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Testing technique and a tripod to the limit

Testing technique and a tripod to the limit - The West Coast of Ireland lashing with rain doesn't sound like the ideal location for taking photographs but never the less David Noton braved the elements to put his tripod to the test.

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Ireland trip by David Noton

Dawn at Clogher Head, looking towards Sybil Point and the Three Sisters, Dingle Peninsula, County Kerry, Ireland. Taken on a Canon EOS 1Ds MkII, 70-200mm lens @ 155mm, ISO50, 30sec @ f/13.

The first light is seeping through the sky from the east as we pull in to the lay by. The wind buffets the car, rocking it on its suspension as the rain lashes the windscreen. Hmmm, do we really want to venture out of our dry metal cocoon? The prospect of abandoning what looks to be a hopeless mission and heading back for a full Irish breakfast is tempting. But the old Puritan Work Ethic kicks in again and we sally forth, once more unto the breach. They say the best pictures come in the worst conditions; complete rubbish quite frankly but we have to give it a go, don't we?

We trudge to our chosen spot in the half-light, this is our fourth and last dawn vigil for now, later we must head for Rosslare and the ferry home. I peer into the gloom, there's a great view from here on Clogher Head, not that I can see it now. The low cloud and rain obscure all; this really is a pointless exercise. We are stood on the westernmost tip of mainland Ireland, go west from here on the Dingle Peninsula as many did and there's nothing but salty water until Newfoundland. Every bit of weather the North Atlantic has to offer gets dumped here first. But this coast of savage headlands, wave lashed cliffs and sweeping beaches is one of the most dramatic in the world, when you can see it. Ryan's Daughter, Wendy's favourite film, was shot here and I can see why. It's atmospheric, captivating and beautiful, all that you expect of the west coast of Ireland, and the exposed position is all part of the appeal.

I start setting up more out of habit than hope, extending the tripod legs as I scan the sky out to sea. Is it my imagination or is the cloud level lifting? The rain has eased, and looking north I can just see the bold shape of Sybil Head and the Three Sisters looming out of the murk. Maybe, just maybe, there's a picture to be made here, but this wind will give me problems. With howling gales and a long lens fitted there's not a tripod in the world that will support the camera with absolute rigidity here and now. Short of anchoring the Canon in concrete in these conditions I can either increase the ISO and shoot hand held with fast shutter speeds or go back to bed, it's as simple as that. It seems only the latter is an option now as exposures will still be long; the sun is having second thoughts about rising today and still skulks below the bulk of Gowlanebeg to the east. Light levels are low. Luckily I've found some big boulders, in the lee of them I'm sheltered from the worst of the wind. Maybe I can keep the camera and tripod sheltered from the worst of the buffeting, it's worth a try. What have I got to lose? The gusts make me wary of blurred exposures though; these are the conditions that will test my technique and the tripod to the limit.

With the rain still falling over Smerwick Harbour and the waves crashing on Ballynagall Point I open the shutter. The faint twilight dictates that this will be a long exposure, but as I try and shield the camera with my body during the interminable exposure I'm increasingly hopeful of an atmospheric image. I double-check everything is tight, locked off, as rigid as I can make it. The scene's getting brighter now, losing the cool twilight feel, so I fit an 0.6ND filter to slow things down. I want that movement of the crashing waves accentuated. Check exposures, check histogram, any clipping? Dial in +0.3 exposure compensation, check focus, check composition, expose. Good one. Four days of waiting has crystallised into this brief opportunity. Mind you four days of hanging out in O'Flatterhy's pub, coastal walking, Dingle seafood and Irish hospitality hasn't exactly been a trial.

To the east salmon pink is spreading through the sky over Brandon Mountain. I swing the head round, compose and shoot, buzzing at the image on the glowing monitor. This has been a good session to end with after all. The brief window of clarity closes in again and now it really it is time to head for that full Irish breakfast. Back at the B&B I copy the morning's shoot to the laptop and have a quick look at the RAW images in Capture One. My initial impression is favourable, it's hard to be objective so soon after the event but I think there's something there. But are they all sharp? That wind made me nervous, the whole shoot could be a write off. I zoom in to 100%. The first batch of Sybil Head are all OK. What a relief. I check the second set; damn! Damn, damn, damn! They are all soft, useless. Why? What did I do wrong? After all these years I can still make an elementary mistake like that.

