One of my most-used and most-relied-on photography accessories is a monopod. When I want to support a camera, either because it is heavy and/or because I want to keep it steadier than when handheld, while retaining maximum mobility and setup speed, I very often opt for a monopod. Most frequently my monopod use is in conjunction with wildlife and sports photography. For the last year, my most-used monopod was the Really Right Stuff MC-34. It's awesome — I'll tell you about it.
As already hinted, there are two primary reasons for using a monopod. The first is to stabilize a camera and lens, enabling better image quality from both image sharpness and ideal composition perspectives. The other reason is to support the weight of the camera.
Even cameras that are handholdable can get heavy after a period of time and "Just because you can doesn't mean that you should" is a statement I pull out frequently. Especially strong young photographers should heed the wisdom that says taking care of yourself now will pay dividends when you are older. Holding a heavy camera and lens for long periods of time (and the definition of "long" as used here becomes quite short with some of the biggest lenses) will take its toll on your body and a monopod can greatly improve the health of your shoulders, back, etc. now and for many years to come. Yes, a monopod may slow you down (vs. shooting handheld), but sometimes those who last the longest get the best shots.
Tripods provide better stability, allow for hands-free use, and are less tiring in use (keeping one's own body still is not so important when using a tripod), but with 2/3 fewer legs to height-adjust and no legs required to be separated or closed, a monopod is much faster to move, set up, and adjust. When photographing action, including wildlife and sports, those latter attributes very frequently mean the difference between getting the shot or not.
Two more primary reasons to use a monopod over a tripod are the smaller size and the lighter weight (math would say it is roughly 1/3 as big and heavy). A bonus is that a monopod also makes a nice handle for carrying a camera and it simplifies over-the-shoulder carry.
Currently, I think the Really Right Stuff MC-34 Mk2 Monopod is the best available.
At the top of the monopod is the upper disc. The Really Right Stuff MC-34 Monopod's aluminum upper disc measures 2.088" (53.0 mm) in diameter and as you likely guessed from the word "disc", it is round, which is a comfortable-to-the-hand shape. Round is also indifferent to the rotational position of anything mounted on it. The top surface area of the disc measures very slightly narrower, 1.994" (50.6mm). The disc is removable (allows the hand strap to be removed) with retaining/set screws provided to keep it tightly attached.
This monopod is available in the popular 3/8"-16 screw size and separately with a 1/4"-20 screw.
I mount a Really Right Stuff Lever-Release Clamp on my monopod, allowing me to quickly attach any plate-equipped camera. Unless I expect to be photographing at a strong upward or downward angle, I direct mount the camera or lens to the monopod.
If strong shooting angles are expected or more versatility is desired, most tripod heads, most notably monopod-specific heads, can be attached directly to the monopod (check out the Wimberley MH-100 MonoGimbal Gimbal Monopod Head for larger lenses). With the quick release clamp mounted on my tripod, I can quick-attach my dovetail base monopod head to this clamp for convenient optional use. Attach a dovetail plate to any tripod head and it too can be quick-attached.
Under the top disc is an adjustable wrist strap. While some may find monopod straps useful, I find them to frequently get in the way and always end up removing them. The strap simply slips off when the upper disc is removed.
The apex is important because it holds everything together. The RRS apex is CNC machined aluminum that is type-3 anodized. It is smooth/comfortable, solid, and looks great.
Really Right Stuff carbon fiber monopods use the same carbon fiber tubes as their tripod siblings and that is a very positive feature. These tubes are strong, light, and feel great in hand.
Carbon fiber monopods are typically modestly lighter than equally-weight-rated aluminum models and this one weighs in at 1.5 lb (667g). At least as important is that carbon fiber better dampens vibrations than aluminum. Aluminum dents and bends, but carbon fiber breaks. Neither is good and the latter is less likely, but dented and/or bent may remain usable.
Carbon fiber does not transfer heat as easily as aluminum, making carbon fiber more skin-friendly while photographing in temperature extremes. However, monopods typically have a rubber grip surface that minimizes this differentiator. The MC-34 has a large rubber grip surface on the upper tube that provides sure control over the monopod and attached camera. The rubberized surface is slightly soft in feel and I was initially concerned about it holding up long term. That fear was apparently unwarranted.
