Photography Tech Tips
Steve Hoffmann's Nature and Landscape Photography
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Introduction and General Tips
Someone once asked a famous bank robber why he robbed banks. His answer was "because that's where the money is." Seems simple enough for the bank robber anyway. He goes where the money is. In order to get good photographs you have to know where to go to find good photo opportunities. If you are interested in birds and animals, you might want to try the zoo or an animal park. Unless you need to have a wild subject, zoo and animal park photography beats setting up a blind and sitting and waiting for a critters to wander or fly by and sit still for your lens. At the zoo or animal park you literally have a captive subject. If you like flowers and insects, try to an arboretum, botanical garden or park.
Every now and then you will luck out and the photo of a lifetime is just "there" in front of you waiting to be taken. Most of the time you will have to work to get those special shots. In your travels always keep an eye out for future photo opportunities. By travels I don't mean you have to travel a lot to find good photo opportunities. Being familiar with the area you live in and exploring the local possibilities will probably produce more great photos over time than a two week trip to a well known National Park. Concentrating your photographic energies in the area you live has many advantages for "designing" good photographs.
Landscape photography is much like fishing. You do your research to find a lake or stream where you think you'll find some fish. Then you check out that particular lake or stream for the best spots. Finally, you drop your line in. Some days you get skunked. Fish just aren't at your spot that day. However, tomorrow the biggest hungriest fish in the lake may cruise by that spot. You've got to be patient and keep trying. Day to day and minute by minute changes in the weather and cloud formations make getting great landscape, sunsets and scenic shots 50% luck and 50% planning and skill. - return to table of contents
The Quality Of Light
A subject that is just average at noon in mid summer may look dramatically different in late winter at dawn or sunset. Try to visualize what different lighting and weather conditions may do to each scene or subject you are interested in. Lighting is extremely important in your quest for that special photograph. Mid day or bright sunlight is usually not the best light for color photographs. The range between the deepest shadows and very bright highlights is impossible for film or digital sensors to capture. On a sunny day the light conditions about 2 to 3 hours after sunrise and the same time frame before sunset is usually the best for color photography. Slightly overcast days can offer lighting that produces nice saturated colors without loosing too much shadow and highlight detail. Try to avoid gray overcast skies in landscape and scenic shots. Most landscape compositions will look better with some blue sky areas showing through the clouds. Patchy clouds can give texture, shape and content to the sky portion of your composition. Early morning and late afternoon may produce the best quality of light for many subjects. The lighting and conditions just before and just after a storm can add a dramatic look to landscape photos. The 'colors' of a good sunset begin in the direction the sun is setting and gradually move across the sky to the opposite horizon if there are a few clouds in the sky. This movement of 'color' is active from 5 to 10 minutes before sunset to 5 to 10 minutes after sunset. Timing can be critical to capturing the best light. This is especially true of sunrise and sunset photographs. Plan to arrive 'early' at your photographic destination. There's an old saying among large format photographers that goes something like "F16 and be there an hour early". You don't want to be fumbling with tripods, camera bodies and lenses while that 30-60 seconds of flaming red sunset sky is gradually fading away. - return to table of contents
Composition and Content
This is an area of wide latitude. Nobody likes to have their artistic ideas limited by "rules". Some folks have a natural "eye" for seeing form, content and color. Others have to work hard at understanding what it takes to make a good image. While you can't get a good photographic eye just by reading, I strongly suggest buying some good books on photographic technique if you are serious about your photography hobby. Both John Shaw and George Lepp have good books on outdoor and nature photography. See Amazon.com's online book store and do a search by author. Having said all that, here are a few simple things that you might want to keep in mind. When photographing landscapes try not to put the horizon dead center in the image. Most photographers will mentally divide their viewfinder image into thirds both horizontally and vertically. If your sky area is just plain blue, use the top third of your image for your sky and the other two thirds for your subject and foreground. If the clouds and sky are the main focus of an image, try allowing the sky the full two thirds and use the last third of your image space for the foreground. Along this same line, try not to center your area of main interest in the viewfinder. Move it off to the side or slightly up or down in the framed image. Your scenic images should have enough interesting components to allow the eye to travel easily around the image from item to item in a somewhat ordered fashion.
Sunsets and sunrises that are facing the horizon in which the sun is going to rise or set on usually look best if there is water or something reflective in the foreground. Trees or other objects that will be identifiable in profile will also help put a meaningful foreground in a sunrise or sunset where you are facing the direction of the sun. If the sun does not have a layer of clouds in front of it, the contrast in light intensity between area around the sun and the edges of your composition will be extreme. Some very dramatic sunset and sunrise colors can be captured by finding a scene that is on the opposite horizon from where the sun is actually rising or setting. This type of sunrise or sunset composition allows the soft directional light of pre and early sunrise or early and post sunset to evenly illuminate the entire scene. A few clouds will help reflect these colors and add content and texture to the sky area of this type of sunrise/sunset photograph.
Try to keep in mind the range of light and contrasts that your film or digital camera's imaging sensor will capture. A black bumble bee on a white flower just won't work. It doesn't matter how you bias the exposure you can not capture enough detail in this sort of image. We will discuss the range of light that film and digital camera sensors can capture in more detail a few paragraphs down. With some exceptions having the sun behind you or at least 90 degrees to your side will produce the best landscape photographs. While facing your subject, lift up your arm and point straight out to your left or right. If the sun is in front of where you are pointing, try to move to a location to get the sun straight to your side or behind you. If you can't get the lighting right with the image framed the way you want it, you can use a small compass to determine where the sun will be earlier or later during the day. If possible, you can return to the area and photograph that scene later in the day or on another day. Having the sun in front of you generally gives washed out blue skies and harsh contrast between the sky and foreground. Having the sun in front can also cause lens flare image degradation. - return to table of contents
Exposure Basics and Metering Techniques
The proper exposure of film or a digital camera’s imaging sensor to light is the key to good photography. Exposure is the sum of two factors. The amount of time the light through the lens is allowed to be on the film or camera’s imaging sensor and the intensity of the light reaching the film or imaging sensor. The amount of time is controlled by the camera’s shutter and the intensity is controlled by the camera lens aperture. The shutter operates by opening and closing at different selectable durations (speeds) and the aperture is like the iris of your eye in that it opens or closes to a selected diameter to control the light intensity that ultimately hits your film or imaging sensor.
There is only one proper exposure (total light energy required) for any given photographic lighting condition and scene. The combination of selected shutter speed and selected aperture control the amount of light energy reaching the film or imaging sensor The total light energy requirement for proper exposure is variable depending on the sensitivity of the film or imaging sensor to light energy. This sensitivity is rated as an ISO number. The higher the ISO number, the more sensitive the film or imaging sensor is to light. High ISO rated films and higher digital camera ISO settings require less light to make a proper exposure than low ISO rated films and lower digital camera ISO settings.
For proper exposure shutter and aperture must remain in ratio to each other. If we increase the light intensity of our photo by opening the aperture one f stop, which doubles the light reaching the film, we must decrease the exposure duration of our photo by cutting the shutter speed in half.
Whether you use the shutter or aperture as your primary exposure consideration depends on what you need to accomplish for that particular photograph. You can use fast (1/250 of second and higher) shutter speeds to ‘stop the action’ or minimize ‘hand shake’ blur in telephoto shots. Use small apertures (f8-16) to keep everything in the scene from the foreground to the background in sharp focus.
