Steady! All About Tripods and Such

When my mother would return from Greece and show us her pictures, I used to wince. Her shooting technique was terrible and the results equally so. I tried for years to show her how to get sharper pictures, but those of you with a Greek mother will nod your head knowingly when I say, you can’t teach an all-powerful Greek mother a thing if she thinks she knows better.

How could she have gotten better results? Well for one thing she needed to pay attention to her breathing and squeeze off the shot just like any shooter must and she could have leaned against a tree or a wall or someone’s handy shoulder but a good tripod would have been the best tool to get sharp and clear photographs for her and for you the reader too!

So what constitutes a good tripod? First of all they have three legs and are sturdily built. These legs can be extended and locked at various heights suited to the shot you will take. On top of the three legs there is some method of screwing down the camera securely and another method to allow the camera to move on an axis of 360 degrees and to tilt up and down at an angle. They are all the same in this regard, but how do you know a good one and how much do they cost? Ah, that is the question! I am often asked what is a good 50 dollar tripod and my answer is always the same…there isn’t one…do your research, decide on a brand and then buy the best one you can afford, but always staying close to the middle of the road model. No matter what brand of tripod or anything else for that matter, once you get to the middle models in cost, anything you pay for the higher priced models will be less and less cost effective. So brand A may have their super model running at 1200 dollars but their 600 or 700 dollar rig will do an excellent job. The rest of the cost is for cosmetics and niggling little things that you may or may not ever use or really need.

What are the good brands of tripods? There are dozens but here are some Gitzo, Manfrotto, Arca Swiss, Induro, Benro…and the list goes on. I am not going to try and recommend any one brand, but here are a few things to look for no matter what brand you choose:

-How much weight will it hold steadily…the manufacturer will give you a figure in his catalog. Just be sure that if you are going to be shooting with a huge 400mm lens hanging off your camera, that you have a tripod rated for that kind of weight.

-How much does the tripod itself weigh?  Take that into consideration, since you have to lug it and your other equipment around.

-Will you want and aluminum or carbon fiber tripod? Aluminum is much heavier than carbon fiber, but also cheaper if money is a factor. Carbon fiber is much lighter and very strong, that’s why they build bicycle frames and golf club shafts from it. Remember, always buy the best you can afford and stick to the middle priced models…unless money is of little consequence to you then buy the most luxurious model that makes you happy.

My tripod is called a Flexpod since it is capable of moving to almost any angle one chooses as you might guess by looking. It is particularly good at getting captures close to the ground as when shooting flowers and bugs. This tripod is made not only of 8 layer carbon fiber of the most advanced weave available but any metal parts are made from magnesium to conserve weight.

 

- You will need a ball-head or a pan-head to screw onto the top of the tripod. These will allow you attach the camera and then move it easily at various angles up, down and all around. They will also let you move the camera from Landscape to the Portrait position. A ball-head is ideal for shooting stills and macro shots, while a pan-head is ideal for a video camera for shooting movies et al. It can be used for stills too but is not nearly as useful as a ball-head for that. A word of warning here…there are hundreds of models to choose from and it will make your head spin! However, the same advice applies as for tripods…firstly, make sure the model you pick fits the maximum weight of the camera/lens/flash combination you are likely to use and secondly buy the best one you can afford but when money becomes an issue buy the best middle of the road model and it will suffice for 99% of any kind of shooting.

This is a Pan-Head and is ideally used when making a video. Happily my still camera also makes very nice videos. You can see that there are control rods that can be used for panning up and down as well as completely 360 degrees when necessary. It can be used like a ball-head but does not have the same strength nor can it lock in the same way as a ball-head can. See the ball-head next.

 

 

 

 

Here is a ball-head attached to my Benro carbon fiber tripod. I bought their top-of-the-line model, in this case, the very best one I could afford. The strength of a ball-head has to do very much with the size of the ball that you can clearly see in this picture. That ball is huge at 2.56 inches. A light load ball might be an inch and a half. This rig is strong enough to hold a load of over 40 kg or 87 pounds. It has graduated locking knobs so you can accurately adjust to the load attached and keep the camera still and shake-free, yet it can be further adjusted by the smaller second knob that you see to the left of the ball, so the camera can be moved to a different angle and position simply by pushing with one finger. It still holds the camera load firmly wherever you move it . It is made from the highest grade of machined aluminum and magnesium. By the way, if you look closely, you can see the two large knobs that lock the ball-head to the top of the tripod. The ball-head is attached to a shaft that can move up and down for extra height and in the case of the Flexpod, it can be used like a microphone boom and swung this way and that, both high and low for extra flexibility. It can also be turned upside down, so that the camera can be made to hang upside down for a shot right at ground level.

