Friday Foto Talk: Noise, ISO and Your Camera   8 comments

A clear, quiet morning at Bench Lake, Mt. Rainier National Park. 30 mm., 1/60 sec. @ f/11, ISO 320, handheld.

Camera makers have been providing ever higher quality images, with lower noise at higher ISOs.  No, I’ve not become a cheerleader for big corporations.  But this little factoid is true nonetheless.  By the way, a rule of thumb:  the larger the sensor in your camera, the less noise you’ll have when shooting at high ISO.  It’s one reason that cameras with full-frame sensors have become so popular.  Size isn’t the only thing affecting noise, but it’s an important factor.

Besides sensor size, camera makers have been improving noise performance across the board, even on crop-frame sensors.  It’s especially true with high ISOs, but noise has also improved for very long exposures.  My last post focused on ways you can shoot without a tripod, the easiest way being to simply raise ISO.  This post will cover some tips on balancing noise and ISO with your exposure needs.

A hoary marmot is getting ready to chow down on some lupine high up on Mt. Rainier, Washington.  100 mm., 1/500 sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 500, handheld.

A hoary marmot is getting ready to chow down on some lupine high up on Mt. Rainier, Washington. 100 mm., 1/500 sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 500, handheld.

The Oregon Coast Range.   135 mm., 0.8 sec. @ f/9, ISO 100, tripod.

The Oregon Coast Range. 135 mm., 0.8 sec. @ f/9, ISO 100, tripod.

Don’t fixate on how high ISO can be set on your particular camera model.  That’s pretty well meaningless.  Just because you can set your ISO over 25,000 doesn’t mean you’ll be able to shoot a decent picture at anywhere near that ISO.  Think of the max ISO advertised for a given camera as a general guide to ISO performance.  Real-world shooting is the only way to see how high the ISO can be set for a given situation, and still allow a fairly sharp image to be captured with low levels of noise.

So Heres a TIP:  Fairly soon after buying a new camera, learn how high you can raise ISO and still capture an image with manageable amounts of noise.  Manageable noise is noise that you can handle with the software you have.  Lightroom does a very good job with noise, but there are plug-ins (like the great Topaz DeNoise) that can reduce or even eliminate high levels of noise.  It’s going to take some practice with both your camera and your software.

I got a kayak!  Here it is 1st time on saltwater on a bay at the Oregon Coast.  Handheld shot.

I got a kayak! Here it is 1st time on saltwater on a bay at the Oregon Coast. Handheld shot with polarizer.

While you’re figuring out what that ISO ‘tipping point’ is, remember these two caveats:

  • Caveat 1:  As I’ve mentioned in several prior posts, the longer your focal length, the faster your shutter speed needs to be for sharp pictures.  This also means, assuming you’re off-tripod, that you’ll need to raise ISO more for shots with longer focal lengths.  Obviously you’ll need to raise ISO more for dimly lighted subjects as well.
  • Caveat 2:  This one is more subtle and refers to the shadowed or dark areas in your image.  If you anticipate later filling (brightening) those areas on the computer, you will have increased noise in those areas (but not so much in brighter areas). The more brightening you need to do in post-processing, the more noise you’ll need to handle.  But it’s area-specific.
Precious rain, Oregon.  100 mm. macro lens, 1/40 sec. @ f/13, ISO 400, tripod.  ISO raised for faster shutter b/c of breeze.

Precious rain, Oregon. 100 mm. macro lens, 1/40 sec. @ f/13, ISO 400, tripod.

This guy l ives along Coldwater Lake, Mt. St. Helens.  100 mm. macro, 1/40 sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 1250, hand-held.

This little guy lives along Coldwater Lake, Mt. St. Helens. 100 mm. macro, 1/40 sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 1250, hand-held & braced against a rock.

This relationship between the variable brightness of your scene and noise means, in effect, that you can get away with raising ISO more for overall higher-key (brighter) images that have fairly even illumination than you can for lower-key (darker) images that have a lot of dynamic range (contrasting illumination) across the frame.  Of course, if you anticipate leaving shadowed areas fairly dark, you don’t have to worry so much about noise; it won’t be visible.  That was true for the dark face of that marmot above, for example.

This leads inevitably to the differences among different camera makers.  The big two, Canon and Nikon, have been competing in both the low-noise/high ISO arena and the resolution (megapixel) arena.  Meantime, Sony has been working a lot on dynamic range, along with (more recently) ISO/noise.  I could say a lot more about this but it won’t really help you take better pictures, so I won’t.  Remember, this is not the blog for specific gear recommendations.

A  monkey flower at Mt. Rainier.  100 mm. macro, 1/250 sec. @ f/5.6, ISO 1250, hand-held & small breeze.

A monkey flower at Mt. Rainier. 100 mm. macro, 1/250 sec. @ f/5.6, ISO 1250, hand-held & small breeze.

The important thing is to use the camera you have in your hands to its limits.  Don’t hold back.  Practice with it in the dark, on moving platforms (boats, etc.), in situations where it really isn’t made to produce perfect photos.  It’s not your job to exactly match your gear’s supposed capabilities, and it’s senseless to wish for something with more megapixels, or more dynamic range.  Rather it’s your job to stretch the capabilities of your gear.  If you really work at this, you’ll invariably miss on a lot of shots.  But those you hit on will shine!

