The number one piece of equipment that I recommend that you get to improve your flat lay photography is a tripod or a c-stand. But, how do you know whether you should choose a c-stand vs. a tripod…or both, and why are they even important in the first place? I’ll break it all down for you in this post and tell you why I prefer a c-stand over a tripod for flat lay photography. But, let’s start with a little story…
Where I Went Wrong with My First Tripod
I first bought a tripod about a decade ago when I began my photography journey. In my excitement, I bought ALL the things. You know, every single piece of gear that I thought made me appear to be a “real” photographer. Tripod? Check. Light meter? Check. Strobe? Check. Everything you could possibly think of. Never mind I didn’t know how to use all of the things that I purchased, nor why I even needed them in the first place.
In my rush to look the part, I didn’t carefully think through my selections. (Rookie mistake!) I didn’t factor in quality. I didn’t consider the features. I didn’t even think through how I, personally, planned to use the piece of gear or tool I was purchasing. With the various models available, these are crucial considerations to make sure the model you choose fits your current needs and any potential future needs you might have.
Let’s take my first tripod, for example. I bought an inexpensive tripod that was around $100. (I considered it expensive at the time.) It included both the legs and a head that was attached to the tripod. My first professional use for that tripod was an interiors shoot. By that time, I had upgraded my camera to one that was heavier in weight. When I got to the shoot, the head would not support the weight of that camera, so it wouldn’t stay in place. It kept tilting…which is NOT ideal for interior photography where you need the verticals (e.g., walls) to be straight. I had a lot of editing to do after the shoot. Needless to say, I only used it once. Talk about a waste of money!
My first tripod definitely wouldn’t have cut it for flat lay photography. Had I known from the start that I was going to shoot flat lays, and anticipated that I would upgrade my camera and lenses to better quality ones, I could have saved up to buy the best tripod for my purposes. My goal with this post is to help you not make the same mistakes and to guide you in making the best decision for your needs when it comes to choosing a c-stand or tripod (or potentially both) for flat lay photography. But, first things first.
Top 5 Reasons You Need Either a C-Stand or a Tripod for Flat Lay Photography
If your goal is to shoot flat lays regularly, then having a c-stand or tripod really is a must, and here is why:
- Ensures (along with a camera level) that your camera is directly overhead.
- Allows your camera to maintain a consistent vantage point as you tweak your styling.
- Eliminates camera shake (i.e., unintentionally blurry images) that is caused by shooting hand-held, especially when the shutter speed is slow.
- Keeps your hands free to slide your hands in the shot.
- Saves you from back pain from hunching over your scene while capturing the image.
Tripod vs. C-Stand: What’s the difference?
The main difference between a tripod and a c-stand relates to their primary and intended purposes.
Most people are familiar with a tripod. It is a piece of photography equipment that is designed to stabilize your camera and is used in various genres of photography, from landscapes to portraits to products and food.
On the other hand, a c-stand’s primary purpose is to hold or grip lights, scrims, reflectors and other accessories at various angles and distances to the set without getting in the way like a traditional light stand might. A c-stand also eliminates the need to have someone hold the reflector, for example, for you. Over time, photographers also began using c-stands to mount cameras for overhead shots or flat lays. This is how I primarily use the c-stand.
A secondary difference is the way that the two are constructed. With a tripod, you extend the legs to get more height and widen them to get a more stable base. With a c-stand, the legs remain in place and low to the ground, and you adjust the body to get more height without compromising the stability.
Why I Switched to a C-stand for My Flat Lay Studio Work
Reduction of Maximum Height
For a long time, I used this tripod for my flat lay photography. I love that it has a center column that I can position horizontally for overhead shots. Also, it is relatively lightweight and collapses to a small size, which is perfect for travel. At 6ft maximum height, I thought that it would be perfect for all of my needs. What I didn’t anticipate was that the height would be reduced to 4ft 8in if I used the center column horizontally and even more so (to 3ft 8in) if I widened the legs. This was fine for tighter shots but more problematic for wide ones.
You might ask, “Why widen the legs?” With a tripod, the legs go on the side of your setup. For some larger backdrops, you need to widen the legs so that the tripod doesn’t sit on top of your backdrop and cause potential damage. Also, widening the legs gives the tripod a more stable base so that it doesn’t tip as easily. (Yes, you should always use a sandbag on your tripod to weigh it down and counterbalance the camera regardless of how high it is sitting.)
The tripod legs got in the way
With the legs narrowed, I sometimes encountered a situation where the legs got in the shot, depending on the lens I was using. While I could compensate for this by switching to a longer lens, I like to make my lens choices based on the composition and image I have envisioned vs. logistical concerns. At other times, the legs would cast a shadow on my scene. If the legs were too close together, I found that I couldn’t position fill cards (e.g., white or black foam core) the way I wanted to bounce more light into the scene or block light from entering the scene.