 

Tripods and ball-heads are made in many different countries and China and Korea have the most models at the best prices. Despite past experiences, China and Korea make some excellent equipment but you must do your research to be sure you get the best quality items. Some people have patriotic needs when buying and wish to buy, for example Made in America. There are some very good tripods and heads of various kinds made in the USA. Just Google the sources and you will find them, but they tend to be more expensive by a third to a half…this is true also of the tripods/heads made in Switzerland and Italy.

No matter which brand you buy,  all the manufacturers make very good to excellent models, but do your research, then buy the best one you can afford. When I started photography 60 odd years ago, I had few choices of tripods I could afford at all and later I bought several different cheap tripods all of which failed me in a variety of ways…they were poor value for the money. When I started digital photography, I was a little wiser and I bought a tripod, ball-head and a pan-head that was the best I could afford. It was Chinese, made by Benro and I have never been happier…the equipment is strong, well made, machined beautifully so that all movement is silky smooth but when locked down, stays absolutely still for the best results.How much are you likely to spend? I will answer that by giving you the approximate prices I paid and then you can judge. Let me say up front, that had I bought equipment from the high end tripods made in Switzerland, Italy or the USA I would have paid a third to a half again the prices you see below for similar or almost the exact same quality stuff. My tripod was $325 US dollars on e-bay, the ball-head was $235 on e-bay and the pan-head was $125 US dollars, also on e-bay. That is $900 US. I leave the cost of the same stuff from the high-end guys to your mathematical skills. :-)

 

And here is the kicker, since I am a little on the ancient side and have bad knees, I find it hard getting up from a shot near the ground, so I use the tripod to hoist myself up and I am no lightweight. It handles me just fine. I love my tripod and it will last me for the rest of my shooting days and then it will serve my son or grandson for years to come beyond me. You choose the one that appeals to you and if you follow the tips here, you should be cranking out some great, sharp pictures with your camera.

 

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Regarding Comments and Critques

I didn’t realize at first that this magazine airs on the Internet for all to read and comment on but now I know.

All of the contributors here welcome comments and/or constructive criticisms of these articles. Let me go on to say that what we are trying to do here is open the door to the highly complicated subject of photography, so our articles will be as simple and as clear as we can make the various topics. In our simplicity, we will sometimes not be telling the whole story all at once, since that whole story is complex and involves a knowledge of physics and long experience with cameras and this art of writing with light. So why I am telling you all this?

I received a comment from someone, not from this forum but from out there somewhere, and I don’t know where or how I should respond. In fact even if I knew, I would not respond and here is why…his comment was, “I disagree!” and that was it. After many years leading a thread on Favorite Flowers Shots over on the world famous DP Review, I have often run into people like this. If we had carried on, I might have asked, “You disagree with what kind sir?” His response would probably been, “Everything you said!” And then he would have taken me and any others to task with a brilliant display of swordplay with words. Most often these displays are so brilliant, they blind the reader to the truth of the matter, but usually those kinds of people don’t really care, they just want to show everyone how brilliant they are. They have varied titles but ‘trolls’ is the most common and ‘Internet Bullies’ is another. Almost without exception, these people would never put forward the things they say or be as abrupt or as rude if they were talking to you face to face or in front of their wives or children, but the anonymity of the Internet makes it possible to cloak themselves and so carry out their mischievous antics without revealing their identities to family, friends and neighbors.

Getting back to what I said at the beginning, we welcome  comments and/or constructive criticisms, but trolling and negativity is a big no-no. So trolls and bullies beware. We are all like-minded friends here and all friends are welcome. Our Moderators will not put up with the previously mentioned folks nor will there be responses to their comments.

The topic of photography is so broad and complex that these articles are meant to be mere starting points on the path to greater skill. In order to become really expert at this art, it requires the student of the art to experiment and read technical books, and very importantly, to study their manuals until the workings and features of their camera become second nature. It is a long haul but well worth the effort. We will try our best to help along the way.

