I had a few students discussing tripods, mono pods, etc. this week in my travel class, and thought I'd continue the discussion here.
For those of you using vibration reduction (VR per Nikon) and Image Stabilized (IS per Canon) lenses, you might think you can get away with not using a tripod or other form of stability. While these features are terrific and can gain you up to 2 stops of shutter speed hand-held, it all depends upon how steady you are and how long your lens is and the shutter speed is for that situation.
For optimum results, a tripod is the best choice. It allows you to carefully set up your composition, use settings that give you great DOF, -or just the depth you want, choose a slower shutter speed to give you more DOF or to capture some action in the still scene. REMEMBER - turn off your stabilization motor when mounted on the tripod for sharper results.
There are times, though, when a tripod is NOT always going to be allowed, or make practical sense, so here are some other options and their pros and cons:
a) mono pods - these are great for adding some stability when you need it, but either can't carry it or are not allowed to use a tripod as it takes up too much space where you are. The most effective way to use one it to wrap one leg around the mono pod, and hug the pod close to your body. This uses the body as the other 'legs' and creates a quasi-tripod, at least in effect. I can usually gain 2-3 shutter speeds with this method. Having a small ball head on the tripod is useful to allow you some flexibility in positioning the camera, too. And panning using a mono pod can be very effective, as it helps to keep the up/down motion to a minimum as you are moving horizontally with the pan.
b) table top tripods - those tiny little tripods we often see people using with small cameras are really very useful for more 'serious' photographers, too. I carry one with me when I travel and I have a small ball head mounted to it; I press it against my chest and it gives me about 1-2 stops more stability. It's also great if you have a table, rock, fence post, etc. that you can set it on, but so often they are not in the perfect position, so propping it on my chest and holding the camera with two hands when I shoot works very well.
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c) bean bags - while these can be heavy - they can also be emptied and refilled when you get somewhere - with dried beans, rice, sand, etc. I use one on my car window to cradle the lens when shooting from the car as a blind. I have used one over the railing in an Egyptian tomb when tripods were not allowed. I have also used them for macro work when getting very close to the ground and my tripod/ball head combination won't get me there. I also used one to rest my lens on the lower railing of a small yacht when photographing harbor seals in Alaska. They can be simply a heavy duty freezer zip lock bag, doubled, and filled with your choice of materials!
d) Tension strap: This little idea has taken form in various homemade versions, and currently Kirk Enterprises makes one that's convenient to use and not too expensive. The theory behind these straps is that by inserting your foot into a loop, or stepping on the strap, that is attached to the tripod mount hole on your camera, you are creating tension and therefore some stabilizing to the hand-held camera. I can tell you I used one in the markets at twilight in Egypt and it worked very well! Kirk's has a quick-release plate that matches his base plates for cameras, so if you are not using a slotted type of release plate system, this will not work but you can easily make your own screw-in top to the webbing with a little ingenuity and sewing skills.
The bottom line of it is that no picture, no matter how great the moment, how dynamic the composition, or dramatic the light, is worth keeping if you didn't get a sharp image. Camera shake is the #1 pitfall for photographers who think they can hand hold solidly enough as average shutter speeds of 1/20-1/60. Don't let it happen to you!
Have a great week, everyone.