Shutter speeds typically range from 30 seconds to 1/2000 of a second. Aperture numbers typically range from f1.4 up to f32. Every lens has a pre-set maximum (wide open) aperture. The aperture opening size (F stop) controls the amount of your scene that is in sharp focus from foreground to background. This sharp focus area is commonly called the depth of field in the photograph. Lower aperture numbers equal a larger lens aperture opening and LESS depth of field. Higher aperture numbers equal a smaller lens opening and MORE depth of field.
Camera Exposure Modes: Camera manufacturers try to make exposure decisions simpler by providing a variety of exposure modes. There are three basic auto exposure modes. With 'aperture priority' mode you select the aperture and the camera sets the proper shutter speed. With 'shutter priority' mode you select the shutter speed and the camera sets the proper aperture. With 'program' mode the camera sets both shutter speed and aperture. Variations may include sports mode, portrait, landscape, night scene etc. All of these are just variations of the above three auto exposure modes. With manual Mode: you set both shutter speed and aperture. The camera will show some type of a + = – exposure scale and you adjust the shutter speed and or aperture until the exposure indicator is over the = icon or biased to + or – as you feel is appropriate for that particular scene. You can read more about how to make exposure compensation decisions in the paragraphs below.
Flash Exposures: There are three basic flash modes. Full, fill flash and flash with red-eye reduction. Full flash is for indoor or night time flash photography. Fill flash is for when your subject is back lit and you need to fill in the shadows. Red-eye reduction mode fires a pre-flash that is supposed contract the pupils of your subject’s eyes thereby reducing the flash reflection in their eyes from actual flash exposure that immediately follows.
Your camera or external exposure meter will want to set exposures that will render what it is seeing as about 18% middle gray. So, unless you want gray snow or gray colored black subjects you will need to override your meter for some subjects. Open the lens about 1.5 to 2 stops for snow or pure white subjects. Stop down the lens about 1.5 to 2 stop for very dark or black subjects. Backlighting is when the sun is facing toward the camera lens and the subject or main interest is also facing the camera and in shade due to the sun being behind it. Open the lens 1 to 2 stops for backlit subjects. These suggested corrections will vary a little depending on the actual lighting conditions, film type and camera meter. Always bracket when using a digital cameras or slide film on scenes with tricky lighting. Back lit, side lit and scenes with lots of bright sun and shadows are sometimes difficult to judge. For these types of situations take one extra photo that is plus 1/3 to 1/2 stop and one extra photo that is minus 1/3 to 1/2 stop. If you think auto exposure and autofocus relieves you of having to understand how your camera works or that a fully automated camera setup allows you to fire away without thinking, read this story...:^)
Frequently there will be a considerable difference between the proper exposure for the brightest and the darkest areas in a scene. It's not impossible to have a scene with a 6 to 10 f stop range of light. Color slide film can show usable detail in about a 3.5 f stop range. Digital cameras will vary in their ability to capture the range of light from shadows to highlights (dynamic range or DMAX). Prosumer level DSLR's can show detail in a 4 to 6 stop range. Color print film may be good for up to 6+ f stops. You will need to decide what part of the image is most important to your photograph and bias the exposure to insure that this part of the image is properly exposed. You just can't capture the full range from bright highlight detail to deep shadow detail available to the human eye in photographs.
For most compositions you will want to expose the image to retain detail in the brightest areas of the image. When we use the term 'brightest area' we mean the brightest area of the image that has noticeable texture or color showing in the viewfinder. Exposing your image in this fashion may cause you to lose a little shadow detail. However, this is usually a better approach than burning out all the detail in your brightest areas. Highlights like glare on water and other actual sun reflections should be avoided when possible and should never be used for metering purposes. Here is an example of an exposure biasing decision: you have two different scenes with snow on mountains and some darker areas in the mountains and foreground. For the first scene let's assume the snow on the mountains is a significant part of the image because it is covering all of the mountains. For this photo meter off the snow and open your lens 1.5 to 2 stops. This may just begin to burn out the detail in some parts of the snow but still allow a decent amount of darker area detail. In the second scenario the snow is only on the top peaks of the mountains. For this scene you might be willing to open the lens 2.5 stops above what the snow would meter. As an alternative, you could meter off something else in the image that you consider to be a middle tone and use the exact settings the meter recommends. Using either of these last two metering choices we will have better mid-tone and shadow detail with some loss of texture in the small area of snow on the peaks.
Using a spot meter can help you make these types of exposure biasing decisions. Averaging, center weighted and "matrix" type metering systems will take a bit of experimenting to figure out just what the meter is "seeing". With these types of metering systems you may have move the camera around until you are isolating, as much as possible within the viewfinder, the brightest part of the image or an area of mid-tone that would equate to the meter's 18% middle gray calibration. If you are using a fixed aperture zoom lens, you can zoom in temporarily on the part of the image you want to meter. If you meter off the brightest areas, open the lens aperture between 1.5 to 2 stops. If you meter off a mid-tone and don't have significant bright areas to be concerned with, use the meter's suggested settings.
Incident light meters work best when you are willing to average the exposure over the whole scene. Incident meters are most effective when the light source is shinning on you subject from nearly straight in front of your subject and not from the side. It can be difficult to judge the whole range of light intensity in your scene with an incident light meter. If you use an incident light meter you will have to use your own previous photographic experiences to decide how to bias the exposure. When using slide film always bracket around your best guess regardless of the type of metering system you use.
If you are using a camera with different selectable meter modes it would be a good idea to shoot some test shots with your camera in all of it's metering modes. Some cameras don't meter consistently between spot, averaging and center weighted. Use a gray card and fill the camera's viewfinder frame with the card. Use a normal or telephoto lens and slide film for this test. Don't use a wide angle lens for this test. If you don't have access to a gray card, shoot at a clear blue sky from a tripod so you are looking at the same part of the sky for each test exposure. If you are using the sky for this test, aim your lens up high and away from the sun. Don't use the area around the horizon for this test. Take a photo with the meter or exposure LEDs centered in all of your metering modes. Write on a notepad what mode you were in for each photo. Use the frame counting number as your reference. All of your exposures should be within 1/3 stop in density on the film. If there are considerable differences, you can go back to your notes and find out which modes are over or under exposing your photographs.
As a general rule, slide films can survive a little bit of underexposure better than overexposure. The opposite is true for negative or print film. Always try to error on the side of overexposure for print films.
If your pictures occasionally don't look properly exposed or suffer from some other technical flaws, get a good book on photography technique and study it. Be sure you understand how your camera operates including every single feature it has. Understanding the fundamentals of photography and your camera will greatly enhance your chances of taking good photographs. - return to table of contents
35mm and Digital SLR Lens Focal Length Recommendations
All of the lens discussion below is based on the field of view and perspective of each lens when used on a 35mm film SLR (24 X36mm imaging area) If you have a digital SLR (DSLR) camera, divide the lens focal lengths given below by your DSLR camera's focal length factor (usually between 1.3 to 1.7). This will allow you to see what focal length lens you would need to equal that same perspective and field of view on your DSLR. As an example, if you want the same perspective and field of view on your 1.6 focal length factored DSLR that a 28mm lens gives on a 35mm film SLR, divide 28 by 1.6. You'd need a 17.5mm lens on your DSLR to equal a 28mm lens on a 35mm film SLR.
The other mathematical approach would be to multiply the lens focal lengths given below by your DSLR's focal length factor to see what the actual equivalent field of view would be with that lens on your DSLR. As an example a 28mm lens on a DSLR with a focal length factor of 1.6 would give the same field of view as a 45mm lens on a 35mm SLR.
