2012-12-16

HDR Technique for Stanley Forest Burn Photo

How To article showing HDR techniques.

The Stanley Basin, near Idaho's famed Sawtooth Mountains, is a forest of mostly lodge pole pines with little undergrowth.  In the summer of 2012, droughts, beetles and lightning strikes caused many of the stands to burn and tens of thousands of acres were lost.  This is an HDR photo taken a month after the fire and this article discusses how the photo was made.

HDR is the technique that blends multiple exposures of the same scene into one photograph.  When using HDR (High Dynamic Range) you can choose to be subtle, dramatic or unbelievable.  My goal was to be more dramatic. 

Final Results:

Stanley Forest Burn, October 2012 - Click for larger view


The Photograph:

The photo was taken mid-afternoon on a heavily overcast, rainy day, using a grey-card for the main exposure, and white-balanced.  Below is the scene, as it appeared "correctly exposed" at EV +0 - no compensation and no editing:


HDR Exposures:

An HDR photograph takes three or more frames, bracketed at various exposure compensations, then with software, all are blended into a final image.  Traditionally, you would take one shot at -1 stop under-exposure, a second shot at the correct exposure, and a third at +1 stop over-exposure.  The HDR process combines all three into one picture.

With this, you can pull in shadow and highlights that would be lost to a single exposure. In other words, you do not have to sacrifice shadow detail to capture highlights.  The technique can also enhance, and some would say exaggerate, contrasts and colors.


For this photo, I took a sequence of 5 exposures, from -2 stops to +2 stops.  All five were combined to build the image above, plus other adjustments, such as saturation and hue, offered during the HDR process:
Bracketing Sequence + / - 2 EV - Click for larger view

The exposures can be taken automatically by the camera, using a feature often called auto-bracketing -- letting the camera pick each of the exposure settings.  But my Nikon D5100 is limited with only a three-frame sequence, typically -1 stop EV, 0, +1 stop EV, and my software can accept more.  Because of this, I bracket manually using Exposure Compensation. Having more frames, for example, -2 EV, -1 EV, 0, +1 EV, +2 EV, produces more nuanced results.  It is unfortunate that the Nikon does not have a variable setting for the number of frames. 

Although many newer cameras can perform HDR exposures in-camera, there is little control over the results and because of that, I never use a camera's built-in HDR.  If you decide to use the internal HDR, be aware it does the bracketing for you and, in the case of the Nikon, only three frames are used.


Follow these exposure steps:

1. Place the camera on a tripod and set the camera to Aperture-preferred automatic (or manual).  Do not use Program or Shutter-preferred as you want the depth-of-field to remain constant during all five exposures; you do not want a program-mode shifting the f-stop.

2.  I recommend setting White Balance.

3.  I highly recommend shooting in a RAW format, rather than JPG.

4.  Meter the scene with no exposure compensation (EV +0); I typically use a grey card but the camera's default meter reading is probably adequate.  This is what I call the base exposure.  Do not bother taking a picture.

5.  From the base-exposure,  dial back EV -2 stops exposure compensation; e.g., 2 stops under-exposure, and take the first picture.

6.  As rapidly as possible, dial the next exposure (EV -1), followed by EV +0, EV+1, and EV +2.  Be sure the camera is steady between each shot.  When you are done you will have 5 exposures.


See these Image-Liner articles for details on the Exposure:
Auto-Bracketing vs Exposure Compensation
Using an 18% Grey Card
Controlling White Balance


Taking the Frames:

With HDR photography, here are the main rules.
  • It is foolish to not use a tripod
  • Use a RAW format; do not allow compression
  • Objects cannot be moving - this includes clouds, winded foliage, etc.
  • Take three or more exposures at different EV values (bracket).  5 photos seems optimum, if your software supports this many.
  • Take the photos as quickly as possible
  • Out of habit, I start with under-exposures
  • Use EV 0.7 for subtle HDR, Use EV 1.0 for normal, EV 1.5 for dramatic
  • Use Aperture-preferred (not programmed or shutter preferred) so depth-of-field does not shift 
If the wind is blowing and trees and clouds are dancing across the view finder, the HDR will fail. Moving clouds are particularly troublesome because the bright sky is one of the main reasons for using HDR - you want to bring the brightness into range with the foreground -- but their movement causes bizarre pixellations and color shifts in the finished HDR  Even with software trickery, where you can exclude areas from HDR, you will lose the hoped-for dynamic range and you cannot recover from these problems in post-processing.

