a lightweight hiking pole, ball head and quick-release solution

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Trail Support

A few hikes with my Oly C-2020Z made it clear that taking full advantage of the camera on the trail meant finding a ready way to steady it

among other scenarios. Toward that end, I now carry a hiking pole that doubles as a monopod, but now and then, my tripod comes along. Before launching into these support solutions, let’s take a look at why camera support is so important.


Magnifying Shake

Camera shake is obviously a problem in windy and low-light conditions, but why with a telephoto lens? Because long lenses magnify camera shake right along with the subject.

The 1/f35 Rule

For 35 mm cameras, a good rule of thumb is to use a tripod or other camera support whenever shutter speed falls below the reciprocal of the focal length.  Thus, at 105 mm zoom, plan to seek camera support for shutter speeds slower than 1/105 sec. At 180 mm, don’t try to handhold shots slower than 1/180 sec.

Digital camera users can follow a similar rule to the extent that they know their camera’s 35 mm equivalent focal lengths, but it might be wise to work on the conservative side of the rule: Weight dampens shake, and digital cameras are much lighter than most 35 mm SLRs.

Image-stabilized long lenses like the 10x (38-380 mm) zoom on the Oly C-2100UZ presumably allow handholding beyond the bounds of the 1/f35 rule, but how far beyond, I don’t know.


Handholding

Of course, your handholding ability will also vary depending on your footing, age, physical condition and current caffeine load.

Footing

Of these, I find footing the most critical factor. Without a solid stance, it’s very difficult to hold still for any length of time. Handholding while standing on a steep slope is particularly challenging. Sit down and brace against your knees if you can.

Bracketing for Shake

It’s easy to forget that with a digital camera and sufficient memory capacity, the marginal cost of an extra shot is nil. If you’re concerned about shake and can’t add support, take the shot several times. I often get one still shot out of four at shutter speeds as low as 1/6 sec.

Unfortunately, I haven’t found my camera’s LCD very reliable for assessing shake in the field. Motion blurring obvious on my computer monitor can be invisible in the LCD.

Testing Your Limits

I also suggest testing your handholding to see how slow you can go on average. With digital photography, the testing’s never been easier, and once you know your limits, you can plan realistically.


A Hiking Pole/Monopod Solution

A sturdy tripod and a camera remote control are the ultimate in steadiness, of course, but most of the time, I’m just not willing to carry and futz with a tripod. At times, a tripod’s an absolute must, but more often, I find one impractical—e.g., when I’m on the move or working in a crowded space. That’s where a monopod really shines. (A mini-tripod planted on the chest is another trick worth trying.)

With proper leveling, a monopod’s also a handy platform for panorama work. Check out, for example, Allen Tweed’s panorama bracket for the C-20x0Z. I haven’t tried one, but it looks very slick.

When it occurred to me that a hiking pole doubling as a monopod might be just my cup of tea, the gears began to turn…

Criterion

Solution

Camera support on the fly Hiking or trekking pole with monopod mount
Full aiming freedom without complicated controls Single-lever ball head rather than pan-tilt head
No unnecessary wear and tear on my camera’s tripod thread Quick-release (QR) camera mount, with the plate henceforth living on the camera
Compact—in proportion to the camera Small or at most medium ball head
Light but strong and durable Aluminum or magnesium construction
Reasonable cost Pass up the high-end stuff.

A little on-line research and a few e-mails to friends soon got me to…


The Short Answer

Marks the paydirt The table below details from the ground up a very workable monopod-based trail support system for any camera comparable in size and weight to the Camedias:

Product

Notes

Weight

Size (HxWxD)

Source

Cost

Komperdell Hiker Anti-Shock trekking staff Telescoping aluminum pole with a 1/4″-20 camera mount 12 oz (160 gm) 29-56 in (74-142 cm) REI $50
Velbon PH-253 magnesium ball head, medium Single-lever action with panning 5.7 oz (340 gm) 3.2×2.5×1.4 in (8.1×6.3×3.5 cm) B&H Photo $60
Velbon QRA-635 magnesium alloy quick-release adapter Adjustable anti- swivel flanged plate with automatic safety latch 3.3 oz (120 gm) 4.1×2.2×0.8 in (10.3×5.7×2.0 cm) B&H Photo $40
Camedia with SmartMedia card, 4 NiMH batteries, CLA-1 adapter, multicoated UV filter, polarizer and lens cap with tether, QR plate My standard camera rig for trail use now 19 oz (510 gm) 2.9×4.0x4.0 in (7.5×10.3×10.3 cm)

n/a

Total (less shipping and handling) 30 oz (851 gm)

$150

On receipt, I was both delighted and relieved to see how well everything worked together. The combination proved easy to operate with a satisfying feel and balance, all while meeting the target size, weight and cost.

