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Getting Started with Pole Aerial Photography

by Ron Risman

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As a cinematographer and photographer I am always looking for new ways to capture familiar scenes. For the past couple of years I have been reading and learning a lot about remote control (RC) copters with the dream of mounting my HDSLR to it to capture beautiful aerial stills and cinematic video footage - but I just can't seem to get myself to plunk down the money for one. Aside from the initial investment there is also the learning curve, potential for crash & burn, and the fact that I just don't know where I'd find the time.

A couple of weeks ago I came up with an idea that I thought just might allow me to capture some aerials of a wedding ceremony, especially outdoor ceremonies, with motion video - without it taking eons to learn or a big financial investment. I thought "What if I used one of the new cameras or camcorders that feature 1080/60p video recording and multi-axis stabilization, also called "active stabilization" and mounted it to a tall pole which I would hand hold. Once the pole was stable I could then slowly twist the pole to do a pan and even slowly walk with the pole if I wanted to add some tracking motion.

The advantages of recording at 60p (60 frames-per-second) is that video recorded at higher frames rates helps to smooth out motion, giving it a smoother and more stable look. The multi-axis stabilization feature also helps to smooth out the footage by reducing side-to-side motion and camera vibration. If needed, I could also use stabilization software during post production to smooth out the video even further.

I did a Google search on "Camera on Pole" or something like that and instantly discovered something called "Pole Aerial Photography" or PAP as its also called. I thought to myself, "how could I not have heard about this before?" I spent almost two days reading everything I could find on the subject, and while most of the discussions on PAP seemed to have taken place in forums from 2007-2009, the information was still useful and relevant. While I didn't find any discussions that covered mounting a video camera to a pole, I was able to apply what I learned and was ready to get started.

If you haven't heard of PAP, it consists of mounting a camera on a pole and triggering the camera to take a picture once the pole and camera are in the air. PAP can be done using standard paint roller extension poles, but there are also custom poles available, made of carbon fiber, that can go much higher, while keeping the weight to a minimum. Poles can be hand-held or they can be mounted to large tripod like legs or using a variety of mounts such as car trailer hitch mounts, under tire mounts, and any other way you can think of to stable a tall 15', 20', or 30' pole with a camera on top.

Kacey DSLR Pole Adapter

To make this even easier there are accessories available that are designed to convert the large 5/8" thread at the end of a paint extension pole to a 3/8" or 1/4-20" thread for you camera or ball head. One such accessory is the Kacey DSLR Pole Adapter ($35), made by Kacey Enterprises (Kaceyenterprises.com). This adapter works with Mr. LongArm and Sure-line extension poles or any other pole with 3/4x5 threads per inch, which is common to most paint poles. The adapter is made of aluminum with a stainless steel 3/8" screw mount that will accept ball heads with 3/8" threads.

Another popular pole camera mount is made by Pole Pixie (PolePixie.com). Their adapters convert the standard painters pole thread to a 1/4-20" or 3/8" for mounting a camera. Their standard plastic adapter runs $29.95 and their Pro Adapters sell for $39.95 (1/4-20") or $44.95 (3/8"). Both pro adapters are made of solid aluminum and all three of their adapters feature a hex safety screw to guard against the adapter unscrewing from the pole.

Pole Pixie Trigger Kit

Pole Pixie also sells additional accessories to help trigger and protect your camera. Their Pixie Click Trigger Frame ($79.95) allows you to trigger most point & shoot cameras from the ground (See photo). Their Foam Padded Resting Plate ($29.95) acts as a buffer between the ground and your camera and is a must-have when using longer extension poles.

If you get deeper into pole aerial photography you'll most likely discover a more rugged and professional pole called the WonderPole®. The WonderPole is made with thick walls and alternating grains of fiberglass for added strength. This pole is stronger and stiffer than an ordinary paint pole of the same length, and because it includes more sections, you can raise it while keeping the pole vertical. WonderPoles can be ordered in 21 ft, 30ft, and 40 ft heights. Of course, where an ordinary paint pole is $20-$45, the WonderPole starts at $275 (21 ft). Pole Pixe's $275 kit includes the wonderPole converter, retaining pin, weight boot, pole pixie pro adapter and tilt mount.

Link: WonderPole prices

What are the uses for Pole Aerial Photography?