Because they twitch and sway ever-so-slightly, people also make poor HDR subjects. 

No doubt, shooting JPG at High Quality is convenient but the images are compressed and will compress more aggressively at the -2 and +2 ranges (e.g. more blacks and more whites are more compressible).  For example, look at Frame-1, above.  Lots and lots of black.  When HDR sees these frames, it will detect more changes than expected and will likely introduce artifacts into the combined photo.  For this reason, shoot in RAW.


Post Processing with HDR:

You will need software to process an HDR photo and I recommend Paintshop Pro or Photoshop (CS).  I use Paintshop Pro X5 for my photo editing because the software is relatively inexpensive ($100).  The remaining steps in this article reference that tool, but other software will work similarly. 


Organization

Begin by organizing your work.  Create a folder for the image.  Although this seems like extra work, it is worth the effort when you later return to the same images.  The folder will contain each of the 5 exposures, the final ".HDR" file, the final printable version, and any smaller versions you might send by email or post online and you will likely have 8 to 10 files for one photo.  If you take multiple series of the same subject, give each series its own folder.


To help even further, in post-processing rename the five exposures, appending the exposure-compensation in the name.  For example, my Nikon named the first exposure as "DSC-0312.NEF".  I renamed it as "DSC-0312-2.NEF", where "-2" is two stops under-exposed.

DSC-0312-2.NEF   (-2 stops under-exposed)
DSC-0313-1.NEF   (-1 stops under-exposed)
DSC-0314+0.NEF   (EV +0 normal exposure)

DSC-0315+1.NEF   (+1 stop over-exposed)
DSC-0316+2.NEF   (+2 stops over-exposed)


If bracketing at 0.7EV (or other ranges), I still use the -2 nomenclature, knowing the real values are stored in the EXIF information attached to the image.  But I find it helpful to see this in the file-name.  Sometimes when HDRing, I might toss out the +2 frame if I want to bring down the highlights and the filename makes this easy to identify.


HDR Steps:

PSP has two modes - "Manage" and "Edit."  start in the "Manage" tab to build an HDR. 



1.  From the Manage tab, click the left-navigation's "Collections/Computer" tabs, changing to "Computer."

2. Browse to the folder created for the HDR

3.  On the bottom row, PSP displays thumbnails of the images; this is called the "Organizer."  Note exposures (1 through 5).  Hover the mouse to see the exposure compensation and the entire filename.

4.  Highlight each of the original exposures by clicking the first then shift-click the last (exposures 1 through 5, including +0).  The order does not matter, but it is probably sorted by RAW name, under-exposures to over-exposures.


5.  Choose the "HDR" Menu.

'Other-mouse-click' any of the images, and choose menu "HDR, Exposure Merge" from the context menu.

If the "HDR" option is greyed or unavailable, you have a previous HDR window open in the background. Minimize PSP and dismiss other open PSP windows.

6.  The Left-Navigation shows the initial HDR options, illustrated below,

     a. Choose your camera RAW model/brand - e.g. Nikon, Pentax, etc.
     b. Choose Feature-based or Edge Alignment (see below)
     c. Always choose [x] Auto-crop and
     d. Click the "Align" button


   * If the resulting image is fuzzy, indistinct, out-of focus, return to this step and
     change the Alignment method from 'Feature'-based to 'Edge-detection'. 

   * I generally ignore the custom editing (auto-brush, brush-in, etc.) on the bottom half.

   At the bottom of the navigation panel is a next button.

7.  On the next screen, PSP offers six default adjustments.
     Generally, the 'Presets' should be ignored because they are usually too strange.... 



