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January 10, 2014

An Introduction to Tripods – The First of Two Articles

This will be the first of two articles that talks about Tripods. When I started writing articles for I knew it was a photography website that did a great job talking about Sony products and helping a huge photography community. I looked through some of the entries and I quickly saw that it was filled with great reviews of different Sony cameras, lenses and accessories. If I was going to be a contributor I wanted to find something different to write about but still make sure that what I shared would help the many Sony equipment owners.

I decided that writing reviews about specific gear or talking about different settings to get the most from a Sony system wasn’t going to be how I contributed. What I needed to do was talk about some gear I used with my system (which includes Sony DSLRs) and post-processing techniques I use as a full-time photographer. Something I wanted to do was emphasize how to create great images no matter what camera system you use. Hopefully what I’ve shared so far has helped.

Today I want to continue to talk about some non-Sony gear that helps me to get the most from my personal Sony system.



If there’s one thing that really helps to improve our photography it’s using a tripod. I’ve owned plenty of tripods over the years and I have a number of them in my current equipment inventory now. Whenever possible my camera is mounted to a tripod. If you shoot night scenes, fireworks, the stars or if you create HDR images then a tripod is a must.

Why use a tripod? Because getting really sharp images is a result of keeping the camera as steady as possible. Yes, there are some really good image stabilization systems built into cameras and lenses (like Sony’s SteadyShot) but when your shutter speed gets longer there’s only so much in-camera or in-lens stabilization can do to help.

You can have a super high resolution camera and the most expensive top quality lens available but if you move even a little bit then you’re losing sharpness. The smallest movement at the camera is amplified by your camera system especially when your focal length (zoom) goes up. When you press the shutter release button you’re applying downward pressure to your camera and trying to compensate with upward support. A little movement will almost always happen.

There are a number of camera holding techniques that help and I’ve used almost all of them. Those techniques exist to help keep your camera steady. Using good camera holding technique will help most of your shots when you have really good light.

To keep your images sharp it helps to keep your shutter speed as fast as possible. Most modern digital cameras have automatic modes that can adjust aperture or sensitivity (ISO) to keep the shutter speeds as fast as possible. To keep shutter speed fast your ISO might need to go up and that means introducing gain (increased sensitivity) and the result is added noise. You can reduce noise with software like Lightroom but noise reduction is accomplished by introducing blur to your image. If you want the most detail with the least amount of noise it’s best to keep your sensitivity (ISO) as low as possible. Keeping sensor sensitivity low, depending on the amount of available light, might require a longer (slower) shutter speed.

It’s also important to know that long shutter speeds can let you create a different look for your images. Flowing water, for example, benefits from slower shutter speeds to give a silky smooth look to landscape images. How slow of a shutter speed? I’ve found that three seconds or more works best. It’s the same with fireworks as well as night scenes. Unfortunately there’s no way to hand-hold a camera perfectly still for more than a fraction of a second. This is one of the many great times to be using a tripod. Here’s an example of a typical setup for me when I’m photographing running water:

tripod setup for a running water shot

With my camera rock solid I was able to use a 2 second shutter speed at the lowest sensitivity setting on my DSLR. In the final image anything that was not moving (like the distant rocks) are super sharp but anything moving (like the flowing water) looked silky smooth. Here’s a look at the final image:

"Potomac River Rapids"


Keeping the Camera Still

Really sharp images happen when your camera doesn’t move during a shot. Keeping your camera frozen can be as simple as setting your camera on something sturdy like a table, trash can or a short wall. Sometimes I’ll even set my camera on the floor to take a shot. The only problem you might

my Manfrotto Magic Arm

My Manfrotto Magic Arm

run into is poor shot composition (because the sturdy surface might not be in the best place for getting the best composition). The solution is to use something sturdy that has plenty of adjustment. I like using a Manfrotto Magic Arm, but it needs to be clamped to something to work. When there’s nothing around to keep your camera steady (or mount your Magic Arm) it’s time to use a tripod.

A tripod is a three legged device designed to support a camera (or anything that needs to be held steady). Tripods come in many sizes and you can find them made out of different materials. Medium to large aluminum tripods are the most common and they can be found in a range of prices. Super small tripods (also called “table top” tripods) are a really great way to keep your camera steady on an available surface but still have some adjustability.

Any form of support will help you to take sharper pictures but to get the sharpest pictures you need to use the sturdiest tripod you can afford. Big heavy tripods will always work best for keeping your camera steady. Unfortunately, the sturdiest tripods can also weigh a lot (and that’s not a good thing if you’re going to be walking a long distance to take your pictures).

