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.

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 2×4- and 1×4-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

Bill Hatcher is a documentary photographer who shoots stories for National Geographic, Smithsonian and many other publications. He believes the best adventure photos are made when you’re an active participant in the story you’re shooting. Bill has been chasing stories about adventure sports,science and conservation around the world for nearly 30 years. His favorite mode of transport is by foot, bike, rope, packraft or skis.