If you are just starting out in photography and don't already have a big investment in equipment, I suggest you read the section called Film Scanner or Digital Camera on my Digital Darkroom Imaging and Printing Tech Tips page. This article discusses the pros and cons of 35mm, medium format, large format film, digital camera and film and scan digital workflow.
For landscapes and scenic photography in general you don't need a wide selection of lenses to get started. I think a good beginning kit would be a 28mm a 50mm and a 100mm macro lens. In zoom lenses this focal length range is available in the popular 28-105mm and it's variations 24-70mm and 28-135mm. 50mm provides a normal view or about the same angle of view of the human eye. 28mm gives a slightly wider view without too much lengthening of perspective. Perspective is a term used to describe the apparent distance between objects in the foreground and objects in the background in a photograph. Lenses wider than 28mm will noticeably exaggerate the distance between objects in the foreground and objects in the background in your photograph. Lengthening of perspective caused by wide angle lenses emphasizes detail the foreground area in your photograph.100mm is great for portraits, close-ups and a landscapes when you want to slightly isolate some part of a scene. The wide angle to short telephoto zoom is real handy for travel and 'people, places and things' photography. The prime lens approach is best if your main concern is getting maximum image quality from an optical standpoint or if you need to photograph in low light situations. Prime lenses always have faster wide open apertures than equivalent focal length zoom lenses and therefore are better for low light and indoor ambient light photography.
A common misconception is that ultra wide angles like 15mm through 20mm are the best choice for scenic photographs because they produce an image that includes a large area of the scene. In some cases this may actually be true. Ultra wide angle lenses can produce a rather extreme lengthened perspective. Along with the foreground to background apparent distance stretching mentioned in the paragraph above objects in the foreground will seem to be larger than normal and objects in the background will seem to be smaller than normal. If you have an interesting foreground, use your ultra wide angle lens. Adjust your image framing so that you have quite a bit of foreground showing. You may even want to get the lens down closer to the ground. Framing your image this way will emphasize the detail in your foreground. In a restricted area (indoors or outdoors) where you can't back away from your subject an ultra wide angle lens can save the day. Also, if you have a great looking cloud formation in the sky as well as an interesting foreground, ultra wide lenses will enable you to capture a larger area of sky and foreground together.
28mm to 35mm focal length lenses are great for capturing more image area with minimal perspective distortion. The 24mm focal length can just be fit into this category too if you can accept a little more perspective lengthening.
A surprising number of landscape images look best with a normal focal length range. In 35mm format the 35-60mm focal length range allows you to have a good perspective balance between foreground, middle area and background. You can generally see good detail in all areas of the image. Nothing looks distorted or very different from the normal viewing perception of the human eye.
Moving up the focal length ladder, the 85-100mm focal length range can give you a very slight compression of perspective. Perspective compression means that the scene becomes flattened and objects in the foreground seem to be closer than they actually are to objects in the background. The 85-100mm focal length range is great for portraits and many landscape and travel photographic situations. 100mm and longer lenses also give you the capability to isolate objects in your composition. 100mm macro lenses are very popular because they can be used as portrait lenses as well as for macro close-ups. Landscape and scenic photography with lenses of 200mm and up will produce very noticeable perspective compression. This level of perspective compression is not a normal perception of the human eye and can be used to advantage to produce some very dramatic looking images.
For close up photography the 100mm macro is a better choice than the 50mm macro. The 100mm macro will give you a much greater working distance for any given magnification level. This helps immensely with small animals and insects. The longer working distances also help to keep you from casting shadows on your subject when doing close up work with flowers and other stationary subjects. The 100mm macro is probably the best all around focal length range for macro lenses. The 180mm to 200mm range macro lenses are a little more difficult to use. Framing and focusing are harder to do because of the increase in movement in the viewfinder image due to the longer focal length lens. Most of these lenses come with a tripod mount collar for good reason. However, they are a marvelous tool and can help you to photograph butterflies and other skittish little creatures without getting so close that you scare them away. 180mm and 200mm macro lenses provide a very long working distance that can be an advantage for stationary macro work too. You can almost always avoid casting shadows on your subject with these long macro lenses. If you are doing wildflower photography with these long macro lenses, there is less need to crawl around the ground with your camera and tripod. The 180mm and 200mm macros can do a great job of isolating your subject from the background while working at a comfortable distance from your subject. These focal lengths do produce a flattening of perspective that may be noticeable with some macro subjects.
Most macro lenses will focus to 1:1. This means that a bee that is 1/2 inch long in life will take up a 1/2 inch of area on your actual slide or negative. You can get a little higher magnification from your macro lenses using a couple of methods. The easiest option is to use screw on close up lenses. However, this method would be my last choice. These types of adapters usually produce poor image quality overall and especially in the corners of your image. Actual image magnification and reproduction ratios remain the same with DSLR cameras regardless of the camera's focal length factor. Most macro lenses have a reproduction scale printed on the lens barrel.
Extension tubes will allow you to focus closer to your subject and therefore increase image magnification. The main drawback to this method is loss of working distance from your subject. Whenever you use an extension tube or stacked extension tubes you will lose some to all of the far end of your focusing range. The longer the extension tube setup the more compressed your focusing range becomes. As an example, a 100mm macro when used with a 25mm extension tube will only focus between 4 and 15 inches. You will also lose some light intensity at the image plane so your effective lens f stop will be a bit lower.
The next method would be to use a 2x teleconverter. You will keep the same working distance but increase your magnification to 2 times life size. At 2X the 1/2 inch bee will take up a full inch on your slide. The downside of the 2X teleconverter is that you lose 2 stops of light intensity. Also, almost all 2X teleconverters will degrade your image quality somewhat.
The easiest solution for obtaining 2X magnification would be to use a 100mm macro plus a 25mm extension tube with a 1.4X teleconverter in that order. This combination gives a range of 1/3 life-size to 2 times life-size reproduction with just over 1.5 f stops of light intensity loss and superior image quality.
I have found that working at 2X life size is about the limit of hand held macro photography. At this magnification and above it's nearly impossible to hold the image in focus without a tripod. Depth of field at this magnification, even at f16 is extremely shallow. I have included more detailed information about extreme macro/micro photography down the page a few headings. Click here to jump to that heading
I consider the 300-400mm focal length range mandatory if you are going to spend a lot of time at the zoo. Zooms in the range of 100-300mm to 100-500mm also work well for zoo photography. A 1.4X teleconverter only loses one stop of lens speed and doesn't degrade the image quality to a noticeable degree. Multiply the lens focal length by 1.4 to get the effective focal length with the teleconverter installed. Canon's 1.4X and 2X teleconverters are made to use on lenses of 135mm and longer. They have a protruding front element and will not attach to lenses that don't have recessed rear elements.
For birding and wild animal photography you will need 400mm to 600mm lenses. The 1.4X teleconverter really comes in handy in this application. Even with these ultra long telephoto lenses you may need to work from a blind or some sort of camouflage setup.
For landscape and scenic work it really doesn't matter how fast your telephoto lenses are. Lenses in the f4 to f5.6 range will work quite nicely for most types of animal and zoo photography. Many serious birders and most all professional nature photographers will want the fastest longest lenses they can get. 400mm f2.8 and 600mm f4 lenses are huge and extremely expensive. - return to table of contents
Many years ago when I was interested in taking 35mm landscape and scenic photographs and printing the transparencies up to 16X20 inches, I used prime lenses because of their superior image making qualities. From 1998 through 2004 I did most of my landscape and scenic photography with a large format camera. This is because enlargements made from 4X5 film hold more detail, show almost no film grain and have very smooth tonality and color gradations. My Canon 1Ds Mark II 16.7 mp DSLR is my current choice for landscapes due to its grain-less, noise-less first generation high resolution image. You can read my opinions about using a DSLR for fine art landscape photography here.
