Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Tripods, Monopods, VR. Do I Need any of those?

Sharp pictures are often considered a necessary element for a successful photo. And although there are occasions when someone desires a blurry effect, in most occasions we try to keep things sharp and crisp. Many beginners believe a lens or a camera is what will give them the sharpness they need. That is a very common mistake (read #2 on my list of the photography mistake we have all made), which often results in frustration and wasted time and money. People, without knowing it's their fault (sounds bit cheeky, but it's true), go and spend hundreds - if not thousands - of dollars/euros for new equipment. Only to quickly realize they're facing the same problems.

No, it's not your lens to blame. Cheap lenses can be very sharp, if you support them carefully. This one was taken with a Nikkor 28-80mm which costs less than $40 used.

And one of the most common mistakes beginners make is to take photos without properly supporting their camera. In many cases the shutter speed is enough to supply the necessary sharpness, overcoming the hand-induced shake. Especially if there is a VR system (as often is the case), people get lazy and happily snap away without a care in the world.

Admittedly, that is partly the reason for all these smart systems, like VR: to take photos without having to worry. However, knowledge is power and you should be aware what VR, tripods, and monopods are all about. What they can and what they can't do. Because in order to get the maximum of your equipment, you must know it first!

They exist since the beginning of photography. In fact, in the old(er) days, it was unthinkable to use a camera without a tripod - thanks to the exposures being counted in seconds (or even minutes, if you go back long enough). But even in modern times, a tripod is a photographer's best friend. It pretty much has only two flaws: a) you need to drag it around;  b) once on the tripod, the camera loses mobility (which is the point, kinda!). Although you can still rotate the tripod plate where the camera is rested in all directions, this certainly isn't a solution for fast action (unless if you can anticipate movement and/or panning is involved)

But consider what you're getting: the ability to shoot sharp photos at virtually any shutter speed. If the tripod is good and sturdy, you can leave the camera on it for a 20-min exposure of star trails. But even if you think "Nah, I don't need it, I'm not shooting stars", remember the focal length rule: 1/focal length is the speed below which you need a supporting solution for your camera. If you're using a Nikon DX (with crop factor 1.5x), let's say you shoot at 200mm. That means you need 1/300 (well, 1/320) or faster to keep the camera hand-held. And that's not a guarantee, either - it depends on your individual technique, the lens size/weight, etc.

So, you see that suddenly if you need to shoot your tele lens at 200mm and the fastest shutter speed you can use for your exposure is, say, 1/125, then you must use support. Either a tripod, or a monopod, or VR:

A tripod was needed, although the shutter speed was 1/125 (for a 50mm lens). You know why? Coz the wind was over 30m/s!

Which brings us to VR - Vibration Reduction. Sigma calls it OS (Optical Stabilization), Tamron calls it VC (Vibration Compensation). It's the same thing. VR is a very useful tool, which "magically" stabilizes the image and reduces hand-induced shake. The modern versions, in the newest lenses, claim several stops of latitude. What this means is: In our example above, if you normally would have needed 1/320 for a sharp exposure, with VR you can get one probably with a shutter speed as low as 1/40.

But this is a blessing only if you know its limitations. If not, it's a curse. And beginners often fall for the VR trap. What's that? Well, simply put, it's the attitude "My lens has VR, I don't need tripod because I can shoot at all shutter speeds". Nop, you can't! You can have several stops latitude (remember to check #2 of my article on little-known photography tricks), but this latitude is inevitably finite. The tripod is the only support system that truly works at all shutter speeds - provided it's properly used

A monopod is like a compromise (a pretty big one though) between a tripod and...nothing. A monopod gives you about a stop of latitude (or maybe two if you're steady). So, instead of 1/320 you can shoot at 1/160 or maybe even 1/125, and get away with it. It's certainly better than nothing, and it can be absolutely essential for tele-lenses. The huge advantage it has over a tripod is that it's very small and light, very easy to carry, and it can even be used as a walking stick if you're hiking.

So, do you need any of those? The answer is: although it depends, you probably do. I know a lot about holding technique and shutter speeds and all that, and I certainly have a use for tripod, monopod, and VR is a nice thing to have - especially with long teles. Each of these has a different purpose, and it comes with a different set of advantages and disadvantages. Make sure you understand their difference, in order to spare yourself from the frustration of discovering post-fact that you used something the wrong way!

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