Tripod vs. Monopod

The other day there was a question over at one of the Flickr forums, asking: What is the best method to keep the camera steady – tripod or monopod?

The answer depends, as always, on your suggested use for the pod. (It’s not that monopods are for poor people who can’t afford a tripod.)

When to shoot from hand?

This is the first question to be answered when discussing monopods or tripods. In general, you can shoot anything from hand that follows the golden rule of “1/(focal length) sec”. An example to illustrate this rule: if the focal length is 100 mm, camera shake typically occurs at exposure times longer than 1/100 sec, e.g. at 1/80 sec or 1/50 sec or 1/40 sec.

When you are using a crop sensor, you’ll need to work with the corrected focal length, e.g. 1.3 crop factor on a 100 mm lens = 130 mm, i.e. anything below 1/130 might be affected to camera shake.

Finally, an image stabilizer on the lens or the camera improves this value by the factor of about 3 to 4. Let’s stay on the safe side here, and assume it’s just 3. So, when you are shooting with a 100 mm image stabilizer lens on a 1.3 crop body, you should at least use an exposure time of (1/(100*1.3))*3 = (1/130)*3 = 3/130 = 1/43. In other words: you should be fine with an exposure time of 1/40 sec or 1/50 sec or shorter.

Please keep this in mind when evaluating the options for monopods and tripods.

Monopod

I use a monopod only for situations where I need to make a compromise between “freedom to move” and “rock steady camera”, i.e. when I have to use the available light in a dynamic environment, preventing the use of a (more solid!) tripod.

Examples

1) Weddings. Often, flashlights are not allowed in churches, as they disturb the ceremony. Also, available light usually results in very natural and emotional pictures capturing the mood much better. No problem with a monopod. I can move around quickly without annoying anybody, and shoot from a distance, usually with either the 70-200 mm or the 100-400 mm image stabilizer lens.

2) Sports. Most sports are made of dynamic situations requiring quick decisions, i.e. someone is moving, and you are following him closely with your telephoto lens, say anywhere between 200 and 600 mm. You can hardly hold these heavy focal lengths steady enough to do one shot from hand (unless it has a built-in image stabilizer), let alone over a longer time. The monopod provides the freedom to move and takes off the weight from the photographer while at the same time reducing camera shake.

Tripod

I use a tripod for all other situations where the available light prevents shots from hand but you have enough time to prepare the shot. It is usually more cumbersome to build up, but offers better stability compared to the monopod.

Examples

1) Long time exposures. Clearly, anything beyond 1 sec exposure time can not be shot from hand and should not be shot with a monopod. You’ll always need a solid tripod or something to put the camera on (if you want the photo to be sharp).

2) Portraits at available light at superb image quality. You typically would use a portrait lens (135 mm) at ISO 100 and, say f 5.6, with a flashlight as filler. Even under good light conditions, this quickly brings you into a situation where the camera suggests 1/80 sec or 1/100 sec exposure time. So there is the risk of having too much camera shake. A tripod gets rid of this risk.

Happy ‘podding everybody!

3 Responses to “Tripod vs. Monopod”

  1. Monopod User says:

    interesting article.

    as mentioned there is no right solution for everyone. choosing between the two should depend on the type of shots you do. more serious photographers will likely have a need for both…!

  2. TriMono Guy says:

    Ideally if you do a range of photography, you will find you need a monopod or tripod in different situations. If you can afford it, get the two. Break a bank account !!!

  3. Willoughbys says:

    A tripod is better in terms of camera stability. Monopods are best used for folks who shoot on the move and who need a more stable platform than
    shooting handheld. So, basically it depends on how you shoot, what you shoot, and how you get there.