Once again I’m going to reply to a listener question this week, this time a question from listener Fred Kotler about when and how I use my tripods. I thought this would be a good chance to take a look at my current support line-up, and discuss a little about why I have each of them, when I like to use a tripod, and why I sometimes decide to go hand-held or now also use a monopod sometimes.
First let me read out Fred’s message, that spurred today’s episode: “I’m a serious amateur photographer who has always hand held my camera. That meant I could never get decent shots in low light conditions nor could I experiment with long exposure photography. I’ve remedied the problem by purchasing a top quality tripod system from Really Right Stuff and I was hoping that you could devote a podcast episode to how you use your tripod. Under what conditions do you use one and under what conditions do you not.”
Thanks for the question Fred, and congratulations on avoiding a very common mistake right off the bat. Many people buy a cheap crappy tripod to begin, and often use it for a number of years until they realize that it isn’t helping and perhaps even sometimes hindering their photography. I did it with my first tripod some twenty years ago, and I used that tripod for some 12 years before I bought a decent one, with my old Manfrotto. You went straight for the Really Right Stuff, so despite their high price, you’ve probably saved yourself some money buy doing this.
Over the years I’ve managed to gather a little collection of tripods, two of which are not in this photo, but I’ll use this to first walk you through what I currently use, and the reasons why they ended up in my collection. From left to right we have an old Gitzo Tripod fitted with the Wimberley Head, which is a gimbal head that I use for long lenses. Next is a Really Right Stuff Monopod, then two Really Right Stuff tripods, the left one fitted with a BH-55 and the right one fitted with a BH-40 ball head. On the right we have see a 5 Series Gitzo tripod that is fitted with a Manfrotto 519 Fluid Video Head.
Martin’s Camera Support Line-up
The left most tripod is now over 5 years old, and superseded by other models, but it’s a GT3540L. My first Gitzo tripod is actually older than this, and although I still have it, I don’t use it anymore, basically because it was made before Gitzo introduced their Anti Leg Rotation system, so whenever you tighten or loosen the legs, quite often a different leg section would come loose, and you have to hold the second leg section to stop that from rotating. This basically drove me crazy, but the good thing about this first tripod was that I could get the camera to my eye level without extended the fourth leg section. One of my Really Right Stuff tripods also does this though, so basically the old big Gitzo has been shelved.
Actually, the GT3540L that we see here is now pretty much a backup tripod, although it’s still a very capable and steady piece of kit. The reason I replaced it is because one of the legs came loose and I had to send it in for repairs, but this happened just a few weeks before the 5 year warranty expired, and I was due to leave for my Pixels 2 Pigment tour in September 2012 before the repairs would be complete. Secretly I was happy, because I had been hankering after a Really Right Stuff tripod for a while, and this was a good chance to pick one up.
Anyway, the main reason the left Gitzo is in this photo is to support the Wimberley Head which is still very important to my photography. As I explain in my latest Craft & Vision eBook, Sharp Shooter, gimbal heads are extremely useful for supporting long lenses without the need to lock them down in any one position. A well balanced gimbal head will allow you to move the camera around with one finger, and stop wherever you let go of it.
Wimberley Head with 600mm f/4
This is the closest you can get to the freedom of hand-held shooting without actually having to hold the weight of the camera and lens, which is why they are so useful with big heavy lenses like this. I also use a long lens support system from Really Right Stuff to support long lenses and stop them from shuddering from the vibration of the shutter unit. I cover this in Sharp Shooter too, and I’ll be updating you as to whether it’s still necessary to use the long lens support with the new 200-400mm lens once I’ve really had a chance to use it in the field and put a full review together.
Really Right Stuff MC-35 Monopod with MH-02 LR Head
What I do expect to be using more now with the 200-400mm lens, is the Really Right Stuff Monopod. I owned a Manfrotto monopod some eight years or so ago, and used it a fair bit, but after a while it broke, just locked up solid and couldn’t be extended, and I hadn’t used it enough to warrant getting it fixed or buying a new one. I’m expecting that to change with the 200-400mm lens which is a bit too heavy to hand-hold, but won’t always warrant a full tripod or gimbal to support it, especially for fast paced shooting, and also from the boat where we shoot the eagles in Hokkaido. I won’t be able to use a tripod there, but it would be way too heavy to hand-hold for the 2 hours that we shoot from the boat. Monopods are of course also popular with sports photographers who need to support heavy glass but have some of the freedom of hand-holding shooting without the space required for a tripod and gimbal head, which also require more time to move around and level, and time is not usually a luxury sports photographers are afforded.
Really Right Stuff currently only do one carbon fiber monopod, the MC-34, and I bought it with the MH-02 LR head, which allows you to tilt the camera up and down easily, and it can also be easily oriented either parallel or perpendicular to the tilt of the head by unscrewing the Index Lock Knob and rotating the clamp in 90° increments. This is useful if you sometimes use shorter lenses with a camera plate or L-Bracket, as opposed to the longer lenses with a lens plate running parallel to the lens barrel. The MC-34 at full extend gets the camera quite a way above me eye level, so will be fine height wise too. Again, I haven’t really used this much yet, but intend to really start using it with the 200-400mm, and possibly other lenses as well in the near future. I’ll let you know how this goes too in a future episode.
Really Right Stuff Tripods
In September 2012, I released Podcast episode 350, in which I discussed my Really Right Stuff tripod, and the various L-Brackets, plates and tripod heads that I use to support my gear. For more information on the plates and heads etc. do take a look at that blog post and Podcast at https://mbp.ac/350. I’m not going to go into so much detail on that area today, but I do want to recap on some of the points of my TVC-34L tripod, which is the second from the left in the photo, and the TA-3-LB leveling base that I had it fitted with.
In reality, this has become the tripod that I use the Wimberley Head with, for the main reason that I can level the head in just a few seconds with the leveling base, rather than having to adjust the levelness of the head by painstakingly adjusting the height of the bottom section of each leg. Of course, you always shorten a tripod with the thinner bottom leg sections first. Always use the fatter, top leg sections first, as that helps to maintain the rigidity of the tripod.
For my Winter Wonderland Tours this year, I actually just took the RRS TVC-34L tripod and both the BH-55 ball head and the Wimberley Head, and switched between the heads as necessary. The gimbal for the bird photography with the 600mm f/4 lens, and then the BH-55 for all of my landscape work. This works really well, and as I rarely do both at the same time, I no longer take two tripods with me.
Another thing to note here though, as I mentioned earlier, is that the TVC-34L tripod, like my first Gitzo, gets the camera to my eye level without having to extend the fourth leg section. This is important in places like Hokkaido because the snow can sometimes be so deep, that you either need to attach snow feet to your tripod, which I really don’t like to carry around, or allow the feet to sink into the snow. This of course means if the tripod sinks very far, you can end up stooping to see through your viewfinder, and that’s not good if you need to shoot for longer than a few minutes. Having an extra leg section helps to avoid that.
Lose the Center Column
I also don’t like to use a center column with my tripods, and this means if you need to get the camera way up in the air, tilted upwards with you looking up into the viewfinder, you really need a little extra height. I don’t use that center column purely for stability. One pole is less stable than three, so you should always try to calculate your tripod height without figuring in the height of the center column. Having a high tripod also allows you to use step-ladders and shoot over the heads of crowds etc. which is another benefit, especially if you shoot events and have the lens power to still get your shots from behind the crowd.
TVC-34L Tripod with Leveling Base at Ground Level
Another reason I don’t like to use a center column is because it stops you from easily going to ground level. Some manufacturers have tripods with center columns that swing out for easy low level work, but I prefer to keep the camera in the middle of the tripod, and so like to just go really low, as we can see in this photo (above). With my old Gitzo I used to be able to take the center column out and put it in upside down, hanging the camera underneath the tripod for low angles like this, and I quite liked that for macro work, but I found more and more that I just wasn’t doing that, preferring to actually just lie on the floor if I needed to get lower than this, so I didn’t worry about this too much when I bought my Really Right Stuff tripod.
A “Lighter” Alternative
Really Right Stuff BH-40 Ball Head and TA-2-LB Leveling Base
When I was preparing for my Namibia trip, I decided it would be better to take a slightly lighter tripod and head, so I picked up the Really Right Stuff TVC-23 tripod with a TA-2-LB leveling base, and the BH-40 ball head that we can see in this photo (right). You can see from the first photo we looked at that this tripod and head is actually a shade longer than my other RRS Tripod, because the leveling base has to be fitted on top of the TVC-23 tripod, but this combination weighs just 2.3kg (5lbs) as opposed to 3.29kg (7.25lbs) for the TVC-34L with the BH-55 and Leveling Base. That extra kilogram makes a lot of difference when you’re trying to get your overall carry-on weight under 20kg, and it was also nice to have the lighter tripod when walking any distances.