Have a wonderful weekend, and happy shooting!

Back home!  Sunset in the Columbia River Gorge, Oregon.  50 mm., 6 sec. @ f/11, ISO 50, tripod.

Back home! Sunset in the Columbia River Gorge, Oregon. 50 mm., 6 sec. @ f/11, ISO 50, tripod.


Friday Foto Talk: Shooting without a Tripod   19 comments

Along the Little Missouri River, North Dakota

Along the Little Missouri River, North Dakota.  Shot hand-held, 29 mm., 1/125 sec. @ f/11, ISO 250.


It’s Friday, yippee!  That means it’s time for Friday Foto Talk.  I’ve been out camping a lot lately so have been skipping weeks here and there.  This is the conclusion to my little series on tripod use (or non-use).    Check out the other three posts in the series.

Do you find yourself without a tripod and wish you had brought one?  Well, that’s what this post is about.  The idea of a tripod is to stabilize the camera (I know, Captain Obvious strikes again).  A good solid tripod is just the best way to stabilize a camera; it’s not the only way.

In dim light, and without a tripod (or flash), you essentially have just two choices (three if you count not shooting at all).  First, you can raise the ISO high enough that your shutter speed is fast enough to hand-hold the camera.  Or second, you can find some other way to stabilize the camera, keeping the ISO low and allowing you to blur motion (for example water).  The rest of the post is about how to put these two options into practice.

A baby grouse in North Cascades National Park, Washington.  Hand-held 100 mm., 1/160 sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 400, cropped.

A baby grouse in North Cascades National Park, Washington. Only had my 100 mm. macro lens, hand-held: 1/160 sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 400, cropped.

The first plan works pretty well in many situations, depending on the type of camera you have.  Of course, anytime you raise ISO, you need to think about noise.  Next post I’ll do a follow-up that goes into the issue of noise, ISO and you.

So you’re raising ISO and shooting unencumbered by a tripod.  This is the time to practice your hand-holding technique.  No, not that hand-holding technique.  I’m assuming you can decide on your own whether to link fingers with your girl or go with the standard palm grasp.

  • Elbows braced against the body, relaxed upright body, with legs slightly spread forming 2/3 of a tripod.  Even better, if possible make it a full tripod by bracing your hips and upper body against a tree or fence.
  • If you’re thinking of shooting from a low point of view, why not go all the way and lay on your belly with elbows forming a natural tripod.  There’s a reason marksmen choose this position for very long shots.
  • Relaxed but firm grip on the camera, other hand cradling the lens palms up.
  • Slow easy breathing, and a gentle squeeze of the shutter.  Some sort of roll the index finger across the shutter button.  Just don’t jab at it.
A bluebell, Olympic Mtns., WA.  Hand-held, 200 mm. w/Canon 500D close-up filter, 1/320 sec. @ f/9, ISO 200.

A bluebell, Olympic Mtns., WA. Hand-held, 200 mm. w/Canon 500D close-up filter, 1/320 sec. @ f/9, ISO 200.

Foggy Hurricane Ridge, Washington, this is a selfie!  Tripod, 100 mm., 1/13 sec. @ f/9, ISO 100.

Foggy Hurricane Ridge, Washington, this is a selfie! Tripod, 100 mm., 1/13 sec. @ f/9, ISO 100.

Say you don’t want to raise ISO and want to go with the second option.  For example, you’re after a smooth-blur waterfall, with sharp rocks and trees, and you don’t have a tripod.  Or you’re in the city and you want to blur the scurrying about of pedestrians or car tail-lights and keep all the surroundings sharp.

Here’s the basic procedure:

  • Set the camera up just as if it was on a tripod: shutter delay, mirror lockup, low ISO, maybe even a polarizer or neutral density filter.
  • Find a flat place to place the camera: a log, a rock, railing, or just the ground.  How high does the camera need to be?  Prop the lens up with a scarf, hat, stone or stick, anything you can find.

Be careful!  If it’s an elevated platform – rock outcrop over a river, stone wall over pavement, or a railing on a bridge – keep the strap around your neck.  Remember your camera is NOT secure when you’re doing this.

  • Either set the camera directly on your chosen pedestal or lay something in between as a cushion (see below).
  • It’s hard to keep the pedestal out of your shot (especially a wide-angle), so you may need to do some finagling to get clearance beneath and beside the lens.  I use LiveView in these situations, checking for out of focus blobs in the very-near foreground, adjusting as necessary.
  • I usually set the camera on my pack or on soft clothing, but a small bean bag is perfect for this.  You can buy them at camera outlets.  They actually have plastic pellets not beans (which absorb water), and so are light and easy to throw in your pack.
  • Finally, you’re ready to shoot as long an exposure as light will allow, with no tripod!
Barred owl, Hoh Rainforest, Olympic N.P., WA.  Tripod, 200 mm., 1.6 sec. @ f/5.6, ISO 200.

Barred owl, Hoh Rainforest, Olympic N.P., WA. Tripod, 200 mm., 1.6 sec. @ f/5.6, ISO 200.

