Thirteen ways to mount a camera

We all know that a tripod is a recommended way to mount your camera for better pictures. The use of a tripod helps to stabilize the camera and prevent unwanted camera shake. It also provides a very precise platform for framing and composition. It provides repeatability from frame-to-frame. And, it nicely slows you down so that more thought and refinements may be worked into every image.

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In addition to the standard tripod, there are many methods to securely mount a camera where perhaps a tripod is not practical. And in many cases, a perspective other than the often used 5′ 7″ view point is often welcome. Let’s review some:

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The tripod may be outfitted with a very short, or no center post at all. This allows the camera to be placed almost at ground level.

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For the lowest perspective of all, an inverted center post of the tripod allows the lens to be at ground level.

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A tripod accessory option is the right-angle mount. This unit provides an unobstructed vertical view downward. Be certain to counter weight the tripod with a sand bag or shot bag for safety.

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One of the most useful grip accessories is the Magic Clamp. It will mount securely to pipe, rafter, door or window frame, limb or other sturdy fixture. A standard ball head is fitted by the use of a threaded stud.

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Here the right-angle mount us used for mounting multiple cameras. One camera is on a ball head on the threaded end of the mount and the other on a tripod ball head on a Magic Clamp with stud. A heavy, sturdy tripod is called for with this set up.

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Another near-ground perspective may be obtained with a common ball-head mounted to a piece of lumber for ground placement. Additional holes may be drilled through the wood for large nails to anchor the unit against movement.

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Another low-perspective approach is a Hollywood head or grip head fixed to a platform with a baby stud on a plate secured to a piece of lumber.

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Another use of the Hollywood head is on a Hollywood arm on a light stand. This can provide a vantage point inaccessible with a tripod. This rig must be secured with plenty of sand bags.

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An articulated Magic Arm with a magic clamp provides versatility in mounting and positioning the camera. A flat plate with tripod screw on the far end of the arm facilitates camera mounting. Whenever rigs like this are mounted in a remote position, a safety cable must be used to prevent a fall with subsequent damage or injury.

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For smooth surfaces like windows or doors, or on car hoods, this vacuum cup and mount is ideal. It is often wise to use redundant mounts for moving vehicles. Additional vacuum mounts with Magic Arms and steel rods make good secondary supports.

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A variety of ground supports are commercially manufactured. This one also doubles as a car window mount.

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And, last but certainly not least, is the tried-and-true sandbag. Whether commercially manufactured, or home-made, the sand bag provides a lot of solutions. Some commercial sand bags have built-in tripod threads for a ball head. Many folks use dry beans for the unit. I personally like heavier aquarium gravel. When traveling, take the bag empty and fill it on location.

Please remember, that with any camera mounting, safety and security are paramount. Use common sense. And always use safety cables and sandbags for all  equipment and accessories. This is especially valid if the mount is remote and the camera is not being attended.

Copyright © 2014 Brian Loflin. All rights protected.

Small, smaller, smallest: A work in progress

Commonly, when we think of close up images we envision filling the frame with subjects the size of a butterfly. When we think of macro, that subject size becomes smaller by a factor of five or so. That might be a small beetle or maybe a fly. There is a vast world that is much smaller that is worthy of our photography prowess. That is the world of ultra macro or indeed micro photography.

There are many tools used for life-sized images. The macro lens, extension tubes, bellows attachment and even microscopes. Each has its advantages,  disadvantages and limitations. Some of the major considerations when doing image capture at magnifications vastly greater than life-size include, image resolution, focus, depth of field, lighting and vibrations to name a few. The micro world is a challenging one indeed.

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The above image is the head of a bee. It is magnified about 1.6 times on the sensor. This is not a very great magnification, but in order to capture sufficient depth of field in this image 53 individual images with a different point of focus from the antennae to the rear of the head were made. Each image was spaced 0.005 inch from one another from the front to the back. These multiple images spanned the overall distance of o.265 inch.

Image making like this calls for a stable specimen and camera platform, precise and uniform movements in focus and absolutely uniform, clean lighting. In order to accomplish this a bellows and true macro lens was used with a micrometer specimen stage and electronic flash. All this apparatus may create a big problem: movement through vibrations. This really reduces image resolution.

To overcome the problems, I am assembling a specialized piece of equipment to enable the precision required. This is my work in process. The idea is not new, per se, but getting all the pieces together has been interesting. It looks like this:

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This micro set up is designed for versatility and for use from magnifications of 1:1 or life-size on the sensor with a 55 mm macro lens to magnifications of close to 40:1 with a true microscope lens on the bellows.

Camera movement is facilitated by a geared linear positioner with provisions for a stepper motor, an Arca-style plate on the positioner table and the focusing rail of the Nikon PB-4 bellows.

