I know, I said this was a food photography post, and yet there is a pic of me and no food to be seen! Ha, but it’s the best one I’ve got of possibly one of my favorite pieces of photography equipment, and one I find myself calling essential when I do food photography – the tripod.
I first bought myself a tripod when I figured out that my tiny old apartment in grad school back in the day didn’t let in enough light and I found myself taking perpetually blurry images. I would end up wasting 50-100 frames on one image, just praying I could stay still long enough just once in order to get a picture in focus. Let me tell you, that is NOT fun! It’s much more fun to think about the photo rather than stressing out if I can hold my camera absolutely still.
But there are other advantages too – so let’s talk about the benefits of a tripod
1. It lets your camera handle longer exposure times.
If you don’t have a way to augment your lighting sufficiently and you are in a dark or shaded area where you can’t receive much natural light, chances are you (or your camera) will make up for it by slowing down the shutter speed. The general rule I’ve seen floating around is to avoid camera shake, the denominator on the shutter speed should be at least equivalent to the lens length – i.e., if you are shooting with a 50 mm lens you don’t want your shutter speed to be any slower than 1/50 s. But this also depends on you – have shaky hands? Then this will not be conservative enough to get a still image. I’ll admit in the beginning of my foray into photography I would test these limits as much as I could, holding my breath, leaning against a wall, balancing the camera on a stack of books, anything I could do to try to keep my camera still. It didn’t always work:
With a tripod, you attach the camera to the tripod and then when you click the shutter, you don’t have to worry about shaking the camera around, the tripod will keep it in place (to a point – a poorly made tripod may not do this so well, and a really long exposure time may be affected by your action of pushing the shutter button). Et voilà, as long as you set your focus correctly, no more blurry photos!
2. A tripod can act as an “extra pair of hands”.
Not all of us have the privilege of an available assistant to hold bounces, gobos, reflectors, etc. when doing a shoot for our food blogs. Sometimes I can convince my husband to help out (usually with a promised reward of some tasty food of whatever I’ve cooked), but other times when I do a shoot for a post it’s just me. Since I photograph in my living room, I don’t have space for stands to hold every type of light modifier I want to use – and sometimes, I AM the light modifier! Yes, I will sometimes use my own body to block light in certain places on an image. This was the case in my most recent photos that I made this past weekend – I set up my shot and then set the camera on a 10 s timer, so that when I pressed the shutter button, I could move around to the other side of the table and block light with my body in order to keep the highlights from hitting too much of the front of that tomato in the foreground, as well as reaching over the table to hold a large black card on the other side to strengthen the shadows. Without a tripod, I simply would not have had enough hands to control the light how I wanted AND take the picture at the same time:
3. A tripod can help you with your composition.
Some people feel a bit inhibited by a tripod, and will state that the use of a tripod makes their photos too limited. However, the more I use mine, the more I have come to really enjoy its dependability on always holding my camera exactly where I put it. It lets me tweak my photos. If I don’t like how one element in a photo is located, I can move it and know that my next image will be exactly the same as the one before it except for my tweak. There is no more guesswork in trying to reposition myself exactly where I was before after changing something in my image, because the tripod keeps my camera in the same position the entire time.
Sometimes, if I am not sure what angle I want to use, etc., I will walk around a scene with my camera looking through the viewfinder to try different perspectives – but once I decide what I want to do, then I set up the tripod to hold the camera in that position, and usually build the scene with that perspective of the camera in mind. This can be especially useful testing out different props, lighting effects, etc.:
I also get a lot of use out of the levels which are built into both my tripod legs and head to make sure my camera is aligned vertically and horizontally. It is much harder to keep your camera perfectly straight when you are holding it with just your hands, and I find the guide lines in the viewfinder are now much more useful as well.
If you are looking into a tripod, what kind should you buy? While I’m not here to endorse specific brands, I can tell you that generally you get what you pay for. My first tripod cost me $40 at a local camera shop (I was a poor grad student then), and within two months it was completely wobbly and clearly not able to handle the weight of my DSLR with even a light little 50 mm lens on it. That tripod taught me that sometimes it’s better to invest in something a bit more quality if you want it to last for any length of time.
My current tripod is significantly better than that (the old one has in fact been converted into a stand to hold my speedlight flash, ha!) – it can handle any amount of weight I could conceive putting on it, the joints stay in place when I set them, and it’s been in mud, on rocks, in wind, rainstorms, and performed like a champ. Obviously if you are only using it for food you may not care so much about its outdoor utility, but as someone who has learned it’s worth the extra athletics to cart it around hiking, these things are important to me too
The more I use my tripod the more I find myself loving its dependability and aid – not just because it keeps my camera from shaking, but also because it has become an integral part of my entire creative process throughout the execution of a shot. I use it not just for food photos, but also for landscapes and when we go traveling/hiking. I use it whether or not I actually have low light conditions, because to me a tripod has purposes well beyond just holding a camera still when you click the shutter.
Want to read more in my Amateur’s Food Photography Series? Check out my previous posts:
Look at photos with a critical eye (and making fun of one of my early ones!)
Food photography is about celebrating light
Take your time and find your “zen place”
Angles of Light
Pay Attention to Props
It’s Not the Camera, It’s the Lighting
Exploring New Directions
Plate to Page Workshop Summary
Building an Image
Shades of Gray
White Bean and Ricotta Salad
Apple & Caramel Dumplings
Prosciutto Corn Muffins and White Balance
Creamy Cauliflower Soup and effect of gobos
Bruschetta with Arugula Pesto – Styling challenges