If you practice the above techniques, you won’t allow the lack of a tripod lead to blurry photos.  You’ll move closer to becoming a complete photographer (who is, after all, a problem solver).  I’m not saying you should sell your tripod.  Just let each situation dictate whether you use a tripod or not.

Get out shooting this weekend, and, for at least one day, forget your tripod.  Practice your hand-held technique.  For each lens (and focal length) you use, find the minimum shutter speed required for a sharp picture, and in dim conditions practice raising ISO to various levels.  Find interesting places to place the camera, keeping ISO low and shooting long exposures without a tripod.  Happy shooting!

Sunset at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in SW Washington.  Hand-held, 30 mm., 1/40 sec. @ f/11, ISO 400.

Sunset at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in SW Washington. Hand-held, 30 mm., 1/40 sec. @ f/11, ISO 400.


Wordless Wednesday: Tipsoo Lake   4 comments

Single-Image Sunday: Fog over the Trees   11 comments

Subalpine firs filter fog atop Hurricane Ridge, Olympic National Park, Washington

Subalpine firs filter fog atop Hurricane Ridge, Olympic National Park, Washington

I missed Friday Foto Talk, out camping.  The conclusion to my series on tripods will post this coming Friday.  In the meantime, here’s an image from a great time I had last week in Olympic National Park.  It was taken hand-held, no tripod.

An unusual display of fog and weather greeted me when I arrived on top of Hurricane Ridge on Washington’s northern Olympic Peninsula.  It had rained the previous couple days, though not hard, and a transition to drier weather was taking place.  The fog and low clouds that had formed over the coast of the Strait of Juan de Fuca started rising and dissipating as the air cooled toward sunset.

The stately subalpine firs that dominate the forest near tree-line on Hurricane Ridge not only were filtering the fog as it rose up the steep slopes, they seemed to be adding their own moisture (via transpiration) to the mix too.  The result was really beautiful as viewed through the low rays of the sun to the west.

As I hiked to the top of Hurricane Hill, the quick-moving fog several times enveloped me, causing me to stop and look around in wonder at the dreamy atmosphere.  I’ll post some more shots in a future post.  I was distracted so many times I barely made it to the top for sunset.  It was a memorable evening.

Friday Foto Talk: Tripods and When to Use Them   14 comments

Good morning Glacier Park!  While a tripod wasn’t really necessary here, it allowed me to lower the ISO.  50 mm., 1/25 sec. @ f/9, ISO 50

Let’s continue with tripods.  Not what to buy, that’s not so interesting.  This series is about when and how to use them.  Check out the other posts.

I’ve found many people don’t use tripods when they should, causing blurry pictures from camera movement.  But I’ve also seen plenty of people using them when they’re not needed.  Believe it or not the answer to “when do I use a tripod?” is not “always”.  Each situation is different, a truism in photography if there ever was one.

Whether or not to use a tripod is a question often ignored in photography education.  I think it’s because so many workshop leaders & teachers don’t consider things from a learning photographer’s perspective.  Back before we got serious about our photos, when we were shooting casual snapshots, we never used a tripod.  Now we hear and read that one is always necessary for quality images.  I’m here to call bull on that, and I hope this series is giving you reason to believe that there are no hard and fast rules.

Boats spend the night at Deception Pass, Whidbey Island on Puget Sound, Washington. I used a tripod because of the low light of dawn.  50 mm., 1/4 sec. @ f/11, ISO 50.

Boats spend the night at Deception Pass, Whidbey Island on Puget Sound, Washington. I used a tripod because of the low light of dawn. 50 mm., 1/4 sec. @ f/11, ISO 50.

Are you someone who doesn’t use it enough?  Or are you never without your tripod?  Only you know which end of the spectrum you’re on.  All I’m saying is to consider both the pros and the cons of using a tripod for each situation (see Part I), and don’t over-react and swing over to the other end of the spectrum.

There are, of course, those occasions when a tripod is at the least very helpful and at most plain necessary for a sharp image.  For example, if the light is low and/or you’re using a small aperture for depth of field, definitely use a tripod.  That’s why you paid good money for one.  But other times they are just in the way.  Isn’t it better, when possible, to be free to move around quick and easy?  If it’s bright and you don’t need it, or if seconds count, hand-held is the way to go.

Last Sunday I gave an example of when using a tripod for a landscape image might not be a good idea.  Now let’s look at a couple more examples.  As usual, my focus here is on landscape and nature photography, but the advice certainly applies to other types, especially street/architecture.


I got the shot below last week in the northern Idaho panhandle.   I was looking for a nice place to swim.  We’ve been having an intense heat wave in the western U.S.  I found a short hike along a stream named Myrtle Creek.  It was mid-morning and very bright out, so I didn’t anticipate any good photo opportunities (my main goal being full bodily immersion).  But I grabbed my camera with the wide-angle lens.  At the last minute, despite wanting to go light with no pack, I grabbed my tripod.

An idyllic waterfall and swimming hole: Idaho panhandle near Bonner's Ferry.  16 mm., 1.3 sec. @ f/13, ISO 50.

