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Camera stabilization
Tripod, Monopod, Beanbag or other?
Camera stabilization – Tripod, Monopod, Beanbag or other?

We’ve all taken blurry pictures. It doesn’t matter what kind of camera you’re using - a DSLR, mirror-less, compact or smartphone.

Most of the time, the blurriness comes from "camera shake". This is when you move the camera ever-so-slightly while the shutter is open. This happens most frequently when shooting with a telephoto lens (one that can zoom-in on a subject) or when shooting with low-light conditions.

You probably don't realize that your doing it, but we ALL move the camera when we press the shutter button or touch the screen of our smartphone. No matter how careful you are, you ALWAYS blur the picture somewhat - it's just a matter of how much!

I'm sure you already know that you need to stabilize your camera for photography. The traditional method of doing this is with a tripod. But, there are other options as well.

We’ll cover some of these in this eTip along with how to minimize camera-shake while hand-holding your camera or smartphone.

If your goal is to take sharper images, knowing what tools are available to you and which tools work best in which situation is the the first step.
Stabilization Devices
Tripods
The traditional, and best camera stabilization, comes with a "stable" tripod. Tripods also require a "head", which can be as expensive as the tripod legs. There are different types of heads – the best for still photography is the "ball head", which allows fast and easy adjustments. For video, the traditional head is the "pan and tilt" head. These allow you to easily "pan" a scene. The "pan and tilt" head works well for video, but isn't a good choice for still photography, as they require a lot of adjustments.

The word "stable" generally translates to "expensive". Cheap tripods generally aren’t worth it as they won’t keep your camera stable. The tripod doesn’t have to be really expensive, but it has to be stable enough to hold your camera very steady – you can get reasonably stable tripods and head for under $200. Better tripods and heads will run $1,000 or more.

The main advantage of a tripod is:
  • Stability, which provides sharper pictures
The obvious downsides of a tripod include:
  • Cost
  • Weight – the best tripods are heavy!
  • Bulk
We recently returned from Iceland where there are lots of waterfalls, and the light isn’t always the best. Waterfalls are best shot with a slow shutter, which helps blur the water. Blurred water looks great, but a blurred foreground doesn’t! We would have been lost without a solid tripod. It was a pain to carry, but the results were worth it. In this case, nothing would have been able to replace a tripod.

A slow shutter speed (1/2 second) allowed the moving water to blur nicely and using a tripod allowed the foreground to remain sharp.

Tripods are best when you have time to think-out your shot and your subject isn’t moving quickly.
Blurred Waterfall

Monopods
A monopod is a compromise. Monopods aren’t as good as a tripods. After all, one leg isn't as good as three. But, it's a lot better than no stabilization at all.

Monopods allow vertical stabilizion. With a monopod, you use your body to stabilize the camera horizontally. But, they’re smaller and lighter than tripods, and the can be better to use in some situations, such as with fast-moving subjects.

Some monopods are much better than others. Basic monopods have few features. But some have some really wonderful features, such as the Sirui EP-204S monopod. This is an amazing device. Not only does it provide vertical stability, but with 3 small "feet", it provides some horizontal stability as well. It's not as good as a tripod, but much better than most monopods.

The feet can transform into a table-top tripod, so it’s like having 2 devices in one. It’s been described as the "world's best monopod" by reviewers.

As with a tripod, monopods also require a "head".

Monopod
Some of the features of this monopod include:
  • More stable than a conventional monopod
  • Foam grip
  • Wrist strap
  • Flip leg lock design for fast setup and breakdown
  • 3 sturdy, lightweight, fold-down feet with 2 angle positions for uneven terrain
  • Removable for use as a standard monopod
  • Patented Panning Grip smoothly rotates 360°
  • Swivel the monopod 20° in any direction or the patented base collar can lock the monopod vertically
  • Removable feet can be used as a table top tripod
  • Rugged and light aluminum
  • Replaceable rubber foot/Stainless Steel spike

You can see the Sirui EP-204S hybrid monopod here (US customers only).

We use a monopod when shooting at a sporting event, where the lighting isn’t always great and we’re usually shooting with a telephoto lens. We need all the support we can get, but need to be able to move the camera quickly toward the action.

