Pole photography for archaeology – Part 4: Evaluations

I end off my series on using a pole camera for archaeology (check out Parts 1: The Problem, 2: Field Test and 3: Parts list) with some evaluative notes about the use of the polecam, some things I might want to try out for later, and the cost of the whole setup.


Initial Requirements
In my first post, I wrote that I needed to be able 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.” For most part, the polecam did everything I required of it. High-quality photos (specifically, shooting in raw was an important requirement for me) is not an issue with prosumer class compacts these days, although I would one day like to have a system that I can set a DSLR up on. I couldn’t reach 35′ or 45′ feet – the maximum elevation that I could go is 30′ but I should note that height is the upper limit a normal person can handle. People with small frames might not be able to extend it this high or control the pole effectively. There are configurations that extend further, to 45’ or even 66’ – but at this height you’re going to need to mount the pole on a vehicle for stability, with a hydraulic system to extend and collapse the pole.

At the current configuration, the pole is approximately 6’ in length and weighs about 11lbs when fully collapsed. The length of the pole was a bit of an issue for me because it was a little cumbersome to stuff into a car; that said, I did manage to stuff it into a Kancil with minimum inconvenience. With a carry case or a shoulder strap, the pole could also be comfortably carried around in wide open spaces. In urban areas, I had to do a Gandalf impression and carry it like a walking staff (You shall not… pass!). Setting up was easy enough for one person, but something I didn’t really factor in was the amount of physical strength needed to operate the pole. Repeated collapsing and extending the pole, along with keeping the pole in balance when extended, requires a lot of upper body strength, especially when holding the pole is at maximum length. After three hours, I was positively tired and couldn’t extend the pole past 15’. I also managed to get some skin crushed between the telescoping sections – ouch! – and a righteous muscle ache the next day. I think two people would be able to operate the pole comfortably for a day, and a medium-to-large sized person could probably handle it alone. Hobbits would have a problem getting the camera to the top of the pole in the first place.

Future options
I’ve already mentioned that I’m not happy with the relatively narrow field of view at its widest setting (24 mm) and a wide-angle lens might be able to solve this. Another consideration was the video monitor – if you’ve noticed, I didn’t have any space of the pole to place the monitor, and most cases I propped in in the ground in front of me. It’s a bit of a strain to look down at the monitor to aim, especially on bright days, so perhaps I will find some way to mount the monitor to the pole to improve visibility. Maybe another creative use of a gorillapod? Finally, I might want to look into getting a tripod for the pole, perhaps adapting a large survey tripod to add some stability to the whole rig and take the stress out of balancing the pole. Of course, adding an additional tripod would also mean adding an extra load to the overall carry weight.

Total cost
I’ve had a couple of questions over how much this entire project cost me. My budget was US$1800. The breakdown for the items laid on in the parts list is as follows:
Hastings Hotstick + GPS Antenna mount + Carry Case: US$491
3/8″-1/4″ adapter: US$12
Gorillapod: US$6 (cheap imitation from a local camera equipment store)
Wireless remote: US$33
Fasteners: under US$5
Baby monitor (Video camera and monitor): US$250
Canon G11: US$500
Shipping and Handling (A little higher for me, since I’m based in Malaysia): US$300
Total: US$1600 (approx)
At time of writing this, this was the first time I actually sat down to count all the numbers together. I’m pleasantly surprised that I was under budget. I had expected to hit US$2,000.

Further Reading
The idea for a polecam is not a novel one, and I based my designs on a number of good suggestions out there on the web. For starters, check out the Pole Aerial Photography group on Flickr for great examples of shots, as well as a forum full of information for starters and practitioners. The West Lothian Archaeology Group was a helpful introduction to pole and kite aerial photography. Finally, this post from a real estate blog also provided great information about how to assemble a polecam from scratch.

I hope you enjoyed this series of posts on a using a pole camera for archaeology. If you make a polecam of your own, send some of your shots to me so that I can share it on this site!

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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.

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