An idyllic waterfall and swimming hole: Idaho panhandle near Bonner’s Ferry. 16 mm., 1.3 sec. @ f/13, ISO 50.

If I’m going a short distance, I tend to just bring the tripod; if I don’t use it, no harm.  If I’m on a longer walk or hike, and especially if I have other heavier gear, I think about whether I will really need it.  If I don’t foresee using my tripod much, I may allow weight to be the deciding factor.  But I try never to allow weight to over-rule photographic considerations.

The 1+ mile trail ended at creekside.  I heard a falls, so waded carefully downstream, hopping slick rocks.   After some scrambling where the tripod was a hindrance, I came upon the waterfall from above.  I was glad I had the tripod.  The falls was mostly in shade, allowing a nice little motion-blur picture.  I also had my circular polarizer, which helped to bring out the colors of the rocks and vegetation.  After shooting I dove into the deep aquamarine pool at the base of the falls.  Heaven!

Bonus shot, from the top of the Idaho waterfall showing the swimming hole at its base.  It was  some 15 feet deep and bracing!


This crops up when you least expect it.  You’re in nice bright light, away from your tripod hiking or exploring somewhere, and you were wise enough to have your macro lens (or extension tubes or close-up filter) in your backpack.  But you saw no reason to take a tripod.  I did this recently in North Cascades National Park.  It was a daytime hike and, as usual for this park, very steep!  So no tripod.

But as usually happens in cases like this, I ran into beautiful fields of flowers, got bit by the macro bug, and was forced to make do without a tripod.  Although macro is possible without a tripod, using one sure makes life easier.  Your chances of blurring a macro picture are greatly increased when you don’t stabilize your camera.

I used my backpack for some of the shots, but positioning for macro is such a precise thing that no tripod usually means hand-holding your shots.  Raising ISO and laying on my belly with elbows forming a triangular support, I shot in burst mode (a rarity for me) in order to increase my chances.  I was pretty happy to get this picture of the beautiful tiny bell-like flowers that were in bloom all over the subalpine meadow I hiked to.

Little white bells blooming in the subalpine of North Cascades National Park, Washington.  

Thanks for tuning in.  Next week I’ll conclude the series by considering those times when you left your tripod behind but run into shutter speeds which are slow enough to cause blurring.  That is, we’ll look at tricks for how to get sharp images when you’re caught without a tripod.  Have a wonderful weekend!

Rarely do I post a mid-day landscape, but this meadow high in the North Cascades was just too beautiful regardless of the harsh light.





Single-Image Sunday: Storm over the Sierra   19 comments

An April snowstorm knocks on the door of the Sierra Nevada in California.

An April snowstorm knocks on the door of the Sierra Nevada in California.

I’ve been covering tripod use on Friday Foto Talk lately.  Since I missed this past Friday, I thought I’d relate something that happened this past spring along the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada in California.  It’s an example of when using a tripod might cause you to miss a great shot.

A storm was trying to force its way over the mountains from the west.  It was a strong, dramatic front, carrying snow as it turned out.  The snowstorm, once it made its way over, forced me to abandon any hope of making it to Mono Lake, which I had hoped to reach by sunset that evening.

Most of the Sierra were covered in clouds, the sky dominated by grays.  But I could see the potential if I could just catch a break in the clouds, so I kept my head on a swivel as I drove.

Sure enough, I looked back over my shoulder and saw a field with cows grazing, the clouds beyond showing signs of breaking.  After a quick U-turn, I approached the meadow and saw the mountains starting to emerge.  But it looked to be a small & brief window, the kind that closes up as fast as it appears.

Instead of getting the tripod out and taking the extra half-minute to mount my camera and extend the tripod legs, I opted instead to make haste.  As I was whipping off the highway & parking on the shoulder, I decided which lens I would need, mounted it, and beat feet to a viewpoint I spied some 50 yards away.

Just as I got in position the scene came together.  I spun the ISO a bit higher so my shutter speed was fast enough to avoid blurring, held the camera as still as I could, and took the shot.  Seconds later the clouds covered the peaks again and the light dimmed.  I didn’t know if I had gotten anything decent; the mountains never revealed themselves fully.  But I knew I liked the composition.

I was happy when I looked at the picture later on.  I knew I had an image that communicated the drama of the approaching storm, a drama I had been feeling that entire afternoon.  Not really knowing what I want to shoot, but having a feel, in the back of my mind, for what I want to communicate, that’s often my goal.  For me it’s one of the most fun ways to do photography.

It could have worked out so I had plenty of time, and I would’ve felt dumb for not grabbing my tripod and getting a slightly better quality image.  But you never quite know for sure.  You need to make quick decisions while driving or hiking (even running) into position.  One is which lens you’ll use, and the other is whether to risk the extra moment to use your tripod.  The idea behind photography in my opinion is to get the shot.  It’s not to make each of your images technically perfect.

Have a great week!  And to my fellow Americans, happy Independence Day!

Friday Foto Talk: Using Your Tripod, Part II   9 comments

The Grand Tetons greet a June morning recently. 31 mm., f/15 @ 1/5 sec., ISO 100.

