Tripod Technique

Previously, I discussed selecting a tripod and head. A tripod opens up a whole new vista of photographic possibilities but to make the most of the stability of a tripod, proper technique is needed.

Stability and Mounting

The first consideration is making sure you’re not overloading your tripod legs and head. The heavier your equipment and the narrower the angle of view (more zoom), the more sensitive will the final picture be to residual vibrations and external forces such as wind. I seldom shoot at focal lengths greater than 200mm so my tripod needs are comparatively simple. If you have 300mm or longer zooms, a large sturdy tripod with a gimbal mount is recommended.

If your tripod does not have a quick release, you’ll be screwing your camera directly onto the mounting plate of the tripod head. One thing to watch out for is that if you take a photo in portrait format, the camera can twist and unscrew itself. You may find this happening if you tilt the camera to the left (so that the handgrip is to the top). By rotating the camera so that the handgrip is to the bottom, then the torque of a heavy lens will tighten the mounting screw instead and preventing further rotation.

If you find yourself having to mount and dismount your camera from the tripod repeatedly, a quick release plate might be a good investment. It’s increasing rare to find tripod heads without them in any case. The de facto standard mounting solution is the Arca-Swiss plate which has a dovetail and a matching clamp. Do note that some variation exists between nominally compatible plates and mounts from different manufacturers. There are many other types of quick-release mechanisms to suit cameras of different sizes and applications.

You should avoid raising the centre column of the tripod if possible as this makes the whole system more flexible. For the same reasons, you should spread the tripod legs out to give a wide base.

 Shutter Release

The main priority of using a tripod is stability, whether for long exposures, or simply to get rid of hand shake. To reduce the possibility of introducing vibration when activating the camera, you can use a remote shutter release. The traditional mechanical remote release is a plunger attached to a sheath and cable screwed into the shutter. This was superseded by electronic wired remotes which allowed functions such as an intervalometer and times long exposures (minutes to hours). Wireless remotes (usually IR) are becoming popular nowadays. Any of these will prevent extraneous vibration due to touching the camera when starting the exposure.

If you find yourself without a remote release, your camera may have a shutter delay function, usually 2 or 10 seconds. The 10 second delay is to allow you to get into the shot, the 2 second delay is so that after pressing the shutter release, the camera and tripod has time to settle before the actual exposure. If you do not need to trigger the shutter at an exact time, then a 2 second delay can often work as well as a remote release.

Even if you use a remote release or camera timer, there are other sources of vibration that could impact upon sharpness. In an SLR, the mirror has to be raised out of the beam path before the shutter activates. This raising of the mirror can lead to vibrations. Some DLRs have a mirror-lockup function that allows the vibrations due to the mirror being raised to dampen. It is often combined with the 2s timer delay. “Mirror-slap” will usually have greatest effect at an low to intermediate shutter speed, a critical range of exposures where mirror-lockup gives greatest benefit.

Even on non-SLR cameras, the shutter actuation can cause vibration. The opening of the front-curtain can cause blur. Some cameras have “electronic first curtain” (EFC) where the physical first shutter curtain is replaced by an electronic means of starting the exposure. This eliminates any vibration at the start of the exposure.


Sometimes the ground itself can vibrate, e.g. bridges. In this situation, it will be difficult to achieve sharp results during long exposures. You may want to time your exposures in between passing cars or pedestrians. On some surfaces, the distortion caused by your own shifting weight can cause the tripod to move during long exposures.

One thing to watch out for is image stabilization, either lens or camera based. Some image stabilization systems do have modes specifically for tripod use but often you’ll get better results if stabilization is switched off when mounted on a tripod.

A700 on Ebay

DSC02410I’ve had to put my A700 up for sale on Ebay. It gave me sterling service for many years and it is a shame for it to sit unused. I hope it finds a good owner who will make the best use of it.

The Power of Raw

Original image, default curves in Lightroom. Shadows crushed to black but I have exposed to retain highlights.

If your camera can shoot “RAW” photos instead of JPG, use it. I won’t go into the arguments people have against shooting RAW, I think the best way to make the case is through an example. To the left is a shot at sunset taken under a bridge. It’s not a particularly great photo either technically or artistically, but I hope illustrates the degree of control you have when shooting RAW.

