Tool Time - Tripods

When it comes to photography, people always want to talk cameras and lenses. Yes, they're important (and I like to talk about them too), but one tool that doesn't get enough chat time is tripods.

We were planning to have a family get-together with friends this past weekend, and they suggested we meet at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. There was a special event scheduled to showcase a new addition (opening soon), using luminaries to light the pathways outside the gallery. My first thought was, “Sounds like a fun family event!” Well, truthfully, the first thing I thought was, “Sounds like great pictures.” But right after that I though what a great family event it would be!

My wife and kids are used to me carrying a camera around, but this time I was also going to take a tripod. Sure, I could push the ISO up and probably get a good photo, but I wanted the best quality possible. That meant keeping the ISO low, and to do that I’d need a tripod. For years I used a Tiltall, a good solid, if heavy, tripod. The “heavy” part created two problems. First, it wasn’t comfortable to carry for long periods. Second, checked luggage on airlines is restricted to 50-lbs or less (unless you want to pay more), and I’m always looking to reduce my load when traveling.

The answer to both of these problems was a Gitzo carbon fiber Mountaineer tripod. Lightweight, sturdy, good height. Only issue was price, as the carbon fiber tripods are expensive (very). I hope to get a good ten to fifteen years use out of it, and over that period, it’s actually a pretty reasonable investment. I pair that tripod with a good ballhead (more compact and easier to use than a standard head) and a sling bag, so I can carry it comfortably on one shoulder. My sling bag of choice these days is called the Bazooka Bag, by Think Tank Photo.

The evening was beautiful, with comfortable temperatures and a crescent moon. An added bonus was a nearby business running a spotlight, which added a column of light to the sky. I took along a Nikon D80 with the 18-70mm kit lens and the 10.5 fisheye. My exposures ranged from 1/5-second at f/5.6 (photographing the new white buildings) to six-seconds at f/8.0 (luminaries outside the main entrance). I kept the ISO at 200. Since I don’t have a remote release for this camera, I used the self-timer, and turned on the Exposure Delay Mode, which has the camera raise the mirror, then pause briefly before opening the shutter. That delay helps reduce the chance of vibration caused by mirror bounce.

The pictures turned out great (I’ve already made large prints for a class I’m teaching). As I always tell people, good pictures come from a combination of good subject matter and good technique. Part of that good technique is having (and using) the right equipment. And that often means more than just cameras and lenses.

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