Subject positioning  is possible in all three X, Y, and Z planes. A cannibalized AO microscope stand provides coarse and fine movement in the vertical direction. A linear motion micrometer stage provides movement in X and Y directions. The specimen is held by an articulating holder mounted on the linear stage. (See Variable macro specimen holder) This holder will facilitate the use of pinned insects in addition to other larger materials fastened to the stage itself.

All this assembly is mounted together on a platform to reduce independent vibrations. The weight is substantial, providing additional aid in mitigating vibrations. While the current prototype mounting base is dimensional lumber, future refinements include an all-metal positioning table and the addition of a stepper motor for automating focus stacking.

The clean design without bulky tripods and other equipment in the way allows the use of SB-800 or SB-910 electronic flash on articulated arms in a unobstructed manner.

A future post will visit images made in much greater magnifications. Improvements to image resolution will be measured and discussed. Stay tuned!

Now only one spot left!

My newest South Texas Bird Photography Workshop takes off in just three and a half weeks. This four-day workshop is held at a great, purposed-designed birding ranch in the heart of the Rio Grande Valley and will be in high season for south Texas migrants and specialty species. There is a spot left for you and or a friend. For further details, please check out: The Nature Connection .

Read what a recent participant has to say:
“Thanks to Brian for the extensive preparation that he did for the South Texas bird workshop and always does for classes and meetings, as well. Brian has expansive knowledge and photographic expertise. On top of that, he is a very capable communicator and teacher who shows much interest in his students. He goes above and beyond what you would expect in order to make the learning experience worthwhile and memorable. Our South Texas trip was first rate!”
–N. Naylor, Austin, TX

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Variable macro specimen holder

Many times when photographing tiny specimens with great magnification, the best subject angle is difficult to obtain. When attempting to make a change, the images change is too great or still not the best view.

This simple subject holder provides good stability and almost infinite angles to work with. Several microscope stages are commercially available from suppliers such as BioQuip of California. However, the construction of this holder is easy and much less expensive with a only couple of dollars of common hardware store parts.

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Variable specimen holder-three views.

The holder is made with a 3/8 x 1/2 x 1 inch steel spacer sleeve, a 3/8 inch cap nut, a magnet and a bit of wire and cork. The magnet is shaped to create a friction fit when recessed a bit into the sleeve so that when the cap nut is inserted into the sleeve it will hold the nut securely in place but provide infinite rotary motion. To finish off the project a short length of wire for a handle is inserted into a hole drilled on the face of the nut and, along with the piece of cork, is epoxied into the nut. Lastly, a machine screw is epoxied into the lower end of the sleeve to use as an anchor to the macro stage.

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A- 3/8 inch steel sleeve; B- 3/8 inch cap nut; C- cork disc; D- piece of stiff wire.

Copyright © 2014 Brian Loflin. All rights reserved.

Bird photography in the heart of South Texas

The Rio Grande Valley is a mecca for bird photographers from all over. Many come to capture images of species infrequently found in the USA except for this area. You can join in on this action, too! Image An example of the action is this roadrunner with a meal of butterflies, a very unusual sight. This bird and its activity was photographed last October by Nancy Naylor, one of my bird photography workshop participants from Austin.

My workshops are be held at the Laguna Seca Ranch in the heart of the lush Rio Grande Valley. Features of this 700-acre ranch are purpose-designed for bird photography and preserved with all-native plants and animals. It features four constant-level ponds, each with permanent photography blinds oriented for the best in photography. Another set of blinds are constructed specifically for raptors. Each location has been hand-crafted, and they all provide outstanding birding and photographing opportunities. With nearly eighty species listed on the property, Laguna Seca Ranch clearly offers a unique South Texas birding and photography adventure! At Laguna Seca Ranch we bring the birds to you!

We will set up natural perches considering the best photographic light possible. Most photography of the best scenarios is just 12-15 feet from your lens! Birds have water, dripping attractions and are fed year-round so attraction of the best species is stress-free.

There are only two spaces left for my next workshop, now  scheduled from February 6-9, 2014. If you want in on the great spring action in South Texas, you should check out this opportunity here: http://www.thenatureconnection.com/SoTxBirdPhotoWS.html .

Are you using your lenses effectively?

Zoom lens photography is somewhat fairly understood. But, a lot of deep understanding is missed by the casual photographer. Sure, everyone knows that a wide angle lens, like a 24 mm, will cover a lot of countryside. Hence the name, wide angle. And it is relatively well understood that longer lenses, like a 150 mm produce a telephoto effect, bringing distant objects apparently much closer to the viewer.

