I am a professional photographer who usually writes the text for my assignments. My images and text have been published in many magazines, calendars and books around the world.
Carlos Sastoque Photography
Being born and living in a country where most of its surface is covered with forests of all kinds, e.g. cloud forests, rain forests, Andean wet forests I have been practicing and developing my tree-climbing techniques in order to get the pictures of the higher zone of these ecosystems. I have to admit that for me (and I guess for any other photographer that has shot in the canopy) it would be most comfortable and easy to just travel by foot searching for wide vistas or stalking wildlife with tripod and camera on my shoulder like one is likely to do in Alaska or, even cozier yet, travelling on a Land Rover over the savanna of Africa but the truth is that getting the images that I want in the country that I live and in the less explored habitats of the world requires overcoming any fear of heights and leaving the very human comfort zone of the ground.
In the Amazon rainforest alone it is believed that between 70-90% of its biodiversity live, travel and coexist in the mid to top levels of the forest. Not only that but going up a tree can give you a pleasant breath of air from the humid forest below, you can even shoot with sunrise and sunset light, a big photographic plus in an ecosystem where several feet below darkness would probably has settled long ago.
I’ll talk first about the tree-climbing equipment:
The idea of tree-climbing is that you pass a climbing rope over one or several tree branches of the tree you intend to climb. One end of the rope is tied securely to another tree and the the other end is the one you climb. I use ½ inch. braided rope. I like to have several of these ropes so I can work at different trees in the same area I’m taking pictures at. I have ropes from 90 ft. to 250 ft. which cover basically all the different heights I would like to work at. Here one has to take into account that one needs a rope at least 2 ½ times the length of the intended height since the rope doubles over the tree limb and the angle and knots take away some rope. Having different tree stations allows me to adapt my shooting to the conditions of the place. Many animals have roosting sites where they arrive predictably every afternoon for example so one of my stations surely will be adjacent in order to work in the afternoon and some other station might be better placed to take advantage of morning light.
To support the body I use a standard Petzl harness althought I’m seriously considering getting a seat harness a much more comfortable one in the cases I have to take pictures hanging from the rope.
Climbing a rope requires a mechanical device called the ascender. The harness attaches to the ascender which slides up the rope but when your weight is pulled down it grabs the rope with small teeth that penetrate it. So you need two ascenders: one goes attached to the harness and the other one, fitted with a piece of tubular webbing, allows you to stand up on it and slide the upper ascender up the rope. I use Petzl ascenders.
The last important accesory that you’ll need is a descender. The name says it all: it is used to descend safely through the rope. I have two of these: a figure 8 descender and a rack descender.
Other accessories I use are carabiners, several loops of tubular webbing, cowhide gloves, an etrier (a webbing ladder).
On the next section I’ll talk about the other tools and equipment needed to set the stations.
When I first arrive at an area that I plan to photograph I usually don’t go and set up any rope right away. I try to walk the zone for a few days noticing where there are fruiting trees, roosting sites, nests, canopy avenues, rest trees, etc., all places that will attract wildlife at some point during the day hopefully or maybe along the week. Once I have pinpointed a promising tree, I search for larger trees close-by that I can climb safely. Other important points to consider are where the light will come from at any time of day, how clean the view will be (a tree with too many branches will be difficult to work from), whether the species to be photographed is too sensitive to human intrusion, if it is a nest extreme care must be taken so as not to disrupt the cycle), the climbing tree needs to look healthy with sprouting branches at the top.
Once the climbing tree is selected I use a Marksman slingshot adapted with an empty soda plastic bottle pointing forward. Wrapped around the plastic bottle are 300 ft. of 16-pound monofilament. On the loose point of the monofilament I tie a 9-oz. fishing lead sinker. Now it’s just a matter of choosing the best-looking limb of the tree, pointing the slingshot with the sinker and letting go of the mono. Hopefully after a few tries I will have passed the singer and mono over the chosen branch and the sinker will be on the ground at the other side. I now clip the sinker off and tie to this point of the monofilament a 300 ft. curtain cord. Then I pull the mono back to the bottle while the other side with the curtain cord starts going up. Once I have the point of the cord in my hands I repeat the process above but this time I tie the climbing rope to the curtain cord. At the end, I will have the climbing rope over the selected limb. I tie one end of the rope on another strong tree nearby with a double bowline knot.
Although platforms are more comfortable to use up in a tree since I can use my tripod and even sleep on them I usually don’t build them for several reasons: if I am working at a national park or reserve I would probably would need to get a permit, something that I think will probably be denied, I would also need a lot of wood planks which would require carrying for some distance, I think the tree suffers much less with less nails, if the platform is at a place where I don’t plan to return too often all the effort in building a platform will be lost; instead the following method has proved very practical, fast and efficient to my needs.
I prefer to set up my photo station right at the fork formed by the main tree trunk with a secondary strong branch. This is so I can sling my hanging fabric seat from every side easily. Once I arrive at the fork the first thing I do is to nail two traverse logs on every side of the fork. These logs will support the camera/lens via a Bogen Manfrotto Super Clamp and my Graf Studioball ballhead. I then sling my seat at the appropiate height on the fork so as to let me maneuver my camera in a sitting position; this seat is very important since many times I spend up to 12 hours up in a tree and to be standing up all the time would be too tiring. Afterwards, sometimes (depending on the subject tameness) I pin two 6 ft. x 3 ft. pieces of camo fabric on every side of the station to act as a blind. Once all the station is set up I can bring up my equipment which I have tied to the end of the rope. The whole bag is secured with carabiners and webbing loops. It’s very important to have everything, including you, tied to an anchor point in the tree. I have dropped many things from up there and finding them in one piece is a miracle. Changing lenses carefully is specially important since you don’t have any surface to place them; I carry two waist packs, one of them empty, so I can easily put away lenses, filters and accessories.
Before you try tree-climbing I advise you to take a course on techniques and safety. Once you have gained confidence in the process you will be rewarded by magnificent vistas and great images from the canopy.