The only downside I’ve encountered is the need to remove the QR plate from the camera to change batteries. It’s hard for me to imagine a sufficiently stable QR base plate that wouldn’t cover the C-20x0Z battery door, and the benefits far outweigh the occasional inconvenience, IMO.


Putting It All Together

Here’s the entire setup in various stages of assembly:

Hiking staff as shipped. Click to see 800x600. [C-2000Z] A 1/4″-20 mounting screw hides under the original cork head of the hiking pole, here shown collapsed. Unfortunately, when the cork head went, so did the original wrist strap, but see below and below. The pole has a foam handle, 3 collapsible sections, a shock absorber, a tough basket and a carbide tip.
Trail support components largely disassembled. Click to see 1280x960 original. [D-340L] All main components of the trail support setup, here largely disassembled. The QR adapter plate is already installed on the camera. Peeking out around the inboard edge of the QR latch lever is the corner of a release button that automatically closes the spring-loaded latch when the camera plate seats.
Trail support components largely disassembled. Click to see 1280x960 original. [D-340L] The flanged camera plate positively prevents swiveling when the camera’s tilted off the horizontal on the ball head. The panning joint is visible here below the adjustment lever shaft. The entire assembly is very secure, with nothing loose to fall off with the camera dismounted.
C-2000Z and trail support fully assembled and ready to hike at full extension. Click to see 960x1280 original. [D-340L] The entire setup, fully assembled less shoulder strap, here with camera mounted and the pole fully extended. The top of the doorknob is 40″ above the floor.
C-2000Z and trail support fully assembled and ready to hike, here fully collapsed. Click to see 960x1280 original. [D-340L] The entire setup again, here with the pole fully collapsed. The pole’s still too long to fit comfortably in a day pack at this length but could easily be lashed to the outside of a backpack.
Parts for an add-on shoulder strap. Click to see 800x600. [C-2000Z] Homemade detachable shoulder strap parts: An old 1″ nylon webbing camera bag strap cinching down to 30″, 2 UV-resistant 9×3/8″ nylon “mounting ties” and 2 REI 1.5″ mini-karabiners, the last picked up months ago in the firm belief that they’d come in handy eventually. (Pavlov proved that a mere 10% reinforcement rate maintains such irrational behaviors indefinitely.)
Upper mount for the add-on shoulder strap. Click to see 800x600. [C-2000Z] Pulling down the top of the foam grip exposed the pole for installation of the upper strap mount, which could just as easily hang a replacement wrist strap. Both strap mounts attach to the uppermost section of the pole. The QR shoe latch is cocked open here.
Lower mount for the add-on shoulder strap. Click to see 800x600. [C-2000Z] So far, the pole’s taper has kept the nylon tie of the lower strap mount in place. The sturdy basket keeps the pole from sinking into the mud, some of which is still visible above the rubber safety cap covering the carbide tip.
Shoulder strap functioning as wrist strap. Click to see 878 x 1598 version. [C-2000Z] By looping the shoulder strap around the wrist and locking the loop by clamping the free end between thumb and grip, you can regain the weight-transfer advantage of the lost wrist strap. If you take the time to untwist the strap where it hugs the skin, this configuration is reasonably comfortable.

Many other reasonable solutions exist, of course, and this setup certainly won’t suit everyone. However, most of the other adaptable monopods, ball heads and quick releases I found were either heavier or more expensive—usually both.

Stabilizing the Camera

To achieve perfect steadiness, all 6 of the camera’s potential degrees of freedom must be fully constrained:

  • right-to-left, up-and-down and fore-and-aft translations
  • yawing, rolling and pitching rotations

Of these, the 3 rotations are the most likely to produce visible camera shake. A monopod eliminates up-and-down movements and rolling and pitching rotations, but the remaining 3 degrees of freedom—yawing, side-to-side and fore-and-aft motions—still threaten steadiness.

To achieve maximum feasible steadiness, combine the steadying techniques below whenever you can. Every little constraint helps. With practice, my ability to steady my monopod while standing continues to improve, but I never pass up opportunities to brace the monopod against something even steadier. When standing, the most important ingredient remains a stable stance. When I’m teetering on my feet, holding the monopod still is hopeless. Squatting is a sure recipe for camera shake, at least for me.

