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Thread: Camera support: When is good enough good enough?

  1. #1
    Senior Member Lars's Avatar
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    Nov 2007
    Sunnyvale, California
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    Camera support: When is good enough good enough?

    I often ask myself if my camera support system is good enough to keep the camera stable. Be it a compact camera on a flimsy plastic pocket tripod used on an evening walk around town, or the Toyo 8x10 monorail at full extension on the big gitzo. Considerations are different, but the core issue is the same - keep the camera stable within the COC during the exposure time.

    Of course, with the 8x10 I have gone to much further lengths to keep things stable. I used to use a Gandolfi Variant 8x10 in American walnut, an ingeniously designed camera but like all flatbeds the core design flaw shows at full extension. The Gandolfi is now retired and replaced with a more stable setup (maybe that storm in Australia that threw me as well as the Gandolfi over had something to do with it).

    With a camera on a tripod, what you do is essentially to put a weight on top of a spring. No matter what tripod manufacturers tell you, tripod legs always flex to some degree.

    The first question then is "Is the flex a problem for the camera, lens, and exposure time I use?" The second question is "If it is a problem, how do I fix it?"

    Here I intend to ramble a bit about my experiences trying to answer the second question in different situations.

    Let's start with the simplest setup: A compact 35mm or digicam 5-10MP on a pocket tripod. I seldom find this to be a problem. My tripod is one of those with a builtin ballhead, it's called "Ultrapod" (the smaller type) and has a pretty REI logo. What I usually do is keep the tripod folded up, and then hold the tripod against a stationary object like a wall, a railing, or a rock. Never a tree if it's windy! Trees always flex. I then use the timer release to make sure I don't touch the camera at the time of exposure. Using this method has given me good results up to several minutes exposure time.

    Moving on to a more common setup for members here: SLR or rangefinder with up to a moderate tele lens on a lightweight tripod. Here I find a few core issues:
    - As the weight of the camera increases, it is more important to eliminate flex in the connection from camera to tripod to ground. A metal body is preferred. Remove any soft padding between camera and tripod head. Try to use all metal components (using a dovetail system like RRS is a good idea).
    - The contact surface between camera and head should be as large as possible. inspect carefully.
    - The same two points go for contact from head to tripod.
    - Never, ever, extend the center column if there is any possibility you can avoid it. No matter how rock solid your tripod is, the center column becomes a spring with a weight at the end, a configuration that is always prone to oscillation.
    - A cable release is a good idea. Longer lenser and flimsier tripods increase the need for a cable release.

    Moving up to larger formats... Well, it doesn't really change anything, given the same focal length, same COC, same camera weight. For example, my 6x9 cm Ebony "large format" camera that I use to shoot stitched 6x17 cm panoramics is about the same size and weight as my Nikon D2X. So given the same 120 mm focal length and same COC (which is a good approximation) the requirements on the camera support is the same.

    On to the 8x10: Here the game changes a bit. The center of gravity for the camera is now about 30 cm (a foot) above the tripod head, or 40 cm above the tripod. This causes a significant momentum for any vibrations. The mass of the camera is also significant, 20-35 pounds with lens, rail extensions, film holder etc. Also, the mass is concentrated to the far ends of the rail rather than centered in the middle. Finally, for longer extension the bellows catches a lot of wind. This adds up to significantly higher demands not only on tripod but also on tripod head. Few ball heads can handle this - my B1 suddenly seemed quite flimsy. I think a Arca-Swiss B2 or B1G might be sufficient. Two years ago I bought the Burzynski head pictured in my image gallery here, and a gitzo 5-series CF legs to go with it. This is one seriously overdimensioned head, easily holds the 8x10 at 45 degree angle, or 90 degrees carrying the tripod over my shoulder.

    Also, demands on zero flex connection between the components becomes vital. My system is large surface metal to metal all the way, and it really makes a difference.

    Finally, the tripod legs still flex so for longer lenses I use a second tripod. The purpose of the second tripod is to stop oscillations, not to hold any weight. Consequently, it can be any flimsy cheap tripod. Mine has a carpenter's clamp attached to a small ballhead. When I have the camera all set up and focused I attach the second tripod. The system becomes completely dead. Dead, dead dead. Dead. No vibrations, no oscillations. As a result my 8x10 photos are now significantly sharper than in the past.

    Another setup, that I do not use, is a long (400+ mm) lens on an SLR used to track a subject such as sports or wildlife. I have no experience from such a setup but there is plenty written about this setup.

    Finally I recommend anyone to read up on RRS website. They know their stuff.

    Have a good one,

    Last edited by Lars; 20th November 2007 at 12:00.

  2. #2
    Senior Member doug's Avatar
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    Nov 2007
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    Re: Camera support: When is good enough good enough?

    Quote Originally Posted by Lars Vinberg View Post
    Another setup, that I do not use, is a long (400+ mm) lens on an SLR used to track a subject such as sports or wildlife. I have no experience from such a setup but there is plenty written about this setup.
    For my long lenses with a modicum of mobility I use a shoulder stock with a monopod.

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