This is the second installment on tripods.  Not how to choose them; no recommendations on brands here.  Instead we’re going into when and how to use your tripod.  When is a tripod necessary?  And when can you get away with going light and doing hand-held photography?

It seems to me there is some confusion about tripod use out there.  Some folks can’t bring themselves to take their tripods out, and end up hand-holding the camera in light that really demands some stabilization.  They end up with far too many blurry shots as a result.  Others fall into the opposite camp.  They seem to think it’s necessary to use a tripod at all times, no exceptions.  This can, largely because of an unchanging point of view, result in lack of variety and a boring “planned” look to a collection.

The truth is this: it doesn’t matter whether you’re using a tripod or not.  What matters is that you’re getting the shots you want, at the quality you want.

I just took this shot yesterday afternoon in the aptly named Beartooth Mtns., Montana. You can only see the feet of the black cub hiding behind mom.

I grabbed this shot just yesterday afternoon in the aptly named Beartooth Mtns., near Pray, Montana. You can see the feet of the younger black cub hiding behind mom.  400 mm., f/14 @ 1/400 sec., ISO 400.

Here is what I consider when deciding whether to take my tripod with me to shoot (I always have it in the vehicle.  It makes little sense to leave it at home):

  • LIGHT:  This is by far the most important factor to consider.  Is it bright and sunny out or is the light low?  I almost always use a tripod when shooting near sunrise or sunset.  And when I’m going to be in thick trees, or if heavy cloud cover is reducing the light, I’m using my tripod.  Conversely, if it’s very bright out, I just don’t see the need to be shackled to a tripod.
  • TYPE OF LENSES:  If you’ll be using lenses with longer focal lengths, consider more seriously the use of a tripod, no matter the light conditions.  That’s because it’s much easier to come out with blurry images when shooting at longer focal lengths.  Following the old rule of thumb, i.e., shooting at a shutter speed where the denominator is no less than the maximum focal length of your lens, can demand the use of stabilization.

   In other words, if you are using a 70-200 mm. zoom lens, at any of its focal lengths, you shouldn’t try to shoot hand-held at anything slower than 1/200th second.  If the lens has built-in image stabilization, that can mean (depending on how steady your hand-hold technique is) being able to shoot at 1/100th or even 1/50th second.  But a tripod is a much more sure way to stabilize that longer lens.  For the f/2.8 versions of 70-200s, and for extra-long lenses, on the order of 400 mm. or more, take a cue from sports and wildlife photographers:  a monopod is a nice solution when you’re mobile and/or the light is bright enough.  More on monopods next time.

On a ‘go-light’ hike through a canyon in Utah where I (barely) got away without a tripod for this reflection of the cliff walls in a vernal pool.  50 mm., f/13 @ 1/50 sec., ISO 640.

  • TYPE OF SHOOTING:  Will you be doing landscapes, where the quest for great depth of field means apertures will be relatively small?  If so a tripod is usually in order because those small apertures force slower shutter speeds.  There are exceptions to this, which I’ll cover next time.  For now, just think in terms of how much freedom of movement you need, how quickly you’ll be changing positions.  Factoring in the light, does a tripod make sense?

  Will you be walking through a populated area getting candid travel shots of people and their environment?  If so, a tripod  may just get in the way.  And besides, apertures are often wide, because of the frequent need to “go shallow” in terms of depth of field, to isolate the subject against an out of focus background.  One caveat about cities:  If you’re shooting a lot of architecture a tripod can come in handy, depending on how bright the light is.

  Macro photography is very difficult (but possible) without a tripod.  Consider this:  If it’s worth the extra weight to take your dedicated macro lens on a nature/photo hike, does it make sense to leave your tripod behind?  With static portraiture you can go either way.  One one hand, why not?  You’re not carrying it anywhere.  But no matter how still the model can stay, a live subject can’t help but move a bit.  So you’re going to need faster shutter speeds no matter what. What about flash photography?  Since a flash freezes movement, you can get away without a tripod more easily.  If light is dim however, I’d use a tripod.  That’s because you may want the dimmer background of your flash-lighted subject to be sharp too.

Sandstorm, Owen's Valley, California.  A quick grab without the need for a tripod, partly because I was able to use a modest aperture.  144 mm., f/8 @ 1/250 sec.

Sandstorm, Owen’s Valley, California. A quick grab without the need for a tripod, partly because I was able to use a modest aperture.          144 mm., f/8 @ 1/250 sec., ISO 100



  • WEIGHT:  This is not a factor I ever consider by itself, but always in combination with other more important factors.  One important thing:  my tripod isn’t terribly heavy.  If you’re looking to buy one, I highly recommend spending the extra for a carbon-fiber model.  And don’t pair it with a ball-head that is overkill for the (heaviest) camera/lens combination you use a lot.

   I’m not suggesting you get a tripod that is too light for the gear you’re supporting.  But don’t get one that’s heavier than you need either.  If you plan to hike and do photography, get a carbon-fiber tripod, period.  Also, make sure your camera backpack has a tripod attachment system that holds your tripod snugly, no swaying around.