8.  ...Instead, scroll to the bottom of the dialog and make changes manually, but if one of the presets is interesting, you could start with it as a base.  Often, the horizontal adjustments for Tint and Vibrancy should be adjusted closer to the center than PSP's suggestions.



Adjust until the photo appears as desired.


9.  Optional: Create an HDR File.

At the bottom of the left-nav is an optional button, "Create an HDR".  This builds a special ".hdr" file that holds all of the exposures and the current slider-settings.  Expect the resulting file to be near 100mb if shooting RAW.  Use this file if you want to re-build or revisit the original HDR settings.  I don't consider the file a necessity because the original exposures are still available and could be re-created.  The file is convenient if you intend other editing changes or want to play with different styles.


10.  Click "Process" on the bottom of the Adjustment navigation panel. 

PSP opens another left-nav, allowing for basic photo-editing, such as "Smart Photo Fix".  Choose these options as you would for any normal photograph.  Consider starting with the Smart Photo fix.

11. Clicking "Finish" opens the merged HDR into a standard Editing window.


Troublesome Touch Ups

All photos have troublesome areas and it strikes me as humorous when my mind's eye sees the picture one way but when pulled up on a screen, the camera captured something different. 
Once the HDR has merged and you are presented with a single image, begin your normal darkroom work. 

I noted these obvious problems: 


As usual, I am incapable of leveling a tripod and all the trees lean left.  Tilting the frame a few degrees, using the horizon-leveling tool, stood them vertical.

The green stands of trees in the background was not obvious when I was taking the original pictures and I was pleased when I saw them on-screen -- they gave some hope to an otherwise bleak landscape.  The HDR emphasized these colors more than reality but with this photo, I was not after a literal rendition.  If I were, I would have used the EV +0 photo and would not have bothered with this process. 

Several of the tree's burned bark flaked off, exposing a bright orange bark underneath, much like leopard spots.  They were distracting, even in the original photographs.  I calmed them with some old-fashioned burning.

A featureless, flat sky is the bane of all overcast photographs.  There was some admitted darkroom trickery, adding blue that was never there.  Using PSP's new graduated filter (version X5), I applied a dark blue to the top-third of the image.  This was a subtle effect and I am unapologetic about using it.

Click for larger view

What ever you do, do not fix these problems in the original exposures.  You would have to make the exact change, in the exact same spots in all 5 exposures, which is impractical and somewhat impossible; only make changes after the HDR has merged.


Final Save - Use Great Caution

With the final, edited image, save the file in your native editor's format (in Paint Shop Pro, they are a '.pspImage" extension).  Name this file "something_Final.pspimage".  Photoshop users should save as a .PSD / .PSB image.

When saving this image, be sure to turn off compression.  

For example, PSP compresses its own native file-formats.  In the Save-As menu, click "Options" and turn compression off.  For printing, you really want a full-fidelity image.  Even with no immediate printing plans, you must save an uncompressed image or a lot of the details will be lost.  Of course, turning off compression makes for a sizable file -- with most modern cameras, the file size will be near 90MB per image.  Once compressed, you can never gain the lost information back.  For proof, see this article: JPG Compression

If you are particularly proud of the image, and you want to share it, do a Save-As and create smaller versions suitable for websites and email.  Name these versions "something_Final_Small800x600.jpg" and change to a non-compressed JPG file type.   (Even though you can save JPG non-compressed, be aware it will still severely compress the photo but the space saved, compared to the original file's size, will be negligible.)  When doing this, take great care in not accidentally overwriting the master files with a "Save".


File Save Recommendations
  • Save-As in the editor's native format - e.g., .pspimage, .psd/photoshop
  • Name the file "something_Final.pspimage"
  • In the Save-As options, turn off all compression
  • Save-As a second time and create a "something_Final_Small.jpg" image for mailing.
  • Make no editing changes to any of the original RAW photos
This completes this article on HDR.  Your comments welcomed.

