Tripod or No Tripod?

In this article, I want to discuss the question: tripod or no tripod?  Should I use a tripod for photography?  The above picture is what happens when you don’t use a tripod on a long exposure.

“A photograph can be an instant of life captured for eternity that will never cease looking back at you.”
– Brigitte Bardot

Tripods are a three legged stand that you can attach your camera to, so it stays put on the tripod.  They are very useful for a range of photography and video situations.  I’ve done several Youtube videos that wouldn’t have been possible without a tripod, because they stray from my usual camera setup, but I rarely use the tripod for photography.  Should I use my tripod more?  It got me thinking about when is an appropriate situation to use a tripod, and when they’re just a faff.  Here I want to share my thoughts about when it’s a good idea to use a tripod, and when it’s better to not bother.  Add your own thoughts in the comments!

Pro’s of using a tripod:

1. They steady the camera.
If getting those horizontal and vertical lines is a challenge for you, then the spirit level on your tripod can be a fantastic tool, because you can just adjust the legs until you get a perfectly level picture.  A lot of lenses these days have image stabilization but nothing beats a good tripod.  I’ve said it before, but if you know how to take a good picture first time, it saves a lot of lost opportunities.
2. Your hands don’t get tired.
Holding a camera in an awkward position while you wait for the subject to get arranged can really tire your hands out – and hand shake is the enemy of a good picture.
3. Essential for longer exposures e.g. astrophotography.
You literally cannot hold a camera still enough to get 30 second photos of space, unless you don’t have a heartbeat.
4. You can spend more time setting up the shot to make sure it’s perfect.
If your camera has a movable viewfinder, you can leave the camera in place and check whether everything you’ve arranged is in-shot.
5. You can learn how to compose the perfect shot.
This will probably improve the quality of your future pictures.  Pictures taken with tripods tend to come out either very static or very dynamic.  There’s no way to really compose the perfect dynamic shot (e.g. sports pictures) because the subject is generally moving independently of the photographer’s control, but for static shots, having a tripod can help you practise framing and using different focus techniques (for example) on the exact same shot to see what works and what doesn’t.
6. You can use the 10 second (or longer) self timer
This enables people to take pictures, and get a good shot without needing anyone to hold the camera, e.g. for family portraits.

Con’s of using a tripod:

1. They add weight to your setup.  Especially the ones that extend enough for you to stand up straight whilst using them – when you add a dolly (wheels) you’re looking at even more weight, and soon you’re going to need a trolley to cart it all around.  There’s a reason cameramen tend to have very strong arms!
2. They add money to your photography expenses.  Granted, you can pick up a tripod for pretty cheap on Amazon, but it’s still another thing to pay for, on top of all the other things you’ve already paid for, and some people simply don’t have the money for a tripod.
3. The ones for outdoor shots tend to be bulky.  The flimsy cheap ones can blow over easily (or get knocked over) if you’re not careful because they’re too top-heavy; would you risk a $1000 (often significantly more) camera and lens combo on a $20 badly made tripod?
4. You can get lazy in your composition
This comes from not snapping pictures whilst holding the camera, and it can lead to poorer quality pictures without the tripod.  Some pro-tripod people don’t even believe it’s possible to get good pictures without using a tripod!

Conclusion:

I have just one tripod, a medium sized one of moderately good build, but I think there’s a time and a place for using it – I generally use it in my house or for astrophotography, as I said.  When it warms up, I’ll start using it for infrared photography as well.  I’ve never taken it up a mountain with me and I’m not sure I ever would (although who knows what the future holds).  I’d like to play around with it more, but the weight is off putting because my camera setup is already fairly hefty.

What do you think?  When do you use your tripod?  Are there any times when you would say it’s essential?

How to Choose a DSLR Camera

“The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.” 
― Dorothea Lange

Cameras are a complete minefield once you want to do more than take family holiday snaps.  I was really squinchy about spending money on an expensive DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) camera, and when mine arrived I was really excited to try it out, but I hated using it at first (I was terrified of breaking something) and it took me about 1,000 photos before I actually knew how to adjust the settings without having to take loads of sample pictures.  After a weeklong trip to Aberdeen, however, I was completely in love with the superior picture quality of the DSLR compared to my old Fuji Finepix-S Bridge Camera, and after a few months it became second nature to get the settings adjusted perfectly.