Commercial and real estate photography is an area where Pole Aerial Photography seems to be very popular. It allows a photographer to capture aerial shots of businesses or homes while still having the mobility to move around the property. Weddings are also events where a photographer could use this to get aerial shots of the ceremony, grounds, and venue. There are literally hundreds of places where you may want to capture aerial photos or video: Sports photography, journalism, event photography, home inspections, insurance, archeology, or any other place where you need to get a camera into places that you normally couldn't reach. While million dollar home owners or their Realtors may be able to afford to hire a remote control 'copter to take aerial photos or video, less expensive listings generally cannot afford that luxury.

The following photographs were taken for a local business. I used a raised extension pole to capture the aerial shot that better shows off the patio area.
Pole Pixie Trigger Kit

Pole Pixie Trigger Kit Pole Pixie Trigger Kit

In the field

As previously mentioned, I started experimenting with PAP with the idea of trying it out for use with photography and video. Once I finished doing my research I headed over to Amazon.com and ordered a Shur-line 4-9 ft Easy Reach Extension Pole. I also wanted to try out the different pole adapters so I contacted Kacey Enterprises and Pole Pixie who were kind enough to pole adapters for me to test out and write about.

I also ordered a Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX30v point & shoot digital camera. I chose the Sony since it is very lightweight, offers 1080/60p video recording, and features Sony's active stabilization feature. Sony DSC-HX30v The DSC-HX20v is a twin to the DSC-HX30v I just mentioned, except that it lacks the built-in Wi-Fi feature. For the additional $30 I recommend getting the Wi-Fi version as it allows you to wirelessly transfer the photos to your computer, phone or tablet during playback.

For my first test I decided to head out to the harbor, which proved to be an ideal testing location since I had to deal with sun in my eyes and gusty winds, two important factors to consider when holding a pole 15' above your head with a camera on top. With this set up I had no problem getting the camera & pole in the air and keeping it fairly stable despite the winds. The active stabilization on the Sony DSC-HX30v worked as well as I was hoping it would and the overall first test went fairly well. Here is a quick video with results from this test. The opening scene was just walking my dog while holding the camera in my hand. The scenes after that were all shot with the Sony DSC-HX30v mounted on a Shure-line painters extension pole.

On the way back from the beach I decided to ride shotgun in order to raise the pole through the cars sunroof. I wanted to see how well this configuration would do while in a moving car - taking care to keep the pole below overhanging tree limbs, telephone wires, and electric wires.

Mount Monitor on Pole

Once I had a taste for aerial video and photography I knew that I would eventually want to connect a small monitor along the lower section of the pole so that I could monitor and frame my shots. Unfortunately this is where the Sony camera failed me. The camera offers an HDMI output port and the image on the external monitor looked beautiful. The only problem was that when I hit record on the Sony camera it stopped sending it's image to the HDMI output. So despite the camera's small size, excellent image quality, active stabilization, and 1080/60 video recording I ended up returning the camera. I knew that without live video out during recording I would quickly outgrow the camera.

The 30mm wide-angle of the Sony camera was also not as wide as I had hoped. A wide-angle field-of-view is really important when doing pole aerial photography as it will help to exaggerate the height while also being more forgiving when framing a scene. Holding the 9' pole over your head gives you about 15 feet of height. While this feels and looks pretty high, it didn't really give me the "wow" factor I was hoping for. A wider angle lens, such as a 14mm, 20mm, or even 24mm would definitely have helped to exaggerate the height and give a more dramatic effect.

I also realized that if I wanted to mount a monitor on a pole, the pole would need to be longer so that I can keep one end of the pole on the ground instead of holding it above my head. Being able to keep the bottom of the pole on the ground would also make the entire setup more stable, making it easier for me to watch the monitor and even trigger the camera remotely for still shots. I ended up picking up a Mr. LongArm 7516 (8ft - 15ft) extension pole, which at full extension gets the camera up 15' while keeping the bottom of the pole on the ground.

Triggering Your Camera

If you're using a point & shoot camera on a pole you'll either need to get a PolePixie Trigger Frame or rely on the 10-second self-timer. Using the built-in self-time works okay for a few pictures but you'll have to lower the pole after each picture to trigger the next photo. The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX30v I The PolePixie trigger frame (I have not tested this) allows you to trigger the camera while the pole is extended.

Remote Shutter Trigger

If you're shooting with a DSLR there are some very inexpensive triggering remotes that use RF instead of infra-red. RF doesn't need line-of-sight and works beautifully for pole aerial photography. Here are links to inexpensive RF remotes available via Amazon. As of this writing these remotes are all priced under $45.

