Using a Tripod for Portraits
by Jeff McLain
I'm not a portrait photographer per se, but I have shot a number of portraits in a variety of categories from wedding to couples to conceptual ... or for commercial applications.
The areas where I've used my tripod the most when shooting portraits has been with self-portraiture and composite work. For example, when my wife and I travel, I bring my tripod and a set of Pocket Wizard transceivers, which allow me to fire my camera remotely. This way, my wife and I can set up the camera on a tripod with a vista behind us and get a number of photos of us together in places without having to ask someone to take our photo.
In my composite work, using a tripod allows me to mask together a number of other captures into one final piece. If my camera is locked down on tripod, then this process is made much easier. I did a family portrait once where I photographed each member of the family separately while my camera was locked down on tripod on top of their picnic table. Then I used Photoshop to mask them all together into one final image. In these scenarios I need a tripod.
In other types of portrait work, such as my more cinematic series of images, I need my camera locked down on tripod because I'm busy doing other things with special effects such as creating haze, or using different types of prisms in front of my lens, or other experimentation. I need the ability to duplicate my previous shot, but also to make slight changes and compare to the previous to assess if I've improved things or not. This is hard to do if I'm handheld because everything is changing as the camera moves around.
In the shot below featuring our resident rock-climber/adventure photographer, Anastasia Wilde, I wanted to create a cinematic scene of a cat burglar who has rappelled into a space for nefarious reasons, while a security guard is about to round the corner. I knew I needed to be on tripod so that as I add and subtract light while building the shot I needed to see the changes as they happen and compare to the previous. Then I was going to add haze to the shot for effect, which meant walking around with "haze-in-a-can" to introduce it to the shot.
In our studio space, there are a number of black seamless paper holders on the wall behind Anastasia, and I covered those with white foamcore to make a clean separation between her and the backdrop so that I could replace it with a backdrop that does not have the foam core. And in the camera captures, there are the supporting C-stands that are helping to hold Anastasia’s rope that I also needed to get rid of. In this process, when my camera is locked down, I can get extra captures without the stands in the way and without the model. These extra shots are just for needed pixels that I will use in the Photoshop retouch process. You can see below a screenshot of these various files used to create the final “Cat Burglar” shot.
In my "stills photography" kit, I have two tripods. One of them is very small with legs that can spread out like a starfish and get my camera very low to the ground, or can be easily put up on a kitchen counter or in a tight spot ... and I also have a larger tripod that can go very high in the sky — about 8 feet high — but does not go very low. It's much more robust and not something I'd take for a hike, but it has its purpose which is to get my camera up very high and be very stable.
The other main consideration to a tripod is the type of head you use. This is personal preference, but I have come to prefer the pan and tilt variety over the ball head design. Specifically, I prefer pan and tilt geared heads so that I can get the position roughly and then fine-tune the camera's position with the geared knobs to get my horizons straight or line things up with more accuracy than I can get with a ballhead. But ballheads are usually more compact, so I have one for my smaller tripod for those compact scenarios.
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My small tripod is no longer made as I bought it in 2000, but a comparable equivalent would be the Manfrotto Element MII Aluminum Tripod. On this one I have a Kirk BH-1 Ball Head — not my preference, but when I need a small footprint, I'll use the ballhead.
My large tripod is the Manfrotto 028B Triman Camera Tripod with Geared Center Column with the Manfrotto 410 head. It's beefy but it's extremely stable for studio work and I can get it 7 feet in the sky.
But again, I don't often take my big camera on hikes so I don't bring my tripods as they are both too beefy. For those times you want to go for a hike, a good carbon fiber tripod is worth it. Something like the Robus RC-5570 Vantage Series 3 Carbon Fiber Tripod or a Gitzo carbon fiber tripod will be solid choices. There are also some lightweight aluminum tripods out there so be sure to look at the reviews and compare them with the more expensive carbon tripods.
Or if that budget is too high, the Benro TMA47AXL Extra Long Series 4 Mach3 Aluminum Tripod.
There are a lot of brands and considerations, but the main considerations for studio or location professional work that doesn't involve walking great distances would be: max height (getting the tallest one I can) and stability, per the reviews. If I am looking to walk a great distance then I don't really need it to go higher than 60 inches usually for a landscape shot, so weight and folded length would be my main priorities.
Something like the Gitzo GT5563GS Systematic Series 5 Carbon Fiber Tripod (Giant) for $1,549 would be overkill for someone needing to walk some distance to take a landscape shot, but for a studio or location photographer who may need to get their tripod 9 feet in the sky, that one would do the job and is still under 8 pounds.
Bogen/Manfrotto and Gitzo have been around a long time, therefore they are "trusted" brands — but Oben and Robus are coming up quickly as popular brand choices.
Of course, there are many brands and styles to choose from — I tend to avoid the ones that have a center column that is fixed in place but rather one with an adjustable center column as the center column should be the very last thing you raise to maximize stability of the tripod — last thing I need is a top-heavy tripod right off the bat.