IS/VR and the Tripod

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I am just as fascinated and fond of image stabilizing technology as the next person, and can’t imagine buying a new long lens without it.  However, when I look at my work, I am struck by the fact the most of my best shots with were taken with some form of camera support.  I am lazy about turning VR off when I use support, but often I am shooting wildlife from a window mount (Kirk WM-2 with the Kirk BH-1 Ball head), and there is enough residual motion, either from engine vibration, the flex in the vehicle window, or not having just that perfect sweet spot on the ball head, to justify leaving it on.  Hands down, a solid tripod and substantial head produce significantly sharper images than any other method.  I know you have heard it all before, but it is always worth repeating.   

To dampen vibrations even more, I have a hook under my Gitzo 1340 tripod and Arca-Swiss B-1 head to allow me to suspend my day pack underneath. The pack, or a tote bag with two 4 lb bean bags weighs about 13 pounds.  Try this.  First push your tripod with nothing suspended, and then add the weight.  Now try to push your tripod again with your finger… The extra weight slung below the tripod provides a large measure of stability to an already good tripod system.  I have taken this a step further by plopping a 4 pound beanbag on top of the lens and of course using a remote release.  The beanbag provides mass for smooth movement of the camera and lens to get and stay on target.  I am increasingly using the bean bag on the lens from the window mount as well. The latest model Gitzo tripods come with a ‘ground set’ which allows the photographer to remove the center column (useful for a scope, perhaps) and attach the hook under the base plate – expressly for the purpose above.

I don’t know about you, but when I hit the shutter release and see my focus bracket momentarily jump off target, I know I could have made a better shot.  Forget about shutter speed for a moment; I am always trying to get to 1/500s or faster anyway.  The difference in image sharpness is due to support. Here is a novel shot below.  Forget about 1/500s, this was a full 3 second exposure under atrocious lighting conditions at 5:10 on an overcast winter afternoon.

Nothing moved but the thrush

Nikon D200, 70-200mm f/2.8 lens, TC17 II teleconverter, 3 sec, F/8

Let’s take my bean bag thing again for a moment, forgetting IS/VR for the time being.  Both shots below were taken the exact same way.  The shot on the right, clearly the better of the two, was taken with the beanbag on top of the lens. They were deliberately set up in  a shady low contrast scene to challenge my equipment.

  • Nikon D200, 300mm f/4 lens with Nikon 2X converter at about 36 ft in the shade.  This shot is difficult for the lens to resolve anyway since I focused on the cheek of the frog, not a sharp point with contrast. 
  • The camera was mounted on the Gitzo tripod/Arca-Swiss B-1 head by the lens foot with a 13 lb pack suspended between the tripod legs to give more mass and stability to the set up.
  • The shutter was triggered by remote cable release.  The exposure was aperture preferred, at f/8 and about 1/30s.
  • The RAW shots are cropped identically and saved as JPEG.  The exposure was increased ½ stop to make viewing easier.

Here is the original of the frog on the left...and the solid tripod set-up.

John Shaw, a professional nature photographer, uses at least two VR long zooms, and yet writes that the number of hand-held shots he makes in a year is ‘miniscule’.   Art Morris is also a dedicated tripod user and is known for his birds, not exactly sloth-like subjects.  On the other side of the ocean, Chris Gomersall, another professional bird photographer, does little without supporting his cameras.   Shaw was reported to have commented after learning that a consumer products reviewer suggested getting the cheapest tripod you could buy, something to the effect that it was good comment, because it would eliminate his competition.

So how well does IS/VR measure up hand-held versus tripod mounted?  Let’s take the images below, ISO 100 as follows:  Nikon D200, 70-200mm f/2.8 VR lens plus a 1.4 teleconverter which yields 200 X 1.4 = 280 X 1.5 {DX chip} = 420mm, generally considered a magnification that cannot consistently be successfully hand-held.  These frames were originally shot as RAW at 1/160s and f/8, increased 1 stop of exposure, and further adjusted using the Auto Levels tool in Photoshop.

1. Hand-held 2. Tripod, VR on 3. Tripod and beanbag, VR on 4. Tripod and beanbag VR off

Which is your choice?  I am looking at the word 'ON'.  Number one is impressive given the magnification and the fact that this is 420mm hand-held at 1/160s.  Overall, I like number 4, with VR off, but 3 and 4 are very close.

Here is what the original looked like to give the test some perspective:

By-the-way, when I started shooting for this test I noticed at slower shutter speeds far more crap and dust on the sensor showed up in the image than at 1/500s and 1/1000s.  This was particularly true in one case where the background was sky.

One more thing.  If you do most of your shooting from a suspended wooden deck, then you will want to consider spiked feet for your tripod.  Did you ever pass through your stereophile days?  The inverted cones on the bottom of your turntable transmitted less vibration.  Some consumer grade Manfrotto tripods have the spikes built in.  You get the privilege of paying extra for the Gitzo accessory, but you are buying a professional product, and if you are willing to bite the bullet on a carbon fiber model, such as the Gitzo GT2530 I just bought as my travel/scope tripod, you will find that vibration dissipation is a hallmark of that material..

 I think we all understand very well that shooting birds, butterflies and other wildlife more often precludes the use of tripods and window mounts.  It goes with the territory.  But this treatise was designed to discuss something I have not been able to find on the Web, and I suspect there are others with similar questions and views.  So these are my thoughts.  Your comments are welcome.


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