David NortonI brooded on that as we drove across Ireland. I had to analyse what went wrong so I could ensure it didn't happen again. It's so easy to get pictures which aren't sharp when using longish lenses on tripods, especially with a blustery Mother Nature throwing her oar in. When looking at a less than crisp image on the monitor later, it's tempting to blame the tripod, or lens, but the root cause of that galling softness is more likely to be poor technique. Unfortunately you can't just put a camera on the tripod and assume all will be hunky dory. Your tripod is the most important piece of equipment you own but it takes meticulous attention to detail to ensure your camera/lens combination is delivering absolutely optimum results. Clearly I'd broken my own rules in Kerry. Never again.

When setting up the camera on the tripod I have a set routine working from the bottom up. Firstly, the ground you settle on will be determined by the shot, but where possible the firmer the better. If possible try to find somewhere out of the wind. Soggy, boggy ground is a problem, use rocks rather than tufts of grass, and use your body weight to firmly root the ‘pod on the spot. Secondly, don't extend higher than is necessary, and always use the upper, thicker extensions before the lower, thinner ones. Make sure the tripod is level, not leaning, and the legs are splayed wide to provide maximum lateral support. Hang your bag from the centre column if possible to give the anchor extra stability. Only use the centre column elevated if you really have to, and be sceptical about its ability to support a long lens rigidly in a hurricane. It may be OK when using a wide angle on a still day, but really it is to be avoided.

Once the legs are in place make sure the quick release plate on the camera is tight. This is so easy to overlook and can rob you of that killer image. I keep quick release plates on the camera and the centre weighted collars of my 70-200 & 100-400mm long lenses. Again, when the camera is seated on the head make sure the quick release lever is firmly locked in place. Compose the picture and then tighten everything. The centre column grip and all the adjustments on the head. Then check again. All this may seem bleeding obvious but in the heat of the moment with the world's most dramatic scene unfolding in front of you it's easy to overlook one little thing.

Now we come to the actual camera operation. I don't need to remind you to use a cable release, do I? This is fundamental. We can't be touching the camera during slow exposures. If you've lost, forgotten or dropped your cable release down the cliff face use the self-timer. Next, turn off the auto focus. When shooting landscape why rely on the camera to determine the focusing point? That's your job. Auto focus is great for action and street scenes, portraits even, but not for landscape. Turn it off. Same with the Image Stabilisation. This is designed for use hand-held or with monopods for action photography, not landscape. You may read that some lenses are designed for IS use on a tripod, don't believe it. Don't believe me? Do a test. IS, or Vibration Reduction as Nikon call it is a handy feature, but no replacement for a set of legs.

Tripod used by DavidThe most important step to take is to lock the mirror up. When the shutter is released the mirror in an SLR flips up, exposing the focal plane. That movement in the camera causes vibration, and is a major cause of unsharpened pictures when working on a tripod, so we need to lock it up before the exposure. I used to think that it was only necessary with longer lenses, but now I've 21Mp to expose the merest indiscretion will lose me ultimate image resolution, so I lock up the mirror whenever the camera has three legs. Canon has located mirror lock up on the 1Ds MkIII deep in the custom functions, they clearly have never spent a dawn on Clogher Head, so I've placed it right at the top of the list in "My Favourites" on the menu. I do miss the Old Days when mirror lock was just a lever on the lens mount. And one last thing; if you are using a long lens with a centre weighted column for a vertical image use the collar to rotate the camera as opposed to the tripod head, which offsets the weight from the centre and makes the whole structure less stable.

So you've done everything possible to ensure sharp pictures, but the odd gust of wind can still cause problems. Do multiple exposures just in case. No matter how analytical you are there will be some that are sharp, and others that aren't. So what went wrong in Kerry? In truth, Ill never know. It could have been a combination of various factors, I probably recomposed and exposed in a rush overlooking one of the above vital steps. But maybe it's time to reappraise my tripod set up.

