Amateur’s Food Photography: 3 Reasons I Love My Tripod

by Jenn on April 24, 2012

in Photography

Taking pics of the Matterhorn :)

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:

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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:

Coeur de Boeuf Tomatoes

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.:

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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.

*Note – I will be interviewing with Neel of Learn Food Photography this weekend!! Have a question to ask me? Submit your interview questions to Neel here :)

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
The Histogram
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 

{ 51 comments… read them below or add one }

Soma April 24, 2012 at 11:39 pm

stack of books, shaky hands low light, and out of focus photographs.. its all me. I hear you :) Besides using the camera in manual mode i need to school myself in a lot more. BTW that is really an awesome looking tripod. Robust and reliable.

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Jenn April 25, 2012 at 8:04 am

Thanks Soma! Would it be helpful if I did a post on using manual mode?

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Rosa April 24, 2012 at 11:44 pm

I don’t have a tripod, but really need to get one soon… Great post.

Cheers,

Rosa

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Jenn April 25, 2012 at 8:05 am

Thanks Rosa!

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Toni @ Boulder Locavore April 25, 2012 at 1:05 am

I now can’t remember life-before-the-tripod! As always Jenn love all the thoughtful suggestions and tips. Your photo series has been so helpful. Especially love the tomato photo in this post! Hope you are feeling well.

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Jenn April 25, 2012 at 8:05 am

Thanks Toni – and yes I agree, now when I am without my tripod I definitely miss it!

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Sara{OneTribeGourmet} April 25, 2012 at 1:09 am

Jen, you have motivated me to start using my tripod…I have one but I’m too lazy to use it..I just lean against something & hold my breath..lol I know…I really should use my mine! Thank you for this helpful post!

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Jenn April 25, 2012 at 8:13 am

Thanks Sara – Yeah it’s a bit of an adjustment to one’s routine to start using it – I owned my first tripod awhile before I actually started using it regularly, but once I made the decision to start using it, I found myself really enjoying that I had one :)

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branny April 25, 2012 at 1:50 am

great post!

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Jenn April 25, 2012 at 8:13 am

Thanks Branny!

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Lizzy (Good Things) April 25, 2012 at 2:11 am

Thank you for this informative post, love your work!

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Jenn April 25, 2012 at 8:13 am

Thanks so much!

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Mardi@eatlivetravelwrite April 25, 2012 at 3:43 am

Need to use my tripod more. Thanks for the reminder!

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Jenn April 25, 2012 at 8:15 am

Thanks Mardi! I found it helped me to remember to use it more at first by keeping it set up somewhere, so I didn’t have the issue of unpacking/repacking it each time. Making it easily accessible at first really helped :)

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Charlie April 25, 2012 at 1:15 pm

Morning Jenn:

Thank you so much for all this information.
Right now I have a point and shoot. It does a fairly good job, but would love to have a dslr,
and now a tripod.

Love the shape of the tomatoes!
What kind are they?

Have a Joyful Day!
Charlie

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Jenn April 25, 2012 at 9:27 pm

Thanks Charlie – there are small table top sized tripods you can get that fit a point & shoot, I used one like that for a while before I had a DSLR. As for the tomatoes, they are called coeur de boeuf, or beef heart – they make the perfect sandwich tomato, quite possibly my favorite variety!

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Charlie April 25, 2012 at 11:38 pm

Thanks Jenn :~D

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Ben April 25, 2012 at 2:09 pm

I’ve been experimenting with new lighting sources lately and the tripod has been one of my best tools. Thanks for the tips, it can really make a difference.

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Jenn April 25, 2012 at 9:27 pm

Thanks Ben!

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David @ Frenchie and the Yankee April 25, 2012 at 2:52 pm

I love # 2, an extra pair of hands. Never thought about it that way! Great post.

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Jenn April 25, 2012 at 9:28 pm

Thanks David!

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Alessio April 25, 2012 at 4:22 pm

I couldn’t do all the composition tricks & fixes without a tripod! The only thing I need to remember is to not knock it off while moving around ;) Still, the one I have is the price of a pair of undies and not of an Armani dress ;p Reliable nevertheless.

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Jenn April 25, 2012 at 9:29 pm

haha your analogy is hilarious! glad to see someone else likes their tripod :)

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Barbara | Creative Culinary April 25, 2012 at 4:41 pm

I simply can not imagine not using a tripod for all of the reasons you cite; it’s simply a part of the process for me. I don’t have the outdoor requirements you do but still have seen a huge difference in that first cheap one I bought (which now holds a light!) and the one I use now which is much sturdier and has built in levels; big difference. Very nice and informative post Jenn.

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Jenn April 25, 2012 at 9:33 pm

Thanks Barbara!

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Heidi @foodiecrush April 25, 2012 at 10:14 pm

I recently purchased a new SLIK tripod and am in love. I’m so used to creating hand held images that its been an adjustment but I’m happily getting used to it. Fun tips, thanks for sharing.

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Jenn April 25, 2012 at 10:16 pm

Thanks, and enjoy your tripod!!

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Flo Makanai April 25, 2012 at 11:44 pm

I have a tripod but use it once in a blue moon, silly me… Thanks for putting in words why I need to use it more often!

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Jenn April 26, 2012 at 7:30 am

Thanks Flo, hope you enjoy it more!

