KNOW HOW: Slowing things down with a tripod and filters

In the fast paced world we live in it might sound a little strange to be thinking about deliberately slowing things down but, from a photographer’s perspective, this approach can pay huge dividends. It might mean having to plan ahead a little more and even a little envisaging of an end result that you can’t actually see at the shooting stage, but once you’re into the swing of things it will all become second nature and you’ll be amazed at what a slower way of working can help you achieve.

The tools you need are straightforward as well. A steady tripod is a must and you can put yourself more in control of things if you work with Neutral Density filters to control the amount of light reaching your camera’s sensor. 

Living without light

Light is a fundamental part of photography, and can dictate everything from whether we can actually shoot a picture in the first place through to the amount of focus we can achieve and how the subject we’re picturing will appear to the eye. If you’re working with a lot of light the shutter speed will be short and movement will be frozen, while the aperture is likely to be stopped down so the depth of field will be extensive. The direction light is coming from will determine modelling, so direct light falling on a bulbous pot, for example, will make it look flat, while side lighting reveals its form.

All perfectly straightforward, and the ability of digital cameras in recent years to deliver very high usable ISO speeds has made it easier than ever to shoot in lower light situations while still freezing motion. And that’s exactly what most photographers want, but by turning that thought on its head for a moment, have you ever thought about coming at things from the opposite direction and exploring the results that a super low shutter speed might enable? If that’s what you’re trying to achieve, some of these modern marvels with their ISOs of 100,000 plus might actually be making life more difficult for you. 

Blur is beautiful

Inadvertent blur can ruin a picture, but if the blur you’re achieving is fully intended and isn’t throughout the picture but is falling in the places where you want it to be, then it can be a fine creative element. The simple fact is that if an element within a picture is moving, be it people walking through a scene or a fast flowing waterfall, then this will record as blur if the shutter speed used is slow enough. And the slower the shutter speed, the more pronounced the blur will become.

Conversely, if your camera is sitting on a firm tripod then anything within the frame that isn’t moving will record as pin sharp, so you’ll have the ability to create juxtapositions of blur and sharpness, while also being able to control how distinct your blur will be. This can look really effective, adding interest to a picture or even allowing you to make otherwise intrusive elements less disturbing or to disappear altogether.

Choose your gear

Tripods come in all shapes and sizes, and many photographers will have more than one in their gadget bag so that they can tackle a wide range of situations. For example, if you’re using a larger camera and it’s windy then a bigger, bulkier tripod, such as the Kenro Heavy Duty Tripod, might be the answer. Built to offer solid support, it’s nonetheless easy to carry around since it’s made from eight layers of high quality carbon fibre with aluminium alloy castings. So sure is Kenro that it will last the course that it even comes with a six year limited guarantee.

Lightweight though it is, there will still be occasions where you want to travel with something smaller, perhaps when you’re working with a CSC-style camera, and here a smaller product such as the Kenro Travel Tripod might be the answer. Manufactured from high quality magnesium aluminium alloy, this model combines excellent load capacity with a lightweight and innovative space saving design.

Smaller still is a product such as the Kenro Takeway T1 Clampod. As the name suggests, it’s not a tripod at all, but as clamping system that can be attached to any convenient static and solid object, such as a branch of a tree. Designed to hold imaging devices such as DSLRs, CSCs and even smartphones and tablets, it’s small enough to go in a pocket and yet is highly effective in use.

ND Filters

As we’ve already mentioned, modern cameras have the ability to effectively see in the dark, and this can have real uses if you’re looking to shoot dramatic night shots – see later on. However, there will be times when you actually want to go in the other direction and to hold back the amount of light coming through the lens.

This is where Neutral Density filters come in, and they come in a variety of strengths. Kenro’s line-up of Marumi filters will cover most eventualities, offering most of the regular filter threads and also coming in a selection of strengths that range from 8 (three stops) all the way through to 10 stops, effectively cutting the light to 1/1000th of its normal intensity. There’s even a variable ND filter available that can be rotated to deliver a range of strengths.

The object of an ND filter is to give the photographer the opportunity to set a much slower shutter speed without colouring the light in any way. So the end result looks completely normal, but the exposure time could be anything up to several seconds, even on a bright day.  

Uses of blur:

  • Shoot landscapes where running water, particularly waterfalls, become misty, ethereal, dreamlike elements.
  • With a long exposure anything moving in a scene will blur, so a steam train at night will be surrounded by moving, surreal clouds of smoke.
  • Set a long exposure during the day and any clouds moving in the sky will be delightful streaks in the sky, which can look amazing.
  • A field of corn softly swaying in a breeze will come alive in a slow shutter speed shot.
  • Have someone stand stock still in the middle of a moving crowd and they will be surrounded by a sea of blurry people: highly effective!
  • Car headlights at night will not blur conventionally but will trace a line through your picture as they move along. Lights coming towards you will be white, those going away will be red. This is an excellent way of describing the outline of a road in a dark landscape.
  • Shoot a picture of a snooker player breaking the pack, and the table will remain sharp while the balls will all blur as they spread out.
  • Set an ultra-long exposure and you could shoot a picture of a popular landmark that’s surrounded by people, and over the course of several seconds they will disappear as they move around and fail to register in the picture.

Shooting at night

Night photography is one of the best examples of slow shutter speeds in action. Too many people imagine that they can work with flash when darkness settles, but even if you’re close up enough to light the scene you’re interested in, the use of direct flash will kill the atmosphere. You could also end up with ugly shadows and red eye.

A tripod will give you a flexible platform to shoot off and allow you to position yourself anywhere, while it’s also possible to balance on a suitable wall, table or branch of a tree. With high ISOs now available you might even be able to hand hold for a shot, especially if there is something bright in the picture, such as a fire or candles on a birthday cake, to throw a little extra light into the shadows. Don’t worry if you get colour casts, because these will simply add to the atmosphere.

So, think slow. You don’t need to be all about high action: sometimes the slower you go the more dramatic the picture you’ll achieve.

Thursday, 24 May 2018