Try A Tripod

By Roger (4 April 2016)

One of the more under-appreciated pieces of photography gear is the tripod, and that's a shame. They have many important uses in photography, and, in the old days, they were part of every photographer's kit. A good tripod can last forever if it's treated properly. It never needs a software upgrade or new batteries. Yet, so many photographers either don't own one or let them gather dust in the closet.

A good tripod is vital for extra sharpness

A good tripod is vital for extra sharpness

Let's cover just a few of their more negative traits, first, and end on the high side. They can be a pain to carry around if you need maximum mobility and don't want the added weight. A high-end tripod and ballhead can be a very expensive addition to your toolbox. With today's high ISO capabilities and built-in image stabilization, too many photographers think they don't need a tripod.

All of these complaints are valid; however, although tripods aren't practical for every occasion, they are still extremely useful in certain environments. I always keep one in my vehicle and, usually, bring one when I’m going by plane. During my recent four-city road trip, I needed my tripod at each location, so I was really glad I dragged it along.

A vase from the Pompeii exhibit

The most basic use of your tripod is as a solid foundation to remove any worries about camera movement. New cameras are almost all equipped with some sort of image stabilization, but that can only help so much. To achieve maximum sharpness, you often need a platform to keep your camera absolutely still, especially as the focal length and/or exposure times increase. Nature photographers, with their long, heavy lenses, and landscape photographers, who require edge-to-edge sharpness, will “always” use a tripod.

Don’t be lulled into complacency because new cameras are capable of higher ISOs than were imaginable in the recent past. There are trade-offs there, too. High ISO photographs are more prone to noise in the shadows. I have a camera that works very well in low light, but who wants to worry about noise when you can use a tripod and keep your ISO and noise low?

Basilica Notre Dame, Montreal, Canada

This is a six second exposure at ISO 200. There is no noise, even when you zoom into 600%. (Yes, I’ve checked to be certain.) I couldn’t have made this photo without a tripod; you can't hand-hold the camera that still. Even with a high ISO setting, I would not have the clarity this photo required.

There are so many other similar reasons for relying on the stable platform of a tripod. If you need to greatly increase your depth of field, the resulting small aperture greatly reduces the light to the sensor and necessitates slower shutter speeds. Use a tripod. If you need several varying exposure photographs for a high dynamic range photograph, a tripod will keep your camera stable for perfect alignment. If you want to create the best panorama alignment, use a tripod. Night photography, with or without star trails, self-portraits, light painting photos, macro photography – the list of obvious uses is long.

4 photo pano, Denali, Alaska

There are even more uses that might not be so obvious to you.

So many photographers whip from photo to photo, never slowing down to contemplate the best way to record what is in front of them. Since a tripod will reduce your mobility, you can slow down and more carefully examine the composition inside your camera. This is a good thing and can improve the quality of your photos. You get no extra points for making more photos than someone else, especially if those photos are mediocre. Take your time and concentrate on better quality photos.

You can use tripods to hold continuous lighting, flash guns, or reflectors. There are lots of accessories specifically designed for tripods. When Mark did his Halloween photobooth (link), he had a table, from Tether Tools (link), set up on a tripod, holding his laptop. Since his camera was plugged into his computer, the photos would come up on the screen for immediate viewing by the guests.

If you want to shoot video, a tripod can get rid of those jerky movements you see in so many videos. I would recommend a fluid head to get the smooth movements you see in professional videos. You may not shoot much video, but it is a rapidly growing area of photography. You can never start learning too early.

There are so many varieties and price ranges for quality tripods today. I think we'll just save that topic for another blog. So the next time you go out to make some new photography, think about your dusty tripod, and take it with you. You'll never use it if you leave it at home.