Related articles:
White Balancing
Using an 18% Grey Card

NewPort Bya (Yaquina Bay Bridge)
Highway 21 HDR

JPG Compression

Related Imageliner links:
Jump Creek, Idaho
The Pillars of Rome, Oregon
Frank Church Wilderness, Idaho
Grandview, Idaho

2012-08-05

Nikon D5100 Firmware Upgrade

Nikon D5100 Firmware Upgrade 1.01

Occasionally, once or twice a year, you should check Nikon's site to see if your camera has a firmware update.

My camera shipped with firmware version 1.00 and has now been upgraded to
D5100 firmware: A: 1.0.1 / B:1.01  released 2011.11.10
(There are A and B and L firmware versions.  This upgrade updates the A and B.)



From Nikon's site: These issues were resolved:
  • An error where the card may not have been recognized when some memory cards were used has been addressed.
  • When Selective color from the retouch menu is performed on a picture taken with the image quality set to NEF (RAW)+JPEG and an image size of M or S, the edges of the image may not have changed color. This issue has been resolved.
  • When Metering was set to Matrix metering, the exposure mode set to M (Manual), and the HDR exposure differential set to Auto, the exposure differential was fixed at a value equivalent to 2 EV. This has been changed to enable automatic adjustment of exposure differential so that it is appropriate for the scene

There may be other changes to insignificant to document and it is always advisable to apply the latest.

Applying a firmware update to the camera is easy.  Roughly, download the firmware to a computer, expand the compressed zip file and copy the resulting ".bin" to the root of an SD Memory card.  Insert the card into the camera and open the camera's Firmware Version menu.  Follow Nikon's instructions and power-cautions carefully.  Full details can be found at this link.

Vendor Link: D5100 Firmware Link and Instructions

All Nikon Firmware versions can be at this Nikon Current Firmware Downloads.

Other Articles of Interest:
HDR Techniques for Stanley Forest Burn
NewPort Bya (Yaquina Bay Bridge)
Highway 21 HDR

Using an 18% Grey Card

2012-03-04

First HDR - Highway 21

I photographed this bridge near Boise, Idaho today.  The highway curves down from Federal Way, to the East, on the way to Lucky Peak Reservoir.  This was a cloudless, late winter day, facing into the just setting sun.

This is my first HDR shot, with a variety of other manipulations, briefly discussed below.

Highway 21, Idaho.  Click for larger image.

Here are two of the four shots that formed the basis for the HDR.  This is the under-exposed and over-exposed versions (middle-exposure not illustrated).  The spread was 1-1/3 stops between each for a total of 2-2/3rds. 


A grey-card was used to set the middle exposure and this was a mistake, given the sunset (see this article: Using a Grey Card).  The grey-card perfectly exposed the bridge, but with sunsets, you should underexpose more than normal to bring out the colors.  Even with the bracket, the low-exposure was not low enough and the sky still washed out.  The scene also lacks contrast.  However, if you look at the high-exposure, there were few shadows to be found and I'm not sure I could do better.

I did not use the camera's built-in HDR, wanting more control over the merge process and, in the end, four separate shots were used, as opposed to the normal three.  With PaintShop Pro X4, I blended three shots for the HDR, choosing one of the options called "LocalTone" -- this gave the image a slightly-contrasty black-and-white feel, which you can see in the bottom half of the image.  Next, I made a separate HDR, choosing more normal colors and using a bunch of trickery, overlayed the bridge and sky over the first HDR. This became the final image. The image took several hours to edit, with attention to details that probably weren't necessary.

This scene deserves to be photographed again, for a lot of reasons.  To begin, even with the sunset, the sky was uneventful and in the winter, everything was grey.  The other issue was we arrived about 10-seconds before sunset, giving my friend and I only a few minutes to work.  It was dark before we could explore other compositions.

The other problem was operational.  I am still used to film cameras.  Did I bother previewing images on the LCD to check the exposure?  Nope.  And for a few moments I had to fiddle with the new Nikon camera's exposure compensation controls.  Mixing bracketing and exposure compensation got confusing.  Lessons learned.  On the plus side, I had the White Balance set to daylight, purely by accident, because I forgot to check.  Fortunately, this was exactly what it should have been.

