Although less exciting than camera bodies and lenses, tripods and monopods have earned their place on the list of essential gear for photographers. Whether you shoot stills or video, using a tripod or monopod will allow you to stabilize your camera and minimize (or fully eliminate) camera shake. While both pieces of gear offer invaluable support, each features unique traits that make it better than the other in certain situations.
In this article, we’ll outline the similarities and differences of tripods vs. monopods (as well as the tripod heads that hold your camera) so that you’ll know when to use each.
We’ve all seen photographers use tripods before, and chances are we’ve tried using one ourselves. They are ubiquitous. You can easily spot their familiar shape, a teepee of three spindly legs with a camera mounted on top. Most tripods consist of the following parts:
- Release plate
- Tripod head
- Center column (depends on the model)
- Three height-adjustable legs with rubber feet
As you probably could have guessed, not all tripods are created equally. You can find a list of our favorite tripods here. Basically, when choosing a tripod, you’ll need to consider the following factors:
- Purpose: For macro, still life, studio, and landscape photography, tripods reign supreme, although they can be used for any genre. Tripods also work best for slow shutter speeds (aka shutter drags) and time lapses because of the literal stand-alone stability they provide. You’ll notice that most of these pros for tripods deal with time and come in handy when more time is available. Compared to monopods, tripods generally take longer to set up.
- Size & Weight: While you can find small, lightweight table top and travel tripods, most full frame tripods weigh in on the heavier side (4-8 pounds), especially when compared to monopods (1-4 pounds, depending on the head and base). This can make a noticeable difference when it comes to portability and versatility in the field. The three legs also create a larger footprint and can make it difficult to set up in tight or crowded spaces.
- Load Capacity: Tripods are generally rated to hold anywhere between 15-50 pounds (this varies depending on the make and model). When it comes to being able to walk away from your camera, you’ll want a tripod. In all actuality, we don’t recommend walking away from a monopod, even one equipped with a sturdy base.
- Durability: Options exist for carbon fiber, aluminum, plastic, and other metals. The material used to make the tripod has much to do with its durability (as well as its weight). It’s worth noting that there are still variations within a single type (such as carbon fiber) in relation to which company made the tripod. This is one instance where more reputable brands tend to produce more durable products. Keep that in mind when considering a no-name carbon fiber tripod vs. an aluminum tripod from an established, reputable brand.
- Price: Entry-level prices start around $50 and shoot upwards to $3k-$4k for higher end models.
[Related Reading: 6 Artistic Photo Effects Using Tripods]
Whereas tripods have three (tri) legs, a monopod has one leg. Most other features are the same (release plate, tripod head, adjustable sections for height, and a foot). The feet on a monopod vary from a single spike or rubber foot to a miniature tripod base. In addition to supporting cameras, monopods work very well as a “boom stick” for off-camera flash due to their smaller size, light weight, and overall portability.
Just like the tripods, you can find many makes and models for monopods. Before you purchase a monopod, consider the following factors:
- Purpose: Monopods are all about portability and speed. They provide less stability due to their single point of contact on the ground (even with a mini tripod base), but they’re still better than handheld. Monopods are the go-to for action and sports photographers for lightweight, small size, and ease of use. Because they’re less stable than tripods, they are not ideal for use with long exposure photography.
- Size & Weight: Monopods are lighter and smaller than tripods, and they tend to be quicker and easier to set up. They range in height from 24″-80″ (which is adjustable) and weigh between 1-4 pounds.
- Load Capacity: Monopods can hold a surprisingly high weight capacity (some models can hold over 50 pounds, depending on the head used with the monopod), which is impressive considering the low weight of the monopod itself.
- Durability: This topic basically echoes what we had to say about durability when it comes to tripods. You’ll find monopods made of carbon fiber, aluminum, plastic, and other metals. Keep in mind the brand when trying to decide which model will last longer.
- Price: Monopod prices start around $15 and range all the way up to $500+ with the head included.
[Related Reading: Steadicam Air 25 Monopod Review: Is it Worth $500?]
Tripod (or Monopod) Heads
You can find a wide variety of heads to use on both tripods and monopods. As you’ll find, some photographers from different genres favor some heads over others based on the precision of their movement as well as their complexity (or lack thereof). Others concentrate on their load capacity; regardless, the purpose of a tripod head or monopod head remains the same: provide a means of attaching your camera to a tripod/monopod.
Here’s a quick overview of the different types of tripod (or monopod) heads:
- Ball Head: As the name suggests, you’ll find a ball housed within this head and a knob to tighten and loosen it accordingly. You may also find other knobs to adjust a panning axis or increase the friction for more precise positioning. Ball heads work well for most genres of photography.
- 3-Way | Pan & Tilt Head: 3-way heads come equipped with three handles, which you can use to adjust three axes: vertical, horizontal, and panning. You’ll find these heads used in most every genre of photography with heavy usage among landscape photographers.
- Gear Head: These function similarly to a 3-way head, but repositioning the head requires making individual adjustments via the gears. On the plus side, the gears allow for precise repositioning. Unfortunately, they’re also time-consuming and complex.
- Gimbal Head: You’ll mostly find these in the hands of wildlife and sports photographers, or anyone using especially large telephoto lenses. These heads usually attach to the lens, rather than the camera like most tripod heads, and they allow for quick panning motion to track fast moving objects like birds, athletes, and so on.
- Pistol (Grip) Head: These tripod heads are all about speed, which is great for wildlife and sports photographers, but they don’t hold much weight, literally. They operate much like a ball head, but they come equipped with a squeezable pistol grip for repositioning as opposed to an adjustable knob.
[Related Reading: Simple Photography Tips | What Tripod Head Is Right for Me?]
I hope you enjoyed this article on monopods vs. tripods and when to use each. In short, tripods generally work best for macro, still life, studio, and landscape photographers while monopods are the go-to for sports, action, and wildlife photographers.
Anytime we’re faced with an abundance of choices when it comes to gear, it can be difficult to know where to start in terms of what to buy and for what purpose. While there are similarities between tripods vs. monopods, they each stand on their own for very specific applications, as outlined above. As we also discussed, tripod heads also come in a range of styles and sizes in order to serve different purposes.
There will always be tradeoffs, such as stability for versatility. Most beginning photographers, however, base their decisions on price and aim for affordability over functionality. At the end of the day, the point of purchasing gear is to allow us to do with it what we couldn’t do without it. For tripods and monopods, that means creating a stable platform to allow for shake-free, quality footage using our cameras and lenses, whatever their weight and size.
Before you pull the trigger and purchase a tripod or monopod, check the specs and do not settle for less than what you need, even if it costs a little more. Chances are, the more reputable and reliable gear will save you money in the long run.