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Aug 092017
 

An illustration of a monopod, and an example both of a monopod that is too short and also how not to use it (these points are of course explained below). It is surprising that the photographer (or at least the artistic director) has no idea how a monopod is used.

A regular tripod is a wonderful tool that professional photographers are seldom seen without.  But they are also cumbersome and take up space and weight in your suitcase, and during your days traveling around, they are another bulky item to have with you all the time.

Talking about time, when you choose to use a tripod, it takes time to extend it, to place it somewhere (it also takes up a lot of space making it impractical in a crowd) and is difficult to move around, and then of course, requires more time and hassle to eventually collapse it and stow it away again.

Don’t get us wrong.  We love tripods.  But we seldom/never travel with one.

What we do have, though, is a monopod (sometimes referred to as a unipod).  This is a telescoping device a bit like a single tripod leg, and while you might think that a single legged device would not make much of a difference to camera stability, it actually works stunningly well.

The Need For and Benefits Of a Monopod

A monopod/unipod gives you an enormous improvement in stability, allowing you to take much clearer pictures.

The need for a monopod is not too pressing when you’re filming in bright light (ie with a fast shutter speed) and when the subjects are relatively close rather than distant (so the effects of camera movements aren’t magnified).

But as soon as the distance opens out, and/or the shutter speed slows due to diminished light, a monopod starts to prove its worth.

Monopods are great for travelers.  They can be used almost anywhere, including usually in places such as museums that might forbid tripod photography.  They are quick and easy to deploy, and comparatively light and compact to carry.

It is much easier, when on uneven ground, to set up a monopod than a tripod, where you need to adjust leg lengths to reflect the uneven nature of where it is standing.

You can also use a monopod as a ‘selfie stick on steroids’ – they are typically twice the length of a standard selfie stick, and you can use them to shoot from over the tops of crowds to get an unobstructed view of whatever is in front of the crowds, or out the side of vehicles (with caution!) or (with equal caution) to film over the edge of a precipice, or from a hotel room window, and generally to get unusual and impossible shots that you couldn’t otherwise get without the almost six feet of extra positioning.

Talking about crowds, you could never hope to set up a tripod in a crowd of people, but a monopod can easily be used.

Monopods can also help if you’re filming video, allowing for smoother panning and steadier fixed shots.

Another use for monopods is often seen on the sports field, where photographers simply use their monopods as a support, to hold up the weight of their camera and telephoto lens.

Let’s also keep in mind that a monopod is much less expensive than a tripod.  Our recommended two monopods cost either $13 or  $15, whereas good tripods will cost ten times that amount (and potentially much more).

Let’s start by looking at the often under-appreciated need and benefit of taking pictures (and video) from a steady/stable position, then see how monopods – even though seemingly not nearly as good as a three-legged tripod – are actually very helpful.

Keeping Your Pictures Sharp

A sharp clear picture is what we all hope for, unless we’re trying to deliberately create some sort of dreamy blur effect.  Even in that case, sometimes it is better to start with a sharp picture and then add a blur in Photoshop.

There are two types of blur that interfere with sharpness – focus-related blur, and motion-related blur.

Resolving focus-related blur involves focusing correctly on the desired objects and selecting the appropriate depth of field.  That’s a topic for another time, perhaps.

This article is about motion-related blur, and its solution involves two techniques.  The first is to minimize the camera’s motion, and the second is to select the appropriate shutter speed.  While the two approaches overlap, the best results will see you optimizing both issues.

Let’s start of with a really important skill you should master.  It requires no additional equipment, and will massively improve the sharpness of your photos.

Holding Your Camera Steady, and Pressing the Release Button Correctly

‘Shooting’ a good sharp picture uses the same skills – and even equipment – as the other type of shooting.

Shooting a clear image with a minimum of motion-related blur is a bit like the other sort of shooting – accurate target shooting with a firearm.

In both cases, you greatly improve your results by using two strategies – supporting your camera/rifle in a stable position rather than holding it unsupported; and steadily/slowly squeezing the trigger/shutter release in a smooth gentle motion rather than jerking the camera/rifle with a sudden spasm to initiate the shot.

