Discover Digital Photography

Information, news and advice on digitial photography

Rear Sync or Second Curtain Flash Explained

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Rear or second curtain sync flash is a flash mode available on many (though not all) cameras. It is designed for use when you want to combine a slow shutter speed with flash. Unlike the standard flash mode, rear curtain sync flash will fire the flash at the end of the exposure, rather than the start.

In this article we'll take a in-detail look at rear curtain sync flash, looking at how the resulting image differs to standard flash, and why and when you might want to use this flash mode.

Rear Sync / Second Curtain Flash Explained

How does Rear / Second curtain flash differ from standard flash?

As I stated in the introduction to this article, the difference between rear curtain and standard (first or front curtain) flash is when the camera's flash fires during an exposure. First curtain flash, which is the normal flash mode, will fire the flash right at the start of the exposure. Second curtain flash will fire the flash right at the end of the exposure.

You will only be able to see any difference between the two modes when using a relatively slow shutter speed. With fast shutter speeds, the time difference between the start and end of the exposure is so small that whether the flash is at the start or end of the exposure makes no difference. Some camera models will always use first curtain sync flash above a certain shutter speed, even if you have second curtain sync set as the flash mode. This technique of using a relatively long exposure (typically anything longer than 1/25s ) combined with flash is often called 'dragging the shutter'.

The benefit of rear curtain flash comes when you are using a slow shutter speed and have your subject traveling across the frame in your image. Without flash this would just appear as a blur. But by adding flash at the end of the exposure, the flash 'freezes' the subject, with the trail of blur behind them.

Dancers frozen at the end of the move by using rear curtain / second curtain sync flash
Easy Swing by Jonathan Vahsen on Flickr (licensed CC-BY-ND)

Whereas with first curtain flash (the standard flash mode), the flash will fire and freeze the subject right at the start of the exposure. Then as they carry on moving during the exposure, they will create a blur trail in front of them. This can look quite unnatural and strange, as if the subject is moving backwards.

Front / First curtain flash sync example - runner frozen with light trail from their headlamp extending in front of them
Day 130 - Midweek Run by Phil and Pam Gradwell (to be) on Flickr (licensed CC-BY)

If you are photographing a static subject, nothing in the scene is moving, and the camera is not moving either, then you won't see any difference between a photo shot with first curtain or rear curtain flash. The difference only comes when you are using a slow shutter speed and the image includes movement of some sort.

Enabling Rear / Second curtain flash

As I said earlier, not all cameras support rear curtain flash sync. However, most DSLRs, Compact System Cameras, and advanced fixed lens cameras do have it available as an option. You will normally find it somewhere in the camera settings menu, often grouped with other flash related settings. Bear in mind that some cameras only display certain options depending on other options you have set, so if you can't find the setting easily, then it is probably worthwhile to check your camera manual. This should tell you exactly where in the menus the rear sync / 2nd curtain flash setting is and what other settings (if any) could make it unavailable.

Unfortunately, even if a camera does support rear curtain flash, this mode is not always compatible with speedlight flashes. Some camera manufacturers purposefully limit this feature to only be available when the camera detects that a flash from the same manufacturer is attached. However, some third party flash manufacturers have managed to work round this, so the camera thinks that the flash is an official model, and will let you use special flash modes such as rear sync flash.

But with many older external flashes, or more basic third party speedlights, you may find that your camera does not allow you to use rear curtain flash. In this case there are a couple of possible workarounds. The first is to use your camera's pop-up flash (if it has one, and if the pop-up supports rear-sync flash) to trigger your speedlight flash off-camera. For this you need an optical trigger for your external flash. Many speedlights come with an optical trigger built-in, or you can buy one separately that attaches to your speedlight's foot.

Seagull SYK-4 Optical Slave Trigger with PC Sync Socket
Example of an optical slave trigger for use with speedlight flashes that do not have an optical trigger built-in

Then, when your camera fires the pop-up flash at the end of the exposure, this in turn will trigger your external speedlight flash. There are a lot of 'ifs' with this procedure though. There has to be enough time between the camera firing its flash and the end of the exposure for the optical trigger to receive the flash from the pop-up, trigger the speedlight flash, and then the speedlight flash to fire.

Given that the flash is meant to fire right at the end of the exposure, this is a very tight timing, and you could find that the speedlight flash fires after the exposure has already finished. You could also find that you end up with double 'frozen' parts in your image. The subject could be frozen first by the pop-up flash, then again a few milliseconds later by the speedlight flash. This will depend on how quickly your subject is moving and the amount of delay between the pop-up flash firing and the speedlight flash firing.

The other option, again with using the speedlight flash off-camera, is to use a radio trigger that allows setting a delay for the flash. In this instance you would put a radio trigger in your camera's hotshoe, and another (receiver) attached to the speedlight flash. You then use the trigger to use delayed flash to make it so that the flash will fire near the end of the exposure. For example, for a 3s exposure you might set the trigger for a 2.9s delay.