Note too that if I really needed to shave off some weight, and I could live without the leveling base, I could take out, saving an extra 330g (11.6 oz) and the BH-40 actually mounts flush to the top of the Really Right Stuff Versa Series 2 tripods.
The BH-55 ball head has a load capacity of 23kg (50lbs), compared to the BH-40 at 8kg (18lbs), but this means that even the BH-40 would even support my 1D X and the old 600mm, weighing in at a total of 7kg (15.5lbs) are under the maximum load, although I wouldn’t use that combination. Anything up to a 300mm f/2.8 lens and a pro body though would be fine with this combination, and I didn’t have any problems in Namibia at all, even when shooting multi-minute long exposures.
It is always necessary to check the maximum load though. My tripod before my old Gitzo 3540L was a Manfrotto that got my viewfinder just to my eye with all legs fully extended, but not the center pole. I haven’t a clue what capacity it was rated to now, but it stopped supporting my gear when I got my first pro body, the 1Ds Mark III and the 300mm f/2.8 lens. These were just too much for it, so I bought the Gitzo and the Really Right Stuff BH-55, and never looked back.
I’m not going to go into detail on this today, but the fourth tripod in my first photo is a Gitzo 5541LS with a 75mm Bowl Adapter and the Manfrotto 519 Fluid Video Head. This is a beast to carry around, but an essential tool for video shooting, when you need to pan around smoothly. Since I bought this around four years ago now, there have been some interesting fluid heads released from Manfrotto, Gitzo and now also Really Right Stuff, so if I was buying now, I probably wouldn’t have gone for this particular head, just from a weight perspective, but when shooting video, this sort of thing is the way to go.
When Do I Use a Tripod?
So, that’s what I use, with a little information on why and when I use them interwoven, but to more thoroughly answer Fred’s question, let’s talk a little about my general guidelines for when I will use a tripod, and when I don’t.
My general rule of thumb is to use a tripod, unless it doesn’t make sense to do so. What I mean is, my default mode is to use a tripod, but that doesn’t mean I use one all the time, as my definition of “makes sense” is quite flexible. For example, if I go for a walk around a local park alone, I will often use a tripod the entire time, unless I need to get really low, in which case I’ll lie down and either put the camera on the floor, or support it with my left hand and my hand rested on the floor. Otherwise, I use the tripod.
I find that using a tripod makes me think about my photography more. Unless I’m shooting a moving subject, I generally shoot landscapes and flowers etc. in Live View mode. I sometimes start by lining the shot up through the viewfinder, but then switch to Live View, and this helps me to see the world two dimensionally, just as it will be in the final image. I feel it’s easier to fine tune the composition of an image in this way, rather than looking through the viewfinder the entire time, as in there everything is still three dimensional, and it’s easier for our brains to correct things that we don’t notice until we see the image flattened into two dimensions.
I can also zoom in on the viewfinder in Live View, and tweak my focus manually. I actually rarely use the autofocus in Live View, except sometimes to quickly get me focussed on something as I set up the shot, and then it’s always tweaked while zoomed in, in Live View, before I release the shutter.
The slower process also leads me to shoot less. I find that because I’m so happy with what I see when shooting from a tripod, I generally only shoot a handful of frames of each subject, unless I’m waiting for a critical moment, when I might shoot more to increase my chances of capturing that moment, but generally, I shoot less, and that helps to get through your editing process more quickly, and also just feels more like a craft. I’m certainly not saying that you shouldn’t shoot lots of frames, because I go crazy with birds in flight or wildlife, trying to get the absolute best pose, but when you can slow down, I think it helps your photography.
The Freedom of Hand-Held
I already noted that I use a tripod with a gimbal for very long lenses, and I will be trying the monopod again as I get out with the 200-400mm more, but these two methods are really trying to bring us as close to hand-held photography as possible. Following on from my walk in the park example, if I’m walking with my wife, and it’s supposed to be a walk in the park, not a photography shoot, then I will have a camera with me and shoot what I can, but I rarely even take a tripod on these walks, because it annoys the hell out of her.
It’s the same for what little street photography I do. I just want to be fast on my feet, and have the camera ready to shoot, then just do it, rather than spending the time to set up a tripod, which in most cases would take so long that you’d lose the shot, unless you were to set up and wait for a scene to unfold, but then you’d also draw attention to yourself as well, which you might not want to do.
I have set up a tripod in the city before, to do long exposures. With long exposure shots, be it nature or city photography, you need a very stable tripod. This is one of the reasons I buy such good quality tripods. I’ve seen so many people with flimsy tripods doing multiple second long exposures, then wondering why their images are soft. The camera has to stay perfectly still, or it won’t work, and the only way you can make that happen, is with a good firm tripod. You also need to use a cable release or two second timer to get your hands away from the camera etc. but I’ve covered all that before in a dedicated episode, so we won’t go into that again today.
Wildlife Photography & Panning
I also like to shoot wildlife hand-held, again, when it makes sense. If I’m shooting up to a medium telephoto, which in my books used to be something like my 300mm f/2.8 lens with an Extender, usually a 1.4X giving me a 420mm focal length. I also like to use the 70-200mm f/2.8, sometimes with the Extender, and I’ll pretty much always hand-hold these lenses if the wildlife is moving around, or I need to move around a lot to capture them from the best angle.
If the wildlife is not moving a lot or the light is getting low, this means hand-holding does not make sense any more, so I might go back to the tripod. Of course, I might have waited for the light to get low so that I could use a slowish shutter speed and do some panning, and I always hand hold for panning shots, because the action needs to be from the waste, and not rotating around a tripod, so again, it’s all about whether or not it makes sense to use a tripod.
Tripods in Macro
Again, I’ve done episodes dedicated to this, so just a quick word, but there are times when a tripod is the best way to do macro work. Even as we breath we tend to rock back and forth a little, so for very close macro work, I find it works best to use a tripod, especially if I’m also using a Twin-Lite strobe and additional off camera flashes. I’ve done this hand held and it can be frustrating, and sometimes just not work at all, especially if you are trying to hold an off-camera flash in one hand and shoot with the other.
Focus Stacked Flower
I also always use a tripod when doing focus stacking. Especially for macro work, you don’t want the camera moving around, or Photoshop will have a job on its hands trying to align the images for you, and it sometimes doesn’t even work. Here’s a shot of a spritzed flower that I did a focus stack of to illustrate this technique in my latest ebook Sharp Shooter.
There are times of course when you are trying to capture an insect for example, flying from flower to flower, when you might go hand-held, and with the IS enabled macro lenses available now, it’s certainly an option. Again, it’s all about whether or not it makes sense to use the tripod, and sense is something that is very individual to each of us.
I find that when I’m shooting in a studio, with full blown studio lighting, I prefer to hand hold, even if I’m shooting still life. Firstly, I’m usually shooting at 1/200 or 1/250 of a second, and the flash is much faster than that, so camera shake isn’t really an issue. If I need to really work the framing, I might spend the time to set up a tripod, but I usually like to move around a little more freely, changing angles all the time, working the various nuances that a slightly different angle can create. When shooting people in the studio it’s even more the case. I like to move around a lot, and interact, as well as finding the various angles that really make the shot, so I never shoot people in the studio with a tripod.
Find Your Style
We all shoot differently, so these guidelines are really just a summary of my shooting styles. You might find that using a tripod doesn’t work for you the way it does for me, or you prefer to use a tripod when I don’t. It’s really totally up to you, but if my own guidelines spark any ideas in you, then it’s probably been worth putting this together. The most important thing I think is to shoot as much as you can, and this will help you to define your shooting style for various subject types.
Today we’re going to have a bit of a Really Right Stuff love-fest, as we look at the new camera L-Plates for the 5D Mark III and the completely re-designed L-Plate for the Canon EOS 1D X, as well as the TVC-34L Tripod with Leveling Base that I recently bought, and we can’t do an RRS love-fest without giving their flagship ball-head, the BH-55 a mention.
In fact, I might as well start with the BH-55, as this has been my best friend for almost five years now. I’d used a number of ball-heads over the years, and as camera resolution increased, the flaws in my older ball-heads became apparent, and I’d look for something else.
