Photography Article
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Photography Article
Article 9
'Searching for Support'
Using correct technique to improve the sharpness of your photos.

By Rob L. Suisted

(Originally published in New Zealand Outdoor magazine)

It’s with sadness that I sit down and start this month’s column. Last night we learned of the tragic death of a friend Andrew Baldwin, in an air accident near Otaki. Andrew was a well known and very likeable helicopter pilot and keen hunter / outdoors person, from the Kapiti Coast. My sincerest thoughts are with Andrew’s wife Josie, and children, one of which is due very soon, and his family.

We all have fond memories of Andrew’s great sense of humour and easy going style, and also his generosity. Many of you will be aware of the work of Steve Collings and the Tararua Weka Trust in capturing doomed Kapiti Island Weka (from the rat eradication operation) and relocating them into their former range in the Tararuas, and initiating a huge predator control programme to aid their survival. Andrew was keenly involved from the start, personally donating considerable helicopter time to the project - flying reconnaissance trips, supplies and wekas for the team. An enduring memory of Andrew is of him tentatively climbing into his chopper cockpit with ‘cat’ boxes carefully strapped into the passenger seats - all with weka beaks stabbing viciously through the air holes - not your average passengers! Keep flying high Chap, we’ll miss you!

A copy of the book printed especially to record the Weka Rescue by deerstalkers and trampers can be purchased for only $20 from the Kapiti Is. d’Urville Is. Charitable Trust, PO Box 1558, Paraparaumu.

In this issue I’m keen to focus on stamping out unsharp images caused by camera movement - an incredibly common fault in image taking.

I strongly suspect that it’s the biggest single improvement that most people can make to their photos, but most people don’t even realise it’s an issue - they simply accept their results. It took me quite a while before I realised how insidious camera movement was to my first photos.

Looking back thru images I took with my first camera makes me cringe! They’re reasonable results - exposure is spot on and composition is nothing to complain about, however, not one of them would be up to scratch for publication, for the simple reason that they’re not sharp, reason - camera shake.


There are two main causes of camera shake.

The most common is caused by the photo taker hand holding a camera when the shutter speed is too slow.

The second is caused by the mechanical vibration of the camera when it triggers - often called ‘mirror bounce’ it is caused mainly by the mirror movement in SLR types camera (cameras that you look through the lens when focusing) when using a tripod.

CAMERA VIBRATION!!! Water dripping from glacier. On first glance the image looks pretty sharp (this is a small crop of the original shown here), however the fall of the water drops are recorded as synchronised squiggles which indicate the camera was vibrating while the shot was taken even though the camera was on a large professional tripod! Image sharpness is lost as a result. Tripods will steady a camera, but they won’t always stop vibrations! Read the text to find the solution..
Olympus OM4Ti, 135mm zuiko lens, Kodachrome 25.


Let’s firstly focus on how we can control user induced camera shake.

How do we tell if we’ve got a problem with shake? My guess is that if you’re not consciously trying to limit camera shake in your technique then I’d put my dough on your images being softer than what they should be - simple as that!

For the less experienced photographer it’s not always easy assess the sharpness of your images, but this will come with critical experience. The difference between a beautiful crisp, sharp photo and a ‘soft’, slightly blurry photo is normally pretty obvious, however it’s all a matter of degree - many of your images may look sharp at a casual glance, but it’s closer investigation that will show that a big improvement is still possible.

I know, from continually checking my work, how sharp I should expect my images to be before they go into my image library for potential sales. Anything less that pin sharp is not good enough. Merely viewing prints, or showing slides on a projector, won’t often show a problem. Your best way is to view slides or negatives directly with a loupe (magnifying lens), or magnifying glass, on a light box or similar. By regularly comparing a range of shots you’ll get a good idea of what you’re dealing with.


Most important if you’re hand holding your camera, is the Golden Rule to never use a shutter speed that is lower than the focal length of the camera lens.

Simple really, if you’re using a 50mm lens then make sure your shutter speed is greater than 1/50th second (you’d therefore use 1/60th or faster). A 200mm lens would then need 1/250th second (your wobble is magnified by the higher magnification of the lens).

This will insure that your photos are likely to be pretty sharp. Obviously the faster speed you can use the sharper your photo will be - the reason is that the image can’t move on the film as much in the shorter shutter open time.

It makes me quietly chuckle whenever I hear someone purporting to be able to take high quality photos by breaking this rule - it is just not possible. What it tells me is that, yes they can get acceptable photos, but they’ve never had a close critical look at the quality they’ve missed.

