Recently, a friend of mine was going whale watching on a small boat in Puget Sound and asked how to get the sharpest possible photos while confined to a small boat.
My usual advice — bring a tripod — didn't apply. Not only is a tripod difficult to manage on a boat, but it's just not the right tool for the job, since you have no idea where the whales might pop up. You'd always be moving the tripod or trying to swing the camera around when a giant fish popped out of the water. (Please, no e-mail: I know that whales are really mammals.)
So I suggested that my friend make one of the oldest do-it-yourself photo gadgets in the history of photography: a string tripod.
Better photography with string
String tripods are also sometimes known as string monopods, and if you think about it, a monopod is really a better description. Imagine connecting one end of a length of string to your camera, and the other end securely to the ground. When you pull the camera up and make the string taut, you've stabilised the camera. It's that easy!
Keep in mind that a real tripod will always give you better results. But string is cheap, fits in your pocket, and can increase the sharpness of your photos dramatically when you're holding the camera. In unusual situations — like on a boat, or in a museum that doesn't permit tripods — a string tripod can be a lifesaver. It's even great for nature walks, soccer practice, or anywhere else you don't want to be weighed down by a traditional tripod.
Make Your Own
To make a string tripod, you just need a length of string that you can affix to the bottom of your camera. Most string tripod enthusiasts tie the string to a 1/4-inch bolt or a quick-release tripod mount. The other end of the string is tied into a loop that you can slip around your foot.
You get bonus points for making your string tripod for free — check the toolbox in your garage for an old 1/4-inch bolt with an eyelet that you can tie the string through, for instance. If you have to, though, you can always get an inexpensive tripod quick-release plate from your local camera shop, like I did.
Shooting With the String Tripod
When you're ready to shoot, just slip your foot through the loop and screw the bolt into the tripod mount on the bottom of your camera. If the string is the right length, the camera will be at eye level while the string is taut. If it's too long, you can wrap it around your foot some more or just loop off some line with a knot. It's all pretty low tech, so do whatever works for you.
The string will cut down on translational vibration (the up-down) kind of motion, but allow you to rotate to the left or right. You can use this homemade gadget to take panning action shots at soccer practice, stand ready for breaching whales, or take pictures in a church or museum. Yes, it looks a little goofy, but the results are worth it — trust me.