The main disadvantage of this is that if you change your shutter speed, you then also need to change the flash delay. You also want to make sure you get the delay as close to perfect as possible, otherwise you could end up with a little bit of blur after the flash fires. Finally, not many radio triggers offer a delay option, and models with a delay setting tend to cost quite a bit more than the most basic radio triggers.

Cactus Wireless WRLS Flash Transceiver V6 Single
The Cactus V6 - example of a radio flash trigger with delay setting

So, if you are considering buying a speedlight flash, then it is worthwhile checking whether it will be compatible with the rear curtain sync mode of your camera.

Tips for using rear curtain flash

For the freezing effect of rear sync flash to work well, your subject needs to be against a dark background. If there is too much ambient light in the scene, then the camera will record this light on the background, and your frozen subject will appear partially transparent.

Moving toy train photographed using rear sync flash, but appearing slightly transparent due to ambient light on the background behind it
Circus Train Under the Christmas Tree by Don DeBold on Flickr (licensed CC-BY)

Knowing that parts of the scene lit by continuous light will blur (if the subject or camera is moving) while parts lit mainly by flash will freeze can be used to creative effect. You can choose which parts of an image to blur during the exposure by using a continuous light aimed carefully where you want it. Note that you may have to use some kind of light modifier, (such as a grid, snoot, barn doors, or just pieces of card) to help direct where the light shines.

A more general tip for using long exposures with flash (it could be rear or first curtain sync flash) is that you don't need to have a moving subject to get an interesting photo. If you have a mostly dark scene with some lights in it, you can move the camera during the exposure, which will blur the lights. But the flash will freeze your subject. You end up with an image of a sharp subject with light trails moving across the image.

DJs in a club - long exposure with blurred lights across the image but subject kept sharp through use of flash
Goldies Jan.07.2011 by Sharif / Sean Sharifi on Flickr (licensed CC-BY-ND)

The main use of rear sync flash is for capturing both a sharp image of a subject, but also capturing their movement. Panning is often a method used to achieve this same aim without flash. But what about if you combine panning with a moving subject and rear sync flash? If you're panning slightly slower than the subject is moving across the frame, then you'll end up with a blurred background, a short blur trail behind the subject, and a sharp subject.

Cyclist captured using a combination of panning and rear sync flash
Rear Sync Bike by musume miyuki on Flickr (licensed CC-BY)

Even if you panned at the same speed as the subject, you'd likely end up with a sharper subject than you would by just panning with no flash. The technique of combining panning and flash is particularly useful when the subject is not moving parallel to you, which is a situation where just panning without flash doesn't work so well.

Finally, here's a video that not only explains the theory behind 2nd curtain flash, but also gives a nice example of its use for a creative image:

flash photography special tutorial - second curtain flash sync - cool exercise for nice effects

Hopefully you'll agree that combining second curtain flash with a slow shutter speed can be used to capture some great photos that you couldn't get any other way. It can be a hassle if you want to get it working with an off-brand speedlight, but once you've used second curtain sync it's unlikely you'll find much reason for ever using the standard flash mode of first curtain sync again.

Action figure & toy models photography tips

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Action figure / toy photography is a relatively new genre of photography that has risen in popularity in recent years. Photos often feature well-known characters in unusual situations, or playing characters from different 'universes' off against one another.

In this article we'll look at why you might want to give action figure photography a try, the potential issues you'll come across and how to deal with them, and some tips for getting interesting and engaging photos.

Action figure & toy models photography tips

A big advantage of action figure photography is its low barrier to entry and convenience. All you need is an action figure and a camera. You can take photos at any time of day, in any weather, and don't need to travel anywhere. There are no time constraints - you can set up the scene and then take as long as you want until you get a photo you're happy with.

The majority of action figure photography is done indoors on a tabletop. While natural light can be used, artificial light is usually preferred since it gives you more control over the lighting. This might be something as simple as a flashlight - since you are shooting static subjects, you don't have to worry about keeping the exposure time short like you would with a real-life model.

Edge Of Space - Close-up photo of a Sulu action figure holding a katana
Edge Of Space by JD Hancock on Flickr (licensed CC-BY)

Playing around with lighting in tabletop photography is a great way to learn about lighting. The exact same principles apply whether you're shooting an action figure on a tabletop or a real-life person in a studio - it's just the scale that's different. Making your own light modifiers out of card and tissue paper is much easier at the tabletop scale too, since they can be so much smaller than they would need to be for full size subjects.

You don't need large expensive backdrops to use behind your model. You can use a piece of bent white card for a seamless background, or use a sheet of colored paper tacked onto the side of a box as a background. Experimenting with different colors and materials for the background is very easy.

A well done background can take a photo from good to great, so certainly play around with this. Using shiny / reflective items as the background, e.g. scrunched up foil or glittery card can give an interesting effect as it creates multiple highlights in the background.

