One of the most critical pieces of equipment I use in my night photography is a tripod. Without one my photos would be blurred from camera shake and/or littered with noise from cranking up the ISO. In this post, I’m going to talk about my night time shooting styles and how they define my needs in a tripod. I’ll also briefly cover the tripods I own, and then list out some practices I utilize when shooting with a tripod.
How I like to shoot at night
There are two ways I typically shoot: Satellite mode (where I’m never more than a block or two away from my home base/car); and exploratory mode (where I park and walk for several hours and miles). In both cases the tripod is with me, but the way I use the tripod differs slightly.
Satellite mode requires the constant placement and retrieval of my camera+tripod from the back seat of my car. As a result, I don't want a lot of extra pieces sticking out that can get caught on the way in an out of the door, or anything that might not cause it to lay flat or securely. Pan-handles, crank handles and lever locks are examples of things that can interfere with smoothly removing the tripod.
In exploratory mode, the tripod is carried over my shoulder with all leg segments (or the first two) fully extended and locked. In this shooting scenario there are two things that matter to me most: Speed of closing the legs and weight. Being able to quickly and independently close the legs so I can walk away is important, so I don't use a brace within my tripod legs. Since I can be walking for several hours, the weight of the tripod is massively important because it has the potential to get uncomfortably heavy as the night progresses. My current tripod has carbon fiber legs and weighs in around 4 lbs without the camera on it. With the camera, lens and remote shutter release mounted it ends up being about 8 lbs total. Not extremely light but manageable for my city hikes.
A tripod's noise potential and touch temperature are a couple of other aspects that are worth mentioning, too. The material of the tripod can help me to be more stealthy at night by reducing noise. For instance, my older tripod has metallic legs that make a sharp clang when I close the legs too rapidly. Similarly I stopped using a cable shutter release because it would bang against the legs as I walked and make a repetitive pinging sound. Neither are good if you’re trying to be quiet and wanting to pause in the dark without being harassed or having dogs bark.
By the way, I just want to call out that while my caution for being stealthy sounds a little strange, I can assure you it's not to sneak up on anyone. You've seen my photos and there are zero people in them, unless they are in passing cars. Being stealthy is a concern for neighborhoods, empty lots and industrial parks, as people don't always react predictably to photography at night. I'd much rather get the shot without bothering anyone or anyone knowing I'm passing through.
The material of the tripod also plays into general hand fatigue on cold nights. The metallic legs on my older tripod become very cold to the touch after an hour and require the use of gloves, which in turn makes holding a tripod for extended periods of time more precarious. Perhaps I need gloves with better finger and palm grips?
So what tripod do I own?
I purchased my first tripod shortly after I picked up my Fuji X100F. I knew I wanted to shoot at night, but wasn’t sure how often. Luckily I went into my local shop and tested out some models before settling on the “Travis” model by 3 Legged Thing. It’s a great entry-level tripod that served me very well and helped fine tune my wants and needs for my next tripod.
After nearly 3 years of using that tripod, I was ready to start the search for a new one because my cameras were getting bigger/heavier and I wanted something that met my needs more. So I gathered my thoughts on what worked and didn't with the Travis, did online research, and spent time in the camera store trying out different models. I ended up going with a Gitzo GT2532 Mountaineer series 2 with a series 1 center ball head. Yep, that's a mouthful, but it's a wonderful tripod. I've been using it for almost a year now and don't have any complaints.
The Mountaineer and the Travis share some specifications, but also differ in ways. For example, each share twist leg locks, number of leg segments, ball heads, no extra levers or handles, Arca Swiss style base plates, swappable rubber feet, and removable center columns. Where the Mountaineer differs is in its overall build quality and materials, the capability to hold more weight, higher extension (65”), and friction control on the ball head. The one thing I gave up is portability; The Gitzo is 20cm longer in its collapsed state (45cm vs 65cm).
What should you buy?
My answer: It depends on what you plan to do with your photography, where you plan to shoot, your gear, your personal preferences and patience levels, etc. Asking this question is likely to elicit different responses from other photographers, too. To really know you just need to start using one. Borrow one from a photographer friend, rent one, go to a camera store with your camera and try to imagine setting it up in different scenarios. I do encourage you not to spend a lot, but don’t go super cheap because you’ll get exactly what you pay for.
Now for some practices
When I’m in satellite mode (aka getting in and out of the car), I like to leave the bottom segment (skinniest section) of legs unlocked or just slightly tightened for quick set up. This means the tripod is about 70% ready to go when I get out of the car. If I choose to, I can extend and lock the lower legs. Note: The bottom leg segments are also more likely to move or create instability which is why I will often shoot off the first two top segments because they are solid. This is less of an issue with my Gitzo tripod due to the sturdiness of each leg segment.
When I’m in exploratory mode and carrying the tripod with me, I keep it fully set up and ready to go. I do this because I shoot fairly quickly and take multiple shots from different angles. In some situations like being in the street or near people who may ask too many questions, I want to be quick and on my way again.
When shooting in quiet areas where I don’t want to draw much attention to myself, I utilize shadows to "hide" my tripod and camera. For example, I will look for telephone poles or tree shadows. Of course, the framing has to still work.
On windy days or nights I use my body to shield the camera from the wind to prevent any movement. I could carry a weight to hang from the center column, but for convenience considerations I don’t use one. With that said, I tend to avoid windy nights because it moves objects and breaks the stillness I prefer in my image.
I rarely use the center column of my tripod, but when I need the extra height I try not to fully extend it. This helps to avoid any camera shaking.
When I’m driving and shooting in satellite mode, I will first walk around the scene to determine if I want to shoot and where I want to place the tripod. My friend and fellow night photographer Matthew Dempsey uses this tactic, as well. You can also use the walking time without the camera as a way to make sure the area is safe or free from potential to be harassed.
So there you have it. Tripods have a lot of positives when it comes to shooting at night. With a little experience and careful selection a tripod is a powerful tool that will greatly improve the quality of your photography. Use one long enough and you may even start to feel naked without it.
Some additional resources that might be of interest: