How Not to Hate Your Tripod (For Portrait Photographers)

by Jeanne Chaput de Saintonge


You know how it goes. You're packing up for a shoot and look at your dusty old tripod in the corner and think "no way am I going to lug that with me." You may feel that it’s an unnecessary burden that you’d just as soon forgo. It can be a challenge to use a tripod when you want to be spontaneous and responsive to the energy of the moment.

It's true that a tripod can slow you down, and while that can be a real asset for a landscape photographer who needs to take the time to carefully compose, for a portrait photographer a tripod can feel like a real hindrance to creativity. But hear us out! There are many ways a tripod can improve your creativity and help you create the shots you want. So, let's talk about how NOT to hate your tripod when you're photographing people.

For some kinds of portrait photography, a tripod is definitely an unnecessary burden. Think about shoots you’ve seen or participated in where the photographer is constantly moving around the set-up, moving closer and then back further, left and right, back and forth. In those kinds of situations, a tripod just won’t work to create the spontaneity you crave.

However, a tripod can be a real advantage in some portraiture situations — and it’s definitely worth the hassle. Here’s are some instances where you might still need one (even if you hate it):

  • If you want to show motion in your shot without the entire image being blurry
  • If you, yourself, want to be in the shot
  • If you're doing a large group photo
  • If you need a precise position for the camera and make sure it doesn't move an inch — such as in precise lighting scenarios in studio when you need everything to line up just perfectly with your lights/model/position to try to nail a specific shot idea.

On top of that, there’s a real advantage to getting out from behind the camera while you're shooting. You could elicit expressions that you might not get if you were hidden behind the camera. Use a wireless remote shutter release to trigger the shutter from a distance. As long as you know that your framing is set and the focus is accurate, you can be away from the camera making eye contact with your subjects.

So how can we maintain the feeling of creative freedom even when we’re weighted down and tied to a stationary object?


Buy a Good Tripod!

First thing to realize is that if you really HATE your tripod, it just might mean that you don’t have a good one. If you are using a sub-par tripod, there is no way that it will perform for you on a daily basis, and keep you in a good mood. It needs to be stable, durable and easy to use.

Second thing is, learn how to use it correctly — more on that below. Practice using your tripod in a stress-free situation photographing your best friend or your partner — and not when you have a client standing in front of you who is paying you.


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How to Choose the Right One for You!

Tripods are such an important tool that you’ll want to make sure to purchase smartly. If your current tripod is one where the head cannot be detached from the legs, we recommend that you replace it. Typically, “complete” tripods are not sturdy enough. Tripod heads and legs are sold separately, so there are nearly as many types and combinations of tripods as there are photographers. A sturdy, reliable tripod keeps your camera steady and safe while shooting.

Height: Make sure it's tall enough. It’s annoying to have to stoop down to see through the viewfinder of your camera. Choose a tripod that extends to your height without the center post being extended (center posts can actually create instability).

Weight: No need for overkill here. Buy a tripod that is only as heavy as you need it to be. Since portrait photographers typically don’t work in extremely adverse weather conditions — and often times they work indoors where everything is controllable — a fairly lightweight option might be preferable. (And that way, you might find yourself bringing it to shoots more often).

Legs: The tripod head will affect your photography more than the tripod legs, but there are still a couple of important decisions you'll have to make when purchasing legs. First, there are basically two materials that legs are made out of: aluminum and carbon fiber. Carbon fiber weighs less, but it is more expensive, so this is kind of just about finding the sweet spot of how much you can afford.

Second, leg locks are either "twist" or "clip" style. It's all a matter of personal preference whether you go for twist locks or clip locks. Some people find the clips easier and quicker to work with — and vice versa! Here is an example of each one:

Clip Style: Oben AC-1451 4-Section Aluminum Tripod with BA-113 Ball Head

Twist Style: Oben CT-2491 Carbon Fiber Tripod and BC-139 Ball Head Kit

Head: There are a few different types of tripod heads, but here are the most common ones:

  • Pan/Tilt head: With this type of head, you can "pan" (which allows you to follow a moving subject), tip it forward and back, and tilt it side-to-side. A protruding handle controls each separate motion. This type of adjustment can be awkward and time-consuming when you are on the go, but is great for commercial studio and architectural photography, both of which allow you to spend a lot of time setting up a shot. In these cases, having separate locks for separate planes can be crucial.
  • Ball head: Ball heads are generally lighter and smaller than traditional pan/tilt heads. They are also faster to use, because you can compose and lock the camera position with only one knob. This makes these heads great for a wide variety of applications. Most types of photographers also prefer ball heads for the many possible camera angles.

Portrait photographers typically prefer a ball head so they can easily follow the movement of what’s happening in front of the lens quickly (and because they're easier to use!)

Pro tip: For ease and simplicity, use a ball head with a bubble level instead of a pan/tilt, grip, or fluid head.

Tips for Using your Tripod Correctly

  • Don’t carry your tripod with camera attached. Set up the tripod first, then attach your camera.
  • Your camera bag can double as a sandbag. Anchor the tripod by hooking your camera bag under the tripod legs to help keep it stable.
  • Spread legs until the stopping point. Position one of the legs in front of the lens so you can move around in between two legs.
  • Extend thickest sections first. Don’t overtighten. Don’t raise center column until all sections are extended and only when necessary.
  • For stability, you can stagger the length of the legs if ground is uneven.
  • Level the base plate (on the head).

Bottom Line: Tripods create new possibilities and can make your images sharper!

Here are a couple final tips for you that will really kick that tripod disdain to the curb: 1) Always keep the tripod plate on your camera so you don’t have to hunt for it (use a low profile one or a custom bracket for your camera). 2) Don’t touch the camera when taking the shot. Use a remote trigger to minimize any camera shake.

Lastly, practice in a stress-free environment before you are in the hot seat! Tripods are a useful tool that could open up new creative possibilities for you if you're willing to give them another shot. Happy Shooting!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jeanne Chaput de Saintonge

Simply stated, Jeanne has been involved in anything and everything that has happened at RMSP since its inception. In a time before RMSP existed, Jeanne graduated from Florida State University where she majored in English. After marrying Neil, the two decided to pack it up and make the move to Montana. While she has held every position at RMSP at one time or another (she and Neil founded the school), she now works as the school's logistics, business and finance guru.