be a separate size and requires an adaptor ring, which screws into the filter ring.  For example, my 70-200 f2.8 takes a 77mm filter, while my 105 macro uses a 62mm. 

Shooting with the filters installed will require a good tripod.  We were out on the very edges of the streams and falls, often with the feet in the water and down low.  You need to be careful, as the rocks can be slippery.  Falling in to cold mountain water can be dangerous.

You will want a remote shutter release and will also want to ensure your view finder is closed, to reduce extra light entering your camera.  Roger is going to write about using the “Live View” feature.

We shot some multi-minute exposures, but for me, my favorite images were shot at f22 with 1.3-6 second exposures

4.0 sec at f/22

4.0 sec at f/22

6.0 sec at f/22

6.0 sec at f/22

I am happy to say, that I learned a lot and got the images I was hoping to.  We have lots more blog topics and maybe even some time to write them.  

The Flying Circus

By Mark

Photographing airplanes from the ground is very hard.  Usually they are too small in the frame to get much detail and if they are against the sky, it is tough to have any sense of scale. 

Luckily, old style flying shows still exist and we are fortunate to have one nearby.  We went out an overcast but still very hot morning to see the show.

Camera EXIF data

Camera EXIF data

Because of the relatively slow speed of the aircraft, I knew I wanted to shoot in Shutter Priority mode and set my speed at 1/800th of a second.  Additionally, I changed my metering mode to spot as I really wanted the camera to focus on the airplane.   Even with that, the relative smallness of the plane versus the much brighter sky, meant that the images were going to be too dark.  I cranked in +1 EV of exposure compensation to start, but wound up having to take it to 1 2/3 EV more than the camera thought necessary.   I had my 70-200mm f2.8 on (my favorite lens), but knew that was not going to be enough.  As you look at the EXIF data, you will see that my focal length wound up being 340mm.  I used my 1.7 “doubler” which magnifies your image at the cost of 1 or 2 stops of light.   In post processing I really cropped the images significantly, removing more than 50 per cent of the image so that you could actually see what was going on.

 Created after World War 1, as the United States sold off many of the planes they had built, flying circuses and barnstormers crisscrossed the nation, giving most people their first sight of an airplane and for many, their first ride.  As the competition between shows grew more intense, the length they would go to for stunts also grew. Wing walking, if you haven’t seen it, requires a person to climb out of their cockpit and climb out onto the wing.  Since most of these aircraft were biplanes, they did have plenty of struts and wires to hang on to.

One of my wife’s fellow teacher’s boyfriend happens to be not only one of the pilots, but also is the wing walker. 

Bealeton Flying Circus Pt 2-201.jpg

Joe is a very brave young man. In real life he runs his own cattle ranch.    His first trick, once he is on the lower wing is go hang upside down, from the wing, only holding on with his feet.  

Next he climbs on top of the airplane’s top wing.  This whole process is done without any kind of parachute and often times without any tether.  At least there is a post and some foot straps because, the pilot then starts doing aerobatics.  Here is Joe going all the way around a loop.  At one point is twice as heavy as on the ground, and then he is weightless.

To cap off their show they unfurl a lovely American flag and buzz the crowd at pretty low levels.

A successful landing is one you can walk away from is an old pilot’s adage.  Here they come back to earth.   

.   If you live close to Northern VA, you should definitely make this a weekend destination.   Hours and schedule are posted on their website:    You can also buy flights in their open cockpit aircraft.  It is a lot of fun and the balloon festival is coming up soon.  

Tripod Toppers

By Roger (8 May 2016)

Before we leave the subject of tripods, there are a few other things to consider to finish off your stability package. After you go through the struggle to pick your “legs,” you need to decide what you're going to put on top of them. You don't just set the camera on top; you need something that will allow you to adjust the camera to the perfect angle to capture the composition.

Naturally, there are competing opinions and a myriad of possible solutions to confuse you. As always, talk to your photography friends about what they like and don't like. The most common topper is a ball head, like the one below.

