I was hired by a company called RecWest to shoot some images of a playground they had just installed, at Oxnard Beach Park in the city of Oxnard. Originally they had envisioned hiring a lift truck to get me up high, so I could shoot the entire playground from above. However as we planned for the shoot, it became apparent that the city was going to ask too much in terms of permits and insurance. It quickly became impractical to use heavy machinery. The company was about to give up and cancel the shoot, when I hit upon an idea. Ever the DIY guy, I remembered reading about “pole-cams”…stick your camera on a pole and shoot from on high. Sure you can buy or rent super fancy versions of these, but that would have been as bad as the lift truck. So instead I set about making my own pole-cam based on this DIY version (link).
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The construction is almost identical to the webite I referenced. The long pole (mostly out of frame in the image below) is a 15 foot paint-roller extension pole. I sprung for the light fiberglass version, since I would be holding this in the air for a long time. Attached to that is section of a wooden paint-roller extension pole, which just screws on to the longer one. Drilled into the top of that is a 3/8″ hanger bolt, which allows the tripod head to be mounted.
I bought a remote control trigger off ebay for about $30, which allows me to half-press the shutter for focus, or to fire the shutter, all remotely. The unit’s transmitter was a little dodgy though, and required me to tap it against something to get it to work sometimes. But hey it was cheap and got the job done! I would not have been able to do this job if I couldn’t trigger the camera to fire remotely. Sadly, it seems to interfere with my radio flash units, so I couldn’t use both at once. Perhaps some more experimentation is needed at a later date…
The weak spot of this contraption is the wooden pole with the hanger bolt drilled in it, along with the plastic and ill-fitting coupler to the longer pole. I glued that plastic connector onto both the metal and wooden sections. But I was worried about the wood splitting at the wrong moment, resulting in several thousand dollars’ worth of camera falling to the ground. Sure they make nice bouncy material for playground surfaces now, but this isn’t a child we’re talking about, it’s a CAMERA! I wasn’t going to take any risks. So I took my tripod strap, tightened the noose end around the main pole, and then duct-taped it into position so it wouldn’t slide. I then clipped the other end of the tripod strap to the camera strap, to secure it. Even if the duct tape failed, the camera would slide slowly down the pole rather than come loose completely. That was the theory anyway.
I am happy to report that the camera and pole performed wonderfully, even though the winds picked up to 30 mph by the end of the shoot. The only moment of fear I had was when, on raising the pole for the umpteenth time, I saw the camera rotate as it went up. I gently brought it back down, to find that various screw-mounts had come loose in all the handling. I caught that potential disaster in time!
This pole camera was so effective, I was able to stitch together large panoramas of the playground, simply by rotating the pole and taking multiple shots. Also, because I was shooting with a wide angle, the camera appears to be shooting from much higher than it really was (about 16 feet up).
I got to the location before dawn, so that I could get some dramatic lighting. I picked morning rather than evening, because the client wanted the playground as empty as possible. Kids don’t go to the playground at 5:30am, but they do hang out there at dusk!
I brought some lights so I could ‘augment the ambient’. Below is an image after sun had just risen, casting dramatic shadows with the poles. Meanwhile I had my Norman 200B lighting up the front of the structure, from camera right. Otherwise this side of the structure would have been in almost complete darkness (compare to the dark palm trees, which is how the front of the structure would have been).
A pre-dawn shot below, this time with my Norman to the right, and my SB-28 to the left. All were triggered with radio triggers from the camera. Note the handy seagull in the upper left.