Monopods come in a wide assortment of shapes and sizes, with a multitude of features, so selecting the correct monopod isn't always straightforward. In this article we'll take a quick look at some of the key attributes and features you should be aware of before purchasing your next monopod.
Size and Weight
Three monopods are shown in the image above, from top to bottom we have the Manfrotto 685B NeoTec, a 20+ year old Manfrotto 079, and the tiny Jobu Designs Monopod. As you'll notice, the Jobu is significantly smaller than the other two, and thanks to its Carbon Fiber construction it is also a lot lighter. If you need a monopod that will pack well and is easy to carry, the Jobu is a clear winner in our small sample. If you are shooting with telephoto lenses on the sidelines of a football game, size and weight become a lot less important.
The other thing to consider is the maximum height of the monopod - if fully extended it isn't tall enough to put your viewfinder at eye-level, then it's too short. If you ever shoot on rough ground or hill sides, having a monopod that is a few inches taller is essential.
Material vs. Price
Carbon Fiber monopods tend to be a lot more expensive than their aluminum counterparts (for the record, the two Manfrotto's pictured above are both aluminum). Carbon Fiber is also a lot lighter, and normally has better vibration dampening properties than aluminum. If you have the budget, a Carbon Fiber monopod has clear advantages. However Aluminum monopods still produce stellar results, the Manfrotto 079 has traveled widely with me over the past couple of decades and is still going strong. At the time of writing, the modern equivalent of the Manfrotto 079 runs about $60, the NeoTec around $140, and the Jobu $150.
Typically a monopod has either a 1/4"x20 or 3/8"x16 tripod stud on the top. Most cameras have a 1/4"x20 socket in the bottom, however if you are going to put some kind of monopod head on the monopod (hint: you should), then heads typically have the 3/8"x16 socket instead. Most monopods can handle both sizes. For example, the Manfrotto 079 has a 1/4"x20 as pictured below, but comes with an adapter that converts it to 3/8"x16.
The NeoTec features a thumb wheel to screw into the tripod socket of the camera or head (so you don't have to physically spin the camera round), with a 1/4" stud inside the 3/8" stud, so it automagically sizes itself to the correct size:
The Jobu has a reversible stud, 3/8" on one side (shown below) and 1/4" on the other. A wrench is required to swap it over:
The other consideration is how the monopod prevents the camera/head from accidentally twisting loose. The Manfrotto 079 relies on a soft cork layer, a method used for decades. The NeoTec has a rubber pad, and thanks to the thumb-wheel turning the stud, it allows a very tight grip on the camera. The Jobu however relies on 3 screws, which are tightened with a hex key from below, to ensure an extremely solid fit:
Because of this, the Jobu is perfect for attaching a monopod head to, making a connection that is virtually impossible to accidentally twist off, but less than ideal if you want to mount a camera directly to it.
On the opposite end of the monopod is the foot. Typically a monopod will either have a rubber pad or a spike. The picture below shows the rubber pad on the bottom of the Jobu. The Manfrotto 079 has a similar pad, but it should be noted 2010 and later Jobu monopods have a foot that can be turned over to reveal a spike (the picture here is of a 2009 model).
The NeoTec however has a larger rubber pad on a joint (so it can be easily angled), which also screws upwards to reveal a spike:
Note the NeoTec is notorious for the rubber pad coming off and getting lost - the picture above shows a Custom Brackets Foot Shield installed, which prevents this from happening. The NeoTec also has another feature - a fold-down foot pedal that you can stand on to make sure the bottom of the monopod doesn't move:
Obviously different types of monopod feet have different uses - you certainly wouldn't want to use a spiked foot on your new wood floor, but out in the wild the spike could be a big advantage.
Leg Section Locking Mechanisms
The Manfrotto 079 uses tried and tested levers to lock/release the leg sections, as shown below. On this particular monopod, these locks have been used for over 20 years and are still going strong. However they have on occasion taken a chunk of flesh out of a finger, usually in the extreme cold, and have been known to snag on things when pulling the monopod out of a car or gear bag:
The Jobu uses much nicer twist locks, similar to the modern Gitzo's, which neither snag or bite:
The NeoTec uses a more innovative design - a pistol grip. To expand the monopod you also have to use the foot pedal (see previous section), but with a little practice the NeoTec is easily the fastest monopod of this group to open, close or adjust.
Number of Leg Sections
Most monopods have either 3 or 4 leg sections. 4-section monopods (like the Jobu) make for more compact packages for travel, but often 3-section monopods offer slightly (emphasis on the 'slightly') better stability and faster operation due to having less joints. Of the three monopods here, the Jobu is definitely the most stable, (in its defense, the Manfrotto 079 does have 20 years use and a lot of wear on the joints), but the Jobu isn't going to be as stable as a heavy duty 3-section Gitzo Monopod if you are using a 600mm f/4.
There is no perfect monopod, your first question needs to be "how am I going to be using the monopod?" If you are going to be shooting big heavy telephotos on the sidelines of an NFL game, then you want a big, heavy duty monopod for maximum stability. If you travel extensively and size and weight are a premium, something small and carbon fiber (like the Jobu featured here) is about perfect. If you are in a fast-paced studio or location environment and are constantly changing your shooting height, then the Manfrotto NeoTec is going to be pretty hard to beat speed wise.
Hopefully this article has given you plenty to think about when it comes to selecting the correct monopod for your application, however the just as important is what kind of head are you going to put on it? You also need to make sure you budget accordingly. We'll address the critical question of Choosing a Monopod Head in our next article. In the mean time, probably the best selection of monopods can be found at B&H Photo.