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 …
- More compact
- 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: