Author Archives: Steven Christenson

Time Stacks

Published: March 6, 2018

One of the great things about developing a repertoire of tools  and tricks for processing photos is applying those tools in creative ways. While we were furiously working on Advanced Stacker PLUS for creating star trails and processing night sky images, one clever fellow: Matt Molloy gained great acclaim by stacking sunset and sunrise shots of clouds skittering across the sky. Matt Molloy coined the phrase Time Stacks for that type of image.

Phoenix Leaping

Phoenix Leaping – 20 separate frames combined in Lighten Mode plus an extra foreground frame.

Where Steven lives in the Silicon Valley, it is difficult to get good conditions for clouds. Indeed, the San Francisco Bay Area has so many blue sky days that having clouds is a stretch – in the Bay Area the options are either low thick clouds (fog), or zero clouds. However occasionally conditions are right – or Steven travels where conditions are right – for creating these shots. Of note are dry climates with mountains and high winds during seasons with moderate moisture in the air. In March in Palm Springs, California, for example Steven watched as clouds formed due to the uplift of the Mt. San Jacinto mountain range and dissipated quickly as the young cloud wandered eastward away from the peak. Literally you could watch clouds form and dissolve in a matter of minutes. In the image above, you’ll notice that some low clouds moved slowly and didn’t dissipate. Because the denser low clouds were in the shadow of the mountain they grew dark and ominous.  You can see more variations on the same theme by checking out this set of images.

Exit Criteria

Exit Criteria – Alviso, California on one of the few days when clouds were present

What Conditions and Equipment Do I Need?

  1. You need partially cloudy skies and the clouds can not be slow creepers. The clouds should be vigorous sailors. How fast? Fast enough to cross a significant field of view in about 20 to 30 minutes. They need to move into an open area of the sky – clouds moving over other clouds won’t be as interesting.
  2. Like any compelling shot, the frame should include a worthwhile foreground.
  3. And finally, it helps if these conditions all occur near sunset or sunrise so you can get extra color in the shot.

Equipment

  • You will definitely want to use an Intervalometer (or an on-board Intervalometer if your camera has one). Shooting at regular intervals results in a more pleasing outcome.
  • A sturdy tripod is also a must.

What Settings Should I Use?

  1. Select a moderate aperture (f/8, for example), and a low ISO (200). The goal is to get a shot that is relatively long to get a little cloud blur from the cloud motion.
  2. Since most interesting results occur right at or after sunset, start the exposures at 1 to 2 stops over exposed. Subsequent shots will get darker and finally dark to a point where the images will be too dark  to use (e.g. 2 stops under exposed).
  3. While it may be tempting to adjust the exposure during shooting, we have found that strategy does not work well.  You never really know which shots you will want to combine. Therefore it is best to do large sets (40-50 exposures) all using the same settings.
  4. Change settings (and optionally re-orient your camera), then get another substantial sequence.
  5. Be sure to include an exposure optimized for the foreground in the beginning and/or at the end of each sequence.

The trickiest part is selecting the interval between shots. The speed of the clouds across the frame is the key here – and that can vary dramatically depending on your conditions. One possible method is to shoot once every other second, then cull out the interval that works best (which could be 10 or 20 second intervals), but a less memory and processing intensive approach may be to use 5 or 10 second intervals between shots (or longer if your clouds are sluggish).

Also keep in mind that not all clouds will move at the same speed (or in the same direction!), nor will they be illuminated alike.

How Do I Process the Shots?

This is actually the easy part: use the same tools you would use to create star trails. That is, stack the images in Lighten mode. Understand that if clouds move over clouds the net result is sometimes quite unexpected – the brighter clouds (regardless of color) win.

How Processing Was Completed (Click for larger image)

Above is a snapshot illustrating how this shot (62 frames in the life of clouds) was finished in Photoshop. Two image contrast enhancements were added. The bottom layer is the stacked (lighten mode) image, the next image up is the intentionally over-exposed foreground. Notice that the “Darken bright foreground” is linked to effect ONLY the foreground image. Also note that darkening, and in many cases increasing contrast has the affect of increasing color saturation. No saturation or vibrance enhancements were done here. As with Star Trails, we also recommend that you do not alter any of your shots before you stack them – stack them in their raw form with NO adjustments. The result will look flat until you apply manual corrections and curves, but by not altering your shots before hand, the stack will work better and you are far less likely to introduce strange artifacts.

