scissor lift architectural photography

This week I got the chance to use a scissor lift for the first time on a photo shoot and I wanted to share with you some of the logistics and the things I learnt along the way. All the photos in this post are by Catherine Bailey who I’m going to be mentoring this year as part of her third year photography course. So big thanks to Catherine for grabbing these behind the scenes shots.

Why did we use a scissor lift?

The project was for Nest Architects who had completed a lovely little house that had a green roof. When we initially photographed it we could get images of the building, or the green roof, but from the ground it just wasn’t possible to show both. So we decided to go back a second time with some toys: an eight meter higher moving tower (which is pretty damn high when you get up there).

Where do you get a scissor lift?

You rent them from hire companies who typically service builders.

Do you need a special license?

No, as long as it does’t go beyond something like 10m high (of course this is going to be different depending on where you live in the world and what laws you have.)

How much does it cost?

The daily rate on one of these things isn’t too bad. For 24 hours it was less than $200, but what was expensive was the transport to and from site which was about $130 each way, so total cost was around $500.

What sort of scissor lift did we use?

I went for an all terrain scissor lift, which has big chunky wheels and levelling arms. This is the big brother version of what you might see in shopping centers when work is being done in the ceiling. The big issue with scissor lifts is that they need to be perfectly level, otherwise they’re going to fall over. So unless you have flat level concrete then this is the way to go. We were located on a mixed surface alley way with concrete pads and gravel. Overall it did a great job. The hire company did also have a boom lift mounted to a small truck which saves a lot in transport costs, but I wasn’t convinced it would provide the stability required for photography. If you have used other types of vehicles then I’d love to get your thoughts on this in the comments below.

scissor lift diagram for architectural photography

How stable was it for photography?

scissor lift architectural photography

It wasn’t as stable as I thought it was going to be, but then again we we’re eight meters up in the air. Even with a slight bit of breeze there was a fair amount of sway. With a bit of practice though we noticed that by standing absolutely still for a minute or so the vibrations would settle down. This meant setting up the camera, aligning the shot and then waiting for the shakes to subdue. During the daylight shots this was fine, but for long exposures it’s problematic. I bumped up my ISO to 320 and dropped my aperture to 8 to speed things up, but I can’t see this being a viable option for a 10 second exposure. At least not at this height. When you drop the lift down you obviously become more stable. So the lesson learnt was that if you want to be super high on a swaying scissor lift then you need to shoot fast. Something else I realise as I look at the diagram above is that your most stable position is probably in the centre of platform, not on the edge where camera and tripod is shown. Because we were confined in an alley way we didn’t have much choice, but if I had more open space I would rotate the lift so it is perpendicular to the shot and keep the weight of the photographer always in the centre.

Noise

This was a factor I wasn’t expecting, but this diesel behemoth is pretty damn noisy and had a few engine vibrations reaching the top of the tower. So turning the engine off once the scissor lift is set up is a good idea. The reason I mention noise though is that I can imagine this being a real disturbance if you’re planning on doing a dawn shoot in a residential neighbourhood. Nothing like waking everybody up at 5am!

[update]

And here’s the final photo which went into Stuart Harrison’s Book New Sub Urban. Sorry I couldn’t release it earlier.

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