Basics: Setting Up Your Tripod

Hello folks. I’m not going to get all parochial on you here, but in teaching workshops and rubbing shoulders with other photographers I see lots of people struggling with setting up their tripods – some of them don’t even know that they are struggling. If it makes you feel any better, I once set up my tripod in such a way that it flopped over and snapped a $1400 lens in half. I’ve also witnessed a fellow photographer’s rig topple over, fall on to rocks below and in the process smash his lens to smithereens and create a hole in his camera body. Need more motivation?  Six students had their tripods topple over when shooting at an event where there was gusty wind. None of them had done what we recommend below.

If you’re sure you know how to solidly set up your tripod and how to prevent an expensive catastrophe, well, you probably stopped reading when you saw the title of the article.

Rock Garden - Wide Range

Using a tripod correctly in terrain like this is a valuable (sanity preserving) skill

Still here? There is no substitute for using a sturdy tripod as we described earlier. However an improperly set-up tripod will give you a false sense of security.

Lets be sure we have terminology straight:

Feet: The part of the tripod that touches the ground – the bottom of the legs.
Legs: The (often telescoping) section of the tripod. Legs are made secure using
Leg Locks: which are of two general types: flip locks and screw locks (shown). We prefer the latter.
Leg Pivots: The upper side of the legs attach to the BASE where the legs can be made to pivot inward or outward. Usually there are options for specific pivot angles.
Tripod Base: The leg pivots are on the underside of the base.
Center Column & Center Column lock: If the tripod has an extensible section separate from the legs, it usually fits through the base and has a lock to secure the center column height. Some center columns also have a hook at the bottom (as shown).
Base Plate: The top surface of a center column (or the top surface of a base) to which the head is attached.
Head: The purpose of the head is to allow the camera to rotate and tilt. There are two principle types of heads: ball heads (shown) and pan/tilt heads.
Quick Release Clamp: the upper surface of the head usually has a clamp/plate system to make it easy to mount and unmount a camera. Arca-Swiss is the most popular clamp/plate system.
Quick Release Plate: attach securely to the camera and is held by the QR clamp.
Camera: the reason you have all the preceding stuff.

The Basics

Vertical: Your tripod should be vertical, specifically the center column (if you have one) should point straight up and down. The more vertical, the more stable the tripod is. By vertical, we don’t mean perpendicular to the ground – the ground may be sloping or irregular. The most common mistake people make is to set their tripods up so that it leans toward them.  Before you put your camera on your tripod, walk around the whole thing (safely) to judge the verticality.  You can even use a level (e.g. a smart phone app) against the center column to be sure it is vertical. Some tripods have a bubble level on the base – and some heads have a level on their base – that you can use to be sure your tripod base is level.

Notice tripod in the distance is leaning to the right (click for a bigger view)? That’s wrong!

Level: For many reasons, you want the base to be level (perpendicular to vertical). If your tripod is vertical, the base will be level. A level base makes panning (and thus panoramas) more accurate. If the base isn’t level rotating the camera may change the center of gravity causing wobble – or worse.

Legs: There are two adjustments here: the leg length and the leg spreadDO NOT fully extend the leg lengths – unless you are on flat, level ground. Adjust the legs so the base is level.

  • When on a slope, put two legs on the downhill side of the slope and one leg on the uphill side.
  • Place two legs at the front (that is where the camera is pointing) and one leg toward the rear.

If these two goals conflict, prefer two-legs downhill. A single leg at the front may intrude into a wide-angle shot. Most tripods have adjustable leg spreads. Each leg can form a medium, moderate or severe angle to the base. On irregular terrain, you may find that stability requires setting one or more legs at a different spread and different lengths. E.g. one leg is kept short at 90 degrees to allow that leg to rest on a boulder while the other two are more vertical. In a multi-segment tripod leg, the wider leg segments are more stable than the narrower ones, therefore:

  • Extend the wider leg segments fully before extending the narrower leg segments.

TIP 1: We find the screw-type leg locks to be the most secure and easiest to adjust. What we do is to grasp and loosen all the leg locks at once by a quarter turn. Fully extend all sections. Tighten the top locks fully (and middle locks – if you have 4 segment legs), then loosely tighten the smallest leg locks. When setting the tripod down you can gently push down each of the legs until it is vertical and level, then fully tighten the lower leg locks. Minor fine tuning can be achieved by loosening the upper leg locks.