Variations on Time Stacks

Of course your Time Stacks do not have to be daylight subjects like this solar eclipse which was shot with a solar filter for all the shots except the last which was taken at sunset.

Annular Eclipse Sequence [C_040079+5s]

Time stacks can also include night events like a lunar eclipse

Plan C: San Jose City Hall Eclipse Sequence

Get creative and try other Time Stacks and share with us what you get as a result via comments!

Want to see the technique preferred by Matt Molloy, master time stacker? See his tutorial here.

Not Eclipsed!

Published: February 6, 2018

The total Lunar Eclipse of February, 2018 reminded me of my travails from my first effort to shoot an eclipse in 2010.

My First Eclipse Attempt: 2010

In December 2010, I was crestfallen to see the weather reports. The last total eclipse of the moon visible from North America until 2014… and the weather everywhere within a reasonable 3-4 hour drive was predicted to be 90% clouds and worse. It seemed my eclipse was going to be eclipsed by cloud cover.

At about 9:15 PM, PST on December 20th, however, I looked up and saw… THE MOON!  Sure, it was scintillating in a little sucker hole playing with me. But I decided to play along. I hastily hauled out the Canon 5D Mark II, the 70-200mm f/4 IS L lens, the 1.4x Telextender, and the Gitzo carbon fiber tripod. Why those? Because that’s what I found first.

My equipment was scattered about in my office still recovering from the wet weather from earlier in San Jose. Indeed, I did not find the batteries for my Canon 50D camera.

By the time I got set up, I realized that the moon would very soon be contacting the earth’s umbra (darkest part of the shadow). So I quickly got to shooting what I could. Never mind that it was cold and I was not dressed properly.  Soon enough the clouds would come and I could dart into the house to hurriedly collect what I was missing.  The first shot I got was with the moon in the earth’s penumbra. Not particularly remarkable, unfortunately.

Through various breaks in the clouds I was able to get photos from first umbra contact all the way up to totality. Including a serendipitous shot of an airplane headed, probably, to the San Francisco airport or some other place to the north west.

Airplane Transits the Partially Eclipsed Moon
Airplane Transits the Partially Eclipsed Moon

What settings did I use for these shots? f/7.1, ISO 200, and 1/400 of a second exposures. Why so fast? Because, my friends, the moon is BRIGHT. Even partially eclipsed, even already in earths penumbra it is a big bright object. Shooting the moon is a definitive case where your camera absolutely cannot get the right exposure if left to itself. A good exposure must be manually set. I arrived at my settings by a few quick trials. I started at about 1/200th at f/5.6 and noticed that I was getting some over exposed areas (on my LCD screen the overexposed pixels blink white). I then decreased the aperture and continued to tweak the focus.

I wanted the moon images to be as well exposed as possible – especially knowing that the thin clouds were going to dim the image. My goal was to get detail in the moon, I did not care about the clouds or stars. In fact it is impossible – except at a very slender crescent or during a total eclipse to get detail in the moon AND also show stars in the sky. Why? Because the moon is so, SO bright.

I definitely made a slew of mistakes. The most significant one is that I should have put the telephoto lens on my 50D body which is a 1.6 crop camera. Had I done that all my moon images would have been about twice the size of what I actually got. Not having my camera all packed away in my bag meant some lost opportunities here.

I also thought  that perhaps the 5D would have been a good choice to get a sequence of shots showing the progression of the eclipse. The idea was to get the moon in the bottom corner of the frame and take a series of shots as it moved to the upper left of the frame. This also did not work for several reasons. The first problem was that the cloud “holes” came at irregular intervals – so spreading them across the frame evenly was not going to happen. The second problem was purely my failure to correctly guess the path the moon would follow in the sky.  Had I been a little smarter I’d have switched lenses when I realized the timelapse path was not going to work. But instead I tried again a few times.

I also realized that when the eclipse was total, the moon was going to be quite dim and the superior high ISO performance of the 5D II was needed. For the totally eclipsed shot, the ISO was ramped all the way up to 1600 and the exposure dropped from 1/400 to 1/6 of a second. That is a HUGE difference. The slower exposure meant that details in the moon would be blurred and the stars at this telephoto range would become dashes rather than dots.

