Category Archives: Low Light Photography

HandlePod and a Sun Shade Improves Digital Cameras

The previous blog detailed characteristics of digital cameras that have an effect on camera stabilization. One is ultrazooms on compact cameras with a range of 60x or more. This extreme zoom makes it very difficult to hand hold video that is not shaky and nausea inducing. Zooming in that far requires a fast shutter speed to avoid camera shake when shooting stills in low light. At such extreme zoom range, night photos are nearly impossible without camera stabilization.

Eyepiece Viewfinders Are Disappearing

Another casualty of the digital age is the eyepiece viewfinder. The DSLR is the only camera today that has an optical eyepiece viewfinder. All others have an electronic eyepiece viewfinder if there is one at all. Most still cameras and all video camcorders have abandoned the eyepiece viewfinder in favor of the LCD monitor.

Monitors work fine most of the time but they are difficult to see in bright daylight. And the mechanics of holding the camera a foot or more from your face and watching a three inch screen is different from holding the camera up to your eye. With the camera held against your face, your head, eye and camera move together as one. This makes it easier to concentrate on what you are shooting and follow fast action. It is not as easy to do while holding the camera at arm’s length and watching a three-inch monitor in bright sunlight. I once tried shooting the Blue Angels with a camcorder and got mostly sky and clouds while searching for the fast moving jets in the monitor.

Add a Hood or Magnifying Loupe

One approach to the problem of camera monitors in bright sunlight is to add a hood to shade the monitor and make it easier to see. A variety of these are available for camcorders from Hoodman. This solves the bright light problem but does not bring the monitor closer to your eye.

HoodLoupe

HoodLoupe from Hoodman eliminates glare and turns the monitor into an eyepiece viewfinder.

A better, though more expensive solution is the HoodLoupe for 3.2-inch monitors. These include a magnifying glass and can be held up to the eye. Models range in price from about eighty to one hundred dollars and can be equipped with a strap to attach them to the camera. The HoodLoupe turns the monitor into an eyepiece viewfinder, making it easier to see and follow fast action.

Small cameras with an extreme zoom range can benefit from the improved grip and stabilization that HandlePod provides. Add a sun shade hood or a loupe to create an eyepiece viewfinder and following the action of your child’s soccer game becomes smooth, easy and jitter free.

Tripod Alternative Stabilization for Small Cameras

Small cameras and small tripod alternative supports go together like hand in glove. Cameras are definitely getting smaller, lighter and easier to carry. Even DSLR models have shed considerable weight, at least in the consumer models and some come in at just over a pound. At the other end of the spectrum is the point-and-shoot which is usually pocket size and weighs just a few ounces.  In between are the compact or bridge cameras and mirrorless cameras.

All Cameras Need Stabilization

Hand Holding HandlePod

HandlePod offers improved leverage and a better grip for hand holding small compact cameras.

No matter what camera you use, all can benefit from camera stabilization in low light. HandlePod will support any camera from a consumer DSLR with a kit lens down to the smallest point-and-shoot. The smaller the camera, the greater the need for stabilization in low light. HandlePod offers three methods to stabilize cameras of any size: 1. It’s a handle for a firmer grip and better leverage for hand held shots. 2. It provides tripod-like stability when pressed by hand against any solid support. 3. It attaches to support objects with an elastic cord that is strong and completely reliable.

Eyepiece Viewfinder or LCD Monitor

Other factors typical of cameras today influence the need for camera stabilization. One is use of an LCD monitor as opposed to a viewfinder. Film cameras all had an optical viewfinder so you could brace the camera against your head, a much more stable position.

Today many cameras have done away with the eyepiece viewfinder altogether and rely completely on the monitor. Holding the camera a foot or more away from your eyes to see the monitor is a much less stable stance. Camera movement is more difficult to avoid and can cause blurry low light exposures and shaky, less stable video. The improved grip and leverage that HandlePod provides yields sharper low light stills and more solid, shake free video.

Extreme Zoom

Compact cameras with extreme optical zoom lenses, sometimes called ultrazoom, also could use more stabilization than hand holding alone provides. These cameras are extremely difficult to keep steady when zoomed in at 60x or more. This is especially noticeable when shooting video. But zooming in that close for stills in low light demands stabilization to avoid blur from camera shake. HandlePod provides a significant measure of stability for cameras with such extreme zoom ranges.

