A tripod is almost a necessity when it comes to architectural photography. This is because architectural photography is often done in low light conditions like interiors or when the sun is setting. This all means that the camera takes longer to create an image and if the camera shakes then the image becomes blurred. A tripod prevents this by keeping your camera stable. You can use any tripod for architectural photography, but there are special types of tripod heads that give you more control in this type of photography which are called 3 way tripod heads. We’ll talk about these in more detail below.

Tripod Basics

There two main components of a tripod, the legs and the tripod head. The legs are what keeps the camera steady and the head gives you control. Below are some quick notes on what to look for when it comes to architectural photography.

Legs

  • Stability. The legs you choose must be able to support the camera you’re using. Big camera means big legs. You should also consider what conditions you’re going to be shooting in. If you’re knee deep in ocean waves then you’ll need a bigger tripod than a controlled environment like the inside of a house. Good tripods should have a weight guide that define what it can carry.
  • Weight. Architectural photography requires a lot of walking so it’s a good idea to keep your tripod as light as possible. Of course this is a compromise between other factors like stability and height.
  • Height. This is largely a personal preference. Try to avoid using a tripod that makes you hunch over, and try to avoid using the extension stand that some tripods have. The extension will give you extra height, but it wall also increase camera shake.

Head

The head in my opinion is more important than the legs because this is where the precision lies. Any legs that will keep your camera stable will work, but having the wrong head will make it difficult to fine tune your camera position, which is critical to things like perspective control. The ideal head is one that provides 3 way independent control.

 

Understanding what a 3 way head does in architectural photography

A 3 way tripod head allows you to control the camera in three directions, up and down, left and right, and pivot from portrait to landscape. This is important because each movement has a different affect on architectural photography, which is what the diagrams below illustrate. Because you have 3 levers, unlike a ball head, you can fine tune each aspect of the shot before moving onto the next lever. (If you want a more technical understanding of what’s happening below, think of a 3 way head as controlling three axes, x, y and z.)

 

 

Handle 1: Pivots the camera between portrait and landscape and allows you to level the building.

 

Handle 2: Tilts the camera up and down and allows you to control the perspective of the building. Read this post on controlling perspective for more info.

 

 

Handle 3: Rotates the camera from left to right and also allows you to create panoramas.

 

It’s not as complicated as it sounds

While that all sounds quite complicated, in practice it’s pretty simple. Typically all you’re trying to do is level your camera. If you do that one thing your building will be level and perspective correct. You do that by popping a $5 bubble level into the hot shoe of your camera and adjusting levers 1 and 2 until you’re level in those two planes.

 

Where to start and what am I using?

A good tripod can cost you $500 and up, which is more than what most people are willing to spend on their first tripod. And to be honest with you, you’ll probably transition through a few tripods as you understand what features you’re after, so it’s not a great idea to spend a lot of money in the beginning. Luckily you can now find 3 way tripods on  Ebay for less than $70. No idea what the quality is like, but at that price it’s hard to ignore. Yes, it probably won’t last a lifetime, but like i said you’ll upgrade it at some point if the photography bug kicks in. I’m up to tripod number four and currently using a Manfrotto 190xprob with an 804RC2 head. This has been a great workhorse, but it’s a little too short for me, so i’ll soon be looking for a something along the lines of the Manfrotto 057 Carbon Fiber Tripod 4 Section (Which stands at 1.8m without the extension) and the geared head below. But that’ll have to wait as that combo is close to $1500.

Other tripod heads

The 3 way tripod head is a standard for architectural photography, but there are other options and price ranges.

Geared Head: Same action as a 3 way head but with finer adjustment control.

Panorama Head: Moves the pivot point of the camera for precise panorama images.

Arca Swiss Cube: The Rolls Royce of tripod heads. Hand made and worth $1900!

Ball Head: A favorite for portrait photographers, but not ideal for architectural photography.