Jewel [C_029690]
Nearly Total – With enough bright area left to form a halo in the clouds

Epilogue:  February, 2018

Sadly I was NOT much better prepared. After studying the weather forecasts, I headed to the coast where it is often really yucky with fog, low clouds, and on-shore winds that bring dampness and salt spray. It was surprisingly clear. My goal was to take a series of shots showing the progression of the eclipse ending at sunrise with the moon hovering over the Pigeon Point Lighthouse. I had done all the calculations as we cover in our Catching the Moon Webinar. (And also somewhat described here)

I imagined something like this effort, but better done.
Plan C: San Jose City Hall Eclipse Sequence

As it came about in 2014, we had to go with plan C due to weather. So I was excited that the weather forecast for the coast was much better in February, 2018. Some oversights on preparation conspired against me. I had not jotted down the proper GPS location and on site I had no cell signal, so couldn’t (re)calculate the spot. That left me wandering about trying to find the little tree and path that was featured on the satellite view… and NOT finding it.

Instead I ended up wandering into a thicket of brush that had an abrupt downward slope. That was fall number 1. Several efforts (and falls) later I tried setting my tripod down THROUGH the gorse all around… only to snap the leg off of my tripod. Now I needed to take  trek back to the car for my backup tripod. (Fortunately I had one!).

Since I got a late start, I scrambled to try to get a couple of series of panoramas on which to overlay the moon trajectory. However the moon was already in complete eclipse by the time I had everything set up. It was only then that I realized I was not getting the details I wanted out of the moon. I was using a 70mm f/4 lens, and the long exposures were streaking the stars and blurring the moon. So while I did get a FEW shots, they weren’t the ones I had imagined. My problem, in a nutshell, was that I was trying to get the moon AND the stars … which I did, but at the cost of streaking and blurring.

Orb to Rule the Night

By the time twilight started to appear, it was obvious that my location was about 1/4 mile distant from where I wanted to be… the little tree that I thought might form the right edge of my panorama was far off. The moon was NOT going to land anywhere near the Pigeon Point Lighthouse, so I packed up and ran up Highway 1 closer to the calculated location. I had to abandon the sequence plans, throw on the big tele-extender and HOPE the moon would survive visibility through the now obvious off-shore fog bank. Of course it didn’t. It fizzled as it got near the target.  I did get a consolation prize of sorts, though. This image hit 80 THOUSAND views in a few days – becoming my most popular photo on Flickr EVER. Sadly it’s not the image I imagined.

It's A Little Bit Broken
Photo from the end of the total eclipse of February, 2018

What Did I Learn?

To get a decent eclipsed moon shot with details, either you need a very fast telephoto lens, or to use a mount to track the moon. I also need to be willing to lose more sleep. I woke up at 3:00 AM, but the 90 minute drive meant that the umbral (dark part) of the eclipse would be starting as I arrived.

I also realized that if I’m going to spend the better part of a day mapping out the moon trajectory toward a landmark like the Pigeon Point Lighthouse, I’d do well to record some GPS locations (where to park, where to stand), and even get a Google map pre-downloaded.

Hopefully you, dear reader, will learn from my mistakes because you won’t have enough time to make them all yourself!

Top Ten Destinations in the West

Published: January 26, 2018

Well, What Sea?

Well After Sunset Along the Pacific Coast


I know my top ten may not be the same as your top ten. After all what interests me may NOT interest you (though for the life of me I can’t think why not!)  As a Landscape Astrophotographer I tend to gravitate to interesting views, unusual geology, natural landscapes and places where the sky is dark and clear at night.  I’m not a city guy. The chance that you’ll find me in a tavern or night club is extremely slim.  And while I do appreciate great architecture, and (ancient) history you’re much more likely to find me on a mountain top or along the shoreline or in the desert. Forests feel crowded to me unless they are surrounded by granite, basalt, sand dunes or lava.  Flat is usually boring.

I also want to be frank that this list is based on the places *I* have been. There is an equally long list of places I have NOT been but where I wish to go.  I’ve also narrowed this list to Nevada, California, Western Utah and Arizona. I am listing my destinations in order of the eye appeal and “spiritual oneness” I get from visiting them.  I’ve also provided some hints what seasons are best, and the amount of effort it takes to reach these places.

