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A Night With The Golden Gate Bridge and a Manfrotto Carbon Fiber Tripod

Hello everyone!!

I’ve been here and there, but not nearly everywhere. But, I have something new to share with you all, so let’s get to it!!!

Sometime last month (or perhaps the previous), I headed out to the Marin Headlands to photograph the Golden Gate Bridge with a nice wide-angle lens for a few long exposure nighttime shots. I shared a few of the better ones here in the blog, but truth be told that I wasn’t too pleased with any of them. Why, you ask? Well, the tripod that I own is a cheaply made tripod under that was purchased in a big box electronics store. It was the right price for my pocketbook at the time, so I’m not ripping on the thing for being less than what I currently need. As far as tripods for a lightweight digital camera or point and shoot go, the thing is solid. But, strap a 1D mark II N along with a badass Tokina 100-300mm that both weight approximately 7-8 lbs combined and add a little Marin Headland crosswind coming in from the ocean, and you have a shaky platform that does not yield a steady shot.

I tried a few things, like standing in front of the tripod to try to block the strength of the crosswind, but that didn’t work. I tried timing the cross winds along with my 20 to 30 second long exposures, but that worked even less as the wind refused to cooperate. Naughty wind!!! I even tried pushing in a downward motion on the base of the tripod thinking that this may aid in keeping it steady. Wrong again, ol’ chap!!!

What’s the cure to the ailment? Get a freakin’ good tripod!! There’s quite a few names out there that are really good, but it is more than apparent that the Italians have the market cornered on good tripods. Maybe it has something to do with the stereotype of them having a large third appendage earning them the nickname of “tripod” that put them as the frontrunner in the industry. However, it is clear that their dedication to produce quality merchandise on which professionals rest their equipment worth into the several thousands every day is not up for debate, although the same can’t be said about the stereotype…

Manfrotto happens to be one of the names that is usually at the top of every pro photographers short list for their tripods, so when Gasser Photo had one of their Manfrotto carbon fiber tripods still sitting in the rental department this last friday afternoon, I couldn’t resist taking it out with the Bridge in mind for a re-shoot. I believe the combination that I rented consisted of the Manfrotto 055CX3 carbon fiber tripod and the 498RC2 ballhead. Paying full retail price for this combination would put you easily in the $550 range. If you shopped around a bit, you might be able to get closer to the $450-$500 range, but still you are putting out a pretty penny for this setup.

Is it worth it? As Tim Lincecum from the San Francisco Giants said in the 2010 season leading up to the World Series win, “FUCK YEAH!!!!” But, please keep in mind that this enthusiastic response is based on the criteria of requiring a steady tripod at the top of the Marin Headlands while dealing with 20 to 30 mph gusts of wind while trying to keep camera equipment weighing around 8 lbs steady for a 30 second exposure shot. Given all these conditions, the Manfrotto was worth the rental price of $20 for the weekend and the inconvenience of going out of my way on Monday morning to get it back to them before the noon deadline for the rental period.

Although I loved the tripod, am I going to run out and shell out the $500 for the combination right away? FUCK NO!!!! The reality is that I usually don’t have a need for that level equipment in the type of shooting I do. Most of everything that I shoot (or try to shoot) is handheld. Obviously, there was no way around hand holding the camera for these shots, and that is why the camera equipment rental industry is thriving!! They fill a niche of having the investment made in the inventory that most amateur and semi-pro photographers require in order to break into this field with a decent portfolio without having to shell out tons of cash. Without them, I’d be more lost than Clint Eastwood was while rambling off to an empty chair during his speech at the RNC.

So, the night started out with a killer Giants game that netted us a win. The game was over at about 10:30pm, and that was a perfect time to head out. I geared up with the Manfrotto carbon fiber tripod/head combination, a Canon 24mm L series lens that I also rented from Gasser only to not use, my new Sigma 50mm f/1.4 and my Tokina 100-300mm f/4.0. I dressed in layers just to be sure I wouldn’t either freeze my ass off or get uncomfortably hot, and headed out.

On the way across the bridge, I noticed that there wasn’t much traffic at the lookout point on the Marin County side just as you cross over the bridge, so I decided to make a pit stop. Although I was there for almost an hour taking many 30 second exposures with various lens combinations, there were very few tourists that came around at that hour. I shared the space with two other photo enthusiasts such as myself and even engaged in conversation with one regarding equipment choices. I found that I enjoyed the Tokina and the tight point of view that 100mm was offering best, so I went with it!! Here is one of my favorite resulting images…

Canon 1D Mark II N, Tokina 100-300 ATX f/4.0 shot in Manual at f/5.6, ISO 100 at 120mm for a 6 sec exposure in AWB

With the northbound traffic being the predominant traffic pattern occurring at that time of night, I was at a real disadvantage trying to properly expose the shot without washing out the bright white of the headlights and maintaining the bridge itself properly exposed.

