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Primer and Buying Guide: Updated for Holidays 2013
A look at the world's most versatile camera supports and why they're ideal for sports, wildlife and travel photography.
If the tripod is the single greatest photographic accessory ever invented, the monopod (aka unipod) surely stands a close second. Monopods are generally smaller, lighter, and faster to deploy and stow than their venerable three-legged counterparts, which can be mighty important if you have to move quickly when shooting wildlife, sports, etc. or need to stabilize your camera on a sloping surface like the side of a hill. And while most monopods are not freestanding, they can add an amazing amount of stability just when you need it most: shooting in low light, with long lenses, and/or at slow shutter speeds.
Some monopods have built-in or included ball heads that enable you to adjust the camera orientation more conveniently for high-angle or low-angle shooting. Others require an accessory ball head to provide this feature, adding a bit of height, weight, and cost to the equation.
Features, materials, caveats, hints, and tips
A few intrepid monopods have such unexpected features as fluid heads for video panning or small built-in or add-on legs at the bottom to enhance stability and versatility. Most monopods are made of aluminum but some are constructed of other materials such as carbon fiber, titanium, or wood. Carbon fiber is stronger, lighter, and easer to handle in cold temperatures, but generally more costly than aluminum. Titanium also provides strength and weight advantages, usually at higher cost, and wood is claimed to have superior vibration damping properties due to its cellulose structure and, like carbon fiber, is less likely to stick to your hands in sub-freezing temperatures.
Unlike a tripod, a monopod cannot usually support a camera independently, and this limits the shutter speeds that can be used to perhaps a few seconds at the longest—they’re not really designed for shooting long time exposures or to provide a stable platform for remote firing. However, if you exert moderate downward pressure on the monopod while pressing the camera’s shutter release you can often take sharp pictures at considerably slower shutter speeds than you possibly could shooting handheld, particularly when using longer lenses, which magnify the effects of camera shake.
When shooting with long telephoto lenses always mount the lens directly onto the monopod if possible, using the tripod collar to assure optimum balance. When shooting video, a monopod virtually eliminates any small random movements in the vertical plane that are the prime cause of shaky movies. And by tilting the monopod backward and using your legs to form an integrated “bipod” you can also minimize lateral motion, and approach the stability of a tripod whether you’re shooting stills or video. (While longer lenses have tripod collars, shorter lenses may not. You'll need a good ballhead to attach your camera if one isn't included, such as the Manfrotto 234 Swivel Tilt Monopod Head, available at Adorama and designed for camera/lens combos up to 5.6 pounds.)
Another neat trick for added stability when using a monopod is to lean back against a large stable object, such as a rock or a wall. It’s worth noting that some monopods can be pressed into service as chest-pods or belt-pods, which gives you added mobility at the expense of some stability, and others can be used as walking sticks or trekking poles, typically with the ball head removed and the ¼ x 20 screw covered with a cap.
One final cool tip: Set the self-timer of your monopod-mounted camera, press the shutter release, and while it’s counting down, hold your monopod-mounted camera over a crowd, over the top of the dance floor, or up to the bird’s nest to get that “impossible” shot.
It is often said that the best tripod is the one you take with you, and that goes double for monopods because they take up hardly any room in a camera bag. Some come with their own compact soft cases, but they’ll also clip onto your belt or slide into a coat pocket. No, the mighty monopod will never replace the tripod, but for capturing life on the fly, shooting in places like museums or at concerts where tripods aren't allowed, or traveling light on the trail it’s a great tool that every serious photographer should own. The reason is simple: A monopod will let you get sharper pictures over wider variety of shooting conditions than anything else its size.
Now that you have a better handle on what monopods can and can’t do for you here’s a compendium of a dozen cool contemporary monopods selected from the 178(!) different models listed on the Adorama Monopods Department. I’ve included some info on ball heads also to give you a complete picture of how to get a leg up. Good shooting!
Monopod Round-up: 12 Cool One-Leggers For Added Support
Davis & Sanford Vista Trailblazer Lightweight Compact Monopod
Adorama price: $19.99
This sturdy, economical four-section aluminum unit folds to a compact 21 inches, extends to a tall 68 inches, has a robust 26.5mm post diameter, fast-operating snap-lock legs, and a ¼ x 20 mounting stud that accepts a standard ball head such as the Flashpoint F9. It can be used as a walking staff, weighs 1 pound, has a maximum load-carrying capacity of seven pounds, and comes with a convenient carrying case with a strap.
Vanguard Espod AM-203 Monopod
Adorama price: $39.99
Featuring lightweight aluminum construction its simple tilt head enables you to position your camera easily for a horizontal landscape or vertical portrait. Other features: three-section 20mm-diameter leg with quick-flip leg locks, ergonomic foam grip, and rubber/spiked convertible foot for indoor/outdoor use. It folds to 23.6 inches, extends to 57.1 inches, and weighs less than one pound.
SIRUI P-306 Six-Section Aluminum Monopod
Adorama price: $59.95
Compact and light weight with a folded length of only 15 inches and weighting in at 1.1 pounds, it has durable silicon twist locks, a rubber foot, a wrist-strap attached underneath the cap, and an insulated top section to protect your hands in cold weather. Its telescoping leg has a maximum diameter of 32mm and a minimum diameter of 16mm. It extends to 60.6 inches and provides a high maximum load capacity of 17.6 pounds, and its ¼ x 20 mounting stud accepts a standard ball head such as the Flashpoint F9 Compact Ball Head With Quick Release.