 

    1. Nightfall at Cathedral PeakYosemite National Park.  There is a really good reason Yosemite is so heavily visited. The first time I drove into the valley with the family I went slack-jawed. It is hard to imagine how beautiful Yosemite is. And the first time I stood on Half Dome – long before permits are required to make that hike – I literally wept – and not just because the hike was arduous, but because the view makes the heart flutter.  You feel tiny and the granite feels big and solid.  Yosemite is a very large park and there are four primary areas to visit.
      A> The valley which in the summer is overrun with tourists, and noise and distractions but quiet and beautiful when snow laden in the winter.  The summer is also when the mighty Yosemite Fall becomes a whimper. To really be astounded the best time to visit Yosemite Valley is in the early spring.  Late April to Early May.
      B> Another area of Yosemite worth visiting is the entire Tioga Pass road: especially Tuolumne Meadows area. There is awesomeness nearly everywhere along the 54 miles of road and it is always less busy than the valley. Warning: Tioga Road (Hwy 120) closes November through May.
      C> A third place that is justly popular for its scenic splendor is Glacier Point. The road to this amazing overlook is also closed in winter.
      D> And finally there is Wawona and the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees. Impressive, but not as impressive as the huge trees elsewhere in California e.g. in Big Basin State Park.
      There are also many, many spectacular landscapes to be seen far from anywhere a car can go. Some of the most rewarding views of Yosemite require backpacking into the High Country, like the photo above which is Cathedral Lake – a trail from Tioga Road.


    2. Reaching for the Sky Alabama Hills near Lone Pine, California. Lone Pine is a small town with plenty of restaurants. But at the doorstep of Lone Pine are the Alabama Hills – bizarre rounded rock formations many of which you have probably seen before in movies like Planet of the Apes and car commercials and westerns.  It’s a gorgeous landscape with so, so many places to explore. There is plenty of quiet in Alabama Hills and there are many places to roll up and enjoy the dark skies and the fantastic rock formations. Rising out of Alabama Hills is mount Whitney – the tallest mountain in the United States – the lower 48, that is.  Alabama Hills is lovely in any season – prefer late fall – but beware the summers can get hot. 100 degrees Farenheit is not unusual.  A high clearance vehicle is definitely a plus if you want to go on some of the dicier roads, but not needed for the main roads.  There is a good reason we offer workshops here. It’s awesome.

    3. Mono Lake South Tufas before Dawn [4776] *Explored*Mono Lake near Lee Vinning, California.  Mono lake has a very alien vibe due to the tufa formations that have been revealed because of Los Angeles’ thirst for water.  Mono Lake has grown touristy – it’s not unusual to see a busload of photographers disembark and jostle for the best spots to set up a tripod. Despite that, Mono Lake is well worth a look. Not far from Mono Lake are other interesting attractions like Bodie – a ghost town, June Lake and the June Lake Loop, and the entire stretch of the Eastern Sierras all the way down to Alabama Hills. Any season is good to visit Mono Lake, but winters are harsh and cold.

    4. Dream Highway [C_071601]Big Sur. Big Sur is the name of a town in about the middle of a region loosely defined by a long stretch of winding Pacific Coast road (Highway 1) that runs from Carmel, California all the way down to Cambria. The Hearst Castle which is an interesting historical, artistic, and cultural anomaly can be found in San Simeon. The road hugs tall mountain cliffs with sheer drop offs into the often churning Pacific Ocean below. If I have to pick a favorite spot in Big Sur that’s easy. Pfeiffer Beach.  Often in the summer in particular Big Sur can be cold, foggy and windy, but really any time is good to go. If you’ve never dipped a toe in the Northern California Pacific Ocean, don’t expect it to be warm EVER.  Big surf comes in the winter – from November to February. Accommodations along Big Sur are scarce, expensive and heavily booked especially when school is out. And there are LOTS of destinations worth visiting: Point Lobos, Pfeiffer Beach, McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.

