:: Use your tripod
|Camera:||Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III|
Disclaimer: The tripod comments that follow aren’t directed at the casual photographers for whom nature photography is simply a great way to record memories of times outdoors–if using a tripod saps the pleasure from your photography, leave the tripod at home. But if your photographic pleasure derives from capturing the best possible images of nature, or (especially) if you aspire to make money with your photography, no single piece of equipment will improve your results more than a tripod.
The Tripod Police
You’re wandering the banks of the Merced River in Yosemite near sunset when, as if by magic, El Capitan emerges from a swirl of clouds; at your feet virgin snow gives way to an icy reflection of golden light. The scene’s extreme depth calls for a small aperture, but 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). In a moment of weakness, to ensure a shutter speed fast enough for hand-holding, you compromise your aperture and ISO settings. Shutter finger poised, you’re suddenly frozen by a command from behind: “Tripod Police! Step away from the camera!” Uh-oh.
Fortunately, the mandate of the Tripod Police is not to punish, it’s to rehabilitate. In that spirit, let me make my case.
Photography without compromise
With enough light and a steady hand, acceptable sharpness is usually possible without a tripod. But here’s a reality that’s tough to deny: The steadiest hand-held image will never be sharper than it would have been if it had been properly executed using a sturdy tripod.
But shooting sans-tripod in photographer’s light (such as sunrise, sunset, and stormy or cloudy weather) almost always requires compromises: a larger than ideal aperture; a higher than ideal ISO; a slower than ideal shutter speed; an underexposed capture. While most of these “solutions” can be more or less corrected in post-processing, and many may not show up at all on a fifteen-inch laptop screen or 6×9 print, most serious photographers love printing their images large, and we rarely know at capture whether this will be “the one.” Nothing reveals flaws more than a large print.
Nevertheless, bolstered by new technology and validated by computer monitors and small prints, many photographers still flip on stabilization, bump their ISO, and off they go. But the two or three stops gained through image stabilization are rarely enough to ensure a tack-sharp image in the limited light conditions that make the most compelling images. And I don’t care if my images are nearly as clean at ISO 400 as they are at ISO 100–unless I’m dealing with motion in my scene (such as moving water or blowing leaves), the potential that any click may need to be printed large means I always go with my camera’s best ISO.
Let’s imagine that your father-in-law has requested a 24×36 print of the pride of your portfolio–a (hand-held) Death Valley moonset, captured before sunrise at ISO 800 and f4 (it looks great in your Flickr gallery)–for his law firm’s reception area. (A real coup after that whole llama-farm investment fiasco.) So what do you tell him when he asks if you can do another print that’s not so “mushy” and doesn’t have all that “sludge in the shadows”? Oops–looks like another Thanksgiving at the kids’ table.
The ideal f-stop
There’s an ideal f-stop for every landscape image. Really. In fact, the ideal f-stop epiphany is the tripod tipping point for many photographers.
Anyone with a camera can snap the lateral (left/right, up/down) dimensions of a scene. But artistic photographers understand that the key to rendering our three-dimensional world in a two-dimensional medium is to create illusion of depth (the missing dimension) by composing elements throughout their frame, from near to far.
But what about a scene that’s all on the same plane, where depth isn’t a factor?The f-stop still matters because every lens has a single f-stop that renders the sharpest result. For some lenses the sharpness difference between f-stops is small, for others it’s significant. But it’s always there. So even 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.)
Because the f-stop controls depth of field, landscape photographers should only use the f-stop to manage depth, and never to control exposure. In other words, your f-stop is creative decision based on the depth-of-field you want and (when DOF isn’t a factor) the f-stop at which the lens is sharpest. A tripod allows you to choose the best f-stop for your composition.
An image is not a snap, it’s a process
Still not convinced? Consider also the control a tripod gives to your composition process. A tripod slows you down (a good thing), helping you consider each element in the frame and its relationship to other elements. Combined with depth of field control, this management of the positional relationship of elements in your frame is what separates art from snapshots.
Before capturing any image, I try to achieve general sense of visual balance throughout the frame. I look for distractions on the side of the frame (objects cut off or intruding) that pull the eye, and merged elements that rob the scene of depth. Then I carefully determine the ideal focus point (selecting the ideal f-stop has little value if you miss your focus point). Having my composition locked in place on my tripod enables me to make these adjustments deliberately and methodically, and to ensure that one fix didn’t break something else. (Not to mention that using the using the DOF preview button is much easier when I’m on a tripod.)
But I’m not done. After capture, I step back and study the image on the LCD, imaging it framed large and hanging on a wall. I scrutinize my composition for possible refinements, and check the histogram for exposure problems. With a tripod I can do all this at my pace, taking as much time as necessary, knowing that when I’m ready to make adjustments the original image will be waiting right there in my viewfinder atop my tripod, exactly as I captured it.
I use graduated neutral density filters a lot, but find the holders that screw onto the end of my lens awkward. With a tripod it’s easy to position my GND and hold it in place during exposure. During long exposures I’ll sometimes move the GND up and down slightly to disguise the transition–also easy on a tripod. And I use a polarizer to reduce color-robbing glare on virtually every daylight shot. The two stops of light I lose to a polarizer are a non-factor when I’m on a tripod.
Advanced digital techniques 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 easier on a tripod. As is old-fashioned mirror lock-up to reduce mirror-slap induced vibration. And live view focusing, the best way to ensure precise focus, is a snap on a tripod (and a pain to nearly impossible hand-held).
With so much top-to-bottom beauty, this North Lake reflection scene required lots of DOF. To find my composition, I removed my camera from my tripod and moved it around, zooming and widening, switching between horizontal and vertical, until something stopped me. I found that by dropping to my knees, going wide, and orienting the frame vertically, I could include everything from the foreground reflection to the partly cloudy sky and aspen-covered mountainside.
My general composition conceived, I lowered my tripod and reattached the camera. Because the contrast between the bright sky and shaded foreground exceed my sensor’s dynamic range, I used a 3-stop soft graduated neutral density filter to reduce the difference to a manageable amount. I find GND-holders awkward and don’t own one, opting instead to use my fingers to position the filter–not practical without a tripod, but simple with one.
With my equipment ready, I dialed to f16, metered, set my shutter speed, composed, positioned the GND, and clicked. After evaluating the image on my LCD, I made a couple of refinements. I repeated this cycle a couple more times until I had a composition that satisfied me. Finally, with everything exactly as I wanted it, I captured several more identical compositions, each with a different polarizer orientation.
Just as the llama farm is now dust in the Peruvian dessert (just checking to see how carefully you’ve been reading), all those beautiful hand-held scenes from your unstable past are history. Fortunately, the Tripod Police offer a generous 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.