Alley in Pisa, Italy

by Lars Kotthoff

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I'm thinking about getting a combined monopod/trekking pole, as I use a trekking pole already and I can't really be bothered to carry a heavy tripod into the hills during daylight. I'm wondering how much difference they make. Is there a rule of thumb such as "allows 2 stops better than 1 over focal length"?

Also, does lens image stabilisation work with monopods? I believe you should turn it off when using a tripod, but I'm not sure with a monopod. Any ideas?

And as to weight, I have a Canon 40D and often use my 18-200 lens, so I think that makes between 1 and 2kg.

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Good question. I recently turned my trekking pole into a monopod (Just drilled a hole on top and attached a 1/4" threaded rod to it), and I'm curious to see how much of an advantage I'll be gaining. –  Bossykena Sep 2 '10 at 17:31

10 Answers 10

up vote 11 down vote accepted

I was long a user of monopods out in the field. With the advent of image stabilization lenses, I find I almost never haul it out any more. About the only use case I have for it now is when I'm using my 300/1.4x combo with waterbirds or shorebirds, and even then, I'm most likely to either carry the tripod or go handheld.

I see the use case for monopods in two broad areas: the situation above where you want the ability to reposition quickly but want the added stability, or a similar setup where you're shooting sports (baseball or football), especially extended sessions where handholding might cause arm fatigue. The third case (locations like museum where a monopod might be allowed and tripod not...) might make sense in certain special cases.

But in general, improvements in lens speed/quality and IS, and carbon fiber tripods reducing weight, have made monopods a niche tool. lighter tripods means I'm not as likely to choose the monopod as a compromise for weight, and remember you can always just put down one leg of a tripod and use it as a funny looking monopod, but you can't extend the other two legs of a monopod for stability...

In some cases the "string monopod" might be a useful alternative, too. use a bolt in the tripod connector (it's a 1/4 20, I believe) and attach a string to it that reachers the ground. then stand on the string and pull up to create tension -- and it'll stabilize the camera. I need to experiment more with this, but unless you are using the monopod to avoid arm fatigue, it seems to give you all the benefits of the monopod for stability, at almost no weight and similar stability improvements.

So for me, it's using IS lenses where possible, and either carrying a tripod or going handheld. monopods just aren't that useful with modern technology.

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2 other areas it makes much better: panning (you can isolate the blur to one plane much easier) and airshows or other events where you are constantly aiming up. With IS, you can go to even lower speeds than just IS if you use good technique (not just having the monopod straight up). Also, they make for good walking sticks. –  Eruditass Sep 9 '10 at 19:04
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"The third case (locations like museum where a monopod might be allowed and tripod not...) might make sense in certain special cases." You wouldn't deny an old man his staff, would you? -Gandalf Hehe –  BBischof Oct 7 '10 at 22:37

As an alternative, may I mention tripods from Joby?

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I had the original one for compact camera however I found that it was not good as a mini tripod if I had a flat surface. You really need an object to attach too. –  John Sep 2 '10 at 12:06
    
The image with the 5D and 70-200/f2.8 looks impressive, but holding the camera beneath the center of gravity is the easy case. I wonder how it handles a tilted configuration. –  ysap Jun 29 '11 at 11:48
    
Also, the OP seems to require combining the functionality of the cane and the mono. He does not want to carry yet another item. –  ysap Jun 29 '11 at 11:49
    
That's a 5D and 70-200mm f/4 with the circular hood. The f/2.8 versions have petal hoods. –  Michael Clark Mar 17 '13 at 20:45

I find I get about 1 stop more by using a monopod. Maybe 2 stops, if I'm lucky.

Functionally, it's pretty much the same as hand-holding, only a bit less shaky because the camera only has two degrees of freedom instead of three. So you can still make use of image stabilisation. Camera weight shouldn't be an issue, since the monopod won't be supporting the whole weight of the equipment anyway.

Obviously, a monopod won't do for really long exposures, nor for anything that relies on having the exact same camera position from one shot to the next.

On the plus side: you can often get away with a monopod in places like museums that don't allow tripods.

