The Traveling Photographer: A Guide to Great Travel Photography (2014)
21. Steady Now
The Need for Stability: Tripods & More
It’s for good reason that landscape photographers swear by tripods: a tripod forces the photographer to work with a certain degree of focus and deliberation, which can only be a good thing as far as image composition goes. Anyone who wants to experiment with long exposure times, perhaps at twilight or nighttime or simply for creative reasons, won’t be able to get very far without one. Finding the right tripod is comparable to finding the right lens, the right photo backpack, or the right camera bag: it all depends on your priorities. No one tripod will meet all of your needs, but you can probably find a satisfactory compromise.
Carrying a tripod only makes sense if you’re actually going to use it; otherwise it’s just dead weight. This is the central dilemma for travel photographers, which often enough results in the decision to do without one on the next excursion. The ideal travel tripod is light, stable, and doesn’t take up much space when packed away. Unfortunately, this desirable combination tends to be expensive. If you don’t have tight luggage constraints – perhaps you’re traveling in a rental car – finding a tripod that will meet your needs is much easier.
Fiery spectacle: Nighttime view of the Halema’uma’u crater in the caldera of Kilauea, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (USA). Nikon D700 • 82 mm • 3 s • f/2.8 • ISO 400
All Good Things Come In Threes
All of the general rules about photo equipment also apply to the classic tripod: as light and compact as possible, but as stable as necessary. Better to err on the side of sturdiness than not, since a wobbly tripod is useless. I’ve long wanted a compact and, above all, light tripod, but in the end I always fall back on my old carbon tripod (Gitzo 1348), which weighs close to five pounds without a head and measures a bulky 24 inches. When using the appropriate tripod head, though, it holds up my f/4 500 mm lens without a whimper.
Carrying around such a long lens while traveling is more of an exception than a rule if you’re not on a safari or something similar (see page 192 for beanbags and such), but a travel tripod should be sturdy enough to support the camera mount, the camera itself along with a vertical grip, and, depending on your lenses, a 200 or 300 mm lens without any problems.
Here’s a quick rundown on what gear might weigh: A Nikon D700 with a vertical grip and an f/2.8 70–200 mm zoom lens weighs in at around six and half pounds. Add in a ball mount, an L-bracket, and some additional weight for accessories and we’re close to nine pounds. A tripod with a maximum weight rating of 11 pounds wouldn’t collapse under the weight of this setup, but its vibration dampening capacities might well be at their limit. With this gear, a tripod rated for 15–18 pounds (and the corresponding improved dampening) would be better. You’re better off taking the recommended weight capacities provided by the tripod manufacturer with a grain of salt; it’s better to have a bit more tripod than you need.
On one hand, the more segments a tripod has in its legs, the smaller its size when collapsed. On the other hand, tripods with fewer segments tend to be more stable because they have fewer connections and sturdier legs. You’ll generally have to choose between tripods that have three or four segments. I personally opt for models with fewer segments and accept the added size as a compromise.
A center column may seem advantageous, but it often causes instability, especially when you’re using longer focal lengths. If you’re not using it, you’re better off retracting it or removing it entirely. The latter goes for when you want to position your camera close to the ground.
One critical factor when selecting a tripod is the height at which you generally shoot. If you often set your camera at eye level, you’ll be grateful to have a tripod that allows you to work without having to be bent over all the time. Having significant height as an option can also help out when you’re working on unlevel ground because the added length of the legs can make it easier for you to compensate for the unevenness. If you don’t need the full length of the legs, you’re better off using the thicker segments near the top of the tripod, since they are structurally more solid than the slimmer segments near the bottom. The lower ones should be used only when necessary.
The material out of which your tripod is made – aluminum, basalt, or carbon – will depend on how important it is for you to have a lightweight tripod and how much money you can or want to spend. Carbon tripods are the most expensive but they also tend to be the lightest. Aluminum tripods aren’t all that light but they are relatively inexpensive. Basalt tripods come in somewhere in between in terms of both weight and price. Anyone using an aluminum tripod in winter may want to cover the topmost part of the metal legs with duct tape, neoprene, or aftermarket sleeves, which will prevent the metal from getting all too cold and will keep your fingers from sticking to it. Some nature photographers swear by wooden tripods on account of their vibration dampening, but these aren’t very practical for travel photography since they tend to be bulky and weigh a lot.