Certainly, it is fairly intuitive to understand that the more steadily we can hold our camera, the better the image will be.  As much as the dynamics of taking each picture allows, use both hands, try to lean your body against something to keep your body – and camera – still, keep the camera close to your body, and so on.

But even people who understand this, still risk messing up with a poor action to take each picture due to jerking when pressing the shutter release button.

We urge you to work on your shutter press technique.  We’ve seen some people, particularly with camera phones, who stab aggressively at the shutter release control when taking a picture, and we see the entire phone/camera move significantly, right at the point it is taking its image.  A person who was holding their camera device reasonably steady ruins its steadiness with a bad shutter release action, at the moment it is most critical to hold it steady!

Another marksman type analogy – just like, if you’re shooting at a very close-up target, you don’t need to be quite as fastidious as if you’re aiming at a bulls-eye 100 or even 1000 yards distant, it is the same with a camera.  Close-ups aren’t quite as critical as telephoto type images.  This leads to an interesting rule of thumb that is sometimes used, which we’ll discuss next.

When Do You Need to Stabilize Your Images?

Clearly, most of us often take good pictures without needing a tripod or monopod.  But at what point does such an external device start to become worth the extra hassle of using it?

For decades, there has been an interesting rule of thumb known to photography professionals.

Assuming a good stable shooting platform and technique, the minimum shutter speed should be the same as the effective focal length of your lens, when expressed in 35mm focal length equivalents.

So, a standard 35mm equivalent focal length of about 50mm – 55mm would equate to an acceptable shutter speed of 1/60th of a second (or faster), and if you’re using a longer lens, say, a 250 mm lens, then you’re going to want to have a 1/250th of a second exposure (or less).

This rule of thumb of course assumes that you’re holding your camera as steady as possible and are carefully squeezing the shutter release with the minimum of induced motion as you do so.

A Stable Camera Isn’t Always the Complete Answer

Note that – of course – stabilizing your camera will allow for sharper pictures at slower shutter speeds, but only if the subject of your picture is still.

If the subject is moving, then you need to set the appropriate shutter speed to capture the subject without its motion-blur, which is an entirely different concept.  But, to lightly touch on that, here is a related point.

Optimum Shutter Speed

In theory, you might think that ‘fast is always better than slow’.  Simplistically, that is correct, but there are (at least) two exceptions to this.

For example, maybe you deliberately want a slow shutter speed to blur something that is moving, while of course wanting the stationary background to remain sharp and unblurred.  Or, vice versa, maybe you have a fast-moving subject you want to be able to freeze clearly, requiring a higher than theoretically normal shutter speed.

For example also, sometimes you ‘need’ a slower exposure speed simply due to the lighting conditions.  Or a faster one (if there is too much light/brightness).  Maybe you have a specific depth of field requirement that narrows your available range of shutter speeds.

Note also that modern digital cameras ‘cheat’ – they will ‘know’ if you need faster shutter speeds, and will give you the necessary shutter speed if at all possible, even if that risks reducing image quality in other respects (ie by increasing the ISO speed and forcing the camera to make do the best it can with too little light, which results in much greater picture noise and lower contrast).

For that reason, we generally recommend you do not allow your camera to automatically adjust its ISO sensitivity, but leave it fixed at a relatively slow speed (ie 100 – 160), and only adjust up when you absolutely must.

Optical and Electronic Image Stabilization

Some cameras and many/most camcorders feature some sort of image stabilization built-in to the device these days (unwanted camera movements are of course much more noticeable in video and are a classic hallmark of amateur video clips).

Generally, optical/mechanical stabilization is enormously better than electronic.

A good optical stabilization system can allow you to take pictures with shutter speeds one half, one quarter, possibly even one eighth the speed that would otherwise be the slowest you could ‘safely’ consider.  Modern state of the art image stabilization claims to allow for even 1/16th the previous speed.