Later this spring, when the grass is green and the trees have leaves, I'll mount a second expedition to the same location and we'll approach the bridge from a few different angles.


Related articles:
HDR Techniques for Stanley Forest Burn
NewPort Bya (Yaquina Bay Bridge)


White Balancing
Using an 18% Grey Card



2012-01-21

Still Life with Mussels

This was a simple still-life, taken for a friend to show him what I made for lunch today.  Total setup was 30 minutes, and that included polishing the glass and artistically throwing a cloth napkin on the table.

This is a straight photo with only in-camera adjustments.  Taken with existing light, late afternoon on a cloudy day.  The main light was an East-facing window directly behind the subject.

Final picture:





Before and After Exposures

I was suspicious of the window light, which was in deep shadow.  I took the first shot without color correction and there was no surprise -- a deep, blue tint permeated the picture -- blue because the blue-sky was the only light source, with no direct sunlight; shadows are always blue.

There were also auto-exposure problems, where the black table was competing with the table-top's glare and the white bowl.  Both can confuse the camera's meter one way or the other and it would undoubtedly need exposure compensation.

I took two exposures.  The first without color correction or exposure compensation.  The second was the final exposure.



By chance, on the right-side of the room, there was track lighting, directed at a broad, white wall.  This added a fill-light, softening the shadows. If not, I would have used a white cardboard sheet on the front-left, bouncing light back into the scene.

Unless I am taking snapshots, I almost always override the camera's auto-white-balancing and auto-exposure settings.  These settings only takes a minute or two and the results are far better than an automatic exposure.  I was confident of the results and before I reviewed the photo on a larger screen, I ate my lunch.



White Balance

When ever setting up an photograph like this, I set the White Balance first.

The blue-tinted light was obvious on the camera's view screen and white balancing was definitely required.   Following the suggestions in this article, imageLiner White Balancing, I set a manual white-balance color correction with a white sheet of paper.

Note I did not bother selecting the "open shade" setting, although it would have probably worked reasonably well.  Setting white balance manually takes only a moment and is more reliable.  


Exposure Compensation

Because of the black table and black mussels and because of the equally stark and competing white dish, exposure compensation was required.  Remember, dark subjects cause the meter to over-expose while white subjects cause the meter to under-expose and it would be hard to guess which way the meter would go.  Looking at the first, uncorrected exposure, it was obviously under-exposed with the dead give-away of the white bowl not being white.

From previous articles, I use a grey-card for metering (see this article). Because of the backlighted window, the grey-card was casting its own shadow.  I angled the card away from the lense more than normal.  And because of the relatively dim lighting, the camera was having a hard time focusing on the card; I temporarily set manual focus while metering the grey-card.

Once I noted the grey-card's reading, I left the meter on automatic and dialed-in the exposure compensation until it reached the grey-card reading, plus 1/3 of a stop (per my grey-card article).  The final exposure was 1-1/3 stop over exposed from the meter's original recommendation.

Metered Exposure:  f8, 1/5"
Grey Card Exposure:  f8, 1/2"


With landscapes and still-lifes, one should be concerned with the depth-of-field.  This works in my favor because setting a fixed aperture (depth-of-field, aperture preferred) also makes for easier exposure compensation settings.

This picture was shot with a middle-of-the-road f8.  I did not choose f11 or deeper, wanting to keep the back wall in a softer focus.  f5.6 would have been too shallow of a depth-of-field for such a close subject.

Naturally, the camera was on a tripod.  The lens was set to 55mm Dx/APC (aka 82mm 35).

What I would do different

Later, I examined the final photo and was pleased to find good details on the dark mussels, which was the goal.  But I did note the strong highlights on the rim of the bowl and the reflection on the fork.  The highlights were completely blown-out and perhaps I should have calmed them with a small flag or gobo, casting a shadow on the right side.  That would have added more interest to the lighting.

