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Gadget Bag: Window Mounts
In the camera support family, window mounts have been the stepchildren. While tripods, monopods and all manner of ballheads get attention, the lowly window mount is seen by many as a sort of tool for lazy photographers who can’t be bothered to get out of their car. In fact, however, a window mount can be an outstanding tool for any nature photographer, and it’s particularly useful for wildlife photographers using long lenses.
In this issue of OP, we have several articles about long lenses. A quick look at the chart in the “Supertelephoto Zooms” article will show you that these lenses are frequently large and heavy. Keeping a long lens steady is a challenge that’s magnified by size and weight, as well as focal length. You’re probably familiar with the minimum handholding rule, which says that 1/focal length is your minimum shutter speed, i.e., a 500mm lens has a minimum handheld shutter speed of 1⁄500 sec. The problem with this rule is that most people follow it blindly without realizing the importance of technique. Very few photographers can hold a long lens steady enough at the minimum handholding speed to get sharp photos, particularly in single-shot situations (see the sidebar “Techniques For Sharp Telephoto Shots”). Also, the longer the focal length, the more you need to pad the minimum handholding speed. In theory, the rule itself takes this into account, but professional wildlife and sports photographers will tell you that the progression really isn’t that linear, and longer lenses require progressively faster shutter speeds. So, in general, the longer the lens, the more difficult it is to get a sharp photo, especially if you’re not using a support. Image-stabilization systems are a tremendous benefit here, but the longer the focal length, the more you’ll need to consider a grounded support system.
The window mount gives you a nice steady platform to shoot from, but if you’re still unconvinced that it’s little more than a device for someone who wants to shoot from a parking lot, consider this. Cars, in fact, are excellent wildlife blinds. Many animals that would bolt or hunker down at the sight of a human on foot will be completely unperturbed by the presence of an automobile. Until you get out of it, the car is little more than a rock that moves. This is a bit of an overstatement, but with some patience and taking care with your movements inside the vehicle, you’ll find that you can get a lot of spectacular wildlife photos using a window mount while seated behind the wheel compared to walking around with a long lens and a tripod.
The actual mounts come in a broad array of sizes and capacities. Here are a few selected examples.
The Kirk WM-2 Multi-Purpose Window Mount is designed for serious long-lens users. It’s made of solid black anodized aluminum, with rubber-covered feet to help brace the system on the inside of your car door. It can hold up to an 800mm lens. The mount folds, which allows you to use it as a low-to-the-ground tripod, as well. It has a standard 3⁄8″ screw to connect to any tripod head with a 3⁄8″ socket. Estimated Street Price: $249. www.kirkphoto.com
The Manfrotto 243 Car Window Mount Pod with 234RC Tilt Monopod Head will work with systems weighing up to 5.5 pounds. The head tilts 90° in either direction on its single axis. It uses a standard, reversible 1⁄4″-20 mounting thread. Estimated Street Price: $77. www.manfrotto.us
The Giottos Car Window Mount features all-metal construction, and it has a built-in head with pan and tilt control. The rubber pad protects your window, and you can use the mount with lighter-weight camera and lens systems. Estimated Street Price: $54. www.giottosusa.com
The Vanguard PH-304 Window Camera Mount has a QS-36 quick-release plate and a three-way pan and tilt head. It supports camera systems weighing up to 8.8 pounds, and the clamp mechanism makes it usable on windows, as well as other possible braces like fences. Estimated Street Price: $44. www.vanguardworld.com
Novoflex Uniklem-42 Compact Clamp
The Novoflex Uniklem-42 Compact Clamp allows you to attach it to a car window, as well as other braces. It has a standard 1⁄4″-20 mounting screw so you can attach your camera directly to it, if you wish; however, it’s best to use a head in conjunction with the clamp. The clamp is designed to have two support surfaces, depending on what you’re clamping it to. Both orientations allow you to utilize the 1⁄4″-20 screw. Estimated Street Price: $67. www.hpmarketingcorp.com
Berlebach Car Window Mount
The unique wooden construction of the Berlebach Car Window Mount makes it stand out. It clamps to a car window and provides a solid, stable platform for your camera. It comes with a 1⁄4″-20 mounting screw so you can attach a camera directly, but we suggest using a head of some sort on the mount for best results. The mount can support up to 22 pounds. Estimated Street Price: $85. www.hpmarketingcorp.com
Techniques For Sharp Telephoto Shots
Anytime you’re shooting with a long lens, you need to pay particular attention to your technique. Simple things like the act of depressing the shutter button can result in enough camera movement to render a photo unacceptably sharp, even if you’re working within the minimum handholding rule guidelines. Here are a few simple tips for getting sharper images with longer lenses.
1 Establish your own minimum handholding guidelines. Starting with the minimum handholding rule of 1/focal length, do some tests to determine what your minimum is. Do this with all of your lenses. When you do the tests, shoot a variety of subjects to get a sense of how you hold the camera differently for a moving subject versus a still landscape, for example. Be sure to evaluate the images at a high magnification to see the effect of camera shake. Keep in mind that in the excitement of spotting interesting wildlife behavior in the field, you’re likely to be shakier than you were when testing.
2 Use image stabilization with care. Image stabilization systems have revolutionized how many photographers shoot, but they have limitations. As with the minimum handholding rule, you should do some testing to see your personal limitations with your stabilized lenses. Stabilization tends to be a bit of a crutch, so be sure you still employ good technique as you hold the camera. Don’t let your stabilized lenses make you lazy!
3 Shoot with a motordrive. Single shots with long lenses are notoriously difficult to get sharp. As you press the shutter button, all of the dynamics of your grip change, and it takes a moment to steady the camera. That’s why you should use the motordrive whenever possible when using long lenses. This holds true for handholding, as well as using a support like a window mount or tripod. As you press the shutter and hold it, your grip and pressure on the camera all get more stable. Looking at a test sequence, you’ll notice that the images in the series become progressively sharper. By the third frame, you’re probably close to maximum sharpness.