Stands and Supports for Still and Moving Images
One of the easiest ways to improve the quality of still or moving images is by using a support. Supports and stands can reduce or eliminate vibration or movement which otherwise would degrade the quality of the captured media. Supports come in all shapes and sizes: this document looks at a variety of support types including tripods, copy-stands, clamps and brackets as well as improvised solutions.
In the early days of still and moving image photography the main design priority was to manufacture cameras, which could effectively record a scene; cameras were large, heavy and were often used from static positions. These static tripod mounted cameras produced sharp stable images free from camera shake. Over the years camera design has slowly evolved as designers have considered ergonomics. Today camera bodies are much smaller and use lighter materials, sharp corners have become moulded shapes which fit snugly in the human hand and some mechanical controls have been replaced by electronic dials which have been placed at the users finger tips. This has made it much easier to take cameras out of the studio and operate 'hand held', for the still photographer providing they observe a simple rule of thumb the results should be perfectly useable. This is not the case with hand held moving images; jerky hand movements are recorded and can make the viewer feel seasick.
Under normal conditions the stills photographer should be able to handhold a 'typical' camera and lens combination under bright light, however if light levels fall or the photographer is using a very long lens there is a risk of camera shake and some form of support may be required. Many photographers use a simple rule of thumb to avoid camera shake though it is worth testing how steady you are before you use it on an important project. The rough rule is to use a shutter speed no slower than the focal length of the lens you are using, so if you are using a 50mm lens then you should be able to hold the camera at 1/60th of a second or faster, a 400mm lens should be handheld at 1/400th of a second or faster etc.
Left image hand held exposure with 105mm lens with shutter speed of 1/30th second, right image with same lens but shutter speed of 1/125th second
Recently some stills and video cameras have incorporated optical stabilisation or vibration reduction to reduce camera shake and some manufacturers claim that this will allow photographers to use shutter speeds 4 stops slower than normally recommended. If manufacturers claims are to be believed this would mean that a camera fitted with a 250mm lens which should normally be hand held at 1/250th of a second or faster could, with vibration reduction use a shutter speed 4 stops slower or 1/15th of a second. There is little doubt that this technology does make hand holding cameras at slower speeds possible it would be wise to test this before trusting the claims made by the manufacturers. Some video cameras also employ similar technology, though it can cause problems with panning shots when the camera tries to cancel out intentional camera movements. For more information on hand holding a video camera see the JISC Digital Media document Basic Guide to Shooting Video.
For still or moving images from a static position sometimes simply placing the camera on a flat or stable surface is all that is required to capture a subject without recording camera shake however this is not the most practical of solutions. Temporary improvised supports can be used such as a coat or sandbag loosely shaped around the camera.
All cameras (excluding camera phones and disposable cameras) are fitted with a screw thread in the base, the most common size thread is 1/4inch in diameter but a few larger cameras use 3/8 inch thread.
Camera tripod threads 1/4 inch from video camera (left) and 3/8 inch from medium format camera (right)
Camera supports are fitted with a standard 1/4 or 3/8 inch male screw thread or 'bush' which screws into the thread in the base of the camera to provide a firm coupling. Dedicated supports for video cameras may have an additional pin, which prevents the camera from rotating around the screw thread during a shot.
Male tripod thread or 'bush' for connection to base of camera (left) male thread and brass registration pin for video camera (right)
Monopods and string tripods
The simplest device used to steady a camera is a monopod or 'string tripod'. These attach to the camera's tripod thread and while not self-supporting do offer greater stability over hand holding the camera. A monopod is just a single, adjustable height column with a tripod screw on the top, which connects to the camera, the single leg of the monopod combined with the photographer's legs effectively create a tripod. By pushing down on the monopod the photographer creates a stable base for the camera, which while not being as solid as a tripod does reduce movement. With just a single supporting leg the photographer can quickly move the camera to follow action and for this reason they are popular with sports and wildlife photographers. In addition to the downwards force placed on the monopod by the photographer the single column must also take the weight of the camera and lens, it is therefore important that it is solidly made. If a column section fails then the camera and lens could be damaged or the photographer could be injured.
Four section monopod (left). Using a monopod (right)
A very cheap yet reasonably effective way of reducing camera movement is the string tripod: these are normally custom made by the photographer using a piece of household string and a 1/4 inch screw thread. The string is cut to a length, which will go from the screw in the base of the camera to the ground under the photographer's foot and back to the camera. To use it the photographer pulls against the string, which stabilises the camera. It doesn't quite offer the stability of the monopod but is still better than a hand held exposure with slower shutter speeds. This really is a pocket 'tripod' and can be carried at all times.
String tripod (left). Using a string tripod (right)
Because monopods and string tripods allow free sideways movement they can be used for panning shots in moving image making.
