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Using a tripod

Tripod tips for sharper pictures

When you need more height, extend the tripod's legs before you raise the center column. You will have greater stability.
When you need more height, extend the tripod's legs before you raise the center column. You will have greater stability.

If you could lug around a four-foot tall pyramid-shaped block of concrete that had a camera mount on top, your time-exposure and slow shutter pictures would be needle sharp every time. Since you can’t, the most practical alternative is a tripod that is as close to the solidity of the concrete as possible. But, even the use of a tripod does not guarantee sharp images if it is improperly used. The following tips will help you to maximize the sharpness of your pictures when using a tripod.

1. Extend the legs of the tripod before you raise the center column if you need more height. A tripod’s steadiness comes from the wide base created by its legs, whereas the center column merely increases height without contributing to steadiness. In fact, the higher it is, the more your camera may tend to waver.

2. When the tripod’s legs are fully-extended, there is greater risk of camera movement, particularly if there is a strong wind. To ensure steadiness, you can add weight to the tripod to “anchor” it more firmly to the ground and make it more resistant to movement. A sandbag or water bag, for example, can be suspended from the center column or three sandbags can be draped over the legs.

3. Many tripods have rubber caps at the end of the legs for a firm grip on the studio floor. In some models, these rubber feet can be individually turned so they screw upwards, revealing a sharp spike-like foot that can be pushed into the ground for extra stability when photographing outside. They spike base is also effective when using the tripod on a carpet, providing a solid footing. Not all models have such convertible feet, but if your tripod does, be sure to use them for extra stability.

4. If you are using your tripod on dry sand, extremely loose soil or on snow, you may find it difficult to keep the legs from sinking in. The solution is to create a wider foot that acts like a snowshoe, spreading the load over a larger area. Several “found” objects can be used to achieve this - wide, flat rocks, for example, or short pieces of lumber for the legs to rest on. A good makeshift solution is to cut two tennis balls in half, and place them on the surface so the legs can be put in them. The half balls store easily when cupped together, and you’ll be glad you have them if you do a lot of work outside. Some tripods can be purchased with interchangeable wide feet for use on such unstable surfaces. If you’re really stuck, use three lens caps. Just don’t forget them when you move on, and be sure to clean off any grit before putting them back on your lenses.

5. Anything that might cause the camera to move during a long exposure should be avoided, including your finger when it depresses the shutter. That is why cable releases were invented. They work and should be used. No cable release? Use your camera’s built-in self-timer for slow shutter speeds. Set it to open the shutter, trip its trigger, then stand back and let the shutter open and close automatically after the predetermined lag time.

Place your tripod's foot in a half tennis ball, and it won'r sink in sand or loose soil.
Place your tripod's foot in a half tennis ball, and it won'r sink in sand or loose soil.

Stability can be increased by suspending a heavy item from the center column of a tripod.
Stability can be increased by suspending a heavy item from the center column of a tripod.

6. A camera’s stability on a lightweight tripod can be increased by adding a light weight on top of it (a garment over the camera, for example). Ensure that the lens is not blocked. You can also apply downward pressure yourself, using your hands. Be sure you don't move during the exposure.

7. Concern over camera movement from your finger depressing the shutter is usually not too worrisome with very long time exposures. If the shutter is to remain open for several seconds or more, a tiny amount of camera movement at the beginning of the exposure will probably not be captured on the film, unless you are shooting moving lights (a moving car’s tail lights, for example). Then, the lights may appear to jump at the commencement of the exposure, and you should take extra care to ensure that only the shutter release moves.

8. Some SLR photographers feel that the movement of the camera’s mirror itself may cause camera jitters that can spoil a slow shutter speed shot - especially one with shutter speeds in the 1/4 sec to 2 seconds range. If you wish to take a picture in which the exposure is unaffected by vibration from the movement of any of the camera’s parts, it can be done. Place a card or dark cloth immediately in front of the lens so that all light is blocked from entering the lens. Then, open the shutter and wait a second or two to be sure the camera is absolutely unmoving. Remove the light barrier without touching the camera, time the exposure and block the light again when the right amount of time has gone by for correct exposure. Close the shutter and you should have a dead sharp image. A word of caution, though. The card or material you use may reflect a bright light from above or behind you into the lens as you remove and replace it. Choose a non-reflective black material when possible and angle it downwards as you remove and replace it to ensure it cannot reflect any light.

9. In extremely long exposures (several minutes), you can actually often walk in front of your lens as the exposure is being made without being recorded on film. The key is to keep moving, especially by crossing the film plane so that you are not in one place long enough to register on the film. Wearing dark clothing and covering anything reflective helps. Knowing this can be particularly useful for certain shots. For example, you may wish to photograph a building at night without any people in the picture, but it seems there is always the risk of someone walking by. Well, a very long time exposure (which may necessitate the use of a neutral-density filter) can solve the problem. Even if someone walks right across the scene, their presence won’t register because they won’t have remained in one place long enough. If someone should stop, however, and wait in one place for a few seconds, their image may register only partially and have the see-through look of a ghost on your final image. (You can see an example of "ghosting" in Film for night photography. It's the fourth picture down.)

10. If you employ the above technique (walking in front of your opened lens during a long time exposure), you can achieve some fabulous effects using flash. Carry your electronic flash unit with you, having calculated in advance what your flash to subject distance should be for the aperture you have selected on the lens. You can then use the flash to illuminate objects in the scene, provided the flash is held at the correct distance from the object for proper exposure.

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Film for night photography