1. Identify your budget.

What can you reasonably afford to buy?  Are you looking for the cheapest thing that takes pictures (in which case you might like a bridge camera)?  Or are you making an investment in a potential future career?  Do you want something with all the features or do you just want the pictures to look like they weren’t taken on a cameraphone?

DSLR cameras start at around $399 for the Canon EOS Rebel T5 1200D which is an entry level DSLR and is missing a few features you might require (such as a lens), and prices go up to $3249 for the Canon EOS 5D Mark III which comes with one lens and is generally agreed by photographers to be the very best camera that Canon make.  On top of these costs you will need lenses which I will write a separate post on.

2. Identify what you’re going to use it for: video or stills?

Some cameras don’t do video or don’t do it well – some don’t have microphones, or don’t have a jack for your microphone to be attached.  The Canon EOS 600D, 650D and 700D are all good for Youtubing but some of the older DSLR cameras don’t record video at all, so would be a complete waste of money for a Youtuber, however, they still take great (not outstanding) photos so a secondhand older model could be excellent for a budding photographer who was strapped-for-cash.

3. Take a look online to see what you can afford.

Amazon.com is a good place to see how much the different cameras cost.  Canon and Nikon tend to be the most expensive but they have the best features and are compatible with a wider range of add-on equipment.  I haven’t seen anything done by a professional photographer who didn’t use a Canon or a Nikon camera.

4. Read reviews.

I was on the verge of buying the Canon EOS Rebel T5 1200D before I read a review saying that the viewfinder was fixed, not movable.  As someone who does self portrait, timed shots and presents Youtube videos, this was unacceptable to me, and I’m glad I found this out before I bought the wrong camera for my needs.  I finally settled on a Canon EOS Rebel T5i which is everything I want it to be.  Your mileage may vary, and that’s what’s so wonderful about the sheer amount of choice on the market.

5. Buy camera.

Buy it from a reputable store which you’ve heard of or which has a physical location.  There is a LOT of fake crap on the market and some of it is VERY convincing.  I’ve not seen any fake camera bodies or lenses, but when you’re spending that amount of money you need to keep your wits about you.  I love ebay bargains, but I’d never buy a DSLR camera from ebay, or any website where the description is written in broken English, because you need to buy it from somewhere which will take action to sort out a bad transaction.  A second hand camera can be a great bargain, but it’s very easy for someone to sell something because (for example) they dropped it, and you won’t know it doesn’t work until you’ve handed your money over, at which point they can claim you dropped it.  For this reason, if you are buying a secondhand camera, get it from a physical shop and test out the camera before you buy it.  If they’re giving you excuses such as “the battery isn’t charged” then walk away from that purchase.

6. Write a review so other people know how good (or bad) it was.

If the site doesn’t accept reviews, unless it’s the official manufacturer’s site, I wouldn’t buy from there.  A good review lists two or three good points and two or three bad points.  Why waste time even writing a review that looks like any of these:
“Great thanks”

“Arrived ok.”

“Havn’t tried it yet but I’ve still givn it 5 stars.”

Have you got any other tips for buying a camera?  I’d love to read them in the comments!

Mysteries and Histories of Newgrange, Ireland

I slept like a log last night.  Do logs actually sleep?  How do logs sleep?  Like me?

This is Newgrange, a Neolithic site in Ireland that was on my 30 list, which I visited in June when I went to Dublin to see The Who (I recently re-read that article and I’m glad I waited to write this one because I wasn’t making a lot of sense back then).

All the photos from Newgrange came out very, very brightly, because the light was doing something strange here.
All the photos from Newgrange came out very, very brightly, because the light was doing something strange here.

