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Travelling with a Tripod, Monopod, or Beanbag for Camera Support

I am very glad that the digital cameras of today are so much more portable and easy to use than the huge glass-plate cameras of the years gone by, but nevertheless, a tripod is still an essential for many Travel Photographers, and so it seems with me. I would much rather do without a tripod, of course, and have travelled in the past without one from time to time, but generally regretted not having one with me. Lets look at why a Travel Photographer might need to take a tripod with him.

The most obvious reason is one of picture quality. For a given amount of light, and an aperture set to the depth of field that is appropriate, we can decide which ISO rating we would prefer to use. The lower the ISO, the better the final image quality will be, BUT in lowering the ISO, we also lower the shutter speed, and too slow a shutter speed with a hand held camera results in camera shake and image blurring. Hence the need for a tripod, which reduces the possibilty of camera shake and allows us to use slow shutter speeds and a low ISO.

Another popular use for a tripod is the ability to take low light, un-augmented photographs. The dark interior of a church or temple rarely provides the kind of light that your camera needs. It is often so low that hand holding is not an option - the blurring would make the photograph un-usable. Even if flash were allowed, it is often not desirable to use it: the type of image it produces is not one I wish to take, and the damage such intense bursts of light can do, over time, to fragile ancient works of art should make any photographer consider carefully their moral right to use such light sources. My using a tripod, you can take slow exposure shots in low light conditions without needing additional lighting.

One less obvious use of a tripod, overlooked by many photgraphers, is described in my Slow, Fast, and Static page: the ability to observe and compose the scene in much greater detail than is possible with a hand-held camera, simply beacuse the tripod is, quite literally, taking some of the load from you. And then finally, lets not forget the current interest in HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography, that you will find explained in depth in my HDR Photography tutorial. The requirement for HDR photography is a set of bracketed exposures of the same scene, with as little movement as possible between each frame. It is possible to hand-hold a camera during a burst of shots under some circumstances, but generally a tripod is considered essential.

OK: so now we've realised that a tripod is often essential to the Travel Photographer, lets look at the requirements for a suitable traveller's tripod, and see the types of tripods that are available. A tripod must, above all else, be sturdy and durable. Small flimsy tripods are essentially useless, and a waste of space in your camera bag. Most people can hand hold a camera as well as they can, if not better, so don't waste your money. A tripod must be able to steadily support the weight of the camera body and lens in a stable manner. Long exposures preclude any motion or vibration of the support structure: if any is introduced, the photograph will be ruined. Some photographers suggest that you should hang your camera bag on the bottom of the tripod to provide extra stability, though this is not really useful unless you've got a huge lens on the body, in which case the lens should have its own tripod mounting-point anyway. Also, I feel that a hanging camera bag is more likely to get knocked by my knee as I take the shot, or its extra area will provide unwanted windage and start swinging of its own accord, so I don't like to rely on this technique.

So, given the need for a sturdy tripod, one that is unlikely to wobble, what choices do we have? With added sturdiness comes added weight, and added weight is never something we, as Travel Photographers who wander about all day, carrying a heavy camera bag, wish to augment! A balance must be drawn between weight and ruggedness: this is a question that the individual photographer must answer for himself, after careful consideration at the camera store as to which choices are available. The tripod is one purchase that I would not reccommend you do online, unless you already have a specific model in mind. Tripod manufacturers are continuing to refine their designs with weight and durability in mind, and many different models are available to suit every type of photographer. When assessing whether a tripod is suitable for your needs, always take along your camera body and lens that you intend to use it with.

Construction materials used for a modern semi-pro or pro tripod are confined to aluminium or carbon fibre. The choice between the two is essentailly one of money. A carbon fibre tripod, or at least one with carbon-fibre legs and aluminium fittings, will be half the weight of a comparable aluminium one, but will be twice the money! Which you choose will be dictated by your pocket book, but I would stress that the weight savings are great, and can make a huge difference to your comfort, enjoyment, and endurance when you have got to carry the tripod around all day in your backpack or shoulder bag. A quality tripod will last for many years whilst retaining a high percentage of its initial purchase cost in its resale value, so for me, comparing a carbon-fibre tripod in one hand against an aluminium tripod in the other hand, the choice wasn't in much doubt, and since then I have been very glad that I spent the extra money on the carbon-fibre one.

A modern semi-pro or pro tripod doesn't come with a head - this needs to be purchased separately. There are a range of heads available to suit a range of different uses by the photographer, and to suit a range of different weights of camera + lens. Specialist heads are available for specific applications: for instance, the Panoramic Head which rotates the camera around the nodal-point, and often provides preset click-stop rotation points that define a suitable number of over-lapping photographs for the lens in use. For general purpose use, a ball head is the most versatile. These come in a variety of strengths to suit the weight of your camera + lens. Don't purchase a head that is too small, or after some time the over-strained ball clamp may start to drift in use, and ruin the photograph. Too big, though, is unnecessary, and will just add extra weight and bulk to the tripod combination.