Monopods allow you to aim the camera quickly – something tripods aren’t great at.

Watch any football game on TV and you're likely to see many photographers with BIG lenses on the sidelines shooting with monopods. Those monopods allow the photographers to get sharp images where it would be impossible hand-held.

Monopods help you defeat gravity, which is the main cause of camera shake.
Monopod Photography

Beanbags
Beanbags generally screw into the tripod mount at the bottom of your camera. They are much smaller and lighter than either a tripod or monopod, and they can be incredibly stable. The downside is that you need a stable surface on which to place the beanbag and they can be difficult to use for vertical pictures.

You can see a beanbag here (US customers only).

We generally use a beanbag when traveling and don’t need to take a tripod. Beanbags are generally pretty light as they are filled with plastic "pellets". If you want to reduce the bulk in your camera bag or luggage, you can always empty them before packing, and then fill them when you arrive at your destination with lentils, barley, etc.

As long as you have a stable surface on which to place the beanbag, they can be great for long exposures – just be sure to use the camera’s timer feature, so you press the shutter, and the camera takes a shot 2 or 10 seconds later. That way, the camera movement when you press the shutter won’t affect the image.



Beanbags

Smartphone Options
You can purchase a "holder" for smartphones so they can be placed in a tripod, monopod or beanbag.

Some devices designed for smartphones do much more than just hold your phone, though. The Grip&Shoot is one of these devices.

It works with iOS and Android phones and has a "holder" for your smartphone so it can be mounted to a tripod, monopod or beanbag.

Plus, it communicates with your phone via low-power Bluetooth (low-power Bluetooth uses very little smartphone power) to allow much more stability than you’d normally have with a smartphone.

It also allows you to shoot remotely with your smartphone. The Grip&Shoot comes with a small "stand" that you can use to place your smartphone in and shoot pictures from up to 100 feet away.

Smartphone Options
 Here are some of the features of the Grip&Shoot:
  • You can shoot one-handed with the Grip&Shoot
  • Fits in your pocket
  • Makes it MUCH easier to steady the phone so you can take sharper pictures
  • Trigger takes pictures - either attached to the camera or remotely
  • Camera can be mounted on the removable stand to take pictures/video remotely
  • Grip automatically shuts off when not in use
  • Universal phone holder grips phone up to about 3 1/4 inches wide
  • Rubber side grips provide comfort and no-slip security
  • Blue LED flashes letting you know your phone and grip are connected
  • + and - buttons can be customized for different camera features
  • Easily mount to a tripod or device stand
  • Downloadable app is easy to use
  • Shoots images or videos
  • Works with any phone that supports Bluetooth 4.0 (BLE - Bluetooth Low Energy)
The Grip&Shoot fits in your pocket and is easy to use. It takes your smartphone photography to the next level!

You can see the Grip&Shoot here (US customers only).


Hand-holding
You may THINK you're steady, but you're not!

If you must hand-hold your camera or smartphone, you need to learn good techniques for holding your camera.

The first, and easiest, is to think about how even the SLIGHTEST movement when you press the shutter button or touch your smartphone screen to take a picture, will blur your image. You need to think about this EVERY time you take an images. You also have to learn how to take an image without moving the camera. It doesn’t take much movement to blur an image, and you probably don’t even realize you’re doing it. If you don't consciously think about holding your camera or smartphone steady, you won't be able to do it.

You should also brace your camera/phone against a stable object – tables, trees, sign posts, etc. all work fine. There’s almost always something nearby you can use to stabilize both yourself and your camera.

Lastly, you should consider using higher ISO speeds when shooting in low-light or with a telephoto lens. Although higher ISO speeds can cause noise and some image degradation, it’s usually preferable to a blurry picture.


In Summary...

Stabilizing your camera is ALWAYS a good idea. You have choices as to how to stabilize your camera, but some methods work best, depending on the situattion.

If you want to take your photography to the next level, you need to be prepared to use the best method. Understand what method works best for you, and make use of the tools at hand.

As the Boy Scout motto goes: "Be Prepared" - having the right tools available to you is the first step.
 

Happy shooting!



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