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Archive for July, 2010

Panorama Workflow

Posted by Tom Benedict on 23/07/2010

I’ve had some opportunities to play with my camera on the ground as well as in the air, and to test a number of image sets on the software I’ve been using.  Two days ago my wife and I took our kids to Pololu Valley to go hiking.  On the off-chance the weather would be nice, I brought my KAP gear.  The weather was fantastic, with solid winds for kite flying, and beautiful partly-cloudy skies.  Time to play!

I ran about 5GB of images through the camera from various vantage points.  In creating the base images I tried to incorporate everything I had learned from the earlier experiments.  The resulting photographs turned out quite well, so I’m considering the new workflow to be a win.  I’m sharing it here in the hopes that someone else doing kite aerial photography will give it a try and take it even further.  Here are the details:

  • If you can shoot RAW, shoot RAW.  I can’t, but in the near future I’ll be able to.
  • Use Manual Exposure mode on your camera.  Set it on the ground, check it, and double-check the histograms to make sure you’re getting bullseye exposures.
  • Use at least 1/1000 second exposure speed.  I’m using 1/1250.
  • Use the slowest ISO setting you can to control noise.  This is of less concern with a DSLR, but every bit helps.  I made this set at ISO 80.
  • Use the sweet-spot aperture on your lens if possible.  My lens is sharpest around f/4 to f/5.  I couldn’t use this aperture and hold the other numbers, so my lens is wider than ideal.  But the benefits in noise at ISO 80 make this a reasonable choice.  I give up some sharpness for lower noise, and keep the fast exposure speed to avoid blur.

Once the camera is in the air, all my panoramas were made with the camera vertical.  With a KAP rig this either means building the rig around a vertical camera (Brooxes BEAK rig), or using an L-bracket on a conventional rig, or having a dedicated Horizontal/Vertical axis on the rig.  I recently modified my rig to add the HoVer axis, so this is the route I went.

The idea with this technique is to start the rig on a slow spin, and to trigger the shutter continuously.  This technique was developed by a French KAPer who goes by the name of Vertigo on the KAP forums.  With a sufficiently fast shutter speed, this works perfectly.  My A650IS does one frame every 1.1 seconds.  With a 10-second-per-rev rotation rate, this works out about perfectly.  I’m upgrading to a Canon EOS T2i DSLR in the near future, which has a much faster frame rate.  I’m planning to build an electronic release cable for this camera that will give me the same 1-frame-per-second rate my A650IS has so I can continue to use this technique.

  • Start the rig rotating at a rate that gives you adequate overlap between images, and minimizes motion blur from the rotation, given the camera’s shutter speed.
  • Once the camera is rotating cleanly (no see-sawing on rotation, no jerkiness in the pan axis, no swinging around, etc.) trip the shutter.
  • Make at least two complete orbits of the camera, tripping the shutter non-stop the entire time.  This is for a couple of reasons:  First, it gives you plenty of frames to choose from in case one is blurry.  Next, it gives you a range of random tilt angles that you can use to fill in gaps later on.  Finally, if the rig starts to move, the second orbit will still produce a clean panorama.
  • If you want to make a larger panorama, change the tilt after two orbits and make two more orbits at the new tilt value.
  • While all of this is going on, do everything you can to minimize camera motion.

This should produce a nice set of images from which to work.  You may well end up using them all, so don’t toss any of them!

I use Autopano Pro for stitching.  Some of the tricks I’ve picked up will apply to other packages.  But if you find yourself scratching your head and thinking, “No, I’ve never seen that,” don’t sweat it.  Your software is different.  Skip that part.

One of the first problems I ran into is that Autopano Pro deals really well with point features, but not very well at all with linear features.  For example, it’ll match up individual stones on a beach like a champ, but it will produce lousy horizons if the horizon is just water and sky.  It makes no effort whatsoever to correct for lens distortions if the bulk of the picture is water and sky.

The fix I found was to use PTLens to correct lens distortions before using Autopano Pro.  PTLens is a $25 plug-in for Photoshop.  Even better, it’ll run as a stand-alone program and will batch process hundreds or even thousands of images at once.  If you’ve got a block of images you photographed as fodder for panorama stitching software, it’s no problem at all to batch process them all to remove lens distortions.  Water horizons should now be ramrod-straight lines across the frame.