Since I had the zoom on the camera, I zoomed in and out just to mess around and stumbled upon the next image in passing. As the focal range got tighter, I noticed that I got closer to the towers, but the fascinating part was the orange glow that was coming up from all the bridge lighting in the image. As you can tell from the previous shot, the lights that line the bridge on either side and illuminate the two towers are nowhere near the cool spectrum of white light, but go to the warm extreme of being almost orange. I am sure that this helps the color that the bridge is painted achieve its golden look. Here is the resulting image when zooming in on the north tower with the south tower in the background.

Canon 1D Mark II N, Tokina 100-300mm ATX f/4.0 shot in Manual at f/8.0, ISO 100, 225mm focal range for a 20 sec exposure in AWB

Next, I took off from the lookout point on the Bay side of the bridge and headed over to the Marin Headland side near the ocean. Coming northbound from the City, you would take the Alexander Exit and follow the signs to the Marin Headlands. It will take you under the bridge and over to the other side. Also, keep an eye out so that you don’t miss out on the right turn that comes up right before you get back on the bridge to head into San Francisco.

I decided to only go out to the second lookout point on the road. I keep meaning to head over there during the day so that I can hike all over the place in daylight and find the perfect spot where the hillside won’t be obstructing any of the bridge, as I’ve seen in other photographer’s work. But, pitch black at almost midnight with strong winds and plenty of camera equipment on you isn’t the best time to be hiking around looking for the best shot. I’ll do my homework some other time and revisit this shoot yet again. This bridge is soooo beautiful that I can’t imaging ever tiring of photographing it….

Since I already had the Tokina mounted on the camera, I decided to stick with the tight shots and zoomed images prior to going back to something that would provide more of a wide-angle view. The first image that immediately came to mind was to focus on the top of the north tower and capture the tower standing tall. Although I tried this next shot several times with a smaller aperture setting in order to obtain the star shape around the red light, I found that there wasn’t enough light for a proper exposure with the camera’s limitation of a 30 second exposure. Unfortunately, most of the Canon lineup comes with a max setting of 30 seconds for the shutter being open. There is a way around it though, which involves a shutter timer that allows you to program in any time that you desire to keep the shutter open. This is how very long exposures for nightscapes and star tracking is done. I don’t have one of these just yet, so I dealt with the 30 second exposure limitation and shot this image at f/4.0. I could have shot all the way down to f/8.0, but anything lower than f/4.0 would require a lot of brightening in Photoshop, and it just wasn’t worth it. Here is the resulting image.

Canon 1D Mark II N, Tokina 100-300mm ATX f/4.0 shot in Manual mode at f/4.0, ISO 100 at 300mm for a 30 second exposure

Next, I wanted to take an image that would involve the background lights of the city. In order to do this, I figured I would shoot through one of the spans in the bridge. Although the point was to blur out the background, I was surprised at how much the city was in focus while still maintaining the Tokina wide open at f/4.0. Here is the resulting image.

Canon 1D Mark II N, Tokina 100-300mm ATX f/4.0 shot in Manual mode at f/4.0, ISO 100 at 300mm with a 5 second exposure in AWB

Finally, I switched out the Tokina and decided to go with the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 to see what would happen. Although I did eventually switch over to the Canon 24mm, I found that the extreme wide-angle was resulting in a very small image of the bridge relative to the background it was recording in the image. So, the 50mm fit the bill, but there was no chance in hell I would be able to get the entire bridge in a single image. So, I decided to switch the AWB setting to a custom white balance with a color temperature of K 5200. Yes, it was a little warm for what I was doing, but I knew I would be able to adjust the color temperature in camera RAW in Photoshop and all I needed was to have the white balance in a level plane for when I used my image stitching software to join the three images together.

Just as expected, I turned down the warmth of the K 5200 white balance setting and am fairly pleased with the resulting image that includes a portion of the Seacliff and Richmond Districts lights.

Canon 1D Mark II N, Sigma 50mm f/1.4 shot in Manual Mode at f/4.0, ISO 100 at 50mm for a 20 second exposure at K 5200

That’s what I have for you for tonight, folks. Overall, I had a blast shooting these images regardless of how close I got to frostbite and losing my ears. I spent about an hour at each location and made it back home by 1:45am. A worthwhile outing with a worthwhile tripod that did the job fantastically. If you have the money and want the best for your equipment, please give Manfrotto a real serious look. If you’ll only need every once in a while like I do, you can rest easy in knowing that camera equipment rental houses like Adolf Gasser will have them in stock for you to rent any time.

Good night to all!!!

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