Shooting on the Road, from Gear to Workflow
Illustration by John Hersey

Using tripods and other stabilizers


Shooting on the Road, from Gear to Workflow

with Ben Long

Video: Using tripods and other stabilizers

Earlier I mentioned image stabilization. This is a technology that can be built into some lenses, and it can help even out or completely eliminate hand-held camera shake. Image stabilization is great. If you're a Nikon shooter, of course I'm talking about vibration reduction. If you're Sony shooter, I'm talking of course about the fact that your image sensor is stabilized. A lot of Olympus cameras work that way. What's great about these technologies is in lower light I don't have to worry as much about camera shake or hand-held shake as I do with a non-stabilized lens.

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Watch the Online Video Course Shooting on the Road, from Gear to Workflow
3h 8m Intermediate Jun 29, 2012

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Shooting on the road, whether it's on vacation or on assignment, introduces a variety of considerations for photographers of all levels. How do you store the shots, back them up, edit and enhance images in the field, and then merge those images with your master library at home? In this course, Ben Long addresses these topics and more from the perspective of several field-shooting scenarios, including city vacationing and backcountry hiking.

The course takes a look at the hardware and software issues behind field shooting: assessing storage and backup needs, evaluating GPS geotagging options, surveying power and charging issues, and more. After discussing each of the components, Ben shows how they fit together in different field setups, ranging from an extravagant laptop-based system to a no-computer setup that backs up photos to a compact digital wallet device. The course also spotlights some workflow strategies to consider when you get home, from transferring photos to merging them with a larger photo library.

Topics include:
  • Selecting the right gear, from cameras to bags
  • Bringing the right battery and storage equipment
  • Packing your camera bag
  • Getting to the destination with heavy equipment
  • Unpacking and setting up the gear
  • Geotagging photos on location
  • Downloading manuals for convenient access in the field
  • Wrapping up a shoot
  • Unpacking and transferring images to an editing workstation
Aperture Lightroom
Ben Long

Using tripods and other stabilizers

Earlier I mentioned image stabilization. This is a technology that can be built into some lenses, and it can help even out or completely eliminate hand-held camera shake. Image stabilization is great. If you're a Nikon shooter, of course I'm talking about vibration reduction. If you're Sony shooter, I'm talking of course about the fact that your image sensor is stabilized. A lot of Olympus cameras work that way. What's great about these technologies is in lower light I don't have to worry as much about camera shake or hand-held shake as I do with a non-stabilized lens.

Nevertheless, these technologies are no substitute for actual stabilization hardware, something that I can mount my camera on and get it held down really tight while I'm doing long exposures or other low- light-type shooting scenarios. Now carrying a tripod is not essential, and in some cases it might be a complete waste of time. If you know you're going to be shooting in bright daylight all the time, then there's no reason to lug around the extra piece of gear. But if you want maximum shooting flexibility, then it's worth considering taking some kind of stabilizing hardware. We've got a few different options right here.

Let's start with the really cute little. teeny-tiny tripod over there on the end. That is actually going to be completely useless for the camera that I'm looking at here. But if I have a little point-and-shoot, these little tabletop tripods, like this one right here, are very handy. They're great for setting up self-portrait shots with the timer on your camera or just having fun doing macro work. So many point-and-shoot cameras have really great macro features. So a tiny little tripod can be a nice addition to your bag if you're carrying a point-and-shoot. This is a Gorillapod. I really like these because they're very, very versatile.

The legs fold up into lots of different shapes, giving me a lot of options for how I want to mount this somewhere. I can wrap it around things. I can wrap it around a telephone pole. I've still got a plate up here that's good for a standard tripod socket thread on my camera. Gorillapods come in lots of different sizes. It's all about weight-bearing. This is beefy enough that it'll hold up my SLR or a point-and-shoot. A smaller one obviously is not going to work so well with a larger camera. I take these a lot on motorcycle and bicycle trips because I can wrap them around the handlebars, not while I'm riding, but I can turn the bicycle into a tripod itself.

It will stand there. I can wrap these around the handlebar and set up my shot and leave it that way. And they're very light. It's all plastic, but it's surprisingly sturdy. So this is a good option when you don't want to go for a full-on tripod. A full-on tripod of course is going to give you the most stabilizing effect and the most versatility for how you set it up. There are lots and lots of tripod options, and the easiest way to winnow it down is to start by thinking about what's the most weight that you're going to need to bear, how much does your camera weigh, and what's the biggest lens that you're going to put on it? A tripod has a certain carrying capacity and you need a tripod that's at least big enough to carry, or to hold, your camera and its largest lens.