So back to the process:

  • Run the entire image set through PTLens to remove barrel distortion, vignetting, and chromatic aberrations, but nothing else.
  • Process the images with Autopano Pro, or the panorama software of your choice.
  • Do everything you can to get completely horizontal, completely straight horizons for water.  Nothing kills a pano faster than a grossly errant horizon.
  • Save as 16-bit TIFF images.  16-bit workflow can be a real PITA, especially on a smaller machine, but it hides a lot of ills when it comes to large-scale processing like Levels and Curves.

At this point I open up the images in Photoshop.  I’m still using Photoshop 7.  I’ll upgrade to CS5 as soon as I can afford it.  But for now it still does everything I need.  Want is a whole ‘nuther story, but as far as my needs go, it’s fine.

  • View 100% and check for stitching errors.  Repair all of these with the rubber stamp or heal tools.
  • If your kite line shows up in the image, remove it using the same tools.
  • If you cropped your panorama wide enough to have gaps in ground or sky, open up all the images that went into the panorama, as well as the second orbit you made from that same location.  Use the rubber stamp tool to pull patches from any and all of the input images to repair problems on the panorama.  (This is one of the best reasons to make a second orbit!)  Since you used a fixed exposure, you should be able to rubber-stamp these into the panorama with no changes necessary.
  • Once the panorama is defect-free, look at your levels.  If you did your job setting the manual exposure on the ground, the exposure should be dead-nuts on, or need very little tweaking.
  • Do all your dodging and burning at this point to get the exposure just the way you want.  This can involve lots and lots of time, depending on how meticulous you are with your exposures.  If you’re the kind of person who got into photography in the days of film, and spent your afternoons in the positive darkroom dodging and burning the same negative over and over and over, you may be on this step for a while…

At this point the bulk of the workflow is complete.  But I would advise you not to stop here.  In Photoshop under the File menu is a command called File Info.  Click it.  It lets you edit the header information associated with your image.  At the very least I would fill out:

  • Title – What is the name of the original file on your computer?  Leave out the extension since that can change without changing the image.
  • Author – Your name.  You’re the author of your image.
  • Caption – Describe the photograph clearly and concisely, and include enough information so that you could read it and know where on the planet you were when you made the photograph.
  • Copyright Status – Change this to “Copyrighted Work”.  The moment you tripped the shutter, your photograph was a copyrighted work.  Not marking this just sets you up for someone to use your photograph without your knowledge.  If you choose to license your photographs under the Creative Commons license, of course, you should set this appropriately.
  • Copyright Notice – Mine reads: Copyright © Tom Benedict
  • Date Created – The date you tripped the shutter on your camera to make the photographs that went into this image.
  • City / State / Province / Country – Fill them in.
  • Source – Give yourself some hints here.  Is it a straight shot?  Digital?  Film?  Stitched?  My digital panoramas are all marked “Digital-Stitched”.

The neat thing is that most of the photo sharing sites on the Internet will automagically read your header information and fill in their own forms for you.  You may still want to provide more information than this, but the base information will be there.

The even neater thing is that in the event someone downloads your photograph and puts it on their own site without your knowledge, your header information is indexed by most search engines.  Even better, when you challenge them and they claim the photograph as an “orphaned work”, you can demonstrate that they did not make an honest effort to find the photographer in order to ask for permission since your info is all right there with the image.

So that’s it in a nutshell.  How well does it work?  See for yourself:

Pololu Valley Wetlands 2

– Tom

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Bit the Bullet – New Camera

Posted by Tom Benedict on 20/07/2010

I bit the bullet and ordered a new camera: a Canon T2i.  This decision has been a long time coming, and was the result of a fair bit of research into new cameras, but also into the requirements and expectations of stock photography agencies.  The T2i wound up being an ideal choice for a number of reasons, but there were three main drivers:

The first is that it’s a Canon.  This sounds like brand favoritism, but to any photographer my reasons will probably be self-evident:  I’ve been using Canon gear since the mid-90’s, so I’ve got a fair bit of Canon glass in my bag.  Switching brands would mean limiting my choice of lenses, or worse yet having to replace them at extreme cost.  I can barely afford the camera.  Buying new lenses was out of the question.

