By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter
Over the past few months, I’ve used some photo gear that works with virtually all cameras, definitely improves the quality of many photos, allows you to take sharp photos in near darkness and stabilizes video clips to the point that they seem professionally made.
This device is used so infrequently by modern digital and smartphone photographers that you might consider it a “weird trick” now used mainly by pro photographers who have to make those paying shots, not excuses. Best of all, it usually costs under $200.
It’s called a tripod.
I suppose you could also accurately term this device a “variable-height, multiaxis image-stabilization platform with three degrees of rotational freedom constrained by locking devices,” and then pay about three times more if bought as a consumer item, or 10 times as much if bought on a government contract. But it would still be a tripod.
Tripods are helpful for virtually everyone, particularly outdoor enthusiasts and parents. Tripods allow you to make very long exposures, far beyond the capability of any handheld image-stabilization system, in near-dark conditions while maintaining excellent sharpness and the low noise levels associated with adequate exposure at base ISO. Tripods are also a necessity when using high-magnification telephoto lenses.
Tripods allow you to use a small lens aperture with subjects that require great depth of field, such as landscapes, without the subtle camera shake or too-high ISO settings that ruin a photograph’s crisp resolution. And there’s nothing better than a tripod or similar monopod support when making lengthy videos, particularly of indoor activities like school concerts and plays.
Modern digital cameras include some extremely useful features that enable successful handheld photography under a far wider variety of conditions than ever before — decent high-ISO sensitivity, the ability to store hundreds of images on a single memory card and effective image-stabilization hardware. These capabilities encourage a more spontaneous, potentially more creative, style of photography under a wide variety of conditions. That’s a welcome change from film in many ways. However, even with effective image-stabilization, handheld shots are often degraded by subtle camera motion.
More fundamentally, the ease of handheld auto-everything digital photography tends to lull us from thinking through the factors needed to make effective photographs — a suitable subject, technical skill as needed and good composition. Instead of shot discipline and thoughtfulness, we’ve learned to rely on luck, automation and Photoshop. That’s often evident in the final result. Using a tripod with important photos forces you to slow down, put some thought into those images, fine-tune your camera settings before depressing the shutter release, and use optimum settings.
Over the past month I’ve reviewed thousands of digital photos that I made in 2014. In the process I’ve come to the conclusion that supposedly mediocre lenses and cameras are often not the cause of many vaguely soft images. Rather, slight camera motion and inadequate depth of field seem to be more common, though subtle, problems. Lenses that sometimes seemed a bit soft were often very crisp when used at optimum aperture, base ISO, and a fast-enough shutter speed. By using a tripod to avoid shutter speed limitations with static subjects and less-than-ideal lighting, we can optimize the other two factors affecting depth of field and correct exposure — optimum lens aperture and ISO settings.
Many types of photographs, particularly landscapes and close-up macro photos, typically require the greater depth of field available only when using a small lens aperture in the range of f/8 to f/11. Unless you’re shooting in bright sunshine, a tripod may be the best, if not only, solution. That’s particularly true with close-up macro photographs. Depth of field is razor thin when so close to a macro-photo subject. Even the slight back-and-forth body motion we all experience is often enough to move your macro subject out of the zone of sharp focus.
There is one valid truism about tripods — using a cheap tripod is almost as bad as no tripod. Most inexpensive tripods are prone to vibration. Plan on spending between $80 and $200 or so for a usable tripod that’s light enough to be readily carried. From personal experience, there’s scant benefit to buying a superheavy-duty tripod that’s too heavy or bulky to be easily carried.
Tripods come in many styles. Most common among less-expensive models are aluminum legs. These are OK if sufficiently thick and rigid. Carbon fiber legs are more expensive but usually a bit lighter for a given rated load, so they’re better for outdoor activities.
Tripods consist of a set of legs and a three-way head. You need both. Higher-end gear is usually purchased separately as a sturdy set of legs and a center column, along with a separate head to which the camera is actually attached.
Most cheap tripods use a three-way head in which each axis separately rotates and is separately locked with a different handle or knob. I don’t find these very convenient and prefer a freely moving ball head with a single stout locking lever. Inverted ball heads with a locking cup are usually stouter and more stable, but more expensive. They’re worth the extra cost, though, when you’re using heavy gear such as a full-frame camera and supertelephoto lens. A built-in bubble level is useful for leveling the tripod and head.
Reversible center columns help with low-angle shots while an Arca-Swiss style quick-release plate allows you to quickly attach and detach your camera from the tripod head. Be skeptical of any quick-release heads on low-end tripods. Often, they’re not very solidly attached and do not stabilize the camera. Arca-Swiss style quick-release plates are the standard and much more stable for a given load.
Tripods are rated by the weight of the camera and lens that they supposedly can support. Such load ratings tend to be optimistic. Realistically, a tripod can solidly support about one-third to one-half the rated load, assuming the load is properly balanced.
Manfrotto, an Italian company, is the top brand among tripods and related gear. A few years ago, Manfrotto purchased French Gitzo, another top brand. Manfrotto now makes and sells both brands. As my portable tripod, I use a very satisfactory Manfrotto model 725B, sadly no longer available. Manfrotto’s current replacement is the “BeFree” model, that sells for just under $200. It looks quite satisfactory.
Adorama (www.adorama.com) and Amazon sell a 68-inch Dolica with ball head and what appears to be a properly secured quick-release plate. Look for the “Dolica 68-inch Professional Tripod with Ball Head, 15.4 lbs Load Capacity, 4 Leg Sections” at a cost of about $80. The less-expensive 62-inch Dolica ball-head tripod is not recommended as it’s not stable in actual use due to a shaky quick-release plate.
Joby makes a useful wrap-around support, the “Joby GripTight GorillaPod Smartphone Tripod Stand (XL),” to stabilize smartphone photography. It’s a useful product for smartphones, which usually do not have any form of image-stabilization and thus need better support. Monopods might work for you, especially with video recordings. They’re handy outdoors because they’re very light and can double as a walking stick.
There are several tips to avoid vibration when taking tripod-mounted photos. Do not manually depress the shutter release. Instead, use a remote release or the camera’s two-second self-timer release. Turn off image-stabilization and lock up a dSLR camera’s mirror. Use live-view mode to frame the shot. With mirrorless cameras such as the Olympus OM-D or Pen series, enable anti-shock shutter release. Re-enable these features, if desired, after you’re done using a tripod. Telephoto lenses tend to be large, heavy and unbalanced on a tripod unless attached in a balanced manner using the tripod foot found on many heavier telephoto lenses. If your lens has a tripod foot, chances are that it’s needed and should be used if at all possible.
Don’t forget this week’s opening reception for the central peninsula exhibit of the annual statewide Rarified Light juried photography show. The reception runs from 4:30 to 6 p.m. Thursday at Kenai Peninsula College’s Gary L. Freeburg Gallery. The show runs through mid-February.
Local attorney Joe Kashi received degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published many articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.