Tripods: For idiots or are they just seriously overrated?

Jul 08, 2013

Should I always use a tripod?  I love when I’m asked this question.  Most people immediately assume that using a tripod is the biggest thing you can do to make your work look more professional.  But for me, the simple answer to this question is…NO.  However, I usually say something like this.  “Not necessarily.  What is the feeling you are trying to convey with your shot?

See, I prefer to think of life as being like a movie and every part of a movie is shot in a different way to convey a different feeling when you are watching it.

If you’re watching a romantic scene chances are there won’t be a lot of motion in the shots and the cuts(1) will be at a much slower pace than if you were watching a chase scene for example.  Often you will find this type of scene shot on a tripod, dolly or a steady cam.

Now in the case of a chase scene, often they use a lot of steady cam shots, cranes, dollies or even hand held type motions to convey the feelings of fear and anxiety that would be inherent of being chased by another car.  There is impending doom so this scene needs to feel chaotic!  So knowing this, imagine we reversed the way these two scenes were filmed.

As an audience member how would you feel watching a romantic scene taking place over dinner where cameras are whipping past the table from one side to the other, close ups of each person are being cut together at a high rate of speed, and every shot was done with fast sweeping camera angles.  I can guarantee you will never really engage with either character as you just won’t have the opportunity to connect with one or the other for any length of time.

Now let’s look at the chase scene.

I’ll over exaggerate this example to make it simple.  Imagine you are watching an action film and it’s coming up to the key chase scene where one car is chasing another down a city street and your camera is on a tripod at the very end of the road.  All you have to do is keep the two cars in frame and zoom out as the cars get closer.  Chase scene is over and you have your shot.

I don’t know about you, but that is one boring chase scene.  For this type of scene to work you need the sweeping camera motions, the hand held “bouncing” of the camera, shots where the camera is whipping past the cars as they go past etc.  You need to create chaos in order for the scene to come alive!

So, getting back to the real world and looking at the shot that you would like to take, ask yourself that very question “What feeling am I trying to convey with this shot?”  A real world example for me can be seen in the video I did for The British Columbia Boys Choir.  There is a scene where I was filming the boys having lunch.

Eating lunch is not very entertaining in itself, so in order to create the feeling of movement I chose to shoot this scene completely hand held.  So don’t be afraid of shooting something hand held, just recognize that there may be other choices that you could make that could be better.  There are no wrong answers, just better choices.

Here are just a few suggestions of when to use a tripod:TripodforPVA

If you’re using your zoom on your camera


Close up shots of people or nature

Panoramic Scenic Shots

When shooting stage shows

When shooting in low light scenarios

When shooting a moving object

IF, and this is a big one, IF you don’t have an otherwise steady hand.

But even with the examples above, I can think of a number of scenarios where you could break the rules and still have a very professional looking product.  Best answer I can give is use your judgement.  If while you are shooting something you sense, or can feel, that you would be better off using a tripod then listen to that feeling.  Your gut can tell you a lot if you listen to it.