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Backcountry Photography

The Monopod — A Leg Up When You Need It Most A Leg to Lean On

By Tamia Nelson

August 7, 2012

Photographers have to fight the battle of the blurs again and again. There is no respite, and there can be no final victory. But at least we have allies in the struggle. A solid stance and a firm grip underpin all our tactics, while judicious balancing of aperture and shutter speed can sometimes rescue shots in otherwise hopeless positions. And then, if truly hard‑pressed, we can always call in the heavy weaponry, in the form of a rock‑steady tripod. But tripods are ponderous, awkward things, and good ones don't come cheap. Which leads many paddlers to wish for something lighter, simpler, and less costly.

Does such a thing exist? It does. Just take a tripod and amputate two of its three limbs. The result — it's called a monopod — obviously can't stand on its own, but it can help any photographer improve on a shaky start. In short, a monopod gives you …

A Leg Up …

When you need it most. It's nothing much to look at: a single rigid pole, with a camera mount on one end and a rubber foot or steel spike on the other. In fact, it looks a little — no, a lot — like the shooting sticks used by gamekeepers and hunters who prize pin‑point shot placement over spurious machismo. And shooting sticks work as well for photographers as they do for marksmen. Here's what professional photographer and In the Same Boat reader Ken Abbott has to say on the subject:

Just read "Sharpshooting for Shutterbugs," and you've really nailed it! I'm retired now, but I was a professional photographer in my younger days. Lately I just paddle quiet waters or hike in the woods to find beautiful pictures that wait around every corner in nature. I'm getting just unsteady enough that I felt it was necessary to take a "helper" into the woods with me. No, not a tripod, but a shooting monopod. It has a handy wrist strap and is adjustable (three sections) so that I can sit or stand while supporting my telephoto lens. When I'm not taking pictures it's a handy trekking stick. They're available in most sporting goods stores. I happened to get mine at Walmart for about USD10. I figured if it didn't work I hadn't lost much. It works like a charm. Took almost 2,000 pictures last October while I looked at the mountains, rice fields, and flooding in Thailand. Talk about paddling opportunities... But that's another story.

Monopod or shooting stick — what's the difference? Well, at the working end, in the place where purpose‑built photographic monopods have a camera mount, most shooting sticks have only a U‑shaped yoke, designed to cradle the fore‑end of a rifle. But as Ken has discovered, that yoke does an equally good job supporting a long lens. And shooting sticks double as walking sticks, too, with the happy consequence that the photographer's helping hand is … well … always in her hand. Rather than in her pack. Guess which is more convenient?

Technique? It couldn't be simpler. Stop walking. Plant shooting stick firmly on the ground. Place lens in yoke. Frame shot. Set exposure (if you're not happy letting the camera do this for you, that is). Press shutter release. Walk on. That's all there is to it.

And the price of this marvelous tool? Ten bucks, give or take. Of course, you can spend more, and you don't have to content yourself with a shooting stick. Many walking sticks and trekking poles now have optional camera mounts, and you can always get an honest‑to‑goodness photographer's monopod, complete with telescoping legs and adjustable head. The cost? How much do you want to spend? Some "professional" models will set you back more than a hundred dollars (US). But you can also pay far less. Just shop around — and don't forget to check your local sporting outfitter.

OK. How do monopods stack up against that gold standard of stability, the tripod? Pretty much as you'd guess. Taken as a class, monopods are …

  • Lighter
  • More compact
  • Cheaper
  • Easier to set up
  • More versatile (tripods make poor walking sticks, after all)

Of course, there's some bad news, too. A tripod rests securely on its own three feet. But a monopod is two legs short of real independence. With just one leg, it can't stand alone. Which is why it will never replace the tripod for many jobs. On the other hand, you're not likely to trip over the monopod's single leg, are you? (Take it from me, it's all too easy to catch one of the extended legs of a tripod with the toe of your boot, and the result is sadly predictable.)

The bottom line? For photographers who like to travel light and fast — and that includes most paddling shutterbugs — the monopod is a hard act to top. We can usually live with its limitations, and we benefit from its light weight and easy stowability every day. That means only one question remains:

How Do I Use This Thing?