    5. Famous III [C_035478]
      White Mountain, near Bishop, California. If you want to see the most amazing and oldest living things on the planet you will need to drive up White Mountain to the Patriarch Grove or at least to the Schulman Grove.  And while Bishop to the West and Nevada cities to the east are doing their best to light pollute the skies, it is still well dark there and you will see the Milky Way if you look.  Like many other places, the road is often closed in the winter, but it usually closes later than the Sierra roads and opens sooner.


    6. The Overlook at Zabriskie Point 7118Death Valley National Park.  First you need to know that Death Valley is HUGE. And yes, it is extremely hot from late spring to mid fall. But the spring flowers can be amazing and the scale of the place is hard to fathom.  And while it is a desert, you may be shocked at how colorful it is. As with many places in the west, the most desolate and difficult to reach areas of Death Valley are the most interesting: the Racetrack Playa, the peculiar Darwin Falls, Eureka Dunes and Dante’s View.  Expect to travel hundreds of miles to see all these things and to pay a princely sum on gasoline.  If you go, you had better visit Zabriskie Point – sunrise is better than sunset at the point. Accommodations are hard to find.  If forced to choose between Death Valley and the Grand Canyon, Death Valley wins easily.

    7. Watching the Watchman [42-011228]Zion National Park, Hurricane, Utah. I’ve visited Zion in the winter when snow and Navajo Sandstone conspire to make a beautiful landscape, and in the summer. I preferred the winter. My wife took this photo.

    8. Snow Flocked Bryce Canyon [IMG_151594]Bryce Canyon. Unfortunately I have only visited in the winter. It was drop dead gorgeous with the snow and the hoodoos.

    9. The Colorado River Makes A Grand ArcHorsehoe Bend. The scale and grandeur of this magnificent bend in the Colorado river is every bit – and more – breathtaking than any vista I’ve ever seen in the Grand Canyon. And Horsehoe Bend has the great advantage of being very close to the Antelope Slot Canyons and Page, Arizona. Page is a large enough city to rest and resupply in. Lake Powell is nearby, too. Horsehoe Bend is “just one place” and is easily accessible with about a 1/2 mile walk from the road.

    10. The Goodbye Look [5-001753]
      Antelope Valley Slot Canyons. On Navajo tribal lands it’s worth every penny you might be charged for a tour.  When you stroll through this majestic place – even if you do so amidst throngs of tourists you’ll find it hard to not feel a oneness with the beautiful and intimate windswept colors and curves.


    11. Black Rock Desert, Gerlach, Nevada. If you look up the definition of desolate, this place might well be mentioned in a footnote.  Unless you make the mistake of going during the Burning Man festival in which case this empty flat dry lakebed ringed with modestly sized mountains becomes a sprawling metropolis of what seems like a zillion people. Or so I’ve been told. The good news is it is still very dark here.  It did not make my top ten, but it did beat out the rest of our list.

    12. Lake Tahoe – Many places around this picturesque lake to drink in photos and views.
    13. Mount Shasta – Right off highway 5 going north/south you’ll find vistas, waterfalls, and some remarkable history and views.
    14. Lassen National Park
    15. Sedona, Arizona – Hard to argue with the wind sculpted Navajo Sandstone all around.
    16. Tucson, Arizona – Not only are there desert stretches, the Saguaro National Forest, Mount Lemmon, and the Santa Catalina Mountains, but also Kitt Peak Observatory and many dark areas around. Unlike, e.g. Phoenix which is Las Vegas – like in its light pollution intensity.
    17. San Francisco – As cities go, San Francisco has many lovely vistas and landmarks. Especially from, e.g. the Marin Headlands.
    18. Seattle – like San Francisco, Seattle has some great views, landmarks and vistas. They are a little harder to find because of the heavy forests all around. But when it is clear enough to see the Space Needle, Mount Ranier, or the snow covered Olympic Mountains, it is awesome.

    How Do These Rank Against my Top 7 Most Beautiful Places in the World?

    I’m not as well-traveled as some, but I’ve been quite a few places. Here are my top 7 most gorgeous places to be – ranked from 7th to 1st.