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F-Stops and Depth of Field

Photography means literally, ‘writing with light’ and so in order to become skilled at this art of writing with light, one must understand how light enters the camera and what controls  photographers have at their fingertips in order to manipulate the light so as to get the picture envisioned when composing the shot.The following articles are written to help  shooters in this regard. F/stops and depth of field are important subjects to understand and to learn to sharpen their photographic skills.

An f/stop (or f/number) is a measurement of the size of the aperture (opening) of the camera’s diaphragm in the lens. If the aperture is wider (smaller number), more light enters the lens and strikes the sensor/film. If it is closed down (larger number), less light strikes the sensor/film.

F/stops can be confusing since the numbers do not behave as you would expect them to do. Higher f/stop numbers indicate a smaller aperture opening – in other words, as the diaphragm opening decreases in size the f/stop number gets bigger. e.g. f/5.6 lets in more light than f/11. F/4 lets in more light than f/5.6.
F/stop settings are normally written with the forward slash symbol : e.g. f/16
Common f/stops are:
f/1, f/1.2, f/1.4, f/2, f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f/16, and f/22…but there are more that you will find depending on how you have your camera set. e.g. between f/5.6 and f/8 you also have f/6.3, f/7.1 . Don’t let that bother you…the concept still applies, the bigger the opening the smaller the number and the smaller the opening, the bigger the number.

OK! So what! All will be revealed…read on a bit.

What is depth of Field?
The depth of field is the area that is in focus in the picture. As an example, in the bee picture from the previous article, the bee and the flower it is sitting on are in focus, but the background is in the OOF plane/zone or bokeh to once again use the Japanese term dearly loved by photographers. So from the thin slab of space just in front of the bee to just behind the flower the bee sits on is the depth of field.

Bee and Bokeh

Bee on a flower

How the f/stop affects the depth of field:
The photographer can make the depth of field deeper/thicker by closing down the f/stop i.e. a larger number. In the shot mentioned above, the f/stop was f/4. Had I wanted to have the flowers in the background sharply focused, I could have used f/8 or even f/11 or f/16 for really broad depth of field (area in sharp focus)
Here is the confusing part…a small numbered f/stop (large aperture) results in a shallower/thinner depth of field and a larger numbered f/stop (smaller aperture) gives a deeper depth of field.
For example, in this next shot of my grandson Owen, I needed a broad depth of field because he and his hula-hoop were moving fast and erratically as to direction and I wanted him and his hoop to be in sharp focus whether he continued in a straight path or veered off to one side or another…so I used f/8. This was sufficient to keep both him and the hoop sharp but it also rendered everything in the foreground and the background in sharp focus too.

Owen and Hula-Hoop

If I had been thinking, one might say, I could have set an f/stop that would have made the background OOF…perhaps f/4 again? But then I would have run the risk of losing the sharp focus on Owen and his hoop. Very often a compromise is necessary.

*N.B So the kernel in this discussion at its simplest is this: if the photographer wants to have a lot of the foreground and background in focus, use a higher f/stop like f/5.6 and up. And to zero in on a subject and blur distracting foreground and background, use the f/stops with the lower numbers like f/4 and lower. A good idea is to take the camera and experiment with various f/stops on the same subject from the same position and using the same lens…by doing this one will be able to see the effects of increasing and decreasing the size of the f/stop quite clearly. A tripod or monopod will be helpful when doing this experimentation.

But wait! Aren’t I forgetting something? How does the available light, shutter speed and the lens being used factor into this business of f/stops and depth of field? Well that is for the next article, but before we get there, here is an opportunity for the reader to try out some shooting and win  a prize. Put up a picture in the Photography forum and tell us what camera, f/stop and lens was used and what effect it had. We will look at all the shots as well as the explanations and pick the top two. They will receive a copy of Michael Freeman’s book The DSLR Field Guide. It is chock full of everything a photographer wants to know and with example pictures accompanying the tips and information, plus it is small enough to fit in a pocket. A very handy guide! Start shooting or put up one you already have…you may earn yourself one of these excellent field guides and you will be supporting this forum to boot. Contest is open to everyone except the staff of this magazine. Monitors can compete too!

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Why I Chose a DSLR and Not a Point and Shoot Camera


Many of you will never want more than a Point and Shoot camera but for those who look for the ‘ultimate’ in photography, the Digital Single Lens Reflex is the way to go and here is why.

Male Mallard in an Autumn Pond

One of the biggest assets of this type of camera is its ability to change lenses. Although the lenses on most P&S cameras are pretty darn good, the glass available for DSLR‘s is usually of the highest quality and gives results that exceed the abilities of any P&S lenses. One can select a specific lens for a particular shoot which will give a superlative result.