Use Your Head
One could write an entire book about tripod heads and the right choice for travel photography. In practice, most travel photographers have to decide between a ball head and a 3-way pan-and-tilt head. These are the most popular varieties. Ball heads are practical and swift to set up while pan heads allow for more fine-tuning and a greater degree of precision. Again, your selection will depend largely on your intentions and preferences. Travel photographers who are interested in architectural photography may want to consider the pan head variety, but in general, if you have a medium-sized ball head, you’ll be prepared for almost any situation.
You also want your tripod head to be as small as possible, but as large as necessary – a heavy super-telephoto prime lens poses different requirements for a tripod and its mount than a normal zoom with a significantly lighter weight. A compact travel tripod with a ball head that has a 40 mm diameter is often a good choice. Larger heads such as the BH-55 from Really Right Stuff can manage my f/4 500 mm lens without trouble. When making a purchase, test the head to see if a relatively heavy camera-lens combination causes the mount to shift at all. This can be a particularly aggravating problem when you’ve spent a while getting your composition just right only to have your camera slide down unexpectedly.
It’s ideal if a tripod head includes a specific base designed for panoramas that is separate from the actual ball and allows for smooth horizontal panning. Additionally, I find a friction setting invaluable. It prevents the camera-lens combination from tipping to one side when you release the ball head, which is particularly critical when you’ve entrusted your tripod with heavy equipment.
If you plan on photographing at all in the colder regions of the world, make sure you can operate your tripod and mount while wearing gloves or mittens; large, nonslip screws and levers are best. With a little bit of practice, and if the controls differ from one another in size and positioning, you should be able to adjust your tripod head in the dark without any trouble (or without explicitly having to look at what you’re doing).
A photographer’s back will be thankful if his or her tripod is tall enough. Raudfjorden, Spitsbergen. Nikon D700 • 110 mm • 1/250 s • f/8 • ISO 400
Quick Release Systems
Anyone who shoots with a tripod regularly is familiar with the advantages of a quick release system. If you wanted to, you could mount your camera directly on the tripod or head with the traditional screw every time and then remove it afterward, but quick-release systems take less time and make the process much easier. To have this flexibility an appropriate system must be installed on the tripod head, and your cameras and lenses need to be fitted with the requisite counterparts. In most cases, these counterparts consist of plates or rails that slide into a jig mounted atop the tripod head.
There are a variety of quick release systems on the market. The dovetail plates built to the Arca-Swiss standard are widely popular. Some plates are designed for specific camera models while others are designed as an alternate mount for longer telephoto lenses. Super tele-photo lenses in particular should be attached directly to the tripod instead of mounting the camera. With this setup, the lighter camera body hangs from the much heavier lens rather than the other way round. This puts less strain on the lens mount and makes the camera-lens combination much easier to handle because of its more pivotal position.
One special accessory worth mentioning is the L-bracket, which positions a second dovetail rail on the left side of the camera in addition to the one below the camera. This allows photographers to rotate the camera-lens combination to the portrait format without needing to adjust the tripod head itself. Anyone who likes shooting in portrait format should at least consider using an L-bracket.
En route to the next photo target with a full load: That’s me on the move on Spitsbergen. Photo by Jörg Ehrlich. | Canon EOS 7D • 160 mm • 1/200 s • f/5 • ISO 100
In theory, all Arca-Swiss compatible camera and lens plates have a standard fit, and most do indeed, but you should exercise caution when using quick-release clamps on your tripod head. Double-check that the clamp and the camera or lens plate really fit together and that when the clamp is closed, the camera is securely fastened. With the classic screw closures (which I prefer, in part because they’re easier to operate while wearing gloves) this problem doesn’t come up. One more thing: quick-release-system plates often require a hex key to tighten or remove them from a camera – this key belongs in your equipment bag!
Patagonian light show: Just before sunrise near Torres del Paine, Chile. | Leica D-LUX 6 • 50 mm • 1/250 s • f/2.8 • ISO 160
One Leg, Or a Bean Bag, Is Often Enough
Tripods are the standard when it comes to camera stands, but they aren’t practical for every situation, often on account of their weight or size. In these cases, you might want to look for alternatives, and there are quite a few. Anything that provides stability is worthy, and inventiveness can go a long way here.