RoboCop vs. Cyborg action figure tabletop photography setup
RoboCop vs. Cyborg Setup by JD Hancock on Flickr (licensed CC-BY)

When photographing action figures, the best angle is usually low down, effectively at eye-level with the figure. This creates a great sense of engagement and allows the viewer to relate to the figure more as a person than just a simple toy.

Before you start to photograph your action figure, make sure you give them a thorough dusting off. Use a soft brush and a blower to give them a good clean. Through your photos you want the figure to become something more than just a toy. But that won't work if it's covered in a visible layer of dust and lint.

Photo Gear

In terms of photographic equipment needed, you'll need a camera / lens that can focus fairly close. It does depend on how large your action figures / toys are that you want to photograph, and also how much space you want to leave around them. But most cameras and lenses can focus close enough for a good shot without you having to buy anything extra.

In terms of extras, if you need to get closer, you may want to consider using a macro lens, or Extension Tubes or Bellows if you have an interchangeable lens camera. Or you might want to try using a Close-up diopter lens, which will work with any camera that allows attaching filters in front of the lens.

A tripod can be handy to keep your camera in position while you experiment with the lighting. It is also a good idea if you're planning to shoot with continuous lighting, which typically requires a longer shutter speed than flash. A remote shutter release or using the camera's self timer function is also a good idea to avoid blur caused by camera shake if you are using a slow shutter speed.

Multiple lights and color balance

If you are using multiple light sources for your photo, then you need to be aware of any color temperature differences between the lights. If you are using continuous lighting (such as a flashlight or household lamp, as opposed to a flash / strobe), then remember that other light sources (such as room lighting or daylight coming through windows) can affect the image too. If you have an image lit with different color temperature light sources, then one of the light sources will appear to give off a warm (orange) or cool (blue) light, depending on how you set the white balance.

The majority of bulbs have a warmer color temperature than daylight, while LEDs can vary from warm to neutral to cool. Most bulbs and flashlights will give you the color temperature of the light in their specifications.

Generally you will want to avoid mixing light sources with different color temperatures. However, it can sometimes be used for creative effect. For example, if you light your subject with a warm light (e.g. 4500k) and light your background with a neutral light (around 5500k), and set the white balance to 4500k, then the background will appear to be lit with a blue light.

Pokemon toy with a sparkly blue background
For this image a flashlight with a slightly cool color temperature was used to light the background, and one with a warm color temperature was used to light the model. Then white balance was set to make the warmer light on the model neutral, which shifts the color temperature of the whole image cooler, making the background light turn blue. The background was scrunched up foil, and the toy was placed on a piece of black acrylic, which reflects the background behind it.

Alternatively, if you're photographing with black and white, or using a fast shutter speed and flash, then you don't really need to worry about this at all.

If you want to give your lighting a certain color, then you can easily gel your lights. You can do this using colored gels designed for speedlight flashes, or by using translucent colored sweet wrappers. Just place the colored 'gel' in front of your light (attaching it with an elastic band normally works well), and you've got a colored light.

Speedlight flash with a purple flash gel attached and flashlight with a purple sweet wrapper attached
Speedlight flash with a purple flash gel attached and flashlight with a purple sweet wrapper attached

Giving the character feeling

The fact that your model won't complain about holding the same position for a long time is a definite positive. However, most action figures are rather limited in the actual positions they can be moved into. This is where your creativity needs to come into play - you need to figure how to convey what the character is feeling / doing despite their limited movement and inability to change the facial expression.

One way to do this is through the lighting - bare lighting will create a stronger, more dramatic atmosphere than soft diffuse lighting.

Hellboy action figure with harsh lighting to create a dark mood
Hellboy by Marcelo Braga on Flickr (licensed CC-BY)

Very soft lighting, especially when combined with overall low contrast across the image, can create a more dreamy, peaceful feeling.

Danbo and Dandelion with soft lighting and low contrast to create a peaceful image
Danbo and Dandelion by Takashi Hososhima on Flickr (licensed CC-BY-SA)

To create strong, harsh lighting, use a point light source such as a bare bulb or speedlight flash. For softer lighting you need to create a larger light source. This can be done by bouncing the light from a large surface, such as a wall or ceiling. Or by using a surface between the light and the subject that will spread the light out. This could be a softbox, or something simple and cheap like a sheet of tissue paper.

Using an action figure that has no defined facial expression can help quite a bit. It can be very difficult to make a figure with an angry expression look loving, confused, or happy. This is why figures with expressionless masks such as Storm Troopers and Clone Troopers from Star Wars are so popular for action figure photography.

Dealing with tricky poses

If you want to capture a figure in a tricky pose, such as jumping, you have two options. One is to create a composite image. Take one photo of the scene without the figure. Then, being careful not to move your camera or the scene, take another photo with your figure propped up in the position you want. Make sure that whatever you're using to prop up your figure does not obscure any part of the figure - it needs to be behind or to the side of the figure.