Weed macro

Home for the Holidays-Making a CD Cover

By Mark

It has been a month since Roger and I have had a chance to write and post a blog.  We have been in the midst of corporate transition and have been pretty overwhelmed.  Despite that, we have managed to stay busy with some photography projects.  One that I got to work on was an opportunity to help out a very talented musician surprise her family and friends with a Christmas CD.  The good news is that you can get your own copy of the CD for yourself at

She needed a photo for a CD cover with a nice Christmas background and asked if I could help.  We started with a basic photoshoot.  I asked her to bring a couple of outfits in order to give us more options later.  I didn’t actually have an appropriate background but I knew we could create one later to meet her requirements.  I figured that I could just use the background of my unfinished basement insulation—turned out to have not been my best decision.  The photography was pretty simple.  I set the camera on f/8 and ISO 100.  I was using my 70-200 zoom lens.  It stayed right around the 85mm focal length, which is why Nikon’s 85mm f/1.4 is one of the premier portrait lenses.   We used a two flash set up.  One main one in front with my 60” soft box and the second one behind her right shoulder in order to create a nice rim/hair lighting effect.   Both units were set up with Pocket Wizards for control.   We wound up with the main light at about 50% power and the back light at about 15%. 

I’ve known Amy and her husband for quite a while, but she somehow has not aged much at all, so we got a good selection of shots to choose from.

My processing plan was intended to be pretty straightforward, but it proved challenging in two areas. I needed to:

1.       Perform general image wide adjustments

2.       Apply a minimal level of skin retouching

3.       Extract her from the background

4.       Replace the background with a better one and then ensure that it looked realistic.

I’m going to break the process up into two blogs to provide some details.

For any photo job where color control is important, which should be all of them, I began by having Amy hold my X-rite color checker.  When I started processing I would use that to set up a custom white balance profile for all the images in the set. 

More of a mug shot than a good photo--Sorry Amy!   I told her she didn't need to smile for this one.

More of a mug shot than a good photo--Sorry Amy!   I told her she didn't need to smile for this one.

I did a preliminary select from each pose and outfit to weed out any bad ones—only one with eyes closed.  I then found the best ones and did normal adjustments—mostly opening up the shadows a little bit and applying sharpening to the RAW images. 

I have several applications which are specifically designed to help do portrait retouching.  Typically, ladies skin gets “softened” a little bit, the eyes brightened as well as the teeth.  I actually ran the images through all three of my tools separately in order to compare the results.   I have OnOne Perfect 10, Nik and my newest one, Perfectly Clear.   I was impressed by the results from the last one especially.  

The images just looked better, but it was very difficult to see what was actually different.  At this point, I had 4 very nice images which I sent to Amy for her selection.

All that selection and  preliminary processing hadn’t taken that long, but are an important step before you send anything to a “client” even if they are a good friend.  You never want to show a bad image.  When she made her selection, the real fun and work started.  You can read about that next time. 

On Camera Filters

By Mark

“Getting it right in the camera”, is a common phrase seems to contain an element of photography snobbery.  It is critical to get the lighting and exposure and the fundamentals right, but unless you are a photojournalist, post processing is perfectly fine.  Even in the “good old days” of shooting film, photographers have used the best tools they had to capture the look they were seeking.  A set of those tools includes a wide range of on camera filters which can be used to control light, reduce glare, change the color of the image or just provide an extra layer of protection.  

The first kind of filter is one that Roger and I disagree on how useful they are.  Ultraviolet filters (UV) are advertised to serve 2 main purposes.  Nr. 1 they are designed to block out extra UV rays from impacting your sensor.  This was way more important back in the days of film, when intense UV could fog your film.  Modern sensors reset each as you turn them on and off and as you press the shutter.  The second reason and why I use them is that because they screw on to the end of your lenses, they provide a layer of protection from scratching, dust and general damage.  I know from experience that they work, as I somehow accidently banged my 80-300 lens against a metal chair.  The filter got badly scratched, but my expensive glass was fine.   The argument against them is that you just spent thousands of dollars for an expensive lens, why would you want to put cheap glass in front of it; or I’ve never scratched a lens in my life.    For the first one, the cost of the expensive glass is in getting the curvature and alignment right.  UV filters are optically neutral and unless you are buying the $5 bargain bin versions, don’t impact the optics.  As for the second argument, it will happen…just wait.