Tripods live a hard life. They get banged, dropped and scraped clambering over rocky headlands, immersed in salt water and shunted by airport baggage handlers. I get through a tripod every few years, and the loft is full of retired legs. I've been using a Manfrotto 055MF with a 410 geared head for ages now. One leg has gone limp and the head locks up on me at inopportune moments. Close examination of the head has revealed a distinct amount of play in one plane; not good. I think I should consider some alternatives.

So I'm testing a Giotto's MTL8360B in the garden, it's a warm calm afternoon, the complete opposite of that Dingle Dawn. I'm trying to ascertain what the tripod is capable of in perfect conditions. The feet are on firm ground, with my Lowepro slung from the hook below the centre column. On the head is my 1Ds MkIII with the 100-400mm lens set at 400mm. Everything is tight and locked off or up. I'm shooting test exposures of Wendy's potted plants to check crispness at difference exposures. In my experience the most difficult set of circumstances for a tripod to deal with if we ignore the wind factor is a shutter speed of 1/15sec with a 400mm or longer lens. Why? Well I guess with long exposures any judder caused by the shutter firing is a tiny part of the overall exposure so has negligible effect. Not so on faster exposures. Keeping a 400mm steady is a tall order. With the camera on the tripod look through the eyepiece and just tap the lens. See what I mean?

Now I have to admit when I first handled this tripod I was sceptical; it's so bloody light! It's a photographer's destiny to lug heavy kit up steep hills, isn't it? It's not supposed to be easy, or comfortable. There was a time when I'd routinely romp over the hills and faraway with both my panoramic and 35mm systems in a gargantuan Lowepro with a big metal lump of a tripod on one shoulder. Well, I have a twisted arm to show for that; nowadays my bag is smaller and lighter, with just the DSLR kit on my back and carbon-fibre legs on my shoulder. But I do feel guilty about this, am I still a proper photographer? This ultra lightweight Giotto's feels like a toy, but I've news for you, it does the job. It is tempting to think that a tripod's own weight is crucial to it's stability, but it's not so. If you sling your bag from the centre column hook there's plenty of weight in the system, and really, the proof is in the pudding. Right across the range of exposures from 1/500th sec to 2 seconds this tripod anchored the 400mm artillery with perfect stability; very impressive. Granted, this was in a controlled environment, with Atlantic gales blowing I'm sure it would be a different story, but show me one tripod that wouldn't struggle in such conditions.

Provence trip by David Noton

Rows of lavender in a field near St-Saturnin-les-Apt, the Vaucluse, Provence, France. Taken on a Canon EOS 1Ds MkII, 100-400mm lens @ 400mm, ISO50, 1.3sec @ f/20

Tests are all well and good but no substitute for using the kit in the field. So the Giotto's had passed its first test, but now it had to do the job on a proper trip. On our last trip to Provence I hedged my bets; both tripods went in. I was also evaluating two heads, a conventional pan & tilt and a ball head. I'd always shied away from ball heads; light, simple and stable but infuriating to use. Time to confront my prejudices, here amongst the lavender fields I would re-appraise. Know what? I was right first time around. Ball heads are the work of the devil. Want to level the horizon with a minute adjustment? Forget it, you loosen the knob and the whole thing goes to pot; I hate them. So the ball was quickly replaced with the pan & tilt and life became a lot more tranquil. And the tripod is light, compact and well made. I like the system for positioning the column horizontally for really low work, the click stops for splaying the legs, the hook for the bag and the little pouch of tools that come with it. Giotto's quick release plates fit snugly on the camera base without ruining the handling, unlike Manfrotto's awkward lumps for the 410 head. And the leg clamps are smooth, firm and adjustable. Hopefully I've endured my last session on a winter evening with cold, bleeding hands from recalcitrant leg clamps.

I've come to terms with Kerrygate now. It was just another of those shots that got away. C'est la vie, there will be more. I don't blame the tripod, it was probably an oversight on my part but today I'm packing my bags for Croatia. Guess which set of legs I'm taking? Braving the tyranny of airport check-in with the light compact Giotto's packed means one less thing to worry about and when I'm stood overlooking the Adriatic at dusk, everything, yes everything, will be tight, secure and locked up.

Visit David Noton's website for more details.


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User_Removed 11 19 United Kingdom
12 Dec 2008 3:53PM
very interesting topic and a lot of valuable information given by the author.

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