Tripods in filmmaking used to be a necessity due to the weight of older cameras. As cameras have become lighter and lighter, many new age filmmakers jump to the handheld shot immediately. And while there is a time and a place for the handheld shot, many critics have pointed out its overuse in cinema today. That being said, there has never been a better time to go back to basics and learn about the fundamentals of the tripod.
Watch: The Ultimate Guide to Camera Movement
Subscribe for more filmmaking videos like this.
What is a tripod in filmmaking?
First, let’s define tripod
Tripods are as old as cinema itself. While their initial use in filmmaking was a logistical reason, tripods continue to be used today because of their storytelling abilities. Before we analyze the tripod’s functionalities and how to properly set one up, let’s define tripod.
What is a tripod?
A tripod is a three-legged stand designed to support a camera. Cameras are mounted to a tripod, also referred to as “sticks,” for stability. Tripods utilize a fluid head. This also allows the camera to pan left and right or tilt up and down.
In still photography, tripods allow photographers to use slower shutter speeds for long exposure images while reducing the amount of camera shake.
What is a tripod used for?
- Static shots
- Shot reverse shot dialogue
- Smooth camera pans and tilts
What is a tripod used for?
Tripods are one of the most fundamental camera rigs. Despite its simplicity, they can be one of the most effective storytelling tools a cinematographer has when used correctly with intention. Let's explore some of the fundamental applications of this essential piece of gear.
1. Static Shots
Static shots are often used when filmmakers want to focus on the precise composition of a shot. In a static shot, the camera is mounted to a tripod in a fixed position. Typically, static shots focus on staging, blocking, and composition. An exemplary static shot that demonstrates all of these can be found in Barry Lyndon, one of Stanley Kubrick’s best films.
2. Dialogue Scenes
When shooting dialogue scenes, filmmakers often use a tripod to capture shot reverse shot dialogue. This allows the camera to remain in a fixed position to capture the actor’s performance. Filmmakers typically capture dialogue scenes with over the shoulder shots broken down in our video essay below.
3. Camera Pan
Not all tripod shots are static. Many of the various camera movements can be achieved with a tripod. The fluid head allows it to pan left and right. Camera pans are great for directing the audience's attention toward a specific detail. They are also used for reveal shots in which the camera pans to reveal new information to the audience.
When used with speed, the pan becomes a whip pan. Whip pans are used to add energy to a transition or shot through quick movement.
4. Camera Tilt
The camera tilt is exactly like the camera pan except with up and down movement. Filmmakers use camera tilts, like the pan, for revealing shots. Tilts are also effective at capturing the verticality and scale of a film.
5. Zoom Shots
Yet another practical use is during zoom shots. As the zoom lens is employed to enlarge or reduce the field of view, stability is a must-have. Of course, the dolly zoom is another type of camera movement but that uses a dolly as a stabilizer instead of sticks.
Going back to Stanley Kubrick, who was known for his zoom shots. Watch these shots and consider how important it is that the camera is stabilized. They simply wouldn't have the haunting quality if they weren't on sticks.
These five functions are the most fundamental ways filmmakers use the tripod. Cinematographers use these fundamentals creatively to make iconic and memorable moments. Now that you understand what a tripod is used for, let’s dive into how you should use one.
Tripod Parts Explained
How to setup a camera tripod
Tripods may seem pretty straight forward, but there are a few key steps to keep in mind when learning how to setup a camera tripod. After all, sticks can be supporting incredibly expensive camera systems.
Ensuring that they are properly mounted will help you keep your gear safe while helping you capture the perfect shot. Here are some perhaps obvious but nonetheless critical steps to take.
1. Get a frame
Before mounting your camera to your tripod, find the general camera framing of your shot. This is most easily achieved handheld. Once you find your general frame, you can position your tripod accordingly to your camera’s position. This will save time as it is easier to move and change frames with a handheld camera than it is with a camera mounted on sticks.
2. Extending the legs
First and foremost, it is important to make sure that someone is supporting the camera system whenever adjusting the height of the tripod.
Secondly, when extending the legs, extend from the top down rather than from the bottom leg upward. This way, the most rigid and wide leg sections will be used first rather than the thinnest. This will make your sticks more stable and secure. Also make sure that the legs are spread out optimally to best stabilize your camera.
3. Finding Level
Once your camera is properly mounted to your tripod and it is at a proper height, it’s time to level it. Most video tripods have a built-in level guide. Adjust your tripod head bowl so that it is centered and precisely leveled.
Cheaper tripods made for DSLRs may not have a tripod head bowl. In this case, you may need to adjust the legs of your sticks to level them. Leveling your sticks will ensure that your camera pans are precisely horizontal.
4. Balance your camera
Typically, you will want to balance your camera on your sticks. This will put less stress on your tripod head while also helping the security of your camera. To balance your camera, you will want to mount the center of the camera’s weight as close as possible to the center of the tripod.
A good test to determine this is to set your camera’s drag and counterbalance to zero. A balanced camera should not move despite the lack of drag and counterbalance. Remember to always have a hand or someone else securing the camera when performing this step.
5. Set your tripod’s counterbalance
Next, you’re ready to set your tripod’s counterbalance. This is a more advanced technique for more expensive and professional rigs. A tripod’s counterbalance is meant to relieve the head from the weight of the camera. The counterbalance is achieved through a series of springs.
This may take some trial and error, but when done correctly, it will give you full control of your shot and level up your sticks game.
6. Set the drag
The drag of a tripod is the amount of resistance there is for a camera operator when panning or tilting. Drag should come from real tripod fluid heads. Cheaper tripod’s achieve it through friction pads which are inferior to true fluid heads. Tripods typically have two separate drag adjustments for pans and tilts.
The amount of drag a camera has ultimately comes down to the operator’s personal preference. Drag can also depend on the shot. If the pan is long and slow, you may want more resistance. If it is a whip pan, you may want less. This step is based on feel and it is important to test the drag before shooting.
7. Tripod locks
A key component of the tripod is the lock. Like drag, there is a lock for the tripod’s tilt and pan. Locks are meant to lock the tripod into a position for a static shot. They should not be used for any shot with a pan or tilt. Locks should also be used to secure the camera in between takes.
8. Tripod handle
Lastly, most tripods will enable you to adjust the angle and position of the tripod handle. The position of the handle will also depend on the preference of the camera operator. The handle should be in a position that feels natural to ensure smooth camera movements. It is something to consider when many of your tripod shots involve pans and tilts.
Familiarizing yourself with the tripod you own or will be using for a shoot is key. Understanding how much drag you want or the position of your tripod handle are details to keep in mind. But understanding how to set up a tripod will also help you avoid any costly accidents.
Using a tripod is one of those filmmaking techniques that will inevitably better other areas of your craft. Tripods can force you to focus more on composition, staging, blocking, and motivated camera movement, all of which are characteristics of some of the best cinematographers working today.
How the Steadicam Shot Changed Film
While tripods continue to be one of the most fundamental camera rigs to this day, the most revolutionary piece of camera equipment is arguably the Steadicam. Find out how the Steadicam changed cinema and what we can learn from the best Steadicam shots in film.