Wednesday 13 January 2010

Macro Tripod Problems

Welcome to Macro Photography for beginners. It’s been quite a long time since my last post about the differences between EF and EFs lenses. It does however share the similar traits of being written long ago and then being resurected from an old hard drive. The key element that stands out above all else in macro photography is the inventiveness of the photographers involved. A keenness to experiment is vitally important to obtain the unusual and interesting viewpoint or individual effects that will make your work stand out. This is why it annoys me (only slightly) when I see forum threads or blog comments that ask what settings should I use for macro? or what aperture and shutter speed for macro? and which ISO speed for macro? These settings cannot be pre-defined in advance otherwise camera settings would be simply standardised to reflect the simplicity required for each photographic situation. It is the fundamental aspect of the art of photography to be able to set the camera up manually. Although this can be complicated initially, it boils down to two main objectives.

1.A sharp image with good composition
2.Correct exposure (which is subjective and marginal adjustments can be made later to RAW files)

In addition to point 2 under-exposed RAW files can be converted to TIFF another lossless (though not always) format and then altered using Photoshop levels, often without any loss of detail. Although this is not the recommended method to aim for, it gets the job done and all is fair in love and war (as they say). To obtain sharp images with good composition comes from practice and using high quality equipment (which does not necessarily mean the most expensive). Anyone who wishes to use the same or similar set-up as myself will require the following (as of 2009 season onwards)

Camera Canon 300D/Rebel XT/Kiss
Lens Sigma 150mm APO
Teleconverter Kenko 1.4x DG Tele-plus 300
Flash Sigma EM140DG Ring Flash
Tripod Benbo Trekker Mark II (Modified) [considering replacing this with Gitzo Explorer for 2010]
Tripod Head Manfrotto 460mg 3 Way
Micro Rail Manfrotto 454 Micro Positioning Plate
Remote Switch Canon RS60E3

The tripod that I use is not really sufficient for the amount of weight involved. I’m currently using a Benbo Trekker 2 tripod which has been significantly modified to take the weight of my camera, lens, flash, tripod head and micro positioning plate. The alteration was quite simple and took place when the original components broke. This damage occurred when the tripod was free standing without the camera or any other weight/load. The problem occurred when the spring-loaded control knob for the swivel head came apart. It is made up of a bolt that is pre-moulded into a plastic housing. This is the part that you turn to tighten or slacken the swivel joint. I tried to contact the manufacturers of the tripod for advice but Paterson Photographic ignored all my emails. I did some research into the current status of the company and found that they had gone into hibernation. Customer service is important in my opinion and this lack of courtesy and professionalism by Paterson Photographic will effect my future decisions when buying photographic equipment in the future.

If you are using lighter equipment for macro photography the Benbo trekker 2 is not a bad option for a tripod. I would still recommend this type of tripod for beginners because of the overall design and price. Uni-loc tripods have a reputation of being of a better build quality. To use a head with 3/8 connection you will need to add 1/4 to 3/8 thread adapter.

*Kaiser 1/4 to 3/8 thread adapter. This allows the 460mg to connect to the Benbo Trekker tripod. This is not required on my modified trekker because I used a 3/8 connector to connect the head directly to the tripod. I have also used a bolt to strengthen the joint between the modified camera mount and the aluminium tube of the centre column. Removing the swivel joint has undoubtedly added extra strength to the tripod. There are still some limitations though, for example it would not be wise to swing the camera to the extreme left or right.

Image 1: Broken Benbo Tripod – Boingggg

Modified Benbo Trekker
I modified the tripod by cutting the swivel joint off with a hacksaw and then cleaned up the rough cut with a sand-paper block. Drilled a pilot hole through the centre, this is a small hole for the larger drill bit to follow. I used a 3/8” threaded screw (I happened to have a spare one, but you can buy them from camera stores) to attach the Manfrotto 460mg tripod head to the modified camera mount with the addition of a large rubber washer. (found in my garden shed!) The whole assembly was then fitted back onto the aluminium tubing of the centre column. An additional modification was made to ensure that that the camera mount could not rotate. This was a simple task of drilling another pilot hole through the mount and the centre column. A larger counter bore was added to the plastic camera mount. An M5 bolt and flanged hex nut (these are naturally inverted – in other words they go in upside down). Once tightened the Benbo tripod modification was complete. I tested the tripod with camera, lens, flash and micro positioning plate and it worked. I’m confident that my camera and equipment is secure on the tripod but still somewhat disappointed with the outcome. The tripod has lost some functionality which formerly allowed the camera to get very close to the ground. I am now unable to get extreme close up shots of wild flowers due to the length of the centre column. I am left with two options…

1.Cut the centre column shorter with my hacksaw
2.Buy a new tripod

Option 1. I have nothing to lose by cutting the centre column shorter. Also gives me the chance to remove the ugly superfluous hook off the other end at the same time. [it is done]

Option 2. This is the expensive option and although not totally out of the question, I decided to try and get through the rest of the season with the Benbo.