Next, it has an 18MP detector.  This is not a random number, and since doing research into requirements at Getty Creative, I have to wonder if they aimed the camera specifically at the semi-pro stock market.  More to the point, I’m wondering if the Canon 7D was aimed at the semi-pro stock market.  The T2i, or 550D, is clearly aimed at high-end amateurs rather than professionals.  But in the end that wound up working in my favor.

Finally, it’s the lightest 18MP DSLR on the market.  This, combined with the relatively lightweight 18-55mm kit lens, makes an ideal aerial DSLR.  My current rig weighs in at almost 1.2kg.  This camera weighs only about 250g more than my current camera.  I have different aims for how I want to use it, and the rig I will likely put it into.  I think I can keep the weights of the two rigs almost the same.

The benefits are huge.  In addition to the higher resolution, 5184×3456 as opposed to the 4000×3000 I’m using now, the physically larger pixels on the T2i make for lower noise and better low-light sensitivity.  In terms of field work, this means I can do KAP at dawn and dusk, and can keep doing KAP well past sunset.  In terms of the commercial viability of my work, I’ll be in a position to sell single shots as well as panoramas.  On the ground or in the air, it’s a show-changing camera.  I’m looking forward to it!

– Tom

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Underwater ROV Competition – More Ideas

Posted by Tom Benedict on 13/07/2010

Several years ago in another blog, I wrote down some thoughts on the underwater ROV competitions that are put on in middle schools, high schools, and colleges around the world each year.  Here in the US, the biggest one is the MATE challenge.  The regional competition here on the Big Island is the BIRR, or Big Island ROV Regional competition.  More information on the competition itself can be found on the MATE Website.

Technology has come a long way since I wrote down my thoughts on that other blog.  I’ll summarize them here, and then share some new thoughts I’ve had since:

  • First and foremost, have a good time.  It’s sad to see teams, especially mentors, get so wrapped up in the competition side of the ROV competition that they loose sight of the idea that their team is building an underwater exploration machine!  That’s cool!  That’s fun!
  • If you build specifically to the rules of the challenge, you leave yourself no wiggle-room to deal with the unexpected.  Remember that a 10″ tall prop may be 9.75″ high, and still be considered 10″ for all intents and purposes.  Stay flexible.
  • The operator will become disoriented.  I have yet to see an ROV team compete where this didn’t happen at some point in time.  The answer is to instrument your ROV so that the operator can get oriented again afterward.  More on this later.
  • Trust each other and delegate duties.  I saw this bite a FIRST Robotics team in the butt.  The team had two self-declared “stars” who wouldn’t trust each other.  In the end the two of them sabotaged their team out of sheer pride.  This happens with ROV competitions, too.  When you see the flip-side, where the members of a team trust each other implicitly, it’s a thing of beauty to see.  Want to compete at the top of the pack?  Build a team, not a star.
  • Test test test test test test test!  There’s nothing worse than seeing a team lower their ROV into the water, and then watching some major system, like one of their thrusters, fail.  No wait!  There is something worse: lowering your own ROV into the water, and finding out you didn’t test it first, and seeing some major system fail.  Test test test test test!
  • Train train train train train train train!  If I’m betting on a car race, I don’t put my money on the better car, I put it on the better driver.  During the heyday of Battlebots, someone made the observation that it wasn’t the weapons or the defenses that determined a win or a loss, it was how much time each operator had spent driving their robot.  The same holds true for ROV competition.  If a team has a $10,000 robot, but the operator only has thirty minutes of seat time on it, the team with the $250 robot with thirty hours of time at the controls will beat their pants off.  Beg, borrow, or steal as much pool time as you can get.  And when you’ve used that all up, toss it in a nearby lake and keep going!
  • Stay on task.  This really shouldn’t need saying, but it happened to all but one team the year I judged.  Kids procrastinated, mentors didn’t stay focused, teams lagged, and were still building their ROV the morning of competition.  It works on homework, and sort of works on tests.  It doesn’t work when undertaking an engineering project.  Stay on task!
  • Do your research…  (This is the rant…)

The Rant:

I’ve posted ideas for ROV competitions in the past.  I’ve talked to people who are building ROVs for competition.  I’ve offered pointers on physical layout, instrumentation, umbilical design, all kinds of things.  Every time I do this, I expect and hope that the person I’m talking to, be they a mentor or a student or a parent, or whatever, will say, “Yeah, we thought of that, and came up with a better idea.  Let me show you.”  Show me!

