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Sharp's the word

I like simple compositions, but the subject has to be sharp or your photo will like bite and it certainly won't sell.

There are three ways your photo can be unsharp: either the focus is wrong, the camera moved, or the subject moved. Here's how to tell the difference.

This article deals with how to avoid camera shake.

Holding the camera by hand is perfectly adequate for many photos. Tripods slow you down. By the time you've taken it out, opened it up and got the camera set up and levelled, the yeti's long gone, and your $50,000 from the media with it.

On the positive side, tripods slow you down. You have time to think about what you're doing, decide to use a polarizer, and to see the crisp packet in the foreground before you trip the shutter.

So when should you use a tripod?

Mirror slap

SLR cameras have a mirror to enable you to look out through the lens used to take the photograph - what you see is what you get. When you want to take a photograph, this mirror flips up out of the way, causing a tiny vibration. At normal shutter speeds and with normal lenses, it makes no difference. But if you have a long lens supported in the middle, then the vibration is at one end of a lever. If a 35mm negative moves 0.5mm during the exposure, then the resulting blur will be 8mm long on a 60 x 40cm print. Believe me, 8mm looks a mess.

Some cameras allow you to lock the mirror up before you take the photograph. You should do this if you can. It only takes a second, and it will take several minutes to set up the tripod.

Failing that, you can put the camera on a bean bag. Once the lens is supported along a fair proportion of its length, it's far less likely to wobble. See the section on beanbags below.

Choosing a tripod

Different tripods suit different situations.

Flimsy tripods are a waste of money. It's not a bargain if you never use it.

Heavy tripods are fine in a studio, but not for hiking up a mountain.

Some have a hook and the bottom of the centre column so you can hang a weight there for greater stability. Great for taking landscape photos in a gale, but not much use in a studio.

Some open up considerably taller than others. Check the height with and without the centre column raised. (And check the stability of the centre column, too)

Some are easier to adjust than others.

And of course prices vary widely. But bear in mind that a tripod might well last you 25 years.

Monopods (Also called a unipod).

These are easier to carry around, and faster to point, but less effective. They're popular with sports photograpers, who tend to use long lenses but obviously can't spend five minutes setting up each shot.

Table tripods

These are small (about 6" high) and therefore extremely portable. They're not much use for landscapes unless you can find something to stand them on, like a rock or wall. (I once used the speakers at a rock concert. Don't. Speakers vibrate!)

Clamps

These are also small and portable, but you need to find something to clamp them to.

I have a combined table tripod and clamp, and over the years it's proved very useful.

Beanbags

You can buy photographic beanbags, or make your own from anything that isn't so full that it's rigid. For example, you can use an old sock half-filled with rice. You can also take an empty sock on a hike and fill it with sand or gravel before use. That way you don't have to carry the filling around.

I use a bag of peanuts. One of these days I'll be stranded on the side of a mountain in the mist, and I'll be very glad of those peanuts. (Kendal Mint Cake doesn't make a good lens support.)

The big disadvantage is that you need something to put the bean bag on. Sometimes there's a nice convenient wall, just the right place and height - just not very often. Sometimes you can park your car and use the roof - sometimes. Failing that, there might be a lamppost that you can push the camera against.

The car window

If you haven't got the right kit, or you haven't got time, wind the car window down to the height you require and rest the lens on that. It's not nearly as good as a tripod or beanbag, but it's better than hand holding. Just remember to turn the car engine off and ask any passengers to sit still.

If you haven't got a tripod

This is definitely second best,but tripods are too heavy to carry everywhere, and it's inevitable that you'll get caught out occasionally.

  1. Use as fast a shutter speed and as wide a lens as possible.
  2. If possible, get into position to use yourself as a tripod, for example with your back and feet against rocks and your elbows on your thighs. Ignore any sniggers from bystanders. If this isn't possible, plant your legs a little apart, like a sailor.
  3. Hold the camera to your eye and compose the picture.
  4. Take a deep breath and then breathe out.
  5. Squeeze the camera top and bottom to release the shutter. If you just press from the top, the camera will move down a millimetre or so.
Here's a long telephoto shot I took of the moon, resting my elbows on the roof of my car. I'd have preferred a tripod, but there was no time, because the moon set completely two minutes later.

Hold that camera steady, and you should get a sharp picture every time.
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