Manfrotto 685B NeoTec Monopod
and Monopod Technique

click the
image for a
larger view

     Monopods can be a little frustrating until you get a handle on how to use them. At least that was my experience the first time I tried to steady my 500mm lens on my 685B NeoTec monopod. With a little help from the internet, I found some tips on better technique that I will share with you farther on. First though, I want to talk about the monopod I chose, and why I chose it.
     I had never considered getting a monopod before I bought the Canon EF 500mm f/4 IS. Prior to that I shot nearly everything hand-held. When I got the 500mm, I mostly used it on a tripod with the Manfrotto 393 (3421) gimbal, which made it very easy to handle while shooting. Still, it was unwieldy to carry with tripod, gimbal and lens.
     I tried shooting with it hand-held a few times, which made it painfully obvious that was not going to work out. If you haven't tried it for yourself, you can easily find out what it's like. Simply grab a full gallon of milk by the handle and try holding it out at arm's length as if you had a lens in front of you. Why, you can even use both hands if you wish. If you can hold it out there for a minute without getting the shakes, you won't need to read this, because you won't need a monopod when you get a big, long, heavy supertelephoto. I, on the other hand, was going to need one for those occasions when dragging along a tripod wasn't practical.

     After using the lens with a tripod, I knew I did not want to attempt holding ten pounds of lens and camera on the end of a two-foot stick with one hand while trying to turn it into a five-foot stick with the other hand. My first concern was finding a monopod that would be easy to handle with a Canon 500mm f/4 IS on top of it. The Manfrotto 658B NeoTec monopod turned out to be just what the doctor ordered. Read on for my "review" of the 685B, or jump to the section on Monopod Technique with a heavy lens.

Maximum Height 66.9" (169.9cm)
Folded Length 29.3" (74.4cm)
Load Capacity 17.6 lbs (8kg)
Leg Sections 3
Leg Lock Type One-handed automatic grip-action release
Male Thread Size 1/4"-20 & 3/8"-16
Weight 1.76 lbs (0.8kg)

Grip handle with release trigger and safety catch.   
Features of the 685B NeoTec:
     The 685B weighs 1.7 pounds (0.8kg) and is rated for 17.6 pounds load (8kg), enough to take on the 500mm, plus camera body, plus head and clamp, plus my left arm draped over it for stability and dampening. That doesn't mean this tripod is solid as an oak tree with that much weight on it, but technically it's supposed to at least handle that load without failing (collapsing) [more on that farther along]. The thing that drew me to this monopod is it's unique design, which allows you to extend and collapse it's full length with one hand - Yes, ONE HAND. It has a small fold-out "pedal" that you simply hold down with your toe as you pull up on the monopod to extend it. No matter what height you stop at, it's automatically locked in position and will not drop down - no clamps, clips, catches, knobs or anything else to tighten. In fact, Manfrotto claims that the more you push down on it, the tighter it locks. You can keep pulling it up farther and farther until it's fully extended without having to release anything.
      When it's time to adjust it lower, or to collapse it altogether, that is also a one-handed operation. It has a squeeze trigger in the top grip that must be squeezed to release the lock, but that doesn't work unless you first squeeze the "pinky finger" safety catch. So, to collapse it, you squeeze your pinky finger on the safety catch, then squeeze the large trigger with the rest of your fingers. The leg sections then collapse until you stop squeezing, at which point it instantly locks in place again, no matter what height it's at. All in all it could hardly be simpler or easier. This unique system allows me to keep my right hand on the camera body grip so I am confident I have the camera and lens under full control, while using my left hand on the monopod grip to extend and collapse the monopod. It provides a level of control and confidence while handling such a large, heavy lens that I really had not expected to find in a monopod.

Choosing A Head:
     The one-handed operation is not the only unique feature of the 685B. Because it has a hand grip with trigger where you would normally grasp a round shaft on other monopods, holding it and setting up the head will differ as well. At this point I need to explain my reasoning for selecting a tilt head as opposed to a ball head or gimbal head for the monopod.
  1. A gimbal head would be the best solution for a large lens, even on a monopod, period. The gimbal head is designed to let you release the camera and lens completely without fear of the dreaded catastrophic "lens flop" from an unbalanced load. On a tripod, everything would stay put if you let go completely, but on a monopod, the monopod itself would fall over - the mother of all catastrophic "lens flops" (monopod and all). The fact is you're simply not going to let go of the lens and camera on a monopod unless you have hold of the monopod itself.
  2. Essentially, I think of this as using the camera "hand-held" while on the monopod. I treat it as if it's hand-held because I will have hold of it at all times. The only purpose for the monopod is to defeat gravity and take the weight of the lens while I shoot in a "hand-held" mode.
  3. The gimbal would allow for vertical tilt and horizontal panning. Since the monopod itself is essentially a pivot point for horizontal panning, the horizontal function of the gimbal is unnecessary, and thus the extra weight of a gimbal is unnecessary as well.
  4. Without the gimbal, the only thing missing from the monopod is a sufficient range of vertical tilt, so the simple solution for that is a lightweight one axis tilt head. If you used a ball head in the place of a tilt head, you're back to having a wobbly head that could flop in any direction, making handling all the more precarious. With a tilt head, any possible flop is limited to only one direction, which simplifies the equation.
  5. A good tilt head is much lighter and less expensive than either a ball head or gimbal.
      For all these reasons I chose a single axis tilt head. For more information on the specific head and QR clamp/plate I use on this monopod, read my mini-review. Now click the illustration at right for an enlarged image and look at the three axis angles depicted. For a tilt head to work properly, its tilt axis must be at a right angle to the lens axis. That's pretty easy to understand. With the trigger grip on the 685B monopod, you need to take one more thing into consideration. Holding the trigger grip in a comfortable position for your wrist angles the grip about half way between the tilt axis and the lens axis, at about 45 degrees. So, the tilt head should be mounted and tightened at this angle. If this monopod was simply round at the top it wouldn't matter how it was turned when attaching the tilt head, but with the grip there shaped to fit your hand, this is the angle you will find yourself holding it at.