This is as it would have come out of the camera if shot in JPG (I used the default settings in Lightroom to simulate this). There is extreme contrast, ranging from the setting sun, the back-lit buildings and barge, and the ground in shadow. The colours are muted compared with what I had experienced watching the sun go down. Setting the white balance is always tricky at sunset or sunrise as the sun itself is strongly filtered to give warm light, whereas the rest of the sky gives a blue cast.

I exposed the shot so that the sunset would not be overblown. I used a low ISO, medium aperture and a wide angle lens to capture the scene. I made sure than there was little camera shake in the captured shot. If I’d exposed for the shadows, the sunset and sky would have been blown out. It would have been very difficult, if not impossible, to recover that amount of overexposure, especially from a digital capture. However, the dynamic range of my camera is sufficiently high that I should be able to dig out the detail in the shadows from this shot.

DSC05923After importing the RAW file into Lightroom, I cropped, straightened, and adjusted the image using the exposure, black and white points, highlight and shadow recovery sliders. I also played around with the whitebalance until I obtained a result that I was happy with. There’s no one “correct” whitebalance in this situation, I simply chose one which balances the blues in the sky and water with the reds and oranges of the setting sun. You can play around with warmer or cooler images to get the impression you desire. The end result of my adjustments is a “neutral” image, one that has detail at both ends of the brightness range and which does not look too unnatural. Even such a normal looking image would have been difficult to produce using film.

Final adjusted image with added punch. You may prefer a more tasteful result, perhaps more along the lines of the “neutral” version.

To give the image a bit more “punch”, you can adjust the contrast, clarity and vibrance. The highlight and shadows may need a bit of extra recovery, I prefer to retain some detail rather than crushing the blacks or totally blowing out the highlights. I don’t claim that the final result conforms to good taste but is certainly more eyecatching (or eyesearing) than the original photo.

This range of post-capture adjustment is due to shooting RAW. I was able to leverage the information captured by the sensor in a single frame and in Lightroom process it to my needs. Even if you do not perform such extreme modifications to the image, the ability to extract shadows and highlights, together with whitebalance is invaluable. It is all about giving you options for the final image.

A7(r) Musings

A7R_img1bb-1200“Fullframe”, “Mirrorless”, Interchangeable Lenses, AF. Put these ingredients together and you get the just announced FE mount Sony A7 and A7r cameras. The NEX-VG900 camcorder technically also fulfilled these 4 criteria but it is not very practical as a stills camera. So the A7 and A7r represent a new category of camera, one that many have been hoping would be populated sooner rather than later. Rumours rose over the last few weeks to a crescendo until this morning (16/10/2013) at 7am GMT when the new cameras and accompanying lenses were officially unveiled. The rumours were pretty much spot on, a RX1 styled E mount camera with inbuilt EVF. The reaction from the photographic community has been substantial. Here are just a few thoughts about what these new cameras and lenses mean.

The name of the new cameras have caused much wailing and gnashing of teeth. The A mount crowd despair that A mount is dead now that an E mount camera is called A-something. The APS-C NEX crowd despair that with the demise of the NEX brand, there will be no more APS-C NEX cameras. At the moment, I think there is little evidence to suggest either possibilities. From various statements coming from Sony spokespeople, the Alpha brand will consolidate the A mount and NEX E mount cameras all under a single A designation. Note: The NEX cameras were launched in 2010 under the Alpha umbrella, so it’s not a case of E mount hijacking the Alpha brand. The A mount will continue to be supported (the 70-200mm/2.8 G MkII such an indication) and I won’t be surprised if the next A mount camera will not be an SLT or SLR but will have on-sensor phase-detect AF. The current lull in A mount camera releases may be due to Sony developing this next phase of the A mount.

The APS-C mirrorless segment is still going to be the bread and butter of Sony’s interchangeable lens camera business so it won’t be disappearing soon. The A3000 has led some to worry that NEX-6/7 styles cameras are a thing of the past but I think again that we have too little evidence to be confident that will be the case. The recent release of the 16-70mm/4 Zeiss and 18-105mm/4 G lenses would indicate that higher end APS-C E mount cameras are still a priority. Sony’s E mount strategy incorporates their professional video business as well, e.g. FS-100 and FS-700, so there should be continuing development on that front.

