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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Almost Aerial Photography


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

Not to reinvent the wheel, I looked at what other photographic professions use when they need a low-impact and portable solution to shooting in a confined space with fragile surroundings. I found my answer with architectural photographers. Yep, they have this stuff all figured out. I'm not talking about tilt-shift lenses, but super-tall camera stands with a wireless connection and a motorized pan-tilt head.

It turns out that my compact solution could also be an affordable setup. To send my Nikon D800 with a wide-angle lens high into the sky, I settled on a Manfrotto super-high camera stand. It extends to 24 feet, weighs 22 pounds, and the two styles cost either $350 or $650. I chose the cheaper of the two and find it works perfectly for my needs. You can get higher camera pods made by Luksa that hit 36 to 50 feet and higher, but the cost for the 36-foot model is $3,000 and the unit weighs 42 pounds, not something I'd want to carry more than a few feet from the car. Gitzo has a carbon-fiber series-5 tripod that's a shade over 9 feet tall and weighs 8 pounds for just under $2,000.

The critical unit to my tall rig was the wireless connection to the camera controls and trigger. For affordability and function, my choice was a no-brainer. I got the popular CamRanger, which costs $300. To remotely move the camera while it was secured on top of the stand, I used a wired Bescor pan-tilt head. The thing is inexpensive at $145, with a 20-foot extension cord. The Bescor's motor moved my DSLR with my 16-24mm lens without problems. CamRanger also made this unit capable of fully wireless control. I chose the Bescor over the GigaPan EPIC Pro, which is larger, heavier and costs $1,000. On the plus side, the GigaPan can handle an 80-200mm ƒ/2.8 lens, and it's programmable. For my needs, the Bescor/CamRanger system was the better choice. There are other camera remote systems, but at more cost and with fewer control features than the CamRanger.

The fully outfitted, 24-foot-tall remote camera platform cost me around $800, and I was ready to shoot almost aerial shots of the blooming saguaro. I tested this setup and then headed into the park for an evening shoot to see how it worked. It was windy, the ground was uneven, and while hoisting the tripod columns, the CamRanger USB cord ripped free from the camera and fell to the ground. No damage done, but the sun set and the shoot produced nary a single usable image. I tested and reviewed all the problems, and went out again the next day. I used gaffer's tape to firmly fix the CamRanger to the tripod head. I also carried a three-foot step ladder to help me mount the camera and gear to the top of the tripod (the Manfrotto is 5' 6" retracted). The CamRanger requires my Nikon to operate in Live View mode. To focus and compose photos in this mode, the camera drains power fast. I'll carry a few spare batteries for a morning and evening shoot, and usually exhaust two of the batteries.

On the ground, I controlled the camera via the CamRanger with my iPhone 5 fitted with a Mophie Juice Pack Air. This gave my phone enough power for the day before needing a recharge. (I've used the CamRanger with an iPad and iPad mini, but my iPhone is easy to hold and thumb the camera controls; for hands-free, I have a JOBY bracket on the tripod.) The CamRanger battery is rated for five hours on a single charge. Leveling the tripod before the camera goes up is important. The Manfrotto tripod I used has one adjustable leg, called a lazy leg. On level ground, I directed this toward me so I could tilt the camera closer to the subject. I also carried a few small 2x4- and 1x4-inch wood blocks for additional leveling control on uneven ground.

The morning I shot this photo, the air was dead-calm, but I found the Manfrotto tripod, when extended up high, moves slightly and takes a little time to calm down. To double-check that the subject and tripod weren't moving, I can magnify the image on the iPhone. The settings on my Nikon D800 were ISO 250, 1⁄50 sec. at ƒ/11, with a 16-24mm lens set to 16mm. I was very pleased with how field-friendly this whole system worked. On occasion, I found the CamRanger would lose the signal to my iPhone, but this may have been due to my overzealous button-pushing that seemed to slow or freeze the wireless connection. I figure this setup will come to play in many of my future shoots when I need a simple way to send my camera to high ground for an almost aerial photo.

To see more of Bill Hatcher's photography and read his blog, visit his website at www.billhatcher.com.

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