My Three-legged Friend

Sometimes I'll be looking through photos that i've just taken using my on-camera display and contentedly thinking to myself "these look good", while imagining myself at the next BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year awards. Once I've got them onto my computer and close-up examination begins, reality casts its ugly shadow over me. Not sharp, not sharp, not sharp! Why is it that it's always the killer shots that are affected?

In photography there are many different ways that critical sharpness can be compromised. Probably the most frequent of these is due to "camera shake". Picture this - pulling into a lay-by a tour coach disgorges its passengers who "Ooh!" and "Ahh!" at the wonderful view. Jostling for position they lift their cameras, jab down on the shutter release and climb back aboard waiting to be shuttled off to the next stop. Of all the different ways it is possible to support a camera while taking a photograph, handholding is the most convenient and probably the least stable.

Camera shake example - general scene
Almost any photograph, when reporduced small enough, will look acceptably sharp. However, critical examination of the above image at 100% (see below) reveals that this is far from the truth. Even the smallest of movements will be noticed when an image is enlarged to display proportions.
Camera shake example - detail
Let's clarify what I mean by camera shake. It's probably stating the obvious that moving a camera while taking a photograph is a recipe for disaster. The end result will be blurred. How blurred a photograph will actually be depends on a few things but basically a highly mobile camera will give a highly blurred photograph. If I want to eliminate camera movement completely I can put my camera on a solid rock, jam it into place and use its self-timer to fire the shutter. This is about as good as it will get. Unfortunately there never seems to be a rock at the right height or pointing the right way when I need it. So I pick up my camera, point it and shoot. But that brings us back to handholding and all its shortcomings. The slightest of movements I make are transferred to any picture I take, preventing it from being razor sharp. This is camera shake.

Maybe you are thinking that it's hardly worth trying to take a photograph at all. I'm not saying that, but it is important to give a camera good support. Reasonable results can be achieved handholding a camera, providing a few simple guidelines are followed. Holding the camera with one hand supporting the lens from beneath, the other hand is positioned to hold the camera body and allow smooth pressing of the shutter release. Elbows should be tucked in and resting on your chest. By bringing the camera firmly up against your eye when looking through the viewfinder you now have three points of support. Feet should be about shoulder width apart and placed securely. Now by relaxing and exhaling (you can say "Ooh" and "Ahh" quietly while admiring the view as you do this if you wish), and using your lightest touch to fire the shutter, a shake-free picture should be achieved. Oh yes, and if you want the very, very best, take your photograph between heartbeats!

Using longer lenses to photograph wildlife increases the image size but equally magnifies any movement. Even with the above precautions a point will be reached where magnification of movement due to increasing focal length becomes unacceptable. The rule of thumb to apply is don't hand hold a shot if the shutter speed is slower than the focal length reciprocal i.e. lens is 250mm, slowest shutter speed acceptable is 1/250 sec.

Okay, so now I can get an acceptably sharp picture hand-holding my camera but I want more. I want photographs so sharp that I can shave with them. I just have to accept that no matter how good my technique, if I want improvements an alternative method of support is needed. There are several choices but if you want the best results go for the best support - a sturdy tripod. Over the years I have owned many different tripods and know that an ultra lightweight model is usually a waste of time for fieldwork. It is a lesson I learned at great expense of time and money.

Essentially a tripod consists of three supporting legs and a platform to mount a camera on. From this basic concept a million-and-one variations have been born. Such a wide choice provides flexibility for the knowledgeable and a minefield for the inexperienced. Everyone has a favourite depending on his or her particular needs.

For a tripod to be effective it must remain stable and support the weight of a camera while doing so. When tripod legs are extended their stability is reduced. Long spindly legs like a spider's will flex so much more easily than short stumpy legs like a hippo's. Because of this it is always best to use a tripod with its legs as short as possible. Frequently I will sit on the ground underneath my tripod with its legs at their shortest length. This way I get maximum stability.

Nature and Wildlife photography article - tripods
Tripods come in all sizes; from the tiny one in my hand to the towering one next to me. Choose one that is right for your needs.
Okay, so I need to keep the legs short. What else is important? Well, it's much harder to move a rock than a feather. And generally the heavier a tripod is the greater the support it will provide. Long lens specialists know this and can sometimes be seen carrying tripods that seem to be made out of girders left over from building the Forth Road Bridge. In fact a photographic proverb goes something along the lines of, "tripods are a necessary evil, and the eviler the better". While this is true the majority of photographers don't need to go to such extremes. I would think that a lightweight camera should be used on a medium weight tripod, a medium weight camera on a heavy tripod, a heavy camera on a monster of a tripod etc. etc. etc. So what about lightweight tripods then? Well, I find they make excellent flashgun stands.

Using a tripod can be inconvenient, as well as a nuisance as it must be carried everywhere. Because of its length stalking through undergrowth is difficult and sometimes they can seem impossible to set up right. A tripod's weight makes walking uphill hard work and sometimes it seems to be more trouble than it's worth. Everything has its limitations and tripods are no different, they need to be used intelligently for top-gun results.

The simple act of using a tripod increases the sharpness of photographs out of all proportion to the effort expended. I am very reluctant to leave mine behind when I set off on a photographic outing. There are many things we can do wrong when taking a photograph, but many photographers consider that the biggest crime of all is having a tripod suitable for your purpose and not bothering to use it.