It is worth paying more money to get a camera (or lens) that includes optical image stabilization.  Imagine being able to take reasonably good images with a 1/8th second shutter speed!  This is what optical image stabilization can do for you.

How a Monopod Works

A monopod acts to reduce camera shake in most of the six forms in which it can occur.  There are a lot of different ways that ‘camera shake’ can happen, resulting in potentially blurry pictures.

The most benign form of camera ‘shake’ and least noticeable is when you move the camera straight up and down, or straight from side to side, or straight forwards/backwards (the classical three axes of motion).  But these types of movements are not commonly the type of motion that occurs.  Instead, the problem comes from twisting type motion, where even a very slight twist (in any of the three axes) causes a large shift in where the camera lens is pointing.

A monopod essentially zeroes out all three forms of the benign motion, and also most of the problematic twisting.  With the anchoring effect of the leg, two of the three twisting motions are reduced to almost zero, and the third one (from left to right) is greatly reduced.

This means you can take better pictures in low light, and you can take better pictures of distant objects in any light.

You can get clear sharp pictures at much slower shutter speeds.  If you do low light or telephoto pictures, a monopod is worth its weight in gold.

Simply mount the camera to the monopod platform on the top of the monopod, using the threaded screw in the monopod and the almost certainly standard threaded hole in the base of your camera (a ¼” thread is standard).  And then, off you go.  Well, almost – don’t stop reading just yet!

 

Using a Monopod

You might be forgiven for thinking this is an unnecessary part of our article.  You simply screw the camera onto the mount at the top of the monopod, extend the monopod, and start taking pictures, right?

Wrong.

While that is simplistically true of a tripod, you’ll get best results from a monopod if you appreciate that a monopod has only one leg, and then give some thought to your stance and position, relative to the monopod, so as to compensate for its single leg.

In this context, having the monopod in a vertical ‘unstressed’ position – such as modeled at the top of the page – is actually the worst way of using it.  This doesn’t ‘lock’ the monopod into one steady position – it can wobble backwards and forwards, and side to side.  Instead, you want it on an angle and ‘stressed’ whereby it is leaning into you in some way, so that the ‘stress’ acts to lock up the position between you and the tripod, ideally forming some sort of triangular structure and perhaps emulating a tripod, with your two feet forming the other two legs.

The most common two approaches is to have the monopod angling forwards and down, so that its foot is on the ground directly in front of you, or angling back so its foot is perhaps close to one of your feet.  You would lean into the monopod if it is angled forward, and be pulling it back if its leg was going behind you.  Usually you have one of your feet in front of the other, rather than both side by side.

This enormously increases the monopod’s stability, locking one of its two planes of remaining motion.  You’ve gone from six planes of motion to only one.

Another approach is to either rest the monopod against a fence or wall or other solid object, or to tie it to something, giving it more stability.  A set of Velcro ties (this pack includes two or four lovely long 24” ties) is a great thing to have in your camera bag in any case, and can help binding your monopod in this situation.

Monopod Height

When choosing a monopod, it is important to get one that is tall enough for you.  Ideally of course you want your camera at eye height, rather than to have to stoop over and crouch.

In addition, if you are angling your camera up, that makes it even more beneficial to have the ability to position your camera at eye level or even slightly above.  The image at the top of the page not only shows how not to use a monopod, but also does a good job of showing a monopod that is too short for convenience!

If you can’t get a good ergonomic and comfortable position with your monopod, it won’t be as stable, so its height is an important consideration.  Regrettably, many monopods are too short for taller people.  Most monopods can be partially or fully extended, so there’s no such thing as too long a monopod, but, dismayingly, there is definitely such a thing as too short.

If you are about 6’ tall, then that suggests your eye level is at about 5’8”, and with maybe 2” between the monopod platform on which you mount your camera, and the camera viewfinder, that means you want a monopod that is at least 66” tall.  We’ve seen some that are 67” – 72” tall, but we’ve also seen some that are way too short, such as Amazon’s fancy expensive carbon fiber monopod that is only 61”.