OK, what happens when we can’t get a faster enough shutter speed to use this rule, say we’re in the bush? The solution is to find a camera support that can provide better support than our arms can. The obvious and best solution is to use a tripod, but before we look at these we should look at other helpful techniques to improve steadiness if you don’t have a tripod handy.


Tripod country - to capture the movement of water like this and still get a sharp image we’re reliant on a decent camera support. Head of the George River, George Sound, Fiordland.
Olympus OM40, zuiko 50mm lens, Fujichrome Velvia 50.



Having a suitable film speed to start with helps a lot. If you’re likely to take photos in the shade, or in the early/late hours then load up with at least a 400ASA film (400 ASA only needs a quarter of the light that 100ASA film needs).

Always think about bracing yourself when taking the snap - get your elbows into your body if standing; try sitting or kneeling with your arms locked in like braces; put your back against a tree; get a rest; or hold the camera against something solid. All are simple but make effective improvements.

If you’re really stuck consider placing the camera on something (like a branch or pack) and use the self-timer function to trip the camera rather than your finger (this will remove your wobble).


Tripods are an essential tool if you’re serious on taking photos. They allow you to extend technique into areas inaccessible to hand held cameras, for example slow shutter speeds (say for photos in dim light, or capturing moving water, or star trails), or using long telephoto lenses.

However, they’re a trade off - who wants to carry another piece of equipment around the hills? Sooner or later you’re going to need the use of a good tripod and here I’m going to give you my experience on the dos and don’ts of a tripod for the hills. Of course, they can also have other beneficial uses - twice now I’ve erected them square in the middle of tent flies to stop a dangerous load of snow collecting during the night, and regularly use them as a third very stable leg for safety when crossing swift mountain rivers.


Image of Interest - “Spectre of the Brocken”. Several weeks ago I caught this unusual sight high above the Waimakariri River after a successful days Chamois hunting. The surreal image is created by the late evening sun projecting my shadow onto evening mist building in the valley below. It’s apparently named after a place in Scotland where is occasionally seen.
Olympus OM4Ti, 21mm zuiko lens, Fujichrome Velvia 50.

Unfortunately the effectiveness of a tripod is directly related to it’s weight - the heavier it is the harder it is to wobble obviously. Obviously we need to get one that is as light as possible, but to use it wisely to get as much stability as we can. I own a large heavy professional studio tripod that I can get unsharp photos from if used wrong, yet my lightweight hunting tripod gives perfect results if I put a bit of care into the task. This care normally makes up to the inability to carry the best tripod. Below are my tips for getting the best results.

All tripods are not made equal! A $50 plastic-fantastic will not do the job of a more expensive, fully serviceable, alloy model; in fact they are beyond comparison, but a cheap one is still significantly better than nothing. The following is general advice that should be best practice with any tripod. Most important is that the 3 feet are located firmly on solid stuff. This is not always simple, especially in the forest, but try and get the feet squarely onto rocks or tree roots, not things like springy soil or moss. It is a must for your tripod to have independently movable legs as generally you won’t find 3 evenly placed solid things. Many have a system of leg braces that mean all legs must be opened out at the same angle - helpful in the studio - blim’in hopeless in the sticks, especially on sloping ground. Tripods commonly have a system of rubber feet that screw in to expose metal points for use outdoors and these are excellent for a positive grip on rock surfaces. Next you should be endeavouring to adjust leg height and angles to make sure that the camera weight is evenly centred over all the legs. This is often hard to achieve on uneven ground but it will be much more stable. All tripods these days have a centre column that can be raised for extra height. Never raise the centre column if you can help it because they drastically reduce the effectiveness of the tripod because you lose the opposing forces of the legs and end up with a camera on a wobbly pole.

When an SLR camera takes a photo the mirror (that reflects the image up into the viewfinder) must jump out of the path of the image so it can travel thru the shutter onto the film. No matter how well engineered the mechanism is it will invariably create vibrations that will soften the resulting image when used on a tripod. Some top end cameras allow you to ‘lock up’ the mirror before taking a shot on the tripod, thereby removing this problem. The effect of ‘mirror bounce’ can be quite devastating when using telephoto lens.