I recall my friend Graham Morgan showing me his BH-55 on our first Hokkaido Workshop, and I also recall thinking just how beautiful a work of engineering art it was. He said it was the most solid ball-head he’d ever used, and of course, he was right. The BH-55 is rock solid. I bought mine within weeks of returning home from Hokkaido that year and haven’t regretted it once.
The image below shows the BH-55 on top of my new Really Right Stuff TVC-34L Tripod with optional TA-3-LB Leveling Base, both of which we’ll look at shortly. Really Right Stuff gear really are works of art, so I couldn’t help sharing this first image from a series of black background shots that I made of this stuff. I shared the series of black background images on Google+ if you are interested, but for the rest of today’s images, we’ll use white background shots, to make it easier to see the gear.
Really Right Stuff TVC-34L Tripod with Leveling Base and BH-55
(Click on the image to view larger and navigate back and forth with your mouse or keyboard arrow keys.)
The BH-55 has three knurled knobs, starting with the largest one, which is to lock the ball in place, and believe me, when you tighten this up, that ball and camera are going nowhere!
BH-55 Ball-Head Showing All Knobs
Of the two smaller knobs, the one at the bottom is to lock the horizontal movement, stopping the entire head from rotating. You use this to recompose when you need to move the camera horizontally across your scene.
If you have the tripod level, you can turn the camera on it’s horizontal axis like this to take panorama photos. It’s not going to be quite as accurate as setting it all up to rotate the camera around the No Parallax Point but today’s stitching software is so advanced that I personally don’t worry too much about that.
The top of the two small knobs is to control the drag or tension of the ball in its socket. This may not be an obvious benefit until you actually use it, but when I have this too slack, and undo the large locking knob, the camera flops around all over the place, making it hard to control. Adding just the right amount of tension to push back as I move the camera around makes fine turning so much easier.
You can tilt the ball-head and camera over and down into one of the two circular cut-outs on the head, which allows you to point the camera down further than the other positions, but you can also tilt the camera over on it’s side using these openings, but that moves the center of gravity of the set up over to one side, and although it’s still very stable, for best results, and for a number of other reasons, I chose to use L-Plates on my cameras, which enable me to unclamp the body, and switch orientation without tilting the camera on it’s side.
Here (below) we see the new B1DX-L Plate for the Canon EOS 1D X that has been totally redesigned over the 1Ds Mark III L-Plate.
1D X with B1DX-L Plate Fitted
The major innovation here is that this plate is now modular, so you can remove the side L Component and just use it as a simple base-plate. I probably will rarely do that, but it’s nice to have the option. More importantly though, as you can see (above) on the bottom of the plate, there is an extra bevelled hole which is used to screw the L-Component down in an extended position, giving you additional clearance for cables, especially when shooting with USB or Ethernet cable connected for tethered shooting.
1D X L-Plate with L Component Extended & Cables Attached
It’s most useful in the portrait orientation of course, and not really necessary if you don’t intend to mount the camera to a tripod in this position, as all cables can be inserted with the L-Component flush to the camera, but it does making plugging them in a little easier too, so is still useful even in landscape orientation.
Of course, if you are only plugging in a cable release, all Really Right Stuff L-Plates have clearance for that, so you can use a cable release in portrait orientation without extending the L-Component and still be able to mount the camera on a tripod.
1D X with L-Plate in Portrait Orientation with Cable Release Attached
Another nice new feature, especially important now that we might be unscrewing and adjusting the L-Component in the field, is a hole in the base plate to stow the hex-key (below). I have it resting in the hole in this photo so that you can see it, but you just slide the key right in there, and it’s held in place with a small magnet.
1D X L-Plate and Hex Key
And before we move on, here’s a bottom view (below) with Hex-Key stowed and the L-Component of the plate extended, so that you can see exactly how this works.
1D X L-Plate with L Component Extended
The 5D Mark III’s L-Plate, the BGE11-L is made specifically for the 5D Mark III with the battery grip fitted. Really Right Stuff also do a plate for just the 5D, without the Battery Grip, but I like the larger form factor of the grip, and so this is always my choice.
5D Mark III with BGE11-L Plate Fitted
The 5D Mark III L-Plate is not modular, like the 1D X plate, but it’s been redesigned to allow you to remove the battery pack, as this is now accessed from the side of the battery grip, not the back as with the 5D or 5D Mark II. And, of course, you can plug in your cable release (below) without hinderance and mount the camera in portrait orientation with the cable release plugged in as necessary.
5D Mark III with L-Plate & Cable Release Fitted
I buy lens plates for the tripod shoe (below) on all of my longer lenses, or even my macro lens that has a collar and tripod mount, and this allows me to mount the camera to the tripod via the lens, rather than the camera. This is especially important with long lenses, that tend to come with the tripod collar and shoe, because if you mount this long a lens to the camera while the camera is attached to the tripod it would put a huge amount of stress on the camera mount, and for super telephoto lenses, you may well even rip the mount out of the camera. It would of course also make your system less stable, and give rise to camera shake as well.
70-200mm Lens Mounted with Tripod Shoe
Of course, with the lens mounted, to go to portrait orientation, you just loosen the screw on the lens collar, and rotate the camera and lens, once again, keeping the center of gravity all down the center of the tripod, for maximum stability.
Because all of my cameras and long lenses are fitted with plates, it means that everything is interchangeable. You might remember that back in Episode 288 I showed you how I fitted my Black Rapid Double Strap with Really Right Stuff Quick Release Clamps, so that I could quickly switch from tripod mounting to my straps.
Really Right Stuff Quick Release Clamp
I also now use the Optech/USA straps so that I can remove the strap and pass the shorter remaining strap through the Black Rapid strap, to stop the camera falling to the ground, as it’s done a few times while walking around or sitting in Zodiacs with the strap attached to the lens. Take a look at Episode 288 if you want more information on this.
I also use a Wimberley Gimbal Head with my 600mm f/4 lens, and that works fine with the Really Right Stuff dovetail plates. And, although it broke and I never replaced it, I used to have a monopod with a Quick Release clamp fitted, and that was nice too, to be able to just switch between all of my support or carrying devices without having to unscrew and switch out the plates on anything.
TVC-34L Tripod with Leveling Base Correcting Unlevel Tripod
So, last but not least, let’s take a look at the Versa TVC-34L Tripod with the Optional TA-3-LB Leveling Base (right). Really Right Stuff make Series 1, 2 and 3 tripods in the Versa range, with 1 being the lightest, 2 being more sturdy, and Series 3 being the most robust. They are of course all engineered to the same high standards, but tripods are always a trade-off between size and weight, and their stability. If you only intend to use your tripod with a mirrorless micro four-thirds camera for example, there isn’t much point in going for Series 2 or 3, but if like me, you use large heavy lenses and heavy professional bodies, you might want to consider a Series 3 Versa Tripod.
Selecting a Tripod
Long time listeners will probably recall me talking about things to bear in mind when selecting a tripod, and I of course bore these things in mind when I ordered my 34L too. Firstly, you want the tripod to get your camera’s viewfinder to eye-level, without having to use a center column. Raising the center column makes the tripod less stable.
If you think you’re going to want to set the camera higher than eye level, consider doing what I did, and buy a tripod even taller than yourself. I’m 5’10” (178cm) and this tripod gets my cameras’ viewfinder to eye-level without extending the bottom leg section. Having that extra height though, will allow me to extend the tripod further, if for example, I want to shoot something overhead, looking up into the viewfinder, or using LiveView.
It also enables me to extend one or two legs further when shooting on a steep slope, or with a leg in a river etc. The other things I’ve mentioned in the past is that in deed snow, the legs can sink, and it’s nice to be able to compensate for that. At events, if you take some step ladders, you can fully extend the tripod and stand on the steps, shooting over peoples’ heads. As you can see, there are a number of reasons why getting a larger tripod can help your photography. It is of course, a trade off on weight too though. Take a look at the extended height of the tripods, and bear in mind that you will add the height of the ball-head, and your camera, to the viewfinder, to get something that you don’t have to bend over to look into.
I selected the 34L tripod without a center pole, and instead added the optional TA-3-LB Leveling Base (bel0w). As you can see in the last photo (above), it allows you to level the tripod head, even if the legs are on uneven ground. Of course, in this photo I simulated this by extending one leg further than the others, but you can also see how I was able to correct this. You turn the short pole extending out of the bottom of the leveling base to loosen it, straighten it according to the built-in spirit level, then turn the pole back to tighten it and lock the base in position. It will apparently adjust for up to 15° of tilt, which you can see from these photos is quite significant.