    • Horsehoe Bend, Page, Arizona. Described above.
    • Antelope Slot Canyon, Navajo Lands near Page, Arizona. Described above.
    • Petra, Jordan.  The ancient, expansive and elaborate hand carved tombs of this ancient Nabatean city are winsome. And to make the stay even more pleasant the many Bedouin people I met while there made me feel very welcome.
    • Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park, California.  Described above.
    • Patriarch Grove, White Mountain, California. Described above.
    • Thira/Oia/Firostefani, Santorini, Greece
    • Granite Park, Inyo National Forest, California. On my GPS I put “Saw God here” – it was THAT awesome. Granite Park is well above the tree line at about 11,000 feet and it will take a serious back-packing effort to reach it.

Got a top 5 super favorite place in the west we did not list? Please comment (and include a photograph).

You Need a Good Head and Great Legs

Published: December 24, 2017

Me (to wife): “My head is unstable and I have ordered a new, $300 one.”
(wife): “I knew about the instability, but I didn’t realize you could buy a new one.”

Tripod and Panoramic Head in action

If you search around the internet you will find plenty of product reviews. One of the best reviews I ever read said something like this: “Save one thousand dollars by buying the right gear now instead of later”. He proceeded to describe how cheap tripod legs and cheap heads ended up costing more than had he bought the good gear from the beginning.

Wait, “heads?”, “legs?”

There are four parts to a tripod that are important to get right: legs, head, release, mounting plate.

 

But First… A Short Commercial

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays! Harold Davis and I will be conducting a workshop that you may want to attend. Registration is through Harold’s web site.

Tripod Anatomy

  1. Legs – The part that touches the ground, and yes the bottom of the legs is called the feet.
  2. Head – The part that is attached to the top of the legs and provides the ability to rotate and tilt the camera at various angles.
  3. (Quick) Release system – The method by which the Head can attach to the camera via…
  4. Quick Release plate – the part that you attach to the camera and mate to the release system. You can directly screw your camera on to many different heads, but you do not want to do that because it is really, really inconvenient.

If any bit of those is wrong, you have an unstable or even equipment-hazardous situation. Trust me, I started with “K-Mart” tripods (had 3 – each of which didn’t last long), 2 Manfrotto aluminum tripods (one is broken), and ONE Gitzo carbon fiber tripod. I have also owned at least 9 different heads including a pan-tilt head, SunFoto, Manfroto, Acratech, and a gaggle of off brands. The ball heads were bought for various purposes. I have also dealt with 3 different kinds of attachment systems: direct screw-in to the camera (really inconvenient), Manfroto style plate clamp (better), and Arca Swiss clamp (best of the bunch). I have also used a gaggle of different “quick release” plates from cheap off-the shelf, to custom made for my camera(s), including L-Brackets.

Trial By Fire

Trust me when I tell you I have discovered a lot of what not to buy, and can say confidently that if you want a stable, good quality camera support system you need to get all four components right. And doubly so for night photography where long exposures REQUIRE a tripod or other solid support system. My tripods have been to the top of Half Dome, Mount Whitney and Clouds Rest. I have used the “legs” as a walking stick to keep me from falling into rivers and ravines, to test stability of the ground before taking a step.

Many Paths to Failure – Plate and Clamps

Let me provide some examples of the myriad of ways things can go wrong: all of them have happened to me, by the way.

If the quick release plate is attached with a low quality screw or bolt… the bolt could snap and your camera and lens will tumble to the ground.

If the quick release plate is difficult to get a snug fit (or requires a special tool that you do not have with you), your camera will wobble or twist in the breeze no matter how stable everything else is.

If the plate is difficult to get into the latch (release clamp), you may think you have it ready to go, only to see your camera fall off the tripod onto the ground or down a granite staircase.

If the plate you have on the camera does not mate with the clamp on your tripod… oops. You’ve lugged your equipment for nothing.

If everything is solid except the clamp does not snug down well, you have wobble and ruined photos.

… and we have not even gotten to the head or the legs yet!

More Failure: Head and Legs

If your head requires superhuman strength to keep it from creeping under the weight of your camera and lens (or super human strength to undo it)… you get either painful fingers or a “sinking” camera angle.

If the tensioning on the head is either locked-like-super-glue or floppy-as-a-wet-rag, you may either have to give up aiming the shot as you want, miss the shot, or have the rig flop over when the camera does. And the flopping camera may pinch your hand, or mash your fingers or smack you in the face (Reminder: All these have happened to me!)

Even if the leg locks seem to be working well, unusually cold (or hot) weather may render the locks ineffective and your tripod may slowly – or suddenly – fall over.