Zoom lenses in the higher price ranges (pro quality) are much better today then they were 25 years ago. My Canon "L" zoom lenses make very sharp and contrasty images. 35mm film and DSLR images can't be cropped very much and still make nice looking 'big' enlargements. I've decided that in most cases the ability to get the exact composition I want is more important than ultimate image quality. Also, there are photo opportunities where you just can't position yourself closer to or further from your subject and still retain the composition and view perspective that you want for your composition. zoom lenses are very versatile. If you have a zoom lens collection that slightly overlaps in focal length coverage you can crop any subject in your viewfinder seamlessly. You will never have a problem with getting everything you want in the photo and you will never have to include things in your composition that you don't want.
A prime lens is a single focal length lens. As an example, a 50mm f1.4 is a prime lens. A lens that can gradually change focal length from 35mm to 70mm is obviously a zoom lens. Prime lenses without a doubt are capable of making the sharpest images. The color and contrast in images made from prime lenses are also better. Many zoom lenses currently being manufactured are nearly equal to prime lenses in optical quality. However, to get zoom lenses that compete with prime lenses in optical quality you will usually have to pay between $800 to $2000.
Prime lenses always have a faster wide open lens speed then an equivalent zoom. Prime lenses usually produce very good image quality wide open and are excellent one stop down from their widest aperture. This allows you to get quality images at higher shutter speeds with less need for a tripod to produce sharp images. Prime lenses almost always have close to even sharpness across the entire image area. Image quality across the whole image area is a serious consideration if you are planning on doing landscapes or other detail rich images with high resolution DSLRs like the Canon 1Ds Mark II. This camera has such high resolution that it is merciless when it comes to image quality in the areas of proper focus, lens optical performance (center to edge) and photographic technique. This fact has caused me to gravitate back toward primes for most my landscape work with the 1Ds Mark II. Even the best Canon L zooms are not quite as sharp away from the center of the image as their corresponding focal length prime lens counterparts. This last statement is not always true with Canon lenses of 24mm and shorter focal length. Canon's super wide primes are not much, if any, better optically than L zooms in the same focal length range. Canon needs to step to the plate and produce some "L" super wide angle primes that are critically sharp center to edge.
Some disadvantages of working with prime lenses are: you may have to change lenses more often then when using a zoom lens. Frequent lens changes can be problematic with DSLR cameras. Every time you change lenses there is the possibility that small dust particles will land on the camera's sensor. Unlike a film camera that will 'wind' the dust right on through with the film, dust on DSLR sensors remains in the same place on the image (sensor) until you manually clean the sensor. Even with a good selection primes in your bag you may have to move toward or away from your subject, if that is even possible, to get the exact image framing that you want. With primes you will have to purchase and carry many more lenses to cover your most often used focal lengths.
The $150 to $500 dollar range zooms can vary quite a bit in the quality of their construction and photographic output. They are also rather slow because of their usual variable aperture configuration. The mid price zoom is almost always f4 to f5.6 at it's longest focal length and will need to be stopped down at least one and more often two stops to make critically sharp images. This means you'll always need to shoot at least at f8 or above if you are looking to make really sharp images. Some of the least expensive zoom lenses cannot produce quality images regardless of the aperture used. These limitations inherent in most cheap to mid price zooms need careful consideration if you intend to make fine art quality prints of 12X18" and larger.
There may be times when ultimate quality in enlargements isn't on the top of your list of priorities. If you use ISO 200 and above films or you generally limit your enlargements to 4X6 or 8X10, the mid price zoom lenses will do a great job. The differences in image quality between primes and mid priced zooms can be more difficult to see in smaller prints or enlargements made with high speed films.
For sports, people and action event photography zooms are hard to beat. A zoom lens's flexibility and speed when framing an image lets you capture images that you might have missed if you were busy changing lenses. Web imaging is another area where zooms shine. You just don't need maximum sharpness from your images for a 72-90 dpi computer monitor.
For zoom lenses I am currently recommending your camera brand's zooms. Using lenses made by your camera body's manufacturer insures that the metering and focusing operations work correctly.
All manufacturers have 'clunkers' as well as optical gems in their lens line up. Before you buy your next lens spend some time on the Usenet newsgroup called rec.photo.equipment.35mm. Read the posts and ask questions. There are also a few web sites dedicated to lens reviews. Do a Google search for 'lens reviews' or some other appropriate keyword string. Here's a good place to start. http://www.photozone.de/8Reviews/index.html - return to table of contents
I use coated UV filters, mostly as protectors for the front elements of my lenses, and I like to use circular polarizer when appropriate for some of my outdoor photography. I also have a set of split neutral density filters.
If you are in a digital workflow, all of the filter effects we used to be concerned with can be duplicated in post processing. If you don't want to try to create filter effects manually in your image editing program, Nik Multimedia makes a wide selection of "digital photographic filter" effects in its 'Color Efex' plugin. You need to have an image editing program that accepts 'Photoshop' plugins to use Nik's Color Efex plugins. Minor color temperature (white balance) issues are easily fixed during scanning or post processing of digital camera images. I'm not advocating using daylight balanced film if you are shooting under tungsten lights and the same approach applies to digital camera lighting. If you are shooting with a digital camera under lighting conditions that have a corresponding setting in your camera, use the appropriate in camera lighting type setting. This is less important if you are outputting RAW images only. White balance, color and tone curve settings in your digital camera menu are for JPEG or TIFF output. RAW is just that, raw data from the camera's sensor with no color balance or tone curve applied. Your RAW converter program does all the basic image preparation based on the settings you choose in your RAW converter software.
I use circular adjustable polarizing filters fairly regularly for landscapes and scenic photographs. Polarizing filters will increase contrast between clouds and the sky (darken the skies) when the sun's position is at right angles to the direction the lens is pointing. In some cases this will lower the contrast range between the sky and foreground. Polarizing filters can sometimes help a photograph that would have had a slightly dull or washed out sky. Polarizing filters will also lessen the noticeable effect of water vapor and particulate matter haze. The image may appear clearer and sharper when you've cut down the sun's reflections off the haze. This latter attribute is quite noticeable when using polarizing filters on telephoto lenses. Polarizing filters are most effective when the sun is about 90 degrees to your side. Raise your hand straight up from your side as you face your subject. If you are pointing at the sun or it is just slightly ahead of or behind where you are pointing, your polarizer will have a wide effective range. The effects of polarizing filters become proportionally less as the sun moves either in front of you or behind you. Take some care in assessing the polarizing effect in your viewfinder image. Turn the polarizing filter just enough to get the effect you want. In some cases the full polarizing effect available will cause an unnatural looking image. Be careful when using polarizing filters with super wide angle lenses. With super wide angle lenses, depending on sun's position in relation to the lens view direction, the polarizing effect may not be evenly distributed across the image area. In other words, one side of the image may show more polarizing effect then the other.
