Posted on January 31, 2011
The Tripod Police
You’re wandering the banks of the Merced River in Yosemite near sunset when, without warning, El Capitan emerges from a swirl of clouds; at your feet a mirror reflection of the scene mingles with smooth granite rocks. Bringing your camera to your eye, you find the composition that works best is a 30mm vertical frame. But keeping El Capitan and the foreground granite sharp requires f16. Hmmm. In the fading light, at ISO 100 the meter suggests 1/2 second. Even with image stabilization that’s a bit of a stretch at 30mm. Unfortunately, your tripod is a) strapped to your camera bag (a misdemeanor); b) in the car (a felony); or c) at home in the closet behind the tux you haven’t worn since your first wedding (a capital offense). So you bump the ISO to 400, dial the aperture to f11, and push the shutter speed to 1/16 second. Your finger is poised on the shutter-release when from behind a tree you hear, “Tripod Police! Step away from the camera!” Uh-oh.
Fortunately, the Tripod Police are a kinder, gentler force. Their objective is not to punish, it’s to rehabilitate. As a fully deputized tripod officer, I must say that in my workshops I’ve cited more than a few tripod offenders. Of course it’s all in good fun–some workshop participants repent on the spot, others just laugh and wave me away. And while I’m really (I swear) not offended when they choose to forego their tripod, I do think it’s important that they understand what they’re giving up.
Disclaimer: The tripod comments that follow aren’t directed at the many for whom nature photography is simply a great way to spend time outdoors and record those memories–if using a tripod saps the pleasure from your photography, leave the tripod at home. But if your photography pleasure derives from capturing the best possible images of nature, or if you aspire to make money with your photography, no single piece of equipment will improve your results more than a tripod.
Photography without compromise
In this day of image stabilization and improving sensor sensitivity, satisfactory results can often be achieved through careful hand-holding. But most photographers love printing their images large, the larger the better, and a large print is an unforgiving reproduction that reveals even the tiniest flaws. No matter how steady your grip, the steadiest hand-held image will never be sharper than it would have been with a good tripod.
Stability problems are even more pronounced in the limited light conditions (such as sunrise, sunset, and stormy weather) that landscape photographers crave. Achieving hand-held sharpness in anything but the harshest light means resorting to image-degrading compromises like higher ISO or a larger than ideal aperture. The flaws introduced by these compromises are sometimes not visible in a 4×6 print or 6×9 72-dpi Flickr gallery. But let’s imagine that your father-in-law has requested a 24×36 print of the pride of your portfolio–a hand-held, 400 ISO Grand Canyon sunrise that looks great in your Flickr gallery–for his law firm’s reception area. (A real coup after that whole llama farm investment fiasco.) What do you tell him when he asks if you can do another one that’s not so “mushy” and doesn’t have all that “sludge in the shadows”? Oops.
A tripod provides a rock-solid foundation that removes image degrading compromise from ISO and aperture choices. A tripod simplifies your decisions in the field because you no longer need to decide between a potentially soft image and an image with extra noise and/or reduced depth of field. I have no problem increasing my ISO when there’s motion in the scene (flowing water, blowing leaves, etc.), or opening my aperture when I want to minimize DOF. But why would I compromise my image quality, even slightly, with a higher ISO or larger aperture to minimize motion introduced by me, when my tripod will completely eliminate that motion without compromising quality? As a professional, I never know how large an image may need to be, so I can’t afford to compromise the quality of my images, not even a little. I don’t really care that in today’s cameras ISO 400 is almost as clean as ISO 100, or the DOF at f8 is almost as good as it is at f11.
The ideal f-stop
There’s an ideal f-stop for every capture. Really. For many this ideal f-stop concept is the lightbulb moment that becomes the tipping point in their appreciation of their tripod’s value.
We all know that depth of field is controlled by the aperture, which is measured in f-stops. Because f-stop management is the key ingredient for rendering our three dimensional world in photography’s two dimensional medium, the best landscape photographers use aperture to regulate depth (the missing dimension), not shutter speed. (Shutter speed is for motion management.)