Check out the accompanying photo of water dripping from ice. This photo is reasonably sharp, but the flight paths of the drips betray the vibration of the camera; notice their synchronised wiggles. It should be noted that this photo was taken with a large, expensive, professional tripod, and the camera used, an Olympus OM4Ti would be one of the smallest and lightest about. What it illustrates is that tripods are pretty good at holding a camera steady, but, they are generally not good at stopping this vibration! So how can we beat this problem? Well, the answer is quite simple I’ve found but it took a few years of careful investigation (especially from using much heavier medium format cameras). I’ve found that any vibration created by the camera typically takes about 1 second to die down after the shutter is pressed, therefore if I’m using a shutterspeed shorter than that time I will need some sort of vibration dampening. It’s interesting to note that handheld photos generally don’t suffer from mirror bounce (just camera movement) because our hands and arms work as very good vibration absorbers, therefore I’ve come up with a very useful rule of thumb when using tripods, to beat the vibration problem as shown in the photo. Now if I’m taking a photo with the shutter speed of 1/2 second or faster (e.g. 1/4, 1/8th, 1/15th, 1/30th........second) then I will hold the camera on the tripod and gently press the shutter button. The idea here is to apply gentle downward pressure towards the centre of gravity of the tripod, being VERY careful not to wobble the tripod (note that this increases the importance of having solid ground below the 3 feet). If there’s any concern about wobbling then don’t use 1/2 sec. The idea is that the tripod will stop camera movement and your downwards pressure soaks up vibration. Next bit of the rule is to stay away from shutterspeeds of 1 second, or 2 seconds in duration if you’re using a tripod. Shut the aperture ring down a few stops and go for a longer shutterspeed, 4 seconds or longer, and don’t touch the camera or tripod (you need a cable release to trip the shutter). Logic for this is simple - if the vibration is about 1 second in length then it will only be vibrating for a quarter of a 4 second exposure which means the image will be sharp. So to recap,my rule when using a tripod is to carefully apply a vibration dampening weight to the camera when using shutterspeeds of a 1/2 second or faster; don’t use shutterspeeds of 1 or 2 seconds; let the camera sit alone on the tripod and trigger it with a cable release for shutterspeeds of 4 seconds or longer.

Moon over sea - Of course a tripod is essential in capturing such an alluring image of the moon relected on a rough sea at twilight.
Canon EOS, 17-35mm lens, Ektachrome E100VS. 30 secs @ f8

So what would I recommend if you were to buy a tripod tomorrow you might be asking? Well as previously mentioned a lot depends on price. I initially tried to get away with a compact model that packed down to about the size of a 3’D’ sized battery torch - bloody hopeless for anything more than a spotting scope. Problem was it was so light and had so many adjustable bits to fold up so small that it just wasn’t rigid; also it stood about an inch shorter than long grass or tussock, very useful that, NOT! Next I persevered with another cheap but promising model that seemed OK till I stumbled across a real tripod - the difference was embarrassing really, especially as it was the same size and weight. The tripod that I’ve been lugging around the hills for many years now is the baby of the Manfrotto (Bogen) range, the #190B (no I don’t get royalties for saying this, but I’m happy to trial any gear they think I might have missed. Note also that serial numbers have a nasty habit of changing between countries). These are made in Italy and are excellent value. They’re constructed mainly of alloy and are fully serviceable for maintenance or cleaning, and could just outlast yourself. You also get a choice of the type of head you want on it. The head is the bit on top that your camera attaches to and is adjusted to point the camera as needed.

For most people I’d recommend that the best tripod head for our use is the ball head. It works like a ball joint that can be loosened off, adjusted to the correct angle, and then tightened to hold it in place - all adjustments are made in one go.


The best choice ball head for the #190B would probably be their #352, or #352RC (this one has a quick release plate that attached to your camera and clips quickly to the tripod head when needed). Other types of heads have a 3 way design - you adjust the up-down lever, then the side to side lever, and then the camera tilt lever to set the photo up; good for the studio, but not really in the hills. With good quality tripods you can generally mix and match different brands of legs and heads to get your preferred combination.

You’ll want to get an idea of cost: the Manfrotto 190 legs are about $200; the ball head around $80. Not a bad cost for something that should last the good part of a lifetime and is pretty robust. All up weight is around 2kg. Other brands to check out include: Slik (have a large range from adequate to serious, are somewhat cheaper, but worth a look as their products seem to be developing all the time); Benbo (these are a unique UK design to cope with difficult situations - they’re either loved or hated - not cheap though. I’ve heard it said that “their legs are harder to control than a pissed persons!”); Velbon ; Gitzo (probably regarded as the Rolls of tripods and have just developed a super light graphite leg model if you’ve got a grand or so to spare). These brands are not generally available from most photographic shops, but they will be able to get information and pamphlets for you. Failing that, all are generally available from the larger photo retailers in the main centres via mail order.

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