When and How to Use a Monopod Instead of a Tripod

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Avatar of Jason Row
Jason Row is a British born travel photographer now living in Ukraine. You can follow him on The Odessa Files. He also maintains a blog chronicling his exploits as an Expat in the former Soviet Union.

In George Orwell’s seminal book Animal Farm, the animals in question stated that four legs were better than two. In this article we are going to look at why, sometimes, one leg is better than three, and at why you should use a monopod.

A tripod is regarded as pretty much an essential piece of equipment for any photographer, but they have their drawbacks, they are cumbersome, heavy and sometimes can severely slow down your shooting rate. However, as we all know, the more stable you can keep your camera, the sharper your images will potentially be. Enter the monopod. 

Monopods can be an excellent addition to your kit by Dave Dugdale, on Flickr

When buying a monopod, you are looking for more or less the same things that you will find in a tripod, stability weight and height. It is preferable to get the minimum amount of sections for your required height, each additional section being a source of instability.

As with tripods, some of the very best monopods are the carbon fibre type, which combine great rigidity with remarkable lightness. Of course you can use a monopod without a head, but this can make some shots very difficult especially if you are shooting at extreme angles. The best option for a monopod is a good quality ball head. This affords you a good deal of rotational movement whilst being able to solidly lock the camera off.

Again you need to consider the weight, there is no point in buying a light carbon fibre monopod and then sticking a heavy and cumbersome head on it. 

Manfrotto 681B Monopod with 234RC Tilt Head and Shoulder Brace by Michael Kappel, on Flickr

When it comes to using a monopod, you need to realize that they are not a complete substitute for a tripod. Areas where you will struggle to get a good image with a monopod include very low light photography, i.e. night time, and shots where you need a 100% stable camera for example shooting light trails or landscapes with extreme depth of field. Where a monopod does come into its own is in areas such a wildlife and sports photography where you can dramatically increase the stability of long lenses, travel photography, particularly around the golden hours and of course outdoor macro photography, especially when trying to photograph insects etc.

Not all monopods provide the same quality by Krypto, on Flickr

How to Hold A Monopod!

One of the most important aspects of using a monopod is how to stabilize it. Here the best option is to think of your legs as making up the three legs of a tripod. The two best ways to do this are:

Stand with your own legs about 50cm apart and have the monopod in front of you so that your body forms a triangle with the monopod. Hold the top of the monopod firmly but not too tight, using the wrist strap to anchor your grip. The key to stability is, oddly, not to be too rigid. Be firm but do not try to lock your position as this will result in your muscles tiring and generating shakes to the monopod.

The second method to stabilize is to stand with one leg slightly ahead and your rearmost foot turned perpendicular to your body. Then you can wedge the base of the monopod into the arch of your rear foot whilst at the top, you hand is pushing the monopod down. You can again add extra stability by looping your hand through the wrist strap. This is a good method for wildlife photography as it allows you to use your body to smoothly pan the monopod whilst maintaining stability.

So in Summary Lets Look at the Pros and Cons of Using a Monopod

Pros

  • Portability and weight
  • Stabilization of long, telephoto lenses
  • Speed, a monopod is much quicker and easier to set up

Cons

  • Not a substitute for a tripod in very dark conditions
  • You need to practice techniques for stabilizing a monopod

A monopod can be a useful, but not necessarily vital addition to a photographer’s kit. It can certainly provide extra stabilization in a good many types of situation but equally it cannot be seen as a replacement to a tripod, only as a complimentary tool.

You will need to decide on whether you need a monopod based on your own shooting style, but as is the case with tripods, you get what you pay for, buying a cheap monopod will probably not benefit your photography, spend a little money on a good one and it will last many many years, and almost certainly get you out of a hole on more than one occasion.

11 thoughts on “When and How to Use a Monopod Instead of a Tripod

  1. Mark Stevens

    I use my monopod when I shoot video in crowed situations with my handycam. I can turn the view screen down and raise the camera above the crowd in front of me and get the shot.

  2. Avatar of AntoniusAntonius

    I’ve never used a monopod (aside from something like that improvised umbrella monopod) but I might add a third way to turn it into a “tripod”, based on other techniques I use:

    Using a small tree or vertical post, lean the monopod in toward it so the tree notches into the right angle between the camera body and the lens (being careful not to obscure the light meter). Alternatively, lean yourself onto the tree, and bring the monopod up until the camera strap is taut (if that makes sense?)

  3. Serge

    Interesting article learned quite a bit.
    I mostly use, my monopad, always but thank you for the tips.

    They will become useful on my next
    shoot.

  4. Avatar of John C StiresJohn C Stires

    I “don’t leave home without it,” my monopod rides on the back seat of my car no matter what and it’s typical for my camera to be right next to it.
    We have a few birding areas nearby (San Elijo Lagoon, e.g.) It (keeping it close) allows for casual, last-minute strolling and shooting using bigger lenses (such as Canon’s 100-400 4.5-5.6)
    Plus… I spent ten days at Katmai using that lens and monopod combo and nothing else.[img]http://500px.com/photo/12310503[/img] and the lagoon: [img]http://500px.com/photo/12284765[/img]

  5. Jill Clardy

    Another useful “feature” of a monopod is that it doubles as your walking stick on difficult terrain. It helped me immeasurably during our trip to Machu Picchu last year – where tripods are forbidden anyway !

  6. Philip Zwick

    I travel everywhere with my monopod as I usually am not able to set up and use a tripod while on the go with groups. It does serve as a walking stick especially on uneven, unpaved terrain.

    But one of the best features is that it holds the weight of the camera especially with a tele lens mounted when shooting in stable situations with waiting like sports and wildlife.

  7. Kerryn

    I saw a clever way of using a monopod at a mountain bike race recently. The videographer had attached his camera and put a small weight at the foot end of the monopod. He showed me how it improved tracking when filming the cyclists.

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