But many shooters miss a lot of the benefits of zoom lenses. Remember, lenses do three things: they affect angle of view, affect image size, and perhaps most importantly, they can affect perspective. Lets examine three photographs of a farm house with fresh round hay bales.

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The first is with a “normal” focal length lens of 50 mm. This lens produces an image size and a perspective similar to the unaided eye. But the angle of view is far from that of our eyes because we humans have such exceptional peripheral vision of 140 degrees or more.

So let’s understand what we can “see” here. First we can see several of the hay bales, we can see the house and tractor surrounded by the trees. All appear reasonably sized. The background sky takes up a nice portion of the frame. Good. But there is more to understand. Let’s look at the three “grounds”, or visual zones in this photo. The row of bales make up the foreground, the home and surrounding trees, the midground and the sky and clouds become the background. These three layers are very important in a photo like this.

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The human eye enjoys this layering effect. We like to wander around in the frame inspecting what we see. But a normal lens is not our only compositional tool. We have other focal lengths at our immediate disposal. Let’s look at others.

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Let’s see what happens when we change focal lengths of our lens. For this next image an 18 mm wide angle setting was used. But, more importantly, the image was composed by moving much closer to the hay bales. This did two real important things for the view: first the bales are more emphasized in the foreground, and second, the more distant home and trees of the midground became quite small. This is an effect of changing perspective. This happened because to recompose, the point of view changed and became much closer to the bales. This results in the midground and background receding and becoming substantially smaller.

In photography, perspective is a relationship of elements within the image to other elements of the image and to the frame of the image in size and apparent distance between the elements. Perspective is dependent first, upon distance to the subject and then, lens focal length. Generally, when various focal length lenses are used from the same spot, the perspective is unchanged. That is why the more creative photographers compose with their feet, not just their lens.

Telephoto lens

The next view was made with a 180 mm lens. Some would say it is a telephoto view, bringing distant objects much closer to the viewer. Here we keep the bales as foreground interest. The house and tractor are now much larger with more detail visible. And this view produces more emphasis on the foreground and midground. The background sky is less important. It is important to know that to achieve this view, the composition had to be made from much farther back than either of the two previous views.

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So the lesson learned is to work every scene thoroughly. Certainly, use a variety of focal length lenses. But in addition, it is of paramount importance to vary the subject distance as well. Remember that changing the focal length from the same spot results in a different crop only through angle of view and image size. But to get the best results from any lens, you must vary the lens to subject distance.

Foreground elements are very important in composition. They anchor the scene and can be used to lead the eye into the scene. Depending upon their importance, the size may be easily manipulated through varying the focal length of the lens and most importantly, the lens to subject distance. Just don’t forget to compose with your feet instead of simply zooming your lens. Do both and your images will quickly improve.

Where’s the aperture ring?

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Modern Nikkor lenses: 60mm F2.8 Micro Nikkor with manual aperture ring (left) and 18-200mm F3.5 – 5.6 VR zoom. Notice the absence of the aperture ring on the zoom. Image made with Nikon D2Xs and 200 mm F4.0 Micro Nikkor and flash.

With today’s electronic technology-driven cameras, many of our exposure controls are as convenient as a finger push on the camera body. And with experience, we never have to remove our eye from the viewfinder.

The shutter speed and aperture selection is controlled electronically through the selector wheel on the camera body. However, in natural science photography there are cases where electronic aperture selection is not possible because the electronic connections between the lens and the camera body are not workable.

Do I mean the camera malfunctions? No, not at all. What I mean is that, through the addition of some components between the camera body and lens, the electronic circuitry is interrupted. This happens with some extension tubes and bellows (below), as well as microscope adapters. This is not uncommon, nor does it really pose a problem when you are aware of what’s really happening.

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So without electronic aperture selection, apertures need to be selected manually with the aperture selector ring and the exposures made in Aperture Priority (or Av) shooting mode. The camera will measure the light that falls on the internal metering sensor and set the shutter speed appropriately.

There may be one problem, however. Some lenses do not have a manual aperture selection ring on the lens barrel. Nikon calls these lenses “G” lenses. We fondly call them “gelded” lenses. Many Canon lenses are without the ring as well. So, it ends up that these are not really appropriate for this type of photography. We need to look for those lenses with aperture rings available. There a number of current Nikkor optics with the aperture ring. The 60 mm, 105 mm, and 200 mm macro lenses still have the aperture selector ring. Also the series of manual Nikkor lenses from 20 mm to 105 mm also retain the aperture selector ring.

Fortunately, under the correct circumstances, many older lenses (Canon and Nikon, too) may be used on modern D-SLR cameras. These lenses frequently have the aperture selector ring. And with adapters, Nikkor lenses may be used on Canon EOS series camera bodies. This is a nice option due to the great selection available  of Nikkor optics.