A7_LifeStyle 4Meanwhile, the Sony has done the expected in taking the design cues of the RX1(r) and developed a compact “full frame” interchangeable mirrorless AF camera system. With the aggressive pricing at launch, Sony has been able to leverage the advantages of being fully vertically integrated. From producing the sensors, lenses (with some help from Zeiss), EVF and supporting electronics, Sony has come up with a compelling package at an extremely attractive price. The dimensions of the camera are very compact considering the size of the sensor, shutter assembly and A99-derived EVF incorporated into the body. The control set seems to be robust and the grip reportedly very comfortable.

The choice of “7” in the name is a nice reference to the Minolta heritage. The 7-level cameras were often the ground breaking model. The Dynax 7D was the first DSLR from Konica Minolta. The Dynax 7 was one of the best film SLRs in terms of features, it introduced a large rear LCD for information and settings and the some aspects of the interface of current A mount cameras can be traced back to this. Going further back, the Minolta AF 7000 arguably heralded the first practical AF SLR system and introduced the A mount. But the use of “7” also implies that we may see cameras at the “3”, “5” and “9” levels. Whether or not under the new naming system these will be full frame as well is yet to be seen but it seems likely that a flagship A9(r) will follow to cement the FE mount as a high-end, professional choice.

A7R_Lifestyle 2

We’re going through a process of the digital imaging revolution maturing. The SLR was a technical solution to the fact that you had to develop film to see what the image was going to be like. Since one has near instantaneously readout the scene composition from a electronic sensor, we no longer require the mirror to divert light to the viewfinder. SLRs, especially their focussing system, have been developed for many decades and have reached quite a sophisticated level. The system of semi-transparent reflex mirror, relay optics and specialised phase-detect AF modules have some performance advantages (mainly due to this intensive development) but many inherent disadvantages such as being much more prone to misalignment and miscalibration.

It is only a matter of time before sensor-based AF will effectively match or surpass DSLR AF performance. With improvements in sensor sensitivity, readout and dynamic range, it will also only be a matter of time for an EVF to be able to let the photographer see better than they could with an OVF, e.g. with intrinsically high dynamic range sensors you could display a contrast range that would be painful to look at directly. Already, the better EVF implementations allow you to frame in dark conditions where you wouldn’t be able to see much in an optical viewfinder.

A7R_wSEL55f18Z_right-1200One should keep the current A7(r) introductions in perspective. These are not the last word in photography but herald the beginnings of a new chapter in digital imaging. I look forward to the inevitable improvements in models to come. From what is happening in research labs around the world (including those in Sony), we can hope for global electronic shutters, wide/high dynamic range sensors, more post-Bayer colour filter array architectures (improvements over Sigma Foveon), lower read noise and higher sensitivities, higher pixel densities (whilst retaining image quality), and faster readout. The future of imaging looks bright.

Images courtesy of Sony

RX10 Speculation

The next week looks to be an exciting time for Sony digital imaging. With rumours flying about “full frame” E-mount cameras (the existing NEX-VG900 notwithstanding), another curious rumour has popped up regarding an RX10. This presumably slots in between the RX100/M2 (13mm x 8.9mm sensor) and the RX1/r (36mm x24mm sensor) fixed lens cameras. The assumption had been that the RX10 would be an APS-C (24mm x 16mm sensor) camera but recently it has been reported that it has in fact also a 1″ sensor (like the RX100/M2) coupled with a 9-74mm/2.8 zoom lens (equivalent to the field of view of a 24-200mm zoom on a 35mm film camera) but at a price of $1300 (presumably USD).

A common reaction to the rumour is that the price is too high and they can’t see a market. Just because you can’t see a market for it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Lots of people said there wasn’t a market for a fixed single focal length lens camera at $2,800/€3,100/£2,600 (RX1). The general impression is the the RX1 has done well enough so that Sony saw fit to release a second model (RX1r) to capitalize on its success. Sony seem to be aiming for niches where there are no comparable products. As for the rumours RX10, there’s nothing available that matches a 1″ sensor to a high ratio large aperture zoom.