First on the list is the tripod’s smaller brother, the monopod. It may not look like a proper camera stand, but it has its place. It can help to stabilize longer focal lengths, even if it can’t replace a tripod. Transferring some of the weight of a super-telephoto lens to a monopod so you no longer have to support the entire camera-lens pair yourself provides immediate relief, and not only for sports photographers. A monopod is also useful in many travel photography situations, such as when there’s not enough space for a tripod on an inflatable raft. Using one will require a bit of practice. Either a smaller ball head or a simple two-way pan head works as the mount. Here the goal is less about being able to have ultimate control and more about ease of use.
Yet another alternative to a tripod is a beanbag. It is extremely helpful if you want to shoot from the window of your car or the roof of a jeep, for example (if necessary, a small pillow will do as well). Ideally you would travel to your destination with the bag empty and then fill it up with rice, beans, corn, or lentils once you arrive. I’ve even used sand when nothing else suitable was on hand. A photo beanbag should be large enough so that you can easily rest your lens and/or camera on it, and it should also have a string attached to it so you can pull it back into your vehicle if you should happen to drop it overboard.
Anything else that might serve as support for a camera or lens is fair game while traveling: a backpack, a wall, a bundled-up jacket, a chair, a table, a bench, the ground... Many (sturdy) photography backpacks or camera cases can be jerry-rigged to support your camera if no proper stand is handy – here the ingenuity of the photographer is in demand.
Working with a makeshift camera stand is obviously not as easy as working with a proper tripod, but again, it’s better than nothing. When doing so, however, don’t forget to make use of a remote shutter release. This little helper can prevent camera shake and belongs in your equipment bag even if you’re doing without a tripod. If needed, the camera’s self-timer can also prove useful for this purpose.
Detail of Hraunfossar, Iceland: The waterfall got its name from the water appearing to jump directly out of the lava (“hraun” in Icelandic). | Nikon D700 • 135 mm • 1/200 s • f/7.1 • ISO 200
Benefits and Limitations of Image Stabilizers
Many modern lenses and cameras offer image stabilization of some kind. The fundamental method of operation of these systems is always the same: Movable optical elements in the lens or a flexibly mounted sensor in the camera counteract the photographer’s movements, which cause camera shake during long exposure times. (Note that several compact cameras pretend to offer something loosely related to these systems, but in reality, they only hike the ISO values to inadvisable levels if the exposure time goes above a certain limit. The best-case scenario produces half-sharp images with distracting noise. For this reason, keep an eye out for misleading marketing terms such as “digital image stabilization.”)
Proper optical stabilizers produce good to excellent results, based on my experience. They aren’t a cure-all, however, and they do have their limits. To begin with, every photographer shakes differently. Through extensive practice and controlled breathing, one photographer may be able to produce sharp handheld photos with relatively long exposure times, while another has to rely on mechanical stabilization for practically every exposure on account of his or her trembling. If a camera manufacturer were to claim that one of its stabilized lenses allows you to shoot freehand with exposure times that are two, three, or four times longer than you could without stabilization, I would neither believe the claim nor doubt it. But I would want to try it myself to test it out with different equipment, under different circumstances, and with different exposure times to know just when I could produce sharp images handheld.
With the development of high-resolution DSLRs, the old rules of thumb about the maximum advisable exposure time for shooting sharp images by hand – such as, “one over the focal length” – have turned out to be only partially applicable. The more megapixels that get crammed into a photo, the greater the requirements for sharpness. And that means that thinking of the reciprocal of the focal length as a personal limit isn’t as practical as opting for a shorter exposure window.
Furthermore, the best anti-shake system won’t help at all if the subject is moving. Motion blur is different from camera shake. In the former case, the photographer doesn’t instigate an exposure’s blur. When a subject is moving, its movement is the central feature of an exposure, and the only way to deal with it is by adjusting the shutter speed. If you use a fast shutter speed, you freeze the motion in place. A slower shutter speed allows the motion to blur, or you can pan along with the motion to capture the subject sharply in front of a swiped background.
It’s also important to know that there are different ways of proceeding when you use a stabilized lens or a camera with stabilizer in combination with a tripod. Some models suggest that you disable the stabilization while others have a special tripod mode. You’ll have to dip into the owner’s manual to find out what to do for sure – ideally before you travel anywhere.
With these windswept marguerites in Torres del Paine National Park, Chile, even the sturdiest tripod would not have been of any help because the subject was moving. | Nikon D700 • 24 mm • 1/50 s • f/22 • ISO 200
Desert wind: Sand blows over the dunes of the Erg Ubari, Libya – a challenge for hikers and cameras alike. | Nikon D700 • 40 mm • 1/500 s • f/11 • ISO 400