A question I receive from time to time is whether it is worth it to buy a monopod. Many serious photographers use them, and they do provide support and stabilization while you are shooting. On the other hand, monopods limit your movements and do not provide anywhere near the stabilization of a tripod.
So, should you get one? The short answer is yes if you shoot wildlife or sports. Otherwise, I think probably not. Here’s why.
How Monopods Work
First, what is a monopod? A monopod is a metal rod that supports your camera or lens. While a tripod has 3 legs, a monopod only has one.
If you will be standing in one place shooting for a long period of time, the monopod will support your camera, saving you from having to carry it around and lift it up and down countless times. For this reason, wildlife photographers – who sometimes stay in one place waiting for a given animal – and sports photographers – who are often confined to one area – almost always use monopods to support the camera. Both of these types of photography also require big, heavy lenses, making the need for support more acute. If you are in one of those fields, the support provided by a monopod makes them almost indispensable.
If you are not interested in wildlife or sports photography, however, the support factor provided by a monopod will be of limited utility. (The survey responses I have received on this website indicate that only about half of you are interested in wildlife photography and very few of you are interested in sports photography). The support that monopods provide is only one reason to buy one, and there are other good reasons you might want a monopod.
Monopods will also provide some stabilization for your shots. In other words, the monopod will help hold your camera steady during the exposure, resulting in a sharper picture. In particular, using a monopod will eliminate most “up and down” camera shake, since the monopod will be planted on the ground. Using a monopod will not, however, eliminate sway (moving side to side or forward and backward). The monopod will help reduce the sway, but it is not inherently steady, meaning the camera is still subject to the slight movements of the person holding it. There are things you can do to reduce that sort of movement though, as we’ll see later in this article.
When You Might Find Monopods Useful
If you are a interested in shootings landscapes, seascapes, and cityscapes (and, based on the survey responses, almost all of you are), might you still find a monopod useful? Sometimes.
Let’s take a look at when you might like using one.
1. Low Light Situations
A monopod holds the camera steadier than it would be if you were hand holding it. Without a monopod, you should follow the reciprocal rule to determine how slow of a shutter speed you can use without introducing blur into the picture. There is no hard and fast rule how much slower you can use with a monopod, but I find that you can usually go about 2 stops slower than you otherwise would be able to use.
As mentioned above, using a monopod will reduce the movement of the camera during exposure, but not eliminate the movement entirely. Extremely slow shutter speeds will therefore result in blur in your photos where you have moved the camera slightly during the exposure.
Another simplified way to think about how slow of a shutter speed you can use with a monopod is that you can use shutter speeds that are fractions of a second, but not measured in a whole second or longer. Any slower than that and you definitely need a tripod.
When using a monopod for stabilization of your pictures, you might also look for something to hand-clamp it onto in order to eliminate movement. If there is a railing, a fence, a small tree, or something else available, plant the monopod next to that stationary object and then hold the monopod tightly against it while taking the picture. The stationary object should take most, if not all, of the movement out of the equation during the exposure of the image.
2. Restricted areas
Tripods are not allowed everywhere. In some places, such as high traffic areas where tripods would cause congestion, not allowing tripods makes sense. Other times, however, the banning of tripods is just to encourage people to buy photos from the on-site professional photographer, or else just needless bureaucratic interference. Whatever the cause, the list of places that does not allow tripods seems to be growing every year.
The shot at the top of this article was taken from one such place. The observation deck on top of Rockefeller Center in New York, which I believe to be the best vantage point for taking pictures of New York City, will not allow the use of tripods. In addition, I recently went to Paris, and there were several places that would not allow tripods.
These places will, however, allow monopods. I used a monopod for the Top of the Rock picture above. You can brace the monopod against the walls of the observation deck to stabilize your camera and take low light shots. In these cases, monopods can be life savers.
Some hikers like monopods because they can use also use the monopod as a walking stick. Using a monopod in this way turns the main drawback (having to carry it around) into an advantage. Therefore, monopods can be quite useful to hikers.
Downsides of Monopods
While there are advantages to monopods, carrying them also has disadvantages. The main downside of carrying a monopod is that it restricts your mobility. While it is true that they do not restrict your movements as much as a tripod, a monopod will still restrict your movements. You have to carry it around, then adjust it between shots.
The assistance that a monopod offers you is limited as well. Monopods will not really help you with stabilization and sharpness at fast shutter speeds because you just don’t need the help in those situations. When the camera’s shutter is opening and closing at a really fast shutter speed (say, 1/500th of a second), small camera movements won’t register. In fact, as long as you are complying with the reciprocal rule, you should not need stabilization to help with the sharpness of your photos.
Neither will monopods save you when you want to use a really slow shutter speed. The slight movements of a monopod will introduce blur into your pictures at slower shutter speeds. Once your shutter speed is slower than about 1 second the monopod will definitely not save the picture.
With these pros and cons, what’s my view on monopods for non-wildlife and sports shooters? A solid “meh.” They are occasionally handy, but not enough that I would rush out and buy one.
If you have trouble supporting your camera or holding it steady, then try a monopod. But otherwise, don’t.
That comports with my own personal experience as well. At some point I decided I needed a monopod. I went out and bought one, used it a few times, and found it only marginally useful. I continued lugging it around with me until I eventually lost it. I did not miss it, and I never replaced it. (I actually do have a monopod now because it came free with my new camera, but I have yet to use it.)
If you are a wildlife shooter or you do sports photography, go buy a monopod. Otherwise, I’d save your money.