This is how the life of a photographer goes sometimes. You’re driving home on Highway 13, right around dusk. You glance off to your left and note that the moon, at an 8% crescent is going to set shortly, and it’s probably going to do so right behind the San Francisco skyline.
So what do you do? Well, if you’re me, you step on it and race for Grizzly Peak Road, a scenic, meandering two-lane stretch of tarmac that winds through the hills above Oakland and Berkeley while offering some spectacular views of the Bay Area, including the Bay Bridge, the San Francisco skyline, Oakland, Berkeley, and sometimes, the Golden Gate Bridge, too.
You get there, and you hastily pop your trunk, yanking out your lightweight carbon-fiber tripod and the 5D Mark III you’re shooting with. It’s cold, windy, and the moon is taking a nosedive, taking on a blood-orange color.
The tripod’s legs fly open, and the 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II you’re using (the city is some distance away and using a telephoto lens to compress the distance will make the moon look nice and big, too) already has an Arca-Swiss-compatible plate on it that locks into your ballhead with a couple of twists.
You flip on live view and adjust zoom and focus. Fortunately, the 5D Mark III has a top-notch focusing system and you lock focus on the Bay Bridge instantly.
You set the camera’s timer to a 2-second delay, make sure everything is locked down, manual focus, and you press the shutter button, then step away.
The mirror is already up because live view is on, so you’re not worried about the mirror slap causing any vibrations that would ruin your 10-second exposure. That moon is sinking…
The camera clicks, and you wait breathlessly. The image comes up and you wince because you the exposure is slightly off, but nothing you can’t fix in post. But you get a big grin on your face because gosh darn it, that moon is perfectly exposed. The image needs a tiny it of cleanup, but that’s no big deal.
Then you zoom in and your heart sinks. Everything – the moon, the bright lights of the city, everything, it’s all blurry.
Something clearly shook your camera. Something made it move, ever so slightly – you can see that in the zoomed-in image. The lights have wavy trails and the moon has a “shaken” look.
As you’re puzzling the problem over, a gust of wind causes the strap on your camera to bump against your tripod. Just like that, everything clicks.
You fix the problem, manage to make one or two successful shots, then call it quits.
So – what was the problem? Well, there were a couple of things.
First, my tripod. It is a beaut – a carbon-fiber Induro CT-014, identical to the ones we rent at BorrowLenses.com. I had rented that tripod so many times, I finally ended up buying one from a photographer in Orlando while I was out there vacationing. It’s a fantastic tripod and is super-lightweight.
Which is kind of the problem sometimes. A super-lightweight tripod can be great for your back, but it’s not always the best thing to use in windy circumstances. A heavier tripod would’ve been a better choice, but since I didn’t have one, I used my small satchel that’s weighed down with a laptop and a bunch of other stuff to stabilize my tripod. The CT-014 has a hook on the underside of the central column that you can hang stuff off for that very purpose.
The second thing was that strap. Even a lightweight strap, bumping against a tripod, swinging in the wind, can cause camera shake. I hurriedly stripped that strap off (if you do this with a rented camera, make sure you don’t lose the strap as that may result in a replacement fee) and tossed it into my camera bag.
Finally, after setting the timer on my camera, I stood to the right of it rather than behind it. The wind was from the right, so I tried as best I could to block it from reaching my camera. I don’t know how successful I was at that, but I’m a large man, so I suspect it did some good.
Those steps help stabilize the camera enough that I was able to get some decent shots. The next night, I came back with a weighted sand bag to stabilize my tripod and shot again, this time with no problems whatsoever.
The moral of the story? Lock it down! Here’s a few tips to keep in mind when shooting outdoors to avoid camera shake.
- Use a heavy tripod. We rent the Induro AT-413, which is a great heavy-duty tripod (and one I’m going to buy soon).
- If you want to stick with your lightweight tripod, bring something to weigh it down. Carry an empty canvas bag, then weight it down with rocks or sand if you’re travelling. No need to weigh down your camera bag.
- Take off any extraneous items from your camera. Straps, fetishes, whatever. Anything that bangs against or swings freely can induce camera shake.
- Place your tripod in a sheltered area. A 275-lbs human being may not always be available to shelter your camera from the wind. Try using the landscape for this, or carry something like a reflector or an umbrella to help with this.
- Bump up your ISO and shoot at a faster shutter speed. The less time your camera’s shutter stays open, the less it’s going to be susceptible to the shakes.
- Use a cable release, and make sure you chose the “Mirror Up” option. Using Live View should take care of the mirror for you.
These few tips should help make sure that your images are as motion-blur-free as possible. As always, questions and feedback are welcome in the comments below.