Determining an image’s ideal f-stop is essential to the creative process. It’s a moving target based on the depth-of-field the composition requires, and the aperture at which the lens is sharpest. The ability to manage a scene’s front-to-back component by creating the illusion of depth separates successful landscape photographers from everyone else. Sometimes a scene calls for maximum DOF, sometimes minimum, and sometimes something in-between–regardless, good photographers know that every composition has only one aperture that returns the result they seek.
But even when the entire scene is at infinity (no foreground subjects, so depth isn’t a factor), the f-stop still matters because every lens has still a single f-stop that renders the sharpest result–for some lenses this difference is small, for others it’s significant. In other words, when DOF isn’t a factor, I choose my lens’s sharpest f-stop. (Some photographers put each lens through extensive testing to determine its sweet spot; others trust that the sweet spot is usually be the camera’s mid-range, typically f8-f11, and default in that range unless their results suggest closer scrutiny.)
Put simply, in a static scene (no moving subjects), a tripod allows you to base your f-stop choice entirely on what the scene calls for; if depth isn’t a factor, you should choose the f-stop at which the lens is sharpest.
Still not convinced? Consider also the control a tripod gives to your composition process. It slows you down (a good thing), making it easier to consider each element in the frame and its relationship to the other elements. Combined with depth of field management, careful management of the elements in your frame is the part of photography that separates the art from the snapshot.
Before capturing any image, I look for distractions on the side of the frame (objects cut off or intruding), merged elements at different distances (that rob the scene of depth), and attempt to achieve general sense of visual balance throughout the frame. Next I carefully determine the ideal focus point (selecting the ideal f-stop has little value if your focus is off). Having my composition locked in place on my tripod enables me to ensure my focus point is precise, and when necessary, makes it easy to check depth of field with the DOF preview button.
After capture, I study the histogram and composition for any possible setting adjustments or composition refinements. Sometimes it helps to step back from the camera and imagine the image on the LCD framed large, on a wall. With a tripod I can do all this at my pace, sometimes through the view finder, other times scanning the broader scene. When I’m ready, the original image is still sitting right there, exactly as I just captured it.
Advanced digital techniques image such as image stitching (for panoramas or high resolution capture), HDR (high dynamic range blending of multiple images for exposure management), or focus blending to increase depth of field are all difficult to impossible without a tripod. As is mirror lock-up to reduce mirror-slap induced vibration.
I’m rarely interested in photographing when the light is bright enough to allow uncompromised hand-held capture. While I don’t usually photograph in midday sunlight, I make exceptions when my subjects are backlit and the brightest thing in the scene. Flowers work great for this, which is why I was poking around on the banks of the Cosumnes River on a sunny afternoon last spring. And even though these flowers were brightly lit, without my tripod, I wouldn’t have been able to achieve my objective.
To turn the sparkling water drops to effervescent sparkles I needed f16, but that small aperture gave me enough depth of field to make the background too busy. So I twisted on a couple of extension tubes (at the expense of the several stops of light) to sufficiently soften the background. Since the meter’s suggested 1/20 second at ISO 100 was not fast enough to freeze the lupine in the slight breeze, I bumped my ISO to 400. The resulting 1/80 second shutter speed was still too slow for hand-holding, but was enough to freeze the lupine if I was careful.
Focus is particularly critical in macro photography. With my composition locked in place on my tripod, I used live-view to magnify my designated focus point 10x and carefully dialed it sharp. With my composition in place I stood back and waited for a lull in the breeze before clicking my remote release. And because the composition was sitting right there in my viewfinder, the tripod further facilitated my composition process by allowing me to study the LCD and further refine the composition after each click.
I took five frames of this composition, each slightly different than the others. If I follow the progression of the frames, I can see that each was a slight improvement over the previous, an incremental improvement that would have been nearly impossible without my tripod.
Just as the llama farm is now dust in the Peruvian desert (just checking to see how carefully you’ve been reading), all those beautiful hand-held scenes from your unstable past are gone. Fortunately, the Tripod Police offer a wonderful amnesty program that rewards rehabilitated offenders with great new images each time they use a tripod. Just give it a try, and allow enough time for the tripod to become habit. Once you see the improvement, I don’t think you’ll relapse.