Archaeology:

Newgrange was constructed around 3,200BCE (it’s 5,000 years old; BCE means ‘before common era’).  It’s a chambered passage tomb in Neath, Ireland, about 40 minutes drive up the road from Dublin Airport.  It is ringed by kerbstones, most of which are carved.  The site was previously filled to the top with soil and remains (I have no idea what they were remains of), but in an act of Archaeological Stupidity, it was cleared out in the Victorian era (Ireland did also call the time period this because they were under British occupation at the time) so we don’t have as much evidence as we would like, so archaeologists can’t really say what was going on except that it was a chambered passage tomb.  Which I said already.

It’s mostly risen to significance in the last hundred years because of an interesting phenomenon:  For a couple of days before and after the winter solstice (December 21, midwinter), every year, when the sun rises, it shines in through a hole above the doorway and shines on the floor of the tomb, making it a clever way to mark the passage of time because it marks an annual event.  You can get entered into the lottery that they draw to get a ticket to see it in December but you’d have to make your own way there and you’d have to go alone because the lottery is per ticket.  I went alone but I’m not sure I felt like repeating the trip in the middle of winter and I have to wonder how many people win a ticket then don’t show up for whatever reason, causing other people (who would have turned up) to miss out.

Why does it only do it on Solstice?  Because the Earth is tilted, and it’s orbit around the sun is slightly elliptical, so the sun appears to move position in the sky to different heights (in its second dimension, it rises and sets on one plane and lifts and falls on another; see the diagram below) at different times of year.  In Ireland, in winter, it’s at its lowest during the winter solstice, so the rest of the year, it’s too high in the sky to shine through the hole above the entrance to Newgrange.  In summer, it’s got further to travel than in winter, so the days are longer (actually, we’re the ones travelling, but it’s easier to think of it this way if you’re stuck).

I just drew this to show how the sun appears to move across the sky at different heights at different times of year.
I just drew this to show how the sun appears to move across the sky at different heights at different times of year.

Why go to all the trouble to build something so big just to mark the passage of time?  Well there’s a few reasons (if we’re assuming this was its only purpose which is doubtful due to the human remains that have been found inside), but it’s mostly to do with the fact that during the Neolithic (when Newgrange was built) most of the world had transitioned to agriculture – in fact, these days, we define “Neolithic” as happening at different times around the world depending on when the onset of agriculture was, nothing at all to do with stone tools or fire or whatever.  The Neolithic fits into our current “age system” for prehistory (was the “three age system,” but sort of expanded now) like so:

Palaeolithic – Was “Upper Stone Age” (really long time ago, all of human prehistory until 10,000 years ago)
Mesolithic – Wasn’t a thing, now defined as between 10,000 years ago and the onset of agriculture.  The time of the “hunter-gatherers”
Neolithic – Onset of agriculture.
Iron Age – Discovery of and use of iron.
Bronze Age – Discovery of and use of bronze (an alloyed metal)
Historical – documentary evidence of events in the past.

These “ages” are debatable and the time we reached them differs around the world and particularly how they are defined differs around the world as different cultures view different events as being pivotal moments in their past development.  It is fairly likely that Newgrange, then, was built without the use of iron and was built by people who were living in an agri-culture.  Because this is really all we know about them, it has been put forward and agreed upon by many archaeologists that Newgrange’s function as a big calendar probably has something to do with needing to keep track of the time of year for purposes such as planting crops.  This, of course, would depend on what sort of agriculture was taking place because there is always a bit of an assumption that agriculture has always looked the same since it was first brought to the West, but we don’t actually know that to be true (and are gaining evidence that this is not the case – a topic for further discussion at some point perhaps).  Evidence for agricultural practices has pre-historically been difficult to find although advances in bioarchaeology might move us forward with this if people start seeing farmed land as legitimate archaeological sites instead of just looking for settlements.  Anyway…

I’m not using “absolute” words because you can’t point to anything in the past and say it’s a fact or an absolute truth, because it’s all down to whether we’ve made the correct interpretations of the evidence or not, and while scientific methods can reduce the margin of error, they can never fully eliminate it so most of the time we can’t construct those elaborate “histories” or narratives of the past that people like to hear with any great amount of accuracy.  Which sort of defeats the original point of archaeology if we’re to believe it was ever really about finding narratives of the people from the past in the first place (which I don’t believe, I believe that came later).

