This street scene is from Sutherland in the Northern Cape of South Africa. It’s a small town in the arid Karoo area and is well known for being the coldest town in the country, and home to the South African Astronomical Observatory. It was very cold when I was walking around, with a bitter wind, and the place felt absolutely deserted.
Most of the town is built from local stone, like you see here, with typically unpainted corrugated iron roofs. It doesn’t rain much, so the roofs don’t need painting.
On to this week’s installment of the HDR tutorial, which is …
How to use a tripod
Someone I once worked with always used to talk about ‘back in the day’. Well, back in the day cameras were huge wooden boxes and really, really heavy. Exposures were seriously long, and you had to have a tripod to keep it all steady, no question about it.
Of course now we have the camera equivalent of Moore’s Law
, where things just keep getting smaller and smaller, and lighter and lighter, and tripods aren’t needed for most things.
But here’s the thing. To take HDR effectively you need a tripod. It’s heavy, it’s cumbersome, it’s a pain, but you need to do it. You can take a hand held bracket set, sure, and I’ll cover that in another tutorial, but the results are not going to be consistent. If you want to take high quality HDR images you need to suck it up and carry a tripod.
You are using a tripod for two reasons when you HDR:
- Firstly, you will often be using very slow shutter speeds, especially on your +2 image. It will be too slow to hand hold except on very sunny days. A blurry image will not work on HDR, so using a tripod will solve that problem.
- Secondly, you need to align all your images later in your HDR software, and a tripod will ensure that all your images start life perfectly aligned.
Even using a tripod doesn’t instantly solve all your HDR woes. You will still need to be very careful to keep things as steady as possible, because even a tripod can move or transmit vibrations. I found that getting used to a tripod was quite a frustrating experience, and one that took quite a bit of fiddling and practice before I got it right.
So without further ado, here are my tripod tips, all learned from bitter experience:
- Get a good, stable tripod. Stable unfortunately means heavy, because a tripod derives a lot of its stability from its weight. I use a basic version of the Manfrotto 055 which is a classic design and is tried and tested. It has served me very well so far. As far as the head goes, I find a ball head the most practical head to use. It lets me move my camera around quickly and easily, and it locks as quickly and easily. Mine is a Manfrotto 498RC2. I have seen other photographers recommend the Really Right Stuff and Gitzo brands, but they aren’t available at the bottom of Africa, where I live. A good tripod is expensive, but it should last you many years, if not decades, so don’t scrimp on it. While you’re at it, get a good bag with a shoulder strap for it as well. Your shoulder will thank you.
- Frame your shot first. Before you set up your tripod, find the shot you want by hand holding your camera. Once you have a tripod attached it becomes tempting just to set up the first, most obvious shot you see. Use the freedom of no tripod to find the image you want, then set up the tripod afterwards. If you ever see me shooting with a tripod then you will often see me breaking this rule by hand holding the tripod with the tripod still attached. Now that is unwieldy!
- Batten down the hatches. When using your tripod check that every possible connector and screw and knob is tightened as much as possible. Check the tripod mounting plate that stays connected under your camera body as well. Just one loose bit can lead to a wobbly camera and a blurry photo.
- Keep the tripod as low as possible. Set up lower for more stability, especially if it’s windy. The longer the legs are extended the more unstable the setup will be. Try not to extend the central pillar either, as it’s quite wobbly when extended. Obviously, if the picture you want demands that the tripod be fully extended, then do so, but be super careful about movement.
- Hang heavy stuff from the tripod. Because a tripod derives a lot of its stability from its weight, you can increase that stability by increasing its weight. Most tripods have a hook near or under the central column that you can use for doing this. Pack a collapsable shopping bag in your camera kit for this purpose, and use the bag and the hook to temporarily hang whatever heavy stuff you can find from your tripod. Or just keep a carabiner attached to your camera bag and hang it from the tripod.
- Check the ground conditions. Set up your tripod on a hard surface, and push down firmly on the tripod to ensure the legs are fully splayed out and seated well on the ground. If the ground is soft, make sure you push the tripod in until it’s seated securely, or find some rocks to seat the legs on.
- Shoot in mirror up mode. You need to make sure that just like your tripod is as vibration free as possible, so is your camera. The first thing to do is put your camera in mirror up mode. That way the mirror flips up before you take the shot. The idea is to flip up the mirror, wait a few seconds for any vibrations to stop, then take the picture.
- Turn off VR mode. That’s Nikon talk for Vibration Reduction. The Canon equivalent is IS or Image Stabilisation. These modes reduce shake in your lens while you are hand holding your camera. They work by the lens generating its own vibration with little electromagnets inside itself. This vibration is used to cancel out the vibration caused when you hand hold your lens. The bad news is that if you are not hand holding (for example, you are using a tripod), the vibration made by your VR system can actually cause your picture to blur. I often leave it on by mistake, and it usually seems OK, but the manufacturers recommend you tun it off when using a tripod, so it’s best to try and remember.
- Use a remote. My Nikon comes with a nifty little infrared remote so you can trigger your camera without touching it. If you are taking exposures with a remote, your eye will be away from the eyepiece. In that case you should cover up the eyepiece with the little cover that was provided with your camera. Otherwise light will get into your camera that way, and could confuse your camera’s exposure readings. If your head isn’t blocking the eyepiece while you are taking exposure readings, then the cover should be on. I don’t usually bother, but bear it in mind if your exposures are looking wrong.
- Use auto bracketing. Try and use auto bracketing on your camera, so you don’t have to touch your setup at all while making your entire bracket set. If you do need to manually change your exposure settings, then do so with an incredibly light touch. This will usually be the case when making a bracket set of more than three exposures.
- Sometimes things move anyway. Even when I use a tripod, I sometimes get a small amount of movement. Maybe my tripod was set up on sand, and it moved a fraction, or the wind was blowing and the tripod shook. But not to fear, because Photoshop has a very nifty aligning feature. Aligning your images will be far better and more successful if you had slight movement on a tripod, rather than the far bigger movement you will get from hand holding. Its also better movement, because it can only be in a very limited range and you won’t get the potential parallax shifts that hand holding gives (which may not be correctable in Photoshop at all).
- Don’t trip people. Tripods are clumsy so be careful and aware of people around you. Broken hips aren’t cool.
- Be careful of mugging. If you get totally wrapped up in your tripod setting up and HDR settings, you are a potential mugging victim, so again be aware of what’s going on around you. A tripod makes a great weapon though, if you get into trouble. Try and cultivate a psychotic stare to go with it.
Unfortunately, as useful as tripods are, there are many times you just can’t use them. Many museums or historical sites have banned tripods, so you may have to hand yours in at the door. Whether they are worried about you tripping people up, or damaging historic floors, or you just look like a professional photographer who will be competing with them in the postcard business, as soon as your tripod goes through the metal detector at the front door, it will be singled out and sent to jail until you leave the premises. Even in places other than museums, watch out for security guards. They really don’t seem to like tripods, and get especially tetchy about them around airports and the like, as if photography was some terribly subversive pursuit.
That’s when you’ll need to hand hold. And that’s the subject for next week’s tutorial.