Most heads come with a quick-release shoe these days. Make sure that yours does, too. The quick-release shoe comes in two parts: one is permanently screwed to the base of the camera body. When needed, it quickly clips into place on the carrier, which is permanently attached to the head. There is generally a small lever on the carrier, which prevents the two from releasing unexpectedly. This should alway be activated for the extra security it gives: the last thing you want is to knock it by mistake and cause the camera + lens to fall to the floor with a bang! These quick-release heads save a lot of time in use when compared to the older method of screwing the tripod mounting screw in place each time, and are thus highly recommended.

The larger telephoto lenses can often weigh more (and cost more!) than the camera body itself, and have their own tripod screw mounting or removable tripod attachment bracket. If you use such a lens, make sure that you use the lens fixing point on to the tripod rather than the camera's, as otherwise the lens + camera will not be balanced properly. If the lens weighs more than the camera body, there will be a lot of strain on the lens bayonet fitting when trying to support it with the camera mounting point, leading to looseness and poor contact of the electrical connections that connect the lens motors and sensors to the camera.

In some locations, you will find that its not always a good idea to use a tripod, despite the benefits mentioned above. A tripod can give the idea to people that you are a professional, and so attract more interest, often unwanted. In some locations, professional photographers need special permission, or are not allowed to photograph on the premises at all. Alternatively, thinking you are a professional, attendants and guards might want money to let you continue photographing. Its not easy to talk your way out of some of these situations, so it is better to appear an enthusiastic amateur rather than a professional travel photographer. In some locations, tripods are banned from use completely, even if you are a genuine amateur. They may require special written permission that takes months to obtain - this is especially true in the state-run ancient monuments of India. Assuming you can get your tripod through security, keep it in your rucksack until you really need it. There may be a chance to set it up quickly and take that special photo before you are spotted by one of the guards. Often they don't know the exact rules, but if you are told to stop using a tripod, it is always worth asking to speak to the boss, who may give special permission if he likes you and is in a suitably generous mood.

If tripods are forbidden, all is not lost. There are often other methods of bracing and steadying a camera to get that important shot. Sit it on a window sill or ledge whilst pressing down firmly to stop camera movement. Lean it against a pillar, column, or door frame, if one is pointing in the right direction. Often in a museum or gallery there are small wooden or metal columns about waist height used to support a rope that blocks further access to the room. I have frequently rested my camera on these, and even used them for a burst shot of bracketed exposures for a future HDR photograph. Not as steady as a tripod, but still better than nothing, and worth taking the chance with. To ensure that the camera's movement is minimsed whilst taking the shot or shots, I would suggest using the camera's timer rather than pressing the shutter release button. Using the timer in this way, set to a delay of, say, 6 or 7 seconds, allows you to start it going then fully concentrate on supporting the camera before the shutter releases itself.

Sometimes there is no alternative to hand-holding your camera even in extreme low-light conditions. If you have Vibration Reduction on your lens, make sure that it is turned on, as it will give you effectively an extra 2 f-stops of shooting possibilities. Sometimes you can hand-hold a camera right down to 1/4 second without introducing too much shake and blurr. If you are unsure, try it anyway - you never know what might happen. Prepare for these moments beforehand by practising your stance. If done correctly, this can make a huge difference when taking low-light photographs with no other support for the camera. Clamp your arms to your side. Feet apart, and planted firmly on the ground - no wobbling on loose stones. Breathe in, hold your breath, then press the shutter release button positively but slowly. Release the button after the shutter has activated, then start breathing again.

Lets also remember that tripods are not the only method of camera support available: monopods can also be of use at times, though of course are not as effective as their three legged cousins. Some trekking poles can be used as a camera support, and have a mounting screw built in to the handle. A variety of clamps are available that allow you to fix a camera to the edge of a table, or the window of your motor-car. If purchasing one of these, make sure that it is man enough for the task, or you may just find that like the smaller ball heads, the attachment just starts to drift as mentioned above, ruining the shot.

To support a camera + lens on an uneven surface, you may like to try a Bean Bag. These are especially popular on Safari - see my What to expect on Safari page for further details. Bean bags are just what the name implies: a small cloth bag filled with dried brown or green lentils. They work by molding to the shape of your camera body and lens above, and the support surface, such as a safari jeep's roof below, thus distributing their support all around the camera body and lens. They are surprising effective in the field, and quick to set up. Not everyone likes them, as the height they give above the support surface is minimal, so you must crouch down to the surface where they are resting to see through the viewfinder. In locations where a tripod or monopod is not practical, though, they can make the difference between a sharp and a blurred photograph, so it is worth giving them a go. No need to buy one, of course, as they are very easy to make. A small cloth bag + lentil filling is soon sewn together. If you run out of food on Safari, you can always eat them too! Sand makes a great alternative filler for a beanbag. You can take an empty beanbag on your trip, and fill it up from the ground when you get there. You won't be able to eat it in an emergency, though. An alternative to the Bean Bag support is a small section of foam rubber or closed-cell foam matting, a few inches thick - both are good for camera support, and if they MUST be used on a vehicle with the engine running, can help to reduce vibration-transmission as well, though don't rely on this.


Read other articles in the Tim's Tips series...

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