Another advantage of the more advanced camera is the bright, 100% field of view of the optical pentaprism viewfinder on a DSLR. A glass pentaprism resides inside the viewfinder and its job is to take the light that enters the camera through the lens aperture and bend it up to the eyepiece so you can see what the camera sees. You get to see directly what you are shooting right through the lens itself and so when you compose and take the shot, what you saw through the viewfinder is exactly what you get in the final picture. A P&S camera’s electronic viewfinder uses a cathode ray tube much like a TV screen and does not show 100% of the scene nor are images as clear as one would want.

The third and very important advantage of the DSLR is that you can shoot on automatics and let the camera do the thinking so to speak as you pretty well do on  P&S cameras or you can manually and infinitely adjust every parameter like shutter speed, f-stop, ISO, light balance, color balance, flash control both for the on-board and external flashes, whether to shoot RAW (digital negatives) or JPEG’s and many other features which we will discuss as time goes on. P&S cameras can’t do this to the fullest extent. In future articles we will go over all the various adjustments and the purpose of each one.

Let me give you an example of what a DSLR can do. I shoot a lot of detailed pictures of flowers and bugs. Very often, the things I am shooting are very small and/or very detailed, so I must choose the correct lens, shutter speed and f-stop to get the best results. For this capture I used a 60mm macro lens for close-up shooting and a slow shutter speed to take advantage of the low-light during a rain storm. I also had to use a tripod, otherwise I could never have held the camera still enough to get a sharp focus even with the Shake Reduction feature found in my camera and also most recent P&S cameras . The truth is along with your camera, be it DSLR or P&S, a good tripod is a must for the best photography…don’t stint when you buy a tripod and head for it…you will regret it eventually. But that is another story we will tell in a later effort.

Red Day-Lily in the Rain

By the way as you can see in the example above, during a rain or just after is an excellent time to take pictures of flowers and landscapes. The light has a special quality that enriches the colors of your pictures and the raindrops can add a delicate beauty to flowers, leaves, spiderwebs and the like. Try it sometime, but be aware that the water can injure your camera, so some sort of protection is necessary when it is pouring…in my case the camera and lens are weather resistant so no problem. You can use a plastic bag with a hole cut in it for the lens can poke through…the soft flexibility of the plastic will allow you to use the shutter release at the least and perhaps some of the larger control if you are lucky. There are items to protect your camera from the rain at your camera shops, but like the plastic bag, they are quite awkward to use.

Bee and Flower

In the shot above we see an example what a DSLR can do…but a P&S can’t. The main subject is sharply focused while the other flowers and background gradually fade away into the OOF (Out Of Focus) plane or to use the popular Japanese word for it, the bokeh. This a very beautiful effect, but it is also a very complex one which we will deal with in the next article, F-Stops and Depth of Field. It is a very important article for anyone wanting to be a serious about photography, so you might want to keep your eyes peeled for it.

As you can see a DSLR is an extremely useful photographic tool and although the learning curve is high, the effort to master this kind of camera is well worth it. We will explore this tool in greater depth in future essays.

Join us in discussing this article or other camera related matters in the discussion thread at Forest and Stream Forums.

If you have any questions or suggestions for articles, please post them in the Photography Forum.

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Tips and Articles on Improving Your Photographic Skills

A note to let you know that help is at hand for anyone who is tired of blurry photographs. Maybe you want to know how to better compose your shots. You might wish to get serious about photography and discover the wonders of editing software for your photo captures. Mike and Big Mike and Leo are here for you. Keep an eye peeled for our articles and feel free to put up any questions you might have about your camera or techniques on the discussion forum at Forest and Stream Forums. .

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Welcome to Outdoor Survival Magazine

Outdoor Survival Magazine is an extension of Forest and Stream Online Magazine and Forums.

Here you’ll find articles about the technical aspects of Outing; gear tests, reviews and tutorials; the nuts and bolts of enjoying the wilderness.

We’re unique because you are able to discuss the article with the author on Forest and Stream Forums, so you can directly interact with the writer, ask questions or even present a differing opinion.

Unlike the others, we are always open to accepting new writers and their work, if you feel you have something to contribute drop us a line and we’ll discuss your joining us.

This is YOUR Outdoors Magazine… welcome.

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