Tripods are the most commonly used camera support, they come in a variety of shapes, sizes and prices but the feature they all have in common is three legs. If a typical 4-legged platform such as a table is used on an uneven surface it will require cardboard shims to stabilise it, but with a tripod all 3 legs will make contact with the ground. Tripods can be constructed from plastic, wood, steel, aluminium, magnesium, carbon or basalt or a combination of materials. The legs, which are often telescopic are attached to a central axis. The central 'body' of the tripod will normally also support a centre post, which can be raised or lowered. Tripods are often painted black to reduce the possibility of a bright tripod shaped reflection appearing in a reflective subject. Consumer tripods will normally come with fixed heads but the professional level models offer a standard 3/8" screw thread onto which a wide range of specialist tripod heads can be fitted.
Choosing a tripod
Before you buy a tripod there are a few factors you should consider. How high/low do you want the camera to be? How large and heavy is the camera you want to support? What is the longest shutter speed you are likely to use? Is the tripod to be used in a studio or on location? How much do you want to spend?
The central column is the least stable part of the tripod, if you have to fully extend the legs and central post to reach your ideal working height then the tripod is unlikely to be as stable as it would be with only the legs extended. For maximum stability you should only extend the central column when absolutely necessary. The minimum height of a tripod may also be important; some very large tripods can be used at surprisingly low levels. A few models also allow the central post to be removed and fitted in the tripod upside down, which offers a very low angle, though the legs can make camera operation difficult. Manufacturers often list the minimum and maximum height of their tripods; however professional tripods are sold 'headless' and so the height of the head should be added to these values.
Using a tripod at low level (left) and the same tripod with legs extended (right). The central column can also be extended for greater height.
Tripods are designed for specific types of camera; compact cameras, which do not weigh more than a few hundred grams, can be supported quite easily on a small 'table top' tripod. The compact camera can also be supported on a much larger tripod though it would probably be overkill and would reduce the pocket ability of a small camera. A large format camera can weigh several kilos and would squash a small or medium sized tripod.
The weight of the tripod is often an indicator to its stability. While all tripods will offer greater stability than handholding the camera, cheap tripods will probably be less stable than more expensive models. While this may not be obvious with shutter speeds close to the hand held rule of thumb (see above), for exposures measured in whole seconds or minutes then camera shake may be evident. Even stable professional tripods can wobble under extreme conditions such as high winds or unstable ground for which photographers often hang weights from their tripods which help to 'plant' the support.
Rather than taking additional weight into the field photographers carry strong, empty bags, which can be filled with stones, gravel or earth in situ or alternatively use their camera bag suspended from the central axis of the tripod.
Using a lightweight tripod on location Image by the Vitec Group
Large professional tripods can be very heavy and are not always practical when working away from the studio, a few manufacturers make lightweight versions of their tripods using carbon fibre or other composite materials, which makes them more portable and expensive. Tripods when used on location are often subjected to harsh conditions such as seawater, sand, dust, mud as well as the general rough and tumble that other pieces of equipment are normally protected from.
Studio stands are, as the name suggests for studio use. They are very heavy camera supports and normally designed to hold the heaviest of cameras. They have a solid metal base with retractable wheels and attached to the base is a vertical column with a movable metal bracket, which can be secured at any height. The metal bracket has a short horizontal arm onto which the camera is mounted. There is normally a counterweight system in the column to help the photographer raise and lower the mounted camera. Studio stands have a small footprint, which is less of an obstacle in a congested studio; with their very low centre of gravity they will also support a large camera in positions, which can be very difficult for a standard tripod.
To help the photographer to accurately point the camera at the subject, tripods are fitted with 'heads'. Tripod heads allow the camera to be rotated around 3 axes. Consumer tripods are normally fitted with fixed tripod heads, these keep the overall price of the support down but are often made from cheap, flexible materials which may not provide a truly stable support. For the amateur photographer with a lightweight camera these tripod and head combinations are quite satisfactory however, for greater flexibility serious photographers and video makers normally buy their tripods and heads separately. The most common types of tripod heads are pan and tilt and ball heads. Filmmakers who want smooth panning shots will often use fluid heads. Many heads are fitted with quick release mounts so that the photographer can quickly swap between different cameras and lenses.
Pan and tilt heads
Pan and tilt heads normally have three controls; each control governs movement in a single plane. The tripod head is normally adjusted one plane at a time; the planes of adjustment are, rotation, back to front tilt and left to right tilt. All planes can be securely locked once the camera is correctly positioned.
Pan and tilt tripod head
With this type of head the camera support is attached to a free moving ball held in a socket attached to the tripod. When the ball is loosened the camera can be moved freely in any plane and by locking a single handle the camera is held firmly in place. This simple movement is popular with photographers who want to get the camera into position quickly, but it does not offer the fine directional control offered by the pan-tilt head.
Ball tripod head. Image Vitec Group
Film or video makers often have to move the camera (pan) to follow the action. In these instances filmmakers use smooth moving fluid heads to avoid jerky 'stick stop' or judder motion that can be introduced by the typical tripod head. While any type of stable head can be used for still photography, for the freedom of movement often required for moving images a video camera should only be used with a video head.
