[ExpertPhotography is supported by readers. Product links on ExpertPhotography are referral links. If you use one of these and buy something we make a little bit of money. Need more info? See how it all works here.]
Why You Need a Tripod for Food Photography
It Helps You Take Sharper Images
You won’t always have access to abundant daylight. There will be times when you’ll need to shoot in lower light than is desirable.
In fact, a tripod is even more necessary when you’re shooting with natural light. You’ll need to make greater adjustments to your ISO and shutter speed if using natural light.
When you’re shooting with a flash system, your ISO is usually at 100. And your shutter speed is under 200, depending on the sync speed of your camera.
Shooting at a lower shutter speed in natural light increases the risk of camera shake. And of blurry images caused by the slightest trembling of the hands.
Using a tripod will allow you to increase your ISO and decrease your shutter speed. This is because it stabilises your camera, which creates sharper images.
You Can Style to the Camera
Great styling and composition are key in food photography.
A beautiful composition means styling to the camera. It’s not trying to find an angle where things look best to the eye. Besides, things always look very different to the naked eye than they do to a camera lens.
In essence, you are building your set when you do this. It’s a lot more difficult to do–not to mention tedious–when you have to keep putting down and picking up your camera.
If you are working professionally on any level, you’ll be working with a team that includes a food stylist. You’ll be tweaking your set while most of the elements need to stay in the same spot.
It looks very unprofessional to be shooting handheld when you’re working with others.
Your Images Will Be More Consistent
If you’re taking a series of images, you will likely want consistency from image to image. If you’re shooting professionally for clients, consistency is a must.
Let’s say you’re photographing an editorial with breakfast foods. The lighting needs to look like it’s coming from a window early on a summer morning. You’ll need to replicate that light from shot to shot.
Sometimes that consistency must be exact, as in the case of product photography.
I recently shot a campaign for product packaging for a variety of frozen finger foods. I had to place each appetiser in the exact same spot in the image.
This meant that I couldn’t move my camera.
I marked the placement of my tripod on the ground with pieces of electrician’s tape. That way I knew exactly where my tripod was placed in case it was bumped.
What to Look For in a Tripod
What a food photographer needs in a tripod is different than what a landscape or portrait photographer does.
The biggest requirement is stability. This is why you need a tripod that can handle the weight of your camera and lens. This is especially important if you use an accessory like a lateral arm for overhead shots.
There are a variety of tripod brands available at every price point. But you should forego the cheaper, lightweight tripods for something heavier.
It does you no good to save money on a tripod, only to have it topple over and break your camera, which it can do. Very easily.
When shopping for a tripod, look for one with both adjustable height and orientation. This is where you have a centre column you can move.
Make sure that it has rubber feet to avoid slippage, and that it has a high payload.
Payload refers to the amount of weight the tripod is able to withstand. It needs to bear the weight of your camera, lens, and any other additions such as a bracket or extension arm.
Your tripod must be heavier than any combination of camera and lens that you put on it.
A decent tripod starts at around the $300.00 mark and goes way up. Any tripod that costs less than that is not likely to be a good investment.
On the plus side, once you invest in a good, sturdy tripod, it will last you decades.
Parts of a Tripod
There are three parts to a tripod, with so many options for each part:
- the tripod head
- the centre column
- the legs
The head is the part where you attach your camera. For most professional tripods, you should buy this separately.
The column is the middle part that you rise up and down according to the height you need. And the legs keep your whole set-up sturdy. How far the legs can splay out depends on the tripod.
The Centre Column
There are three types of columns that you can choose from:
A quick-release column can move up and down by loosening a single knob. This is usually the cheapest option. It’s better for photographers who are out in the field, rather than studio photographers.
The better ones have a cushioned release. This is so your camera doesn’t get jostled about when you move the column.
The most popular type of column for food photography is a geared centre column. This will allow you to move your camera up and down to a precise height.
This is a particularly handy feature to have if your camera and lens combination is quite heavy.