Leveling Head Tilted Over
You might be wondering why I wouldn’t just allow the ball-head to be at an angle, and correct the camera with the ball-head itself, but this goes back to what we mentioned earlier, about panorama photos. With the base level, you can unscrew the horizontal movement screw on the BH-55 and just turn the camera on the base, and keep your horizon straight as you shoot your series of panorama shots. To do this without the leveling base, your only other option is to adjust each leg until you get the tripod straight, but that takes a lot more time.
We can also see in this next photo, that the pole extending out of the bottom of the leveling base does not touch the floor when you have the tripod set to it’s lowest level, by splaying the legs out to their full extent.
TVC-34L Tripod with Leveling Base at Ground Level
Why Do I Need a Sturdy Tripod?
Of course, the reason you’ll want a big sturdy tripod is to keep your gear rock solid during your exposure. I do a lot of long exposures, and you really need a solid tripod to avoid camera shake once you slow your shutter speed down. Even for normal speed exposures, if your ball-head and tripod shudder as your shutter unit moves, you’re going to end up with blurred images.
Longer lenses are heavier and therefore obviously need a more sturdy tripod. The 34L will support up to 50lb / 23kg in weight, which is enough for even the biggest lenses, but long lenses can shudder during exposure, so I also use a Really Right Stuff Lens Support Package, to support the front of the lens as I shoot, which reduces that shudder a lot. Here’s a photo from Episode 198 in which I talked about this lens support system.
600mm F4 with Long Lens Support CP-YS-QR-Pkg
You can see I also use the Really Right Stuff Replacement Foot! This really is a Really Right Stuff love-fest!
What Was Wrong With My Gitzo?
I was asked what was wrong with my trusty Gitzo 3 Series Tripod, and why I replaced it, so I should say for the record that I still believe that Gitzo make incredibly good tripods. I was always happy with the sturdiness of my Gitzo coupled with the BH-55 ball-head. The problem was that a few months ago, one of the legs started to rotate at the top of the first section, making it difficult to loosen and tighten the legs to extend or retract them. I’ll be keeping the Gitzo too. I just had to sent it in for repairs, and didn’t expect it to be returned before I leave for the US to continue my Pixels 2 Pigment workshops.
Having said that, now that I own a Really Right Stuff tripod, I can’t see me going back. In true RRS style, the TVC-34L Tripod is an engineering work of art. Even down to how the latches ratchet back out as you bend the legs back in out of the low angle mode, is magical. They’ve thought of everything, and I’m very pleased that I took the plunge. The only thing that I will have to work around is that without the center pole, I am not able to flip the pole around and hang the camera below the tripod for super low angles and macro work. I guess when I leave the house to do that kind of photography from now on, I’ll continue to reach for my old trusty Gitzo.
The Trade Off – Your Choice
Just to recap, larger, sturdier tripods are always a trade-off with regards to size and weight. If you are going to be traveling or even trekking of course, you might decide to go for a lighter, smaller tripod, and live with the lack of ultimate sturdiness, and even having to bend down to look through the view finder. It’s totally up to you. My main advice here though, is weight up the advantages and disadvantages, and make your decision based on what you are able to carry. If you can carry, and have the budget for the larger more sturdy tripod, and don’t have another reason to make that trade-off, then go the larger one. It will serve you well, I assure you.
Oh, and the same goes for the ball-heads. The BH-55 is Really Right Stuff’s flagship model, but they do a series of smaller heads that are from what I can see also incredibly well made, so if you go for a smaller tripod, consider a smaller head too. There wouldn’t really be much point in having a big fat BH-55 on top of their smallest tripod.
Quick Release Levers
One word before we finish, about the Quick Release clamps as opposed to the knurled knob clamps that Really Right Stuff also make. I’m asked regularly if I trust the quick release clamp, and if I think the knob might be better, or safer.
Really Right Stuff TVC-34L Tripod with Leveling Base and BH-55
My reply is usually that I tried the knob release in the past, and didn’t like it. It takes too long to switch out a camera or lens when you have to turn the knob, plus, in cold conditions it can be a pain, literally. I personally prefer the quick release aspect, and I have never once had one of these come loose, so yes, I trust them totally, even when dangling my gear from the Black Rapid Double Strap using the quick release clamps.
Simply the Best!
Really Right Stuff isn’t the cheapest camera support system on the planet, by a long shot, but this is one of those occasions like many, when you really do get what you pay for. If you can make do with cheaper, that’s great! But most people I know end up spending more money on camera supports than is really necessary because they start off cheap, and gradually replace their tripods and heads as they grow as photographers, and find inadequacies in their gear. I’ve done this myself, going through a number of tripods and ball heads over the years. If you read this early enough in your photographic life, you may even be able to save yourself a little money by just going for the best now, because that’s what Really Right Stuff gear is, the best.
Note that over the next month or so the Podcast release schedule is going to be all over the place, as I travel to the US, Canada and the UK for my Pixels 2 Pigment workshops. We still have spaces, so if you’d like to join us, please check out the www.pixels2pigment.com Web site and see what that’s all about.
Also, I’m taking the opportunity of being in the US at this time to attend Photoshelter’s Luminance 2012 Workshops and series of TED style talks from Sept 11-13. I’ll be learning stuff from greats like Joe McNally and Zack Arias, which is going to be amazing! If you are also planning to go, do let me know, or search me out while you are there, so that we can meet face to face and shake hands.
In this post/podcast episode, I’m going to answer three questions from listener Paul Posey, from Louisville, Kentucky, (which coincidentally is the home of our friends over at Outdoor Photo Gear). Thanks very much for your questions Paul, and it looks like you sent the questions via the MBP Podcast Companion iPhone app, so thanks very much for picking that up too! You can get your copy of the app here, or by searching for MBP in the iTunes Store, and filtering under Apps.
First up, Paul asks “What tripod do you use in most of your work and why?”
Gitzo – Simply the Best
My Gitzo Tripod in Action
For a number of years now, I’ve only used Gitzo’s carbon fiber tripods, because I find them to provide support for heavy equipment and long lenses, despite them being relatively light because of the carbon fiber construction. They aren’t cheap, and I do think that there may well be some good alternatives on the market now too, but first let’s look at what I use. I actually have three Gitzo tripods, one is a very tall, old three series tripod, before the 6X range was introduced. 6X design basically stops the leg segments from turning when you loosen the locking nuts to adjust the height.
I also have a very large 5 series Gitzo that I use for video, but my main tripod is a GT3540L, but I don’t want anyone to get hung up on the numbers here, because this may well not be the optimal tripod for you. Also, Gitzo revs the last numerical digit when they release an updated version of each tripod, so the GT3540L is no longer available. So, instead of giving you model numbers, I’m going to discuss some of the options that you need to consider when buying a tripod. What I also suggest is that you take a look at the Gitzo Products Configurator, that can be found on the top page at gitzo.com. Unfortunately, at the moment this seems to be broken, so I wasn’t able to reference the configurator in preparation for this Podcast. Hopefully it will be back up before you try to use it yourself. Anyway, here are the things to bear in mind when you start to select options for your tripod.
For your main, everyday use tripod, select something that will get your viewfinder at least to eye level, when the tripod is fully extended, but without using the center column. The sizes are available on the Web site, but you will need to look at the height of your tripod head, and the distance from the bottom of your camera to the viewfinder, but generally you can just add around 20cm to the height of the tripod, and that will get you close. The objective here is to stop you from having to stoop when you are framing your shots. There is nothing worse than bending over to compose your photographs, because you didn’t want to pay the cost of a tripod large enough to enable you to avoid doing this. You’ll soon find yourself not using the tripod at all, and that means the entire price of the tripod was a waste.
I say that you need the height to be “at least” to your eye level, because I actually like to try to get around a foot or so above my eye level, for a couple of reasons. The first one being that if you are shooting up at something, it makes it much more comfortable if you can increase the tripod height to a point that you can look up into the camera. You can get around this to a degree with an angle finder, and Liveview also helps, but still, getting the camera up high really helps here. Also, in deep snow, unless you put shoes on your tripod legs, which are available, the tripod will often sink into the snow, and you end up having to stoop again. The same can happen on soft sand to a degree, so again, having a foot or so leeway can help you to maintain the ability to compose your shots at eye level.
I should point out that although I talk about getting the viewfinder to eye-level, I do not propose that you shoot everything from eye level. Getting down low and shooting from other perspectives is important, but you don’t want to have to do this from necessity, because your tripod is too short.
I always go for the carbon fiber option, but the Basalt series is also a very good second choice, if the price of the carbon fiber range is a factor for you. It’s slightly heavier I believe, but still provides very rigid support for your gear, which leads us to another factor to bear in mind, which is the total weight of the equipment that you will be mounting on the tripod. You’ll need to weigh or calculate the weight of the heaviest equipment you intend to use. If you need the tripod to support a pro body with a 500mm lens for example, you’ll need to make sure that the tripod you select is rated for the total weight of these two pieces of gear, and then some, so that you can add a strobe or other equipment if necessary. I’ve used heavy equipment on tripods that were not rated that high, and it gets shaky, and results in blurry images.
If you want your tripod to collapse down small enough to be able to carry on to a plane, you’ll probably want to go for four segment legs, as opposed to three. Even then, if length is an issue, I suggest you check with the airline that you use most often to see what the maximum length of your baggage can be, and ensure that the collapsed tripod is inside this. I actually have to take the ball-head off of my tripod to get it on as a carry on, because it’s very close to the limit.
You’ll also want to keep the minimum shooting height in mind, if you like to get down nice and low for example. You’ll want the legs to open up really wide, and have the ability to remove the center column, to mount your camera at pretty much ground level. Also, being able to mount the camera upside down underneath the tripod can be a good way to get down really low, for a low perspective, or for macro shots of very small flowers etc. There are also other things such as off-center ball-head mounting, and leveling center columns, that you might want to consider if you shoot in rough terrain where the ground can sometimes be very uneven. There are a multitude of things to keep in mind, and I haven’t covered them all here, so I really do suggest you take a look at the Gitzo Web site, and see what would best match your needs.
I did mention that there are other options, and to my mind, the only other tripods that I would consider at the moment are the new range from Really Right Stuff and Induro. Really Right Stuff create incredibly well engineered equipment, and I’ve heard that their tripods live up to their incredibly high standards too. The problem is that they are a three section design right now, and they are too long to carry onto an aircraft, at least here in Japan. I do ship my longer tripods, but I like to be able to carry my main tripod on with me, so that kind of rules these out for me. Induro have a pretty impressive range out already, to say they haven’t been in this market very long, and they are certainly worth looking into as well. Some of their line is good for carry on, and the price point is more attractive than some of the Gitzo range. I haven’t actually used Induro products yet though, so I can’t vouch for them personally.
What Walkabout Lens and Why?
So, moving on, Paul’s second question what “What walk around lens do you use and why?”
This is a tough one, because I rarely just walk around, with just one lens. If I can realistically only take one lens with me, and I don’t have a specific objective that would require say a longer focal length, I will generally reach for the 24-70mm F2.8 L lens, or a 50mm lens. I love prime lenses, and I in fact only own three zoom lenses. But zoom lenses offer a lot of versatility, and the quality of modern zoom lenses is so good that you really don’t have to worry about the trade of in image quality any more.
Generally though, if I’m looking to keep my options open, and don’t have a specific subject in mind, I’ll pack two more lenses, even if I’m just going on walkabout. On the wide end, I’ll take either the 16-35mm F2.8 II L lens, or the 14mm F2.8 L lens. Again, the 16-35mm is a very versatile lens, but the 14mm is a great lens, and that extra 2mm really does seem to make a difference when you need to go really wide.
I generally will also take a 70-200mm F2.8 lens with me as well. In practice, I actually use the 70-200mm much more than the mid-range 24-70mm, but that is because I don’t really do much street photography, where I’m just walking around with one or two lenses looking for opportunities. My photography is generally targeted, with a specific location and subject, or range of subjects in mind. I usually take much more kit out with me too, but on occasion, I will take limited gear with me, if I don’t so much have a certain type of photograph in mind, or I do intend to do a spot of out of character street photography.
Old Bike, Old Shop
Of course, the 50mm focal length is something that many associate with street photography, and I have owned a 50mm F1.4 lens for some ten years now, and although these are pretty cheap, I even paid about half the cost of the lens to get mine renovated last year, and had the auto-focus fixed too, as it had broken. I also rebought the legendary 50mm F1.2 L lens, that I
originally bought and then sent back straight away on confirming that the focus mechanism is unstable when shooting close to the minimum focus distance with this lens. It’s just too good a lens to leave out of my kit bag though, and so I bought another one with the money that I got for my old 70-200mm lens earlier this year.
As I’m sure you’ve heard, many people think of it as a bit of a creative exercise to venture out with just a 50mm lens, and I support that theory. There is certainly something about the 50mm focal length, and I find myself shooting differently, and looking for different subject matter when I am out with a 50mm. Take this image for example, of an old bike outside an old shop. When I shot this, I was on a day out shopping with my wife. We were going to a part of town that we don’t visit often, so my curiosity was peeked. This is actually a good example of when I might take just a camera with one lens, and I sometimes make that the 50mm. Another reason people like the 50mm is because it has a perspective similar to that of the human eye, which makes images shot with a 50mm lens very natural.
Of course, the 50mm lens is also considered a very nice focal length for somewhat intimate portraits, like this one of a Hotel Doorman that I photographed in India. Not my best portrait, but I like the gentle expression on this gentleman’s face, so I thought I’d include this one too. 85mm of course is often considered a good portrait lens, and if I was going out to only shoot portraits, I might just take that lens, as I did once during a walk in a market in India, but again, I’m just adding more options here in response to a question about which one lens I would take out as my walkabout lens.
I guess this kind of proves the point that it really does depend on my objectives. Given the choice, I would also have at least two or three lenses with me, but when I do limit myself to one, it’s usually either the 50mm, or the 24-70mm F2.8. Outside of my own current line-up, I should certainly also mention the 24-105mm F4 L lens as a good walk about lens. I actually sold my old 24-105mm F4 lens to by the shorter 24-70mm, because I wanted the wider aperture, but if that isn’t a problem for you, the 24-105mm is a very versatile and incredibly sharp lens that I can certainly recommend. I got the below shot of my niece on her wedding day with the 24-105mm that is still one of my favorite candid portrait shots.
Lia on Her Wedding Day
Anyway, hopefully you get the picture on the single walkabout lens. It’s certainly not an easy choice, and hopefully you will not be restricted to own just one lens.
The 100-400mm Versatile “Canon”
So, finally, Paul’s third question is “Have you used the Canon 100-400 lens?”
Oh yes! I should say though, that I have mixed feelings about the Canon 100-400mm lens. I saw from a follow up email from Paul though, that he is shooting with a film camera, in which case, by all means go for it if you are considering this lens. Even if you are shooting digital, you may not have to rule this lens out. Let me explain…
The 100-400mm can be hit and miss on image quality. It’s generally a little bit soft, if you are using high-resolution cameras like the Canon EOS 5D Mark II, at 21 mega pixels. These cameras basically out resolve the lens. This means that if you view images shot with the 100-400mm at 100%, you’ll see that the image is not all that sharp. Of course though, just because you create images at higher resolution doesn’t really mean the lens is any less sharp than it was with say a 12 mega pixel camera, but you can see that the quality is lacking with a higher resolution body.
I personally want my images to be as sharp as they possibly can be, and for me, if I find that the resolution of my current camera is out-resolving a particular lens, I start to avoid using that lens. Foolish? Maybe, but I can’t help it. I spend a lot of time and effort making images, and I want them to be the best that they can be. I also want to know that I can print my images out very large, and still be happy with the sharpness, and I give myself more options by shooting the sharpest possible base images.
If however, you are happy to know that you can easily make up to say 13×19″ prints that are probably going to look as good from the 100-400mm whether they are shot with on a 21 mega pixel camera or a 12 mega pixel camera, and you don’t foresee wanting to print really large at any point, then the versatility of the 100-400mm lens is second to none. I have to admit, I really do miss being able to go from 100-400mm with one air pumping swoosh of that lens.
One other thing to note about the 100-400mm, and this is where it gets a bit hit-and-miss, is that sharpness drops off as you get close to the 400mm focal length. I have some 200 images on my Web site that I shot with my old 100-400mm lens, and the ones shot around the middle of the focal length range are by far sharper than the ones shot at 400mm. This image of a Shoebill Stork for example is tack sharp, shot at 330mm.
In summary, if you want versatility over image quality at the long end, and you aren’t worried about really large prints, then the 100-400mm lens is an amazing lens, well worth the money. Before springing for this lens though, do note that there have been rumors of Canon bringing out a version II of this lens for a while now. It would certainly make sense, as they are going through their range of lenses, updating them all with improved resolution to match the resolving power of the modern DSLRs. The 100-400mm is a workhorse lens for many wildlife and sports photographers, so it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see an update of this lens in the relatively near future.
