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Guest post: Aerial photography with a telescoping monopod by Mike Hagen

The next guest post is by Mike Hagen (www.outthereimages.com/blog) who contributes this chapter from a recent book he helped write with Cyrill Harnischmacher called The Wild Side of Photography, Unconventional and Creative Techniques for the Courageous Photographer (www.rockynook.com/books/147.html). Mike is the author of The Nikon Creative Lighting System and Nikon Capture NX 2 After the Shoot. He is also the director for the Nikonians Academy (www.nikoniansacademy.com). Make sure you click on each image for larger view. You can follow him on Twitter at @MikeJHagen.

Frequently in photography, the best vantage point for a photo is high above the crowd. Taking all your pictures at eye level can get boring after a while. For years, travel photographers have known that great coverage of every destination should include an opening shot that sets the scene. This opening shot is often taken from the second story of a building or parking garage in order to show the surrounding area from a higher vantage point.

But what happens if you can't get to a higher vantage point? What if the second story of the building is closed? What if you are photographing in a location where there isn’t any way to get to higher ground? In these cases, you need to make your own aerial photography monopod.

Aerial photography is typically defined as taking photographs from an airplane, helicopter, or kite. These methods all provide a high vantage point for your photos, but each method has some potential pitfalls. Using an airplane or helicopter is very expensive, and you can't always get into the right spot at the right time due to federal and local flight restrictions. Kite aerial photography requires steady wind, and that isn't always available at the exact time you need it. Also, who wants to attach their $4000 digital SLR to a kite?

A simple solution for getting your camera up into the air for a higher vantage point is to build an extension pole with a ball head on the end. You can then attach your camera to the end of the pole, raise it into the air, and take your photographs.

The easiest way to attach your camera to a pole is to use a monopod. A standard monopod will frequently extend to 5 to 6 feet. If you raise this monopod above your head, you can easily get the camera up to about 10 to 12 feet high. However, many times you need to get much higher than a monopod will allow. In these cases, the best solution might be to use a long wooden pole or a telescoping paintbrush handle extension. This will allow you to raise the camera 20 feet or more into the air in a safe and secure manner.

Construction of an aerial photography telescoping monopod is fairly simple and straightforward. The foundation of the system is the telescoping extension pole. I purchased the pole for the example shown here from my local home improvement/hardware store. They had seven different models to choose from, ranging from a small wooden fixed-length model for $7.00 to a 30-foot professional extension pole that cost close to $100.00.

I ended up choosing a 12-foot aluminum extension pole with a twist-lock feature that makes it quick and easy to change the length. The pole is 6 feet long when collapsed and 12 feet long when extended. Also, the fact that it is aluminum means that it is lightweight and easy to manage when I am in the field taking photos.

You can use a simple monopod and ball head to raise the camera about 10 feet. But if you need to get your camera higher, you'll need to use a longer extension pole.

On the following page, table 1 shows the supply list for the project. As you can see, the total cost for building the pole is about $22.15. In addition to the pole, you'll need a standard photography tripod head. As a photographer, I own too many old tripod heads, so I just used one that I had in my closet. You can buy new, low-end ball heads for around $15.00 on eBay.com or Amazon.com. Make sure the tripod head you choose is fairly lightweight so you don't have to work hard to lift it into the air.

Table 2 includes the various tools you'll need for the project. The only power tool you'll need is an electric drill; all the other tools should be fairly easy to come by.

Step by Step Instructions for Construction

Shown here are the parts needed for the construction of the aerial photography monopod. From the bottom: telescoping paintbrush extension handle, three piece wooden extension pole, hose clamp, 3/8" hanger bolt, and 3/8" washer.

 

1. Cut the threaded end off of the wood dowel with a saw. The picture above shows how much of the threaded end to remove.

2. File the edges to remove any burrs.

3. Mark the center of the cut end with a straightedge and pencil.

4. Determine how deep your hole needs to be by placing the hanger bolt next to the dowel.

5. Drill a pilot hole with the small 1/8" drill bit. Make sure the hole is parallel to the dowel so that the drill bit doesn't exit the side.

6. Using the larger 3/8" drill bit, drill the hole to the desired depth.

7. Install the hose clamp so the wood won't split when screwing in hanger bolt.

8. Use a set of pliers to install the hanger bolt. Be careful not to use the pliers on the top end of the hanger bolt so that you don't smash the threads. I suggest wrapping a rag around the end of the threads while twisting with the pliers. Leave approximately 3/8" (9mm) protruding from the end of the wooden dowel.

I suggest wrapping a rag around the end of the threads so that the pliers don't smash the threads when you install the hanger bolt. Leave approximately 3/8" (9mm) protruding from the end of the wooden dowel.

