Stability

Even the most adventurous of us need a certain amount of stability. But I’m not talking about financial or mental or interpersonal stability today. I’m referring to the never ending debate about tripods vs. monopods.

Why do we need them?

Many people today value crisp, tack sharp images. To achieve this requires good cameras, good lenses, and good technique. One primary factor of the technique is minimizing camera shake.

We tend to talk about camera shake as a binary thing: yes/no, on/off, shake/no shake. The reality is that it is a range. It is kind of like focus. If something is considered in focus, we really mean it has an acceptable level of focus. Good enough for our purpose, not an absolute.

Likewise, for camera shake, we must take the point of view that it must be minimized enough for our need.

Most people tend to hand hold their cameras. I know I do when I can. It is much faster and easier. Achieving sharp images hand held requires special techniques that we will discuss later.

But when we know we need maximum sharpness, the standard response it to pull out the tripod, or monopod. It’s a debate.

Tripods

Tripods are the three-legged things we are all familiar with. They seem to have been around forever and they tend to be pretty large. The three equally spaced legs provides an optimum stable platform in all directions.

Tripods used to be made of wood. Classical and lovely to look at, but heavy, Then they moved to generally bring made of aluminum or alloys. These were lighter and durable. A problem they had, though was vibration. Referred to as dampening when we’re talking about stability. The metal was kind of springy. It would vibrate when perturbed by a force. Like bumping it or when the mirror of your big DSLR “slaps” up to take a picture. The metal legs would vibrate for many milliseconds before stopping. This caused distortion while the shutter was open, which was probably for those same milliseconds.

Later, most high end tripods moved to carbon fiber construction. This material has many advantages, but, of course, it is more expensive. The carbon fiber is strong and relatively light. It has much better dampening than metal, so vibrations are smaller. And if your hand has ever frozen to a metal tripod in the winter, well, carbon fiber doesn’t do this nearly as bad. For me, that by itself is a reason to switch to it.

I have an excellent carbon fiber tripod with a great ball head. I use it for some critical images or long exposures.

Tripod disadvantages

Good tripods, used correctly, provide excellent stability. But this means you have to have it, there, when you need it. Perhaps this means carrying it miles over rugged trails for that one shot.

Personally, I don’t do that much anymore. For me, a photo expedition should be a joy. I’m too old to enjoy carrying a heavy tripod a long ways. Sure, there are small versions that strap conveniently to your camera bag, but they have their problems too. Usually the small ones are short and I have to squat down uncomfortably to use them. Or if they are tall enough, they are not stable enough.

I have a small one that fits nicely in a checked bag for air travel. I often take it. And just as often do not use it.

And using a tripod slows you down a lot. Deciding where to set it, setting it up, mounting the camera, adjusting and leveling it all take quite a bit of time and effort. Some say this is an advantage, because it makes you spend more time considering what you are shooting and the composition of the shot. I partially agree and have experienced this. But often I am in a flow and shooting instinctively. The tripod absolutely gets in the way of this.

Monopods

A monopod is just one leg of a tripod, right? To some people that makes it 1/3 or less as useful as a tripod. Others (including me) would say it can be as useful or more so.

If you are not familiar with them, try this experiment. Take a broom and hold it upside down with the handle down on the floor. How does it move?

You will see that it does not move up or down in the vertical axis. It does more fairly freely in a circular arc left and right, back and forth. Is this minimal amount of stabilization worth it?

To me it often is. The vertical axis is one of the most vibration prone areas for me. And being constrained on the monopod seems to add mass or resistance in the other axes. Either it is real or it is psychological. But in any case, it makes my images more stable.

Monopod advantages

Yes, it is unfair to only talk about tripod disadvantages and monopod advantages, but I want to make a point. There are often ways to overcome the disadvantages of a monopod.

I have a great monopod. It extends to about 7 ft. and has a small but very nice ball head with quick release on it. It is my walking stick. I like that it is light enough and very strong to serve well as a useful and comfortable walking stick. I am far more likely to take it on a hike than I am a tripod.

When I want to take an image, it sets up quickly – basically just attaching my camera to the quick release. It provides a decent degree of stability, and there are techniques I can use to improve if necessary.

For instance, if a railing is handy, I can brace the foot of the monopod against my shoe and force the leg tight against the railing. I have taken very sharp 30 second exposures this way. Trees work fairly well, too. Lean the mounted camera against a tree for added stability. It can be a great tool.

Which to choose?

I probably seem biased. It is more of a pragmatic choice. Tripods are great for stability. It is usually the best choice for long exposures.

Monopods are great when you are out on the trail or otherwise away from your car. If you practice and learn to work with it instead of against it, it can improve many situations to an acceptable level.

I own a really good tripod and a really good monopod. The monopod gets used about 10 times more than the tripod. But I hand hold about 10 times more than either of them.

Parameters of sharpness

To put things in perspective, today’s high pixel count sensors force us to use very good technique to get the results we want. If the image moves as much as 1 pixel during an exposure, we can often detect a blur.

Pixel pitches are measured in microns today. A micron is 1 millionth of a meter. The length of a bacterium is about 1-10 microns. A strand of spider silk is 3-8 microns in width.

How is it ever possible to take a sharp image?

Alternatives

Several things can work for us. The amazing technology in our cameras provides things like in-body stabilization to minimize the effect of camera shake. It usually improves things a lot.

And the electronics are improving to allow higher and higher ISO settings to be used. I consider 400 ISO to be my normal setting rather than the 64 ISO native value. That automatically gives me about a 3 stop speed advantage.

The old “rule” when I was shooting film was that, if you are good, you could hand hold at a shutter speed of twice the focal length. This doesn’t work anymore for our high density sensors. People say the shutter speed should be 3-4 times the focal length. But with the better electronics allowing higher ISO with good results, this is often possible.

Don’t overlook simple but obvious tricks. There may be something to brace the camera on or against. I often lean against a tree or a pole or a wall for added stability. Or I have put the camera on a rock or a bench and used a self timer to trigger the shot. Simple things like these can let you take amazing images in unlikely places.

And there are simple techniques you can adapt that increase the stability of hand held shots. Things like bracing the camera against your forehead and forcing your elbows close against your body. And exhaling slowly as you slowly press the shutter. A video on gun shooting technique could be helpful. They have studied the problem a long time.

So tripod or monopod? I lean toward the monopod. But it is not necessarily an either or choice. There are many creative ways to stabilize your camera. Unless you’re out in the desert with nothing around, there is often something that can be used.

Today’s image

This was shot in an airport (obviously) with no tripod or monopod. I couldn’t set the camera on the table in the restaurant where we were eating because there was a joint in the glass that was in the way. I put my camera on my camera bag on the floor. This is a composite of several 4 second shots.

I used a 2 second timer to allow me to get my hand away and not shake the fragile setup. I could have used the camera app on my phone to trigger it, but that is always so tricky and slow to set up that I seldom do it.

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