the photoshooter's journey from taking to making


Wiltern On Wilshire, 2015.

Wiltern On Wilshire, 2015. At f/3.5 and an ISO of 1000, this is an acceptably sharp hand-held exposure. Want the lights to be sharper? Might have to go tripod.


I HAVE OCCASIONALLY SOUNDED WHAT, I ADMIT, IS A PREMATURE FUNERAL DIRGE for the lowly tripod, that balky, bulky, creaky throwback to the 19th century that continues to linger as an occasional, if fading, tool of the 21st. Part of this stems from the pure aggravation involved in trucking the things around, getting them locked and level, and praying that nothing from a stiff wind to an enraged gopher to a power-tripping mall cop will intervene to undo the entire rickety works. Hey, I’m not a hater, just a very reluctant fan.

One of the reasons I’ve mostly weaned myself from the pod is the ever-evolving speed of lenses and sensors in the digital era. This means scenes with less and less light can be captured with greater sharpness in short, hand-held exposures, albeit with a little more visual noise or grain. You can now shoot on a dark street at night, if your lens opens wide enough to keep your ISO as low as possible and if you can maintain a rock-steady grip on your camera at shutter speeds around 1/20  or so. And, for many cases, the results from this setup will be quite satisfactory.

However, we ain’t just about being satisfied, are we, mmmm?

Problem with a wide exposure and bright highlights (like the theatre marquee in the above shot) is that those elements will burn in and become diffuse, even in fast exposures, especially since your ISO setting is instructing your sensor to suck light like a maniac. As a result, instead of being sharp pinpoints of light, they will often turn soft and globby. If you can live with that, then go in peace and sin no more, my son.

However, if you really need to get those lights as sharp as you see them with your own eye, you might try doing a longer exposure at a smaller aperture, and that can mean dragging the pod down from the attic and doing it old-school. Good news is that you can now crank your ISO back down to minimum, so, yay, no noise atall, atall. You also might pick up some more contrast and detail within bright objects, like the horizontal lines on the above marquee. Bad news is, duh, you’re using a tripod. Hey, is that a mall cop I see running over here?



4 responses

  1. All well said. I agree that a tripod is necessary for getting the best shot. The above subject is wonderful and it would be on my list of theater marquees to photograph and with a tripod at a 100 iso. The people coming and going would be blurred but the subject is the marquee.

    July 5, 2015 at 7:55 PM

    • I agree that a higher degree of fine control is achieved on a tripod. However, there are more situations every day in which its use is impracticable due to the rules and regs imposed by more and more authorities. In the case of this particular image, stopping on the street to set up anything elaborate would simply not have been possible. That said, I’d love to go back and try a longer exposure for comparison purposes. Thanks as always for your visit!

      July 6, 2015 at 10:09 AM

      • Michael you’re welcome. I’d be most frustrated not being able to use a tripod in this case but I know what you mean about restrictions. The California State Railroad Museum is one example of “No Tripods”.

        July 6, 2015 at 8:33 PM

  2. Very nice marquee. Yes, I use a tripod for all of my marquee shots because I want the detail and the tones. Since most are shot during the blue hour I want it all. If you can stand it, here is a link to that gallery of marquee shots.
    Michael, thanks for looking and I’d welcome your thoughts.

    March 12, 2018 at 4:39 PM

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