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From the Ground Up: Choosing A Monopod Head & More

Mono A Mono • Down To Earth • Sensor Envy • White Balance, Blue Sky
choosing a monopod head

Steady As She Goes. Lepp captured this timeless seascape with a 100-400mm lens from a ship underway through Antarctica’s Lemaire Channel. The motion and vibration of the ship and weight of the lens were mitigated by use of a monopod with a single-axis head.

Mono A Mono: Choosing A Monopod Head

Could you elaborate further on your use of monopods? In your March column, “In the Bag,” you wrote, “I’ve used the monopod when shooting from ships, where a tripod would have transferred the engine vibration…” Does a monopod transmit less vibration than a tripod?

Also, you state, “A ballhead on a monopod is too much movement,” and that probably explains why I’m not getting the results I’m looking for when using a monopod. What reasonably compact head would you recommend for a monopod?

–G. Zupcsics, D. Ransier and G. Givens
(three photographers with the same question), via the internet

A monopod does not transfer vibrations to the camera in the same way that a tripod does, with its three ridged legs. There’s probably more science involved, possibly having to do with the human body serving as an additional shock absorber, but I’m just going to stick with my experience that when shooting from a pulsating platform— the less metal touching the deck, the better. Image stabilization available in newer lenses is also helpful. If you want to get really serious about controlling vibration on ships and in planes, you can add a gyro. Of course, in tight quarters, such as ship decks, a monopod is far more mobile and easier to position than a tripod.

While a monopod itself gives the photographer direct control of positioning, either horizontally or from fore to aft, it’s difficult to impossible to maintain a consistent composition when the camera is locked into position directly on the monopod. A typical loose two-axis tripod ballhead will not give the photographer enough control in this situation. But I have a simple monopod head, the MH-01 from Really Right Stuff, that has an Arca-Swiss-type quick-release base. This one-axis moveable head enables constant fine adjustments to the framing as the base beneath the photographer changes or a subject moves. The main use of monopods is in sports photography, where big lenses are needed and tripods are typically not allowed. This finely made head supports a lot of weight and is a bit expensive (but worth it). If you’re on a tight budget, monopod heads offering the one-axis movement are out there from companies such as Manfrotto and Benro, to name a couple.

Down To Earth: Getting Low Perspectives

I am interested in taking some ground-level shots, and a tripod could be quite cumbersome. I am thinking of investing in an additional ballhead and coming up with some mounting mechanism—probably on a block of 2×4. I would be using a wide-angle lens, so do not expect a weight issue on a long telephoto lens. Any suggestions?

–R. Dalal
via the internet

I do have tripods that will take my camera all the way to the ground, but yes, they are cumbersome and expensive. Although ground pods are available commercially, making your own is quite simple. I would recommend buying a 6-inch square of aluminum metal, about 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick. Drill a hole dead center and counter-sink that on the bottom so a 1/4″-20 or 3/8”-16 bolt can be inserted through the hole and screwed into the base of a tripod head. I prefer ballheads. The counter-sink keeps the plate bottom flat. File the edges around the square of metal so as to not cut yourself or any material in a camera bag where you might store this. You would not necessarily need a separate ballhead for this purpose; when not using the ground base, just unscrew your ballhead and put it back on the tripod. You could also opt for a smaller ballhead for this purpose, to keep you closer to the ground. It’s tempting to get a larger plate for more stability, but anything larger will extend past your lens and get in the way of your composition, especially if you’re planning on using a wide-angle lens. A 2×4 would not work as well, because it isn’t flat enough and not as steady as a flat piece of metal. A square of iron might be cheaper, but you won’t want to carry it around due to the weight.

Sensor Envy: Full Frame Vs. APS

I have a friend who is adamantly sold on the full-frame format (his Nikon D750), and I see no problem with using and getting the same results with my APS-C format (Nikon D7200). I think my pictures are as good as his, but he says full-frame gives you superior pictures that can be enlarged with better results than those from a smaller APS-C sensor camera. Would you care to weigh in on this debate?