Instead I get, “Where did you learn all that stuff?”

I did my research!

Use Google.  It’s your friend.  If you don’t like Google, use another search engine.  Use the library.  There are books written on the subject of ROV design.  Some of them are for underwater design engineers.  Read them anyway, even if you’re in sixth grade!  Learn which issues apply only if you’re going down to 10,000′ of depth and which apply even if you’re under 1″ of water.  Others are written for students who are building ROVs for fun or for competition.  All information is useful.  Do your research!  And as soon as you think you’re done, open up a Google window again and start over!  Use your new-found knowledge to expand your search and get even more good ideas.

Before someone says that the Internet shouldn’t be used for research, please let me correct you. We use it all the time at work. This is how we find out what other people are doing, and if their methods are better than what we’re using. This is how we find out about new products that might make our workflow easier. This is how we get in contact with people who might eventually build stuff for us, or better yet design stuff for us. This is how a good percentage of my time is spent, and the benefits are enormous. If you want to teach kids how it’s done in the so-called real world, this really is how it’s done. It begins with a search.

This research can spare you months of wasted labor, because someone might already have tried your ideas out and either proved or disproved them. This research can spare you a blown competition because you might be able to read someone’s blog where their ROV of similar design failed for the following reasons.  This research can spare you a lot of your operating budget if you find out before buying parts that parts X, Y, and Z aren’t even waterproof! It’s worth having everyone on the team scour the Internet for ideas for a solid week before they ever set foot in the workshop. Fish for ideas. Scratch off the bad ones. Underline the good ones. Bring them in and brainstorm. Then go back out with your plan and see if there’s anything out there you can use to refine it.

If everyone did this, the competitions would be out of this world.

Getting back to control and instrumentation, at the very least I would:

  • Include at least two cameras:  One should face forward, one should face down.  Ideally their fields of view should cross inside the work area of your manipulator.  Inexpensive cameras can be had from places like Synetlink for less than $30 apiece.  The more video cameras, the merrier.  Especially if you have a logical system of setting up your monitors.  This helps avoid operator disorientation!
  • Use nice video screens:  The increased use of LCD flat panels and cameras on commercial trucks for reversing means there are scads of inexpensive flat panels available online.  I picked up a two-channel LCD panel off Ebay for $20.  It runs off of 12VDC, so it can run off of the same system that powers the ROV.  These things are cheap, and give you lots of options for laying out a logical system for your viewports.
  • Make an artificial horizon / compass:  Get one of those ball compass keychains, knock the keychain off, and epoxy it onto your ROV inside the field of view of one of the cameras.  In addition to providing you with compass orientation, it gives you an artificial horizon so you can tell if you’re nose down, nose up, or tipped over sideways.  This helps avoid operator disorientation!
  • Make a depth gauge:  Get some clear plastic tubing, and put a resevoir on top.  As your ROV descends, the increased pressure will compress the air in the resevoir, and water will rise inside the tube.  You can even spend some pool time with your depth gauge and calibrate it using a grease pencil.  When you come out of the pool, convert your grease pencil marks to something more permanent.  Epoxy this to your ROV inside the field of view of one of the cameras.  Now you know how deep you are at all times.
  • Make your umbilical as flexible as possible:  I saw a number of teams use almost rigid wiring in their umbilical.  If your thrusters are having to fight your umbilical in addition to the water, you’ll never be able to maneuver.  Use the most flexible cable available to you.  I’ve used a CAT-5 network cable to send video signal.  Over short lengths, you don’t need to re-balance the signal.  Just solder the wires.  With one video signal per pair, a single CAT-5 cable can handle four cameras.  If you’re using CAT-5 for your video, it’s worth it to install four cameras and use every pair in the cable.
  • Make your umbilical neutrally buoyant:  Most teams did this, so I’m probably belaboring the point.  But if your umbilical sinks, it’ll force your ROV into a dive, typically at some oddball orientation.  Likewise if the umbilical floats.  This helps lead to operator disorientation!
  • Consider a more complex control scheme than the usual “three switches, three motors, six wires” approach.  (More on this in a bit.)
  • Consider making a small, compact ROV rather than a big behemoth:  There’s a commercial inspection ROV made in Scotland that measures under a foot on a side.  It’s easier to transport, easier to get in and out of the water, and it gets the job done.  (See?  I told you you should look at commercial ROV information during your research!)
  • Consider materials other than PVC pipe:  I know PVC pipe is a favorite at ROV competitions, but attaching components can be cumbersome.  Other materials like UHMW plastic or HDPE should be considered as well.  These often show up as plastic cutting boards that can be had for less than $10 apiece.  Three cutting boards, a drill press, and a saw, and you can make a really good ROV frame that’s got tons of surfaces you can drill out and stick bolts through.

