Usually when the words monopod and macro appear in the same sentence, it's snowing in Sahara. Hand-holding the camera is much less hassle, and the stability gained from putting the camera on the monopod does not offer much improvement over simply bracing against a solid object or a stick. This is why, after a few short trials, my monopod was left to collect dust for a few months... until a month ago.
I use flash all the time for my macro photography. I like the highly controlled yet simple lighting to create the moody and/or dramatic atmosphere and isolate the subject from the background. For the longest time, I've hand-held the flash, and that has worked ok. However, with the addition of the vertical grip to my X-T3 and switching to the 580g (20.4oz) Fujifilm XF 70-300mm F4-5.6 telephoto zoom, I found myself needing both hands to manage the camera.
About a month ago, I found a neat way to employ the monopod: lighting support. With a caveat that this off-camera flash (OCF) setup works better for static subjects (like the plants that I shoot), in this post I will show you an OCF setup that does not require the use of one of your hands for the flash. I will show you how I work with OCF and what parts I used to build the setup.
For the OCF support, I've chosen the Sirui PS-426R carbon fiber monopod. Mostly because that's what I had. I'm not complaining, though, it's a fine monopod!
While I did have a few lightweight plastic light stands around that could have served the same purpose, I decided that the Sirui monopod has advantages that make it more suitable to outdoor use.
The monopod has a central column that sits on a sturdy set of collapsible feet with an itegrated ball head.
When extended, the feet have a span of a little over 30cm (just shy of 1ft), which forms a very stable base for equipment at the top. The length of the feet is 17cm each (6.7in) which is much longer than any of the similar monopods I've looked at.
On uneven terrain, the center column can be tilted up to 20 degrees in every direction. Using blue twist handle, I can restrict the degree to which the column can tilt, or lock it in straight position. The knob at the base of the feet is a tensioner for the ball head and it can be adjusted for either complete lock or free motion, and anything in-between. The tensioner is well-tuned and I can apply moderate tension such that the angle of the column is adjustable but does not move around on its own.
The degree to which the column can tilt was more than adequate for the kind of terrain I've used it on. This is the main reason I chose to use this monopod and it lived up to the expectations.
Although the monopod is carbon fiber, it still weighs 1.42kg (3.13lb) due to the generous use of metal (aluminium) everywhere. In fact, much of the weight is concentrated in the all-metal feet, which is even better, as it provides a lower overall center of gravity.
Articulating speedlight support
I frequently find myself needing to stick the OCF in awkward locations. Inside a bush, behind a branch, etc. etc. It wasn't that big of a deal when I was holding the flash in the hand (except on my right-hand side). Although I was prepared to hand-hold the OCF when needed, I wanted to find a way to avoid it as much as possible. The answer was simple: get a third arm.
I had one of the SmallRig magic arms lying around, so I decided to use that. It's lightweight but sturdy enough for small gear. It's more than adequate for your average speedlight. Since the magic arm has male 1/4" screws on both ends, I needed to adapt one of the ends so I can mount it on the 3/8" screw on the monopod. I found a 1/4" female to 3/8" female adapter spigot which was perfect for the task. To hold the speedligth, I used a cold shoe stand that came with one of my speedlights.
Once assembled, I had a very nice articulating setup that I can mount on the monopod.
For reference, the total weight of the parts I've used is 261g (9.2oz), and its dimensions are 17×6.5×4cm (6.7×2.6×1.6in).
The device fits neatly into one of the front pockets on my Manfrotto PL 3n1 26 pack.
In the field
I've been using this setup for about a month now, and I am happy to report that I did not run into any situations (yet) where I needed to hand-hold the speedlight.
With all sections collapsed and the speedlight reversed as shown, I can get the speedlight's head as low as 30cm (just under 1ft). If I need to go lower than that, I can detach the feet and use them as a sturdy table-top tripod by attaching the mounting plate on them directly (Sirui kindly provides two plates, too). With the feet only, I can get the speedlight all the way down to the ground.
On the opposite end, I can get the speedlight all the way above my head (I'm 170cm / 5ft 7in), which is more than adequate for normal shooting (I would need a ladder to shoot higher than that).
The monopod is reasonably stable extended all the way, but I have a carabiner on its strap so I can ancror it to a branch of something like that and prevent it from falling in the wind (not in that picture, though, because there was no wind).
The picture used as the cover image for this post was taken using the setup in the above photo.
One small gripe
I have only one small gripe with this setup, and it has to do with the spigot.
When I'm packing, the spigot sometimes does not screw off the monopod, instead screwing off the magic arm. While this is not a big annoyance when I'm packing to leave the location, it is a major headache when I'm converting the monopod into a table-top tripod.
To address this issue, I bring with me the SmallRig mini clamp.
This clamp is light and small. It packs neatly into my bag along with the other small tools I have. It also has rubber inserts so that it will not scratch the spigot if you care about such details.
I simply clamp this onto the stubborn spigot and tighten it just enough so it has a firm grip. Then I can unscrew the spigot with more leverage by grabbing the handle on the clamp.
Another thing I can do with this clamp is to use it as an alternative anchor point for the magic arm as it has a 1/4" hole on one of the sides. I could also put another magic arm to hold backgrounds if I ever decide I need to do that.
All in all, I must admit I'm thoroughly addicted to this setup. It's light, easy to work with, and does exactly what I need for the light.
The only downside is the price. The magic arm and other small bits are quite affordable, but the monopod is on the expensive side, costing around $250 on Amazon as of this writing. For me, it is well worth it, but I fully understand that it's not for everyone.