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
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


Vanguard Tracker 4 Tripod Review

Review - Vanguard Tracker 4 Tripod


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.


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. 


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.

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