  • If in windy conditions, set the tripod lower than normal and spread the legs wider. Also weight the system more heavily (see Weight, below).

Center Column (and tripod height): DO NOT extend the tripod fully just because you can. Extend the column as little as needed. The center column is useful for fine-tuning the height of the camera, but it raises the center of gravity and makes your tripod less stable. Likewise making your tripod as tall as possible makes it easier for gusty wind or and inadvertent bump to topple everything.

Tie-Stake Useful in some terrains

Weight: We HIGHLY recommend adding weight to your tripod. Many tripods have hooks on the underside of the base or on the bottom of the center column. We regularly hang our camera bag from that hook. But beware: if your camera bag is too light or bulky, you may end up adding a sail that catches the wind and creates instability. Some people bring weights, or bags they can fill on site with rocks or sand. But there are yet two more tricks you can employ:

  • Hang your camera bag so that it nearly touches the ground (by using a lower tripod position, or a strap between the bag and the tripod). Then place rocks or logs around the bag to keep the bag from swaying. Add heavy things in to the bag if you need more weight.
  • Bring a tie-down stake and a bungee cord. Screw the stake into the ground below your camera and snug the tripod hook to the stake with a bungee cord.


Straps: If you have shoulder or wrist straps on your camera we recommend using removable ones OR use twist ties or velcro wraps to secure the straps to your tripod so the straps do NOT catch the wind (or nearby objects). Shoulder straps can become like sails and even if they don’t catch enough wind to topple your tripod, they can induce vibration. We really like OP/Tech products, by the way. They are well designed and have never failed us.

Tip 2: One way to practice setting up a tripod is to do it indoors. Create un-even scenarios by resting one (or more) of the legs on a chair, wastebasket, etc. Practice getting the legs adjusted in a way that keeps the center column vertical and the base level.


Sailors: Timestack of 114 images during sunset/blue hour in Alabama Hills, California

Safety Checks

After setting up your tripod as described above, you can and should test the stability of your tripod/camera. WHILE HOLDING ON TO THE CAMERA STRAP(s) do each of these checks:

  1. Pull down on each of the legs gently. Make sure they don’t collapse/fold.
  2. After clamping the camera to the head and tensioning the head. Hold the camera snugly and try wriggling the camera out of the clamp. Watch carefully for wobble and hold on securely in case the camera does come out of the clamp.
  3. Hold the camera, release tension on the head and let the camera gently flop. Make sure that when the camera flops the system doesn’t topple.
  4. Leave the camera in its flopped state and rotate 360 degrees checking for wobble.
  5. Repoint the camera, tighten the tension and gently bump the camera. Make sure there is no wobble.
  6. Bump each of the legs. Make sure the legs don’t become dislodged and the spread doesn’t change.
  7. Take one more lap around your camera checking for verticality and possible instability – e.g. a log, tree branch, stick or rock that could bump your tripod.

Is all of the above really necessary? Well, no. You don’t have to do any of that… unless you want to protect your equipment and take nice stable photos.

Here is my son with the tripod legs set wide, and the center column inverted to get the camera low to the ground.Photographer at Work [5_005398]

Want tips on other gear to carry… see this article. Would you like to see all of our best tips in one place? Try this article. Have a great tip on tripods we should know? Please share it in a comment!

Why Aim North?

Reaching for the Sky

Reaching for the Sky: 112 images, each f/4, ISO 800 for 60 seconds including a shot from twilight hour for the foreground Alabama Hills, Lone Pine, California

Want to capture Perseid meteors, the Milky Way, and star trails in an awesome location?

Join us for our>>> Field Event: Meteors, Milk Way in Alabama Hills <<<

Sunday, August 12, 2018 (with an optional second night).


I live and travel in the Northern Hemisphere. In fact I have yet to travel south of the equator, so my apologies to those of you from the southern half of the planet for my obvious northern bias.  I believe those of you in the bottom half of the planet can just substitute the word South for North everywhere and everything should be correct.  I have added [parenthetical content for those who are in the southern hemisphere where that north/south swap doesn’t work]

The results obtained by shooting a long exposure at night depend quite a lot on which direction the camera is pointed. I favor long star exposures with a northern view for many reasons.