You don't need one that's set up for carrying more weight than that. There's no reason for you to be lugging around a tripod that's capable of supporting more camera than you will ever use. So as soon as you address the weight issue, that's going to immediately winnow the field down to something much, much smaller. It can be tempting at first when you see those really big fancy tripods. You go, well, that's what I need, but that's probably actually a lot more than you need. Next is going to be the consideration of how tall a tripod do you need? Tripods can go up to different heights, and tripod legs extend and then in addition to those, you very often have a center column that can go up.

When I put this whole thing up, I get up to a certain height. I probably want it to be at least as tall as my eye, although that's not essential, but it makes it a lot more comfortable for shooting if I can just stand here and have my eye right behind the tripod. If I have to hunch down, that's a little less comfortable. On the other hand, if you're thinking you're not going to use your tripod that much, then you may want to suffer a shorter tripod to get it down to lighter weight. So height will be your next consideration: How tall do you want it? Next, you get to materials. This is a carbon fiber tripod. This is just about the lightest weight material you can get.

It's very sturdy, very light, but it's going to cost you more. So there's a tradeoff there. How much do you want to invest in your tripod? If you really want to go for light, then you're going to want to go for a lighter material. Otherwise, you can spend a little less, but it's going to cost you in back pain. The legs extend by releasing some kind of lock here. There are typically two different kinds of releases: twist releases, which are like screws, and these flip-up levers. I much prefer the flip-up levers, and the reason is I can close them all with one movement and I can get them open very quickly and extend the legs.

The twist mechanisms, they just bug me. They take a long time. The advantage of the twist mechanisms is they're less mechanical, so there's less to break. I've never had a problem with these. This is a Velbon carbon fiber tripod and these I believe are magnesium or some fancy metal of some kind. So I can extend my legs. Another nice thing to look for in your tripod legs is here I've got an uneven surface. I want to get my tripod set up leveled, but I've got this staircase here. With this tripod, I can pop up this release right here and now my legs will go all the way out to the side.

So that gives me a way to get my tripod here on this uneven surface and still have a good solid--here we go--a good solid platform to put my camera on. As I mentioned before, many tripods have a center column that can go up and down. You want to be careful with this. I am turning the wrong knob here. There we go. You want to be careful with this, because you may think, well, my legs don't go that high, but once I put the center column up, then boy, it's as high as I'll ever need it to be. The problem is that as this point I'm basically using, to a degree, a monopod.

Up here is not nearly as stable as down here. So again, if I'm going to be shooting in very, very windy conditions, I typically want to keep the center column as low as possible. So you don't want to rely on the center column to get the height you need if you're going to be in situations where it could possibly be tossed around some. There's a hook right here on the bottom, or in this case there's a thread, I can attach a little thing down here that gives me a hook that allows me to hang my camera bag here. That puts a bunch of weight that pulls the tripod down and that can give me some extra stabilizing effect. So that can be a handy feature to look for. One little tip: when you're setting up your tripod, if you're not going to pull the legs out all the way, always pull the bottom ones out all the way first.

In other words, this is a better arrangement than--I'm going to do this here--this, because now I've got all this mechanism down here on the ground. If I'm working in sand or something, sand can get in here. So it's much nicer to always have this foot as far as possible. Typically when you buy a tripod, you have a choice of buying a tripod that has a built-in head or one that has no head at all. Let me just take the head off here so you can see what the difference is.

If I take the head off of this tripod, because when I bought this tripod, it was just the sticks. It was just the legs. It did not had a head; it just had this plate here. That allows me to choose my own type of head. The reason I like that is because very often tripods that have a built-in head, the head wobbles a bit, it's not super sturdy, and you have no real control over fixing that. Also, there are a lot of different types of heads available and I like the opportunity to choose. Typically, for shooting still photos, a ball head is the way to go, and you can see it very clearly here.

This is just a ball and socket and when I loosen it, I can rotate that around. This is very different from a video tripod head, which will typically have different releases, allowing me to unlock just one axis so that I can pan without tilting and so on and so forth. I don't shoot video, so I don't have that problem. So when you're ready to shop for a head, again, my best suggestion for just shooting stills would be to go for a ball head. At that point you have a lot of options again, and the first thing you want to consider is weight. And just as with tripods, you're going to find if you want to go lighter, it's going to cost you more money.

This is an Acratech Ultimate Ballhead. So there. This is apparently, I guess, it doesn't get any better than this. I don't know. I picked this one because I like the mechanism. It's all open. It's all clean. I shoot a lot in desert conditions. If sand gets in here, I can just blow it out with compressed air. But the main thing is it's very light. This weighs less than one pound and it can still support my camera. This is a standard screw size here. My tripod, though, had a smaller screw than standard. You can get these little shims at any camera store that can go on here and that can bump it up to standard size.