I occasionally use split neutral density filters by Cokin. These filters are square plastic with one half clear and the other half 1 or 2 stop neutral density. The area where the clear meets the filter area is blended. This type of filter is useful when you have too much contrast between the sky area and foreground. These filters slide in a special square holder that attaches to the front of your lens. You insert the filter such that the dark half of the filter will superimpose on the brightest part of your image. As an example, they might come in handy for sunsets when you have an interesting foreground. You will want to show some detail in that foreground. Placing the neutral density part of the filter on the top will cut down the sky exposure and make it closer to the foreground exposure. The result is more foreground image detail without sacrificing the nice saturated colors in the sunset sky. Take care when placing these split neutral density filters to locate the "split" in the right place in your image. You may want to stop down your lens to better see exactly how and where the filter is dividing your image. Some compositions just won't work with split neutral density filters. You must have a landscape that is has a fairly straight or definable horizon line. As an example, if you have trees poking up from the mid or foreground well into the sky, a split density filter will not work properly. A split neutral density effect can also be done in Photoshop if you take the time to take one exposure for the high key area and one exposure for the low key area of the image and then combine the two images. See a tutorial explaining a two image approach to split neutral density filter effect in Photoshop. Nik's Color Efex digital filter set also has a 'split neutral density' filter that can be applied to individual images. Some images may be more appropriate than others for this particular digital manipulation. See another tutorial for a different approach to a single image Photoshop split neutral density filter application. - return to table of contents
In some cases you may want to use exaggerated film grain to enhance the artistic qualities of your image. If you aren't interested in using film grain as part of your image, and you aren't shooting sports or other moving subjects, stay away from high speed films in 35mm format. Slide films over ISO 100 just look too grainy even with 8X10 enlargements. Print films may just squeak by at ISO 200. The best computer screen images and print enlargements come from ISO 100 and under films. A 17 inch monitor with a full screen image is just about like an 11X14 print. You can't make sharp looking, grain free 11X14 prints with high speed films in 35mm format.
If you are working toward marketing your images, you'd be best served by using transparency film. Graphic arts departments prefer to examine transparencies on a light box. Many won't even accept negative film submissions. This long standing obstacle to the use of negative film professionally may gradually change as more and more graphic arts departments become willing to accept high resolution digital images for consideration. Visit My Photo Equipment page to see my current favorite films. - return to table of contents
The insect photographs that were done between 1974 and 1986 were lighted by one or two flash units and done without the use of through the lens flash metering or automatic flash exposure metering. I made numerous tests to determine the exposures for a given lens and magnification and f stop. If ever in doubt, I made liberal use of bracketing when possible. I used Vivitar model 285 flash units. This unit has several power settings for manual mode. This helped to make the selection of apertures and distance from flash to subject a little more flexible. I mounted my flash units on a ball head and put the ball heads on various flash brackets. This allowed me to position and direct the flash coverage as I liked. Most of the flash lighted insect photos were done between f11 and f22.
Using two flash units and positioning one flash on each side of your subject helps to soften the shadows that are caused by using electronic flash. The even distribution of light on your subject obtained by using dual flash is very similar to the output of a ring light. If you don't want even lighting, and your flash units have fractional power available, you can set one to have a stop or so less output than the other. This will give your lighting a more directional look. - return to table of contents
Background Light Fall Off With Electronic Flash Exposures And Macro Photography
Light fall off when the flash units are very close to the subject can cause your background areas to be totally underexposed. Sometimes this "black" background can be desirable and actually enhance the subject's prominence in the image. Most images will look a little more natural if there is a little color in the background. In the field I will sometimes carry a few 12 inch squares of different color matte board. I can hold these up just behind the subject and avoid the clinical unnatural black background.
In the studio I sometimes use a couple of 250 watt blue lights (daylight balanced) in 10" reflectors to light up a much larger piece of matte board. In this case I will position the matte board and lamps well behind the subject. I read the light off the matte board and set the aperture I need for depth of field and set the shutter speed to about minus 1 stop from the meter reading. I use my ring light or electronic flash setup to properly expose my insect subject. I still retain some background color in the final image because the aperture and shutter speed were set to minus one stop from the meter reading off the matte board. This method works best if you have enough light to use at least 1/125 second shutter speed. If you don't have enough light and need to use slower shutter speeds, your subject will need to be stationary. Lower shutter speeds with insects that may move during the exposure can cause some ghost imaging.
The method I settled on to light up a background was to use three flash units. Two Canon 540EZ units to evenly light up the matte board background and the ring light for my insect subject. Using high speed flash for my background coverage and 1/200 of a second for my shutter speed eliminates the possibility of ghost images. All of this can be accomplished with TTL flash metering for all three flash units. There is one thing that you will need to be aware of when using the ring light for your subject and two other TTL flash units for the background lighting. All three flashes will quench at the same time. This means that if you position the two background flashes to close to your background, the camera's TTL flash metering system will "see" that lighting first and shut down the ring light before your macro subject has had enough light. I set the 540 flash distance from the background based on previous tests for any given subject magnification. You will have do some testing to make sure your background flashes are positioned at a distance that will generally give you the amount of exposure you are looking for on any given background color and distance. I still prefer using this TTL setup to the older method of setting all the flashes on manual. Actually, since there is no manual mode on the Canon ML3 ring light, this method works about as good as the manual method for multi-flash macro setups. The newer Canon MR14 EX ring light has manual factional power and also allows you to fire either the left or right tube at fractional power settings in both auto flash exposure and manual flash exposure. This allows you to achieve the left/right or up/down lighting ratio that you desire. - return to table of contents
TTL Flash Metering For Macro Photography
TTL (through the lens) flash metering setups for macro work are very nice. However, you must be careful not to exceed the minimum flash to subject distance allowed for TTL mode with the flash unit. This distance will vary depending on which flash unit you are using and on the film speed and aperture used. You can generally get your flash unit(s) closer to your subject by using smaller apertures and slow ISO speed films. Your flash should have the near and far distances and corresponding apertures listed on the unit itself or in the manual that came with it. Unfortunately, most flash documentation doesn't list the very close distances and small apertures necessary for macro use. The better TTL automatic flash units will have at least 2 or 3 manual fractional power settings. These non TTL manual fractional power settings may be necessary if you position the flash unit(s) very close to the subject. If you want to use TTL flash metering for macro photography, you will have to run some tests to see just how close you can get the flash to the subject with any given film speed and aperture and still have accurate TTL flash exposures. The same type of testing will be necessary to determine the correct power setting and aperture for a particular film speed and flash to subject distance when using a flash in manual mode (non-TTL) set to fractional or partial power.
Even with TTL flash metering it may be necessary to override the metered flash output a little. If you have an extremely dark or light subject, adjust accordingly. For light subjects use plus TTL flash compensation. For dark subjects use minus compensation. Use a 1/2 or 1/3 stop increment if you can while using slide film. Use a 1/2 to one stop increment if you are using print film. If the subject looks tricky from a contrast point of view, bracket your exposures 1/3 or 1/2 to 1 stop using your TTL flash exposure compensation. The TTL flash exposure compensation / override feature is usually available on your camera or your flash unit. This is a separate control from the camera's regular ambient light exposure compensation features.
My Canon ring light uses the camera's TTL flash metering system and does a wonderful job. A ring light produces very consistent full frame lighting with only the faintest of shadows. Ring lights are reputed to produce "flat" lighting. This is true only to a degree and may be more true with ring lights that don't allow user selectable fractional power settings on the individual tubes. I find the lighting from a ring light quite suitable for insects and many other subjects. The TTL ring light makes taking macro photos down to 2X life size (100mm macro + 25mm EF extension tube + 1.4X teleconverter) much easier. I Just use a little TTL flash exposure override bracketing and I've got good exposures.