Getting back to the idea of a more complex control scheme, this is one I’ve had a hard time convincing anyone of.  But it’s the one I’d most dearly love to see used in competition:

With one exception, every single ROV I’ve seen in competition used a control board with some TPDT switches cross-wired so that flipping the switch one direction will drive a single thruster forward, and flipping it back will drive that thruster in reverse.  The center position stops the thruster.  It’s dead simple to wire up, but it’s got two huge glaring issues:

The first is that it’s like having a car where you are either stomping on the gas, stomping on the brake, or doing nothing.  You’re either cranking the wheel hard left, hard right, or dead center.  There’s no finesse.  There’s no ability to fine-tune your position.  It’s binary.

The second is that for every thruster on the ROV, you’ve got two heavy gauge wires going down your umbilical.  Three thrusters is six wires.  Four thrusters, and your umbilical starts to take on a Herculean strength and weight.  Using thinner wires increases your line losses, and decreases the effectiveness of your thrusters.  Seems like a no-win?

There’s a better way:

The easiest is to add a dry box to your ROV and install a set of relays that tie into those switches on the surface.  Instead of switching high current at the surface, switch the high current at the ROV.  12VDC is brought down to the ROV by a single pair of heavy gauge wires, and the wires used to control the relays can be very light “signal” wires, like a CAT-5 cable.  It adds the complexity of a dry box on the ROV, but the umbilical becomes much lighter.  Instead of six or more heavy gauge wires, you’ve got two heavy wires and two CAT-5 cables, one for thruster signals and one for video.

But the real fix is to move away from the switches altogether and go with something much more maneuverable: proportional control.

The R/C world has come up with all sorts of wonderful new products in the past decade.  One of my favorites is the electronic speed controller.  These are devices that plug in, just like a servo, and control the speed of a DC motor.  Want to control a thruster?  Plug it into a 12V ESC, plug that into a remote receiver, and turn it on.  Move the joystick on your R/C transmitter forward, and the motor gradually throttles up to full forward.  Slowly pull it back, and the motor ramps up to full reverse.  All of a sudden you get proportional speed, steering, etc.  The operator gains the ability to finesse the ROV into the tiniest spaces, to maneuver the manipulator down to the tiniest fraction of an inch.  The difference is night and day.

There’s another device from the R/C world that’s worth considering: a servo mixer.  Most ROVs use “tank-style” steering.  Two main thrusters, two main sticks.  Push them both forward, you go forward.  Pull both back, you go back.  Shove one forward and one back, and you turn.  A mixer does this for you, and makes for more logical control:  Push a single stick forward, and you go forward.  Lean it left, and you turn left.  Lean it right, you turn right.  Pull back, and it goes into reverse.  The mixer takes care of telling each ESC how much thrust to apply.  And this way you only use one joystick of your transmitter to do most of the control on your ROV.

“But radio transmitters don’t go underwater!”  Not by themselves, no.  But with a little help they can.  A few years ago I picked up a 2.4GHz radio system for about $50.  A quick Google search will find you one for about that price or better.  The transmitter antenna screws onto the top of the radio via a little reverse-polarized SMA connector.  If you’re using it to control an R/C airplane, that’s what you want to do.  If you want your signal to go underwater, there’s one more step:

RP-SMA cables can be bought from almost every electronics supply house in the world.  If you’re building a 50′ umbilical, get 60′ of RP-SMA cable.  Get a male connector on one end, and a female connector on the other.  Make this part of your umbilical.  These things are tiny, maybe 1/8″ diameter or less.  And they’re incredibly flexible, so your umbilical won’t suffer because of it.  Connect the dry-side end to your transmitter, and stick the transmitter’s antenna on the underwater side, inside the dry box.  Put the R/C receiver nearby.  Voila, for about $70 you have an R/C link to your ROV.  At this point you can add ESCs and servos to your heart’s content.