Then add both the images as layers into a single document in your photo editing software. Use a layer mask to hide the item propping up your figure, revealing the empty background shot below. For a more detailed look at using layer masks, please see: How to use Photoshop Layer Masks.

Images of background and toys before compositing together
Images of background and toys before compositing together. One toy was held up by a piece of thread and the other toy was stuck in position using a piece of plasticine behind it.

Images composited together in Photoshop
After using a layer mask to blend the two images together. The thread round the chicken's neck had to be cloned out, and some other clean up work using the spot healing brush was done. Finally a blur was applied to the chicken to give more of an impression of the chicken jumping.

The alternative to the composite technique is to use flash and a relatively fast shutter speed to freeze the figure before they fall over. Getting the timing right between removing your hand from holding up the figure and triggering the camera to catch the scene without your hand in it but before the figure falls over is quite tricky. It will likely take you a few shots before you get it right.

party time! - Lego storm troopers jumping in a glass of M&Ms
party time! by Yohanes Sanjaya on Flickr (licensed CC-BY)

The benefit of getting the result in-camera is that the shadow of the figure, and lighting on the figure will be accurate and real. Whereas with a composite image, the prop holding up the figure may block some light from hitting the back of the figure, and cast its own shadow in the scene. If you go the composite route, try to use as small an item as possible to prop up the figure to minimize these issues.

Depth of field

Because you are shooting relatively small models you'll need to get much closer to them than you would with a full size subject. This reduces the depth of field (amount of the image in focus), which can be a good or a bad thing, depending on what you're going for.

With a compact camera or phone camera, they typically have a very large depth of field. So shooting small subjects where the depth of field will be reduced can provide a nice change from the 'everything in focus' look you normally get with these cameras.

With an interchangeable lens camera, the depth of field can be too shallow, making it difficult to get most of the scene in focus. You'll likely find that you need to use a relatively small aperture setting (e.g. f/8) to increase your depth of field. Of course, if you only want a sliver of the scene in focus, then use a large aperture (e.g. f/2.8) setting instead.

Photo of three figures offset from one another showing the shallow depth of field of a DSLR camera when used at an aperture of f/2.8
Aperture of f/2.8 on a DSLR - Depth of field is very thin and only the central figure is in focus

Aperture of f/8 on a DSLR - Depth of field is small and only the central figure is in sharp focus
Aperture of f/8 on a DSLR - Depth of field is a bit larger, the near and far figures are more in focus, but not really in sharp focus

Aperture of f/32 on a DSLR - Depth of field is large and all the figures are in sharp focus
Aperture of f/32 on a DSLR - Depth of field is now large enough to get all three figures in sharp focus. But a lot of light is needed for such a small aperture (7x as much as f/2.8 needs).

Aperture of f/3.2 on a superzoom camera - Depth of field is large and all 3 of the figures are in reasonable focus
Aperture of f/3.2 on a superzoom camera - By using a camera with a small sensor, depth of field at a wide aperture like f/3.2 is even larger than that of the DSLR at f/8

Play with scale

There are a couple of ways you can play with scale with action figures. One is to compose your shot so that it does not include anything in the background that would give away the scale of the scene. A tabletop 'studio' setup is ideal for this type of shot. Then add in a standard size prop. With nothing else in the image to gauge the scale from, this makes the prop really giant.

Leaf No Man Behind - a Storm Trooper action figure with a leaf
Leaf No Man Behind by JD Hancock on Flickr (licensed CC-BY)

A different way to play this is to include something full size in the background, but compose the shot in such a way that it appears to have the same scale as the figure. The best way to do this is to try and position your subject with nothing between them and the background.

Godzilla action figure on the beach
162/365 - King Kaiju! by davidd on Flickr (licensed CC-BY)

It can help to use a wide angle focal length and shoot up at the subject. The wide angle includes much more of the background, effectively making it smaller in the image, giving a more realistic looking photo in terms of scale. You will likely need to use quite a small aperture to get the background in focus enough to make it recognizable. (Though with a compact camera or phone this is less of an issue).

The third way you can play with scale is to capture images of the action figure(s) interacting with the real world. By including more background, it becomes more obvious that the action figures are, indeed, small. But by careful positioning they appear to be alive, in a world of giants.

Hunting around in the Freezer
Hunting around in the Freezer by Gramicidin on Flickr (licensed CC-BY-SA)

Go outside

Don't feel restricted to photographing action figures just in a tabletop studio setting. Photographing figures outside can produce great shots too.

Photo of a lego Stormtrooper figure on a lego scooter riding a long a road - very thin depth of field
stormscooter by Yohanes Sanjaya on Flickr (licensed CC-BY)

It can be much trickier than shooting indoors though. Finding an environment that suits your subject with a good background is more difficult than just shooting on a tabletop with a clean background.

For shots where you place your subject on the ground, that will also mean you need to get your camera down on the ground to get on eye level with your subject. You then have to deal with the potential for bits of grass etc. getting between your camera and the subject.

