Having the camera at about 5’3” off the ground is just about the perfect height for shooting architectural exteriors. That is because that height replicates our perception, the height from where the average eye sees the world. Sometimes, however, there is a need to put the camera at a higher angle. Often the requirement is dictated by what is on the street or in front of the building, such as a crowded parking lot at a shopping mall or low-rise office building. Since the advent of smaller digital cameras, photographers have played around with getting the camera in the air without resorting to scissor lifts or helicopters. Here are two techniques that we have used recently that have greatly added to our capabilities in creating images that were almost impossible to get only a short time ago.
Eric Sahlin and I have been working with the idea of putting digital cameras up in the air, literally. Today’s DSLRs are light enough to be perched on high poles or stands and can be controlled via Wi-Fi devices like cell phones or laptops for real time viewing and operation. With the proper add-on device, my laptop or cell phone can control my camera and give me a real time view from the camera’s lens. Eric has equipped a 16’ stand with tripod head mounted on top for just this type of assignment.
Recently we were asked to shoot storefronts on an historic property in downtown San Francisco where we had to capture some of the buildings intricate terracotta façade three stories up as well as the ground level retail. We needed to get the camera 16’ off the ground since that was the approximate optical center of the image. The client requested a flat, elevational shot for each storefront. Using a Canon 5D and a Samsung smart phone as controller, we were able to take multiple views from 16’ and then stitch them together using a Photoshop plug-in app. The results were well received.
Eric has taken the concept of “up in the air” photography a step further by investing in a “quad-copter,” a battery operated, remote control miniature helicopter with mounted camera. These types of “flying cameras” offer remarkable capabilities for doing both stills and videos of larger building complexes such as college campuses or shopping centers. The FAA is still developing rules for the commercial use of remote controlled flying devices such as quad-copters, but the potential is there to significantly change how we photograph and perceive our built environment.