Stabilize Your Camera for Razor-Sharp Photos

One of the most common complaints that people have with their photos is fuzziness, or a lack of overall sharpness. I often talk about strategies for making your photos as sharp as possible--like increasing the shutter speed--but that sort of thing only goes so far if you're holding the camera in your shaky little hands.

If you're shooting in low light, using a long telephoto zoom lens, capturing motion with a slow shutter speed, or scrambling across rough terrain, you really should consider bracing the camera with a tripod or some other support. With a tripod, you can do all sorts of stuff, like night photography, action photography, and capturing waterfalls.

Recently, reader asked how to shop for a tripod, and it seemed a larger question than I could easily tackle in the monthly FAQ edition of "Digital Focus."

Your Options

When it comes to steadying your camera, you have lots of choices. While a tripod is usually the best support for your camera, it's not always convenient--and you can get similar results in other ways.

Full-size tripod. Sure, I like tripods. They're sturdy and rigid, which makes them great for steadying a camera in the wind and helping to dampen vibrations like the ones caused when you press the shutter release.

Disadvantage: Mainly, the schlepping factor. Tripods are big and heavy, and few people enjoy carrying them around.

Tabletop tripod. What's not to like? It's a tripod, but one seemingly made for a Twilight Zone world of tiny people. Tabletop tripods are flexible and designed to hold lightweight point-and-shoot cameras in position on a table, desk, window sill, or some other flat surface. They only cost a few dollars in any photo shop.

Disadvantage: They're way too light and bendable to support larger digital cameras.

Monopod. Start with a tripod and remove two of its legs. You're left with a monopod--it won't stand up on its own, but that's okay. It's great for stopping up/down movement so you can concentrate on steadying the side-to-side and front-to-back motion. Some monopods also double as walking sticks for hiking trails.

Disadvantage: They're not good for freezing the action when you use long shutter speeds.

Bean bag. Instead of carrying a tripod or monopod, you might instead consider propping the camera on top of a bean bag (or a bean bag-like gadget, such as The Pod. Bean bags are handy because they conform to the shape of the camera as well as to the shape of whatever you're placing the camera on. If you don't have a bean bag, you can improvise. As a scuba diver, for instance, I always have bags of soft weights when I go on dive trips. They're filled with small beads of lead shot, and aside from being a lot heavier, they act a lot like bean bags.

Disadvantage: These supports don't give you a lot of flexibility, because you need to put your camera on top of a table, on a fencepost, or on the ground.

Choosing a Tripod

You can make do with almost any model. Often, camera stores include inexpensive tripods as part of a package deal when you buy a digital camera. And thankfully, tripods are essentially interchangeable, since they all use a quarter-inch bolt to mount to the underside of the camera.

That said, consider your options. If you've never spent much time looking at tripods in camera shops, you might be surprised to learn that you can buy your tripod in components--the legs and the head can be bought separately and assembled into your dream tripod. Of course, many inexpensive tripods are sold as a single piece. Either way, it helps to think about elements like the legs and the head separately to choose the tripod that's best for you.

Height. Some tripods stand taller than others. Depending upon whether you're a jockey or a basketball player, you'll have different needs for the height of your tripod. Some tripods get extra height by using an extra leg segment (such as three or four extendable sections), while others are only tall enough if you extend the center column. My advice: Go for a tripod that gets sufficient height from the legs alone, since the taller you make the center post, the more wobbly your camera becomes.

Weight. My philosophy about tripods is that the lighter it is, the more likely I'll bring it along. Many times I've put a monster tripod in the trunk of my car, but when we arrive at the start of a hike, I leave it there, opting just to carry the camera pack. That was in the old days. Now I use a tripod that's made of carbon fiber, which is pretty much the state of the art--it's you-have-to-try-it-to-believe-it light. Of course, carbon fiber is also kind of expensive, so you might opt for aluminum instead. You can also find tripods made of plastic and even wood, which many pros prefer because wood tends to damped vibration instead of transmitting every tremor directly to the camera as metal does. Lightweight aluminum is a good bet for most folks.

Locking mechanism. I probably spend most of my time carrying a tripod or taking pictures with it, but when I think back on my time with my tripods, that's not what it seems like. In my memory, I spend most of my time extending and retracting those darned legs. The lesson: The locking method is really important to consider, simply because it determines how convenient your tripod is to use. Some inexpensive tripods rely on clunky latches to secure the legs in place, as in this picture.

Just be sure you can operate the locking mechanism quickly and efficiently, and that it feels solid and secure. Personally, I love the twist-lock mechanism used in my Gitzo GT2931, and shown in this picture. The tripod is designed so you can unlock all three leg segments simultaneously, with a single twist of the wrist. That's nice.

Next week we'll pick up from here and see what else you should consider when shopping for camera support.

Hot Pic of the Week

Get published, get famous! Each week, we select our favorite reader-submitted photo based on creativity, originality, and technique. Every month, the best of the weekly winners gets a prize valued at between $15 and $50.

Here's how to enter: Send us your photograph in JPEG format, at a resolution no higher than 640 by 480 pixels. Entries at higher resolutions will be immediately disqualified. If necessary, use an image editing program to reduce the file size of your image before e-mailing it to us. Include the title of your photo along with a short description and how you photographed it. Don't forget to send your name, e-mail address, and postal address. Before entering, please read the full description of the contest rules and regulations.

This week's Hot Pic: "Dew Drop In Color," by Kathy Clarke, Edgewater, Florida

Kathy says: "I originally took this as a color photograph, in which the stem is actually orange. I love blank-and-white photography and decided to change this image, leaving just a color accent the dew drop. The clarity of the trees and bushes inside just amazed me."

Kathy used a Kodak Z710 with the camera set to its macro mode.

This week's runner-up: "The Sound of Shadows," by Brian Starr, Galesburg, Illinois.

Brian writes: "This is my favorite photo from when I was playing around with my 100mm macro while shooting my guitar. For this shot, I opened the aperture all the way to blur everything except for the bridge of the guitar."

See all the Hot Pic of the Week photos online.

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