Fluid head. Image Vitec Group
Before the massive growth of digital imaging, panoramic photographs could only be taken with specialist cameras and lenses. Now however thanks to image editing software it is relatively easy to produce acceptable panoramic images with consumer level equipment. A digital panorama is normally created from a series of overlapping images 'stitched' together to create a wide-angle image of up to 360 degrees. Acceptable panoramas can be captured by hand holding the camera, but for high quality images, which require a minimum of retouching, a dedicated panoramic head is required. A panoramic head supports the camera in a position, which allows it to rotate around its 'nodal point', which reduces parallax errors.
Panoramic tripod head
Tripods in all their various shapes and sizes are by far the most popular type of camera support, however there are occasions where other supports are more appropriate. The copy stand is a common support used for holding a camera vertically above the subject, the camera is mounted on a bracket, which can be raised or lowered on a vertical column. The artwork is placed flat on the baseboard and illuminated from the sides. Some tripods allow the central column to be positioned at 90 degrees to the vertical to shoot from overhead. However this does unbalance the tripod and the legs can cast shadows over the image area.
If a camera needs to be placed in a confined position or at a height above the limit of a tripod then a heavy-duty clamp or bracket can be used. It would be wise to provide additional support such as a lanyard just in case the main support fails or is dislodged. The 'Magic Arm' is a common type of camera or light support, which has a lockable articulating arm for positioning the camera or light in difficult positions. This arm like most camera and lighting supports uses standard connections and in the image below has a special mount to support the camera and lockable clamp (Super Clamp).
A lockable articulating arm (Magic Arm) and bracket can be used to position a camera or light in an awkward position
Some manufacturers have produced beanbag style supports, which mould around a camera and offer a little more support than hand holding. Camera mounts can also be fixed to large suction cups that attach to smooth surfaces such as car bonnets or windows.
Still cameras rarely need to move during an exposure however it is quite common for video cameras to 'pan' or 'track' with the subject. While it is possible to hand hold a video camera and follow a moving subject the footage may have a lot of camera shake that can prove distracting for the viewer. A common though very expensive solution is to use a special harness and stabilising camera support called a Steadicam. The Steadicam arm uses a complex system of springs and connectors that isolate the operator's movements from the camera. This allows the operator to travel over uneven ground without transferring the jerky movements to the camera. The flexibility of the Steadicam systems makes it a common choice for a wide variety of applications.
Camera operator using Steadicam
In the film industry the subject or shot will often follow a predetermined route and so the camera and operator can be carried on a stable yet mobile platform know as a dolly. The dolly is operated by a specialist called a "grip" who has to ensure that the dolly travels at a precise speed to synchronise with other events both in front of and behind the camera. If an accurate and repeatable moving shot is required then a track can be laid for the dolly to follow. The dolly is a very specialised and expensive piece of equipment that requires its own crew and cannot be used spontaneously like the Steadicam.
Film camera on dolly. Image by Saaby
Lights, unlike cameras, aren't ergonomically designed for handheld operation. They can also get very hot which makes handheld operation impossible. To replicate lighting in the natural world the light often needs to be held high above the subject and therefore it is important that a light stand is able to remain stable while securely supporting a light along with any accessories such as reflectors and diffusers. Apart from lights that are designed to be mounted directly to video or stills cameras most types of light require some form of support. To provide a secure attachment for lights, stands are fitted with standard mounting posts or 'spigots' that attach to a socket on the light. The most common type of spigot is 16mm in diameter, at the end of the spigot there is normally a male 1/4 or 3/8 inch thread for mounting to a huge variety of camera and lighting accessories.
Universal 16mm mounting post or 'spigot' on light stand with 1/4 inch thread
The support should allow the light to be raised or lowered to the appropriate working height. While light stands are not as heavy and solid as a good quality tripod even small stands can normally be raised higher than a large tripod. Like tripods, the heavier the stand the more stable it will be which is particularly important when supporting heavy lights or when the light is positioned high above the subject. Lights have a centre of gravity close to the point that is attached to the stand however if light modifiers are attached to the light the centre of gravity shifts and the stand can become unstable. Pointing one of the legs in the same direction can reduce this. Greater stability can be achieved by attaching weights to the base of the stand. Stands designed for heavy lights are often fitted with cranks to safely raise and lower the light. If a hot light is moved suddenly the fragile filament can break so care should be taken to allow the light to cool down before moving.
Small light stand supporting studio flash
In rooms with flat floors and ceilings special self-supporting poles can be used to support cameras lights props etc. The tubes are adjusted to extend from floor to ceiling and then tightened to apply a force between the surfaces. This locks the pole in place and objects can be fastened directly to the pole. These can be very stable and work well in confined spaces where floor space is limited. Some ceilings made from plaster or other non structural finishes may be damaged by these types of support and so it is important to check before they are used.
Self-supporting pole supporting studio flash in a confined space.
When choosing camera or lighting supports it is important to identify your priorities, for example if you are taking equipment out on location then weight and portability will be major factors.
Tripods and stands are often the last items to be considered when setting up a project, however in the rapidly changing world of digital video and still photography camera and light supports are one of the few items that will still be usable in future decades thanks to their standardised connectors and simple yet solid build. By choosing a well-made camera or light support system from the outset you should find with a little care it will give many, many years of service.