Monday, August 10, 2009

Traveling with a tripod: It's love — Hate

You know, it really is a love — hate relationship between travel photographers and their tripods. Some weigh so much you get tired just looking at them in your room. When traveling with a group, you may get some “evil eyes” staring at you while you take time to set them up and take them down.
Monument Valley, Utah

 Unfortunately, without a tripod, you can’t get really good night photographs, multi-image panoramas, sharp wildlife photos at distance, or sharp macro photographs of beautiful blooms, even with lens vibration reduction or camera image stabilization.

If you don’t have a tripod, or are considering one, but haven’t yet purchased one, it’s time to look at what benefits to travel photography you can derive from taking a tripod with you.
  • Enhance sharpness — The “Photography Hand Holding” rule of thumb, for 35mm camera “equivalent” focal lengths, is the slowest hand-holdable shutter speed is 1 divided by the focal length of the lens. A 200mm lens can be hand held no lower than 1/200 sec. For print sizes of 8x10 inches and larger, even 1/200 is too slow. While some people can hand hold better than others, and lens vibration reduction / camera image stability can help, when you get to it, the rule is accurate. A sturdy, stable, properly sized tripod will get you sharper pictures every time.
  • Create photographic opportunities — There are many photographic opportunities for which a tripod is essential; night photography, time-lapse photography, macro photography, wildlife photography, timed delay exposures, panoramas, etc. You might use a tripod to be creative such as in action photography where you pan with the subject and blur the background to show movement.
  • Use lenses with longer focal lengths — The longer your lens’ focal length, the higher the magnification of your image, the more difficult hand holding the lens will be, and the more likely the image will be blurred by even a minute amount of camera shake. The longer the lens, the more the shake will be amplified. Vibration reduction and image stabilization cannot eliminate camera/lens movement as effectively as a properly sized tripod.
  • Enhance photographic image quality — When you hand hold your camera in low light conditions, you often must either use faster film, or set your sensor ISO setting higher on your digital camera, since there is a lower limit in reducing your f/setting, when you try to keep your shutter speed high enough to hand hold your camera. By placing your camera on a tripod, you can keep your film speed or ISO setting low, improving your photograph’s quality.
  • Enhance depth of field — When you hand hold in low light, you must use a low f/setting, opening up your lens’ aperture to let more light in, and/or a high film speed or ISO setting. Using a low f/setting reduces your photograph’s depth of field. Using a tripod enables you to use higher f/settings, closing the lens’ aperture to create a longer depth of field.
  • Reduce distortion — Some better tripods allow you to get close to the ground for extreme low-angle shooting. This in turn can help you better compose the photograph and minimize keystoning and other types of distortion.
  • Enhance image framing — There’s nothing better than a tripod in assisting a photographer to control the camera/lens position to permit you to perfectly compose your photo by using its panning and tilting movement.
  • Enhance videos — You’ve seen TV cameras at sporting events, news events, and other locations. Many, especially the ones far from the action, are on tripods. There is no doubt that their use for video reduces camera shake and ehances smooth panning to follow movement. With more and more digital still cameras able to take short videos, tripods for those shots are becoming more important daily.
  • Enhance flexibility — You can use a tripod like many photographers to hold more than just a camera. I’ve often used a tripod as a light stand, or to hold a reflector.
  • Enhance photographer’s discipline — In my article, “Get great photos from your camera, instead of whining about needing a new one,” I said, “All too often digital camera ‘users’ just point their camera in the direction of their subject and shoot. No thought goes into photographic composition or exposure.” It takes a bit of time to set up a tripod with a camera and lens. This is a great time to think about your image, set an appropriate exposure, and carefully compose the photograph with thought.”
The Louvre at Night, Paris

 Perhaps you think a tripod is only for expensive SLR or DSL cameras. Think again. If you have a Point and Shoot camera, look on the bottom of the camera. I’ll be you’ll find a threaded hole for attaching a tripod. Tripods work effectively for all kinds of cameras. You just need the right one.

Next week I’ll discuss choosing the right tripod.


Sharon said...

Ned, now that I know why I've needed a tripod all these years I'm ready to read your next article about choosing the right one.



Charlie said...

Ned, I've had a tripod for years and have used it often, but I've never taken it on trips. It's too big and heavy. I hope when you talk about choosing a tripod next week it will be mostly about travel tripods.

I'm willing to spend the money, but so far I haven't found one that's small and light weight, which can actually hold my DSLR and 400mm lens steady.

I hope you have some ideas on this.

Ned S. Levi said...

Sharon, thanks.

Charlie, I think you'll find next week I do have some ideas which might satisfy you for now. Just hang in there with me.

Next week I'm going to talk about the different parameters which make a good tripod and a bit about my philosophy of choosing one.

I'm not going to get into the specific brands and specifications I like until the following week. If that's what you're really waiting for, and if you can't wait, may I suggest you join me over at Nikonians in the Tripod Forum where we discuss photographers' specific needs all the time.

I will offer this statement today. At some point, if one's camera is big and heavy enough, and if one's lens is big, heavy and long (focal length) enough, really small, lightweight tripods just won't work.

For example, a Nikon D3X with a Sigma Bigma lens for birding, especially if you're using a Wimberley Sidekick with it, like so many in birding do, won't be adequately steadied by a small lightweight tripod. You don't necessarily have to go huge and bulky, but it's going to have to have some real size and strength.


Lauren said...

Ned, I've tried those light weight travel tripods and found they are worthless. I'm better hand holding my camera. They may be cheap, but they are also very expensive, as they are a complete waste of money.


Ned S. Levi said...

Lauren, you're anticipating next week's column a little bit.

For DSLR's, the cheap ($100 or so) tripods generally aren't worth the money as the weight of the camera and lens, and often the focal length of the lens are too much for these tripods.

Tripods must be carefully and specifically chosen for what they must support.

That being said, there are travel tripods out there which do work for DSLRs with a variety of lenses. Stay tuned for my upcoming featured blog articles.

Ed said...

I hadn't thought of all those uses for a tripod while traveling. I'll have to rethink taking mine with me.


Joan said...

You keep coming back to the idea of discipline for photographers in many of your columns.

Since reading about that over the last few months that advice about thinking before shooting has improved my photographs immeasurably.

My framing is much better, as is my exposure.


Sage said...

Great article. I'm looking forward to the next in the series Ned. I've been thinking about getting a tripod, but aren't sure what I need.

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