The need for increased length becomes even greater if you have your monopod on an angle (as you should).  Even a modest angle might require another 3″ or 4″ in length, and if your monopod is already at the short end of ideal, having it ‘shrink’ still further is really unfortunate.

Bottom line – be willing to pay extra for a longer monopod.  There’s no point in being ‘penny wise and pound foolish’ such that you end up with a too-short monopod that is so awkward to use that it doesn’t give optimized stability and you end up never using it.

Monopod Accessories

It might seem ridiculous that a camera accessory should, in turn, have accessories too.  But indeed there is an accessory or two to consider when buying a monopod.

The first is a quick release head.  What this does is it makes it much easier to mount your camera onto or off the monopod.  Instead of needing to carefully mate it to the monopod platform and screw in the mounting screw, you add a special base to the bottom of your camera and a matching socket to the monopod’s mounting platform.  You can quickly snap the camera in and out of the socket on the monopod, which is a convenience you’ll quickly come to value.

The second is some type of tilt/swivel or miniball head.  In theory, you could simply place your camera on your monopod, and the monopod goes down directly in front of you, perfectly perpendicular to the ground and horizon, and thereby ensuring the camera is not only stable but also level in all axes when taking a picture.

More realistically, you will be adopting one of the suggested strategies for using a monopod and they tend to have the monopod at an angle.  Or maybe, sometimes, directly in front of you might be something unsuitable for basing the monopod on, and you’ll want to have the monopod leg going off on an angle.  That is fine, but if you have your camera immutably affixed to the platform at the top of the monopod, it will now be on a strange angle.

Another of the small things that distinguishes high quality photos from lower quality photos is being level.  While it is usually possible to correct this in Photoshop, doing so loses you some image and some quality, so it is best to get it as optimized as possible before taking the shot (this is true for everything – while Photoshop can help ‘save the day’ in many amazing ways, the better the image you start off with, the better the final version of it will be).

Adding a tilt/swivel head of some type will give you much greater flexibility for how your monopod is angled down.  But please remember, once you’ve aligned your camera with the tilt/swivel adjustable head, be sure to then lock the head in place, because if you don’t do that, you’ve lost much/most of the stability the monopod was designed to provide.

Note that some monopods have a built-in quick release but not a tilt/swivel feature.  This is not very useful, because the tilt/swivel is best placed first, and the quick release second.

We have seen some monopods that have miniature tripod type legs at their base.  We view this as a dangerously useless gimmick.  They don’t provide appreciable extra stability, they are usually weak, and we view them primarily as unwanted weight and complexity, another thing to break, and/or something for someone to trip over.

How Much Benefit Does a Monopod Provide?

We gave some numbers, above, about the benefit of optical image stabilization systems, in terms of how much slower an exposure you could take with a stabilized camera or lens.  In actuality, these were not our calculations – they are the claims of camera and lens manufacturers, which we’ve slightly moderated to err on the side of caution.

What about using a ‘low tech’ monopod instead of a high-tech image stabilization system?  What sort of benefit will you get from a monopod?

There are two variables at play here – first, how well you were holding your camera before and how well you were activating its shutter release.  Secondly, how well you are now using a monopod – monopods require a bit of skill to use properly, as we mention in the preceding sections.

Our guess is that you can expect to be able to reduce your shutter speed by between two and four times and still have comparable sharpness.  If you are getting an eight-fold improvement, probably you were being too lackadaisical with your hand-held technique, and if you’re not getting more than a two-fold improvement, you’re not using your monopod properly.

Although you can get a great reduction in random movement/jitter/shake by using a monopod, you don’t zero it out entirely.  Only a tripod, with care, can completely eliminate any shake or jitter.

Depending on distance and your technique, you can perhaps safely take monopod-aided pictures with two to four times slower shutter speeds, but only down to perhaps as slow as 1/8th or 1/15th of a second.  After that point, you’re almost certainly and unavoidably into tripod territory.  But don’t sneer at the achievement a monopod offers you.  Instead of struggling to get short-range sharp pictures at 1/60th of a second, you can now get better pictures at 1/30th, and maybe even at 1/15th exposures.  That means you can reduce your ISO speed, giving you not just a sharper picture, but also less picture noise and greater picture contrast.

