I’ve flown a camera at Kiholo Bay a number of times now, but for some reason I’ve never been all that overwhelmed by the sweeping landscape pictures I’ve come back with. They’re either too long and narrow, or don’t really capture the sense of the place, or are just plain awkward. In a way this may explain why I keep going back. But when I do go back, I tend to photograph it the same way. Photography is one of those things where living in a rut just doesn’t work out in the end.
Rather than repeat what I’d done before (ok, rather than repeat my mistakes) I decided to take a fresh look at the problem:
Kiholo Bay is a gorgeous stretch of water just south of Anaehoomalu Bay. It’s got a fantastic reef, a really good view of Hualalai, and the inlet is one of the most striking features on that entire stretch of coast. It’s one of the few spots along the Kona coast of the Big Island that has a scenic lookout. So what was missing? I realized I’d been focusing on the inlet at the expense of everything else! Once I decided what I wanted to include in the frame, it was a matter of figuring out how to do it.
I decided I wanted the inlet as a diagonal slash across the bottom of the frame, with the reef getting plenty of space. I wanted a horizon line that included Hualalai, the volcano above Kailua-Kona, a really clean sky, and the whole stretch of shoreline along Kiholo Bay. With that in mind I pulled up Google Earth and started fishing. In the end I also wound up going back to some of my earlier photography there, but in the form of a Photosynth. This combination of tools and ideas gave me what I wanted: a vantage point.
There’s a spot about five hundred feet north of the inlet, about four hundred feet inland, and roughly three hundred and fifty feet above the ground that would give me the angle I wanted. You could do it from a helicopter with FAA clearance to fly at that altitude over what is admittedly not a populous area, but it’s a lot easier to do this sort of thing from a kite.
The mornings have been sparklingly clear, but by mid afternoon the volcanic gases coming out of Kilauea creep north of Kailua-Kona and cover the Kona coast in a thick haze. It can make going to the beach less than pleasant. But it makes photography downright impossible. The ideal time of day for the picture I wanted was about an hour before sunset. But waiting for the light meant losing the atmosphere, so I opted to go early in the day.
Monday was a holiday, so I checked the local weather conditions. By 10am the wind around Kiholo Bay was supposed to be four knots onshore with little to no turbulence. Perfect for slack-line flying, and ideal for a picture of this kind. I grabbed my gear and headed out. It’s a half hour drive to Kiholo Bay, and another half hour hike across the lava. By the time I reached the water I realized something was terribly wrong. My four knot steady onshore wind was more like a two to ten knot gusty down-shore mess. It was with some trepidation that I pulled out my rokkaku and got my camera airborne.
It wasn’t the steadiest flight in the world, and at one point my rig came down and landed hard on the lava. Some recent modifications to my rig made for a safer landing, but my heart was still in my throat when I saw it sink behind a ridge and felt the line go slack. But seconds later it was airborne again, and I was able to reel it back in and check it out. Everything worked perfectly. I didn’t even bend the leg brackets on my rig. It’s a testament to the good design work and engineering Brooks Leffler puts into his KAP rig products.
I knew the field of view I needed for the picture, and knew my camera didn’t have a wide enough field to pull it off. So I planned to use stitching software right from the start. This was important to know, because the methodology is different when going for individual frames and composites. This time I wanted a composite. Rather than use the tried and true Gigapan style pattern that most KAP panoramas are made with, I used a modified version of one pioneered by Vertigo, one of the French KAPers: burst KAP.
In traditional KAP panorama work, the rig is pointed in one direction, stopped, and a picture is taken. The rig is then tilted down slightly and a second picture is taken. This process is repeated until the camera is pointed vertically. At that point the rig pans to a new “slice” location and the process starts over. With a good camera and rig, this takes roughly five seconds per shot. For a ten shot composite, it’s almost a minute of photography. A KAP rig can move a lot in a minute.
In burst KAP panorama work, the rig is set to spin on its pan axis, and frames are fired off as fast as the camera can take them. A combination of high shutter speeds and carefully calculated pan speeds makes for very fast, but still quite sharp work. In this case I needed more height than my camera could give me, so I did the burst in two passes. To be more accurate I did it in four passes, starting with the camera horizontal and ending with it near vertical, making a single pass with the pan axis for each tilt angle. In post-processing I only used the first two tilts, however.
Rather than waste a trip, I photographed Kiholo Bay this way over and over as the kite and camera moved around the sky because of the shifting wind. The end result is that I made numerous burst KAP sets with the camera at a variety of altitudes. When I got home it was a matter of choosing the set that gave me the angle I wanted. Nine images, taken over roughly fifteen seconds, supplied the imagery necessary to build the composite I had imagined.
The final image came out at 9057×4800 pixels with no stitch errors during compositing. This is sufficient to print it 60×32″ with no visible pixelation.
I truly enjoy the serendipitous moments that happen when doing photography in general, and KAP in particular. There’s a particular smile I’m sure every photographer wears when they go through their pictures at the end of the day and find something they really weren’t expecting. But there is a great deal of satisfaction to be had from thinking through a photograph, planning the composition, and then pulling it off despite not having things go quite as expected.