The Advantages of Shooting To the North

  1. Curvature of the star trails is strongest around the north star. Exposures of about 6 hours will appear to be full circles (24 hours of exposures are actually needed to make complete circles and that is not possible in one night except near the North Pole!).
  2. The moon will never intervene into the shot because the moon never passes through the northern sky.  [NOTE: those in the southern hemisphere still have to worry about a moon in their Southern shots]
  3. Cassiopeia and Ursa Major (the Big Dipper) are bright constellations that can always be found in the Northern Sky – so there is always some interesting sweep of stars possible. The region immediately around the North Star, however has dimmer stars which may only be captured through long exposures. [The southern hemisphere suffers for lack of many bright constellations near the southern celestial equator]
  4. With just a smidgen of star hopping skill it is easy to find the north star which, weather permitting, is always visible in the night sky.
  5. The moon sweeps east to west giving long shadows from the right or left of the subject. And when the moon is highest in the sky it can cast strong face light.
  6. The sun also never appears in the northern sky so it is safe to leave a camera running from before sundown to after sun up. Camera damage can result from a long exposure pointed at the sun.  [NOTE: those in the southern hemisphere still have to worry about a sun in their Southern shots]
  7. Since the moon cannot enter into a northern shot a photo can be made regardless of the moon’s phase and for as long as I choose. For shots toward the East, South or West it is important to know the moon phase and location during the hours of shooting to prevent problems from flare or washout. [NOTE: those in the southern hemisphere still have to worry about a moon in their Southern shots].
  8. The stars in the north move the slowest through the field of view which allows them to be brighter and reduces inter-exposure gaps in the trails.
  9. If I know my latitude I know how high to point the camera and be guaranteed to get a circle in the view.
  10. I do not need to know what constellations will be visible in the direction I will shoot.
  11. Two major meteor showers (the Perseids and Quadrantids) and 3 periodic meteor showers (the Giacobinids or Draconids, the Ursids and the Andromedids) are well placed in the northern sky.

The Disadvantages

There are a few detriments to pointing north, however:

  • Not every situation lends itself to a view from the south.
  • It takes a longer exposure to form a pleasing arc.
  • To get a circular arc, I must include at least 10 degrees or so above and below the North Star. The farther north you are, the higher in the sky the center of rotation. Those at more northerly latitudes will be more constrained in their choices.
  • The altitude (degrees above the horizon) of the north celestial pole may constrain the choice of lenses to very wide-angle – and may force you to use portrait mode. Or you can create your exposure by stitching together foreground and sky shots.

Another Northern View

Grand View [C_009613-686br]

Looking North from Grandview Campground, White Mountains, Bishop, California.  Shot at ISO 800, f/3.2 for 6 minutes each. Began at 10:11 PM and ended at 5:35 AM. That is 75 shots x 6 minutes = seven and a half hours. Grandview is at latitude 37 degrees North, so the center of the circular pattern is 37 degrees above the horizon.

What About OTHER Directions?

Southern View


Woosh: 19 images. Each image: 6 minutes, ISO 800, f/3.2, Canon 5D Mark II, 16mm; Patriarch Grove, White Mountain, California

Eastern View

Valley of Stars (Remix) *Explored*

Western View

Stars and Stripes [5_065561-626li]
Granite Park - 53 Minutes (edited)


Contrary to popular belief, Polaris, the North Star, is not the brightest star in the sky. Sirius is the brightest star. The brightest objects in the night sky are the moon, and the planets Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Also while Polaris is quite NEAR to the North Celestial Pole, it’s not exactly there so even Polaris will make a trail.

This is a reissue of an article originally written in October 11, 2010; Thoroughly revised and updated.

What Makes An Image Memorable?

Perhaps the highest praise Steven gets as a speaker is this:

Wow, his passion is infectious. I’m now eager to try night photography.”

