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.

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

Have Yourself a Slow and Macro Little Christmas

Merry Christmas to one and all.  The bright lights of the tree look so inviting, but are often difficult to photograph.  Flash makes the tree look washed out and hides the colors of the lights.  Hand holding your camera makes all the colors blur together.  So what is the secret to capturing good tree photos?  As with so much in photography, the answer is a good tripod, slow shutter speeds and a remote trigger.  Even with the very nice low light capabilities of the D800 and the 50mm 1.8 lens, putting the camera onto a stable platform makes all the difference.   From the LR histogram you can see that I pushed the ISO all the way up to 640, and it still took a 4.0 sec exposure.  By using a remote cable trigger, it removes the shaking caused by my ham-handed fingers, pressing the buttons. The other way to catch the warmth and depth of colors from the tree is to go in close.  A good macro lens can get more detail and usually needs less light.  We have quite a few lighted ornaments which offer their own set of challenges.  The bright inside lights can blow out the rest of the image, leaving the background too dark.  With a macro, you can be very precise in selecting your focal point.  I used the darkness of the tower clock, and then applied the LR development brush to reduce the exposure and highlights of the lights. 

Our house also maintains a fair and balanced approach between the forces of good and others for the holidays.    Well, we didn’t have much of a white Christmas; and that is ok with me.  I hope you got whatever you were wishing for.  The joy of spending time with friends and family is what makes this season special.  We hope that all our readers enjoy the holidays.