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That's three degrees of freedom rather than six: a monopod restricts pitch, roll, and vertical movement, leaving forward/backwards and sideways movement, as well as yaw. –  Evan Krall Sep 10 '10 at 8:45
    
@Evan Krall - that's almost correct - The eliminated movements are the linear movements (translations). All angular movements are there, but the origin of rotation is transformed to the monos resting point. (It is true, though that for small perturbations, due to the long radius of rotation, the motion is approximately linear, but we tend to be very picky in this forum...) –  ysap Jun 29 '11 at 11:46

One thing you may want to look for in a monopod is one that can become self standing. They're not as stable as a proper tripod, but under the right circumstances they can really help in getting some shots. Manfrotto makes one and there are others kicking around as well.

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I've got a Trekpod - a monopod with fold-out tripod legs on the bottom. It's slightly heavier than a "plain" monopod, but quite a bit more versatile. One of the issues you'd potentially run into is stability, since the "legs" are relatively short (around 14", I'd estimate). If you consider it to be a monopod with the additional stability of these legs, though (and not as a true tripod), it ends up being pretty handy.

I've had decent luck using the Trekpod with a Panasonic FZ-28, which is lighter than your setup. Placement is important, since it's naturally going to be top-heavy, and the platform is susceptible to swaying if there's more than a light breeze. You can improve stability somewhat by leaving the pole collapsed to walking-stick height (rather than extended to near-eye level).

All these disclosures aside, I've been able to use the Trekpod for long-exposure shots more often than not, and I was happy to have it with me as a walking stick on a trip to Canada earlier this summer. For me, the fact that it does double duty outweighs the shortcomings of the hybrid design.

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I've been using a monopod for over fours years now, predominantly in situations where I'm treking through rough terrain and a tripod would take too much time to set up and break down. I've found it particularly useful in shooting wildlife (penguin colonies for instance) where I'm often moving position very frequently.

It's also been invaluable for shooting from non-stable platforms - in my case the decks of ships at sea, where a tripod would provide no stability whatsoever.

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Where I use my mono-pod is video. Taking the video camera to school functions, where you are packed in small seats means a tripod is out of the question. Holding a video camera up to your eye for a 45 minute performance is asking for a sore arm, and sore eyes. I find that the mono-pod will fit in the space between me and the person in front of me, and with an LCD on the video-cam, I can move my eye away from the viewfinder, and actually watch the show. Plus I can place the camera a little to the side, or above the head of the person in front if I don't have a good line of sight. It does make a decent walking stick as well.

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I tried one for a very short time and got frustrated from not gaining significant stabilization for my needs, so I returned it. However, this may be a problem with my undeveloped technique and lack of practice with monos.

One thing that it can be useful for, though, is as an available solution for ad-hoc leveling of your camera, in case the horizon is problematic. You need to hang the monopod from the camera, rather than rest the camera on the mono. This way, its weight will give you perfect leveling.

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I am using very basic monopod Velbon UP 4DX II 4 Section Unipod and I am satisfied for the price. It is very useful when I shoot with my Tamron 70-300 - the focusing is much easier and also waiting for optimal shot is better as you do not have to hold the camera with long telephoto lens only in your hands.

In some cases - as already mentioned - museums, street, crowds of people - it is not possible to use tripod, because it is forbidden or it is a risk for your camera.

I also though about the combination of trekking pole and monopod and many people suggested not to do it as trekking pole needs to be very tough and it is not constructed to often and quickly change its height. On the other side, the monopod does not have to be able to carry about 80 kilograms like the trekking pole and it must be constructed to be quickly released and packed again.

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+1 Good point of freeing up one's hands –  cyanos Jan 18 '13 at 8:09

Situations for which I find a monopod useful:

  1. When shooting an event for several hours, allowing the monopod to support the weight of a heavy lens is quite beneficial for your arm, shoulder, neck, and back muscles.

  2. You can "stack" the benefits of IS and the extra stabilization the monopod supplies. If you're using a 200mm lens on a 1.6x crop body, you would normally need a shutter speed (Tv) of around 1/320 sec. With four stop IS you can drop the Tv to around 1/20 sec. Put it on a monopod and with good techniques you can go to 1/10 or even 1/5 sec! Of course that is assuming your subject is not moving.

  3. If your subject is in motion horizontally, like a race car for instance, you can pan on the one axis while the monopod allows very little up/down motion of the camera. Combined with Canon's mode 2 IS, you can really keep your main subject sharp while everything around it is blurred along the direction of your subject's motion.

  4. Even though it only has 1/3 as many legs, I find my monopod provides a much more appreciable benefit than 1/3 of that gained by my tripod. And that benefit can be enjoyed in locations where tripods are not allowed.
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