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On Using Your Environment As a Tripod

by Gevon Servo on 03/16/2011

On a Window Ledge of a Conference room Camera Nikon D90 Exposure 10 Aperture f/16.0 Focal Length 50 mm ISO Speed 320

In photography, sometimes it is impossible to capture a blur-free photograph without a tripod. When you need a longer exposure to get a properly lit shot, or you want to have a big depth of field like f/16 –f/22, keeping your camera as still as possible is important. However, you cannot always carry a tripod. If you look at your environment, though, you can find a place to put your camera and keep it still. This was inspired by a conversation I had with Chris Gampat. He got a great shot and when I asked him how, he told me the he had used the environment as his tripod.

Who Needs to Think About This

On a fish cleaning stand in Hoboken, NJ, Camera Nikon D90 Exposure 1.6 Aperture f/22.0 Focal Length 35 mm ISO Speed 500

Any photographer who does not want to carry a tripod, yet needs to keep shot steady, needs to keep this in mind. Tripods can be cumbersome in a city—especially if you are using mass transportation. Using your environment also comes in handy if you do not have the resources to acquire a tripod. You can’t always use a flash. One would have to lower their shutter speed to less than 1/30th. If you are going to do this handheld, you risk camera shake and a blurry image.

Some Must Haves

On a towel on a log in south mountain reseravation , Camera SIGMA DP2 Exposure 15 Aperture f/14.0 Focal Length 24.2 mm ISO Speed 50

When using the environment as your tripod, you just do not want to place your camera anywhere. You want to place your camera and lens, on something that does not get them dirty or scratched – an Omnipod or a beanbag. If all else fails a hand towel or an old mouse pad works also. If you have a good sturdy camera bag like my Tamrac Evolution 8, it makes for a good surface. If you have a point and shoot, you can make a DIY: The Super-Small Bottle-Cap Tripod. You can use the camera time’s shutter, but I like carrying a cable release, it is more efficient. A leveling cube will be useful to make sure you have a leveled shot

On image stabilization

On a bench on the High-line, Camera Nikon D90 Exposure 0.05 sec (1/20) Aperture f/22.0 Focal Length 28 mm ISO Speed 200

I do not shoot with image stabilization lenses, but I do understand they can help me shoot with slower shutter speeds. I have used them and even owned one once. However early on in my photography training, I made the decision not to use VR lenses as I felt it would be a better leaning experience. Now I have gained an appreciation for good lenses, not doorstops. At night, when shooting people and/or moving subjects, bumping up the ISO and setting faster shutter speed is more efficient method of doing things. When using the environment as your tripod and not owning a VR lens, the environment can come in handy. You can assure you don’t get a blurry shot, get a unique perspective, and possibly come out with a better portrait or image than just standing there with a VR/IS lens. Using the environment as a tripod makes you think slightly differently.

In a City

A track in the HighLine park in NYC, Camera Nikon D90 Exposure 0.04 sec (1/25) Aperture f/16.0 Focal Length 28 mm ISO Speed 200

Good spots and things to use to steady your camera are everywhere if you look, especially in a city. Any flat secure surface will do. A park bench is great because it provides and interesting point of views and some interesting angles to play with. If you walk buy a retaining wall or a fence with a post, they offer good positions. If you are careful, the ground can be very interesting place to shoot from, particularly with a wide-angle lens, propped up slightly. What you use as an environmental tripod is up to your imagination. Make sure it’s interesting and safe for you, and your camera gear.

Safety Concerns

On a ledge at my train station, Camera Nikon D90 Exposure 20 Aperture f/16.0 Focal Length 50 mm ISO Speed 200

Never take your camera off your strap, and never get far away from your camera. You do not want someone to run up and grab it. If you are using a strap like the Black Rapid RS-7 put a ring on your camera so you can attach the  camera strap there. Make sure the area is nice and dry. Cameras and water don’t mix without the proper gear. If you are shooting in a busy area, do not get in people’s way because they will get in your way.

In the end

On a flat spot in Sinatra Park, Hoboken NJ, Camera Nikon D90 Exposure 0.6 Aperture f/22.0 Focal Length 35 mm ISO Speed 500

An environmental tripod has the potential to be an image saver especially when you cannot use a flash or a tripod. Before attempting this in public, find a safe location, and make sure you are comfortable quickly and safely setting up your camera in different positions.

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