9. Install the 3/8" washer over the end of the hanger bolt. You may glue this to the dowel if you wish. Use an epoxy for the strongest bond.

10. Thread the ball head onto the end of the dowel. Tighten snugly so the base won't rotate when you are using the system out in the field.

11. Screw the dowel extension onto the end of the telescoping paintbrush handle.

Using the Aerial Photography Monopod in the Real World

Putting the aerial photography monopod into use can be a tricky. Here are some tips for good success with the system:

1. Attach the camera to the ball head first; then extend the monopod to the desired height.

2. Set your camera to manual exposure mode. If you decide to use an auto exposure mode like Aperture priority or Program mode, cover the viewfinder on the back of the camera so bright ambient light doesn't enter the light meter and darken
the exposure.

3. Set your camera to manual focus mode and try to pre-focus on your subject before lifting your camera into the air. Autofocus can be very difficult when the camera is up in the air, especially since you won't be able to really tell where the camera is pointed. Using smaller apertures like f/8 or f/16 will also help increase the depth of field in your photographs.

4. You can trigger the camera's shutter using a variety of methods:

a. My favorite method is to use the camera's self-timer. I set the self-timer delay for five seconds, trigger the shutter release, and lift the camera into the air for the shot. I also set my camera (i.e. D7000, D90) to take five pictures every time the self-timer goes off. I use Continuous Low shooting speed and set the frame rate to 1 fps (frame per second). Using this method, I can try a number of different compositions without having to bring the camera back down to trigger the next shot.

b. Another method is to use an infrared remote such as the units that are compatible with the Nikon D7000/D5100/D90/D5000 (ML-L3 or ML-3 Compact Modulite Remote Control Set) and Canon Rebel/5D MKII (RC1 Wireless Remote Control). It can be a little bit difficult to hold the pole with one hand while also trying to trigger the camera with the other hand.

c. You can also use a radio trigger such as the Phottix wireless remote. You can buy these from eBay.com for around $40. Another option is the Pocket Wizard radio trigger. Pocket Wizards are expensive, but reliable.

d. Finally, you can try using a cable release like the Nikon MC-30 or the Canon RS-80N3. The downside to using a cable release is that these are pretty short and won't allow you to fully extend the pole.

5. Hold as still as possible—any side-to-side rotation will cause blurry images. Use faster shutter speeds and higher ISOs to help decrease blur. Also, stabilized VR/IS lenses work very well.

6. If you are using a super wide angle lens, such as a fisheye or 10mm lens, be sure to shoot with the camera angled away from the monopod rather than into the monopod. If you don't do this, you'll get the monopod and you in the image!

7. If your digital camera has a tilt LCD panel, you can use this in the Live View mode to compose your pictures. Point the LCD panel down towards the ground and aim the camera by using the image on the screen.

8. Shoot at a wider angle than you think you will need. Invariably, you'll need to crop the photo or level the horizon in the final image, so giving yourself room to work with will be helpful.

9. Consider making the pole long enough to be able to place the base on the ground while you're shooting. This will allow you to raise the camera to a significant height without having to lift the pole into the air. Also, this is a very stable way to shoot
photos and is similar to using a 25-foot tall monopod.

10. If you have to be mobile while shooting photos, you might consider placing the base of the pole in your belt to take the weight off your arms. This will also help to stabilize the pole.

Real World Photo Examples

Here are some examples that show how shooting from a higher vantage point can result in better photographs. In both of these examples, I used a Nikon D90 with a 12–24mm f/4 lens. I set the camera’s self-timer with a five second delay. I also set the camera to take five pictures after the self-timer tripped the shutter. For the tennis court image, I set the lens' focus to infinity and the aperture to f/8. For the image of the fisherman statue, I set the lens' focus to approximately 8 feet and the aperture to f/11.

Here, the fence is an obvious impediment to getting a photo of the action.

The solution is to raise your camera over the fence using the aerial photography monopod.

A lower vantage point makes the fisherman statue seem unusually large.

The higher vantage point gives this photo a much better perspective. You are able to see the dock and the harbor , and the statue looks much more realistic.

This panorama of Gig Harbor, Washington, USA, was taken with a Nikon D200 and stitched together with Photoshop. The photo shown here is a crop of a larger image that contains 15 individual images with an aspect ratio of 1:20. To take great panoramas, you'll need to photograph in Manual exposure mode while also setting your white balance to a fixed value (i.e., Sunny). Then, make sure that you overlap each photo with the adjacent photo by about 25%. This allows your processing software to do a better job of stitching the images together.

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  • Patrick

    Useful and interesting “perspective”. Thanks!