So put all this together and here’s what you get:

  • Four video cameras, four monitors.  One faces forward, one straight down, and one to either side.  The monitors are arranged the same way.  The cameras are aimed so that as an object slides out of the field of view of one camera, it slides right into the field of view of the next.  It feels like you’re looking out of the windows in the nose of the ROV.
  • Artificial horizon / compass and depth gauge, located in the field of view of the forward camera.  Even if you lose a camera, you always know where you’re pointing.
  • A 2.4GHz R/C transmitter provides proportional control.  The right stick drives the fore/aft/turn thrusters, and the left stick provides up/down thrust.  All other channels on the radio are available to drive the manipulator.  (Yep, a powered manipulator!)
  • A hefty metal geared servo drives a pushrod that goes through the side of the dry box.  Look up “prop shaft stuffing” on Google to see how this is done.  This opens and closes the jaws of the manipulator.
  • The umbilical consists of two 14ga fine stranded copper wires, one CAT-5 network cable, and one 2.4GHz RP-SMA coax cable.  Total size is less than 3/8″ in diameter.
  • The ROV itself is built small and compact, with the thrusters as far out toward the edges as possible.
  • The dry box uses Bulgin Buccaneer underwater connectors for the umbilical, each of the thrusters, and each of the cameras.  These are about $7 apiece.
  • The team has spare thrusters, already cabled to a Bulgin Buccaneer connector, so swapping out a dead thruster takes less than a minute.
  • The team has spare cameras, already cabled to a Bulgin Buccaneer connector, so swapping out a dead camera takes less than a minute.
  • The team has a spare umbilical, which they have tested in advance prior to competition.  In the event of an umbilical failure, they swap and move on while the other is inspected.
  • Everything, and I do mean EVERYTHING will fit in a largeish ice chest for transport.

Easy to take to a pool for testing, easy to pack up when you’re done.  Easy to unplug individual components to be worked on while the driver continues getting seat time.  Easy to service during competition in the event that a camera, thruster, manipulator, or umbilical is damaged.

And driving it?  Super-easy since it offers proportional control.

This is likely the last time I offer up these ideas on designing and building ROVs for competition.  My daughter starts middle school next year.  My son is two years behind her.  I don’t think she’s interested in doing ROV competition, but I know he is.  We’ve talked about a lot of this, and my son is on-board with the ideas I’ve presented.  And before anyone gets the impression that I’m one of those parents who will build the thing for the kids, drive all the decisions, and be one of those jerk parents/mentors who sucks the fun out of the thing, think again.  My son has been using my shop tools for years.  He hasn’t spent any time on the mill yet, but he’s spent time on the lathe and is a fair hand on the drill press.  He’s pretty skilled at driving R/C cars and helicopters, and will likely take to an ROV like a fish to water.

So no, I haven’t built an ROV like the one I described.  And chances are I never will.  But I’m looking forward to seeing him build it and use it in competition.  So here’s your chance to beat him to the punch.

– Tom

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Revisiting the Garden

Posted by Tom Benedict on 10/07/2010

The public middle school here in Waimea has a garden, Mala`ai.  It’s a culinary garden rather than a decorative garden, but the students who maintain it have done a great job of making it a lot more than just a bunch of rectangular plots of plants.  On the ground, it’s a rich and wonderful experience for the senses.  But from the air, you really get a feel for the planning, work, and artistry that goes into Mala`ai.

Mala`ai Overview

I started doing KAP at Mala`ai some years ago.  It all started quite by accident.  My son attends Waimea Elementary School, and I was down at the school on a weekend to photograph some rooflines.  As I walked my kite back toward my car, someone approached me and asked about photographing the garden.  Truth be told, I’d intended to photograph the garden for some time, but didn’t know if it was ok with the people who worked there.  As it turns out, it was more than ok.  They were excited by the idea.

This has since turned into a really good relationship with the folks who take care of the garden.  The students are constantly changing and adding to Mala`ai, so every time I go back it’s different.  No, it’s better.  And each time I go, I try to make at least one large composite that covers the entire place.  They print these as posters, and hang them on the wall in the classroom so they can use them for planning purposes.