If the legs cannot be adjusted wide-enough or accurately-enough or low-enough, a breeze or strong gust of wind may blow your rig over.

If the fully extended legs are so short that you fully extend the center column to keep from hunching over and hurting your back – you have turned your tripod into a wide-stance monopod that may not be able to bear the load.

If your center column has a tightening collar or wing nut directly below the weight of your camera, you may accidentally over loosen the column causing the camera to slide down and pinch the living daylights out of your hand.

If your legs are spindly, they may induce vibration, or just snap when you accidentally bump them.

… I could go on … but I am hoping you understand how hard knocks, broken lenses, and broken tripod components all add up to a severe lack of enthusiasm for all but the best built of components.

Recommendations?

So here is where you might expect me to make recommendations, right? I usually avoid making recommendations because gear changes, and people have different reasons for choosing what they do. My criteria are pretty simple: I want stability, versatility, durability, and light-weight – in about that order.  While the first three seem to be pretty obvious criteria, the light-weight aspect was something I learned over time, too. It was a chore to lug my > 8 pound aluminum leg Manfrotto with a Manfrotto head to the top of Half Dome. By comparison my < 4.5 pound Gitzo plus Acratech head seemed like a feather. Manfrotto made a smart move when they bought Gitzo.

You might have noticed that I did not list price as important. It used to be, but too many failed choices made me realize that choices that are less than great become costlier in the long run.  In a similar vein I bought half a dozen sleeping bags hoping to get something lightweight and WARM until I finally spent almost $300 on a bag (Big Agnes Lost Ranger) and pad that provided the most comfortable, warm sleep – and was also lightweight. I’ve spent more for a single night in a hotel than for the sleeping bag, but that bag has kept me snoozing on many chilly nights in the wilderness. Indeed one night I had TWO cheap sleeping bags nested inside one another while in a tent in Grandview Campground at 8,600 feet on White Mountain and I was still shivering. The next time I went with my Big Agnes. The night was even colder, but I was snug as a bug in a rug.

I had similar experiences with camera backpacks. I liked the design of a Tamron bag. It lasted about a year until the zipper broke. The second bag lasted less than a year. By contrast, my F-stop Tilopa bag has been all over the world over 4 years now – sometimes as my primary and only luggage. To say I’m happy with its durability would be an understatement – and that it cost me 4 times as much as one Tamron bag ($320 vs $95), means I’ve broken even so far – without the inconvenience of dealing with broken gear.

What About A Ball Head And Tripod Legs?

Acratech GPS-s

  • Acratech Head (pretty much any one), but the GP-s is a nicely designed lightweight capable head unless you have a huge camera.
  • Gitzo carbon fiber legs, but NOT the Traveler series which is too flimsy and too short.
    I specifically recommend the Mountaineer Series 2. It is the best trade-off between weight, stability and usable height.  If you’re willing to pay a penalty in extra pounds, the Systematic series (3, 4, or 5) are good except for two things: The Systematic doesn’t have a center column and sometimes that column is useful – like when trying to shoot straight up since the camera may end up hanging partially below the level of the head. The other thing about a series 5 Systemic that bothered me was that I was shocked to discover that the leg locks must be untightened in a specific order to fold it all up because if an upper leg is not tight, the lock on the lower leg will just spin. The mountaineer doesn’t require that silliness.
  • Really Right Stuff with carbon fiber legs. Pretty much all of them are well done, light and sturdy.  The RRS ball heads are good too, it’s just that they are all heavy, heavy, heavy.

But, but those are expensive choices! Yes. I suppose paying $430 USD for a good head and $950 USD for good legs sounds like an excessive amount of money. But: how much did your camera and lens cost? How much will your back thank you for carrying a smaller load?  And finally, how much are you willing to risk watching your camera and lens flop over in a gust of wind?

Disclaimer

I write what I know – not what people or manufacturers or merchants ASK me to write. I paid retail price to purchase all the gear I’ve discussed. In other words, these are honest, unbiased, hard won evaluations of various gear. If you can purchase this gear at a local store, I recommend that you do so. You may spend a little more, but there is serious value to talking to real people, testing out gear in person, and in keeping a local business viable.

One Reason To Consider the Alabama Hills Workshop... The awesome landscapes