RX100M2The RX100/M2 showed that people are prepared to pay for image quality in a convenient compact package. The premium price is backed by premium images and features. No other manufacturer has anything to match it yet. If the rumoured RX10 can bring near DSLR-level quality to the bridge camera category, then I can see it attracting both travel photographers wanting to ditch not just DSLRs but even CSCs, and the discerning bridge camera buyer wanting the convenience of an all-in-one camera but looking for better image quality.

Look at the Nikon 1 system for the closest (though not close) comparison. From the Nikon USA website, the Nikon 1 V2 2 lens kit is $1150 and the All-In-One lens kit is $1350 (SRP). They’re not strictly comparable as the zoom ranges and max apertures do not exactly match up with the rumoured RX10. A $1300 SRP for a 1″ sensor with a good high zoom lens could be an attractive proposition to the right demographic.

The RX10 doesn’t need to be a blockbuster for it be a success. If it can cover itself and earn back its development costs, it would help Sony consolidate the premium compact camera market as exemplified by the RX100/M2 and RX1/r. We saw hints of Sony’s strategy in previous financial reports, e.g “…Sony has shifted its product lineup to high value-added models…adding new models to the `DSC-RX’ series, which created a market for high-end compact digital cameras with large sensors developed by Sony last year.”

It is widely acknowledged that smartphones are destroying the low-end compact camera market. Camera companies have been scrambling to develop other markets to cover this vanishing source of income. There will be interesting times ahead but if the camera manufacturers are forced to think outside of the box and deliver innovative imaging solutions, then perhaps we the consumer will benefit. Let’s just hope that it doesn’t become a race to the bottom and that quality trumps price in the minds of the buyer.

Getting it right in the head

Long exposure of Singapore skyline

In my last post, I spoke of the importance of getting a good tripod. Many people skimp  on their tripod and consequently do not get the best use out of them. Most importantly, a light and compact tripod will be more likely to be on hand when you need it. It’s a case of any tripod is better than none.

I mentioned another oft neglected item and that was the tripod head. It connects the camera to the legs and should be sufficiently adjustable yet still rigid. One thing to remember is that the load ratings of heads are to be taken with a very large grain of salt. There is no standardised way of specifying the acceptable load that a head can handle. It is actually the torque that a camera+lens exerts on a head that most needs to be resisted.

PHD-41Q pan and tilt head. The horizontal arm controls the roll, the other controls both pan and tilt. Built-in spirit levels keep everything straight. A large quick release plate completes the package.

There are two main types of head, pan and tilt heads (panheads) and ballheads. Panheads have two or three separate axes of adjustment, pan, tilt, and roll (video panheads will omit the last). There will usually be three different knobs or handles, one to control each movement. Sophisticated versions will have geared mechanisms allowing fine adjustment of each axis. In contrast, a ballhead will use a single locking mechanism to control the motion of a ball and socket joint allowing all three axes to be adjusted simultaneously. A separate pan  movement is also usually added to the base of the ballhead. The advantages of a ballhead is that it is often much quicker to adjust. They are often smaller than a comparably rated panhead.

Centre: Benro B-0 + QR plate and 1/4″-3/8″ screw adapter. Clockwise from top left: Novoflex Ball 30, Manfrotto 494, FLM CB-24, Gitzo G075.

For panoramic use, the footprint of the head becomes crucial. Looking down from the viewpoint of the camera rotating around the no-parallax-point, often you’ll have the baseplate and various knobs taking up valuable area in the nadir region. It can be tricky to find the right ballhead which minimizes the nadir hole. My current favourites are the Novoflex Ball 30, FLM CB-24, and Manfrotto 494 (with the friction knob removed). The 494 allows the locking knob to be adjusted so that it can point down in the locked position, useful for reducing the nadir footprint. The same can be achieved on the Ball 30 by unscrewing the knob and reattaching it in the right position.