A white cardboard fill on the front would have eased the shadow under the napkin.

If I were doing this again, I would have brushed the mussels, clearing the sauce from the top of the shells, and I might have used a white table-cloth instead of the black table.  But this was still a fun and easy project.

Here is the recipe.  Easy to prepare, looks like a million-bucks.  Tasty.

Mussels in red and wine sauce
Time: apx 20-30 minutes
Skills: Easy
Serves 2 to 3; 1 lb mussels per person for a light meal

1/4C Olive Oil
1 medium red onion, chopped
2 or 3 cloves garlic, minced coarsely
salt
3T tomato paste
3 to 4C chopped and seeded tomatoes (I used canned, 28oz)
1 1/2C white wine (I used a local Chardonnay)
Parsley for garnish
Mussels (2 to 3 lbs, fresh or frozen)

Saute onions in olive oil until translucent
Add garlic, saute another minute; do not allow to brown
Add tomato paste
Add tomatoes (with liquid lightly drained, if canned)
Add wine
Salt to taste
Bring to a medium simmer
Toss in (fresh) mussels and simmer until opened

Garnish with chopped parsley and serve with a crusty sour-dough bread

For this dish, I used frozen mussels. 
Following the package instructions, place the bag in boiling water, cooking separately for 6 to 7 minutes until the bag inflated and mussels are hot.  Cut the bag and drain.  Unfortunately, the liquid cannot be used in the sauce because of debri.  Add to the final sauce and toss so everyone becomes good friends.  Let cool slightly before serving.

The wine was 2006 Chardonnay from Koenig Vineyards, Snake River Valley.

Related articles:
Semolina Pasta
imageLiner Setting White Balance
imageLiner: Exposure Compensation

2012-01-02

Vanguard Tracker 4 Tripod Review

Review - Vanguard Tracker 4 Tripod
www.vanguardworld.com

Summary:

A solid, industrial-quality tripod at a good price ($140 mail order to 180 retail, US).
Well designed, with only a few minor, and correctable flaws. 
  • Independent, sturdy legs with 80-degree pivot 
  • Easy-to-use quick release on the legs
  • Foam grips on the legs; comfortable carry strap
  • 3-axis, panning head - a joy to use
  • Removable quick shoe
  • No cheap-feeling parts

All components are industrial strength, with nothing cheap or flimsy; even the carrying strap is over-built. The design is well thought-out, with attention to details, and it has been a pleasure to use.  When my friends hold this tripod, they laugh at the stoutness but deep in their hearts, they know they own pieces of junk.  It competes well against Bogen, Manfrotto, and Sylk brands.

The tripod has a little brother, the Vanguard Tracker 3 which weighs a pound less and has slightly thinner legs but comes with the same head.  Differences are so minor, I recommend spending the extra $10 and buying this model, just for the heavier-duty legs.  Both tripods are heavy enough where nothing is gained by the smaller version. 

This is a heavy-duty tripod, designed to hold equipment up to 20lbs.  None of my cameras need this capacity, but the extra mass is exactly what you are looking for because it adds stability on windy days and dampens vibrations.  And a beefy tripod is simply more able to withstand abuse over its lifetime.  There are lighter-weight (carbon-fiber) tripods, at twice the cost, but lighter-weight is not something you always want.  

Weight: 3.4kg (7.5lbs)



PH-55 Head, Standard

Starting with the head, it is silky-smooth and easy to adjust.
  • 3-axis, 3-handle Pan Head
  • Smooth movement in all directions, using a friction-resistance that feels like a fluid-head
  • Degree markings on the X and Y Axis
  • Solid cast-metal parts
  • Removable cast-metal Quick Shoe
  • 2 Quick Shoes supplied; one for 35mm (1/4") threads and a second for large-format cameras
  • Quick Shoe needs a coin or blade to tighten (see below)
  • Does not include bubble level (not a complaint; just observation; bubbles are useless)
  • The head does not fold-up into a small small, non-protuding package; something will always be "sticking out" unless you remove the handles.  