    • http://bit.ly/9NIXQ David Hasselblaff

      Has anybody seen the Gitzo Athena in action yet? I bet it could do wonders mounted on a heavy-duty 20′ light stand.

  • http://eleventhphotograph.com elph

    Guess you could say…

    *puts on glasses*

    his shots are above ours.

    • Global

      :-P

      • Metal Bird

        Ha Ha

  • Son of FE

    Great tip. A good way to make photos that are head and shoulders above the crowd!

    P. S. I have enjoyed your Nikon CLS book. It removed the mystery of this system much better than the manuals.

    • http://www.outthereimages.com/blog Mike Hagen

      Thanks. Glad you enjoyed the book (and the post).

  • http://www.amanochocolate.com Art

    What would be really useful for this would be not just a tilt screen but a fully removable LCD screen.

    I wonder if anybody has thought of that?

    ;-)

    • iamlucky13

      Beyond the reference to the removable screen in the recent concept post…

      …you should be able to work out some sort of tethered system to get at the Live View feed, right?

  • http://www.imaginationimagesofiowa.com 480sparky

    Or, you could just get a painter’s pole and what is called a Pole Pixie. Google it.

    • Global

      Or a 10′ ladder.

      • steve

        yeah. that is why i wouldn’t really put this in the category of “aerial photography.” Maybe if you had a 50ft. pole or something, but I have seen numerours DIY stuff as good as this for a while. And you really aren’t getting that high. I was expecting a bit more when I saw the title.

    • Geoff_K

      thanks for the pole pixie information. i would probably go that way over making my own tip.

  • Louie

    couldnt you just use a camera lift like they use in high school sports photography to tape the action from the endzone?

    • Gerry

      Yeah! Maybe you could also use the bleachers, a blimp, a small helicopter, or some other object that is not often available for this type of photography.

  • Paul

    Hi,
    Did you use a panoramic head for the last photo or did you just shoot and let the software do the job? Its a really great shot!

    Paul

    • http://www.outthereimages.com/blog Mike Hagen

      Shoot and let software do the rest. I took this shot quite a while ago (2006 maybe?) with a Nikon D200. Stitched it together in Photoshop CS3.

  • http://www.alldigi.com/ Geoff

    This would be good to get a different perspective for real estate photography.

  • RCS

    Some of my beach volleyball shots are taken using this technique coupled with a Nikon 10-24mm lens wide open.

  • qashar

    (see one additional idea below) It works great! I don’t know where I read it, but this tecnique show up in my mind when I was at the Colbert/Stewart rally in the Mall last year in the middle of thousand people, even 6 feet above the heads makes a lot of difference.
    ONE MORE TECH IDEA: if you have someone helping you and a light laptop, you can connect the camera with a USB cable (plus a usb extension, 15 feet sells for nothing) and then use DSLR camera remote lite app (free) to get the image on the screen. So you can check where the camera is pointing at. Being the laptop always connected to the camera and creating an ad-hoc wireless network, you can also use your Iphone to see the screen and take pictures while you are far from the pole…

    • http://www.outthereimages.com/blog Mike Hagen

      This is an awesome idea. Love it.

    • chris

      i was there! except there was a cherry picker in the press area so i got that shot without a giant monopod :]

  • http://ml.cs.colorado.edu/~ben/gallery Ben

    Nice! Now who thinks the D800’s detachable monitor is silly? :)

    I think the motivation isn’t quite as strong as the author makes it out to be: an SLR is required for focusing on things that move, for shallow DOF, and for low light. It seems to me that the first two would seldom apply to aereal photography, so in many cases a P&S will suffice. A model airplane that would carry a p&s would be about the price of a good amateur-grade lens, and give you an enormous amount of freedom in choosing your shots. Same applies to the kite option, although a kite that will hoist 3kg of SLR quite reliably is a lot cheaper and more portable than an aircraft (of course there’s that requirement of cooperation from Aeolus…).

    But this is still pretty solid: the pole will let you get some great shots for not much money nor weight nor bulk.

  • horseboy

    who wants to attach there $4000 slr to a kite, who wants to attach to to a 60 foot pole either?

    • Geoff_K

      I wonder what my insurance company would say when I told them my kite crashed and my camera was destroyed. I can see the WHAT THE HELL WERE YOU THINKING look on their faces.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/friedtoast/ Fried Toast

    Was just thinking about rigging up something like this. Great timing!

  • busynbored

    I woner why someone is not using this to get over the obvious impediments of fences at Sendai?????? :P

    • http://www.flickr.com/photos/friedtoast/ Fried Toast

      Maybe because there are other things to worry about in Sendai.