It's not rocket science. The key concept is complementarity. A monopod has only one leg. But you have two. One and two makes…? Right. Three. Conclusion? Your legs plus a monopod (almost) add up to a tripod. Here's how the math works out in practice:

Four of the Best

Note the footprints below each sketch, along with the little red dot that marks the position of the monopod's foot. (The blue arrow is a force vector. It shows how to use your weight and the weight of your camera to stabilize the monopod.) As you can see, there's not a lot to learn. Using a monopod is no harder than using a walking stick, and it requires just about as much — or just about as little — thought.

Which stance you choose for any given shot — and these four examples are just that, examples; they don't begin to exhaust the possibilities — will depend on many things. The location of your subject (and whether or not it's moving). The terrain. Even the wind direction. But what do you do with your hands? Well, your right hand holds the camera and operates the shutter. No surprises there. And your left? That depends. If you're using a shooting stick, you'll need to grasp both stick and lens in your left hand, wrapping one or more fingers around the stick's yoke. Exactly how you do this will depend on (1) the size of your hand (and the length of your fingers) and (2) the exact shape of the yoke. One thing is certain, though: It will be easy. And purpose‑built photographer's monopods make the job easier still. The mount holds the camera, leaving your left hand free to find its own position. You'll probably decide to grasp the shaft just beneath the mount and apply gentle downward pressure, ensuring that the monopod's foot is firmly planted. Or you may opt to cradle the camera lens, just as if you were using a shooting stick. The choice is yours. Experiment and see what works best for you.

A few fine points to consider: The stance in Figure 1, above, with the legs of the "tripod" splayed wide, looks solid, and it is. But you'd better be sure that the monopod's foot won't slip, and you'll find panning shots pretty nigh impossible. The alternatives shown in Figures 2–4 are much better in this regard. All allow you to pivot more or less freely at the waist. Yet there are some important differences between them, with the stance in Figure 3 favoring swings to the right, while that shown in Figure 4 is better suited to panning left. Practice, as they say, makes perfect.

And what if you don't want to shoot from a standing position? No problem. Many shooting sticks — and most photographer's monopods — have telescoping shafts. They can be shortened at will. So you're free to kneel or squat:

And Two More for Luck

You'd also be foolish to ignore the assistance which nature freely provides. The photographer in Figure 5 makes use of a tree trunk, while in Figure 6 he takes advantage of a handy boulder. Note that in both cases, his elbows are braced against the inside aspect of his thighs, not resting on the bony prominences of his knees.

Have we finally exhausted the list of possibilities? No way! Monopods are infinitely adaptable. You can even brace one against your own body, …

Belt Up!

Though if your monopod ends in a steel spike you may have second thoughts. If not, however — and many monopods are shod in rubber — your belt and hip both make good supports, as does a coin pocket. A homemade belt pouch would be the ultimate in elegant functionality here. Just use a parade‑ground flag carrier as a model.

Have I persuaded you to give a monopod a try? No? Fair enough. Maybe you're not sure you want to spend any money on yet another piece of gear, at least not until you're convinced it will work for you. Then again, you really don't have to part with a single cent to test‑drive a monopod. There are plenty of …

DIY Alternatives

After all, you can easily press an ordinary walking stick or ski pole into service as a makeshift monopod. A forked thumb stick would be ideal, as would a trekking pole, many of which come with ready‑made camera mounts. Or you can simply pick a stick up along the trail, curling your pinkie and ring finger around the top, while cradling your camera in your thumb, forefinger, and middle finger. It's not a perfect solution, but you can't beat the price. Better yet, keep your eyes peeled for a forked stick. You may decide that this "found" thumb stick is just the ticket. And that's fine. Simplicity and economy are what the monopod is all about.

I Am a Camera

If three legs are good, can one be better? The answer, surprisingly, is yes. At least sometimes. For some photographers. When light weight and convenience mean more than rock‑solid stability, a monopod can easily trump a tripod. So if you're looking for a cheap, convenient way to improve the sharpness of your shots, why not try a monopod? It'll give almost any backcountry photographer a leg up when he (or she) needs it most.



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