When I'm out and about I have lots of little moments where a thought coalesces in my mind that I think would be useful to share. When it makes sense I'll do that via twitter but often they are a bit bigger than you can fit into a 140 character tweet yet not big enough for a blog post of their own.
Rather than leaving them to rattle around in my head, I thought I'd start to post a digest of these thoughts in the hope that one of them will be useful to someone else.
Placement of Tripod Legs
On a recent workshop one of the attendees and put her centre column to the side for a portrait shot. In so doing she placed the column between two tripod legs. This is a very bad idea!
The centre column places your camera far off the tripod's centre of gravity and if it's between two legs there is nothing to resist it toppling over. Whenever you have to place your camera to the side of the tripod, make sure there is a tripod leg directly under the camera to prevent it from toppling in that direction.
The same concept applies when sitting a tripod on a slope. It's always better to have one longer leg down the slope and 2 shorter legs up the slope, rather than 2 down and 1 up. Again the single leg prevents the tripod rolling over that leg, when otherwise the 2 legs would just provide a pivot point.
Why I Love My Big Tripod
I have a Gitzo 3542XLS tripod. This is a big tripod. When fully extended it goes to 200.5cm. I'm only 180cm tall, so I can actually walk under it when it's fully extended. Some people think it's strange that I've gone for such a large tripod given I can't reach the top of it!
One of the pieces of advice you hear about tripod shopping is "buy one that lets you work at eye level comfortably" - so you want a tripod that's about your height (less the head and camera of course). I actually disagree with this advice. Normally I'm using my tripod fully collapsed working within about 30-40cm of the ground and so working at eye level is something I very rarely do. So I don't have a big tripod for that reason.
Rather I have a big tripod to deal with difficult terrain. Assuming you did want to shoot at eye level, what happens if you're shooting on the side of a hill? You need one leg to go downhill so it needs to be longer than the rest. On a very steep hill, I can have two legs fully collapsed and the other fully extended on a rock several feet below. It gives you much more flexibility. I vividly remember shooting at the Quiraing on Skye earlier in the year and my tripod at the time (40cm shorter than this one) couldn't physically get into the position I wanted as the bottom leg was too short.
When shooting rivers, waterfalls or on the coast finding a suitable platform between rocks to place my tripod can be difficult. On a recent trip to the Lake District I found that the only way I could get the shot I was after was to fully extend one leg and rest it on the far river bank! This image shows a recent visit to Padley where I have one leg fully extended, another partially extended and the last fully collapsed so that I could get the position I wanted on top of this sloping rock.
I don't always need the extra height but I use it more than might be expected. The point here isn't to run out and buy an extra long tripod. Rather think about what you're shooting and how you're shooting and choose appropriately - at eye level on flat ground is just not something I find myself doing very often.
Get Low and Close
Continuing the tripod theme a little longer (maybe there was a tripod post here after all!), an oft quoted piece of advice to new photographers is to "try different perspectives, get low, get high, get away from eye level". This is good advice but sometimes goes a bit far and leads you to believe that it's just "experimentation" and that lying on your belly is what's being called for.
Getting away from eye level is often good advice for a very simple reason - eye level tends not to put anything prominently in the frame, everything is kinda far from the camera. Assuming you have something on the ground as a foreground, a mid and background then if you're at eye level you're probably above your foreground.
This means that you either need to use a really wide lens to get the foreground and background in, or you have to move further back up to fit it all in. In the first case, you're pushing your foreground and background far apart - they're at opposite sides of the frame with a lot of mid-ground filling most of the frame. In the case of backing up you're just making everything in your frame smaller, in particular your foreground which becomes less and less prominent in the frame to the point it looks like an accidental inclusion rather than a key part of the image.
What I prefer to do is get much lower. This brings your foreground and your background closer together as they squeeze the mid-ground. This also allows you to get closer to your foreground to make it a very prominent feature in the image.
Robert Capa said “If your photos aren't good enough, then you’re not close enough”. As a photojournalist Capa wasn't talking about landscape photography, but if we consider our photographs to be "portraits of the land" then it still makes sense. We want to get in close to that foreground, make its inclusion purposeful and an important part of the image.
Related to this is the need to find something interesting as a foreground. Bruce Percy says "fall in love with a rock". Too often I'm guilty of looking for "something, anything" to put in my foreground just so that I have a foreground. Not exactly a key ingredient for a great picture! Better to find something that really intrigues you to put in the foreground and make it work with the rest of the landscape.
When I see other photographers they're often standing straight with their tripod fully extended while I'm crawling around on my hands and knees a foot away from the rock in front of me. It's not for me to say I'm right and they're wrong, but if you haven't tried shooting from a lower angle close to an interesting foreground object I'd really recommend it - it could make a big difference to your images.
Dealing with "Huff"
As you'll know when it's cold, "huff" (for want of a technical term!) comes out of our mouths where our warm breath and cold air meet. This will mist things up including lens, LCD displays and filters.
I have a (bad) habit of holding a filter in my mouth (not all the way in just held between my lips!) while I'm doing something else with the camera and don't have free hands. This of course means the filter becomes steamed up, and sometimes you don't realise until you've put it back in place and you're wondering why your images are all misty. If the steamed up side is the one facing the lens this can take some time to dissipate.
I used to use a lens cloth to demist my lens and filters but this can just end up smearing and takes some time.
I recently discovered that the best way to demist is to use a rocket blower! A couple of blasts of air and the mist vanishes, much like when you put your windscreen blower on in your car. It can also be a good way to move any residue lens cleaning solution or water where a lens cloth is just smearing it around.
Better yet when handling your equipment try to hold it at arms length, and try to avoid having so many things in your hands that you can't handle your gear properly!
Stop Rushing Around
Last week I went to Padley Gorge (of course!) but decided on a a stop off at Over Owler Tor for sunrise. The sunrise itself was pretty uninteresting but soon after there were some breaks in the cloud and some lovely light was cast across the Hope Valley. At that point I was packing up to head to Padley and so was rather unprepared. I just started snapping away hoping to catch something without much thought to be honest! In some ways I was annoyed by this distraction from getting to Padley for what I planned. I was annoyed that there was some great light I could spend some time with because I could descend into a gorge where the light would be pretty samey at any time. Madness.
Sometimes it feels like we're here to make every photograph on the planet. We rush around from one location to the next thinking that "seeing" everywhere is the same as "being" everywhere. The truth is that that time spent moving around, the split attention, wondering when the right time to move is, wondering if the light is better elsewhere - it's all just a distraction from the here and now. There is plenty of time to get more pictures, and none of us will be lying on our deathbeds wishing we'd made more pictures. Rather we'd be wishing that we'd made more "better" pictures - assuming we're even thinking about photography at all!
Of course chance can play a hand, you arrive at a new location and some magic happens. But that could also happen where you are. Just enjoy what you're doing and don't fret!
Blinking Exp Sim
If you have a Canon camera and are using LiveView you may occasionally see a blinking icon on the left called "Exp Sim". What this is basically telling you is that your LiveView display and more importantly the histogram can't provide an accurate "exposure simulation" for the settings you have chosen. Normally this will happen when it's dark and you are shooting at smaller apertures (upwards of f/11) at long exposures (up to 30"). Basically the scene is too dark to provide a strong enough signal to the LCD display (I think). So when you see that blinking "Exp Sim" it's time to stop believing what the LCD and the histogram are telling you.
You can normally widen the aperture or bump up the ISO a couple of stops up until "Exp Sim" stops blinking and you can rely on the LiveView display again. If you count how many stops you adjusted you can predict how your exposure will vary from what the LCD is telling you.