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MooNFaCe April 26, 2012 at 2:03 am

Hi Jenn
I have a tripod but I rarely use it. As you said, I find it limiting. I shoot with a 50 mm prime lens and get close to the food I have to get physically close and lean to get the picture I want. What kind of lens do you usually shoot with? Do you have any suggestion for my problem?

Also, I am not sure if you got the name of the tripod you currently use. Would love to know.

Thanks

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Jenn April 26, 2012 at 7:36 am

I use anything between 35 and 105 mm for food shots, depending on how close up or far away I want the image to be. Generally I find longer focal lengths work great for close up shots because they give me enough working room to back away a bit, but there are also times when I will position the camera on the tripod very close to the food. As for the specs of my own tripod, they are listed with my other equipment on the FAQ page (found in the menu just below the header image on my site). Hope that helps!

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El April 26, 2012 at 5:30 am

Very useful post. Lovely photos as always. looking forward to your interview too.

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Jenn April 26, 2012 at 7:37 am

Thanks so much El!

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Sarah, Maison Cupcake April 26, 2012 at 12:38 pm

I love using my tripod for all of those reasons – I am often taking pictures late in the day with low light levels and longer exposures are essential!

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Jenn April 26, 2012 at 7:04 pm

Thanks Sarah! Yes it’s definitely necessary for low light!

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Peter Bronski April 26, 2012 at 7:12 pm

Great post, Jenn! For longer exposures, I also like pairing the tripod with a remote shutter release to really minimize any camera shake (such as might be introduced when you press the shutter release button). I also must say that investing in a decent tripod – sturdy legs, with a head strong enough to handle the weight of your camera and lens – is huge, too. My old tripod just wasn’t cutting it … way too flimsy. My new tripod is heaven, and still only cost ~US$100.

Cheers, Pete

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Jenn April 26, 2012 at 7:17 pm

Thanks Pete! Yeah I usually have a separate shutter release too – but depending on the situation I find the built in timer works well. And “heaven” is the perfect word for describing the feeling of being able to depend on your tripod! Our tripods have to hold up quite a bit of worth of camera gear, it’s great when you can actually trust a good sturdy one to do the job :)

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Priscilla-She's Cookin' April 27, 2012 at 6:31 am

I have an inherited tripod and don’t use it! I guess I better start – thanks for pointing out all the benefits, Jen!

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Jenn April 27, 2012 at 8:40 am

Thanks Priscilla – let me know how the transition goes for you!

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Laura @ Family Spice April 27, 2012 at 6:34 am

I envy your comfort & ease with the tripod. I have been fighting getting one, mostly because I need a real versatile tripod to be happy. Which tripod do you use and like? Can you post an amazon link?

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Jenn April 27, 2012 at 8:43 am

Like everything, it’s a learned habit – the more I’ve used it, the more comfortable I’ve become :) What type of requirements do you have for a tripod? Versatile can mean many different things depending on your needs… the make and model of my tripod head/legs are on my FAQ page under photography – my outdoor needs for it were more demanding than my indoor requirements, so that’s what I based my tripod decision on :)

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Rhonda April 27, 2012 at 8:53 am

I finally bought a tripod but I have to confess that I’m not entirely comfortable with it. I’m having a hard time “letting’ go of the camera. I really need to practice more, especially since I live so far north that light is a big issue.

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Jenn April 27, 2012 at 8:56 am

As with everything, changing your routine and process takes time – I’m sure you’ll get the hang of it!

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Jeanne @ CookSister! April 28, 2012 at 12:04 pm

Great post! and yup, been there, trying to steady my hand/camera on every available surface to try and avoid camera shake in low light…. I have now gone as far as buying a tripod… but have yet to use it!! Need to set aside a weekend to do this, soon…

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Jenn April 28, 2012 at 1:55 pm

Thanks Jeanne! Let me know how it goes :)

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Andrew April 29, 2012 at 3:45 pm

Invaluable is a tripod; I use my all the time when photographing food at home. However I dont take it when travelling as it is just too bulky and unwieldy to carry – and it would annoy people in the small groups I travel in if I start unfolding it in the dark cellars I usually end up, however useful it would be in those conditions!

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Jenn April 29, 2012 at 5:04 pm

Thanks Andrew – Yes, I can definitely understand that!!

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Rochelle May 3, 2012 at 12:08 pm

I love your post! My tripod is my best friend when I take food photos (and anything else inside the house!). You listed every reason I love it too :) (oh and gorgeous photos btw… I need a tomato now, stat!)

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MichelleM May 22, 2012 at 6:03 pm

Thank you for the wonderful advice on using a tripod. I was getting super frustrated with my blurry pics… especially when I had that 2nd cup of coffee! Time to get one. :)

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Janet July 11, 2012 at 4:45 pm

Thanks for all the wonderful tutorials, I have thoroughly enjoyed reading them.

I have had a farm/food blog for several years but have done much with it until recently. Right now I am working hard to focus my message while learning to take better photos (new camera is on its way!).

I have a blog question for you. My blog is black with light grey text but it’s hard not to notice that food blogs are black on white. Is there a reason why? I chose a dark background because I think it makes photos pop. But with ALL other blogs having light backgrounds I feel like there might be something I don’t know. Any advice? Thanks!

Janet

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Jenn July 11, 2012 at 4:49 pm

Thanks and enjoy your new camera!

Re: black text on white background, I have mine that way because I find it easier to read. I agree that photos tend to “pop” on a black background, but for me the choice was all about readability of the text. It’s definitely easier for me to read black text on a white background than light text on a black background.

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