Cheap Photo Tip: Duct tape and Step Ladders

You can triple the height of your tripod by spending five bucks at Home Depot.

One thing that can make a photo especially interesting is to get an angle that most people will never see. Down low or up high are two obvious options. On architectural photo shoots, I try to gain elevation for exterior shots; getting lower doesn't lend itself to shooting a house (it can be great for interiors thjough and it's awesome for shooting kids and dogs). The magazine I work for is big on quality photos, but small on budget; we send me alone with as much photo gear as I can carry rather than sending me with a lot of assistants, catering crews, and boom trucks (to be fair though, they do encourage me to eat well and stay in nice hotels when I'm on the road).

With low budgets, it pays to be resourceful. I used to climb up the homeowner's extension ladder leaned against a tree to shoot an exterior freehand, but that limited when I could shoot to sunny parts of the day (the least best light) and it was very hard to frame the shot exactly right (especially when bracketing for exposure). This kind of shooting means fast shutter speeds. The money shot that my art director always wants, at dusk when the interior lights just match the level of the outdoor light, was out of the question shooting freehand, high up in a tree.

A colleauge, Roe Osborn (, gave me a great tip: duct tape your tripod to a step ladder and then use another step ladder to climb on so that you won't shake the tripod. I can usually come up with a couple of step ladders between the homeowners, architect and builder. If not I can rent or buy a couple from Home Depot (I return them for my money back the next day).

The photo above shows me taking Roe's advice, or at least partially, I was on a 16 foot step ladder (!) and the builder, Rich Elstrom didn't happen to have another (frankly, it's pretty stunning that he has one). As it turned out, I wasn't able to get quite enough elevation for the shot I wanted, and because I had to climb the same ladder that my tripod was duct taped to, it was difficult to keep the ladder steady for a long exposure. The next day, Rich's Foreman, Mark, rented me a cherry picker which got me plenty high for my money shot.

The shot ended up being reprinted in TIME Magazine's 2006 Design and Style Guide. The article can be seen at the architect, Nathan Good's, website.