As a friend and expert cameraman said to me many years ago - "The difference between an amateur and a professional cameraman is the professional knows when he can take the camera off of the tripod - not when to put it on."

Choosing and Using a Tripod

Most shots are better for being stable. No camera operator can ever hold the camera perfectly still; despite far too many of them thinking they can. So if you want steady shots you MUST use a tripod. Steady shots are easier to edit, they require less viewer reaction and they look MUCH better when used on the Web. Moving shots are difficult to compress so take up more bandwidth or look blocky so it's vital that anyone shooting material for the web uses a tripod.

Choosing a tripod.
There are many tripods available from cheap photo tripods for a few pounds to good professional video tripods costing more than the camera it supports. You may not need an expensive tripod but cheap tripods will seriously limit what you are able to do with it. Spend as much as you can afford - is a good rule of thumb when it comes to tripods, as buying a cheap alternative may turn out to be a waste of money in the long run.


Ask the following questions:

How heavy is it? You will be carrying it around with you all day so lightweight is good. Lightweight also means unstable in wind and often means it will bend or break more easily. The best option is carbon fibre but is comes with a big price tag.

Will I need to move the camera "on shot"? If you only need to shoot static shots or use the camera "locked off" when doing a piece to camera then a photo tripod may just do the job. If you need to do smooth pans and tilts you will need a "fluid head" and you will only get them on the more expensive video tripods.

How quickly do I need to set up a shot? Every time you move the camera you will need to check the camera is level or your pictures will tilt. Most photo tripods are adjusted by raising and lowering the legs this will probably add around 30 - 40 seconds to time it takes to set up of every shot. The better tripods have an adjustable bowl under the head. Using this method you should be able to re-level the camera in a few seconds. Quick release plates are another time saver. These allow the camera to separate from the tripod very quickly. Cheap tripods often have to be unscrewed from the bottom of the camera. Quick release plates are essential if you want the option of working on the tripod and then going hand held for the cutaways and reaction shots.

How high should it go? The centre of the camera lens should normally be at eye level for your subject. Some photo tripods will struggle to reach this height or become very unstable when fully extended, but if you only ever interview people sitting down that may not be a problem. Some cheap tripods don't go as low as you may like. Remember you will also need to have the lens at eye height for a seated interview.

Do I have other options? Yes - using a monopod is often almost as good as a tripod, as long as you don't let go of it. You may be able to improvise a mount for an important shot by resting the camera on a wall, table or chair. You can stabilise yourself by leaning against a lamp post or wall while resting the camera on your knee.

Tripod safety.
Tripods are covered in clamps and levers and locking bars. Many of these can pinch, cut or bruise a finger. I've seen someone lose a fingernail as a tripod collapsed and I've heard tales of a very popular video tripod breaking someone's thumb. Know how it works before you try to use it in a hurry and always treat it as something that could do you a serious injury. Finally, tripods are a trip hazard when you put them down - never put them where anyone could fall over it. I recently watched a cameraman carefully fold up his tripod and put it on the floor behind him. As he continued to film hand held he stepped backwards, fell over his own tripod, damaging his cameras and cutting his head open at the same time. If that was bad imagine the problems he would have had if it was someone else who got hurt.

In the UK the police can't charge you with obstruction for standing on a pavement, even if you have a camera on your shoulder. The moment you put a tripod on the ground you can be arrested for obstruction. If the police don't want you filming - don't use a tripod. They have other ways of stopping you but their easiest and quickest method won't be available to them.

Using the tripod
Always make sure the tripod is erected and lock before putting the camera on it. One of the most common causes of cameras hitting the ground is when they fall off of tripods. Double check the legs are locked and quick release plate has located correctly before letting go of your precious camera.

Check the tripod is level. Most good tripods have a spirit level bubble to check this is correct. If you move the tripod, even a few inches, you need to check it again and it doesn't matter if you think you are on a flat floor, you may be surprised how it can change.

Set the pan and tilt friction so it's comfortable for you to use. Don't forget to make sure the "locks" are off before you do this. The hardest move to make on a tripod is a compound pan and tilt - a diagonal line. Practice this - if the tilt seems to stop before the pan or vice versa add or remove a little friction from just one of the friction controls until the diagonal works perfectly.

If you want lots of practice at doing compound moves well - try to film a toy train set or toy racing cars as it moves around a circle of track. Pan and tilt to keep it well framed at all times. As you get better - try zooming in further and doing it again. This is also a great exercise for practicing your manual focus.

When shooting, practise your moves before you record them. Editors just hate spooling through a camera ops practise moves, not knowing which move they wanted us to use. Know what the end framing will be before you start a move.

Don't just keep following something. If you don't let it go out of frame you won't be able to cut to it in the next shot.

Most moves should be about 5 seconds long (3 seconds for news) so don't record moves that take forever as they won't get used and just waste everyone's time. If the move looks too fast at 5 seconds then ask your self if you have to pan that far? The best pans (or tilts) are often just a few degrees. If you can't get object A and object B without a huge pan, can you move the camera to somewhere more suitable - where you can?

Tripods do have the tendency to make you shoot everything from the same height. Don't be afraid of changing the height of the tripod to get some variation (it has more effect if you do it when you're close to the subject).

Tripods don't always let you get into the best places. When you need to get close to or into the action, it's time to come off the tripod and work handheld. Don't forget you will need to work at the wide angle end of the lens so your shots will be stable enough to cut with the ones you shot on the tripod.