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Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Elevating Your Game

Get a new perspective to make your photos stand out

Using a 24-foot-high stand and gear that let him compose from the ground, Bob Krist captured a seldom-seen angle of this scene in Philadelphia.

It's the kind of challenge I get more and more frequently in these tight economic times. A client wants an oft-photographed subject done differently, but doesn't have a lot of money to spend to facilitate it. In this case, Philadelphia tourism officials wanted a fresh take on the beautiful Benjamin Franklin Parkway area, where a new museum was being launched, plus two more reopenings after major renovations.

They mentioned high-angle views—not aerials exactly; they didn't want too high a view, and both full-sized and remote-controlled, camera-carrying drone choppers were out of the budget anyway. City cherry-picker trucks would be too expensive (the love here may be brotherly, but apparently not interdepartmental). Their use also would require five to seven days' advanced notice to arrange, and if I could predict good shooting weather five to seven days in advance, I'd be a rich retiree by now. We tried chartering one of the open-top city sightseeing double-decker buses for a run, but the angles were extremely limited, and in most cases, we couldn't stop traffic long enough to get what we needed.

Fortunately, from my Internet research, I was familiar with pole aerial photography (PAP). Just as the name indicates, it involves putting a camera on a long telescoping pole and has become popularized by real-estate photographers and agents who know firsthand that an elevated viewpoint makes most structures look better and results in more sales.

The poles used in this type of work range from simple painter's poles with tripod adapters screwed onto huge mechanized arms that need to be pulled around by an SUV or a heavy-duty pickup truck. The mechanized, motorized arms not only were out of the budget, but for many of the places we needed to shoot, it would be impossible to bring in a car or an SUV.

Since some of the work I would be doing would be in twilight and very late afternoon, a handheld painter's pole type of arrangement wasn't going to cut it; I needed more stability. I finally found a compromise from Manfrotto—a 24-foot-high "Super High Camera Stand," which is essentially the biggest light stand I've ever seen, fitted with a small tripod platform and 3⁄8" stud on the top. It features three independently leveling legs with a huge six-plus-foot spread, and the top platform has three eyes for attaching the included guy-lines. It folds down to about six feet and weighs under 30 pounds.

With the first problem solved (i.e., how to get the camera high), I moved on to the second problem: how to move the camera around while it's mounted 20 feet above my head. I needed a remote-controlled pan-and-tilt platform and, fortunately, Bescor makes a reasonably priced unit, the MP-101, that runs on AAs and has an auxiliary extension cord that allows a 25-foot working distance.

The unit provided a good amount of horizontal and vertical rotation, but it had a 1⁄4"-20 mounting socket and the Manfrotto was a 3⁄8" stud, so I had to add a ballhead in between the Manfrotto stand's platform and the Bescor head. The downside of this was that it increased the weight on the top of the pole; the upside is that it made much more oblique angles possible because of the ballhead's ability to tilt the whole motorized rig.

To mount a camera onto the Bescor motorized pan head, I either attached an older generic L-shaped bracket I had for holding a flash to mount the camera for vertical shots or screwed the Bescor directly into the camera base tripod socket for horizontals.


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