FLM CB38FT with Power Quick Release. This uses very small quick release plates on the camera

To reduce my equipment load, I have dispensed with quick release (QR) plates. These simply add bulk, especially if I need to attach the camera to both the panohead or the tripod ballhead so requiring extra plates and locking mechanisms. I find it takes little time to screw on the camera or panohead. Unfortunately, it is increasingly difficult to find higher end heads without a quick release system. It may be a fashion trend since having Arca-Swiss plates on everything looks “more professional”.

A good ballhead will be secure when locked down. It should be rigid so that vibration is minimised. For large and heavy lenses, these should be mounted to the head rather than the camera. For the extreme telephoto lenses, a gimbal mount may be warranted. These place the rotation point near the centre of gravity of the camera lens, reducing the torque and giving a more stable platform.

Note that there are two commonly used screw sizes used to attach tripods, heads, and cameras. These are 1/4″ and 3/8″ screw sizes. Most camera tripod sockets will be 1/4″, but tripod screws can be either. You can get adapters between the two screw sizes, it is usually not a problem to adapt a 1/4″ male screw to a 3/8″ female socket, but the reverse adapter is quite bulky.

In Praise of Tripods

A tripod is essential for photographs like these. RX100M2 and the crappiest tripod, as stable as a Jenga tower. But I was still able to get the shot with a bit of care.
A tripod is essential for photographs like these. Shot with a RX100M2 and the crappiest tripod, as stable as a Jenga tower. But with care I was still able to get the shot.

They are the most under-appreciated component of your kit. You may pay hundreds or thousands of pounds to get the latest high resolution camera or lens, but the simplest and most cost-effective way of obtaining the sharpest photos is to get a good tripod and use it.

First of all, bring a tripod with you if you can. Obviously, a tripod is useless for street photography but for many other activities, a tripod becomes practical. For some types of shot, such as night photography (left), it is essential.

Get the best you can afford. There is no perfect tripod, but there are plenty of terrible ones. A tripod needs to be sufficient for the equipment you are going to mount upon it. It also needs to be light and compact enough so that you will take it with you. Unfortunately, this usually means that the third variable, cost, is the one to suffer. But the old adage, “buy cheap, buy twice”, applies especially to tripods.

Depending on what you shoot, you may require several tripods. I have a large sturdy tripod which never leaves the building where my office is. I use it for product shots, groups, and self-portraits. For general travel, I have a Benro C-169M8 Travel Angel carbon fibre tripod similar to this. It is for me the right balance of compactness (39cm folded), lightness (1.3kg), and sturdiness (8kg max. load) for doing panoramas and long-exposure photography. If I need an even more compact tripod, I have a Sirui T-1205x tripod which shaves a few hundred grams and a few centimetres in length. I also bought a Benro Traveller Flat C1190T as I was intrigued by the way it folded flat. It occasionally gets used when I have to pack it in a tight space where a conventional tripod would be too thick.

Attack of the Tripods
L-R: Sirui T-1205X, Manfrotto 444, Gitzo G1028MkII

I still have and use a Gitzo G1028MkII Mountaineer tripod which I bought about a decade ago. Compared to more recent tripods, it’s still very light and packs down with the centre column reversed (without having to bend the legs 180 degrees). The rotating leg locks are a bit fiddly and it’s not quite as sturdy as the Benro and Sirui tripods but with care it can still provide sharp panos. If I had the budget, I’d look at getting a GK1580TQR5.

If carbon fibre is beyond your budget, another option for a compact but still acceptably sturdy tripod is Velbon. Their Ultra Luxi or Rexi range pack down quite nicely and have a quick leg un/locking mechanism. The Luxi comes in L and M sizes, I found the M to be reasonably high. The Ultra Maxi tripods unfortunately do not allow you to swap the head restricting you to the included panhead. The Rexi comes without a head, whilst the Luxi panhead can be replaced, something I advise if you want a more compact setup, the standard one is quite large and heavy.

My tripod selection is skewed towards wide angle and shot teleprime lens use. If you use longer, heavier lenses, then you may need to look at large and heavier tripods to get the required stability. One has to also remember an equally important part of your tripod and that is the head. I’ll address that in a later post. I shall also cover tripod technique.