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It was Teddy Roosevelt, 26th President of the United States (1901–1909), who coined the expression, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” At the time, he attributed its origins to a “West African proverb,” which may or may not have been a fiction designed to give his wisdom a little ancient enhancement. The phrase itself refers to a political policy of avoiding bluster and confrontation, but being known to have the foreign or domestic policy power to thoroughly enforce one’s softly-spoken point of view. It’s sort of the opposite of the full-throated sabre-rattling sort of foreign policy that defined the 43d President’s term. (I’d be historically remiss if I didn’t mention that in 2012, when speaking about President Obama’s foreign policy, Vice President Joe Biden referred to Roosevelt’s aphorism when he said “I promise you, the President has a big stick.” This statement, of course, resulted in significant viral giggling, as so many of the Vice President’s utterings do.)

However, for my purposes I prefer to take Roosevelt’s quote literally, especially now that I have become the possessor of a life-changing piece of equipment: A monopod. (Like so much in my life, photographic and otherwise, I have my partner of more than a decade to thank for this new delight. I was possibly more excited about the monopod than I was about the D7000, which cost roughly twenty times more than the collapsible stick.)

The monopod in question is manufactured by the Italian company Manfrotto. It’s a 290 Series (MM294A4) that, when extended, is 59.4 inches tall and held firm and stable by three sturdy clips. Collapsed, it’s 19.3 inches. It weighs 1.2 pounds, and attaches tightly to the standard threaded socket in the base of most came

Manfrotto 290 monopod

Let me be utterly clear: While I may be wildly ancient and decrepit, my hands are nonetheless quite steady. I’ve taken many hand-held photos of which I’m particularly proud. You can peruse some examples of those [shameless plug alert!] on my website, EButterfield Photography.

However, the monopod is a wonderful thing. It attaches firmly to the bottom of my Nikon D7000 (see my previous blog entry, “Fancy Ass”) and in its collapsed form doesn’t particularly get in the way of my handheld shots. But extended, it offers a whole new dimension of stability.

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Look at this photo, for instance (click to embiggen, to better observe):

Gimli the cat, hand-held and monopod photos compared

My ever-patient cat, Gimli, cooperatively posed for both a hand-held and a monopodded portrait, which are combined here into a single image for comparison purposes through the wonders of Photoshop. The light conditions in my living room yesterday were not particularly good (muted sunlight and overhead incandescents), and other than resize and slide the photos together, these are pretty much how they came out of the camera.

I took the photos in ambient light, with no flash, using an AF-S Nikkor 18.0-105.0 mm f/3.5-5.6, with the aperture at f/5.3 and a shutter speed of 1/6 second. The image on the left is hand-held; the image on the right is using a monopod. For the excruciatingly long exposure, the monopod’s stability clearly had a beneficial effect: Gimli’s fur is sharper, and his eye is crystal clear. While the hand-held image might be acceptable, the one using a monopod is pretty crisp right out of the gate.

I suppose this comes as no surprise to veteran photographers (I have distinctly heard a collective and dismissive “duh” from my vast readership), but it’s an epiphany for me. Oh sure, I’ve used tripods before for portraits, but I’ve always been a little put off by their clumsiness and lack of mobility. Still, I’m sure I’ll continue to use them. The monopod, though, offers pretty much the best of both worlds: it provides the stability of a tripod, while still letting me sprint around my subject like a little gnat (much to the delight of my subjects, who have in some cases taken to swatting me away). It’s become an essential part of my standard equipment, and I couldn’t be happier with it.

So next time I’m out in the forest or the desert, I’ll be following Teddy’s advice to the letter: I will speak softly (as I always do in nature, unlike the screaming children and cell-phone shrieking adults I encounter on the public paths…but more kvetching about that another time, perhaps). I will also, like Presidents Roosevelt and Obama, be equipped with a nice big stick.

El Dorado Nature Center, Long Beach CA