Today I’m going to describe what types of camera supports I use, give you just a few examples of images shot with each, and a few tips on what to look out for when buying a tripod, monopod or other camera support.
Today’s Podcast topic was originally suggested by Dom Leary, username Scrubs, from Surrey, England. Dom has been a member for a while now and contributes a lot to the board, so Thanks Dom, both for the suggestion for today’s topic, and for your continued contributions to the forum.
As of April 2006 I use two tripods and a monopod, selecting from them as necessary based on the intended use. I took all three to Hokkaido with me in February this year and used them all.
So firstly, the tripod that I’ve owned the longest, around 4 years now I think, is comprised of a set of Manfrotto 444 Carbon One legs, and at the end of 2005 I bought Acratech’s The Ultimate Ballhead for this tripod. The Ultimate Ballhead is a great piece of equipment and it fits perfectly onto my Manfrotto 444 legs. Unlike my previous ballhead that was greased, and required a lot of pressure to be applied to fix the camera in any particular position, and even then sometimes the camera would still move, the Ultimate Ballhead is not greased and really needs very list pressure to stop it dead.
When you order from Acratech’s Web site, I’ll put links to all this equipment in the show notes by the way, you can choose from a number of options, such as to optimize the ballhead for left-handed use, and also you can choose rubber knobs, as I did, which makes tightening and un-tightening much easier. I also chose the option to not put a Quick Release shoe on the ballhead, as I wanted to standardize all my camera supports with the same Wimberly QR or Quick Release clamp, C-10. This QR Clamp has a groove down the middle into which screws in the plate that you fit to the camera or your lenses slide, but stop the lens from sliding all the way out if the screw should come loose at all. I now have a plate permanently screwed to both my 5D and 20D, as I sometimes use both together, and I also have a plate on all my lenses that have a tripod mount, namely the 600mm F4, the 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 and my 100mm macro lenses.
I find it important to be able to use both cameras and all my lenses on any of these supports, as the plates that you fit to lens mounts or camera are not quick release. They screw into the tripod mount and in some cases also have other locking nuts, so taking them off and switching to different plates in the field is impractical. So basically this tripod and both my second tripod and monopod are all fitted with QR Clamps from Wimberly, so that I don’t have to waist time changing shoes instead of shooting.
So, why did I go for the Manfrotto 444 legs? Firstly, I wanted carbon-fiber for it’s lightness, as I was going to attach this tripod to the side of my already too heavy camera bag and often trek up mountains or walk for long distances. It can’t be too light though, as we don’t want it blowing over in the slightest breeze with our precious equipment sitting on it. This particular model weighs in at 3.5lbs or 1.6 kilograms and will support up to 11lbs or 5kg of camera equipment happily. It was important to check this as the tripod needs to support a large DSLR with battery grip and flash. Basically the message is don’t go for something too flimsy. Small and light is nice, but only really suitable if your main camera is a compact digital. Even then, I wouldn’t go very light as you’re not going to be too happy if the wind takes it.
The second reason I chose this particular model, the 444, is because it has four leg sections, which means it is compact when the legs are all contracted. The closed length without a head is 19.2 inches or 48cms. When I have a head on this, it is just under the maximum length that you can carry one to an airplane. I don’t like checking any photographic equipment when traveling abroad, so making sure that I can carry it on to a plane was important.
Another consideration was the maximum height. I like a tripod to get the eyepiece of the camera to eye level, without having to extend the center pole. Extending the center pole is OK in emergencies, but you don’t want to put yourself in the position of having to always use it, as it reduces the effectiveness, that is the ability of your tripod to steady your camera greatly. At 48 inches or 1.2 meters, then adding the height of the ball head and the camera itself, this tripod gets the eye piece right to my eye level. You also don’t want to be crouching to shoot, unless you are doing macro work where the subject is low to the ground. For normal landscape work, you want to be able to stand without stooping and look through the finder. This is just a comfort thing really, to stop you from getting back ache unnecessarily.
Now, if you do any amount of macro work or shooting from low angles for any other reason, the minimum height from which you can shoot is also important. I chose this tripod for low angle shooting for two reasons. Firstly, the legs can be widened to three different angles. If you don’t do anything, the legs stop at pretty much the same angle as most tripods, in this case, 25 degrees. Then using the quick action leg angle selector buttons at the top of the legs, you can also allow the legs to open more widely to 45 and then even wider to 65 degrees. This allow you to get lower to the grown with the camera still attached to the top of the tripod. Once you go past a certain angle though, the center pole will hit the floor, so there’s a special low angle adapter, that screws into the bottom of the center pole, which you unscrew, take the center pole out, and then drop the low angle adapter into the hole where the center pole was. This allows you to get the tripod way down low because the pole is no longer sticking out of the bottom to stop you. You then remount your tripod head onto the low angle adapter and drop your camera sits on that as usual.
Today, I’m not going to talk about many photos, as this is going to be more equipment based, but one that I do want to look at is shot number 955, of a tiny blue flower called a Common Field Speedwell. If you know this flower, you’ll know that it grows on a bed of leaves and stalk right down at ground level. To make this image, actually looking up at the flower head slightly, I had my camera upside down, with the flash shoe about 2 centimeters from the ground. To keep my camera stable I was using the Manfrotto 444 Carbon One tripod with the legs opened out to 45 degrees, and the center pole inserted upside down into the tripod so that the camera hung upside down. The ability to do this was another consideration when I bought this particular tripod, and if you are into macro or low angle photography, I suggest you keep this in mind too when deciding what to buy.
Frail Blue Flower
This shot was made with the 100mm F2.8 macro lens with the 25mm extension tube at F4 for 160th of a second, at ISO 200.
The last thing I kept in mind when buying this particular tripod was the Quick-action leg lever locks that secure the leg extensions firmly in place. This means that I can undo the lever, extended the leg section and lock it again pretty quickly. I’d say that the feeling of how easily the legs extend and contract is going to be pretty much down to personal preference though, so I’d try to get to a camera store and actually handle the tripod before buying.
The second tripod I use, which comprises of a Gitzo 1348 Mk2 and a Wimberly Head, also has four leg sections for shorter minimum length of 24 inches or 0.6 metres, and with this tripod leg sections that are locked by rotating a rubber grip on the leg sections. This takes a maybe a fraction longer than the quick action leg lever of my Manfrotto to undo, but equally easy to use. In fact, this might also just be because I’m not as used to using the Gitzo tripod just yet. The main considerations for this tripod were that I wanted something that would steadily support the weight of my 600mm F4 lens with a camera and battery grip. This tripod weighing in at 4.75lbs or 2.2kg will support up to 26.5lbs or 12kg of equipment. Although the Manfrotto will hold the weight of my 600mm and camera too, I wanted to use this tripod with the Wimberly head, and as changing the head in the field is not practical, because they sometimes lock up, I decided to buy another tripod especially for this combination.
Another reason is that I wanted something that extends higher than my Manfrotto, so that if the legs sink in snow, I would still be OK. This tripod actually extends around good two feet higher than I need it too for this purpose. The other advantage of this is that if I want to use the 600mm to shoot at say a falconry display or something, where there will be a crowd, it is not possible to set up a tripod at the front row or in the crowd. The only option would be to stand at the back of the crowd, so I could take some small steps, set the tripod up to maximum height, which is 65.75 inches or 167cm, and then another twenty cms or so for the head, and then shoot while standing on the steps. This is something to bear in mind if you intend to shoot from a tripod at sports venues or similar locations.
The Gitzo Tripods center pole also can be removed and replaced with a different adapter for low angle shooting, as with my Manfrotto tripod.
I found an interesting fact on Gitzo’s Web site today while preparing for today’s Podcast. It seems that in 1992 a UK company called Vitec Group PLC bought Gitzo, and this same company also owns Manfrotto. They are committed to both as separate brands apparently. I just thought it was funny that I chose two different tripods for different needs, and the money for both ended up going into the same company’s pocket.
Anyway, one other consideration, as making sure the tripod is level when using the Wimberly Head is important, is that this particular model incorporates a spirit level. This helps to get the tripod perfectly level so that when I pan I don’t find myself with a crooked horizon at any point.
The reason I chose the Wimberly Head was partly through seeing it in action in a copy of Michael Reichmann’s The Lumious Landscape Video Journal. For long or super-telephoto lenses the Wimberly Head really comes into its own. As you can achieve perfect balance of your lens and camera, you can literally undo all the locking nuts on the lens and swing it around with almost the same amount of freedom that you get when hand-holding. Once again, I’ll put a link to the Wimberly Web site and Michael Reichmann’s Video Journal in the show notes.