Typical Ball Head

Securely mounted to the ball head

You'll want a ball head that allows you to smoothly adjust your camera into the proper position, with no slippage once you have the camera exactly where you want it. When you're on ground or sand that is not level, you can put your tripod into a sturdy position and level your camera, adjusting it with the ball head. As I discussed in the choosing your tripod blog, you need to consider the weight of your camera and whatever lens you attach. A good quality ball head won't slip.

Ball heads have a slot on one side, so you can move your camera from landscape to portrait mode, without the need to remove your camera from the ball head. This will change the balance on your tripod, however, so ensure your tripod is balanced and your camera is securely locked into the ball head.

Ball head in portrait mode

Another tripod topper choice is the gimbal head. This is the most popular for use with long, heavy telephoto lenses. It is especially favored by nature and sports photographers. The ball head adjustments are not as easy to get to with a long lens attached, but the gimbal adjustments are out to the side. In addition, when the gimbal is properly set up, you can move the camera and lens quickly with just one hand. When you're trying to photograph fast-moving subjects with a long lens, this ability to move is very important.

Gimbal head

Gimbal head with a 5 pound lens

This doesn't mean that you can't use a ball head for long lenses. A sturdy ball head can support long lenses. As you can see, in the photo below, some photographers use long lenses and ball heads. I prefer the gimbal for long lenses and a ball head when I have shorter lenses attached. You need to make your own choices.

Ball head and long lens

The key to the whole system is a quick release plate that attaches to the bottom of your camera and long lenses. Many ball head and gimbal manufacturer companies have proprietary plates that work with only their tripod heads. The alternative, Arca Swiss, standard is more universal and less expensive. They are my preferred solution because they are available from many vendors and are strong enough to support all my equipment.

Proprietary or Arca Swiss, both work fine, but you should standardize your plates and buy enough to cover all your cameras and lenses. You don't want multiple systems, and you don't want to switch these plates from component to component when there are photographs to make. For many long lenses, you can even get Arca Swiss-compatible feet and switch out the one from your manufacturer that relies on a proprietary system. I put one on my Nikon 70-200mm. (You can see it in the second photo, above.)

Another component to consider is the L Bracket. This attaches to the bottom of the camera and goes up the left side. You can see some examples at this link and on the photos of my camera. This allows you to re-position your camera from landscape to portrait, without moving your ball head or gimbal. Since I use the gimbal for long lenses only, I use the L bracket on just the ball head. These L brackets are camera-specific, because of battery compartments and ease of access to camera interfaces, so buy carefully. It should surprise no one that my L bracket is has Arca Swiss compatibility for attaching to my ball head or gimbal head.

By the time you add everything together – tripod, monopod, ball head, gimbal head, L bracket – the cost may dissuade you. But you don't have to buy them all at the same time, and this good quality gear will outlast you. I've had the same stability gear for more than 10 years and use it more than most part-time photographers. They're all still in great condition and getting lots of use. Good equipment is a worthwhile investment.

I hope these blogs have helped you see the value in stability products. They'll increase the sharpness of all your photographs; help you slow down as you move from subject to subject; and open up more opportunities for low light photography. Once you become accustomed to using this gear, you'll find you enjoy them more out in the field than sitting in a corner somewhere. And they come in handy for self-portraits, too.

Different camera, but same tripod and ball head.

Choosing A Tripod

By Roger (18 April 2016)

In my last blog (link), I told you why tripods are so useful. Now that you understand how important a tripod can be in recording the sharpest photo possible, let’s talk about what you should look for when you go out to buy one. As in all photography topics, there is a wide variety in tripod qualities and costs. If you go to our Amazon link and type in “tripods for digital cameras,” you’ll get more than 140,000 items. That list is a little long to sift through, so let's consider some things to whittle it down.

What are the most important attributes of a good tripod? Well, that is a personal choice. You need to consider the primary attributes that are the most important to you. Some things to consider: weight, component material, height, and any additional features you need/want.

