As much as we would like to take our tripods everywhere, it is not always possible. Stands at stadiums, game fields or courts, rinks, race tracks and theaters, are off limits for tripods -or should be, to avoid accidents of people tripping, fights about it, legal disputes, liability claims and/or making a lifetime enemy. It is just not worth it.
For image sharpness, the best next thing after vises is sandbags, then tripods, then monopods, and at the very low end of the scale, handholding. Sandbags, now substituted by beanbags, need a good flat area to rest, like the hood of a car. So unless in a safari that is seldom convenient for most purposes.
Since we've done tripods, let's do monopods.
Like tripods, monopods come in several flavors. In general you want the sturdiest possible monopod with the smallest number of sections and the shortest length when collapsed. Trade-offs have to be made, but if a monopod flexes when you lean on it, it wont help much for sharp images; and if it bends when you fall on top of it on a trail, your first impulse will be to throw it down the closest cliff.
a) Materials. Although I have one that feels like plumbing steel pipe, aluminum and CF (carbon fiber) are the typical materials in the market; however, after I tried the heftiest of the Gitzo carbon fiber monopods I really don't want to use anything else.
As in CF tripods, there are also good savings in weight when it comes to good CF monopods. For those in the high load capacity class, they are really very light weight for the loads they can take.
Yes, aluminum gives you lower prices (so far); however, carbon fiber gives you the safety of better vibration dampening. In aluminum, what you save in price you usually spend in frustration for insufficient sturdiness if you don't choose one with a high load capacity; what you gain in vibration dampening with the carbon fibers you pay in cost, but the usual premium benefit is added strength and sturdiness. And a monopod you can lean on.
If you are an infrequent monopod user and don't to spend much, get a robust Manfrotto aluminum one, like the 681B or the more compact 680B. No way to go wrong on that. They are one of the preferred choices of working sports photographers.
b) Number of leg sections. The ideal would be the least possible number, however a compromise has to be made to allow for a reasonable collapsed size without loosing rigidity. If too long it becomes cumbersome to carry it around and it will stay home. The most frequently found monopods amongst advanced amateur and professional Nikonians can be compared in the table below:
Carbon Fiber (CF)
* As of June 2012 at major online retailers in the USA and the PhotoProShop
You may ask: why the prices are so different between carbon fiber (CF) and aluminum? And more important: is a CF monopod worth it? The short answer is: yes, otherwise they wouldn't be selling as much as they do. Is there a status reason behind such purchases? Yes and no. Yes in the sense that owners take pride in owning one, but when asked about the main motivator, quality and durability were the factors most often mentioned. Owners of CF monopods, also own CF tripods, so they are obviously familiar with the materials characteristics. Plus, if you are very tall, there are no other choices for this quality level.
Let's compare the above monopods load capacities to those of tripods:
25Kg / 55lbs is the load capacity of the new GM5541 monopod and also of the Series 5 tripods, recommended for the maximum load of a pro body with lenses such as the 400mm f/2.8 AF-S or the 600mm f/4 AF-S Nikkor and tele converter. And the monopod does it on a single leg. The Gitzo GM5541 CF monopod is now used daily by pro sports photographers with the heaviest setups. This is the one I use now.
18Kg / 39.6lbs is the load capacity of the new GM3551 carbon fiber monopod and for the now very popular Series 3 CF tripods; recommended for up to a pro body and lenses such as the 200-40mm f/4G ED IF AF-S VR and the 500mm f/4 with tele converter. Again, same load capacity than the corresponding tripods, on a single leg.
Are there lighter and smaller monopods? Sure. But, why get anything below those load capacities when they give the best sense of sturdiness and reliability, are so light and collapse to a comfortable size? Unless of course you have committed yourself to using very light bodies (including your own ;)) with small lenses.
Are there cheaper alternatives? Yes. However, one usually gets what one pays for.
What to look for:
- Maximum height. Like with tripods, the ideal height is at least that which will allow you to bring your camera’s viewfinder to eye level. A few extra inches always help.
- Collapsed size. This is getting more and more important if you travel with your monopod and you plan on packing it in your suitcase or carrying it in a backpack.
- Load capacity. With anything above a P&S camera, make sure the monopod’s load capacity is at least two and a half times the weight of your heaviest gear. To be safe, the same applies to any head to be used. The ideal is three times.
- Interchangeable leg tip. To be able to switch between rubber leg tips (when over tile or carpet) and spikes (when in the field) is a real plus; you are then ready to take on any type of surface or terrain. Or you can just have heavy duty rubber caps for your spikes.
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