The pocket size, four-ounce HandlePod is the perfect tripod alternative for today’s smaller, lighter cameras, especially those with extreme zoom and no eyepiece viewfinder.

Tripod or Tripod Alternative, What to Choose

A firm camera support is an important advantage for many types of photography. The most useful equipment for camera stabilization is a sturdy tripod. But often photographers find themselves without the tripod or forbidden to use it. In that situation a reliable tripod alternative is the next best choice. When and where should you use a tripod or go with a tripod alternative?

Portraits

There are many situations were a tripod is the only reasonable choice. Portrait photography is one. Whether in the studio or in the field, a tripod helps you compose the shot, direct the model, set and evaluate lights, etc.—all without holding the camera. A tripod alternative for portraits would not be useful.

Urban Landscape Photography

Gal Row4 Pic4

Night scene shot with HandlePod held on a lamp post.

Here the choice is less clear and comes down to what you are willing to carry. If you are content lugging a tripod and setting it up for those night cityscape shots, a tripod is always best. But if you want to avoid the weight and bulk, a lightweight tripod alternative is a practical choice, especially when traveling.

Cities offer fabulous opportunities for night photography.  There is no shortage of poles, railings, buildings and objects to use as a camera support. And many locations forbid tripod use—the observation deck of the Empire State Building for example. In urban situations it is best to have a small camera support available even if you are carrying a tripod. It can be faster and easier to use and will help get the shot when the tripod can’t be unpacked.

Nature Photography and Landscapes

Here a tripod usually wins out. It can be set up anywhere without restriction. And camera support objects in wilderness areas are not as plentiful as in cities. But again it comes down to weight. If you are backpacking through Yosemite do you really want to carry a tripod? And there are trees and rocks that can serve as supports. A small tripod alternative will let you shoot star trails or mountain vistas in moonlight at a minimal cost in weight.

Indoor Photography

Saint Peters

Saint Peters, Rome, shot with HandlePod held on a barrier.

A tripod alternative is often the only choice for indoor shots of castles, cathedrals, museums and other travel attractions. Most or all of these places forbid the use of a tripod and do not allow flash. But they all allow a tripod alternative that can be stabilized on railings, pews, columns or anything available. A tripod alternative will let you shoot dimly lit church interiors. It will also help with perfectly aligned bracketed shots of stained glass and interior features that can be combined with HDR software.

The choice between using a tripod or a small, lightweight alternative comes down to what you are willing to carry and the type of photography and location. If you don’t mind carrying it and are permitted to use it, a tripod is always better. But when you don’t have a tripod or using it is forbidden, a small tripod alternative like HandlePod is the next best choice.

 

Using a Tripod Alternative for Camera Support

Using a tripod alternative instead of a tripod involves some limitations, the main one being that it requires a support object to hold it. The availability of supports determines where you can place the camera, unlike a tripod which can be set up anywhere it is allowed. Of course the ground is always available if a low angle shot is acceptable. But raising the camera higher requires something to support the tripod alternative.

No Shortage of Supports

Fortunately, in urban areas and tourist destinations, such support objects are plentiful—poles, columns, railings, fences, walls, doorways, anything that the tripod alternative can engage provides camera stabilization. But using a tripod alternative on different supports depends on the method used to secure it to the support. Many available supports are vertical like poles and columns. Bean bag type devices must sit on a level surface and are useless on vertical objects.

A Solid Connection is Essential

A secure connection is needed on vertical supports. One common method is flexible mini-tripod legs such as Gorillapod and its many imitators. It connects to objects by wrapping the flexible legs around the support and squeezing until a solid grip is achieved. The how-to instructions in this link demonstrate the technique. It works very well on small supports like those illustrated in the article. But objects more than a few inches in diameter are too large for the legs to grip. It can’t be used on power poles, light standards, columns or anything reasonably large.

Other mechanical connections face similar limitations. Velcro straps and clamps will only engage objects of a maximum size.  Adhesive material or suction cups will only work on certain types of surfaces. Click this link for a discussion of various tripod alternative connections.