Horizontal movement on X axis (illustrated Green):  360 degrees.
Nose-down movement on Y axis (Blue): -90 degrees, straight down.
Nose-up movement on Y axis (Blue): +30.
Portrait/Landscape on Z axis (Red): +30 degrees left, -90 degrees portrait.

The +30-degree Z axis tilt (illustrated red) is nice -- if the tripod is on uneven ground, you can probably get the camera level without having to mess with the leg lengths.  But because the Z and Y axis are so fluid, there is no obvious place to tell where "level" is; you get to eyeball and adjust manually each time you set up the tripod.

Quick Shoe:

The Quick Shoe is a small metal plate with a slotted screw that attaches to the camera body.  The plate and camera body then slide into the tripod as one unit and is secured with a small knob on the head.

This is a good design.  I typically leave the quick shoe attached to the camera, even when not using the tripod.

But the Quick Shoe has several minor design problems.  First, the screw cannot be tightened by hand and you will need a blade or a coin.  Notably, Vanguard does not provide a tool for this common task. 

I've found a small coin is the best tool to tighten the camera mount.  As illustrated below, I fashioned one on a key-chain by drilling a small hole in a 5-cent coin and then hooked it to the tripod's carry-strap so it is always handy. 
Knowing I was breaking federal law, I laughed maniacally as I drilled the hole in the coin.  The idea works well and it would be fun if something like this were included with every tripod. It would cost about a dime to make one of these.

The screw also had another fixable annoyance.  At one end of the shoe's slot are machined threads and the screw often gets wedged in this area as is slides up and down the slot.  I fixed this by gluing a small plastic tab (actually, it was a door-cabinet rubber pad which you can buy at any home-repair store), illustrated above.  This fixed the problem.

The Quick Shoe does not have a spring-loaded centering pin, which helps align the shoe with a small indent on the bottom of most cameras.  This would be a 'nice-to-have' feature but it would interfere with the shoe's slot (which helps adjust the camera's center of gravity) and it is understood why this feature is missing.

Legs:

I really like the legs and how they extend.  The foam leg grips are nice to hold and if you sling this over your shoulders, it gives a little padding.  The legs are substantial -- nothing wimpy about them.  They are round aluminum with internal groves that prevent twisting.  Legs join at the yoke with solid, cast-metal parts.  With the legs extended, the camera's viewfinder will be at a comfortable standing height for a six-foot person. 

Body height (legs extended, including head, no center extension): 1.6m (64.5" ~5').
Fully extended (with center): 1.9m (74" 6'3").
Collapsed length (including head): 80cm (31 1/4").

Tube diameters:
Outer section: 32mm (1 1/4") - "beefy"
Mid section: 28mm (1 1/8")
Lower section: 24mm (15/16")

Legs individually pivot outwards at ratcheted positions 25-degrees, 50, and 80-degrees, illustrated above.  If fully splayed, the center post must be removed.  See below for more details.

The over-sized Quick Release levers are plastic and are easy to use, even with gloves.  The tightness of the grips is adjustable.  However, this is the one area where I would like a more robust part. Although the levers seem reasonably solid, I could imagine thicker materials.  If a lever breaks, spares can be ordered.  With this said, I've had no problems.


Center Post:

The center-post is a hexagonal-shaped tube that does not rotate in the yoke. The post manually rises and is tightened with a simple and large wing-nut.  The wing-nut passes through a solid metal threading and engages a (distortion pad) built into the yoke.

When loose, the post is sloppy in the yoke, but when tightened, it provides a firm grip.  The mechanism is simple and the wing-nut/threads cannot scratch or mar the center post, no matter how tight. With the leg-heights, you will seldom need to use the center post.

The bottom of the tube has a removable stop, that also acts as a secondary head.  Remove the center post and invert the alternate head when you need a landscape-only, low profile stand, illustrated below.  This takes only moments to setup.










A more useful close-to-the-ground setup involves removing the Pan Head from the center post and mounting it on the alternate mount.