Pros and Cons:
     For the "on-the-move" photographer, the one-handed ease of extending and collapsing the NeoTech monopod has to be the number one reason for using it. No other monopod I know of comes close. Other than the fact it had to be load rated to handle the weight of the 500mm lens, its ease of use was the major reason I chose it. The lens is enough of a challenge to handle without fighting with leg locks as well. I simply cannot imagine trying to deal with such a large lens on any monopod with leg locks.
     Another point to consider is length, both collapsed and extended. The specs say full extension is 66.9 inches. My tape measure says 67.1. Anyway, with the tilt head and QR clamp installed, that raises it to 70.3 inches. Add the 500mm lens with camera mounted and my 50D eyepiece comes to 74.5 inches. That's eye level for someone who stands 6' 5", a foot taller than I need. On the opposite end of the scale, the collapsed length is a longish 29.3 inches. Many say it's too long to pack for flying and travel, a valid point for many folks. Since I only use this monopod with the 500mm lens, it's not a problem for me because the 500mm is too big to consider flying with in any event. The nearly 30-inch length actually makes it easier for me to fully collapse the monopod almost without even bending at the waist.
A 2-minute video on the 685B NeoTec Monopod
      The three leg sections are in reverse order, that is, smallest diameter tube at the top and largest diameter at the bottom. I can only guess it's because of the design of the internal locking mechanism. While there is a tiny bit of flex in the legs fully extended, you have to intentionally wiggle the monopod to notice it. It's no more than is to be expected of any monopod with tubes of a smallish diameter like this one. However, there is another flex point - inside the grip handle, which is made in two halves screwed together (obviously there had to be some way to assemble the squeeze triggers inside the handle). You may never notice this flex with a smaller lens on the monopod, but the weight of the 500mm makes this flex more easily noticed, and probably more pronounced.
     While the bit of "flex" in this unit would be utterly unacceptable on a tripod, you must remember this is not a tripod. For my purposes, namely using it to take the weight of the lens so I can shoot in a virtual "hand-held" mode, the flex is not an issue. WIth or without a monopod, you're going to get movement when shooting hand-held. Having image stabilization on the lens will make up for any flex just as it does for body motion when shooting hand-held.
     Even these "cons" cannot dissuade me from the major merit of the NeoTec monopod - namely, the one-handed extension and collapse, with no leg-locks to deal with. I cannot emphasize enough what a handful the 500mm lens is to handle, whether hand-held, on a monopod, or on a tripod. Any monopod that actually makes this task easier gets my vote. I hope no one really expects any monopod to be as steady as a tripod though. For that reason I had never even considered using a monopod until I'd had my 500mm for over a year. I found myself wishing for something that could take its weight out of the equation when trying to use it "hand-held" as I was so used to doing with my other lenses. I wanted that freedom with the 500mm, and the 685B NeoTech monopod has provided it. The only issue for me was that the monopod hold the weight of the lens while NOT adding hassle to handling the lens. For me, the one-handed operation of the NeoTech monopod does this admirably. (For some additional thoughts and insights on the NeoTec monopod, you should also read through my "mini-review" of it, as well as my related article on a safety cable for the monopod foot.)

A scene from the Monopod Technique video
Foot pattern of my
chosen monopod stance
while holding the
monopod leg snug
against my right leg
Monopod Technique:
Monopod Technique Video

     Using a monopod with a large telephoto lens will take some experimentation with various stances to find a good balance and comfortable posture. If you've looked over the two articles on my "Tips" page, you've seen several ways to stand and hold a monopod. I've found that the stance pattern shown at right works for me with the heavy bulk of a 500mm lens. It lets me keep my right foot on the foot pedal so I can quickly pull the monopod up higher when needed while keeping the monopod leg against my thigh and stomach for stability. This sort of "hugging" the monopod comes as close as anything to the feeling of hand-holding a smaller lens while using the 500mm. It takes away that "wobbly stick under the lens" feeling that made my initial trials with the monopod so frustrating. The monopod essentially becomes part of my body instead of being this stick floating out there in front of me with a huge lens teetering on top of it.

     I hold the camera grip with my right hand (pretty much the only thing you can do there) while I use my left hand in any of three ways.
     (1)  Left forearm and wrist laying on top of the lens as I do to dampen vibrations
     with a tripod and gimbal
       -- This gives me the steadiest shot.
     (2)  Left hand cupped under the front of the lens as I would if hand-holding a lens
       -- This makes it easier to pan with a fast moving subject.
     (3)  Left hand gripping the monopod grip
       -- This is good for scanning around while having the grip ready to extend or lower the monopod quickly.

     The 2-minute video (above right) will demonstrate the technique I'm trying to describe. You will also see how simple it is to adjust the NeoTec monopod up and down. Shifting to high angle BIF shots is a breeze - almost as easy as hand-held without a monopod - and collapsing the monopod completely to move to your next location is just as simple.