Niagara Falls, a three-second exposure

One attribute I would keep out of my top ten list is price. If you buy solely on price, you'll probably regret it. Really cheap tripods are, generally, poorly made. You'll quickly leave it behind and try to go back to being tripod free. As you get more serious, you'll realize you really do need a tripod, so you'll buy one that is a little more expensive than the last one you abandoned. If you repeat this pattern a couple of times, you'll either be completely disenchanted, or you'll finally spend the money on a good tripod, and your previous tripod purchases will be wasted money. A good tripod can last more than a decade (mine is guaranteed for life). I'm not suggesting you need to buy the most expensive tripod available, but I wouldn't make price your first priority.

Tripods help in a dark bar

The most important attribute I look for in a tripod is its ability to keep my camera stable, regardless of the lens I put on the front. If you buy a very small, light-weight tripod and mount a heavy camera and lens combination, it will be inherently unstable. This would defeat the purpose of the tripod, and it won't take long for you to push the tripod into a dark corner.

You may think this is an obvious requirement, but many people don’t look at the tripod’s load capacity prior to their purchase. You need to keep in mind the lenses you use and how much weight they add to the package. For example, my camera weighs in at 3 pounds, but the lenses vary from 7 ounces to almost 5 pounds. My tripod has to keep every one of these combinations stable. I recommend buying a tripod that is capable of, at least, twice the weight you think you need. This provides an additional margin of safety and gives you room to add some heavier equipment in the future.

Notre Dame Basilica, Montreal, 2.5 seconds

The weight of your tripod can be a reason you leave it behind. The lighter the weight, the more likely you are to carry it and use it. Wood and aluminum tripods weigh significantly more than the carbon fiber tripods. However, when I bought my first good tripod, carbon fiber was not available. It is now, and I greatly appreciate the weight reduction. Carbon fiber is my current choice, until they invent something lighter and just as strong.

The construction material in your tripod has other impacts. The most common tripod materials, today, are aluminum and carbon fiber, although you can still find a couple made of wood. As I've already revealed, my favorite is carbon fiber. I think it's the most versatile. Unfortunately, it is more expensive than aluminum, but the prices have been coming down.

Why is the construction material even an issue? Well, we just talked about weight. Carbon fiber (or wood) is lighter. Carbon fiber is not impacted by water, but wood is, and salt water can be deadly to your aluminum tripod. Then there is the issue of temperature transfer. Are you going to be dealing with extreme hot or cold temperatures? Wood and carbon fiber are better because they don't transfer the temperature to your hands as much as aluminum. Most photographers who use aluminum tripods use pads and tape, on the legs, to alleviate this problem.

Consider the height you'll want your tripod to deliver. Again, the range varies widely. You can get an inexpensive Playpod (link) that will provide a very stable platform, at ground level, or a tripod that extends well above your head. Think about how you'll use the tripod and choose accordingly. I recommend choosing a tripod that, at a minimum,  is tall enough to bring the camera to your eye-level.

Tripods help in sharper portraits

Many medium height tripods feature a center post that can be extended to increase their reach or swing out perpendicular to the legs, like a boom arm. Most hardcore tripod users warn against center posts because extending the post can cause a loss of stability and increase vibration. Used sparingly and carefully, you can get along with a center post, but be aware of the problem.

Try out the different leg types; most use twist or flip locks. From my reading the most recommended is the flip locks. You just quickly flip the locks to extend or retract the legs. For some reason, I prefer the twist locks. Really, try both. You're going to constantly extend and retract the legs, so this is more important than you might think. Both work, but choose incorrectly, and you'll quickly become aggravated with your choice.

One last thing: think about how many leg extensions you want. The most common are two, three, or four. The extensions can affect the stability, so you may be tempted to go with just two. However, more extensions help reduce the folded length of the tripod – important for air travelers who want to put the tripod into their suitcase.

Lots to consider, huh? Like most things in photography, you may have to compromise somewhere to find the correct tripod for you. You may want to talk to your photographer friends to see what they like or don't like about their tripod.

In the end, I believe it is an important tool for your kit. I think it's important enough that I almost always take one on travel, and I use it frequently. Although you may think you don't want to carry the extra weight, a stable tripod will ensure the sharpest image in any kind of photography. Take it out of your closet, and show it some fun.