Enough Archaeology!  Show Me The Photos:

On the approach. The darker stones to the left are original, the whitest ones are part of a reconstruction.
On the approach. The darker stones to the left are original, the whitest ones are part of a reconstruction.
The entrance to the actual tomb, from almost straight-on (at a slight angle so you can see some contrast in the pic because the sun shines directly on it).
The entrance to the actual tomb, from almost straight-on (at a slight angle so you can see some contrast in the pic because the sun shines directly on it).
The opening through which the sun shines around the December solstice.
The opening through which the sun shines around the December solstice.
The corridor leading to the chamber in the heart of the tomb (photography not allowed inside).
The corridor leading to the chamber in the heart of the tomb (photography not allowed inside).
Another interesting structure nearby.
Another interesting structure nearby.
The site is still disappearing into the landscape and becoming one with its environment, making it hard to get a good picture from a distance.
The site is still disappearing into the landscape and becoming one with its environment, making it hard to get a good picture from a distance.
Many of the rocks were carved in the Neolithic, into intricate patterns that many call "Celtic."
Many of the big rocks (kerbstones) were carved in the Neolithic, into intricate patterns that many call “Celtic.”  These carvings would probably have been done with flint (a type of stone) tools because there were no iron tools yet.
Rock art in one of the rocks forming the outer back wall.
Rock art in one of the rocks forming the outer back wall.
A side view of Newgrange.
A side view of Newgrange.
A tumbledown farmhouse near the site. I thought it was particularly beautiful.
A tumbledown farmhouse near the site. I thought it was particularly beautiful.
A closer picture of the old and reconstructed stones.
A closer picture of the old and reconstructed stones.
A shot of Newgrange taken from the Visitor centre.
A shot of Newgrange taken from the Visitor centre.

The Tour:

It was remarkably short but still enjoyable.  For the fact I’d waited so long in line and on the bus and for the tour to start, I thought there could have been a lot more made of the age, construction, and archaeological finds (by contrast, the tour at Rosslyn Chapel near Edinburgh is fantastic, if you want an out of the way and mysterious site to visit with a damn good tour, go there).  Most of the information I gave you in “archaeology” was stuff I had researched as part of my archaeology final year dissertation (and never used, because I decided to stick with British Neolithic sites).  There were also too many people visiting for the size inside the tomb, and the guide told the taller people to get to the back (which is fair on the shorter people, and usually I’m all for this, but when the taller people are then unable to see much, it’s just a bit unfair).  It was stunning inside, but there was no photography.  More annoying still, there were no photos of the inside of the tomb available to buy in the gift shop, all the pictures focussed on the light on the floor or this one specific rock with carvings in it.  For you, dear readers, I did sketch while I was in there.  Forgive my crude drawings; I got a D in GCSE Art and when I did my degree, I only did archaeological drawing for 2 days then I dropped it because it was the stupidest course I ever went on, and everything we learned there had no real use in a situation like this (y’know, an actual archaeological site).

This was done inside the main chamber. The roof (bottom right) was from standing in the middle of the central atrium (see pencil arrow) and looking straight upwards.
This was done inside the main chamber. The roof (bottom right) was from standing in the middle of the central atrium (see pencil arrow) and looking straight upwards.  The zigzags and swirls were copied from some of the stones in the three chambers.

Given the way that the sun was behaving, and the fact that I went two days after the Summer Solstice (midsummer’s day) I would like to put forward, based on the evidence of my own eyes, an additional theory about Newgrange:  That it wasn’t originally just a winter calendar, but also a summer one – there’s a straight up and down arrangement of rocks (see my drawing) with a capstone which may not have been original, through which, I’m fairly sure the sun could have shone in from above if the capstone hadn’t been in the way.  So perhaps, since it was full of soil and overgrown when people found it back in the Victorian days, the whole thing was repurposed and filled in at a later date (when the capstone went on)?  I don’t have any hard evidence of this, just my drawings, but it seems entirely possible to me.