This is the more obscured additional benefit of monopods – the ability to reduce your ISO.  In general, you always want to keep your camera close to its ‘sweet spot’ ISO rating, which is usually around 100 – 160.  This is much more achievable with a monopod.

Choosing a Monopod

There are dozens of monopods for sale, maybe even over 100 at some specialty stores.  But before you get overwhelmed, there are some simple considerations to use to filter out the monopod choices.

First, its length.  Unless you are short in stature, we urge you to seek out longer monopods in preference to shorter ones.  At least 65” should be a starting point.

Second, does it have a built-in swivel/tilt and quick-release head, or does it end in a simple platform?  If it ends as a simple platform, you should buy these additional two accessories (or possibly a single unit combining both functions), so that will add further to the total cost, and weight, and bulk of the unit.  On the plus side, it will also slightly increase its total height.

Third, what is the weight (including the weight of extra head accessories if needed)?  There’s no need to spend hundreds of dollars extra for fancy carbon fiber if it only saves you a couple of ounces, but as long distance walkers know, every ounce you can save is precious.  Do give priority to lighter weight units.

Fourth, how many sections does the unit telescope down into?  Fewer units probably imply the unit will be more rigid when extended, but the rigidity when extended also depends on the quality of design and construction.  This is an area where being able to test out a selection of units is beneficial.

Talking about rigidity, as mentioned above, we don’t like monopods with a miniature base of unfolding legs that give the pretense of some sort of tripod or quadpod at the base.  This is just wasted weight in our opinion; steer clear of this.

Another construction related consideration is how the telescoping sections are locked into place.  We’ve seen three common methods.  The first is where each section is rotated to ‘lock’ it into the section above/below.  We don’t like this – we’ve heard stories of the sections subsequently unlocking, particularly if you are rotating the camera at the top.  The second is with screwable ferrule type locks, which seem to provide stable secure locking, but which take a bit of time to screw and unscrew.  The third is with fold-over clamp levers.  These generally seem to give a good lock as well, and are quick and easy to set and release, so they are our preferred system.

Fifth is cost.  You can get units for under $15, or for over $300.  Clearly you don’t want to go wild and crazy with your money, but equally clearly, a monopod that doesn’t work well is only slightly better than no monopod at all.

Perhaps lastly – are there any additional accessories included?  A carry-bag of some sort?  An extended warranty or a satisfaction guarantee?

We roamed far and wide on Amazon to see what we liked and disliked.  Although they had an enormous number of choices, we decided to insist on at least a 65” height for a monopod, and that caused the number of potential choices to plummet.

Astonishingly, one of the best remaining monopods was actually the cheapest – the Amazon Basics monopod.  It extends to 67”, seems to have no negative issues, and costs $12.99.

There is also a ‘Pro Series’ monopod that is five inches longer when fully extended, and about the same size when collapsed, and costs only another couple of dollars.  This has a quick release but not a tilt/swivel mount on its top.  Our sense is that while the extra 5” is good, the fact that it collapses to about the same length and with the same number of elements might imply it is a bit less rigid in use, but we’ve not tried the two units alongside each other.

We like this unit, and ones like it, that don’t require too many knobs to be adjusted.

You would probably choose to add a quick release tilt/swivel head to the top of this, and there are plenty to choose from – pretty much any of these and ideally one that has both the tilt/swivel and quick release function in a single unit.  The head adapter has the further benefit of adding another couple of inches to the total effective height of the monopod.

One point to keep in mind – you don’t want to be tempted by an ‘over-engineered’ tilt/swivel unit.  We’ve seen some with an impressive number of adjusting knobs, but it seems it makes what should be a quick and simply case of getting the camera leveled and then locked in place into quite a major procedure.