Almost every photographer makes pictures to SHARE with others so praise of passion is high praise, indeed. Not everyone will have similar interests or feel the connection you feel with your work, but there are some questions you can ask yourself to strengthen the broader appeal of your work, that is, make your image more memorable.

My friend and mentor, Kip Evans sold his photography from a gallery in Carmel, California. One of his laments to me was: I don’t really sell what I find beautiful and compelling, I mostly sell what others have a connection to – often touristy things like images of the Golden Gate Bridge. What drew us into Kip’s gallery was an image of a large breaking wave called Winter Swell. We have print of Winter Swell hanging in our bedroom (and so does at least one coastal hotel).

        Kip Evans: Winter Swell

My wife loves waves – and I share her affinity. She will stand in awe and clap as huge surf crashes on to our coast. There is a visceral connection with the spectacle and power of the scene.

If we spend a little time thinking about what causes that kind of connection, we can endeavor to put elements of it in our work.

From my perspective, images need the following:

  • Scale that inspires awe, grandeur
  • Connectedness – intimacy in the viewer caused by an emotive reaction to the image
  • Interest – an alignment with the passions of the viewer – even if only tangential
  • Revelation – an innovative view that illuminates something either unnoticed or unseeable.

Of course these characteristics are inter-related and if only two of the four are strongly present that may be enough to wow the viewer.


Before you move on to the explanations, consider the following 4 images. Decide which image is the one that best reveals scale, the one that speaks to you (connects with you), the one that is most in line with your interests, and the one that reveals something you’ve not seen or understood before. The answer to each question may be a different image. Indeed, we would love it if you’d answer the four questions in the polls below… If you want to elaborate or leave a comment listing your choices (e.g. “A,B,B,D”) that’s fine, too. And yes, we realize we have mixed in a photo of a cute dog that has nothing to do with Night Photography.

The images are
A: Sky from Orion to the Pleiades, B: Trona Pinnacles with Orion and Canis Major, C: Mount Whitney in Moonlight; D: Pierre Grazin’ in the Grass.


... most shows Scale or Grandeur

... draws you the most?

... aligns with YOUR interests

... gives a unique/new insight



Fortunately for Night Photography, the last part – Revelation – is the easiest. Few people have seen a truly dark sky with starry heavens. If you can connect the viewer by linking Earth and Heaven you can draw people in.  Even fewer people realize that the Milky Way is awesome, and that stars have discernible colors. It is not hard to enchant viewers with a revelatory image.

Revelation can take many forms, however. For example: showing an unfamiliar but interesting place, illustrating a relationship that was not obvious before, revealing unexpected or unobserved colors or details. The camera is very good at seeing color, even in dim light – so it’s almost easy to be revelatory in a night image. In my opinion the single most significant mistake that people make in night images is in not selecting or not providing sufficient interest in the foreground – either because the foreground is boring, or because it is not well enough illuminated to speak on its own. My personal bias is to tune out a photo of a car under the stars, for example, unless the car is really, really sexy looking. My wife, who is a car fan, feels a little differently. I am also not a fan of junkyard scenes with garish colors, but my judgments (biases) are not about revelation, but about Interest.

Perhaps one of the revelatory aspects of image D is the “on-eye-level-ness” with a furry little creature.

Photon Worshippers **Winner Astronomy Photographer of the Year, 2010 - People and Space **

Photon Worshippers **Winner Astronomy Photographer of the Year, 2010 – People and Space **


How many images of sunsets have you seen? Most of them are immediately emotive, colorful, and often compelling… but are they different enough to hold your interest?

People are all over the map in interests: favorite colors, past-times, subjects, hobbies … It is impossible to create an image that will be interesting to everyone. The point here is to think about your audience.  The photo that won Astronomy Photographer of the Year in 2010 (above) garnered interest because it was not a run-of-the-mill, same as everyone else night sky photo indeed it wasn’t a night sky photo at all! The image was something that I calculated would be of interest to judges in the UK. In the UK Stonehenge is an ancient, human-made edifice apparently built to measure seasons. My Photon Worshipper image is of a natural formation that does a similar thing – it only forms a beam of light during the winter solstice.  The image is also unlike the many existing images of the same phenomenon: it is a different view, and includes people to give it human scale.

