Using a Monopod

While landscape photographers believe in using a tripod to keep the camera dead still those of us who specialise in capturing moving subjects, sports and wildlife photographers mostly, prefer to use the single legged version, the monopod.  

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What are the advantages?


The main advantage of a monopod is that it takes the strain out of using a heavy camera and lens all day. My sports set-up is a Nikon D500 body with an additional battery pack coupled with a Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 lens. Put that lot on the scales and it’s about four and a half kilograms. I’m not an athlete, I'm an old guy and I don’t put the time in on weight training. I can’t be bearing that weight all day. What’s more, I might be carrying a second camera with a wider 70-200mm lens so that’s another two kilos.
It’s not just carrying the camera around. I can’t hold the heavy camera up to my eye for all that long either, certainly not for the duration of a game (and some days I do several).


The other advantage is stability. With the monopod connecting the lens solidly to the ground it’s easier to keep the camera steady so you get sharper pictures. This particularly applies when the action is further away (at the other end of the field perhaps) and any movement in the camera is exaggerated by the telephoto effect.


And the disadvantages?


As I said, the extra stability that the monopod provides is helpful when your subject is far away. When things get closer and the action’s crossing your field of view then having the lens fixed to a point makes it harder to rotate as you track your subject. Rather than just turning your head and shoulders to follow the subject you have to move yourself in the opposite direction as you turn the lens. With all that twisting about the next thing you’ll struggle with is keeping a level horizon as you shoot.


Apart from that, when you’re moving about you have a long pole with a weight at one end. You need to take care to keep it out of the way of people you’re passing. (Sorry to anyone who I’ve ever hit accidentally with mine.)


Tips on using a monopod


You can shoot with the camera and monopod from any position, standing, seated, crouching, kneeling, even lying on the ground. They’re made so it’s easy to adjust the length to suit.


It’s a lot easier to use the monopod if your telephoto lens has a collar and tripod mount so that the support is near the centre of balance. Many kit lenses don’t have a tripod mount so the only option is to connect the monopod onto the base of the camera body. This will provide the weight bearing okay but it makes the camera more awkward to handle.


To combat the problem of restricting movement I mentioned as a disadvantage I tend to keep the monopod slightly shorter than is ideal to keep the camera at eye level. When the action gets close I can straighten from my slightly stooped position, lift the whole thing off the ground and use the camera fully handheld for a short time. Sometimes I don’t have time to switch to my second camera and this lets me frame a photo properly.


As I said, the big lens I use is a 120-300mm zoom and I normally keep my left hand on the zoom ring below or at the side of the lens so I can make sideways movements easily as well as work the zoom.
An alternative, which is used more by wildlife photographers, is to place the left hand on top of the lens and press down. This can provide a little extra stability and help to produce a sharper picture as long as your subject stays still. It’s a little harder to control a panning motion this way.
The third option, better for panning, is one I've learned from motorsport photographers who have to track cars as they pass across their field of view at speed. It involves gripping the front of the lens hood rather than the lens itself. The extra leverage gives more control when you want to follow a subject moving horizontally.


I usually sit on a stool at the pitchside, shooting with my big lens on the monopod. When the action gets closer I have to make a switch and grab my second camera with a wider angle lens. I've seen some photographers turn their camera through 180° so they can rest the big lens out of the way on their shoulder. That's a technique I haven't mastered. I just let the camera drop to my left while I keep the monopod held firmly between my legs so it doesn't fall to the ground. I can then take the second camera from my right.


Any buying advice?


If you'll only use a monopod occasionally many tripods come with one leg which can be removed and converted to monopod use. You get two gadgets for the price of one.


Don't buy too light a monopod. They're mostly made of lightweight carbon fibre which is strong enough. It's the joints which will end up failing if your camera's too heavy.


Talking of the joints, the locks used to adjust the height of the monopod are either twist locks or flip locks. My preference is for the flip locks with levers, I think they're easier to maintain.


Most monopods come in three, four or even five sections. Fewer sections mean there are less bits to go wrong. However more sections mean the monopod will retract down to a shorter length and might actually fit in your case.


Monopods, like tripods, screw into a mount on the base of the lens or camera. If you use one a lot the addition of a simple quick release plate is well worth it.


Once the lockdown is over I'm planning to produce a few photos to illustrate this article.