The Importance of Having a Leg (or Three) to Stand On
How do you approach a subject to create an image? When you’re stopped in your tracks by a scene or subject that captivates your eye, do you just snap a shot and move on? Hardly. You stop and study the subject, you look at the light and you consider what your options are to find the best possible camera position for the best possible shot.
There are so many decisions that go into making a great photograph: aperture, shutter speed, ISO, lens selection, etc. But the one that separates your images from others is your self-imposed perspective or point-of-view, and your camera’s position in relationship to that subject. A great picture tells your story. In order to really work the subject to get the most out of it, you need to be able to support your camera, or your work won’t have a leg to stand on. Here is where the tripod enters the picture.
There are so many reasons to use a tripod. To me, the biggest ones are that it allows me to produce sharp images, regardless of the level of light, or to create a blurred effect with a moving subject while retaining sharpness elsewhere in the frame. Using a tripod always helps me compose myself, and my photograph, because it literally slows me down.
Here’s my preferred method of working. When I come upon a subject of interest, I will initially set the tripod up with the camera mounted to it and place it in the position that first grabbed my attention. Click. Then, before taking another picture, I walk around the subject and look for other angles that help tell the story I want to convey. When I find one, I move the camera and tripod to that spot and take another picture, and then search for more.
I find that the more time I spend with the subject, and looking through the camera, the better the images get, and the clearer my story becomes. The whole process becomes a unique, personal-learning experience, and a way of pushing myself to new ways of seeing.
Ansel Adams said, “When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.” Ansel very rarely made an image with his camera not on a tripod.
Here’s a shot of the smaller tripods that I keep handy in my bag. Yes, there’s even one for my iPhone. When twisted into positions that I could never get my head into or where I could hold my camera steady, these tools allow me to make clear, thoughtful, sharp images. Some of my favorite smaller tripod tools include these flexible Joby Gorillapods.
In addition to these small camera supports, I also have a full complement of larger, more traditional tripods, which I use mostly for video these days. Video usually requires several different connections to a single tripod, and often necessitates smooth, precision movement of the entire system. For that I use my handy little Pico Dolly. Here it is hooked up with my DSLR and a 7” monitor so I can see what I’m recording.
I’ve modified my dolly by adding a 3/4“ PVC cap, which I did by drilling a hole in the cap and mounting it to one of the threaded holes in the dolly’s base (shown here). This allows me to use my monopod for more versatile height adjustments. Having a movable support lets me add the element of motion and cinematic drama to my video work without spending thousands of dollars on traditional track and dollies.
These are just a few of the many reasons to own and use a tripod. But I can’t stress enough the importance of slowing down and smelling the roses, so to speak. It’s not that I don’t appreciate spontaneous imagery or shooting on the fly, such as often done in “street photography.” I still love working that way and enjoy viewing that kind of work by others. But for certain types of imagery, such as landscapes, cityscapes and portraiture — not to mention video — there is plenty to be said for taking your time and studying your subject before pressing your shutter, and then moving on.
In closing, here is a shot I took in Phoenix, Arizona, which would have been impossible without a tripod. Did these five UFOs stay in the same position in the sky for over 20 minutes just for me? You can decide for yourself, but it’s a prime example of getting a leg up and being prepared for anything!
Content and Images Contributed By Calumet Photographic’s Director of Education Richard Newman.