Free-Standing Monopod Technique

Marks the paydirt My best standing monopod technique was adapted from Jed Wee’s excellent How to use a monopod article. To summarize here for right-handed photographers,

  • Arrange a wide, comfortable, well-balanced oblique stance with feet well apart at 60-90° to each other, left foot forward. If your footing’s precarious, adjust it now—a stable stance is absolutely critical.
  • Plant the pole’s tip securely between your feet, preferably a bit forward of the line between them. (On slippery surfaces, the arch of your right foot makes a good stop, but with my ball head, the resulting pole slant limits my ability to level shots in vertical format.)
  • Lean the monopod forward and to the left until it rests on the inside of the left thigh. If your monopod’s flexible, bend it around the thigh to stiffen it up.
  • Hold the camera with your right hand.*
  • Use the still-free left hand to make needed camera or filter adjustments, then grasp the pole with the left elbow held tightly against the chest.
  • Fine-tune framing through the LCD as needed, but shoot through the viewfinder with the camera held firmly against the brow.
  • Depress the shutter halfway and steady up again.
  • Take a breath, release ~30% of it and hold it there for a moment.
  • Gently squeeze off the shot when stillness happens.

* The flexibility of my hiking staff is a bit of a disadvantage here, but if I preload the pole by flexing it around my left thigh, it stiffens up enough to make the thigh support worthwhile.

Make Like a Tripod

The technique I used before tumbling to Jed’s forms a balanced tripod consisting of the pole and my own two legs. It doesn’t damp out side-to-side motion nearly as well, but with practice, it works:

  • Arrange a comfortable, well-balanced square stance with feet well apart. (Again, the stance and footing are critical.)
  • Plant the pole’s tip dead ahead about 3 feet in front of your toes.
  • Lean forward onto the monopod head with some weight.
  • Take the shot as above.

The more weight on the pole, the better. With my left little, ring and middle fingers gripping the base of the ball head, I can transfer considerable weight to the pole and still have thumb and forefinger free to work the ball head lever.


Bracing, Tethering and Sitting

Any external support you can arrange for your monopod will improve steadiness tremendously.

Bracing

When I hike with 2 poles, I find it helpful to arrange the 2nd pole to act as a strut in whatever direction seems least steady. It’s usually fairly easy to grab and hold both poles in one hand.

An elbow planted on an immovable object like a wall, tree, column, table, counter or railing really damps out camera motion, with or without a monopod. Since residual side-to-side movements and yawing rotations remain my biggest problems with a monopod, I find side-bracing most effective. Holding the monopod tightly against an available railing with one hand works nicely, too. In a pinch, bracing against a friend is often better than nothing.

Tethering

Tethering the camera by pushing it forward against a taut neck strap damps camera rotations and virtually eliminates fore-and-aft movements. This is especially helpful with macro, telephoto and other shots requiring LCD framing. The monopod takes out up-and-down movements and rolling and pitching rotations. Pay extra attention to the 2 least constrained degrees of freedom—right-to-left movements and yawing rotations.

Sitting

Sitting with the pole appropriately shortened substantially improves steadiness, especially if you can brace an elbow or two on your knees or on a chair arm.

Marks the paydirt All 6 degrees of freedom can be tightly constrained by sitting with a monopod with the camera against your brow and both elbows on your knees.

For macro shots, sitting and tethering with elbows on knees is also a very steady combination.

Sitting eliminates the inadvertent knee and ankle movements that constitute my greatest remaining sources of motion in standing shots. Sitting is especially effective on hillsides, on uneven terrain, or anywhere a stable stance is hard to come by.


Ball Head

A simple, quick, flexible ball head provides all the degrees of aiming freedom necessary to achieve a proper pole plant with any desired camera orientation. Be sure to get a ball head that tilts to 90° to allow shots in vertical format.

A panning base on the ball head helps occasionally by permitting right-left rotations of the camera relative to the pole, but it’s by no means an essential feature. I haven’t tried it, but I’d bet a pan-tilt head would be slower and clumsier than a ball head on a monopod.

Afoot

Marks the paydirt Walking with a camera-bearing pole in the usual fashion risks jarring the delicate zoom lens mechanism, but I don’t hesitate to carry a camera-bearing pole over my shoulder. Thanks to the QR camera mount, however, mounting and dismounting the camera is simple enough. At 6’1″ with long legs, my ideal walking and shooting heights differ a bit, but I’ve been able to find a comfortable compromise that eliminates all but occasional pole length adjustments.


Quick-Release Heaven

The well-designed, safe and easy-to-use QR makes mounting and dismounting the camera a snap—literally. The spring-loaded latch conveniently cocks open when pulled back fully on dismounting the camera. Then the mere act of reseating the camera plate in the QR shoe depresses a button that automatically and positively secures the latch. Very slick. With the camera strapped around my neck, this becomes a one-hand operation—provided I’ve remembered to cock the latch. (Unfortunately, I’m no better at forming new good habits than I am at kicking old bad ones. Why else would I need a lens cap tether?)

