Table-top Tripod Tales

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For the last two weeks of December and most of January, I was on the road for work, fun and family reasons. I learned a few new things—and reconfirmed a few old ones—while I worked in different parts of India and Vietnam, and spent some time in Singapore. Always the teacher, I was watching my own photographing process to see if there were any lessons worth sharing. One thing struck me as a potentially interesting lesson for any serious photographer.

I recently wrote about certain lessons, in a blog titled Lessons from Six Weeks on the Road, but that was mostly about the various “people” issues I encountered.

In terms of my photographing process, on this trip I noticed that I have become more dependent than ever on my table-top tripod. I have already blogged and podcasted (at great length) about how and why I use a table-top tripod. You can read some of those blog entries about Which is the Best Tripod in the World and Why I am Not a Big Fan of the Gorillapod.

You can also view my podcasts about Using the Best Tripod, Which is a Table-top Tripod and the Importance of Timing when Photographing at Twilight

The insight I gained on this trip is how much more I have recently built my photographing process around the same tripods. I had borrowed my wife's tripod for this trip, so as I walked around photographing, I carried two cameras, as I often do, each of them sporting their own table-top tripod.

We all know that a tripod stabilizes a camera, something particularly useful for longer exposures. Tripods are of such value to me, because I try very hard to keep my ISO at 100 or 200 in order to get the very best digital images. That leaves me to rely on the tripod whenever my speeds go lower than what l could normally hand-hold.

Yes, my Olympus cameras have internal stabilization technology, like that found in many of the newer cameras (or lenses). And that technology gains me one or more stops on the low end (before I need to use the tripod). Since I am using the PEN cameras, without any of the mirror-induced vibration which is common to SLRs, I can go even lower on the shutter speed—up to a point that is...

This happened a lot during one assignment where I was photographing a very-high-end fashion designer in Mumbai, India. There was pretty low light wherever I photographed her, whether in her office, her studio, or the workshop where the embroidery she is known for is actually made. The tripod saved me many times.

Part of my assignment when I was photographing the embroidery workers in Mumbai was to make a multi-media piece. In such a case, the key is making sure that the stills, videos and time-lapse animations all flow together seamlessly. A tripod is key to that!

As you can imagine, working with a regular tripod in the close quarters of a design studio and in a workshop packed to the gills with embroidery looms would have been just about impossible. With a table-top tripod, it was easy, as long as I could find a place to rest the tripod.

During this trip I started paying closer attention to other ways the table-top tripod helps me. Most of these are practices I have been using for awhile. I just started paying more attention to them when I was thinking about writing them down for this blog posting. To list a few:

One story that I was working on in India involved photographing a lot of buildings. In that kind of situation, I still have trouble keeping lines straight, both vertically and horizontally. The tripod helps, because with the camera locked in place I can shoot a scene, check my lines, and then correct my images. Often the corrections are very subtle, and slight shifts of the tripod make those corrections easier to control.

Sometimes I am unsure about how I want to use focus in a given image. In the best case, I will photograph the same scene with limited depth of field, first focused on the closer object/bit of information. Then I will do the same, but focus on the far part of the image. If all goes well, I may also photograph the same scene with lots of depth of field, to get both the close and far points on focus. A table-top tripod goes a long, long way towards keeping my framing consistent between all those images.

During the trip, I also noted that as soon as I entered a room I started looking for walls and other places to rest my camera. My driver for the architectural story, Kasim, picked up on this immediately, and after less than a day of working together, he started suggesting which walls might work best in different situations.

Photographing the various buildings required a lot of detail shots with a long lens. In order to get the best light on those structures, I was often photographing at the start and end of the day in beautiful, but not very strong light. The only way to keep my camera steady when I was using a 300mm telephoto was (you guessed it) to use a tripod. In my case, that was my ever-present table-top one.

One day, I was photographing inside the tomb of an important local Islamic figure. It was dark, the ceilings were low, and I thought I was in trouble. On a lark, I unfolded the tripod legs and pressed them up against the unusually low ceiling, and made the picture—in this case, with my camera upside down. This was a reminder of how a table-top tripod can be the key to photographing at unusual angles. Another example: In order to shoot a particularly nice reflection, to get my camera as low as possible I could have dangled the camera—unsteadily—inches from the water in the puddle, or I could have done what I did, which was to use the tripod, with legs in the water, keeping my camera dry and happy.

Many, many times when I wanted to be really sure everything was going to be perfectly stable, I used the two second self timer, which is common in most new cameras. It works well in place of a cable release, so you are not touching the camera when the shutter goes off. Any vibrations I might have created by touching the camera dissipate in those two seconds, leaving me with a nice, sharp picture.

I usually work with two cameras in order to work faster, because it is usually quicker to switch cameras in order to get a new flashcard or a different lens. One time, as I was switching between cameras, I immediately saw the benefit of having a tripod on each camera.

I use the Manfrotto 209 Tabletop Tripod Legs and a Manfrotto 494 Mini Ball Head. That ball head is bigger than the one that is usually packaged with those tripod legs. The bigger head gives me more support, something critical when I am using a longer lens or some unusual camera/microphone/bracket combination.

So now I need to buy another table-top tripod and stop borrowing my wife's. Considering the world of lower-light situations that are now open to me, it is a small price to pay to get the pictures I want.