This pole is best used with a lighter mirror-less or point & shoot camera model. Since the release to extend the pole is at the 8' mark, you'll need to raise and lower the pole at an angle, making it a bit unwieldy with a heavier DSLR camera. I did actually mount my Canon EOS 5D Mark III to the pole using the Pole Pixie Pro Camera Adapter and tilting head, but I was only comfortable extending it to about 12' due to the awkward nature of raising into a vertical position. If I had mounted a lighter camera I could have easily extended it all the way without fear - or if I had a counterweight near the bottom of the pole I would have felt more comfortable going higher. While on the subject of a counterweight. Pole Pixie sells a counterweight solution called the "Painter Pole Weight Boot" ($24.95) which will wrap around most painter poles and the wonderPole

WonderPole: 6ft - 21'

If you really want to get serious about pole aerial photography, Pole Pixie is also a distributor of a product called the WonderPole The WonderPole is made for camera aerial photography and instead of starting out at 8', it starts out at just under 6' and can be extended up to 21' (in 6 sections) while keeping the pole vertical. The downside is the cost. The wonderPole sells between $250 and $300, but does include additional accessories from PolePixie. Still, if you're considering mounting a $1000-$5000 DSLR onto a pole for aerial photography and/or video, spending a couple hundred dollars to insure it's safety makes a lot more sense than spending $30 on a painters pole.

Audio Boom Pole or Strobe Flash Pole

Painters poles also make for a low-cost alternative to the audio boom pole, and as a weigh to get your speed lights higher into the air (simulating sunlight). Kacey Enterprises sells the "Kacey Pole Adapter" for this very purpose. The Kacey Pole Adapter lets you mount strobes onto a standard paint extension pole and features a 5/8 baby pin on top. Using this adapter a photographer can have their assistant quickly move from situation to situation in places where a light stand would be too clumsy (wedding reception, beach shoots, city shots, sports, etc. ). Add the Kacey Enterprises Beauty Reflector or Soft-box Ring and you'll have an ultra portable system to work with your speed light or studio strobe.

Stay alert of the dangers that surround you

Pole Aerial Photography is a great, inexpensive, and portable way of getting great aerial stills and video footage but you MUST be aware of your surroundings. Obviously you need to raise and lower the camera slowly since the height combined with the added weight of a camera will make the pole increasingly harder to control. But you also NEED to be aware of any electric wires, telephone wires, tree limbs, and other hazards that could either kill you or your camera. You also want to make sure that your pole can handle whatever weight you're putting on top of it and that all of your mounts are secure before raising the camera. Having your camera fall off is bad enough, but injuring someone in the process is much worse.

The research I did on the subject of pole photography and video really seemed to pay off. All of the accessories that I tested, which included the two different painter poles, the Pole Pixie Camera Adapter with Foam Resting Platform, and the Kacey Enterprises Pole Adapter, performed as promised. I love the look of the Kacey Pole Adapter with its solid aluminum design, oversize 2" knurled locking washer and stainless steel 3/8" thread for securing a ball head. The adapter doesn't have a locking mechanism to ensure it doesn't come unthreaded, but a small amount of Loctite 242, which the company recommends, quickly secures it. The company included a small package of loctite 242 with the review sample and it indeed held the adapter securely in place even with the weight of a Canon 5D Mark III mounted to the pole, held at various angles.

The Pole Pixie Pro Adapter that was sent for review is also made of aluminum and features a locking nut to secure the adapter to the pole. While the adapter looks less high-tech than the Kacey DSLR pole adapter, many will appreciate the black color over the silver. While the unit I was sent featured a 1/4-20" top mounting screw I highly recommending spending the extra money for their version with the 3/8" thread. Consider it low-cost insurance when mounting an expensive camera on top of the pole. Of course you'll also need to make sure that whatever tripod head you use with it also supports a 3/8' thread. Also keep in mind that putting a 3/8" adapter over a 1/4-20" thread does not give it the strength of a 3/8" thread.

Pole Pixie is a company that offers more than just a pole adapter. Their company sells everything you need to make pole aerial photography safe and affordable - from adapters, of which they offer three models (standard 1/4-20", Pro 1/4-20" and Pro 3/8"), to devices that will trigger your camera, to protective resting platforms, and professional poles such as the WonderPole for when you decide to integrate PAP into your business.

Kacey Enterprises may have less in the way of camera mounting accessories, but they make up for that in offering accessories that allow you to mount speed lights and professional strobes to extension poles.

I have included quick links below for you to get more information on, or to start out in pole aerial photography

Inexpensive Paint Extension Poles

Professional Extension Poles

Pole Pixie Products

Kacey Products

Tilting Heads and Ball Heads

Further Reading

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