The camera plate’s flanged non-skid plastic liner is reversible in case the flange fails to clear the back edge of the camera with the camera screw fully forward in its adjustment slot, but this isn’t an issue with Camedia cameras. The camera plate comes off now only for battery changes.


Stabilizing The Photographer

Beyond the added camera support, hiking poles provides added support and balance for the photographer when the footing gets uncertain—no small comfort when there’s an expensive camera dangling from the neck.

As an aid to walking, hiking poles have many virtues, including

  • spreading locomotion and balance burdens away from the lower extremities,
  • providing ready 3- or 4-point balance, and
  • reducing shock on feet and knees, especially on downhills.

I find a single pole much better than none, but I prefer 2 poles for serious walking. Singly or in pairs, hiking poles noticeably ease walking moment-to-moment, especially when there’s vertical movement involved, even though your total energy expenditure will generally be greater with than without a pole.

The built-in shock absorbers on my Komperdell poles add welcome comfort, particularly on hard surfaces. The internal spring in the older pole pictured above sings with each plant on rock or pavement, my newer pole is fairly quiet. The small mud baskets supplied with my poles limit soft ground sink-in well enough (maybe I’ll install some on the dogs), but snow requires larger baskets. The carbide tips provide decent purchase on pavement and slick rock, but if you value your floors, you’ll keep them covered with rubber safety caps indoors.


Straps?

Marks the paydirt For rock scrambling and other two-handed moments on the trail, I elected to add a homemade detachable shoulder strap to my hiking pole, as illustrated above. Carrying the collapsed pole across the back gets it nicely out of the way during bushwhacks. Carrying it rifle-style on one shoulder in an airport could get you shot.

It’s All in the Wrist

Most hiking poles come with a wrist strap, ostensibly to keep hiker and pole together, but much more importantly to transfer the downstroke load to the large triceps muscle via the bones of the forearm. The wrist strap largely eliminates the grasping work done by the smaller and more easily fatigued muscles of the hand and forearm. Cross-country skiers know this trick well. 

My added upper strap mount could easily accommodate a replacement wrist strap, but I just loop and lock the shoulder strap around my wrist as shown above to regain the weight-transfer advantage.

See The Walking Stick for more details on hiking pole pros, cons, options and considerations.

Tripods

When the situation calls for more support than a monopod can deliver, most photographers turn to a tripod. Tripods are much less portable than a monopod, but they’re hands-free. Flimsy tripods are often better than nothing, but solidity is the hallmark of a good tripod. Unfortunately, with solidity comes weight.

Of all the tripods I’ve owned, the Bogen 3021 is by far the sturdiest and most versatile. The 3021 is rated for 13 pound loads. Its reversible center post and widely spreading legs allow macro shots right down on the ground. A Bogen 3038 Super Mono Ball Head (26 pound rating) usually sits atop my 3021. The 3038’s ball is a bit sticky, but I get a lot of use out of the quick release and the biplane spirit levels built into its platform. At around 9 pounds together, the 3021 and 3038 are heavy enough to keep me switching shoulders over a mile’s walk. At 32 inches collapsed, they fit nicely in a shoulder-strapped nylon bag that came with a folding camp chair. The 3021 and 3028 are both overbuilt for my featherweight Oly C-2020Z, particularly the latter, but my next camera may well be heavier.

What About Later Camedia Rangefinders and the C-2100UZ?

By all accounts, the image-stabilized 10x (38-380 mm) zoom lens on the C-2100UZ allows handholding well beyond the bounds of the 1/f35 rule, but how far beyond, I don’t know.

Marks content that should probably be confirmed independently I’m no expert on all of ways later rangefinders and the C-2100UZ depart from the C-20x0Z, but I’m unaware of any other differences pertinent to this article. If you find anything that doesn’t fit, please let me know at dpFWIW@cliffshade.com.

References and Links

(beyond those listed in this site’s Links)

Rowell, Galen, Mountain Light, 2nd ed., Yolla Bolly Press, Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, 1995.

photo.net tripod page—an instructive discussion of camera support.

The Walking Stick—all about walking sticks.

How to use a monopod—the best monopod technique I’ve seen to date, in one of several useful photography articles by Jed Wee.

B&H Photos’ Camera Support Page—very useful, detailed information on a wide selection of camera support gear, including monopods, ball heads and quick-release adapters offered at good prices.

REI Hiking Monopod Page—2 hiking poles with monopod mounts.

Kirk Photo—lots of monopods and other camera support gear, including monopods, ball heads and QR mounts, generally at the high end.

Really Right Stuff—Quality Arca Swiss-style QR mounts.