Choosing photography gear is all about knowing how you will use it, where and how often. Choosing a way to stabilize your camera is no different and in this guide I'll cover monopods and tripods and help you choose the right one for your shooting style and situation.
A monopod, sometimes called unipod is a single pole used to support a camera. The camera can often be mounted directly to the top, however it limits all composition to be horizontal, so a head is often purchased that allows the camera to swing 90 degrees for vertical compositions.
In order to avoid camera blur from motion movement the general rule of thumb is that your shutter speed must be equivalent or faster then the focal distance you are at. Using a 300mm lens at 300mm a shutter speed of at least 1/300th of a second is required, but this may not always be possible due to a number of variables including available light or maximum aperture of your lens. A monopod can help you cheat by giving some added stability.
They are great choice for shooters on-the-go, like hikers, photo walkers and even for some sporting event coverage like motorcar racing. A monopod also offers a bit more flexibility over a tripod in that you can move and sway it; you aren't locked down into one location. They are a great tool to utilize if you have kids who play sports like soccer and football where you are currently running up and down the field and can't be constrained by a more bulky tripod. Additionally, by leaning forward, back, side to side or rotating you can track cars driving by much easier, or a bird that is about to take flight off a tree limb. Monopods are also extremely light, collapse down under 20″ and can double as walking sticks when your camera isn't mounted to them. I've heard some photographers also say they've used monopods as personal protection in certain situations.
A tripod is a three legged object used to support and stabilize cameras. Tripods are used when you need to fully support the camera for shooting. Unlike a monopod that requires you, the shooter, to help hold it up, a tripod will stand on its own. (Check out our guide on how to choose a tripod too!) The uses for tripods are near endless – a few are:
- Long exposures / capturing night trails
- Consistent shots of the same subject matter at the same height
- Low light situations
- Firing the camera remotely utilizing Pocket Wizards
- Specific and precise framing of shots
- With tilt shift lenses
- When maximum sharpness is desired
- Video functions
Tripods come with a few downsides though. They cost more then monopods, are larger, heavier and more cumbersome to transport and cannot be moved fast on the go in the same manner as a tripod. They are in turn a great way to learn the fundamentals of photography, because you can bracket expose shots with the same composition time and time again and take some of the hand holding out of it.
I've often had a love / hate relationship with tripods. I love them because of the steady, methodical control for aligning shots and the ability to create wonderful long exposures. I hate them for the size and restrictions it puts on me shooting; the same loving feeling I give for the methodical control sometimes I hate for not being free to quickly and easily change positions.
Depending who you talk with, some shooters prefer being on a tripod for studio / portrait shots. I personally loathe them for working with people, but they can have their place, especially if you don't have an assistant to help style the shoot or make adjustments on the strobes.
Grab your tripod if you plan on shooting a subject that doesn't move like landscapes and cityscapes or for when you don't plan on moving often, like waiting for a sunset to just hit the horizon. Get the monopod out when you need a bit more stability because you can't achieve the desired shutter speed at the aperture you need or when it could help with a panning photograph.
Each is unique in design and application, I wouldn't suggest buying one over the other because both should be in your arsenal. What you are shooting and how you plan to shoot it will determine which is better for any given application.