   So how to think about weight?  Weight might sway me if I’m on the fence about bringing a tripod, depending on how far I’m hiking.  But I’m always careful to not let any laziness about carrying extra weight slip into my thinking.  The goal is not to carry less weight, it’s to get better pictures.  More on this in the next post.

An older bull bison in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota.  500 mm., f/6.3 @ 1/500 sec., ISO 1000.

An older bull bison in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota.                                                     500 mm., f/6.3 @ 1/500 sec., ISO 1000.

  • TIME:  This is something I mentioned in Part I.  You may make a quick decision to forego the use of a tripod for this reason alone.  It’s always tough to make this rapid-fire decision on the fly.  But you do know when time is of the essence, when light or your subject is changing or moving quickly.  I’ve missed great shots by a second or two.  We all have.

   So if you’re the type of photographer who believes a landscape shot always demands the use of a tripod, I would reconsider your position and be more flexible.  As long as your camera does a pretty good job with noise at higher ISOs, you can get a nice sharp image before the light changes.

In the next installment, we’ll look at some examples to highlight how and when to use camera stabilization of all types, whether it’s a tripod, a monopod, or just a rock.

While shooting (on a tripod), I was getting hit by a big dose of steam from this hot spring along the Firehole River, Yellowstone.   16 mm., f/13 @ 1.6 sec., ISO 100.

While shooting (on a tripod), I was getting hit by a big dose of steam from this hot spring along the Firehole River in Yellowstone.
16 mm., f/13 @ 1.6 sec., ISO 100.



Two for Tuesday: Natural Gas & Climate Change   3 comments

Rainbow over a drill rig, Bakken Field, North Dakota

I’m not going to get political here, don’t worry.  I actually long for the days when climate change was a scientific not political issue.  It seems strange now but before the late 80s/early 90s global warming was discussed among scientists.  Not many of the general public knew about it or cared.

But in the scientific community, it was already a well-studied and discussed phenomenon.  It really gained traction in the 1960s when a critical mass of data had been collected.  Especially influential were the (steadily rising) carbon dioxide readings from the top of Mauna Loa, a large shield volcano making up much of the island of Hawaii.  You can’t find a better spot to collect samples of the atmosphere, untainted by any local sources of pollution.

I recall taking a university seminar on paleoclimatology and seriously considering focusing on that, using glaciology to study it.  I didn’t, perhaps because I was scared off by the sheer complexity of the subject (so many variables and feedback loops!).  But I wonder what it would’ve been like, mid-career, to witness it become such a silly political football.

These two images are from the Bakken Field in western North Dakota.  Bakken is the name for the oil field and also the geological formation, a shale that lies more than 10,000 feet beneath the prairie.  Much of the drilling in the Bakken nowadays is for natural gas not oil (though that is still big too).  Gas is what this large drill rig in the picture at top is going for.  Although there is plenty of gas in this well, it will still be fracked to recover even more.  At least here in the Bakken, fracking does not endanger water supplies; it’s just too deep and is also cut off from shallower aquifers by impermeable shale beds.

All over this part of North Dakota you see gas flares, one of which is pictured with the setting sun at bottom.  Although these flares of course release methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere, they are quite necessary for safety.  And they don’t even begin to compare to the gas released from pipelines between here, the source, and the refineries.  Hooked to each gas flare is a monitor which measures how much gas is escaping.  The problem really lies in the pipelines, where we just don’t have a good handle on how much is being released.  I think that has to change.

The world is definitely warming, not evenly of course (as if any reasonable person would expect that).  We are in large part responsible for that, and I believe that human influence on climate extends back to the dawn of agriculture, over 9500 years ago.  We aren’t the first life-form to influence the world’s atmosphere and climate, and neither have we caused the biggest changes (single-celled bacteria hold that honor when they infused the atmosphere with oxygen).

But two things:  (1) we aren’t done yet; and (2) although the world has seen big changes in climate in the past, this change promises to affect us and the rest of the world’s life forms in huge ways.  We’ve built up our culture and changed our very natures as a result.  So even though we won’t be rendered extinct by climate change (probably), the changes coming are such that civilization could very well be thrown into utter chaos.  And that’s on top of causing the 6th major extinction of life across the board.

As many have said, it’s a moral issue.  Can we in good conscience leave that sort of world to our descendants and the creatures who share this planet with us?  The pope spoke about climate change this past week.  More religious leaders need to join ranks.  But most of all, we need real fundamental change in how we produce and use energy.  And now it’s bordering on a political post, so I’ll stop there.

Natural gas flares into the sky at sunset, North Dakota

Friday Foto Talk: Tripod or Not, Part I   6 comments

The grassy shore of Lake Quinalt on Washington's Olympic Peninsula is perfect for a sunset stroll.

Did I need a tripod for this?  The grassy shore of Lake Quinalt on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula is perfect for a sunset stroll.

Tripods are one of the most essential of photography accessories.  That’s mostly because stabilizing the camera is the surest route to sharp images.  But in case you’re wondering, let me say right off the bat that this post is not about choosing a tripod.  I assume you either already have or soon will have a tripod/head setup which suits your camera equipment and budget.  So this post is about the decision to use your tripod.