Delkin Fat Gecko Carbon Fiber Monopod
Adorama price: $59.95
This ingenious monopod’s five Z-weave pattern carbon fiber leg sections are hinged together at the ends and snap into place forming a sturdy single leg by just holding the unit up and letting gravity do the work! It includes a Fat Gecko locking ball head for horizontal/vertical adjustment, folds to a very compact 16 inches, extends to 57 inches, weighs a mere 12 ounces, has a robust 30-pound load capacity—and it’s made in U.S.A.!
3Point PM3A Aluminum Monopod
Adorama price: 469.95
The new 3Point PM3A Aluminum Monopod is a 3-section monopod that telescopes up to 69 inches high and collapses down to 26 inches. It can carry a four-pound payload, which should be sufficient for consumer-grade DSLRs, mirrorles system cameras, and compacts. The monopod features an EVA foam handle and a sturdy rubber foot for nonslip grip. 29mm tubular leg sections lock tightly in place with one twist. The included H-28Q 100mm ball head is equipped with advanced locking and drag control by use of friction responsive knobs. 360-degree panning allows for panoramic shots and smooth rotation. The ball head's quick release features a spring-loaded safety lock pins, preventing accidental removal of the camera. An Adorama Exclusive!
Bower VT6000 Duo Flex 2-in-1 Tripod/Monopod
Adorama price: $79.95
When does a monopod have three legs? When it’s a tripod that becomes a detachable standalone 55-inch monopod! This clever unit also features a tri-directional fluid pan head for smooth video providing 360-degree panning and a 120-degre vertical tilt action, and a tri-level leg lock system for a stable, adjustable hold. The monopod section expands from 20 to 44 inches, and the “extra” legs are included at no extra cost!
Flashpoint UC204 4-Section Carbon Fiber Monopod
Adorama price: $79.95
This attractive four-section carbon fiber monopod features a Helix Lock twist-type locking system, a comfortable Eva handle, and a non-slip rubber foot. It weighs in at 17.3 ounces, has a robust maximum load capacity of 15 pounds, folds to a portable 21.3 inches and extends to 64.3 inches. It comes with a wide carrying strap with shoulder pad and a foam- padded bag, and accepts the 3Pod H5 Ball Head with Quick Release ($99.95).
Berlebach Model 112 Wooden Monopod With Tilt Head
Adorama price: $999.00
Leave it to the Germans to combine tradition with craftsmanship by a company that’s been making wooden tripods for over a century. This distinctive monopod is fabricated of ash, which makes for easy handling in frigid weather and is renowned for its ability to damp vibrations. It has an integrated tilt head, saving weight compared to add-on designs, a rubber foot with steel spike, and a standard ¼ x 20 mounting screw. Although its folded length is a long 39.4 inches due to its two-section twist-lock design, it extends to a tall 68.9 inches, weighs a reasonable 2.6 pounds, and has a 13.2-pound maximum load capacity.
Benro A48TB Video Monopod With AL Twist-Lock three-Leg Base
Adorama price: $199.00.
This kit takes the monopod to another level by matching the Benro S4 Video Head with an A48TB Video Monopod, which has a folding three-leg base for added stability and comes with a travel case. Height is adjustable with twist-lock leg grips for the four sections and the closed-cell foam handgrip enhances smooth, stable control. The fluid head provides tension control, a panning lock, and full front-to-rear +90/-75-degree tilt axis, and there’s a QR plate for quick, easy camera mounting. The unit folds to 27.6 inches, has a maximum load capacity of 8.8 pounds, and comes with a shoulder strap Though aimed at videographers it will accommodate medium-format SLRs and Pro DSLRs as well.
Manfrotto 561BHDV1 Video Monopod With Fluid Head
Adorama price: $249.89
This advanced video monopod will take you more than six feet off the ground when needed—6.56 feet to be exact—which may be a world record for a monopod. This nicely crafted four-section aluminum monopod also provides a minimum height of 2.5 feet and a lightweight fluid head for enhanced video performance, yet it weighs a reasonable 4.2 pounds. Other features: three mini-legs at base for added stability, long sliding head plate for a wide adjustment range, and an ergonomic pan bar for smooth pan/tilt action. It also has a bubble level, dual ¼ x 20 and 3/8 x 16 screw, and a maximum load capacity of 8.8 pounds for pro video cameras and big DSLRs.
Gitzo GM5661T Series 5 Traveler Monopod
Adorama price: $399.98
Delivering a maximum load capacity of an astonishing 55.1 pounds despite its compact size (it collapses to a mere 16.3 inches), light weight (1.65 pounds), and eye-level maximum height (61.2 inches) this unit demonstrates the virtues of engineering ingenuity and high-end Carbon Fiber 6X. This beautifully made six-section unit also features a unique ALR (anti-rotation) leg system that lets you set it up in under 15 sec by loosening all the twist locks, and a G-lock (gravity lock) system that increases the locking effect as the vertical load increases for added security. Any good high-capacity ball head would complement this pro-caliber monopod, but if price were no object, the Gitzo Series 5 with a 46-pound load capacity (Adorama price: $379.90 ) would be icing on the cake.