Using this setup takes several minutes because the pan-head has to be removed from the post.  It took a few minutes to figure out how to do this.  Begin by locking the x-axis, then remove three set-screws from the bottom of the head.  Twist the locked head to unscrew from the post, then screw it directly on the alternate head.  The new assembly raises the height of the camera another 5 inches higher than alternate head, but you get full control of the 3-axis head, including Portrait.

Practically speaking, mounting the pan-head directly to the stand is a minor project.  As an alternative, the center post can be inverted in 10-seconds, hanging the camera up-side-down, which is much easier to do.  Using the pan-head, the camera can be rotated to any position -- but you would have to dance-around the legs.



Cosmetic Changes:

I did one other thing to help make the tripod easier to use.  I painted red on the second handle to color-code its function and it serves as a visual clue because all three handles are similar (you could also use red electrical tape). This should be a standard feature on all 3-axis heads.



Other Comments:

This is a substantial tripod, weighing 7.5 pounds, and you won't be taking it backpacking, but that is not its purpose.  The weight is exactly what you are looking for when buying a full-featured tripod and you will appreciate the carrying strap.  The strap is comfortable and it also doubles as a binding strap to keep the legs tied.  Travel cases can be purchased separately, but are not robust enough for air-travel.

The tripod has a smaller brother, the "Tracker 3," which weighs a pound less, has thinner legs and a shorter center post, selling for $10 less.  For such a little difference, I recommend the larger model.  Besides, if you are looking to save weight, neither of these models will meet your needs.


Things to Avoid when Buying any Tripod

Speaking of light-weight, many years experience and three discarded tripods later, have taught me a few things to avoid.  The Tracker 3 and 4 have none of these problems. 



I have particular disdain for hand cranks and cross-leg supports.  Hand cranks are never really used because once you loosen the wing-nut, you might as well raise and lower the center post by hand and the hand-crank just gets in the way.

In theory, Cross-leg supports seem like a great idea -- all three legs open at the same time -- but the mechanisms are fragile, with thin plastic parts and ironically, they usually make opening the legs more difficult.  I have argued with many-a-tripod, trying to get all three legs to spread.  There is a reason high-end tripods never have this feature.  Three separate legs may take a bit more time to open, but are simpler to use.  Besides, if you are using a tripod, you can't be in that big of a rush.

Other tripods have twist-lock leg extensions instead of levers.  These are a pain; levers are easier to use.  Some claim twist-locks help keep out dirt.  Nonsense.  If anything, it helps them hold water when standing in a river and it will dribble in the car on the way home.



Single-Handle heads and the Vanguard Tracker 1
Vanguard also sells a much smaller and simpler Vanguard Tracker 1 with a PH-50, single-handle head.  I have a like-dislike relationship with single-handled heads, leaning towards the dislike side. 

On the surface, the head seems simpler to operate because it only has one handle -- but you will find you have to fiddle with two other knobs each time you use it.  Especially the horizontal rotation -- it must be locked down or the camera will wobble.  You will always be fiddling with this control.

Another problem with this type of head is the portrait/landscape control (wing nut illustrated on the back-side).  It can rotate to portrait mode, but it does not rotate the other direction.  If the tripod is on a slight incline, you may not be able to level the camera without adjusting leg-lengths. 

Conclusion:

I recommend the Vanguard Tracker 4 tripod.  It competes well against Bogen / Manfrotto / Sylk. You will appreciate the well-thought-out features and the smooth head.  The price, $140 - $180, is a pleasant surprise.  The PH-55 3-axis head is a strong selling point.  Choose the Tracker-4 over the slightly smaller Tracker-3; both have the same head and both are good.


If you read other reviews on the web, you will find mostly 4 to 5-star comments, with very few detractions.  My complaints with the Quick Shoe were solved with easy home remedies. Consider purchasing a second Quick Shoe ($20) as a spare.


Reference:
Vendor Site: www.vanguardworld.com
Vanguard Cary Case
Amazon: Padded Carry Bag