About Me

Wells, BC, Canada
Richard is a working photographer and writer in B.C. His camera focuses on natural history. archeology, travel, and documentary photography. His photography blog may be found at: http://richardtwright.blogspot.com/

Sunday, April 21, 2013

How to take low angle aerial photos - Mast Photography

It's all a matter of perspective

The historic Kurtz and Lane Mining Claim ditchline, as seen from ground level in the Williams Creek fen.

How often have you been in a situation of wanting a little more height for your photography? Maybe you wanted to look over a wall, look down on your subject or change the perspective for a different view. I often found this to be the case. I tried the usual step ladder or putting a camera on the end of a monopod with the self-timer on and holding it as high as I could reach, but none were quite what I wanted.
One of my photographic projects involves photographing features left over from the Cariboo gold rush of the 1860s, subjects like ditchlines, cemeteries, and archeological sites. I needed a way to look directly down or get a oblique view. I needed height.  It is surprising how even a 10 foot height changes the view.
From a web search I got the idea of purchasing or building a camera mast - a 12-30 foot mast that would lift the camera to new heights.  It is surprising how even a 10 foot height changes the view.
I did look a buying one of the telescoping hydraulic masts that can be found on line but frankly I did not want to invest $2000-$10,000 before I tried it out. I had enough gear around that I was able to build one for just over $500.

Most of the mast gear ready for a ford to the far gravel bar for a straight shot.
The setup I came up with is a tripod and mast from a stage-lighting stand with another lighting pole attached on top, for a total of 20 feet.  The mast can be cranked up an additional 4 feet beyond normal with a hand crank, or a portable drill with a nut adapter. 

Beyond 20 feet I can add more sections. I actually have a choice of two stands, one heavy, best suited to vehicle transport and another lighter one that is better for backpacking into sites. (Backpacking into a site is the subject of another blog.) The price of these lighting stands depends on the make and source but generally they are around $250.

The mast is topped with a Bescor MP-101 Motorized Pan Head pan/tilt head powered by 4 AA cells and remotely controlled ($130); and the camera is tethered with a 30 foot HDMI cord through Nikon Camera Capture 2 software ($180) to a Macbook Pro. (The next goal is of course to use a wireless teather, though the Bescor needs a wire anyway.) When the site is near a road the Macbook is set on a music easel ($50) and masked with a hood or black cloth.

My first subject was the historic Kurtz and Lang mining claim ditchline, just a mile from my home. The goal was to get an aerial look at the ditchline which had straightened a creeks course for mining purposes near Barkerville, British Columbia.

The area as seen in an aerial photograph from the 1970s. The site is one-mile east of Wells, B.C. and about 4 miles or 6 kilometres west of Barkerville Historic Town.

I was working without an assistant for this shoot, which is sometimes preferable as you can screwup or get frustrated without anyone knowing, and there is no time pressure.

The mast set at 12 feet. The camera is fastened to a lower section
 of the mast with a lighting safety cable - just in case.

Now, what difference does it make? The three following shots illustrate the story.

Ground level - 6 feet. 

Mast at 12 feet. Note the telephone poles now showing on the left.

Mast at 18 feet. Note that in this shot the highway on the left can now be seen.
More importantly we get a view of the ditch heading west.
With the Nikon Camera Capture 2 tethering I could view on my laptop what the camera was seeing, and, I could make all viewing and exposure adjustments except for zooming. The focal length had to be preset. If I misjudged, then the mast and camera had to be lowered and reset.

For another example I rotated the Bescor MP 101 head through it's full range and shot in the other direction, upstream.

Looking upstream from 6 foot height.

Upstream from 12 foot height. Quite a different view.
The mast and components worked flawlessly. For this light tripod I found that 18 feet was about as high as I wanted to go without further stabilization. If I want to go to 25 or 30 feet I use a 25 pound tripod and larger diameter mast extensions. The tripod can also be weighted with sandbags or water bags and the mast stabilized further with guy lines.

I have also added a boom arm which allows the camera to look down vertically, without showing the tripod legs, for while the Bescor will rotate 170 degrees in either direction it will only tilt 15 degrees.

Since this shoot I have photographed several other sites, including a cemetery and a couple of archeological sites. I am looking for the right bird's nest to get a good view and am planning some commercial shoots, such as real estate, as houses can look so much more attractive from a few feet up.

I will be posting more mast photos in the next couple of weeks.
All photos taken with a Nikon D7000, Nikkor 18-105mm lens at 25 mm, f8, 1/250th.

If you have any questions on the setup leave a comment.



Copyright 2013 Richard T Wright.


  1. Who is the manufacturer of the light stands that you use?

  2. Who is the manufacturer of the larger light mast that you use and where can it be purchased.

  3. Dear Anonymous;
    Sorry for the delay in replying but I have been on the road. The crank up stand is a Stage Stand; the push up is a Yorkville. However, Yorkville also have the crankup, which is much heavier. You can see them at:
    They do not list a price online but you could write or call them.
    BTW - normally I do not respond to Anonymous comments as to often they are spam.