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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Almost Aerial Photography

How to get a perspective from above with a low-impact, portable solution

Flowering saguaro cactus in the foothills of the Rincon Mountains in Saguaro National Park, Arizona, photographed from above with a Nikon D800 on a Manfrotto stand, Bescor pan-tilt head and CamRanger remote.

I enjoy working from all photo angles, but I always keep an eye out for the highest point that I can shoot from. If there's no helicopter available, this usually ends up being the roof of my vehicle, the high branch of a stout tree or a cliff edge. This high perspective nearly always produces a cool angle of view, and as a rock climber, I enjoy the physical challenge of getting up to these vantage points. Recently, I found a tech solution to the frequent problem of getting my camera almost aerial when there's nothing around for me to climb.

This solution was prompted while I was out shooting saguaro, one of the tallest cactus growing in North America. I was looking for these giants in the aptly named Saguaro National Park in southern Arizona. This iconic cactus regularly reaches over 40 feet tall, and its arms can spread 20 feet from the main trunk. It's spectacular, but from ground level, you only get a hint at how it towers over the surrounding landscape. That was the vantage from which I wanted to shoot these monsters. Wandering around the park, I discovered some remarkable saguaros, but these were far from any high point, with most growing on hillsides, in the flats or along washes. All were a long hike from the road and easy access to my ready collection of ladders.

I confess that I did make one comical attempt to photograph one of the saguaro from the top of my supercompact GP Logistics six-foot aluminum ladder. I carried this to the base of a cactus growing close to the road. Standing near the top rung of the ladder, I gained my camera some extra height by attaching it to my tripod with the legs fully extended, holding it above my head and triggering shots with a camera remote, all while trying not to lose balance and fall to the ground. This silly technique got my camera lens up to maybe 14 feet, but it was a precarious perch (especially in the wind). Even worse, framing the shots correctly was hit or miss, and the resulting photos were average, at best.

After this experience, I went in search of a more reliable high perch. First, I looked for a natural solution. I scouted locations with cliff vantages, hiking up and around the park's saguaro-studded peaks. I found cliffs and boulders that were close to the cactus, but other factors made the location less than ideal—the wrong aspect for the morning sunrise, ordinary, not extraordinary cactus and other reasons. The solution, I figured, needed to be technical if I wanted to shoot a high-angle portrait of this Sonoran desert giant.

I have a lightweight tree-climbing kit, but climbing a nearby saguaro for a high vantage, even if I could figure a way to protect myself from its thousands of two-inch-long spikes, was out. The saguaro is a fragile plant compared to your average tree, and its massive trunk and arms store tons of water enclosed in a delicate skin and supported by internal woody ribs. A helicopter, even if I had a budget for one, was also out. When the wind blows, even gently, the arms of the saguaro sway, and sometimes these limbs break off under the massive weight or in a storm gust.

My high-camera photo solution had to be light and compact enough to carry to a distant cactus site, and the device had to follow the park's mandate that the environment not be disturbed by visitors. Shooting the saguaro meant even touching the plant was a big NO! Disturbing the ground around the cactus was also to be avoided. That meant no ropes, rigging or giant ladder. I did consider a drone, but a drone can't hold a camera steady for a sunrise photo at 1⁄30 sec. at ƒ/11. Also, as of this writing, drones are illegal to use in Zion and Yosemite, and permission is required in other parks. The FAA is currently reviewing its drone policy for private citizen use, but in the future, I doubt drones will be allowed in national parks for the general public, and I'm okay with that.


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