 For movement blur in this little unnamed waterfall in Washington, I needed a tripod.  But the water was almost too deep to use one.

For movement blur in this little unnamed waterfall in Washington, I needed a tripod. But the water was almost too deep to use one.

If I was like other photography bloggers and teachers, this would be a very short post.   I’d say, “anytime you want sharp images (most of the time, right?), put your camera on a tripod and leave it there, no exceptions.  If I gave you that advice I’d be a hypocrite.  Actually, I very often shoot hand-held, my tripod sitting (lonely) in my van or at home.  And I’m not talking only candid portraiture or when using a flash.  I’ve done plenty of landscape photos hand-held as well.

But why not shoot from a tripod (or at least a monopod) all the time?  It’s not that simple.  Here are the pros and cons of using a tripod:


  • Image Quality:  A tripod allows you to use the lowest ISO your camera has, and that will result in an image without noise.  Noise will negatively impact any image, and though you can use software to reduce or eliminate it, that process softens the image.
  • Image Sharpness:  If you use mirror lockup or a shutter release trigger, it doesn’t matter how slow your shutter is.  A solidly built tripod and head will keep your camera perfectly still.  Those parts of your image that are in focus will be as sharp as your lens optics can accomplish.
  • More Flexibility:  You can use as small an aperture (for depth of field or a sunstar) as you want.  If you’re on a tripod, you don’t need to worry about your shutter speed being too slow, blurring your shot.  As long as your subject isn’t moving that is.
  • Slow & Deliberate:  Using a tripod helps you to slow down.  You tend to be more deliberate about things when on a tripod, leading to more careful compositions.  Set the camera in precisely the right spot at the right height.  Then use LiveView to focus manually with great precision.  This sort of approach is essential for shooting macro/close-up, but the same logic applies to landscape and even portrait photography.
I had a tripod on a recent hike in Glacier National Park.  But didn't use it for this bighorn sheep who was shedding a winter coat.

I had a tripod on a recent hike in Glacier National Park. But didn’t use it for this bighorn sheep who was shedding a winter coat.



  • Missed Shots:  Taking the extra time to break out your tripod, short as it may be, can mean the difference between getting a fantastic image and missing it.  Whether it’s on your backpack or in your car, sometimes you just don’t have the time to set it up.  But, you may ask, “if my camera is already on the tripod, we’re not talking about any extra time, right?”  But think about it.  Using a tripod just takes more time.  Adjusting leg length between shots is just one part of that extra time.
  • Less Flexibility:  It seems as if I’m contradicting myself.  But while a tripod allows more flexibility in some ways, it takes it back in others.  When tethered to a tripod, we just don’t change perspectives as much as when shooting from the hand.  We don’t get super-low, we don’t zoom with our feet or turn around as much.  In short, we don’t get nearly as many different angles & perspectives as we get shots.  You can definitely mitigate this by forcing yourself to move around with your tripod.  But I still see plenty of photographers, parked at a scenic viewpoint, shooting picture after picture from a tripod that never moves an inch during their session.

Crater Lake, Oregon under a late winter sky on my last visit in April.

  • Restrictions:  Some places (museums for example) forbid the use of tripods, mostly because they’re a tripping hazard.  But even where they’re allowed, and if other people are around, you always need to bird-dog them.  Kids especially represent a hazard not so much to themselves but to your equipment!  Also, depending on how much adjustment your tripod has, can steep slopes enforce restrictions on where you shoot from.
  • Camera Security:  I know about this one with firsthand pain.  In sketchy situations (such as the top of a waterfall), you should certainly keep the camera strap around your neck whether using a tripod or not.  But it’s nonetheless easier to get separated from your camera when it’s mounted on a tripod.  Anytime your camera isn’t in your hand, in your bag or slung around your neck, it’s vulnerable – to theft or damage.
Going light on a hike through a canyon at Natural Bridges, Utah, and a challenging close-up of these hedgehog cactus blooms.

Going light on a hike through a canyon at Natural Bridges, Utah, and a challenging close-up of these hedgehog cactus blooms.

It may look at first glance like the pros win out over the cons.  But not so fast.  That first con is a biggie.  This may sound like hyperbole, but if you miss the biggest shot you’ll ever get the chance at, in your life, all the perfectly sharp, perfectly average images in the world won’t make up for it.

So it’s worth a part II on this subject:  we’ll look at what to consider when deciding whether or not to use your tripod.  As usual, it all depends on the situation (you knew I was going to say that!).  Happy weekend and happy shooting everyone!

Long exposures like this at Lake Tahoe demand a tripod.

Long exposures like this demand a tripod:  Lake Tahoe, California.



Glacier National Park in Spring: Things to Do   13 comments

Springtime in East Glacier, Montana

Springtime in East Glacier, Montana

Lets continue with Glacier National Park in springtime.  This post will suggest things to do if you visit the park in early season (May & June).  Check out the introductory post too.  I visited this beautiful park in NW Montana last month.  Though much of the park was snow-free, most of the high country was inaccessible because of snow.  The famous Going to the Sun Road, which crosses spectacular Logan Pass, was closed from the Avalanche trailhead & campground on the west side all the way over to the east entrance at St. Mary Lake.

