The tripod is the classic tool of the photographer. Three support struts provide the ultimate in stability, while a flexible mount allows you to adjust the angle and direction at which the camera is placed. Most tripod struts retract, making them somewhat easier to carry around, but they still tend to be a bit on the bulky side and require a fair amount of set up. This doesn’t suit photographers who need to be ready to shoot on a moment’s notice, need a certain amount of inconspicuousness, or who don’t need that much stability to make the shot.
For this reason, many photographers look for alternatives to tripods that will better suit their needs.
Small, purse-sized or smaller beanbags can be used to stabilize cameras. Large cameras just need large beanbags. Beanbags can formfit to both the contours above and below them, and so work for a variety of uneven surfaces (and lopsided cameras.)Adjusting the angle at which the camera rests requires no turning of cranks, just a little wiggling.
These don’t have to be made literally of beans. A more general term for this sort of stabilizing device is a “support stack’, which can consist of foam and other moldable substances
A disadvantage to these is that they can’t elevate the camera far off the ground. So, they work great for when you’ve got a convenient post or boulder, or want to shoot from near the ground, but not so great if there aren’t any elevated surfaces that you can borrow.
You can buy any beanbag for this purpose—even oversized Beanie Babies could do! There are also brandnames specifically for use with cameras available, such as the Pod, some of which also come with mounting bolts. It’s also incredibly easy to make your own DIY beanbag “tripod”.
These spiffy little devices attach to your camera via tripod mount, and have three legs just like a tripod. The difference? These legs are flexible, able to wrap around or stand up on virtually any surface. Around a tree branch, on a streetlight, there are thousands of vertical and horizontal surfaces surrounding you everyday that are perfect for gorillapods to wrap their flexible legs around.
As with the beanpod, the gorillapod cannot elevate the camera very far above the ground: you need a surface to which to attach it. So, if you’re planning on heading out into the desert, then maybe this isn’t the best idea.
Oversized cameras with large attachments like telescoping lenses might not be able to really take advantage of a gorillapod, just due to sheer weight and size issues. Heavy duty gorillapods are advertised to work for up to 6 pounds, but that’s stretching it. However, for anything under the size of your basic DSLR, it’s a great choice, and one that can fit right in your pocket.
Also, some photographers have difficulty adjusting the gorillapod to exactly match the angle at which they want to shoot, especially with heavier cameras.
Joby is an excellent manufacturer of Gorillapods, and may be purchased for up to 50$. Gorillapods are also very easy to make for yourself.
There are solutions that allow you to elevate your camera above the ground, of course. Arguably the simplest and best of these is the camera “monopod” - instead of three support struts, there’s only one. They require virtually no time to set up: you just need to screw the camera into the mount and you’re ready to go! Because they really just consist of a stick, they’re easy to use as a walking stick for taking a walk, great for outdoorsy photographers. Check out this DIY tutorial for making a walking stick monopod.
They do have some disadvantages. You need to hold the stick upright while shooting, which is fine for medium exposures as most camera shake is vertical anyway, but this won’t really work for longer exposures over a second. Also, you can’t easily adjust either the height or the angle at which you shoot unless you purchase a fancy telescoping monopod, which tends to be on the expensive side.
As mentioned in the monopod section, most camera shake is vertical. The stringpod eliminates this by creating tension between the camera and your foot through, well, a string.
There’s a certain technique required to do this quickly, which might take some practice: drop the weight, step, adjust length and shoot. However, once you’ve got it down, it’s a near inconspicuous and near instantaneous way to eliminate most camera shake. The whole device fits easily into your pocket or wallet, and can even just remain attached to the camera at all times, even while it’s in its case.
They’re also incredibly cheap to make for yourself: check out this DIY stringpod “string tripod” project.
Tennis Balls, Bottlecaps, Shoulder Mounts, And Other Alternatives
This article is hardly a complete listing of stabilizing devices for digital cameras: there are almost as many solutions as there are camera users. Even each type of stabilizing device mentioned above have a myriad of variations! By all means, keep looking around for more solutions for your particular needs: this is just a primer on what’s available.
There are innumerable DIY stabilizing devices that cost virtually nothing to make, though you won’t be seeing them being made professionally. From cutting a tennis ball in half to making a camera mount out of a bottlecap, solutions abound.
While these are easy to make on the fly, none of them offer genuine stability, especially for oversized cameras, nor can many of them be used for uneven surfaces or for elevating the camera above the ground. If none of the above solutions suit your needs, keep looking, as something along these lines just might suit.
There are also many niche products for special purposes. Shoulder mounts, for instance, are great for those who want to go for a little Ramboesque photography in the great outdoors. Such specialty stabilizing devices tend to run a little on the expensive side, so make sure that they’re really what you need!