Tripod heads typically just screw right on, and they also typically come with a plate that goes on your camera, a quick release plate. So you can see that right here. I've got the plate on here and what's nice about this is, yeah, it's an extra thing that I have to have attached to my camera and you may think, well, that makes the camera bigger and heavier. Fortunately, this plate doesn't weigh very much. It's very low profile and because it just lives on the camera all the time, it's very, very easy put to my camera on the tripod. There it's on, it's solid, and when I want it off, it's off.

That's the advantage of a quick release plate. If you have the option for different plates for your tripod head, try and find one that has two features. In addition to being low profile and light if it's got a place to attach a strap, that can be handy, because as you'll see later, there are some strapping mechanisms that can work with your tripod plate and see if it has a pass-through. That is, see if it has another tripod socket here, because the advantage of this is if I'm ever out with my camera and I've forgotten my tripod but a friend has his tripod there and he's just got a thread on it, I can still get my camera onto his tripod without having to take the plate off.

So that can be very handy. So a tripod can be essential for certain types of shooting. It's not essential for every trip that you might go on. It's one of those things that you're going to need to really consider before you take off, whether it's worth carrying the extra weight. If you do your shopping right and really look around for legs that don't weigh that much but offer the features that you need, and a head that doesn't weight that much and offers the type of control that you like, then having a tripod with you doesn't necessarily have to weigh you down much more. Another option is to ditch two of the legs and go with a monopod.

What's nice about a monopod is it's small and it's light and it still gives you a good amount of stability. It's not the kind of thing where you're going to leave the monopod set up for a 20-minute exposure. But if you're shooting in low light and just want to get the hand-held shake down a little bit, get a little bit of an extra boost and give yourself a break, the place where you're not having to bear all the weight of your camera, if you've got a long lens on, a monopod can be a really good choice. Again, some monopods have removable heads, some don't. So a lot of the same issues that you face when shopping for a tripod will come up when you're shopping for a monopod.

Once you've got your camera on the tripod, you may want to think about how you want to trigger it. It doesn't do me much good to put the camera on the tripod and then be mashing the shutter button down. That can vibrate the camera. It can cause jitter. Also, it means I've got to be standing near the camera. A remote control can give me a lot of flexibility once the camera is on a tripod. I can stand farther away from the camera. I can be sure that I'm not shaking the camera. Now in the old days it used to be you could spend $7 on a cable release and have lots of remote control.

Camera vendors figured out a way around that. Now you have to have an electronic remote control, which costs 35, 40 bucks. This is a very basic remote control. It's just a shutter button, but it's got a lock, which is worth looking for. This allows you to use bulb mode on your camera. In bulb mode, as long as the shutter button is held down, the shutter will stay open. So this is a good way of doing long exposures. Really no frills and not that expensive, but as long as you're investing in a remote control, you may want to go up to something with a little more capability.

This does all the same thing that that one does. It's got a shutter release button here and it has a lock, but it's got some other features, the main one being an intervalometer. If you want to do time-lapse, that is, shooting a single frame at regular intervals over a stretch of time with the idea that you're going to string those into a video of some kind, this is the way to do it. I can program this to say take X number of pictures every so often for so long and it'll just sit there and do it. It's battery-powered; the other one is not. So that's another thing. If you're going to take this, you've got to consider whether you want to carry batteries with you or not.

I really like this remote control. If you're really into self-portraits, you've got a little bit of an issue because the cable is only this long. Even if you take that knot out of it, it's still not that much longer. So you're going to be looking at self- portraits of your nose or your cheek or an eye, and that's probably not what you're interested in. So in that case, you might want to go with a wireless remote control. These typically come in two components. This plugs into the remote control socket on my camera and this I can either just leave hanging off or tie onto the tripod or mount into the camera's hot shoe. This is actually a cold mount.

There are no contacts there. So if I'm using a flash, I'm would need to put this somewhere else because my flash will be on the hot shoe. And then this is my remote control. It's just got a little antenna. I turn it on, I've got a shutter button. I don't actually have a lock on this one. Again, this stuff is battery-powered so you've got to be sure that you've got power with it. Range on these. This is not a very expensive one. I think this was only $20-$25. The range is 30 feet maybe, which is probably more than you need. But if you were planning on something in particular where you know you need a lot of range, you'll want to look for a remote control or maybe radio trigger that with a little more range than this one.

But again, remote control is something that works very well with a tripod, so that's something to consider depending on the type of shooting you're doing.

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