For these reasons, I knew that I needed a different tripod option. However, my tripod already worked well for me in many ways. For example, it is perfect for 45 degree or straight-on shots as well as for interiors. It even works well for some flat lay images, especially if I am shooting a minimalist image with a long lens on a standard size (e.g., 18”x24”) backdrop. It is also highly portable and easy to take along with me when I deliver flat lay workshops at conferences. So, getting another tripod would only give me increased height and no other advantages.
Advantages of a c-stand over a tripod
That’s where the c-stand comes in. In addition to the height advantage, a c-stand has the added versatility that I mentioned above in terms of holding lights and accessories. Plus, it has some additional advantages specifically for my flat lay photography. The primary reasons I prefer a c-stand include the ability to:
- Get much higher above the scene. This was important for shooting wider scenes as well as for using certain lenses (e.g., 85mm) that have a minimum focusing distance that was not conducive to the height of my tripod. If your camera is too close to your subject, the camera will not be able to lock focus, unless you use a macro lens. The minimum height of my c-stand is approximately the same as the maximum height of my tripod. The maximum height of my c-stand is about 11ft, so I am now only limited by the height of my ceiling. Although the c-stand can extend far above my height, I don’t have to worry about reaching my camera because I shoot tethered to my laptop and control the settings from there.
- Set up two scenes simultaneously. I am able to style one scene on the floor and another on a table. This works great when I have both a product shoot and a food shoot on my agenda. When I am ready to shoot the second scene, I just swivel the boom arm to the next surface area.
- Leave my gear set up between shoots. I don’t know about you, but having to break down and set up my gear every time I want to shoot is a bit annoying. I’d rather use those precious few minutes to begin styling my scene. No more tripping over my tripod legs or breaking the tripod down each time. I keep my c-stand set up and just swivel the arm parallel to the wall or release the boom arm to rest vertically when I’m not using it. That way, I don’t bump my head on it and can walk freely around my office studio.
- Slide large reflectors in on all sides for a bright and evenly lit photo. Because of the triangular formation of the tripod lens and the length of my center column, I was not able to position large pieces of foam core appropriately.
- Position myself to get my hands anywhere in the frame (see below) without having to maneuver around the legs. I know longer have to practice being a contortionist.
My C-stand Setup for Flat Lay Photography
C-Stand: I have the Impact Turtle-Base C-Stand Kit that extends to almost 11’. It comes with a 40-inch extension arm and grip head that can be used for accessories. (The steel is currently sold out, so I’m linking the same model in black.)
Boom Arm: I removed the extension arm and added the Kupo Baby Boom – Steel to use for flat lay photography. It extends to 7.8′. (The steel is currently sold out, so I’m linking the same model in black.)
Adapter: The Kupo Baby Ball Head Adapter is needed to attach my tripod head to the boom arm. It also comes in black.
Tripod Head: I’ve tried different tripod heads, and the Manfrotto 405 Geared Head is my favorite because I can make either precise, incremental adjustments or broad sweeping ones. (A great alternative at ⅔ the price is the 410 Junior Geared Head.) I use this same head when mounting it to both my c-stand and my tripod. If you already have a removable tripod head, you can likely attach it to your c-stand with the above (or similar) adapter.
Shot bag or Sandbag: A sandbag is a must for your c-stand. In fact, I use two — one on the leg to weigh down the c-stand and one on the hook of the boom arm to counter-balance the camera on the other end. I recommend a shot bag with a double-zip closure that comes pre-filled vs. a sandbag that you have to fill on your own. They both serve the same purpose, but one may leave you always having to vacuum up sand while the other will not. (Ask me how I know.)
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Bottom Line: Which Should You Choose?
Do you need both a tripod and a c-stand? Not necessarily. It depends on what you are shooting and whether you can justify the purchase. But, if you had to choose just one, which should you choose? It depends! (Don’t you just love when people say that? I know, I know. But, it really does.) It all goes back to my opening story. Think about how you plan to use it and what your needs are.
Here are some questions to ask yourself:
Will I be shooting food or products on location and need to move around quickly? (Tripod)
Do I want it to take up minimal floor space when in use? (C-stand)
Do I need maximum height (e.g., up to 10+ft) to use a long lens or for wide scenes such as a large tabletop spread? (C-stand)
Do I mostly want to shoot items on a table at 45-degree or 90-degree (straight-on) angles? (Tripod)
Do I want to have the flexibility to mount lights overhead or accessories such as scrims at varying angles? (C-stand)
Do I like equipment that can do double duty and serve multiple purposes? (C-stand)
If you’ve answered the above questions and more of your own and are leaning towards a tripod, I encourage you to read Two Loves Studio’s Ultimate Guide: Best Tripod for Food Photography. She covers everything you could possibly want to know about tripods and includes options at different price points.
Regardless of your choice, purchase the best quality that you can afford so that you don’t have to upgrade down the line. Also, if you already have a tripod and are looking for an option that adds versatility, a c-stand is a great addition to your gear.
What other considerations should we factor into our decisions? What questions do you have? Let’s chat in the comments.
Note: This post includes some affiliate links, which means I’ll earn a small portion of the profit if you purchase something…at no extra cost to you. Thanks for supporting my blog!