This paragraph is mostly for Canon EOS camera users. Although the following situations may also occur with other camera brands too. When extension tubes are inserted between the lens and a teleconverter, you no longer get accurate maximum aperture reporting in your viewfinder. Your camera's metering system will report the maximum aperture of the lens instead of the actual effective maximum aperture produced by adding the tubes and teleconverter. After market teleconverters may not show correct effective maximum apertures even when used by themselves without extension tubes. This lack of correct maximum aperture reporting might cause inaccurate exposures with some lenses.
Improper exposure is most likely to occur if you use this type of teleconverter/tube combo at these improperly reported aperture settings. In other words, a lens with a maximum aperture of f4 when used with an extension tube and 2X teleconverter may have an actual effective maximum aperture of f 9. Your camera meter may let you select f4, 5.6 or 8. If you use the tube/teleconverter combo at any reported aperture less than f 9 you may have problems. Make some test photos with your teleconverter and or tubes to determine if your meter is working right with any given lens and aperture setting. - return to table of contents
Micro Photography With Bellows Or High Magnification Macro Lenses
There seems to be some debate as to what the term 'micro photography' really entails. Macro photography is generally accepted as reproduction ratios between 1/4 life size (1:4 magnification ratio) to actual life size (1:1 magnification ratio). As an example, a subject that was 3/4 inch by 1/4 inch in physical size would put an image of that subject on your film of 3/4 inch by 1/4 inch when photographed at 1:1 reproduction. For the purposes of this discussion we are going to say that 'micro photography' entails reproduction ratios of greater than 1:1. The above subject at 2X (2:1 or two times life size) would be 1.5 inch by 1/2 inch, or just a bit to long to entirely fit on a 35mm film frame. Photography through a microscope is usually called photomicrography.
There are several methods of achieving greater than 1:1 reproduction. The simplest and least expensive is to use extension rings and a normal wide angle (28mm-35mm) manual aperture prime lens on a reversing ring. You attach the extension tubes to your camera body and mount the lens reversed using a reversing ring attachment at the end of the stack of tubes. Stacking the extension tubes together will give you increasing amounts of magnification. The longer the stacked tubes are extended, the greater the magnification for any given lens. This approach, depending on lens choice and tube extension length, can provide from 2X up to about 8X magnification. The wider the angle of the lens, the greater the magnification at any given extension. A loss of flatness in the field of focus and other optical problems may become obvious with super wide angle lenses.
This approach does have several limitations. You will need a fairly wide selection of sizes in extension rings if you want to have some control over your reproduction ratios. Your camera needs to be able to meter in 'stop down' mode. Stop down mode is very similar to aperture priority mode. The main difference is that in stop down mode the camera body doesn't need to 'know' the maximum aperture of the lens mounted in order to calculate proper exposure. In other words there doesn't need to be any mechanical or electrical connection between the camera and the lens. In stop down metering the through the lens (TTL) exposure is measured with the lens 'stopped down' to the actual taking aperture. Some cameras can use aperture priority mode for this application. You'll need to check your camera's operation manual or do some experimenting to see if aperture priority exposure mode will work for you in this type of non-connected lens macro application.
If your camera cannot meter in stop down mode, you'll have to use a light meter and factor in exposure compensation for the distance of the lens extension and use the camera in full manual exposure mode. Roughly speaking, each time you add the equivalent of the lens's original focal length in extension you must use a shutter speed 2 stops slower than the light meter indicates for the lens aperture in use.
Exact reproduction ratio and framing are nearly impossible due to fact that magnification and framing are done in 'steps' with the extension rings. The lens, in most cases, has little to no focusing available when in reversed position. Focusing is done by moving the camera and lens assembly back and forth from the subject until sharp focus is achieved. The best way to make framing and focusing easy is to use a geared macro focusing rail. You mount your camera on the focusing rail and then mount this device with your camera/lens attached on your tripod. A geared macro focusing rail has knobs that allow you to move the camera forward and backward, and in some cases, side to side in very small movements. Velbon, the tripod manufacturer, makes a macro focusing rail that has both fore and aft and side to side geared movements.
A technically simple method to get up to 2X life size is to stack a 25 to 30mm extension tube with a 1.4X teleconverter on your existing 1:1 capable 90-105mm macro lens. This approach loses about 2 stops of lens speed but retains TTL metering and usually retains auto focus capability too. You should achieve about 2X magnification with only a slight loss in working distance due to the extension tube.
Another way of achieving magnification ratios of greater than 1:1 is with a bellows assembly. Bellows is an accordion type extendable assembly that has a camera body mount board on one end and a lens mount board on the other. This approach allows for seamless reproduction ratios. Generally you would use a manual aperture diaphragm lens either in normal or reversed position. Some manufacturers offer special bellows lenses to compliment their bellows kit. The same limitations regarding the necessity of using stop down metering apply to this approach. However, there is a bellows made by Novoflex that can be used with most popular SLR cameras and their corresponding lenses and retain through the lens auto exposure. Contax, Minolta, Leica and Nikon make bellows assemblies for their current camera line. Canon offered a bellows until recently but have discontinued it in favor of their new MP-E 65mm 1X-5X life-size macro lens (read my comments on using this lens). Used Canon bellows are sometimes available on eBay. Many of these bellows assemblies are called 'auto bellows'. The manufacturers supply or make available a dual cable release that simultaneously operates the camera's shutter and the manual aperture diaphragm, thus the 'auto bellows' tag. You still have to use stop down metering for these 'auto bellows'. The major limitations of the bellows approach is that bellows are heavy and awkward to use in the field and quite time consuming to assemble and setup for proper reproduction ratio, and exposure settings, if you aren't using the Novoflex auto TTL exposure bellows.
