Pole photography for archaeology – Part 1: The Problem

In this series of posts I’ll be blogging about how I put together a pole camera to help me conduct some archaeological work, and how to put together one yourself, if you’re so inclined. 10 months ago, I conducted an archaeological investigation of a rock art site which involved very little excavation, but relied heavily on photography as the primary means of recording. The bulk of the rock art was located on a cliff face 15-35’ above the surface. To access the art up close, I hired a contractor to erect a scaffold in front of the cliff face, which allowed me close access to most of the paintings. On the other hand, the scaffold had a limited time offer (two weeks) and it cost me nearly half the research grant. And it also didn’t cover all the rock art that I needed to record. To cover the other parts of the rock art that wasn’t accessible by the scaffold, I had to rely greatly on zoom photography, but because some of the areas I needed to photograph were so high, quite a few of the images were skewed.


For the first half of the year, I experimented with outfitting a radio-controlled helicopter with a small camera. I started with a simulator, learnt how to hover, and even got as far as a helicopter (an Esky Big Lama, the largest contra-rotating helicopter of its class). It turned out that even the most “stable” helicopters were stable provided there was no wind. So it was useless outdoors, and besides, it could only carry a 50g (yes, gram) load with hampered mobility. Also, hovering radio-controlled helicopters is *extremely* hard to do, requiring months of practice (not to mention extra money, since crashes are expensive). To carry something like a DSLR camera would take far more money than the original scaffold, plus a considerable investment in time to master flying one of these things – neither of which I had.

To sum up the problem and the operating constraints, what I needed was the ability to take high-quality photographs from a stable, elevated platform that could reach heights of 35 feet. This system had to be portable, operable by one person, and cost much less than what I spent on the scaffold. Since I was going to use my personal funds for this project, my budget was around SGD2,500 (about MYR6,000 or USD1800).

Earlier this year, someone posted a comment on kite aerial photography, and through the link I stumbled upon Pole Aerial Photography, which as the name implies, is a camera set atop a pole for low-altitude aerial photography. I haven’t seen anyone do it in this part of the world, and it looked like something that was quite easy to put together. So after months of research and a little poorer, this is what I got:

So what did I put together and how did it work? Read on in the next instalment of the series, Part 2: The Field Test.

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Author: Noel Tan

Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan is the Senior Specialist in Archaeology at SEAMEO-SPAFA, the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaelogy and Fine Arts.

6 thoughts on “Pole photography for archaeology – Part 1: The Problem”

  1. Looks nice already! And you definitely have more control over this than using KAP. I assume the rigs/stearing system for both are more or less the same?

  2. One of my friends made a KAP rig (fortunatily my two cameras were to heavy for the kite *grins*) and it contained 3 motors to rotate the camera to get exactly the part you want. (But he did not get the ‘stream image down’ working, so there was still a bit of a problem getting exactly what you want, that and a kite does not stay as still as a pole. :d

    So yes, please, more episodes about the gear you build! =)

  3. This aerial photography study is of special interest to me, as I was constructing similar contraptions from as early as 1978 for use at various archaeological sites in southern California. I am presently researching some rock alignment features in the Mojave Desert. I would like to cite your study in the written report, and I don’t know your name. It is good to know that there is another person out there as crazy as I have been accused of being.

  4. I live in the San Diego area and own a business that specializes in elevated imaging – or pole assisted images. I had always wanted to work in this area adnd look forward to hearing for any all contact concerning the application of this photography with this field of science.

    mike
    619.647.9922

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