Sometimes this 'looking through the undergrowth' sort of effect can work well, but other times it is more of a problem. If you're working in your garden, you can always use a pair of scissors to cut away anything in between the camera and your model.

Attack of the Crab Monsters
Attack of the Crab Monsters by davidd on Flickr (licensed CC-BY)

Another issue when working outside can be the lighting. Due to the unevenness of natural surfaces and the wind, setting up the same lighting that you use for tabletop photography could be quite difficult. You also can't shut out the sunlight from affecting the picture by just drawing the curtains like you can indoors.

For outdoors work I would suggest to stick mainly to using natural light. Maybe add in a speedlight flash if you're feeling adventurous.

Photographing Action figures and toys can be a great way to learn about lighting, while also producing some great photos. For relatively simple setups, you can get a scene set up and photographed fairly quickly and conveniently. So if you're always thinking that you don't have enough time for photography, why not give this a try?

Guide to choosing a tripod

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A tripod can be a great help in getting sharp photos and making you think more carefully about your composition. Many landscape, architecture, and product photographers would rate the tripod as being an essential bit of kit.

But if you're looking at purchasing a tripod, you may be a bit bewildered by all the different options available. In this article we'll look at the various features and specifications of tripods, and how they relate to real life use.

Guide to choosing a tripod

Deciding what you need in a tripod

Before you look for a tripod to purchase, it is important to understand what you really want from a tripod. Are you going to be walking long distances with it? Then weight is probably a strong consideration. Or will it just be used in a studio? Then the weight doesn't really matter.

Do you need it to pack up small? How much weight of equipment does it need to be able to handle? How quickly do you need to be able to set it up? How high does it need to extend? How low does it need to go? And probably the most important question, how much can you afford to spend?

When you have a good idea of what you need from a tripod, then it will make narrowing down your choice of tripod a lot easier. Of course, we'd all like a tripod that packs up tiny, extends really high while also allowing ground level shots, weighs next to nothing and costs nothing too. But that's just not realistic. So make sure you prioritize the features that are most important to you.

Look at the photography you do at the moment, and also the types of photography you'd like to do in the future to aid you with this practice. For example, if you're taking lots of low down macro and close up shots, then you'll want to make sure that any tripod you consider can go very low down to the ground.

Construction material

Tripods are typically made from either Carbon Fiber or Aluminum. You can also purchase some made from wood. The material the tripod is constructed from will affect its performance.

Aluminum tripods tend to be quite heavy. But at the same time, the heavier a tripod, the better (generally) it is at reducing vibrations. Aluminum tripods also tend to be strong, though of course this does depend on the thickness of the material used.

Manfrotto MK294A3-A0RC2 294 Aluminum Tripod leg

Aluminum conducts heat, which can make the tripod more difficult to handle in very cold weather. Most manufacturers include a leg muff (usually a piece of foam) around at least one of the top leg sections. This can certainly help when handling the tripod, but when extending and retracting the leg sections, it would be difficult not to touch the metal of the tripod at all.

The way aluminum conducts heat well is not a big issue for most people, but it is something to be aware of. (Especially if you live somewhere cold).

Carbon Fiber tripods are typically more expensive than Aluminum tripods, but are just as strong (or stronger) while weighing less. Carbon fiber tripods are more expensive to make, and hence cost more than equivalent aluminum models.

Manfrotto MK294C3-A0RC2 3 Section Carbon Fiber Tripod legs

Carbon fiber does not conduct heat as much as Aluminum, though it can still become quite cold in the winter and hot in the summer. As with Aluminum tripods, most manufacturers wrap at least one of the upper leg sections with a foam muff so you don't have to touch the actual leg.

Wood tripods are few and far between, but there are some manufacturers who specialize in them (Berlebach being the main one). Wooden tripods don't pack up as small as aluminum and carbon fiber tripods, and tend to be quite expensive.

Berlebach #12322C/75 UNI 22C/75 Tripod Legs (Camouflage Finish)

In terms of weight, they tend to be heavier than even aluminum tripods. The main selling point for wooden tripods are that they are very good at vibration dampening. While they will still get a bit cold in cold weather and hot in the sun, the effect is much less than with aluminum tripods.

Video or Photo Tripod?

If you're doing a lot of video work with your camera, or working with a particularly heavy system, then you may want to consider a video tripod.

Video tripods tend to have wider legs, with spreaders between the legs. This gives a steadier setup than a photo tripod with its legs that are only connected together at the top.

Manfrotto MVT502AM Video Tripod with Telescopic Twin Legs (Black)
Manfrotto MVT502AM - an example of a video tripod

Gitzo GT-531 Series 00 Carbon 6x 3 Section G-Lock Tripod - Replaces GT350 (Black)
Gitzo GT-531 - an example of a photo tripod

However, because of the leg spreaders, the leg angles are not as adjustable as with a photo tripod. If you pick a video tripod where the spreaders are not removable, and want to get very low down to the ground you'll be out of luck.

