Tripod Leveling Made Easy

Dec 16, 2008 by Derrick Faw · Leave a Comment ·
Filed under: Equipment, Filming, Photography 

Many times in photography and filmmaking we require the use of a tripod. They are beneficial for panning, low light photography, repetitive shots, etc. The beauty of a tripod is that they can be set up level on virtually any terrain or studio position. Personally I like to always work with a level tripod. For the same reason I try not to hold the camera tilted to one side or the other when I take shots freehand. There are auto leveling gadgets for tripods on the market to assist in this aspect, although I have yet to try any. I am very comfortable leveling with a simple bubble level. I worked for a professional land surveyor for eight years, where use and efficiency with a tripod was a must. One of the first things we ever had to teach a new recruit was tripod leveling. Maybe you find it easy, but believe me most people have problems with it. Actually all that is needed is practice and a few tips. In the end everyone develops their own preferences. After a bit of practice and under perfect conditions, I could set up the survey instrument level and have the field computer on in a minutes time. There is no reason setting up a tripod level for a camera should take any longer, especially since the level of precision needed isn’t even in the same ballpark.

Most tripods come with some method of leveling, either in the form of a circular bubble level or in the shape of a bar. If your tripod isn’t equipped with a level, one can be purchased cheaply at most any hardware store. The main problem with photographic tripods is the weight. They tend to be very light and have a compact design for easy transport. This might sound like an all around good thing, but the drawback is the loss of stability. Even the slightest bump can knock a tripod out of level. To help avoid this problem you can position heavy objects at the base of the tripod legs to help keep them from moving. If your tripod has a rotating head, loosen the motion locks before turning, thus allowing it to move freely to the next desired position. Also be aware that if you are set up for an extended period of time, regularly check your level. Changes in temperature can cause the tripod legs to contract, in result bringing your camera back out of level. The best tripods in surveying are made of wood and fiberglass, they are heavy enough to stay in position and are less effected by weather. The problem there is nobody wants to lug them around all day. When using the circular bubble level, it is also helpful to consider that the sun can draw your bubble away from it’s intended position. It is always best to set up your tripod with the bubble opposite of the sun’s position.

Setting a tripod level is as easy as 1-2-3. When setting up the tripod, first do not extend the legs fully, allow yourself a little room for adjustment. Take for example the following image. We have planted the legs (Represented By A, B, and C) and are ready to level.
tripod1Now adjust the tripod legs one at a time so that the bubble rotates in the direction of any one of the legs like so. In this example I moved it to Leg A.

tripod2

Now Leg A simply needs to be lowered until level is reached. If during this process you find the bubble is not moving towards the center, adjust Leg B or Leg C to put the bubble back in line with Leg A.

tripod3

So now the tripod is in level. Not precise enough to survey a boundary to layout a new shopping center, but good enough for most photography needs. If your tripod has a rotating head, you may want to install a small bar level if you don’t already have one. Optionally you may use a small inexpensive level like used for hanging pictures or carpentry. Simply place it on top of the head, and rotate the horizontal motion accordingly.

level

plumbbobIf you have the desire to reproduce shots like Harvey Keitel in the film Smoke by Wayne Wang, you might find the following information beneficial. The first thing I recommend is to have a means of attaching a small plumb-bob to the bottom of the center post of your tripod. You may have to be a little inventive in this process. Use an attachment such as a hook or even a swivel (used on a fishing line) to fix the plumb-bob string from. As long as the string hangs from the center position you are OK. Either before or immediately after you set up the tripod, you need to establish vertical control. On turf you can place a nail or tack in the ground. Be sure to attach some ribbon to the nail, or some other means of easily locating it. They can be easily lost in the shortest of grass. On hard surfaces you can use a marker, paint, sticker, or even carve out an “x”. With the plumb-bob attached and hovering barely over your vertical control marker, you will have no problem reproducing your position. Having your tripod level is also a must. I highly recommend that you always carry a notebook and pencil for taking notes. Using a regular tape measure note the distance from your vertical control point to a fixed point on the camera, such as the center of the lens or even a button, as long as you have it in your notes you won’t forget. To remember the horizontal angle you used in your shots, try rotating the camera until you find a suitable place for another control point. For example, if you are taking a panorama of a lake, turn the camera to a nearby tree. Put a mark on the tree directly at the center point of your camera’s view finder. You can then use this horizontal control as a reference in future shots.

smoke1

Harvey Keitel in Smoke (1995)

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