Make sure the tilt/swivel head does allow the camera to be flipped on its side it you want to take a ‘portrait’ mode rather than ‘landscape’ model picture.  All the ones we’ve seen seem to allow this – the illustrated unit on the left shows it in the very front.

Note that some tilt/swivel units require a 3/8” mounting screw in their base, and most monopods have a 1/4” screw, because they’re expecting to be mated to a camera, not a tilt/swivel head.

That isn’t a problem, because you can get adapters to increase the screw size to 3/8” – either screw thread/sleeves such as these, or a nice bushing adapter such as this.  There’s every chance you can get an adapter at your local Home Depot, too.

We also like units that have a bubble level in them, but this is probably not essential.

Summary

Well, who would have thought one could write and read so much about something that seems so simple!

The simple summary is that you should have a monopod, and you should use it as a standard part of almost every photo you take.  You will definitely see the improvement in the quality of your photos.

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  7 Responses to “How to Shoot Sharper Pictures with a Monopod”

  1. Great article, thank you David. As I was reading it, I was thinking of things to add. But when I got to the end, everything was covered.

    I’ve owned an excellent monopod for many years but have only used it on a few occasions – using it with long tele lenses. When travelling, I find it just isn’t practical. When using my camera on any moving vehicle, I crank up the ISO setting and experience tells me what works.

    One final bit of info that will help: if you find yourself on the edge of poor light or moving conditions, take several shots in quick succession. One photo will have the best sharpness of the batch.

    • Hi, Hugh

      You’re very fast to read and reply to what ended up as quite a lengthy article! I do find myself wondering if anyone has ever written at greater length on such a simplistic topic, and wondering even more if I should be proud or embarrassed at possibly setting a record on this topic. 🙂

      I struggle greatly with the convenience/quality conundrum. I’m a reformed photog; used to be one of those people burdened with a bulging bag of lenses, flashes, spare everythings, filters, assorted other accessories, and so on and so forth, and taking a single picture involved a process only slightly less complicated than filming Ben Hur!

      But now I’m usually to be found with only a tiny ‘point and push’ and even that seldom emerges out of my pocket (or, even worse, it never comes out of the suitcase for the entire trip). So I fully grok the concept of convenience.

      On the other hand, there was a time when I was a bit obsessive about quality, too. Having now lived both extremes, I feel a bit lost, wondering where to find some middle ground.

      I guess the ultimate issue is where one sets one’s comfort zone. And that’s not really anything I can comment on, merely point out the choices and consequences.

      Your point about multiple shots when pushing the envelope is very true. Some cameras will even now do some clever things like averaging them (so as to reduce the artifacts and noise from their internal light amplification). The intersection of computers and cameras is truly creating new solutions to old problems.

      • In my reply, I also wanted to mention that with your well written and researched article, there are numerous photo and video magazines who would be interested in publishing. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.

        Hugh

      • I forgot to ‘notify me of new comments via email.’

  2. Wow. Truly an exhaustive examination of an almost never examined bit of kit! Well done.

    The one variant you didn’t cover was monopods for phones. I wondered why.

    As you suggest, it’s annoyingly difficult to keep a cellphone stable while taking a photo. While the lenses and technology are improving steadily, such that one often sees photojournalists using them now, the form factor isn’t improving at all.

    There are monopods expressly made for phones, especially for iPhones. And no, I don’t mean selfie sticks.

    • Oh dear, just when I thought I’d written the complete and definitive guide to monopods, I’m quickly brought back to earth by your fair observation.

      I’d not really thought there’d be much overlap as between people who only want to use phones and people who wish to improve their image quality with a monopod, but you may well be right, and a complete guide should have covered this point.

      So, if you do want to use a monopod with a cell phone camera, you need a different sort of adapter to mount the camera to the monopod.

      Here’s an easy simple adapter from Amazon for a mere $6. If you’d prefer an adapter in pink, then naturally that costs a bit more! This one is $14.

  3. […] review monopods here and identify the best value ones.  Or you can click here to go direct to Amazon’s monopod listing […]

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