Another difference between video and photo tripods is the mounting plate on top. Photo tripods have a screw thread on top, while video tripods often have a bowl. This bowl can vary in size, being 65mm, 75mm, or 100mm (depending on the size and load carrying ability of the tripod).

A video tripod may come with a 3/8″ half ball adapter, so you can mount any head designed for photo tripods on it. However, you won't be able to mount video heads with bowl mounts on a photo tripod. Similarly, you won't be able to mount a head designed for a 75mm bowl on a tripod with a 65mm bowl either.

For the vast majority of photographers, a photo tripod is going to be a better choice due to the better flexibility of leg positioning, and more choices in terms of size and weight.

Sturdiness / Weight bearing ability

The weight bearing ability of a tripod is one of the most important points to look at. You want to make sure that the tripod can handle the heaviest load you are likely to use with it.

Man hanging from a tripod at a demonstration by tripod manufacturer Benro
Benro used to advertise the weight their tripods could handle by showing a person hanging from one

Generally the more weight a tripod can handle, the larger and heavier it will be. (Though weight for weight a carbon fiber tripod will be able to take a heavier load than an aluminum one). So you need to strike a balance between the amount of weight you need the tripod to handle and the portability of the tripod.

Vibration reduction

Vibration reduction ensures that vibrations from the surrounding area are not carried up the legs to the camera. It also ensures that if the tripod is knocked, the vibration dissipates quickly. Even the handling of the camera / tripod head will cause vibrations, so you want the vibrations gone as quickly as possible so you can get on with taking the shot.

For example, if you're taking a long exposure photo by the side of a road and a heavy truck comes past. You don't want the vibration caused by the truck traveling through the ground and then up the tripod to your camera.

ISS Flyover 2012 Oct 11 - long exposure photo with blurring / shake in the image caused by vibrations from passing cars
ISS Flyover 2012 Oct 11 by brownpau on Flickr (licensed CC-BY) - although this was taken on a tripod, vibrations from passing cars have affected the image

Unfortunately you are unlikely to find details about how well the tripod deals with vibration in its specifications. But some tripod reviews do include information about this.

Most tripods do a good enough job of dampening vibrations for the vast majority of uses. But if this is something that is important to you, then you might want to check reviews of any tripods you are considering to see how they compare in this aspect.


Along with weight and the weight bearing capacity of the tripod, the height of a tripod is one of the main points to consider. The height that a tripod will extend to is a trade off with the height of the tripod when collapsed, and the weight of the tripod.

Travel tripods can be collapsed quite small and weigh quite a bit less than standard tripods. But as a consequence they don't extend as high. The majority do not extend to eye level height, meaning you'll have to bend down to look through the camera's viewfinder when mounted on the tripod. (As a side-note, eye level is not always the best height to take a photo from anyway).

Cheap smaller tripod compared to larger standard tripod when collapsed
Cheap smaller tripod compared to larger standard tripod when collapsed

Cheap smaller tripod compared to standard tripod when fully extended
Cheap smaller tripod compared to standard tripod when fully extended

You'll find that two maximum heights are typically given for a tripod - one with the center column extended, and one with it collapsed. While extending the center column does let you get the camera up higher, it is generally not a good idea. It makes the camera much more susceptible to shake.

I would suggest to look at the height with the center column down as the true maximum height of the tripod. The fact the center column can be extended should be looked on as a bonus.

The other aspect of height is how low the tripod will go. This is a combination of the minimum length of the center column and the maximum angle of the legs. Most tripods will have the minimum height listed in their specifications.

Some tripods have a special short center column that allows you to get lower than you can with the standard size center column. Some tripods come with both a short and standard size center column, while others don't have a short center column available even as an extra. So this is a point worth checking.

Most tripods use a center column that can be reversed. This means that you can mount the camera upside down under the under tripod for low-angle shots. While this is usable, it is certainly not as convenient as having a tripod that will let you get low angle shots with the camera the right way up.

Rotating center column

Related to the previous point of the tripod's minimum height, some tripods come with a rotating center column. This allows you to extend the camera away (and down) from the center of the tripod - very useful for low angle shots.

Manfrotto MT055CXPRO3 055 Carbon Fiber 3-Section Tripod with Horizontal Column (Black)

However, since it moves the weight of the camera away from the tripod's center of gravity, it does affect the stability somewhat.

Size when collapsed

The size of the tripod when collapsed can be important when traveling Most travel tripods use a clever design where the legs fold back up against the center column and head. This, combined with using shorter leg sections, allows the tripod to fold up smaller than a standard tripod.

SLIK Sprint Mini GM
SLIK Sprint Mini GM by Eric Wüstenhagen on Flickr (licensed CC-BY-SA)

The benefit of this is that it can easily fit in a bag or suitcase. Larger tripods may not fit at all, or be quite a squash to fit in, depending on the size of the tripod and your bag / suitcase, of course.

The small size also makes them easier to carry around with you, making them more suited to attaching to the outside of a camera bag. Or even carrying around inside your bag.