–J. Harrington
via the internet

In the old days, when I would ask a question of my good friend, the acclaimed photographer and teacher John Shaw, he would always answer, “It all depends.” Resolving the question of the relative merits of full-frame versus APS-C sensors depends on a number of variables, including photographic subjects, typical environmental conditions, lenses used, potential uses of the resulting images, the resolution of the sensor (megapixels) and budget.

A full-frame sensor has the capability of performing better than a smaller APS-C sensor of the same pixel count in some cases. Because the pixels on the full-frame sensor are larger and more efficient, it offers a significant quality advantage in low light and/or high-ISO captures where noise is a factor. Another advantage of full-frame is when the photographer uses wide-angle lenses. The crop factor of the smaller APS-C cameras is either 1.5x (Nikon is an example) or 1.6x (Canon is an example), and this makes a 28mm lens on the full-frame Nikon into a 42mm equivalent on an APS-C sensor. That said, there are plenty of good wide-angle lenses available specifically for the smaller sensor (and not usable on a full-frame) that will make up the loss of angle-of-view.

On the other hand, for wildlife subjects, the cropped magnification of the APS-C sensor will give you more reach by adding a 1.5x or 1.6x increase in the usable focal length. When I use a Canon 100-400mm Mark II zoom lens on a Canon EOS 7D Mark II, the resulting maximum focal length is the equivalent of 640mm, considering the angle of view, without any light loss. This really becomes an advantage when I place a 1.4x tele-converter on the 100-400mm, yielding a fairly lightweight 896mm lens, albeit with a maximum aperture of ƒ/8. And I might add that the combination focuses to 3.2 feet.

Another advantage of the smaller sensor cameras is size and cost. These APS-C cameras generally cost less than full frame, and the dedicated lenses are smaller and less expensive. Again, you can use any of your full-frame camera lenses interchangeably on both bodies, but the APS-C specific lenses cannot be used on a full-frame body.
So what about the relative quality of the output? If you use your images for display on the internet and prints no larger than 17×20 inches, you will not see much difference between the full-frame and APS-C capture. But if you do a lot of low-light imagery, want to make really large prints, and are primarily a landscape photographer using wide-angle lenses, the full frame camera bodies are a better choice.

You will generally see professional photographers using full-frame cameras, and you will also see professional photographers using APS-C sensors. It all depends. It may not surprise you to learn that when I head out on a photo expedition and want to be prepared for anything, my bag might contain two Canon bodies: a full-frame and an APS-C.

So, back to your contest with your buddy. Between the two of you, you have all the camera gear you need. I recommend that you share your equipment to cover all the bases. (Yeah, right.)

White Balance, Blue Sky: Which White Balance Setting?

I read somewhere that setting white balance to “daylight” mode served mainly to knock down the blue from the sky. Where I photograph, clouds low on the Eastern horizon often obscure the sunrise while the rest of the sky is clear and open. What should my white balance setting be?

–J. West
via the internet

The best white balance for landscape photography is probably going to be the “Daylight” setting. But a more important consideration is the file format. RAW capture will give you the most options when you edit the image in Photoshop or other post-processing software. At that time, you can adjust the white balance to match the natural look that you remember or enhance it to create a different look. The idea is to preserve your options. Often, I see photographers change their white balance to “cloudy,” which immediately yields a more pleasing rendition on the camera’s LCD. But they might struggle later to remove the deep overall yellow cast they’ve artificially added to the image if they’ve captured the file in JPEG format. If you shoot JPEGs in the field, you will be pretty much at the mercy of the white balance that you chose, because changing the color tones in post-processing will be more difficult and may degrade the image quality.

For the purposes of this discussion, the key difference between RAW and JPEG capture is that RAW files have more information and are relatively unprocessed by the camera, giving you lots of material to work with in post-processing, while JPEG captures are processed in-camera based upon the selected settings, limiting your options for later adjustment. If you’re in a hurry or hate working on a computer, stay with JPEGs. If you want the best quality, shoot RAW.

One of North America’s best-known contemporary outdoor and nature photographers and a leader in the field of digital imaging and photographic education, Lepp is the author of many books and the field editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine. One of Canon’s original Explorers of Light, Lepp finds inspiration in advancing technology that fuels creative innovation and expression of his life-long fascination with the natural world.