Before heading out on assignment, I make a mental checklist of the gear I will be needing, and camera supports are always on that list. Depending on where and what I plan to photograph, I might take a mid- or full-size tripod and be done with it. If I anticipate taking low-angle photographs, I will also pack along a tabletop-size tripod and, for ground-level shooting, one of my Platypods. Truth is, if I have the space, I take all three options, because if I leave any of these options behind, I know I will need it when I get where I’m going.
Photographs © Allan Weitz 2020
Tripods are the best tools for ensuring sharp photographs. The problem with tripods, however, is that most of them are designed for eye-level, or near-eye-level, camera positioning. This isn’t surprising, since most shooters default to eye-level camera positioning simply because it’s a natural inclination. This isn’t to say there’s anything wrong with eye-level shooting, but the truth is, eye-level isn’t necessarily the most interesting angle one could choose.
The following are tripods and camera supports that offer you alternative points of view for composing photographs, which in turn can make for more interesting picture-taking opportunities.
Tripods that Can Literally Bend Over Backward for You
The average tripod does a terrific job of positioning your camera at eye level, higher than eye level, and lower than eye level, depending on its design limitations. These limitations start coming to light when you try suspending your camera directly over your subject, under your subject, or in a comparably awkward position in which the tripod literally starts tripping over its own feet.
If the above scenarios ring a bell, a tripod with a center column you can laterally adjust up to 90° might be a good direction to turn. Traditional in every other way, tripods with laterally adjustable center columns can add a large dollop of flexibility to your shooting habits without compromising the usability or integrity of a “normal” tripod. If you’ve ever questioned the need for a tilt-screen on a camera, spend a day using a tripod with a fully articulated center column and you’ll lay that question to rest.
If your current tripod has a removable center column and legs that can be extended at 90° angles, you should see if a compatible short center column is available for it. If so, this can be an easy way to teach your current tripod a new trick or two. Though more awkward than using a short center column, another method of positioning your camera at or near ground level is by reversing the direction of a longer center column.
Tip: When laterally adjusting the angle of your tripod’s center column, always make sure to counterbalance the weight of your camera and lens. The easiest way to do this is by re-adjusting the length and angle of each of the tripod legs. When counterbalancing heavier camera/lens combinations, consider hanging a weight on the tail end of the center column. In a pinch, your camera bag or a water container can be used to balance the load.
Shooting from Ground Level and Up
Sometimes you have to get down and dirty to get the shot. Ground level is an interesting perspective simply because we seldom see the world from that angle, which is why ground-level photographs often merit second glances from viewers.
The grand-daddy of ground-level camera supports is the Foba Base Plate for Tripod Heads, which is a 9", hexagon-shaped black metal plate with a 3/8"-16 mounting thread for a Foba Super or Mini-Super Ball Head or other tripod head of your choice. The Foba base plate weighs 3 lb and can safely support the heaviest of video and still camera rigs.
For professional as well as pedestrian needs, we have the ever-growing family of Platypod camera supports. Available for smartphones, tablets, and compact cameras (the Platypod Ultra) or camera systems weighing up to 300 lb (the Platypod Max), Platypods are finely machined from anodized aluminum.
Measuring a mere 0.2" thick with titanium TA-2 threads and threaded stainless steel spiked feet for leveling your camera, Platypods also feature countersink holes and strap slots for securing your camera to trees, poles, fences, or most any other surface you’re likely to encounter. Platypods are available individually or in kit form with or without a ball head, goosenecks, and LCD lamp heads for macro photography and vlogging applications.
Similar platforms for ground-level shooting that are worth checking out include the Jobu Design Remote Shooting Platform and The Hand Stand from Mark Bailey Photography, both of which can be used with most popular compact, mirrorless, and DSLR camera systems.
And for Down and Dirty Shooting in Wet, Nasty Weather…
Shooting from ground level can be often be achy, awkward, and, depending on the ground conditions, messy, cold, wet, muddy, or any combination of the six.
To keep your camera secure and safe from snow, mud, wet vegetation, and whatever else you might encounter when shooting outdoors from ground level in messy surroundings, we have a couple of suggestions, starting with the Naturescapes SKM-II Skimmer Ground Pod II. This frisbee-like platform measures 10" around with a 1.5" lip that, according to the manufacturer, enables you to maneuver a camera neatly with lenses up to 600mm through up to 1.5" of puddles, wet grass, mud, and packed snow at ground level.
The Kirk Low-Angle Pod is another option for wet, cold, or otherwise messy ground-level stills and video shooting. Available in a choice of silver or tan, this dish-like platform is made of aluminum with a powder coating and a matte black head mount with 3/8"-16 threads. Weighing a mere 30 oz, it can support up to 300 lb.
Tabletop and Mini Tripods, With and Without Flexible Legs
Tabletop and Mini Tripods are, for the most part, one and the same. Unlike full-size tripods, which steady your camera when shooting from standing position, mini tripods and tablepods enable you to shoot from inches above tabletops or any flat surface.
Though the name is often used generically, JOBY GorillaPods began as a novel and inexpensive family of whimsical-looking yet very functional camera tripods that have since expanded to include a variety of supports for cameras, smartphones, action cams, and tablets. The modular structure of GorillaPod legs allows you to twist and flex the legs of the GorillaPod around poles, fences, tree limbs, and other places rigid-legged tripods cannot be secured to.
Beanbag-Style Camera Supports
Another option for supporting camera rigs on just about any type of surface—flat or irregular—are bean-bag-style camera supports, available from Apex EPGear, Cinesaddle, LensCoat, The Pod, and Visual Departures. Depending on the brand and model, these bag-style supports are filled with sand or synthetic bead filler, which allow them to conform to the shape of your camera rig as you settle it in place. The exteriors of these bags are rugged, and most are weatherproof. Depending on the filler, beanbag-style camera supports also serve to isolate your camera from ambient vibrations, which can easily diminish image quality.
Suction Cup Mounts
Have you ever wondered how photographers and videographers manage to capture amazing imagery from the lower fender or bumper of a car zipping around a hairpin turn at crazy-fast speed? The secret is an ingenious device called a suction cup mount, which can also be used for applications requiring far less white-knuckling than with speeding cars.
Architectural photographers use suction cup mounts for attaching cameras to walls, glass panels, windows, and other smooth surfaces. Kayaks? Surfboards? Sure, just make sure your camera is waterproof. Suction cup mounts can also be used to support lights and remote microphones.
Counter, Chest, and Strap Pods
The last group of products in the alternatives to tripods category includes chest harnesses. Unlike all of the abovementioned alternative camera supports, chest and strap supports rely on the user for stability. Used mostly by wildlife and sports photographers, chest supports can often make the difference between tack-sharp and not-so-sharp photographs, especially when shooting with longer focal length lenses.
There are many ways of securely positioning camera rigs of all sizes at ground level and other nontraditional camera angles and positions. Do you have a favorite camera support for low-angle video or still picture taking? If so, tell us about it in the Comments section, below.