There's not a lot to say about weight, other than the heavier a tripod, the more stable it is likely to be. If you're going to be carrying your tripod around with you a lot, then weight is probably a primary consideration. There's little point in having a tripod if it's too heavy to take with you.

Miller 1726 Arrow 55 ENG CF Tripod (Black)

Leg lock type

There are two main types of leg lock - twist and lever. With twist leg locks, you untwist the lock to unlock the leg section. Then after extending the leg section you twist the lock back again to tighten the leg section in place.

Tripod leg sections with twist locks
Tripod leg sections with twist locks

With a lever lock, you flip the lever up to open the leg section. Then close it back down to lock the leg in place.

Tripod leg sections with lever locks
Tripod leg sections with lever locks

Both twist locks and lever locks are popular. If possible, it would be a good idea to try out both at a local camera store or photographers' meet-up before you buy.

With twist locks, there is no definite 'locked' position. So you can sometimes tighten a leg only to find it slipping, and that the lock needs tightening more. You don't want to tighten the locks as much as you physically can either, as then undoing the locks will be pretty difficult.

With lever locks this is less of an issue, though it is possible to think that you've fully closed a lever when actually it's just partly closed, which could then result in slippage of the leg section.

In theory, lever locks will wear out / become less effective more quickly than twist locks, which you can just tighten as much as is needed. However, lever locks wearing out is hardly a common problem in practice.

One disadvantage of twist locks is when you are working in varying temperatures. If you move from a cooler to a warmer environment, the legs will expand slightly. This can make getting the locks undone a lot harder if they were already locked tightly in the cool environment.

Number of leg sections

The number of leg sections in a tripod affects not only how small the tripod will fold up, but also how quickly you can set it up. Travel tripods typically have 5 sections meaning they fold up very small. But then you have to extend all 5 of these sections to get the tripod up to its full height.

Most standard tripods, on the other hand, only have four leg sections, and would be the same height as a travel tripod with only three sections extended. So setting up a standard tripod will be much quicker than a travel tripod.

The number of sections also affects the stability of a tripod. With 5 leg sections, it gives 5 joints where possible wobbliness can occur. It also means that the bottom most section is likely to be quite thin. But with fewer sections, the wider the bottom section will be, and thus the better stability you'll get.

Leg positioning

Tripod models vary in the angles the legs can be set at, the number of different angles they support, and also how the angles of the legs are set. The wider the maximum angle and the larger the number of angles the legs can be positioned at, the more flexible the tripod will be.

The ease of setting the legs into position should also be considered. Some tripods feature an angle lock you must pull out to unlock the leg, and notches on the plate above the leg that the lock can rest against to set the angle of the leg.

Close-up of a tripod's pull-out leg angle lock
Example of a pull-out leg angle lock

Other designs have legs that will automatically lock into place as they pulled in one direction, while pressing an unlock button down is required to unlock the legs when moving them back in the opposite direction.

Monopod option

A feature often seen with travel tripods is that one leg can be unscrewed, and used as a monopod. This means that rather than buying both a tripod and monopod, you can just buy a tripod and use the monopod leg whenever that's more convenient.

AFAITH Q-666 SLR Camera Tripod Monopod & Ball Head Portable Compact Travel

It could be particularly useful when traveling as it gives you both tripod and monopod without taking up the extra room and weight of a dedicated monopod.

Weight hook

A feature of most tripods is a (usually detachable) weight hook at the bottom of the tripod's center column. This can be used to add some extra weight to the center of the tripod, which helps in steadying it.

Weight hook at the bottom of a tripod's center column
Weight hook at the bottom of a tripod's center column

While you probably don't carry around a bag of weights with you, hanging your camera bag from the weight hook can work well. This is particularly useful with travel tripods, which tend not to be as sturdy as a full size tripod.


Most tripods come with rounded rubber feet on the ends of the legs that work well in most conditions. However, being able to use different feet on the tripod can be quite useful.

Tripods that feature interchangeable feet often have an option for using spiked feet. These are useful when working outside, as the feet can be pushed into the ground, further securing and stabilizing the tripod.

Gitzo GS5030VSF Video Rubber and Spike Feet for Series 2 and up Tripods

Some tripods come with feet that feature retractable spikes (or have them available as an optional extra). This means that you don't need to bother changing the feet when you want to use the spikes - just extend the spikes from the feet instead. This does typically require a tool (screwdriver) though.

Snow shoes are also available for some tripods. These are usually in the form of feet that slip over the rubber feet. These give the tripod feet a larger footprint and help stabilize it on surfaces such as snow, sand, and gravel.

Mounting screw

There are two main screw / thread sizes used in photography equipment - 1/4″ and 3/8″. The vast majority of tripod heads use a 3/8″ thread, and most tripods come with a 3/8″ screw on top for mounting these heads on.