HandlePod—The Tripod Alternative with a Difference

Camera stabilization on a large support

HandlePod supported on a power pole.

HandlePod was designed to take advantage of literally any support object available. Size, material, vertical or horizontal—it makes no difference. Anything solid can be used for camera stabilization. That’s because HandlePod needs no mechanical attachment. You simply press it against any support with your hand. Steady hand pressure and a firm object is all it takes. I have done a rock solid four minute exposure in moonlight just by holding it against a fencepost. Long exposures in low light are possible anywhere there is a solid object to hold the HandlePod against.

What if you want to attach it to supports for hands-free operation? That’s easy too with the elastic cord. Simply wrap the cord around the support and secure it into the slot in the HandlePod. And the cord stretches to over four feet to accommodate large objects. HandlePod opens a world of possibility for camera stabilization on any solid support.

Travel Tripod or Tripod Alternative, Your Choice

There are tripods and there are travel tripods. The difference comes down to weight and size. How much weight are you willing to carry while traveling how large is the gear you can stuff in your bag. Many factors influence the choice of a travel tripod. Click on this link for an excellent discussion of travel tripods and a review of twelve recommended models.

Tripod Is Essential for Image Quality

Carrying and using a tripod marks you as a serious or professional photographer. It can usually be set up wherever needed and assures the highest possible image quality. It also slows you down and requires time for set up. A tripod also makes you think more carefully about subject, composition, focus and everything that goes into making an exceptional photograph.

As the article in the above link states, “There is no other photographic equipment that will elevate the technical quality of your pictures more easily or predictably. . .Any serious enthusiast who places a high value on image quality should take one along—especially when shooting at slow shutter speeds, in low light, or with long telephoto or zoom lenses.”

Tripod Can’t Always Be Used

Gal Row4 Pic3

“NO TRIPOD” allowed? Use an alternative.

But in reality, carrying and using a tripod is not always practical or even possible. Tripod use is forbidden in many travel locations. There may not be time to unpack and set up a tripod without annoying travel companions. And there will be times when you simply don’t have your tripod or prefer not to carry it.

When you need reliable camera stabilization and no tripod is available, a tripod alternative is the logical solution. It is small, light, easy to carry and can be used where tripods are prohibited. The limitation is that a tripod alternative must be placed on a support object or on the ground. It can’t raise the camera to eye level in any location like a tripod. But in the absence of a tripod or the inability to use one, a tripod alternative like HandlePod will get the job done with a minimum of weight and bulk.

Tripod Alternative for Digital Camera Stabilization

Antique camera illustration

In the 1800s cameras had to be tripod mounted.

In the first few decades from the beginning of photography, cameras had to be tripod mounted and stabilized for the long exposures needed with glass plates and slow emulsions of the time. Holding a camera by hand was unheard of. All that changed in 1900 with the introduction of the Kodak Brownie box camera. For one dollar, anyone could buy a hand held camera and take snapshots in daylight. But film has limited sensitivity. Serious photography in low light with a sophisticated camera still required a tripod even with fast film.

Camera Stabilization Is Still Necessary

Much, but not all, of that has changed in the digital age. Greater sensitivity and wide aperture lenses make it possible to shoot hand held nearly all the time in almost any light. The result is that the vast majority of photographs are shot hand held. This works for most people most of the time, to the point that many photographers do not even own a tripod. Photography is hand held or nothing. That’s understandable since people prefer to avoid the weight and bulk of a tripod and the hassle of setting it up.

DSC_7603But without reliable camera stabilization you sacrifice the image quality and creativity that long exposure photography provides—no traffic trails on busy streets, no moonlit night landscapes, and certainly no star trails or time lapse video of sunsets.

Is Your Tripod Gathering Dust?

Just owning a tripod is no solution.  You must have it with you. Many people avoid carrying their tripod, especially when traveling. And there are places where tripods are prohibited.

DSLR on HandlePod

HandlePod secures camera to a pole for the long exposure traffic trails photo above.