A major redeeming feature of the tour was that the guide was open in admitting  that we don’t really know much about Newgrange – there are all sorts of theories and ideas bouncing around in the academic and “fringe” circles, but at the end of the day what they’re all lacking is any kind of evidence.  Some people (not archaeologists, I hope,) make it their life’s work to concoct plausible stories for big sites, using the least amount of evidence (a grain of truth to support their lies, if you will), and the most amount of drama, fantasy and “inference” (in quotation marks because it’s not so much inference as ‘making it up to get on the History Channel’), and sadly these versions of things run around the world before we can research, get evidence, assess context and investigator biases, consider reductionism, and all the other things that need to be done to support an idea about the past.  I’ve been to a few “historical sites” and found the guides to be reiterating as “facts” some complete gobbledegook that has no basis in evidence at all.  I found it very refreshing that what little the guide did tell us was all clearly stated as interpretation and she did tell us what those interpretations were based on (and why we don’t know more) and I think there’s a middle ground between “we just don’t know” and “a wizard did it.”

Accessibility:

There is no disabled access to the actual Neolithic tomb of Newgrange itself.  This picture is taken at the entrance, this is as far as you can get if you’re not pedwardly mobile:

There is no disabled access to the tomb of Newgrange.
There is no disabled access to the tomb of Newgrange.

Tickets must be bought at the Visitor Centre not at the site, and there is a walk and a bus ride between the Visitor Centre and the site.

Newgrange 3

You must get there early.  I got there before 9:00am and went on the first  tour of the day, and this was the queue already for tickets when I arrived:

This was before 9:00am and there was about 30 people inside the building who I had to wait behind before I got to the ticket desk.
This was before 9:00am and there was about 30 people inside the building who I had to wait behind before I got to the ticket desk.

Buying tickets:

When I visited, the combined ticket was the same price as the separate tickets for Newgrange and Knowth, so you may as well go to Newgrange first (because that sells out) then decide whether that’s enough chambered passage tombs for you or not (I decided it was enough for me but then I’d been up for 2 days and that always kills my attention span).  Ticket for Newgrange cost 6 Euros.  Check opening times and do some Googling before you go so you don’t miss out on the significance of this site.

21 tips for writing a bestselling travel article

This article will give you 21 tips and tricks to help you to write a bestselling travel article: In the style of a well known travel website which also sells guidebooks.

I look to magazines to show me the best examples of how to write. Sometimes I have to wonder why these people get paid in money rather than in bananas. That’s right, I’m implying a relationship between monkeys and typewriters. Bearing that in mind, here are some tips on how to write the perfect bestselling travel article, including photo editing tips:

1. Pick a place that’s easy to get to, but far enough away that normal people can’t actually afford to go there.

2. Take one or two photos that are probably unrepresentative of the place as a whole, particularly if it involves the sea, rugged landscapes, or any view you can only get from a helicopter.

This is exactly what you will see if you go to Egypt.
This is exactly what you will see if you go to Egypt.

3. Touch up the picture with Photoshop to enhance the colours, to make it even more unrepresentative of the place, and edit out the unsightly evidence of real life taking place, such as litter, insects or children.  Your aim is for travellers to be disappointed when they get there, so they go somewhere else (and buy a new guidebook) next year.

Those peaches have been colour enhanced to make you disappointed if you really see them.
Those peaches have been colour enhanced to make you disappointed if you really see them. Source: Wikipedia.

4. Write a story, embellish the details and make up interactions with semi-stereotypical characters who are always unusually aware of their global context for a farmer/mechanic/factory worker, to really show people an unrepresentative slice of life in the place where they’ll never go (because if they did, they’d find out you made it all up).

5. The opening paragraph – use at least four adjectives per sentence, the whole paragraph must be exactly three sentences long. The first sentence should have no more than 8 words in it. The second sentence can be a little longer.

