Safety First in Pole Photography

Be accident free for years!

A few recommendations from an experienced pole photographer

Digital cameras may be lightweight, but lifting it up on an extended pole means that you must use care! If your pole gets out of control, you can damage your camera, your pole, and anything (e.g., people, animals, cars, plants) it falls on. Things can happen quickly, too. For example, if outside, you could stumble on uneven ground or you could get stung by a bee. Or a big gust of wind could make your pole want to tip. Or, while lowering it, depending on how long your pole is and how strong you are, the forces from the weight on the end of it could go beyond your ability to contol.

We are not trying to be alarmist, but we are trying to emphasize the importance of safety. After all, you are responsible for the proper handling of your equipment. You need to make sure that pole is strong enough to handle the weight of your equipment and that it will not break. You should make sure that your equipment is secured to your pole. And you need to make sure that you are strong enough to safely manage your pole.

Crash Course in Pole Photography
Early on, we extended a pole to about 30 feet and, as a result, the pole got out of control and we crashed a $500 camera.
Lesson #1: Do NOT try to control a very long pole single-handedly.
Lesson #2: Until you know the handling characteristics of a pole, don't put a camera on it! Get a bag of rice of the same weight as your camera and tie it to the end. Then see how it handles and whether you will have any problems controlling it on the way and (usually more importantly) on the way down.
Lesson #3: Always start with the pole unextended. Once you have the confidence in knowing that you are strong enough to handle it with the weight of your camera, then you can extend it.
Our internal rules: We do not single-handedly operate a pole longer than 24 feet due to this scary experience. In fact, we do not usually place our expensive DSLR (Canon 5d) on a pole longer than about 18-20 feet.
Safety Rules

General Rules
•Short, light poles are the easiest to manage.
•As the pole gets longer and the weight on the end is heavier, things get MUCH more difficult. That's because the strength required is non-linear. In other words, if you double the length, it takes MUCH MORE than twice the strength to handle the same pole. The same is true for weight.
•NEVER increase the weight you usually put on the pole without doing some dummy testing (see below) first! This is because a small increase of weight at an extended distance can have a powerful effect. (Think of how much power is delivered by a swinging axe, and that's only a handle of 3-4 feet in length.)
•Always read the safety rules for your pole. Poles can vary in strength and materials; you should know what yours can handle and what manufacturer's safe operating recommendations.
•Don't extend the pole beyond what you have already tested. For example, do not assume that because you can handle your camera on an eight foot pole, you will be able to handle the pole if extended to 16 or 24 feet.
•DON'T WALK AN UPRIGHT POLE LONG DISTANCES. If you do, you are just asking for trouble. It is far better to lower the camera, and walk the pole to the new location with two hands and the pole horizontal. Then raise the pole again.

Before trying your pole with a camera, use a dummy weight.
•Get a bag of rice that has the same weight as your camera, and tie it to the end.
•Make sure that you are in an open space away from property, people, and animals.
•Start short and practice raising and lowering your pole.
•If you have NO difficulty, then extend it, and practice some more. Keep doing this until you have tested your handling skills to the desired pole length.
•If you find that you have ANY difficulty handling your pole, then reduce the length and find the length that best fits your overall skill, pole strength, and camera weight.
•When you think you are done, double the weight and see if you can handle the extended pole safely. If you can, then you will probably not have any problems. But if you cannot, you need to consider whether you will be operating a safe rig that you can control or whether you should rethink what you are doing.

Other Hazards
NEVER EVER operate a painter's pole or any pole anywhere close to electric power lines.
NEVER EVER use a pole outside if lightning is possible. With an extended pole, you will be one of the tallest objects in the area, and if the pole is aluminum, you would be asking for trouble.
BE CAREFUL around flowering trees. You can stir up bees, and if you have an allergy to bee stings, you can create a nightmarish situation.
ASK OTHERS TO KEEP THEIR DISTANCE if you are handling a long pole. People will be curious about what you are doing, and you should show them the pictures once your have brought your camera down. But allowing others within the strike zone is unnecessary in most circumstances and allowing it is not a good idea. Don't ever let someone else operate the pole just because they would like to try his/her hand at it.
IF OUTSIDE, survey the terrain. Uneven terrain can cause a stumble.
BE CAREFUL WITH WIND. You might not think that a 30 mph wind can put much force on a small digital camera, but when that force is multiplied by being on a long pole, you can have problems.

Safety Techniques
•With an expensive camera, always carry insurance for its replacement value in case of an accident.
•When "walking up the pole" to raise the camera, find a curb or other immovable object to place the pole against.
•When "walking down the pole" to lower the camera, use a curb or other immovable object to place the pole against.
•A weight belt with 10 pounds of weight attached to the end of the pole is a great safety addition. Less weight may also work, but, the more weight you have, the more immovable you pole will become and the easier it will be to manage.
•BEFORE YOU RAISE YOUR CAMERA, always look around and consider whether any other object (e.g., a car) or person is within the pole's striking zone and what you will do if you have a problem.
•Stay well within your strength limits. Don't extend the pole to what you think is your limit. You can easily underestimate the forces in play, and you may be extending it beyond what you will be able to control.
The most dangerous moments are usually when the camera is being lowered. When raising it, you are fighting gravity and your lifting is tempered. However, when lowering it, you have to fight against the gravity, and you are doing so at the end of a lever. WHENEVER you lower a pole, you need to be focused on what you are doing or you can crash your camera and put people and objects at hazard.
•If you cannot get the photograph that you want, don't take risks trying to get it. There are always other approaches like helicopter flyovers that you can take.

Other Issues
Think ethically. With pole cameras, you have the ability of surveillance. You may have the ability to see a birds nest, the yard three homes away, or in the windows of a second story home. That does not mean that you should. Obviously you should always act within the law, but we recommend that you use your camera with respect for all!
This is not a complete list. We have tried to be thoughtful about this list from our experience, but this is not intended to be a comprehensive list of all the dangers that you may encounter or steps to prevent them. For example, we don't have ice storms, so we have never used our poles around trees with ice on them. I am sure that photos of such trees from above could be very pretty, but we can only imagine how dangerous an icicle falling from 25 feet might be if it hit a person in the head!

Do You Have Safety Comments/Rules? If you do, please email them to us (see the contact page). We'll try to add yours to this page on safety.

With the Pole Pixie