Story and photographs © Paul Mozell
You still need a tripod even if you have a vibration-reduction lens. A VR (vibration-reduction) or VC (vibration compensation), or IS (image stabilization) lens is great to have in your camera kit but it won’t entirely replace a sturdy tripod. If you are shooting landscapes the only way to reliably bracket exposures, or merge multiple files using Photoshop’s HDR (high dynamic range) action, is to set your camera on a stable, constant platform. I’m hooked on panoramas at the moment, and if I don’t use a tripod and ball-head with a panorama scale, the sequence of shots won’t line up properly. Using a tripod also allows you to make small, incremental adjustments to a composition.
Sure, there will be plenty of times when it is not convenient or safe to set up a tripod. Let’s say you’re hiking a trail in the Tetons in the dim light of early morning, and a bull moose steps out of the Snake River, antlers dripping water, and mist rising from his back. You know you’re going to need a slow shutter speed to catch a good exposure of this grand beast. In less than a minute you can pull out the 70-300, stretch it out to 200mm, set the ISO to 200, the shutter speed to 1/60, and the f-stop to 6.3, and click the shutter before Bullwinkle snorts and takes a couple of menacing giant steps in your direction. For the other occasions, use a tripod to help you get the best outdoor and nature photographs.
Keep horizons straight. I have lost count of the number of full-page ads in national magazines that have photographs of crooked lake shores and the ocean horizon. As long as gravity pulls me toward the center of the Earth and Newton’s Law’s are still taught in schools, my optical gyroscope wants all horizons to be level. Many digital SLRs and a few point-and-shoots have a grid pattern that can be turned on or off in the LCD or optical viewfinder. You may even have a grid permanently etched into the ground glass of your large or medium-format film camera. It is simple task to line up the parallel lines in the finder with the horizon. Most camera dealers can supply you with an inexpensive spirit level that slides into an SLRs hot-shoe. Plenty of tripods now have spirit levels built in to them as well. If you don’t get the shot straight in the camera, at least straighten the horizon later on in the computer. Then I’ll stop nagging you.
Shoot hikers and paddlers coming toward you, not away. Unless the narrative of an author’s text requires a subject to be walking. paddling, or skiing away from the camera, I prefer to see the faces of my outdoor subjects. When a person is approaching the camera in the frame of a photograph, or traveling left to right, the viewer is more likely to be drawn in to the image and the photograph will be more successful. More often than not this requires the photographer to do more work, or get more exercise, depending or your perspective. To show the strain on the faces of a group of hikers ascending a steep trail, the photographer has to run well ahead of the group to find a good shooting position on or off the trail. After the group has passed you and disappeared around a bend in the trail, you get to hustle to catch up with them after packing your camera away. Not only will you get much better photographs with this approach, but you are likely to receive compliments on your physical fitness.
How to give any lens macro capability. Extension tubes are like short lenses without glass. Stacked between any lens and the camera body, they reduce the minimum focusing distance of the lens. This allows you to get much closer to a flower, insect, or bird. Most extension tubes are sold in kits of 3 different lengths, which can be used separately, or combined for greater effect. There are two drawbacks however. Light level is reduced (by the square of the change in distance of the lens from the image sensor or film – The Inverse Square Law), and the lens will no longer focus to infinity. With a typical price of $150.00 for a set of generic extension tubes that retain your camera’s auto-focusing and exposure modes, this option for macro photography is far less costly than the investment in a quality macro lens.
When not to use auto white balance. Shooting indoors under a variety of artificial light sources, your camera’s automatic white balance setting will almost always guarantee you neutral color. However, the auto white balance setting used outdoors is likely to remove the pleasing warm light we all seek during “the golden hours.” So, use the “daylight” setting for white balance whenever the sun is up. You may also find that the “cloudy” and “overcast” settings make your images unnaturally warm under those conditions. So again, the daylight setting should be used. If you shoot in “RAW” capture mode rather than JPEG, you’ll have the option to adjust the color temperature of images each time you open them. But it’s best to get each image as close to an ideal color temperature while shooting. Isn’t the goal to spend less time in front of Photoshop and more time taking pictures?