A monopod is a camera support which is a single pole. It is similar to an individual leg of a tripod, usually having the ability to expand and collapse, with twist locks or lever clamps. Some monopods have special supports near the foot, which extend out to give added stability.
A monopod has the benefits, compared to a tripod, of being lighter, more compact, and more agile. They are best used when you need to frequently or quickly move around. They are also useful when ground space is limited, such as in a crowded or confined area, for example a zoo, or heavily traveled park. Some locations may prohibit the use of tripods, but may allow monopods, but this is less common in nature photography. When in doubt, always check these rules with the site manager before going to a location.
The drawbacks of monopods, compared to tripods or other supports, are that they are less stable, less sturdy, and require constant energy to hold and control them. They are not ideal for situations where you will be in one spot for a long time, such as when waiting for wildlife. They are not at all suitable for photography which requires slow shutter speeds, or an extremely still camera, such as high quality landscape photography, or natural-light macro photography. They are also more challenging to use with larger lens, such as super telephotos. Another consideration is that monopods may easily sink into soft ground, such as mud and snow; in conditions such as those, a tripod is a better option (preferably with special feet, such as baskets or cups).
Monopods, as with tripods, can be comprised of a variety of materials; they may be aluminum, carbon fiber, or other materials, and may have rubber or foam grips near the top. Better quality monopods will be more sturdy, with less flexibility in the columns and joints.
Some monopods have a stud mount, directly atop the pole, for the camera to attach to. These are not recommended, because the camera and lens cannot be aimed without tilting the monopod itself. Better monopods will come with a dedicated head, usually a pan and tilt style. The best monopods will usually be sold separately, with a variety of compatible head options available. A head with a quick-release clamp and plate system is best, for ease and speed of setup, disconnect, and swapping camera and lens combinations. It will also reduce wear on the mounting threads and hardware of the head and camera or lens.
A pan and tilt head is generally the best option for a monopod, because, compared to other head styles, it offers the most stability, and least risk of inadvertent “camera flop” (the camera and lens accidentally falling to the side, front, or back, which may cause serious damage to them, the monopod, or both, and may also injure the user by pinching their fingers). This is especially true for heaver camera and lens combinations, such as telephotos.
Ballheads and gimbal heads are not advisable for use on a monopod, as they are more difficult to effectively and safely operate, while, at the same time, holding the monopod. Due to the decreased stability of a monopod, as compared to a tripod, the ballhead and gimbal heads can easily become unbalanced, leading to camera flop.
For large and heavy camera and lens setups, especially large telephotos, it is highly recommended to purchase a very good quality, very sturdy monopod and head. The monopod leg should be thick and rigid, with secure locks, and a lower number of column sections are best (three, or four at most). When selecting a pan and tilt head, you must account for the added torsion and leverage of a longer lens, which extends away from the head – this requires a head rated for more load than the actual weight of the camera and lens.
There are correct, and incorrect, techniques for holding and using a monopod. The worst method is to hold the monopod straight up and down, away from the body. The most stable methods involve angling or tilting the monopod against the user’s body, creating more of a tripod configuration. The monopod leg may also be wedged or angled between the user’s legs or a foot. (Example images or graphics to be uploaded in the future – until then, try an internet search for “proper monopod technique”)