  • http://www.shortfingerphoto.com Nubz

    Great post and another reminder on the importance of POV. I think we all get complacent at times and we need these little reminders to prod us in a new direction. I’ll have to consider making one of those boobs at some point.

  • Kyle

    Two tips:

    1. Use an intervalometer to take the pictures. This is actually what I’m using my MC-36 most often for.

    2. When screwing in the hanger bolt, put two nuts on the end of it. By jamming the two nuts together, the top nut will be locked in place; you can then use a wrench to screw in the bolt. No need to mess up the threads.

  • Keith

    This is a great idea! I think I’m going to try it out with my wireless-usb to camera link and Nikon Camera Control. …but with the d40/kit lens and not the D3S ;)

  • http://ronscubadiver.wordpress.com ronscubadiver

    Rad…

  • Bullsnot

    I am Iron Man, therefore:

    1. I need no help levitating my camera.
    2. I am better than you.
    3. My helmet-cam puts all of your SLRs to SHAME (it’s made by Apple BTW).

  • D700guy

    Why hasnt anyone mentioned duct taping your $4000 DSLR to an Estes Rocket?
    They do have parachutes ya know.

  • 2cents

    Thanks for the great post. I’ve used the tripod/monopod extension method a few times before and it works great. I’ve used it in crowd shots at fairs and car shows and it give you a great new perspective. And you get a lot of people that watch you and want to see what the shot looks like afterward. Thanks.

  • MMS

    I use a similar set-up, but have only used a monopod to hoist the camera 5.5ft in the air. Two useful additions:
    1. Adorama Aputure Gigtube: permits live view from the camera’s viewfinder with remote shutter release; the extension cable is long enough to have the viewfinder at eye level mounted on a justin clamp which is clamped to the monopod. Perfect for framing and eliminates guess work.
    2. I use a flagpole harness (used by marching bands and color guards) to hold the base of the monopod, freeing up one hand to trigger the shutter release and providing extra security.

    • http://www.flickr.com/photos/friedtoast/ Fried Toast

      Excellent tips! I was wondering about a harness myself. Didn’t think of the marching band harness.

  • jg

    Interesting and useful post. I’m bookmarking it. Thanks!

  • http://www.brac360.ky wilco

    This is not a new topic. A lot of people did pole pano long time ago and may be people does not noticed it. Agnos and Nodalninja have pole stuff.
    Here is the link with pole done by photographer from Netherland http://www.dmmdh.nl/panos/fanotec/fanotec_series1_pole_panoramas/flash/index.html
    http://www.dmmdh.nl/panos/fanotec/fanotec_series2_pole_panoramas/flash/index.html

    • http://www.flickr.com/photos/friedtoast/ Fried Toast

      No, not new, but those guys never put up anything on NR to help out others, did they? If the internet only contained “new” stuff, it’s be a pretty barren place ;)

  • http://kyoshiphotography.com/ kyoshinikon

    I already do it all of the time…

  • http://blog.sankeyphoto.com Joe

    Don’t forget to pick up some small bubble levels while you’re at the hardware store; they can be clamped to the handle to give you a bit more precision (when wind conditions allow.)

  • R R

    I have been doing that for a long time now.. :)

  • Mark

    this might come in handy as well

    http://www.kaceyenterprises.com/?page_id=871

    BTW, I am not related to them in any way…

  • http://ilovetoronto.com/ Heather

    Thanks for the tip, I am not very good at inventing technical solutions and as an amateur photographer I do not really want to buy a $100.00 professional extension pole hence your solution works perfectly for me !

  • luka pogorelz

    “who wants to attach their $4000 digital SLR to a kite?”
    Well, yeah, but who wants to attach a 2kg DSRL to a 6m pole near water either?

  • http://www.wedding-photographer.it Vittore

    Wow really smart.
    Great.

  • http://www.dimo.spb.ru свадебный фотограф

    I used to use :) my Manfrotto monopod, but now I realize it’s short and heavy enough to be interesting. Will try to make the one you explained, thanks!!

  • http://www.dmmdh.nl Wim Koornneef

    Hello Wilco,

    Thanks for posting the links to my galleries of panoramas shot on Fanotec poles, I am the Dutch photographer you mention and I am using poles for making interactive 360 degree panoramas for many years.

    Although it is true that it is possible to get good results with a well build DIY pole it is much more handy and without any doubt much safer to use a pole that is designed for the job, hence I am happy with my Fanotec poles.

    With pole shooting greetings,
    Wim Koornneef

  • FlyingRooster
  • http://www.performanceimpressions.com/ Photography

    Digital periscope by Performance Impressions Photography – http://fstoppers.com/fstoppers-quicky-david-oppenheimer-shoots-jay-z-at-bonnaroo

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