For food photography, there are two types of tripod heads that you should be looking at:
The first type is the ballhead. There are many types of ballheads. But they all are meant to stabilize the camera. They provide faster, more accurate rotation for the photographer.
A good ballhead will allow you to change your camera orientation between horizontal and vertical. Look for a head that has separate tension and ball adjustments.
That way, you can set an appropriate amount of tension for your camera and lens. And you can keep them from flopping around.
A ball lock is the most basic adjustment on this type of head. Make sure yours has a single twist knob and that your camera doesn’t droop or slip.
The other type is the pan-tilt head. This type of head allows you to turn/rotate your camera left and right, and up and down. You can also tilt your camera’s horizontal line.
This is great when you are trying to get your camera’s horizontal line straight and need to tilt it just a fraction.
There are separate knobs for each type of movement. There are versions of these heads that are geared. This allows you to make very precise, small movements to get your camera exactly the way you want it.
This is the type of head I most recommend if you have the budget for it. It is not as speedy to use as a ballhead, but speed is not usually a concern for still life photography.
Best Tripod for Food Photography Currently on the Market
Manfrotto is the most popular brand out there with pro photographers.
Other popular brands are Gitzo–which has been bought by Manfrotto–and SLIK.
These are the models that I’m familiar with and would definitely recommend:
Manfrotto MK055XPRO3-3W – This includes a three-way head for one price point. This is a good tripod to start with for that reason alone. It also can do overhead shots without an extra piece of equipment.
It’s a good, stable entry-level tripod for food photography.
Manfrotto MT190XPRO4 – This is a good, compact tripod. It’s easy to take on restaurant shoots or can be used in a studio.
I have this tripod and use it with an extension arm to shoot overhead. It is stable enough to hold my camera and heavy 24-70mm lens with a counterweight. As long as I don’t extend it to its full height.
Manfrotto MT055XPRO3 055 – This model has a load capacity of 19.8 pounds. It has a 90-degree centre column. This allows it to extend vertically and horizontally, which you can do with the camera attached.
Manfrotto 058B Triaut Camera Tripod – This tripod allows you to get very high. This is great when it comes to those overhead shots.
My back gets very sore from constant bending down to the floor to compose overhead shots. A tripod like this is very good if you want to work at table level.
Gitzo GT2542 Mountaineer Tripod Series 2 – This is the most expensive but most heavy-duty recommendation. It supports up to 39 pounds of weight.
It’s a serious pro tripod with the price to match. But it will last forever. It’s a great tripod to keep in the studio while you can use a lighter tripod for on-location work.
Go to the camera store and take a look at these tripods. Get a feel for how they look and function in real-time. You can decide to purchase one, or you can go home and do some comparison shopping online.
You might also be able to find a good used tripod for a much lower price.
Overhead Lateral Arm – you attach a lateral arm directly to your tripod for overhead shots. Some tripods have a centre column that will flip out and allow you to do this. But most of the time you will need to purchase a separate arm.
L-Bracket – an L bracket allows you to change your orientation between horizontal and vertical when you are shooting overhead.
Most food photography is taken in portrait orientation. But interactive web design demands images shot in landscape.
If you are shooting for client websites, you will likely need to shoot in both.
An L bracket will allow you to do so.
Sandbags – Your tripod should have a high payload and be able to bear the weight of your camera. But you must still provide a counterbalance to all that weight with a sandbag. You can buy these at your local camera supply store and filled with plastic sandwich bags filled with sand.
Most hardware stores sell bags of sand used for children’s sandboxes. You can also use sandbags at the bottom of the legs to stabilise your tripod.
If shooting without a tripod is your default, set a challenge for yourself.
The next time you shoot, start with your usual no-tripod shot. Then lock down your camera on your tripod, and build your scene element by element–starting with your main subject.
Take a picture each time you add something new and see how it works. Then compare the results.
Using a tripod consistently might take some getting used to. But it will help you improve your food photography so quickly that you will wonder why you didn’t rely on one sooner.
Looking for more delicious inspiration? Check out our new post about food photography examples next!