There are some tripod heads though that use a 1/4″ thread, and some tripods that have a 1/4″ screw. You can purchase adapters to go from 1/4″ to 3/8″, or even from 3/8″ down to 1/4″. But these are not ideal (particularly the 3/8″ to 1/4″ adapters).

So it is best to look for a tripod that features a reversible screw, with a 1/4″ screw on one side and 3/8″ on the other. This gives you more flexibility, so you can use heads with either thread size on your tripod, with no need for adapters.

Changing the screw thread size on a tripod with a reversible screw
Changing the screw thread size on a tripod with a reversible screw

Some tripods come with a head included. In terms of very cheap tripods, this may be a fixed head that cannot be removed - I would avoid this type of tripod.

If the tripod does come with a head included you need to think about how useful the head will be to you. For example, if you're going to be mainly using the tripod for macro photography, and it comes with a ball head, this probably won't be much use to you. A geared head would be much better.

Induro AKB2 Tripod  with Ballhead 65-Inch Max Height 18.7lb Load Capacity

Also consider how much you save by getting the head included with the tripod. And look for reviews of the head to see how good it is. If one tripod comes with a head included and costs $40 more than one with no head, this might seem like a good deal. But if the head isn't very good, then it's not such a bargain.

There's certainly lots to think about when looking at buying a new tripod. There are big trade-offs between the sturdiness of a tripod and the weight / size. The important thing is to look for the features that suit you and type of photography that you like to do.

Written by Discover Digital Photography

August 17th, 2014 at 2:45 pm

What is EXIF & How is it useful?

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EXIF is a form of metadata (data about data) that is recorded in digital photos. It includes information such as the camera model used to take the photo, the camera settings used, and the date and time the photo was taken.

In this article we'll look at how to view the EXIF data of a photo, how EXIF can be useful, and even how it can help you improve your photography.

What is EXIF & How is it useful?

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Written by Discover Digital Photography

August 10th, 2014 at 2:30 pm

Summer Photography Tips

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Summer can be a bit of a paradox in terms of its suitability for photography. In one aspect it's great for photography - it's nice weather for going out, there's often lots happening to photograph, and there's plenty of light.

On the other hand, the sun spends a lot of the day high up in the sky, creating harsh lighting and strong shadows. The light is very contrasty and capturing an image with detail in both the shadows and highlights can be nigh-on impossible.

In this article I want to look at how you can deal with the problems of photographing in the summer. I'll also look at some of the good points of summer photography compared to other times of the year.

Summer Photography Tips

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How to achieve a soft-focus dreamy look

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Soft focus filters are used for reducing the local contrast in an image, and sometimes also for adding a kind of dreamy glow. The main use for this is in portrait photography - the filter reduces the appearance of fine detail such as skin pores, giving a smoothing effect.

The effect is not the same as just blurring an image. A good quality soft focus filter reduces the contrast of fine detail rather than blurring it away.

How to achieve a soft-focus dreamy look

Soft focus effects were often used in Hollywood films in the 1950s for scenes with the leading actress. If you look closely when watching these films you can clearly see how the look of the image changes when a scene alternates between showing the male lead and the female lead.

Because of their heavy use in Hollywood, the look given by a soft focus filter is sometimes referred to as the 'Hollywood look'. In this article we'll look at several ways you can produce the same effect in your own photography.

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Written by Discover Digital Photography

July 27th, 2014 at 3:01 pm

Improve your photography – Ditch the kit (for a day)

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In this article I want to look at why using a different lens to the one that came with your camera might be a good idea. I'm not going to go into details about the quality of the lens - most 'kit' lenses sold with cameras today are perfectly fine.

Rather, I want to look at how restricting yourself to using a lens or focal length you don't normally use much can help you hone your photographic technique.

Improve your photography - Ditch the kit (for a day)

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Written by Discover Digital Photography

July 20th, 2014 at 5:10 pm

Create a Hand-Colored Black and White Photo

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Before the advent of color photography, a process of hand coloring black and white photos was sometimes used. Color (often using watercolors) was simply painted on top of the photograph, to create a color image.

This process gives the images quite a unique look. In this article I want to look at how you can do the same, giving any image that hand-colored black and white photo look.

Create a Hand-Colored Black and White Photo

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The art of the Double Exposure

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A double exposure is a creative technique where you combine two (or more) photos in a single image. It is quite an old technique, before digital it meant capturing two exposures on a single frame of film. But with today's modern cameras and software, creating a good double exposure image is much easier.

The art of the Double Exposure

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How to create a Droste Effect recursive photo

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The Droste effect is the name given to the effect when a picture appears within a picture of itself.

It is named after a brand of Dutch Cocoa powder, whose box featured an image of a woman holding a tray with a cup of cocoa and the same box with the same image on it.

The infinite recursion of the Droste effect is an unusual technique, but can produce some great images. In this article I'll look at how to create two different versions of the effect - the frame within a frame technique, and the spiral technique.

How to create a Droste Effect recursive photo

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Written by Discover Digital Photography

June 29th, 2014 at 8:27 pm