There are some significant technical obstacles to overcome if you want to photograph at 3X life size and larger. With any of the above methods subject to lens distance becomes very close at 3X and greater magnifications. If you use a longer focal length lens in an attempt to get more lens to subject distance, you will need more extension to achieve any given magnification ratio. Personally, I think a 35mm lens reversed is the way to go for bellows or tubes. With this focal length and 3X and above magnifications, your subject is usually less than and inch and a half from the end of your lens. This makes lighting your subject a challenge and if your subject is a small critter, the proximity to so much hardware can make them nervous and not willing to hold still. I think it would be possible to use some sort of small studio lighting or TTL flash with bounce reflectors but you might risk the possibility of casting shadows on your subject or background from the lens and camera assembly. I have enjoyed some success using two flash units positioned right at the end of the lens and angled in about 45 degrees. - return to table of contents
When I owned a Canon bellows I used two Canon 540EZ flashes mounted on Stroboframe's Lepp II dual flash macro bracket. This bracket is not built to handle large flash assemblies like the 540EZ. I had to replace the supplied ball heads with small Bogen ball heads in order hold the flashes in position. Also, the locks on the Stroboframe's adjustable arms were just barely adequate. I really had to torque them down hard or the arms would sag. I had the necessary cables and attachments to use TTL metering with dual flash. A wireless master/slave flash outfit would really simplify the setup for this kind of work. For most of the bellows setups I positioned the flash units fairly close to the subject and used TTL flash metering. When using a bellows between 3X and 6X magnification, the distance from the subject to the lens is less than an inch and a half. Positioning the flash units to achieve even lighting without having them cast shadows from the lens necessitates putting the flash units fairly close to the end of the lens. The 540EZ flashes, when used with ISO 50 film at f11 and smaller marked apertures, seemed to be able to use TTL metering at extremely close distances from the subject. I always bracketed 1/3 stop each way with slide film using the camera's TTL flash exposure override feature. Due to diffraction limitations the Canon 35mm bellows lens was only fair in sharpness at and above marked f16 so I used it exclusively at f11 with the bellows. See a picture of the bellows and dual flash outfit set up to photograph my pet tarantula. I found that I needed my 16.5lb tripod (the tripod I use for large format photography) to use the bellows with ambient light photography. Lighter tripods just could not dampen vibrations or hold the assembly steady at the long shutter speeds necessary at effective apertures of f32 - 48. At 3X and higher magnifications the slightest vibration will soften your image noticeably. Speaking of vibrations, if your camera has mirror lock up, I highly recommend using it for all of your macro photography. For ambient light metering with the Canon bellows there is one thing you should be aware of. You can't use spot meter mode with EOS cameras and the bellows assembly. It's best to use center weighted metering with the Canon bellows. The Icon for center weighted metering is the hollow circle with no spot in the center. If a bellows assembly doesn't have a geared tripod mount block, you'd want to consider using a macro focusing rail to facilitate framing and focusing. - return to table of contents
Canon MP-E 65mm f2.8 1X to 5X Macro Lens
My current solution for reproduction ratios larger than life size is Canon's new MP-E 65mm f2.8 1X to 5X macro lens. This lens is fairly compact, at 3.5 inches long by 3 inches in diameter and 30 oz. The lens comes with a rotating tripod mount collar. This lens is not without some significant technical limitations. First and foremost is that it will not do TTL ambient light metering with Canon's consumer level camera bodies. It will only work with TTL ambient light metering with the 1n, 1v and EOS 3. I have tried my MP-E 65mm lens on my Canon 10D and it seems to meter just fine. I suspect that this lens will TTL meter properly with all of Canon's digital SLR cameras. If there were exposure problems, the instant preview available with digital would allow you to make exposure compensation or corrections in real time. Also TTL spot metering mode with this lens may cause inaccurate exposure. Any of the other available metering modes will work. It will do TTL flash metering with any of Canon's speed lights or macro ring lights on any Canon EOS body. While this lens is rated at f2.8 the lens manual states that this F stop would be at infinity setting and since this lens does not focus further than 1:1, the actual maximum aperture of this lens is f5.6. The marked aperture range of this lens is f2.8 - 16. The focusing range of this lens is 1.6 to 4 inches. The MP-E 65 macro lens uses triple extension to focus (9.5 inches long at 5X). As the magnification ratio and the length of the lens increases, so does the effective F stop number. As an example, at 5X magnification the marked f8 setting is actually f48. This makes for a very dark viewfinder at 4 and 5X magnification. In low light situations you may find yourself wishing for a modeling light. Canon's ring lights do have modeling lights and modeling lights are even more necessary with this accessory. This is because the 4.3 inch diameter of the ring light blocks off almost all of the ambient light that would reach your subject. Due to the depth of the ring light assembly, at high magnifications your subject is no more than a faction of an inch away from the end of the ring light. Surprisingly, the ring light illuminates the subject evenly at the closest focusing range of 5X magnification. This lens begins to show image quality loss due to diffraction limitations at f8 and above depending on magnification. If you are interested in critical image sharpness use f11 up to about 2.5X magnification and f8 when you exceed 2.5X magnification.
I have owned a Nikon bellows and a Canon bellows outfit. Both were used rather sparingly and almost exclusively indoors in a controlled setting. The heavy bellows and complex dual flash arrangement was just too cumbersome for me to enjoy using in the field. The new Canon 65mm macro lens makes 1X to 5X magnification 'location' photography much more convenient. I can use ambient light or my Canon MR14 EX ring light with this lens. The MP-E 65 macro lens has Canon's standard 'macro light' flange on the end of the lens barrel (58mm filter size) for the ring light to clip on. The MP-E 65 has reproduction ratios and focusing distances printed on the lens barrel. The corresponding markings for each magnification level become viewable as the lens extends for increased magnification and focus. As a general rule you can hand hold the MP-E 65mm lens up to about 2X magnification. After that, it's just about impossible to maintain proper focus on the area of interest in your composition. - return to table of contents
Macro and Micro Photography Depth of Field
Depth of field at 3X to 5X magnifications is extremely shallow even when you are using marked aperture settings of F11 to f16. If you are expecting to see 3 dimensional looking depth of field at these magnifications, you might be disappointed You have to pick the area of your subject that you want to be in sharp focus and just let the rest fall where it may. Calculating the hyper focal distance is not really possible when you are talking fractions of a millimeter in depth of field. The Canon MP-E 65mm macro lens at marked f8 and 3X magnification (actually f32) gives a whopping 0.25mm (1/4 of a millimeter) of depth of field. Activating the depth of field preview (DOF) of your camera while adjusting focus may help in visualizing your final image. With DOF activated the image will be dark but you can frequently get a good sense of what your actual film image is going to look like.
When you are doing macro work with regular macro lenses always stay between f8 and f16 unless you are trying to blur the background. There is very little depth of field at life size and larger magnifications. Since depth of field is so shallow even at regular macro magnifications, try to get your lens face parallel to the most important part of your subject. Setting your lens face parallel with your subject will help to maximize depth of field in that part of your composition. As an example, if you are photographing a leaf, try to get the surface of the leaf parallel to your lens face. Naturally this approach will have some limiting effects on your composition. Compromises may have to be made. Shooting macro images at f11 and f16 will usually give good depth of field without compromising image quality. At f22 and f32 most macro lenses lose image quality due to an optical phenomenon called diffraction limitation. In some cases this loss of sharpness is quite noticeable in the final image. - return to table of contents
SLR Mirror Lock Up
In SLR cameras there is a mirror set at about 45 degrees just behind your lens. This mirror is what reflects the image up into your viewfinder. When you take a picture the mirror in your 35mm SLR moves up out of the optical path so the image goes onto the film instead of up into your viewfinder. The mirror pops up out of the way real fast. When the mirror hits it's top resting place a vibration is set loose in your camera. Mirror slap vibrations can be critical when you are doing telephoto and macro photography. At higher shutter speeds these vibrations aren't significant. At slower shutter speeds of 1/60 sec and lower this vibration becomes noticeable in your photograph because it is occurring over an extended period while the shutter of your camera is open and exposing your film. The result of this vibration is a reduction in the sharpness of your image. Working from a tripod will not help this type of vibration. Many camera manufacturers offer a feature called mirror lockup. This allows you to manually lock the mirror up out of the optical path well before you trip the shutter. Some manufacturers claim the mirror slap is well dampened in their cameras. I haven't seen a camera yet that couldn't benefit from mirror lock up for telephoto and macro work. The only exception to this would be macro photography and other photographic situations with electronic flash. In this case the flash duration is extremely short and has the same effect as using a very high shutter speed. This last statement assumes that you are using a flash sync shutter speed of 1/60 or higher and have low ambient light levels. If you are using slow shutter speeds and using the flash as fill while metering for ambient light too, then you may have some softening of the image due to mirror slap vibrations.
Here's an example of how to use mirror lockup. Let's say you are taking close up photographs of flowers in a light breeze at a low shutter speed. Set up your composition, focus and find your exposure. Lock the mirror up and watch the flower over the top or side of your tripod mounted camera. At the exact moment in-between breezes, click the shutter. This same method works quite well for low shutter speed telephoto photography. You can even use this method for animals at the zoo. All animals are capable of holding themselves perfectly still and do so fairly frequently. - return to table of contents
Using a Tripod will usually add quite a bit of quality to your photographs by increasing the image's sharpness. A tripod will eliminate the small amount of blur in your photographs caused by your slightly unsteady hands. This is especially true when using telephoto lenses. A tripod may also be necessary when you want to use a small aperture to maximize depth of field in your photographs. If the prevailing light won't let you shoot at the reciprocal of the lens focal length, use a tripod. As an example, a 200 mm lens hand held needs at least 1/250 of a second shutter speed to produce sharp images. A 300mm lens needs close to 1/500 of a second shutter speed. Always use a cable release or the self timer when using a tripod. Trying to release the shutter by hand with a tripod mounted camera defeats the whole purpose of the tripod.