I frequently use monopods as a carry handle, even for large camera and lens combinations, and this grip surface works fine for this purpose.
Increase the number of leg sections and more height and/or a more compact retracted size is generally the outcome.
This is a 4-section model with a 21.6" (549mm) retracted/minimum height. Especially when shooting sports, I usually opt for a low-to-the-ground position, making the players appear large-in-life and pushing the background farther away for a stronger blur and the MC-34 works great for this use. Note that when shooting from a low position for extended periods of time, especially when photographing sports, I usually sit on a retracted Walkstool that becomes something like a human monopod, allowing me to pivot my seat around the monopod in comfort.
The MC-34 extends to a 67.3" (170.8cm) maximum height. With the camera's viewfinder rising well above this height, I find this MC-34's max height adequate for photographing upwards from a comfortable standing position (I'm 6' / 1.8m). A monopod that extends the viewfinder above eye level is also important when shooting on a downward-sloping hillside, from stairs, etc.
Extended, this monopod is very rigid, including laterally.
Relevant to the leg section discussion are the locks that hold the leg sections together. The twist-lock-type leg locks featured on RRS monopods are my strong preference over flip locks, the other common option. I like the quietness and speed of twist locks and slowly tightening the last leg section as the camera is being lowered to the desired shooting height works great.
Again, RRS uses the same twist locks on their monopods as on their tripods and as of review time, I've not used another leg lock that compares in terms of quality. These locks are high-grade and well-built, featuring metal construction and an extremely-short-rotation between the locked and unlocked positions. You will especially love the latter feature that speeds setup (important for getting a shot fast).
The more leg locks a monopod has, the more leg locks there are to tighten and loosen. Four-section monopods with three leg locks have the advantage of all leg locks fitting into a hand, allowing a single twist to open or lock all at once when retracted, another speed gain.
Important is that all leg Locks can be loosened and re-tightened in any order because of an anti-leg-rotation feature. This is another feature that I would struggle to give up.
New with RRS' Mk2 tripod and monopod leg locks are O-ring seals, helping to keep the environment from entering the locks.
Leg locks are often a limiting factor in a support's load capacity. This monopod is load capacity rated at 50lb (23kg) and it easily holds the rated load. One of the leg locks on my monopod starts slipping with roughly 150 lbs (68 kg) of weight applied. That is an excessive amount of weight in terms of camera gear, but I often use a monopod for support when crossing streams, climbing banks, etc. I expected this monopod to easily support my entire body weight, but perhaps I need to clean the first-slipping lock. I have regularly been using 600mm f/4 lenses on this monopod with no capacity issues experienced.
The foundation of the MC-34 is the all-purpose, teardrop-shaped, large diameter, rubber ball foot that has worked great in a wide variety of environments. RRS has optional metal spike and rock claw feet available for more extreme outdoor needs.
Ask a group of knowledgeable photographers which support manufacturers produce the highest quality products and expect that list of answers to be dominated by Really Right Stuff. This company continuously designs best-available products that live up to their name. You probably have invested a lot in the camera and lens you will be mounting on top of the monopod and a monopod failure could be very costly, so quality construction should be high on your monopod requirements list.
Buying the best usually means a higher price and RRS prices are indeed high. Quality has a cost and my strong opinion is that quality is worth the cost for camera support gear, including monopods. Monopods have 1/3 as many legs as tripods and they typically cost just over 1/3 as much. This means the price disparity between cheap monopods and the expensive ones is not as great as with tripods, and that helps justify buying a high grade model.
I personally purchased the Really Right Stuff MC-34 Monopod used for this review online/retail.
Do you get tired holding your camera and lens?
Do you need assistance in holding your camera and lens steady?
Do you need to hold a camera steady at a no-tripod venue?
Do you photograph sports?
Do you photograph wildlife?
Do you need a compact camera support that is fast to deploy?
If you answered yes to any of these questions (and even if you did not), you may need a monopod.
With photography being a major part of my job and camera and lens performance evaluation being primary, I opt for the best-available supports and right now, the Really Right Stuff MC-34 Monopod is my current choice.
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