The best tripod I’ve ever used was a huge Gitzo that weighed over 12 pounds and cost more than $1000 (and was absolutely no fun to get to a location). It was a monster that was part of a Spheron kit that needed to be kept absolutely steady when it was in use. Would I recommend using such a heavy tripod? I would absolutely recommend using it – as long as you can drive your vehicle (or a golf cart or other motorized form of transportation) to the place where you’re going to be setting it up. Otherwise I’d recommend using something a little more practical.


Creative Possibilities When Using a Tripod

Using a tripod will improve just about all of your photography but there are times when you’re creative vision can only be achieved with a really long shutter speed. Some photographers (myself included) even attach dark filters called Neutral Density filters to their lenses to get longer shutter speeds than normal. Why do this? With a long shutter speed you can introduce movement into your shot. A side benefit of finding a setting to get a long shutter speed is that you might have a very small aperture setting and that adds a really cool look to any sources of light in your shot. Here’s a shot I took after the sun went down for the night in Washington, DC:

"Washington Monument"

With my camera set to f5.6 at ISO 200 I used a three second shutter speed to capture the red trails of light from passing cars on the street.

Another cool trick you can achieve with a tripod is using a long shutter speed to eliminate moving people from a shot. It doesn’t always eliminate everyone from a shot but it can make a pretty big difference. Here’s a shot of the lobby of the Grand Californian Hotel & Spa I took when I was on a Disneyland vacation:

"Grand Californian Christmas Tree"

Being a Disney property you can imagine how many people were moving through the lobby. By placing my camera on a small table-top tripod and using a ND filter on my lens I was able to get a 30 second shutter speed (using f8 at ISO 200). People moving through the shot were eliminated while the people sitting still remained in the final image. Here’s a look at the tripod setup I used to get the shot:

Using a table-top tripod

With a long shutter speed you can make running water look totally different than when you capture it with a fast shutter speed. Here’s a shot I took at Great Falls National Park from a scenic overlook about half an hour before sunrise:

"Overlook 1"  |  Great Falls National Park

For this shot I was mounted to a tripod to keep my camera steady for the 15 second shutter speed (f22 at ISO 200). The look of water as it moved during the 15 seconds really lets you see the path of the water as it makes its way down the river.

With a long shutter speed you can capture awesome fireworks shots and really wild looking star trail images. Here’s a look at a 30 minute shutter speed (yes – I kept the shutter open for half an hour) in the middle of the night in the Shenandoah National Park:

Star Trails in the Shenandoah


A Practical Reason to Use a Tripod

So far I’ve been concentrating on technical reasons to use a tripod. But there’s another reason I always keep a tripod handy. When I’m in my studio or out on location shooting portraits my camera can start to feel heavy. A full day of pointing a full-frame camera with a long portrait lens can really make your arms sore. I know a lot of studio shooters who use a tripod because they’re working a long day. By using a tripod (especially one with a self leveling center column) you can keep the weight on the tripod and concentrate on what’s in front of your camera. Because weight is no longer an issue you can use the best system for the job – even if it’s a heavy medium format camera with a big lens attached. For me – I like to be a little mobile when I’m photographing people but I still keep a tripod handy to hold my camera between shots. It might sound minor but believe me when I say that holding a camera up all day is more work than you might think. It’s like having an assistant there to hold your camera between shots during a shoot.


Wrapping Up

This feels like a good place to conclude this introduction to tipods. Hopefully by reading this far you’ve come to appreciate what a difference keeping your camera steady can make as well as what can be accomplished, creatively, when you use a tripod. If you have a camera you love and you want to get the most from it then I believe that one of the first investments you should make is a good, solid tripod.

I’ve used a lot of tripods over the years and when you look at tripods from companies like Really Right Stuff, FEISOL, Gitzo, 3 Legged Thing, and Manfrotto you’re going to see some really top quality equipment. In addition I’ve used tripods from 3POD, Oben, Flashpoint, MeFOTO, and Induro and, depending on which model you get, they’re quite nice as well.

I believe that you should use the right gear for the job you’re doing and with tripods it’s easy to match up your purchase to the style of photography you’ll be doing. If you’re shooting long exposure shots then getting a super solid tripod is a must. If you do a lot of walking then something small and light fits the bill. If you do both (like I do) then having multiple tripods is something to consider. In my next article I’ll talk about some of the many tripods in my collection and how I like to use them. I’ll also share a number of tips to get the most from your tripod investment.




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About the Author

I am a photographer and business owner that lives in Virginia. My business serves clients in the Washington DC area but I travel to do location shoots all over the USA. While photography and photoshop are my business I also enjoy teaching and sharing what I've learned over the years. I'm a "general" photographer that specializes in location portrait work but I can be found shooting weddings, equine shows, landscapes and so much more. I'm proud to be an author here on Sony Alpha Lab and I look forward to contributing to the community here.


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