I decided to shorten the centre column of my tripod by cutting it in half. This allows the camera to be set up closer to the ground. I am now starting to find the Benbo more frustrating to use then in previous seasons. I suspect that this is because I am no longer a complete beginner in macro photography. When I set-up my camera now precision and speed are my main concerns. The modification of the centre column was surprisingly quick and easy. The aluminium tubing is easy to cut through with a hacksaw. I used a file to clean up the saw cut thereby removing any sharp edges. I sense that this is the last season that the Benbo will be used for my main tripod support. I am now disillusioned by its performance in the field after several years of good service. It may just be that as each season passes I become grumpier and more demanding. I don’t really know what it is but when it comes to macro, tripod options are limited.

My research reveals that the man who invented the Benbo tripods is also responsible for the Uni-loc tripods. In fact if internet forums are to be believed the Uni-loc tripods are more advanced and of a higher quality. I can not verify this but it certainly would not come as a surprise. Manfrotto make popular tripods with both the 190x Pro B and 055 Pro B carbon fibre tripods gaining a lot of adulation and praise. Despite this, there is always a few negative reviews just enough to plant a few seeds of negative doubt in the mind. The same can be said for the Gizto Explorer range which is praised and slandered in fairly equal measure. In actual fact it is not spoken about enough to hazard a guess as to its merits but it looks a very useful piece of kit. It is definitely the strongest candidate for botanic macro photography (or any other close to the ground subjects). Macro Photography is not simply about buying the best gear from the local photography shop. It is also about understanding what is required and experimenting until you find the best solution. Most of the equipment that I use looks like it was rescued from a skip.

I also use several home made (aka heath robinson) devices including a flash diffuser, ripstop nylon windbreak and diffuser and also (new 2009 season) a bracket that holds the ring flash away from the camera.

There are certainly a multitude of big decisions to make when contemplating which equipment to buy. Internet photography forums are testimony to this fact and often a good source of information. The problem is that unless several forum posters are all agreed on the subject matter, it is still difficult to build an accurate picture of how good or bad a particular product is or whether it would be suited to your own particular requirements. It does not matter how bad the reputation of some products on the market, there are always people on the internet recommending it. The question is who this person? Perhaps the MD of the company involved or an idiot with no idea which end of the kettle to blow into to make it work! The same problem operates in reverse with products with excellent reputations for quality. Just as you are about to make a purchase after several months of in depth research, you find one solitary review slating the product and suggesting that to buy it would be folly. This obviously plants further seeds of doubt in the mind and the struggle for equipment continues. This is also the fuel that feeds photography forum threads. Anyone can join in with the phenomena by posting this question in a photography forum of your own choice Which tripod for Macro Photography?

I am sure that if you do this you will get an array of answers with words like Benbo,Benro, Giottos, Gitzo, Manfrotto 190x Prob, scattered around like a bag of marbles on a child’s bedroom floor. If you are not careful you could slip over on them and hurt your back.

Some answers will be detailed and complicated with talk of great gadgetry such as geared tripod heads, micro positioning plates (aka rails) and every conceivable addition imaginable (and otherwise). It is of course usually the syndrome known as “pea-cocking” and has nothing whatsoever with the question posted in the forums initially. If you analyze the posting on internet forums they tend to be just a load of people posturing. The reason for such behaviour is not always evident but sometimes makes interesting reading despite generally offering no help when deciding which tripod or other equipment to purchase. Examples of this are easy to find. I can put all this another way, what suits Roy575 from Cheshire might not be the right choice for JennyM from Arkansas. It stands to reason that people do not join forums to help people they’ve never met before choose the right equipment. Most people sign up to forums to promote themselves, their websites, their businesses etc.

Manfrotto 460MG 3D Magnesium Head
The reason that I recommend this particular 3 way head is because it is fairly inexpensive. Selecting (or even recommending) equipment for a beginner is difficult because people differ in their requirements and expectations. There comes a point where a line has to be drawn between what is a good general choice for a beginner, and what might be considered to be the next progression from that initial choice. In this case I would recommend the 460mg (or similar) for a beginner and the Manfrotto 410 geared head as a natural progression towards a more professional set-up.

The second point to consider is that some people prefer the freedom offered by a ball and socket head. A problem arises here because only an expensive (professional quality) ball and socket is generally good enough to cope with the weight demands of macro equipment. I have used a ball and socket and a 3 way head and found that they both have their pros and cons. It is also difficult adapting to one after spending a lot of time using the other type. In other words the way you use a tripod head is habit forming. I prefer to use a three way head these days but many photographers prefer to use a ball and socket.

In the end I spent most of 2009 practising my hand held photography skills.

Read my next post about Macro photography Lighting Kits

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