6. The body of the article: Basically the first paragraph serves to describe the place in its entirety, from here on you will be talking about the history, climate, etc, and never, ever tell people anything useful such as what they could find there, how to get there, what petrol is called, what side of the road to drive on. Instead, you should find the most obscure language in the area and throw around one or two words that don’t mean anything, because it makes people feel like they now know enough lingo to go there. You never know, they might just find that one person who speaks that actual language and talk to them for long enough to use the two words they can now understand. More likely, it’s an insular community who are sick to death of white people, since their only contact with white people is when they turn up, gawk, take pictures of them as if they’re objects, then talk loudly at them and leave.

7. It is probably a place of conflict. Briefly mention the conflict, and don’t hasten to embellish on exactly how this conflict has changed all the people who live here, even if it only happened a few years ago or only happened for two days, or only affected one village that was eight hundred miles away from where you stayed. The only exception to this is if the conflict is ongoing. If the conflict is ongoing, you must mention it in less than one sentence, or even better, don’t mention it at all. They can find out for themselves when they get shot.

8. Don’t mention cultures or customs (with the exception of high days such as Carnevale or Divali, people need to know what they could have done, had they picked better travel days), after all, wouldn’t it be really funny if all the unescorted white women got arrested for immodesty, driving or being out unaccompanied. Better still, don’t tell them about the kidnap/rape problem, because that’s no biggie if it happens. The absolute best practice, though, is to tell your audience all about the cool exciting awesome things you can do in this country, which women aren’t actually allowed to do, and adding a tiny sentence at the end saying “women are not allowed in/on/at the …”

9. Do mention pickpockets or begging children, people will then think your article is honest and reflective of the “real” place.

10. Do mention that drugs are illegal. After all, the fact that they’re illegal EVERYWHERE is such a good deterrent that telling people what happens when they get caught abroad will REALLY stop them doing it. Seriously, this is like secret code for “everyone does drugs in this country.” Those are the only countries they ever point out the legality for.

11. Don’t mention any of the potential diseases you can get in the country you’re writing about. Or any of the necessary vaccinations. Who cares if some tourists die of malaria, AIDS, dengue fever or cholera as long as they bought your guidebook before they departed on their trip?

12. Don’t mention the state of the hospitals or other emergency services. People won’t take out travel insurance if they find out it’s utterly useless due to the fact that there aren’t any hospitals within 800 miles. And then you won’t get money from advertisers.

13. Don’t mention whether the destination has decent food for coeliacs, vegans, Muslims or Jews. They don’t need to eat. As a travel writer, you don’t know any of “those people” personally, so clearly they don’t exist.

14. Do talk in great detail about the “traditional dish” or “national dish” (which nobody really eats who lives there) which is usually meat stuffed with meat in meat sauce with meat and/or possibly cheese.

15. Leave out information about electricity. No-one charges their phone when they’re on holiday.

16. Keep pushing those sponsored hire car articles, but don’t tell readers ANYTHING about the various highway laws. Getting tickets abroad and putting the wrong fuel in your car is fun! Hey they could even get their car impounded!

17. Keep talking about budget options, but don’t actually make an effort to include anything that’s truly cheap. Whatever the hell you get paid to write those shoddy articles is too much if you think £80 a night is a budget hotel/hostel.

18. Never mention anything to do with accessibility. People who are disabled, people who have a guide dog to accompany them (or other support animal) and people with kids in pushchairs don’t travel. Only rich able bodied people do that. That’s why there are ramps and lifts and things all round the world.

19. Don’t discuss travel money options. At all. That’s not worth a single word of an article.

20. Don’t mention which religious groups reside in the area or where the local churches are, or what denominations can worship here. People stop believing in religion when they’re on holiday.

21. DO mention architecturally famous places of worship. Particularly if nobody can worship in them any more. Because travellers want to see the stunning results of religious buildings but don’t want to actually thank the people that made it all possible.

If you follow this guide, you too can produce financially lucrative, but boring and uninformative travel articles with exaggerated details, that editors will pay to publish. That’s a highly popular way that you can make a living off travel writing – because selling out and selling lies to the Man is everyone’s dream come true right?