Scale / Grandeur

Likewise my runner-up image in 2012 (below) was arguably the least well executed of my awarded work: focus is soft, color is off. But the scale and human interest of Lost In Yosemite is hard to miss. The contrast of tiny figures – once you recognize them as people – against towering trees and an immense sky was not lost on the judges.

I love this photo because it illustrates how humbling, even frightening, both the natural world and the cold depths of space can be for us as tiny, fragile human beings. ~ Olivia Johnson

Lost in Yosemite [C_033706] Runner Up - Astronomy Photographer of the Year, 2012

Lost in Yosemite: Two tiny hikers in flashlight against the enormity of the environment.

If you’ve seen it in person the scale of the Grand Canyon is inspiring. If you’ve seen it in photos, the Grand Canyon is LESS impressive. Why? My thought is that most photos lack human-scaled perspective of the kind in Lost in Yosemite above. Image A, above, is an image in which you likely found no sense of scale – unless you’re an astronomer. Image C shows rugged mountains (Mount Whitney, in fact). Hikers and mountaineers will implicitly understand the scale. Image B, however has formations that are of indeterminate size unless you have first-hand experience with them. Image D also gives scale clues… You see the size of the ears in proportion to the dog (named Pierre), and the size of the dog in proportion to the grass and flowers. But it’s not likely that it was the scale or size revelation of the dog that drew you in, is it?  If you found affinity with Pierre, it’s because you have – or had – a pet you are fond of, or wished that you had a pet. But we will address connectedness in a moment.

My suggestion is to be sure that something in your image imparts an easily recognizable scale.  In fact, putting a human in the shot can be powerful – Ben Canales won a National Geographic competition with an image featuring himself and Crater Lake – and a bit of whimsy.


Connectedness, or perhaps better term intimacy is not a single characteristic. By connectedness, I mean that involuntary emotive sense of drawing your attention – either as awwwww or that’s beautiful, or that’s disgusting, or my heart hurts. Sunsets, puppies, and kittens are perhaps the most photographed items of all. Why? Because most of them come laden with affection and fond memories – or sadness, or whimsy.  I immediately feel connectedness with well crafted night skies because I have many fond memories of sitting out in the dark under a horizon-to-horizon Milky Way.

I am reminded that compared to the enormity of the sky I feel small, but somehow embedded in that smallness is always a feeling of importance and one-ness with nature.

I assert that connectedness is usually a product of scale, revelation and interest, but connectedness can also occur spontaneously out of past experience and the human condition. My wife would put it this way:

Life is not measured by the breaths you take, but by the moments that take your breath away.

Technical Competency

I gave thought to avoiding discussion of this important aspect of an image. Some of my most viewed, appreciated and commented images are NOT images that exhibit technical mastery! I purposely chose images B and C because they are older work, and lack technical robustness. Indeed, I have much better images from Trona Pinnacles (Image B), but none have been as popular as image B!

In summary, while technical mastery is a great goal to seek, if you work too hard on making your image sharp, color balanced, and so on, you may neglect choosing environments and images that have more compelling characteristics: Scale, Interest, Connectedness and Revelation.

So What is My Favorite Image – And Why?

If you’ve been paying attention you’ll understand that images, like aromas, colors and words carry different weights due to our personal experiences. I always gravitate to the image below. It’s my wife on our last evening in Santorini, Greece.  We had just finished a fantastic meal, I had given her that ring, and our view was awesome. And, it happens to be a sunset I shot with my cell phone.

Last Evening in Santorini

You probably wanted to know what’s my favorite Night Image, though.  It’s hard to choose, but it’s probably one of these two. I’ve never uploaded the first one, though it’s predecessor was released.

“South Side,” Red Rock Canyon State Park, California

“Like Grains of Sand,” Pfeiffer State Beach, Big Sur, California

If you ask my wife the same question about my images, I am pretty sure she would pick this one:

Famous III [C_035478]

This is all part of a larger talk I am planning for a local Astronomy Club.  I appreciate your votes on the images above so I have a good set of data to go on. Also, please comment on an image that really inspired you – mine or anyone elses!