The next important type of filter is the circular polarizer.  Most people are familiar with Ray Ban or Polaroid Sun glasses which help cut through the glare.  What most folks don’t really understand is that light from the sun has direction to it.   By controlling which light you allow through, you can cut down glare and reflection.  Here is today’s science lesson showing how it works.  

For shots with water on rocks or as one method to reduce the glare in an outdoor scene, you can adjust the direction of the light which passes through.  Polarizers will effectively increase your fstop so you need to remember to take them off in low light situations.   Gavin, over at graciously allowed me to use his image which illustrates the impact the right use of this filter can have.

He has written some great full blogs on how and when to use them and you should look at his landscapes, they are fantastic.

As a landscape photographer, this next filter is one of the most useful to have in your bag.  Neutral Density Filters block part of the light from entering your lens.  They can be graduated or solid—meaning part of the filter is darker on one end than the other.   Why would you want to block light?  Well, all those really silky, waterfalls or beach scenes with soft waves would have blown out skies if it weren’t for ND filters.   These filters come in a range of densities from +1 stop all the way up to +10.  Usually a filter holder is mounted to the front of your lens and you can easily adjust or remove them.  

Just line up the gradient line with your horizon and you can use long, long shutter speeds.  Here is what a sky looks like with and without a ND filter.

Almost no detail in the sky--boo

Almost no detail in the sky--boo

Same shot, ND filter applied

Same shot, ND filter applied

Finally, the last major class of filters also harkens back to the film days, especially for Black and White photography.   I have to confess that you can replicate all of these in Photoshop or get similar impact by adjusting White Balances.  Colored filters can emphasize or change the mood of your image.  Two of the most common filters have pretty descriptive names.  The Warming filter and the Cooling filter do exactly that.   Here is a nice twilight photo from Ireland. 

By applying the warming filter effect, it looks like a spectacular sunset—which it was not.

.  If you apply the Cooling filter you get a just past sunrise look. 

All of these are just tools, you still have to create the photograph.

Building Your Personal Portfolio

By Mark

I’m sorry but no one wants to look at hundreds of your pictures.  As a photographer you want to demonstrate to others that you can go beyond getting snapshots into focus and have them properly exposed.  You want to showcase that you have a style and an opinion.  Even before you start thinking about becoming a “professional”, you need to start thinking about how you represent yourself to a stranger.  A good crisp portfolio is one of the first tools you want to build.

What makes a good portfolio? You need to make some choices before you really can answer that question.  What platform do you intend to use to show people.  Increasingly, a tablet or other electronic medium is the standard.  If you are going to print it, you need to think about the aspect.  You don’t want them to have to flip the booklet back and forth.  

You may also want to consider using some “Fine Art” poster styles.  These can be printed from the Print module in LR, but that is another blog. 

The first rule is that every photo needs to be one that people automatically react to when you show it to them. Obviously the reaction you want is “Wow”.  

This is one of my favorite photos, because I love the contrast of color, texture and lines.  Unfortunately most people go “Oh a rusty roof, that’s nice”, so it is not in my portfolio.

The second rule is that you need to continually relook and refresh it.  You have to be your harshest critic.  Nothing that is almost good enough should make it.   

This HDR image I shot in Maine last year is bright and interesting, but I think the station wagon in the bottom right corner is unneeded and distracting detail. 

The third rule is that you have to think about how you group and order your images.  You really do want to stack the deck with your best images up first.  You can arrange them by theme, by subjects (not too many please) but avoid lumping them in chronological order.   

Mine are arranged by color scheme, from hotter to cooler winding up with my black and whites.  

Lastly you want to keep the numbers down to 10-15.  You want them asking to see more, not looking for the nearest exit.

So go through your best images and put together your own best of the best.  Ask people you know for their opinions and then be very brave and ask people you don’t know.