If you aren't photographing in bright sunlight, you may need a tripod unless you are using high speed films. Macro photographs also will need a tripod unless you are using high speed films or electronic flash. Lock the mirror up at shutter speeds under 1/125 of a second and use a remote cable release or your camera's self timer to trip the shutter.
Macro photography at high magnifications will make framing and focusing while hand holding your camera a very touchy proposition. At 2 times life size and larger magnifications it's nearly impossible to keep your image framed and properly focused while hand holding the camera. I use a small focusing rail device when doing macro photography from my tripod. A focusing rail mounts between your camera and your tripod. It allows you to move your camera in small increments forward and backward to fine tune focus or for framing your image at macro magnifications. Some of the more expensive ones also allow for fine adjustments of the side to side position of your camera. A focusing rail is very handy for macro photography from a tripod. It greatly reduces the amount tripod movement and adjustment needed to get a properly framed and focused image. I use Bogen's Micrometric sliding plate #3419 as a 'framing and focusing' rail. It has very fine geared fore and aft movements. It also has a lever that disengages the gears so that you can manually slide the plate for rough positioning. The sliding rail is used as follows: position the camera and tripod at approximately the right distance from the subject to get the subject framed in the viewfinder. Then release the gear drive on the sliding plate and move the camera/lens to rough focus and framing distance. I can then fine tune framing and focus with either the fine geared movement of the plate or the focus ring on the lens itself. I have a second #3419 Bogen Micrometric plate that I can mount 90 degrees on top of the other plate to give me side to side camera positioning as well as forward and backward movement for framing and focusing. - return to table of contents
Ball heads are fast to set up and they provide great flexibility in positioning the camera. A ball head can also work nicely for macro photos and product photography. When shooting landscapes, the levers on pan and tilt heads can help support and position the lens while you are framing your image. Fine tuning forward-backward and sideways tilt is easier moving just one axis at a time. The absolute best solution for precise framing is a geared pan and tilt head.
A geared pan and tilt head like Bogen's 3275 (Manfrotto 410) allows you to set pan, and tilt in both directions, with a 'micrometer' screw handle adjustment. You just twist the appropriate knob and the camera rotates smoothly on that tilt or pan axis. This method of adjusting pan and tilt is much more precise than trying to move the camera using levers that have to be loosened and tightened for each movement of the camera and lens. The Bogen 3275 does have a release on each axis for rough positioning. See a picture of the Manfrotto/Bogen 3275 geared pan tilt head with the two accessory micrometric plates mentioned in the paragraph above by clicking here.
A problem you frequently see with a heavy camera and/or lens combination is sagging after positioning and locking the tilt lever or ball head lock. This is because you are supporting the camera/lens weight with the tilt lever, or in the case of a ball head, with your hands. As soon as you lock and let go of the tilt levers or camera the composition in the viewfinder changes as the camera/lens sags down a little. The geared head does not suffer from this problem since you are not supporting any of the camera/lens weight while doing tilt adjustments.
The combination of geared head and micrometric plates is unbeatable for macro and micro photography because all camera/lens positioning and and movement can be controlled with step-less geared movements. See a photo of my Benbo #1 tripod with the Bogen 3275 geared head and micrometric focusing plates by clicking here.
I've gone back and forth in the last couple of years in favoring either pan and tilt or ball heads. Ball heads with their single or two lever control allow for faster operation and sometimes this can mean the difference in getting or not getting the shot with 35mm/DSLR cameras. My current preference is a geared pan and tilt head for landscape photography and macro photography and a ball head when quickness of setup or frequent repositioning of the camera on the tripod may be necessary.
In the past I have used a pan tilt head at the zoo in a manner similar to using a fluid head. If you level your tripod and side to side tilt axis, you can use a pan/tilt head much like a video fluid head. You end up using forward and backward tilt and side to side pan to keep your subject in your viewfinder as it moves about in it's enclosure. You can also use a ball head in in a similar fashion. If you are going to use a ball head to 'follow' a moving subject, it needs to have smooth movement and a decent ball friction adjustment. Using a ball head in this manner is faster since you can have your hands on the camera in normal shooting position as you are moving the camera around and following your subject. This is the method I'm currently using for most of my zoo photography. I use my Bogen 3021 tripod and 308RC ball head much like a monopod. This combo along with the image stabilization feature of my Canon 100-400 lens allows for reliably sharp images at shutter speeds down to about 1/30 second at 400mm. At shutter speeds under 1/125 I try to fire the shutter during one of the brief moments that the animal is holding perfectly still. This technique requires some practice, patience and some luck...:^)
Pan and tilt levers and ball releases should lock firmly or unlock the tripod head for smooth easy movement with just 1/2 to 3/4 turn of the lever or knob. A good ball head will have an adjustment for the friction of the ball when the release is open. Stay away from any type of head that doesn't move through all of its positions smoothly. - return to table of contents
What To Look For In A Tripod
I found out a few interesting things while trying to make sharp images at low shutter speeds and high magnifications. You need a heavy tripod. However, heavy isn't enough. My first tripod was an 8 pound Gitzo. Even with the mirror locked up it wouldn't allow a good sharp image with telephoto lenses. The problem with the Gitzo was that it was too rigid. Any small vibration would take forever to settle down. I then tried a heavier 12 pound Bogen 3051. This tripod was fairly loose at it's pivots and joints. It was much less susceptible to camera or wind induced tremor.
Before you buy a tripod try this simple comparative test. Mount your longest telephoto lens on each tripod you are considering. Extend the tripod legs to their full length. Do not raise the center column of the tripod. While looking through your camera's view finder, give one of the legs of the tripod a very mild slap with your hand. Watch and see how much and for how long the image in your camera's view finder "jiggles" or oscillates around. Pick the heaviest tripod that you can stand to carry around that gives the least amount and duration of image "jiggle". If you constantly have to adjust the back and forth tilt because the composition in your viewfinder changes as soon as you let go of the camera or tripod controls, the tripod is sagging under the weight of your lens. Unfortunately, using a heavier tripod is usually the only way to fix this problem. Sometimes a sturdier head will help to minimize this problem too.
These days everyone seems to want a 'lightweight' tripod. Unfortunately mass and weight in a tripod are the main contributors to producing sharp images at slow shutter speeds. The following technique suggestions apply to all tripod based photography but are particularly important with lightweight tripods. Use mirror lockup if you have it and always use a cable release or the self timer on your camera. Never raise the center column more than a few inches. Wait a few seconds after touching the camera or tripod before taking the photograph to allow vibrations to subside. Use a small lightweight umbrella to 'shield' the camera and lens from windy conditions. See My Photo Equipment page for a detailed description of the tripods I am currently using. - return to table of contents
Use It Or Lose It
If you are serious about your photography, never leave home without your camera equipment. I don't mean to suggest that you have to take your gear with you when you do the weekly shopping. Just don't leave your gear at home too often. You never know when you will have that once in a lifetime photographic opportunity sitting right there in front of you waiting for you to trip the shutter....Will you have your camera? - return to table of contents
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