HandlePod is here to help. Just press it by hand against anything solid and presto— instant camera stabilization! Want to attach it to objects? The supplied elastic cord will secure it to many supports—even large ones. And the attachment is solid, won’t slip or come loose.

Camera Stabilization When You Need It

Even if 99% of your photography is hand held, when you need camera stabilization, you need it. But it makes little sense to carry a tripod for a few long exposure low light shots when the majority of your photos are hand held. Nor does it make sense to miss those low light shots when camera stabilization is required. It makes perfect sense to carry a pocket size, four-ounce tripod alternative like HandlePod that is small, light and instantly available when you need it.

Three Ways to Deal With High Dynamic Range Subjects

High Dynamic Range image

Camera can’t capture dark interior and sunlit outside.

Imagine a dark interior with objects in front of a bright window at midday. The human eye can see detail in the objects as well as the sunlit scene behind it. But it is impossible to take a photograph of the scene that reveals as much detail as the eye perceives. Film couldn’t do it and neither can the sensors in today’s digital cameras. Human eyes have a dynamic range that far exceeds the capability of the most sophisticated electronic sensor.

HDR Processing Software

Fortunately, the electronic age has given us a choice of workarounds to deal with high dynamic range subjects that far exceeds the bygone darkroom gymnastics of dodging and burning in the film days. A common solution is HDR processing of three or more bracketed exposures using software such as Photomatix. It works quite well and the results can be spectacular. This software is often the first choice for dealing with high dynamic range subjects.

High Dynamic Range tonemap

This HDR tonemap is a blend of five exposures.

But understand that HDR software processes the entire image at once. It provides a mind boggling choice of presets and sliders to adjust contrast, saturation and so on. Control over specific areas of the image is not available. Ultimately you have to work with what the software delivers. This can be a very natural and pleasing representation, exactly what you had in mind. Or it can be a highly processed, over saturated tonemap that screams HDR. The image at right is a blend of five exposures. It did a fair job of combining the dark interior and bright outdoors but it is not perfect.

Use Photoshop Layers to Blend Images

Better control over the final result can be achieved with layering and masking techniques available in Photoshop. This is a more technical and labor intensive procedure than HDR processing. But it does give you ultimate control over every element of the image, rather than leaving manipulation to the workings of an algorithm. This informative tutorial from Digital Photo Mentor provides an excellent overview of masking and layering techniques in Photoshop. These methods involve the combination of several exposures. While the software can align the photos, it is best to provide camera stabilization to guarantee perfect registration of all photos.

Improve Tonal Range in Lightroom

The image processing capabilities of programs such as Photoshop and Lightroom can deal with high dynamic range subjects in a single image rather than a series of bracketed exposures. This approach works best if you keep a couple of factors in mind. Be careful not to over expose the highlights. It is not possible to pull detail out of over exposed whites and information in that area is usually not recoverable. If the plan is to process a single image to reveal a full tonal range, it is best to shoot in RAW. This preserves a more complete range of tonality that can later be brought up with adjustments in your chosen software. Even the most obviously under exposed image can be manipulated to bring out an astounding tonal range that would have been impossible to recover in the age of film. This informative tutorial demonstrates what can be done in Lightroom with seriously dark areas of a RAW photograph.

Night Photography Without a Tripod

Shooting at night without a tripod is definitely possible with today’s cameras. There are many articles and tutorials on line that discuss how to manage without a tripod in low light. The basic steps come down to this:

  1. Use a wide aperture lens, 1.8 or wider if available.
  2. Set a high ISO, 800 or 1,000 is a good starting point. Go higher if you can tolerate the noise that higher ISO settings generate.
  3. Use proper hand holding techniques or brace the camera against an available support. Be sure to use a remote shutter release or set a two second timer.
  4. Use image stabilization. This can give you an additional couple of stops slower than the fraction of the lens focal length that is the recommended limit for hand holding.

Hand Holding Has Its Limitations

This is all good advice but without a tripod or alternative device for camera stabilization, some sacrifices have to be made. Shutter speed is limited to what you can confidently hand hold. The creative possibilities of long exposure night photography are unavailable. Want to shoot traffic trails on city streets at night? No can do. What if you want to shoot at f8 or smaller aperture for better depth of field and a sharper image? This can be difficult or impossible to hand hold. Would you rather shoot at ISO 100 to eliminate noise. Better think twice if you are hand holding the camera. And are you positive your hand holding technique will eliminate all shake given the right camera settings? When you view the image on your computer you may find out it is not as sharp as you hoped.