So, by way of introducing just one image I made using the Wimberly Head on the Gitzo 1348 Mk2 legs during a trip to Hokkaido in February 2006, let’s take a quick look at shot number 872. I first spoke about this shot and the Wimberly Head in episode 26 of the Martin Bailey Photography Podcast, but I really like the sharpness of this shot, and one of the reasons for that sharpness is the excellent design of the Wimberly Head and the ability it gives you to track subjects like eagles as they move across the sky. This was shot with the 600mm F4 lens at 1/800th of a second, ISO 400 at F11.
Daunting White-Tailed Eagle
Finally, although not very often, I use a Manfrotto 3245 monopod. As I mentioned earlier, this is also fitted with a Wimberly QR Clamp to allow me to fit my lenses to this monopod too, without changing the plates on my equipment. I don’t have a ball head or anything on this monopod, as I can loosen the screw on the tripod mounts on my lenses, and turn the camera in the mount to the vertical or portrait position. This does make it difficult to shoot things very high up in the sky, but I don’t find myself needing to do this very often.
Monopods are great for sports photography and actually provide more stability than you might think. I used mine to good effect also during the Hokkaido trip in February, from the deck of a fishing boat when shooting eagles. Take a look at image number 909 to see the results. This was one of the first images I’d made after switching to the 600mm F4 on the Manfrotto monopod from hand holding the 100-400mm lens with my 5D. It was shot at F5.6 for 1/640th of a second at ISO 400. I hope you can appreciate how sharp this image is. Using a tripod on a rocking boat is obviously not an option, so I hope this image will also help you to appreciate that using a monopod is a viable option when circumstance dictate.
Rausu Steller’s Sea Eagle #2
For studio work, where carrying the tripod around is not an issue, there are also some much larger, heavier tripods around, and as they are usually made from steel or other heavy metals, as opposed to carbon-fiber, they are not as expensive.
I haven’t provided a review of all the options available here, and as I don’t have any experience with other products, I don’t think it would be fair to compare them with what I do use and know. Anything like that would be just speculation. There are lots of makers of excellent quality tripods in addition to Manfrotto and Gitzo, so please do take a look at all of your options. Hopefully sharing what I considered during the search for my camera supports will help to figure out what you want if you are currently in a similar situation.
Options other than tripods and monopods that I can think of include bean-bags that can be dropped onto a wall just about any steady surface and then you rest your camera lens or body on the bean-bag for stability. You can use your camera bag in a similar way, but a bean bag I’d imagine will mould itself to the shape or your camera and lens. There are also clamps that house a standard tripod head, that clamp onto shelves or some that also can be clamped onto your car window. I’m not sure I’d like to support a 600mm lens clamped to my car window, but I’m sure this is a viable option for shooting with shorter lenses. Another similar option is something that clamps onto your car door with the window down. This will obviously support much more weight. There are very small compact tripods. I personally would not use one of these for my photography, but I can imagine if you found one that will support the weight of your camera and your longest lens, they may have some limited applications. As I say, check out what’s available and make up your own mind. At least now you’ll have my own considerations and opinions and will hopefully think of a few things that were not initially important to you.
So that’s it for today’s main topic. I have a quick update on the photography assignment we kicked off last week. Firstly, I decided to change the voting system. I was going to turn on the rating system in the gallery at the end of April when we stop taking entries to the Assignment gallery, but this system allows members to vote multiple times and would also allow zero voting to lower the average score of others images and so would not be fair. I’ve now implemented a system where a vote button will appear above the images when viewed in the Assignment gallery. On clicking the button, your vote will be counted and you will not be able to vote for a second image for that assignment. I have also made it possible to change your mind, so if as you view the gallery you decide you really like a particular image, then as you further view the gallery you find something you like even better, you will be able to change your vote to that image, but it will be removed from your previous vote. To do this, just click the vote button again on a different image and the system will give you the option to update your vote.
Also, a good point about the rules of the assignment was raised by Dom, the member that suggested today’s topic. I’d not mentioned what the limits for reworking images in Photoshop or any other editing tool was. I’ve added a bunch of guidelines to the rules section on the top page of the mbpgalleries.com site. If you are thinking of entering, please take a look.
There currently just under three more weeks to shoot your entry to the assignment. Remember the theme is contrasting colours, and for full details listen to Episode 31 if you haven’t already. I look forward to seeing what you make of this assignment.
Even if you are not thinking of entering, have a great week. Bye bye.
Welcome to Episode 23 of the Martin Bailey Photography Podcast. Today I’m going to talk about what actually constitutes a telephoto lens, briefly touch on some general applications, and the difficulties we face when using medium to super-telephoto lenses. I’ll also introduce some techniques to help overcome these difficulties. Thanks to Marisa, one of the long time contributors in the MBP forum, for suggesting the topic for this week’s Podcast. Also congratulations Marisa on getting your Canon EOS 350D Digital Rebel and the 70-300mm IS lens.
I’d also like to say thanks to everyone for your patience during the upgrade of the online gallery and forum over the last week or so. If anyone comes to the site after a period away and you have any problems logging in, please try to clear your cookie cache to get rid of the cookie from the old version and try again. That should do it, but if you continue to have problems, please mail me from the Contact Form.
So firstly, let’s define what actually constitutes a telephoto lens. On a 35mm format SLR camera, a 50mm lens is considered “standard”. That is, it does not magnify or de-magnify the subject. Strictly speaking, any focal length shorter than 50mm is wide angle, and anything longer than 50mm is telephoto. I’m sure there are varying opinions on this, but generally, from 60mm to 100mm could be termed “short telephoto”, a 200mm lens would be considered “medium-telephoto” and a 300mm long telephoto. Anything from 400mm and above is considered super-telephoto.
There are of course prime lenses at many of these focal lengths, and there are zoom lenses, such as the 70-300mm lens that Marisa just bought, that cover wide ranges from the short to long telephoto ranges. There are even lenses nowadays, such as Canon’s 28-300mm L lens that covers from wide angle to long telephoto, but obviously the price is not to be sniffed at either. Prime lenses will provide better quality images, but they lack the flexibility of zoom lenses and for the majority of applications, the image quality with the zoom lenses is more than enough.
Whether zoom or prime, telephoto lenses have many applications, including shooting things far away allowing you to get in closer to them, such as cutting out the parts of a landscape that interest you, as I discussed in Episode #8 on Composition, called Getting in Close in Landscapes, but can also seen in many shots in my online gallery. Another, and perhaps more common application is for capturing things that might not necessarily be so far away, such as birds, but capturing them large enough in the frame to be able to make out fine detail in the subject, or maybe even sometimes filling the frame with the subject. Yet another application is to shoot things quite close to you, often in my case very close to the minimum focusing distance, filling the frame with the subject.
As I mentioned, there are difficulties when using telephoto lenses. The most serious issue that you really need to bear in mind is that the longer the focal length the more susceptible to camera shake your images will be. This is because you are magnifying the subject more and more as the focal length increases, and so magnifying any movement in the camera and lens when shooting it. Therefore, the degree to which you need to worry about this also becomes greater as the focal length increases.
From episode 1 of this Podcast, a number of times I’ve mentioned a rule of thumb to calculate the minimum shutter speed to help avoid camera shake when hand-holding. I haven’t mentioned this for some time now though, so let’s go over it again quickly. Basically you use the focal length you are shooting at as the slowest shutter speed. This is independent of ISO or aperture, but you do need to work in the crop factor if you are using a digital SLR that has one. Say for example you are using a 100mm lens. The slowest shutter speed you should aim for is 1/100 of a second. If you are using a DSLR with a 1.6 crop factor, the effective focal length is 160mm so your slowest advisable shutter speed would 1/160 of a second. If you have a camera with a 1.5 or 1.3 crop factor, this will make a 100mm lens 150 or 130mm respectively, and the slowest advisable shutter speed of course changes respectively.
If you are using your lens at 300mm on a 1.6 crop factor camera, that’s an effective focal length of 480, so you’ll need a minimum shutter speed of 1/500 of a second. Remember this is only a rule, and there are things that you can do to lower the risk of camera shake, such as those explained in Episode 2 on Stable Posture in Low Light. This will also vary from person to person. Some people can simply physically hold a camera more steadily than others.
