A tripod is one of those photography accessories that you never think about you need it. But when you are in a situation where you need it, having one handy is absolutely essential.
It’s a common misconception that tripods aren’t necessary for portrait photography or that you only need one for taking scenic shots without people in them.
But that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
A tripod is an absolutely essential piece of equipment for the portrait photographer. There are a wide range of situations where you should use a tripod for portraits. Here are seven times when a tripod is essential to shooting portraits.
1. Self Portraits
Ok let’s start with the easy one.
Unless you want the selfie look, if you want to get a better quality portrait of yourself, you’re going to have to put the camera on something. So you’ll need either a friend or a tripod. Friends are helpful, but they complain a lot more than tripods and don’t hold the camera as still.
Just recently I wanted to redo my headshot (the one you see at the bottom of this article) and no one was around when I had some time to do it. So I set up my lights and put the camera on a tripod and was all set.
2. Working With The Subject (Getting Out From Behind The Camera)
If you are shooting a portrait and you’re not moving around a lot (such as when you are using lights and a backdrop) then you should be using a tripod.
Being able to get out from behind the camera has a number of positive benefits for your portrait images.
It allows you to interact with your subject and (hopefully) build some trust to make them comfortable. This will help you get better reactions and expressions. You’ll also be free to work with their posing as well.
Being free from holding the camera also let’s you adjust the lights if needed much more easily. Sometimes a small change in the angle of a light can make a huge difference. Those small changes become much easier if your hands are free.
3. Shooting Tethered In The Studio
Ok, so this one is a little specific.
Shooting tethered means that you have your camera plugged into a computer while you shoot so you can see the images on a larger screen as you take them.
If you are shooting like this (or with your camera connected to anything) then having a tripod can be a huge help. Even if you don’t shoot all your shots from the tripod, having it nearby to put the camera down somewhere safe is important.
4. Long Exposure Portraits
Now we are getting into some of the more fun and creative ways in which a tripod can be used in portrait photography.
If you look at some of the great landscape images online, you’re likely to see long exposure images. The cool part about these kind of images is that any motion in the image becomes blurred, making it apparent that something in the frame was moving. This can come in the form of clouds moving across the sky, water flowing along a stream, and many other kinds of movement.
But if you can get your subject to sit really still, it is possible to shoot a long exposure portrait. But for this you need a tripod because your exposure will in at least a few seconds.
Put your subject in the frame with one of these moving elements. Faster moving elements work better because it can be difficult to get a person to stay perfectly still for more than a couple seconds.
You’ll get the long exposure effect within a portrait.
5. Composite Portraits
If you have your camera locked down on a tripod and not moving, then you can do a portrait composite.
One of the ways I’ve seen this done a lot is by putting the camera on a tripod after you have composed your scene. Then take multiple frames, each with your subject in a different spot in the composition. You can then blend those images together in Photoshop and it looks like your subject has been duplicated.
You can also do this with objects if you want to add set styling to a wide portrait but don’t have enough pieces to cover the entire set.
6. Removing A Light Stand
Getting your light close to your subject is the best way to ensure soft and flattering light on them. But if you’re shooting a wide angle portrait (sometimes called an environmental portrait) you may not be able to keep the light out of the frame and still have it close enough to your subject.
The solution is simple.
Shoot your portrait from a tripod. Take one frame with the light in the best spot to light your subject properly. Then remove the light from the shot and take another frame without moving the camera at all. This will allow you to easily mask out the light stand from the shot in Photoshop later by layering the two shots.
7. HDR Portrait Photography
HDR photography isn’t as popular as it used to be (especially the over processed “HDR Look”).
But you can still use the HDR approach in portraiture to create portraits with more even lighting even when the subject and the sky are a very different brightness. Just like removing the light stand, the key to being able to blend in multiple exposures.
In addition to these seven ways you can use a tripod for portrait photography, there are countless more that you’ll discover as you shoot more and expand your creativity with new projects.