Advantages of Camera Stabilization

Traffic trails

This photo of traffic trails would be impossible without camera stabilization.

Reliable camera stabilization has definite advantages—low ISO, narrow aperture settings and the ability to leave the shutter open to record motion trails or guarantee proper exposure regardless of light levels. But you won’t always have a tripod with you and there are places where a tripod is impractical or prohibited. What to do?

That’s where HandlePod comes in. Hold it against any available support for instant camera stabilization. There is no need to attach it to the support (but you can with the supplied elastic cord). Just hold it on anything solid and all the advantages of long exposure, low light photography are immediately available. HandlePod, your hand and any solid object is all it takes.

Camera Stabilization for HDR Photography

Golden Gate Br_tonemapped

Golden Gate Bridge, tonemapped black and white. Exposures at f5.6, 3 to 13 seconds at ISO 200.

Long exposure for low light night photography requires camera stabilization. This statement goes double for HDR. Three or more exposures combined into a single blend involve a range of shutter speeds that would be impossible to hand hold. In addition, while HDR software such as Photomatix will align slightly offset hand-held shots, it is best to combine photos that are in perfect alignment.

HandlePod and HDR

HandlePod makes night HDR photography possible without a tripod simply by pressing it against any available solid object. As long as the camera is stabilized, any combination of exposures is possible. It is best to vary the shutter rather than the aperture which may change the depth of field. Experimentation is the key here. Adjust exposure settings manually rather than using the auto-bracketing feature of the camera. This applies particularly in low light situations where a wide range of exposures is the best option.

Information on HDR photography is widely available on the web. But all HDR tutorials advise camera stabilization to eliminate camera shake and maintain alignment among exposures. Combining the different exposures can be done with software like Photomatix or masking in Photoshop. Be aware that HDR tonemapping can result in oversaturation and obvious manipulation that has become a seriously overused. Try to achieve a more natural look or go for a black and white presentation as in the example above.

HandlePod Makes Low Light Photography Fast and Simple

Fire Jugglers

Fire Jugglers shot with camera supported on HandlePod.

The worst thing about using a tripod is it slows you down. The best thing about a tripod is it slows you down. Both statements are true depending on your approach to photography and what you are trying to do. A tripod makes you think more carefully about the photograph—composition, exposure settings, focus. It is a more contemplative, involving process that can yield better results. If time is not an issue, then a tripod is an essential piece of equipment for low light night photography.

Time is Important

But what if your time is limited? What if you are on a tour or traveling with a companion who is in more of a hurry-up mode than you are? Setting up a tripod might not be the best approach in that situation. In that case, a pocket size tripod alternative like HandlePod is the better choice. Lightweight, fast and easy to use, it can save the shot when a tripod is unavailable, inconvenient, or prohibited.

HandlePod is Fast

HandlePod folds compactly under the camera, ready for instant use.

HandlePod folds compactly under the camera, ready for instant use.

Speed is a major advantage of HandlePod. Keep it folded on the bottom of the camera ready for instant use. When needed, fold it out, press it against any convenient support and shoot. Be sure to use a remote release or a two second timer to avoid camera vibration. Used correctly, HandlePod yields tripod solid exposures of any length that are free of camera shake.

Set the Camera to Manual

Manual exposure and manual focus are best for night photography. Establish a basic exposure for the lighting situation then make adjustments for each shot. Since cameras have a difficult time accurately measuring night illumination it is best to bracket exposure times over several stops. Keep the ISO setting low to minimize grain. It is best to focus manually since auto focus is less than reliable in low light. Color balance should also be pre set though auto white can work very well. Here it is possible to experiment with different settings. Start with Tungsten and go from there to see what works best.

By pre-setting the camera and having the HandlePod attached and ready to go, you will be able to shoot quickly. You can take advantage of low light photography that would take considerably more time using a tripod. And you are able to travel light with a minimum of weight and bulk.