Another factor that we must bear in mind here is that many lenses nowadays come with IS, that is Image Stabilizer for Canon and VR or Vibration Reduction for Nikon. This can reduce your necessary minimum shutter speed by up to 3 stops, and for the Nikon VRII system it seems up to four stops. So say you are shooting at 300mm, usually this would need a minimum shutter speed of 1/500 of a second on a 1.6 crop factor DSLR, but if you turn on Image Stabilizer, that becomes as low as 1/60 of a second if your IS gives you three stops. Remember to calculate the time you gain per stop, simply double the shutter speed for each stop. When we’re working in fractions of a second, that basically means halving the number. The first stop from 1/500 of a second takes you to 1/250 of a second. The second stop takes you from 1/250 of a second to 1/125 of a second, and the third stop takes you from 1/125 to 1/60 of a second. If you get four stops from your lenses image stabilizer, that would give you an amazing 1/30 of a second. Of course, this is all based on the example of 1/500 of a second, and this will change depending on your focal length and amount of available light.
If you are still a little shaky on calculating how much time a stop will increase or decrease your shutter speeds or aperture value, or both, take another listen to episode 10 of this Podcast on Exposure and Manual Mode. This Podcast is pretty heavy going, but should help you to understand how to calculate increases or reductions shutter speed and or aperture in stops to achieve the same Exposure Value.
Now, in theory, you could go down to shutter speeds as slow as this with a 300mm lens, but I my experience, relying on IS or VR will only prove successful some of the time. For still subjects the success rate will be higher, but in wildlife photography for example your subject will also more than likely be moving. It’s no use shooting animals at 1/60 of a second as they are likely to move during that time, even just very slightly, and that will cause motion blur in the subject.
Of course, another option to avoid camera shake when using telephoto lenses is to use a tripod. I know that many people shy away from using a tripod unless absolutely necessary, but using one will without a doubt improve your images. It will also help you to be more methodical in your composition and perhaps improve composition too, but that’s going off topic a little.
Using a tripod is not going to solve all ills though. There are times when you can’t use a tripod, say if there are rules against using a tripod in the location you’re shooting from. Also, for many situations, such as wildlife photography when the subject might be moving around a lot, using a tripod can restrict your movement. Both of yourself physically moving around and the movement of the camera, even from a static position, and this can limit your ability to successfully capture your subject on film. If there is enough available light, I personally like to use up to 400mm hand-held for this reason. And of course, as I mentioned earlier, in wildlife photography or any type of photography where the subject can move around, subject movement will cause problems if you go with too slow a shutter speed. If you are shooting birds in flight for instance, you really want to aim for a minimum shutter speed as calculated by the rule of thumb I mentioned earlier, or maybe one stop slower if you are using IS, especially when using super-telephoto lenses of 400mm and longer. Much slower than that and your success rate is going to drop dramatically.
If there is simply not enough available light to enable us to get a fast enough shutter speed we need to start thinking of other options. The first thing you’ll want to think of is raising the ISO. Most cameras will start to introduce grain from around 400 ISO though, especially in the shadows, so you don’t want to rely on this too much.
Also popping in a little fill-in flash or using a reflector may be an option if your subject is in range. The range of your flash will depend on the guide number. You can usually check the distance your flash will reach in the instruction manual. There are actually zooms available that you fit on to the front of your flash that project the light further than normal. One I’ve heard of but do not yet use myself is the BetterBeamer. Apparently the Better Beamer will add approximately 2-stops of light output to your flash by concentrating the light emitted and is recommended for use with telephoto lenses of a focal length of 300mm or longer. This and loads of other great photography gadgets can be bought from the naturephotographers.net gift shop. I will add a link to the show notes in case you’re interested.
Even having when putting all of this into practice you’d be well advised to shoot in bursts when using long lenses. That is, don’t just take one shot then wait for your subject to change position or you yourself move on to another location, take bursts for 3 shots or more. I don’t mean for exposure bracketing. I’m talking about with the same settings. What you usually find is that the bird moves at exactly the time one of your exposures is made, or you get camera shake that affects some, but not all shots. If you take a minimum of three frames, more if possible, you give yourself a better chance of getting a winner out of the batch. I often find, especially when shooting birds in flight, at least half of the resulting shots are too soft to be of any use. You’ll probably also find that shooting single shots will introduce a snappy movement, that you can avoid by simply keeping the shutter button pressed for a number of frames, allowing you to concentrate on tracking the subject.
Before we move on to another problem you may not be used to if you are new to longer telephoto lenses, there’s a lot talk happening here, without much to look at, so let’s take a look at a photo I made last Sunday, that is February 5th, 2006. It is shot number 834, which is of a Whooper Swan cygnet about to touch down on the Kotokunuma Pond in Ibaraki Prefecture, a couple of hours north of Tokyo. This shows the results of putting much of what I’ve just said in practice. The sun was now behind some trees, almost below the horizon, so the cygnet was in total shadow. I was using a super-telephoto lens. The Canon EF 600mm F4 IS USM L lens and had the ISO set to 400. The aperture was F8, just about enough to get the entire bird in the depth of field and the shutter speed was 1/500 of a second. I had IS turned on, and was using mode 2, which will only stabilize horizontal or vertical movement, allowing me to track with the swan and not have the lens try to stabilize the whole scene.
I should just mention that I was using a tripod. It really is just not possible to hand hold this behemoth of a lens. Earlier I mentioned that I like to hand hold up to 400mm when there’s enough light, because it gives you more freedom of movement. To help me when using this 600mm lens, I use a Wimberley Head on my Gitzo tripod. The Wimberley Head uses gimbal-type design that allows you to rotate your lens around its center of gravity, and is really the closest you can get to the freedom of hand holding with a lens this size.
If you are not shooting wildlife or sports shots where the subject is moving, you can of course use a tripod and go to much slower shutter speeds. I’m really focusing here on the difficulties when shooting things that may move.
So, moving on, the second thing you’ll need to bear in mind when using a telephoto lens is that the depth-of-field gets shallower and shallower as the focal length gets longer. I shot the image that I just introduced of the swan coming in to land at F8. I could have possibly gone to F5.6, but at the distance I shot this at, which was probably about 20 meters or 65 feet, I’d have ended up with a depth-of-field of just 40cms or 12 inches, and with a bird this size, that would have meant that the wings were quite out of focus. Even at the aperture I chose, F8, I only have 57cms or just over 18 inches of DOF, but this is just about enough to get most of the bird in acceptable focus.
Also note that the closer the subject is, the shallower the depth-of-field gets. And likewise, the further away the subject, the deeper the depth-of-field gets. I’ll add a link to an online depth-of-field calculator to the show notes, so you can have a play and see the relationship between the focal length, aperture, distance to subject and size of the film or sensor. This calculator actually gives slightly different results to that of the one I have installed on my computer, and I don’t know which is more accurate, but it is going to be accurate enough to give you an idea of what I’m talking about.
Basically, what I’m getting at here is that when using telephoto lenses, you have to be much more conscious of the widest aperture you can shoot at and still have enough depth of field to get your subject in focus. Of course, the benefits of this are that it is really easy to get the background out of focus enough to stop it from being a distraction. If the background is not distracting though, it is often nice to be able to make out the environment of your subject if it’s a wildlife shot. Take a quick look at shot number 830 on my Web site. This is a Black Kite also shot last Sunday, at probably three times the distance of the last image, at about 60 meters or almost 200 feet. I actually cropped a little, about 20% off the left and 15% off the bottom, of this shot, so the bird is a little larger in the frame than the original. This was shot at F5.6, which is plenty at this distance to get the smaller bird of prey totally in focus, but you’ll see that the background is quite out of focus. You can though make out the environment enough to know that there are trees and hills in the background. This again was at ISO 400, and the shutter speed was 1/800 of a second.
So, that is about it for today’s episode. To briefly recap; the longer the lens, the shallower the depth of field and the higher the risk of camera shake. Use the rule of thumb to determine your slowest advisable shutter speed based on your focal length, and bear in mind not to blindly rely on image stabilizer systems when your subject is moving around.
If you are interested to see any of the other images from the Kotokunuma Pond last Sunday shot with the 600mm F4 lens, I’ll drop a link into the show notes to list them all. There’re just six of them. Next week I’ll be following on from this episode, talking about Extenders as Canon terms them, or Teleconverters. These allow you to increase the focal length of your lenses relatively cheaply, but, at a cost. Tune in next week to find out more.
Here is a link to an online Depth-of-Field calculator to have a play with and see the relationship between the focal length, aperture, distance to subject and size of the film or sensor: http://www.dofmaster.com/dofjs.html