Spring was in the air at lower elevations, with green meadows, flowers and busy critters.  That atmosphere, combined with relatively few other visitors and all those waterfalls made the trip very worthwhile, despite Logan Pass & St. Mary Lake being closed.

Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep.

Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep.

A Caveat:  If you’re going to Glacier to knock some shots off your photography bucket list, you should stop reading right now and find another avenue of research.  For one thing, it being early season, I wasn’t able to access ever-popular Triple Falls or St. Mary Lake (at Sun Point).  So I’m not much help for these two very popular places to shoot at Glacier.

The internet features thousands of pictures from these two spots, and it seems everybody with a camera wants to (or feels they should) see and shoot them.  They’re on the itinerary of every photo workshop at Glacier (they have to be, people would feel cheated if they weren’t).

That’s why, as those who’ve been reading this blog for awhile have probably already guessed, I’ve happily skipped them on all my trips to the park, even in summer or fall when they’re accessible.  Besides, I don’t need to keep a group of workshop participants happy.  And I don’t do bucket lists.

St. Mary Lake, East Glacier

Here are a few ideas for things to do if you come to Glacier in early season (photography suggestions follow each one):

  • Rivers & lakes are plum full in spring.  So it’s a great time to float the Flathead (north or middle forks) in a raft.  These rivers approach Class III but are mostly mellow Class I & II.  Look for outfitters based in Kalispell or Whitefish, or closer to the park at West Glacier.  This is a favorite weekend activity for local residents of the Flathead Valley.

** Action shots on the river, especially if you’re able to capture people’s expressions in the great light of a lowering sun, will make you popular with companions.  If you’re nervous about shooting on the water, buy a relatively inexpensive waterproof point and shoot camera.  But the chances of capsizing on the Flathead, especially in a raft, are slim indeed.

Swiftcurrent Creek spills over a raucous waterfall on its way from the lake of the same name.

Swiftcurrent Creek spills over a raucous waterfall from the lake of the same name.

  • Camping lakeside is a wonderful way to spend a weekend in May or early June here.  Lake McDonald is an obvious choice, but Bowman Lake, also on the west side, is more out of the way and gorgeous as well.  You’ll need to drive a gravel road into Bowman, but it’s well graded for 2WD, and in early season not too washboarded.  On the east side, camping (and hiking) along Two Medicine Lake is a superb choice.

** Campfire pictures (and videos) are sure winners.  I’m talking people pictures, not close-ups of the fire.  Help to get your group in the mood to sing and dance, then stand back with your camera on a tripod and capture both freeze-frame (higher ISO) and movement-blur shots.  Or zoom in for a close portrait of someone telling a story, face to the firelight.  Can you think of other ideas?

  • As long as you’re camping by a lake, spring is a fantastic time to paddle, either in kayak or canoe.  Morning is best to avoid any wind that may come up.  And drop a line if you’re so inclined.

** Photograph canoes & kayaks in quiet, peaceful, and watery settings at sunrise, sunset, or even in the moonlight.  Shots of people (fishing?) or just the empty boats can both work.  Sure these can look a bit cliche, but if you’re genuinely trying to capture the mood of a peaceful paddle, these types of pictures can really shine.  Of course sunset or sunrise by a lake also provides the perfect chance to shoot landscape if the light is right.

Lake Sherburne, East Glacier

Lake Sherburne, East Glacier

  • Wildlife watching & photography is great this time of year.  Dusky grouse were mating when I visited in May, and the deep “thump thump thump” calls of the male permeated the forest everywhere I went.  I saw moose and plenty of deer, along with bighorn sheep.  Mountain goat are quite common as well, especially if you hike to one of the high rocky ridges, such as Apgar Lookout near the western entrance.

I didn’t see bears this time, but they are mostly out from hibernation at this time of year.  Note: there are plenty of grizzlies in this park, so travel in groups if possible and make noise when you’re hiking (especially if alone) in areas where you can’t see far (no bells, loud talking instead).  Discretion is the better part of valor: shoot grizzlies from a distance!

** You have to be patient to get pictures of dusky grouse, but the males (like males of any species, including us) are easier to approach when they’re displaying and their minds are elsewhere.  The real challenge is to get a shot of a female!

** Bighorn sheep are fairly easy in most areas of Glacier because they are habituated to humans.  But in order to observe more natural behaviors, and to get close to young ones, you need some patience.  For both sheep and goats, if the terrain and your abilities allow, climb above them at a fair distance and circle around.  Then descend slowly, approaching from above.  That tends to keep them much more relaxed than if you were to approach from below, where most of their danger comes from.

Dusky grouse displaying his inflatable neck sac, the sound a deep thump-thump.

Dusky grouse displaying his inflatable neck sac, the sound a deep thump-thump.


Next time I’ll cover hiking at Glacier.  It might have to wait until a follow-up trip in a few weeks, after which I’ll be able to recommend not only good trails for spring, but perfect hikes for summer as well.  Happy traveling!


Flowers bloom in springtime from an out-of-the-way spot I found along Flathead Lake, Montana.

Spring flowers bloom above Flathead Lake, Montana.


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