Darken Mode Stack Tip Using AdvancedStacker PLUS 18

Published: March 15, 2018

The new Advanced Stacker PLUS 18 is our attempt to make processing simpler. One of the things we find we often do is run multiple stacks (Lighten, Darken, Streaks, etc) to determine which effect(s) work the best. Well, we did something for the first time that worked REALLY well, so we will start by sharing that, even though Advanced Stacker PLUS 18 is not yet ready for publication.

In a nutshell, we created this:

Orion, Falling

From this:

Long Streaks Stack Result – no modifications  f/4, ISO 1600, 15 Seconds. Nikon D600, 24mm x 250

There are several obvious differences between these images.

  1. Because there was strong moonlight (and other light), the sky is over-bright and lacks contrast.
  2. The wind together with surrounding lighting (including flashing red lights from a passing fire truck) caused strange artifacts in the palm trees.
  3. Different colored light sources lit the palm trees differently (notice the really cyan colored palm fronds in the second tree from the left).
  4. There was utility wiring intruding into the image.

The Processing

Stacker 18 allows you to simultaneously stack in multiple modes. For example, to create this effort I used Lighten, Long Streaks, Darkest, and Average modes. I ended up NOT using Lighten or Average modes in this case. Is there extra overhead keeping more stacks? Yes, there is. However we’ve paired down the stacks to as few frames as possible to keep the overall footprint low.

Once the stacking had finished, the result of the Long Streaks was a bit unappetizing due to the red and other artifacts in the trees (see second image). However the Darkest mode stack effectively removes all of the stars – and as it happens, all of the strange highlights in the trees.  First we applied a Curves adjustment layer to the Long Streaks and darkened it.

Blending a Clean Foreground with the Star Trails

Darkest Stack results

The next operation was to find a way to blend the darkest mode stack (right) with the Long Streaks stack while preserving the star trails  and getting the cleaner looking foreground.


Duplicate the Darkest mode result (it’s a single layer) on to the Long Streaks stack. Then drag the darkest mode stack to the top layer. Set the new layer blend mode to normal, 100%.

Next we need to mask out the sky of the Darkest stack so that the long streaks will show through. The tool for that is to use Select -> Color Range. Holding down the shift key allows you to click multiple areas of the sky to add to the selection. You can vary the fuzziness of the selection to determine how closely the color has to match the sample. The mask will probably need some manual cleanup afterward, but as you can tell from the selection in the image below, just clicking different areas in the sky produced almost exactly what is desired.

Photoshop Color Range Selection

After pressing OK you get a selection. The next step is Layer -> Create Layer Mask from Selection -> Hide Selection Once you have a mask, you can paint on it to clean up any artifacts. Adjust the opacity of the darkest layer to make it “look right”. In this example, the combined image looked best at about 93% opacity.

Correcting “Off” Colors Due to Light Source Issues

The penultimate step was to create a Hue and Saturation adjustment layer. Lock the adjustment to the Darkest layer (hold the Alt/Option key and click on the boundary between the adjustment and the darkest layer). Then click the “Finger selection”  (just below the word Presets). Now there is an eye-dropper which you use to select the color that needs correction. In this case, clicking the dropper on the cyan colored palm frond is the right move. Adjust the saturation slider way down, lightness down, and fiddle with the hue to make the bizarre color more natural.

Aggressively toning down the cyan colored palm fronds

Removing Wires (and other distractions)

Finally we also used the Spot Healing Brush tool to “heal out” the utility wires. Here is a short-cut for healing out a straight line. Click the beginning of the area with the spot healing brush, then hold shift and click the end of the line. Shift causes the brush to be applied in a straight line between the first and second clicked points. The shift-trick works with almost all brushes. Two other tricks with the spot healing brush tool are to:

  • Start where the surrounding area has a predictable substitution (not a busy area) and work outward from there
  • Use as small a brush as you reasonably can

For example you can adjust the spot healing tool brush size to about double the width of the utility line, then click the healing brush tool where the arrows point below. Next work your way outward toward the tree on one side, then the other.


Here is a summary of the steps taken – not including the palm frond “naturalization” or spot healing described above.One more trick worth noting… the histogram shown on the Curves adjustment will give you a clue what may need adjustment.

Want to know what we consider the top 5 most used photo editing skills? Read here (and part 2 and part 3).