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Night Photography with a Pole

Posted by Tom Benedict on 10/07/2010

When I started planning my trip to the 2010 SPIE Astronomical Instrumentation conference in San Diego, there was no question about bringing my KAP gear.  It was coming, no matter what.  But as I was packing my kites, I tossed in my carbon fiber pole, more or less on a whim.  It started life as a breem fishing pole I picked up at K-Mart for about $20.  With almost no modification, I turned it into a really tall, if really floppy, monopole.

Laid Out

I didn’t have any particular plans for using it, but I figured why not?  In the end I’m extremely glad I did.  It let me get some shots I wouldn’t otherwise have been able to make, and being in a city like San Diego gave me opportunities to use it that simply don’t exist where I live.  There’s not much of a night scene here in Waimea, so most of my photography is done during the day.  After experiencing San Diego at night, I found myself wishing for more chances to do night photography.

Santa Fe Railroad Terminal in San Diego

My first shot was at the Santa Fe railroad station just outside Little Italy.  If I had to point to one hurdle that had to be overcome, it was motion of the pole itself.  After metering the scene and choosing an ISO setting on my camera that would give me decent noise performance, I found my shutter speed to be a little over half a second.  Even with image stabilization, I can’t handhold a camera at that speed, much less handhold a camera on the other end of an 18′ floppy pole.  I needed another solution.

The train station itself provided a fix: light poles.  Rather than use my carbon pole to hold the camera for the shot, I used it simply to boost the camera up to a good working height.  The camera itself rested against a nearby light pole.  When doing pole photography I set an intervalometer running on my camera that takes pictures every five seconds.  I don’t mute my camera, so I can hear when the shutter trips, and can guess about how much time I have before the next shot goes off.  This let me try a variety of angles, gave me plenty of time to let the camera stabilize between changes in position, all without having to bring it down to check until the whole set was done.

I used a similar technique for other shots inside Little Italy itself.  This one captured the neon Little Italy sign that’s right near Blick Art Supply and Nelson Photo.

Little Italy at Night

To make this one I used the street sign at West Date and India Street, just in front of the Princess Pub & Grill to brace my pole.  Street signs make really good braces since they have crossed pieces of metal with lots of corners in which to brace a pole.  I probably had ten feet of pole poking up above the sign, so it took a few shots on the camera before things stabilized enough to get a solid blur-free shot.  But it worked.

What made this one fun was that the pub was crowded with patrons, none of whom failed to notice the guy with the camera on the end of a long pole.  I guess I just don’t know how to blend.  One guy came out to ask what I was doing, and wanted to see what the pictures looked like.  I was only too happy to share.

If anyone reading this likes the way the photos look and wishes they could do this themselves, know that you can.  You can get everything for a simple pole setup like this at a camera store (camera and small ballhead) and at any store that carries long fishing poles (*Mart, or an honest to goodness sporting supply store).  It’s pretty straightforward.

– Tom

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