Hack 1 Pocket Tripods on the Go

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Yes, your full-size tripod is important, but when you want to travel light, a pocket tripod is great for getting into your own group shots and capturing twilight landscapes.

For so many creative endeavors, you need a way to stabilize your camera; it comes with pushing the limits of photography. Every serious photographer needs to have a full-size tripod. But beyond that, a variety of smaller stabilizing devices can help you cope with various shooting situations. At the top of this list is the pocket tripod.

Before I get into the equipment itself, I want to review why tripods contribute so much to image sharpness. They help prevent camera shake: soft, fuzzy images that result from not holding the camera steady during exposure.

When you want to photograph a subject without a flash in low ambient light?such as when you're indoors, or during dusk or early morning hours?your camera chooses a long shutter speed. When I say long, I mean 1/8, 1/4, 1/2 of a second, or longer. Now, those times probably sound pretty fast to you. But in camera terms, they are as slow as molasses in winter. Most daylight pictures are recorded at 1/60, 1/125, 1/250 of a second, or faster.

Once your shutter slows down to 1/15 of a second or longer, you need to stabilize the camera. If you don't, the slightest movement you make during the exposure will actually cause softness in the image. In low lighting, even the act of pressing the shutter button itself can cause camera shake.

This is why tripods are necessary. Unless you're going to limit your shooting to broad daylight or flash photography, you're going to need a way to stabilize the camera. For big jobs, such as photographing a starry night, you'll need a big tripod. But for many situations, you can get by with a mini tripod that fits in your back pocket. These are important tools, because compact tripods are more likely to make the trip than their bulkier big brothers, who are often left at home.

The results of camera shake and poor focusing are different. With camera shake, the overall picture will look a tad fuzzy. When you focus poorly, something in the shot will be sharp, just not the part you wanted.

Let's look at a few pocket tripods and see what's available:

UltraPod II

Pedco (http://www.pedcopods.com) makes two sizes of their versatile UltraPod. I recommend the larger UltraPod II because it's the more stable of the two. These portable tripods include ball heads, and they fold up nicely to fit in your back pocket or camera bag. They are made from durable plastic that can handle abuse. They include a sturdy Velcro strap that enables you to secure the camera to signposts and tree limbs. This increases their usability greatly, because you don't always have to find a level surface. Most retailers sell the UltraPod II for US$29.

Sony VCT-TK1 Compact Pocket Tripod

This Sony camera support doesn't look like your normal tripod. It is extremely portable because it folds flat, but it's better designed for tabletops and other flat surfaces. It sells for only US$15 from retailers such as MainSeek.com (http://camera.mainseek.com).

Quantaray QT-75 Mini Tabletop Tripod

Quantaray's offering has three legs that spread a pretty good distance, providing stable support on flat surfaces. The screw-mount head allows for both vertical and horizontal tilting. This mount isn't as versatile as a ball head, but it's easier to level the camera quickly, increasing your odds for a straight horizon line. The QT-75 is available from retailers such as Digital Cameras4All (http://www.digital-cameras4all.com) for about US$15.

Regardless of which tripod you use, keep in mind that it's best to trip the camera's shutter by using the self-timer or the remote release, as shown in Figure 1-1. That way, you won't jar your digicam by pushing the shutter button directly.

Figure 1-1. Using a remote release with an UltraPod II

Pocket tripods aren't perfect for every situation. But they are remarkably versatile and will enable you to capture many shots you would otherwise miss. And unlike their big brothers, they won't put a strain on your shoulder or your pocketbook.