Handheld, Monopods, and Stable Shooting

In the current world of brushless motors, 4 axis stabilizers and gimbals galore, it’s easy to forget about the humble monopod. As its name may suggest, monopods sound like unitaskers; one telescopic pole, one singular utility. To be honest, it’s easy to write off the simple monopod as a photographer’s tool with no place in the world of filmmaking but I contest otherwise. In my world, that single inexpensive tube-in-a-tube-in-a-tube can result in tremendous shots. They aren’t for every project, or even every shot, but for the run and gun shooter or many handheld situations, they can be extremely useful.

First Use: As Intended.

Oftentimes, on the shoestring-budget project, one might find themselves having to move quickly, or in a position where a large tripod may be cumbersome or inadvisable (for instance, in city streets or tight crowds). These days cameras ranging in quality all the way up to the ubiquitous bar of the RED are light enough to fly on a gimbal, meaning that even the most inexpensive monopod (we like this one from Manfrotto for $13, which we’ve tested well above the rated 3lb capacity) can actually handle the load quite nicely. You’ll always be better served with a monopod that has a fluid head for this type of shooting (for instance this one from Benro), but even support from something as basic as that Manfrotto mono is better than going straight handheld. I actually prefer shooting on a monopod to shoulder-mount as it’s steadier and easier on your back/neck, something that the veteran cinematographer can tell you is worth protecting. I’ve found this method also makes handling auxillary accessories (monitors etc) easier as the natural resting place of the camera is right in front of you, instead of stuck by your head.

Second Use: The “Steadipod.”

This trick (as well as the next one) was originated on a Canon C-Series camera but can be adapted to Mirrorless/DSLRs. We’ve also tried it on an AF100. The aim of this trick is to try to mimic the likes of a Steadicam in low mode. What you do is take that Manfrotto mono (or similar 1/4″ monopod) and screw it into the top handle and hold it from there, your arms acting like the Steadicam vest arm. The idea is that, by having all the weight at the bottom of the system, the need for an upper counterbalance is lessened as the physics of the rig turn the camera into a pendulum, which is theoretically more stable than the otherwise top-heavy configuration of a monopod or shoulder rig. This method is no where near perfect, but it’ll work in a pinch if you’re attentive. You can adjust how high off the ground the camera is by extending the monopod, obviously, but the main concern here is bounce: if the camera itself is too front-heavy, for instance due to a mattebox, you may see jitter depending on how you hold/walk with this setup. Lighter Camera = Less Jitter. The aim of the game is to have the center-of-balance be over the sensor and not too far off to any particular side.

Third Use: The “Mohawk.”

This is where the wee monopod truly shines. I figured this out while spending two weeks in Colorado running-and-gunning for a project with Echo Tours. I was inside, outside, in the snow, the edge of 30′ bonfires, and everything in between and I always reverted to this configuration. Instead of holding the monopod out in front of you like a Steadicam, what I do is have one hand on the top or side handle, which is angled horizontally, one hand on the left mattebox rail, and place the “top” of the monopod (traditionally the bottom) near my temple/back of my head to where I’m almost holding the ‘pod like a cell phone with my shoulder. This method of use is truly a hidden weapon, as you’re now adding that crucial third point of contact required for steady shooting (you always need to have three or more stable points of contact to be considered a steady shot), but your own body is the vessel for all three points therefore keeping you mobile and very, very steady. Now the caveat here is that I like to shoot low, so this method is tailored to my style of shooting, but I knew it would be worth sharing after the response we got from the Lamont Holt/Andre Hando video “Ahlido” from Reddit, where one of the main questions was “what stabilizer did you use?” The answer to that question, somewhat humorously, is “warp.” Premiere’s Warp Stabilizer was set to 3% for the entire clip, and I shot in the “Mohawk” configuration with the C100mkII. You can see that video here. Additionally, the REASON ONE x MOVEMBER video was shot this way, as well as the “Snodaze Tour” video with Captiva.

So, what if you don’t have a top-handle or hotshoe with a 1/4″ female thread embedded in it? Fear not! This simple adapter will put that crucial screw hole into the hotshoe of ANY camera that has one. So, all in, you potentially could be looking at $21 investment for DRASTICALLY steadier images. Not bad, eh?

Give it a shot and let me know how it goes on Twitter/IG at @kwmcmillan

Happy Shooting!