My daughter is starting at Waimea Middle School this Fall.  She spent several years working on the garden at her elementary school, and is interested in taking the gardening classes at Waimea Middle School.  So in a way this most recent picture is a gift for her, too.  Here’s hoping she enjoys it.  And here’s looking forward to all the changes she and her classmates will make over the course of the next several years.

– Tom

P.S.  If you’re a KAPer, or even if you’re a kite fanatic who’s never dangled a camera from their kite line, see if there are any community gardens, school gardens, or other non-profit gardening projects in your area.  Aerial views are extremely useful for planning purposes.  KAP is one of the least expensive, most readily available forms of aerial photography around, and is ideally suited for making overviews of gardens.  Consider volunteering your kites, your cameras, and your time.  Seeing a garden change over time, and knowing you had a hand in it, no matter how remote, is incredibly rewarding.

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Night Photography with a Pole

Posted by Tom Benedict on 10/07/2010

When I started planning my trip to the 2010 SPIE Astronomical Instrumentation conference in San Diego, there was no question about bringing my KAP gear.  It was coming, no matter what.  But as I was packing my kites, I tossed in my carbon fiber pole, more or less on a whim.  It started life as a breem fishing pole I picked up at K-Mart for about $20.  With almost no modification, I turned it into a really tall, if really floppy, monopole.

Laid Out

I didn’t have any particular plans for using it, but I figured why not?  In the end I’m extremely glad I did.  It let me get some shots I wouldn’t otherwise have been able to make, and being in a city like San Diego gave me opportunities to use it that simply don’t exist where I live.  There’s not much of a night scene here in Waimea, so most of my photography is done during the day.  After experiencing San Diego at night, I found myself wishing for more chances to do night photography.

Santa Fe Railroad Terminal in San Diego

My first shot was at the Santa Fe railroad station just outside Little Italy.  If I had to point to one hurdle that had to be overcome, it was motion of the pole itself.  After metering the scene and choosing an ISO setting on my camera that would give me decent noise performance, I found my shutter speed to be a little over half a second.  Even with image stabilization, I can’t handhold a camera at that speed, much less handhold a camera on the other end of an 18′ floppy pole.  I needed another solution.

The train station itself provided a fix: light poles.  Rather than use my carbon pole to hold the camera for the shot, I used it simply to boost the camera up to a good working height.  The camera itself rested against a nearby light pole.  When doing pole photography I set an intervalometer running on my camera that takes pictures every five seconds.  I don’t mute my camera, so I can hear when the shutter trips, and can guess about how much time I have before the next shot goes off.  This let me try a variety of angles, gave me plenty of time to let the camera stabilize between changes in position, all without having to bring it down to check until the whole set was done.

I used a similar technique for other shots inside Little Italy itself.  This one captured the neon Little Italy sign that’s right near Blick Art Supply and Nelson Photo.

Little Italy at Night

To make this one I used the street sign at West Date and India Street, just in front of the Princess Pub & Grill to brace my pole.  Street signs make really good braces since they have crossed pieces of metal with lots of corners in which to brace a pole.  I probably had ten feet of pole poking up above the sign, so it took a few shots on the camera before things stabilized enough to get a solid blur-free shot.  But it worked.

What made this one fun was that the pub was crowded with patrons, none of whom failed to notice the guy with the camera on the end of a long pole.  I guess I just don’t know how to blend.  One guy came out to ask what I was doing, and wanted to see what the pictures looked like.  I was only too happy to share.

If anyone reading this likes the way the photos look and wishes they could do this themselves, know that you can.  You can get everything for a simple pole setup like this at a camera store (camera and small ballhead) and at any store that carries long fishing poles (*Mart, or an honest to goodness sporting supply store).  It’s pretty straightforward.

– Tom

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The Good and The Bad

Posted by Tom Benedict on 09/07/2010

The 2010 SPIE Astronomical Instrumentation conference was a blast.  We worked some seriously late hours, and all of us were dragging our tails by the end of it.  But the amount of information I came home with was…  for want of a better term, it was astronomical.  But that’s a post for another day.  This one is about the KAP I managed to do while I was there.

“Managed” is the right word to use in this case.  Sunset was at 8pm, and the only full day I had to do KAP was the Saturday before the conference.  I had some problems with my flight, so most of that day was lost.  Even so, it was the most productive day I had, from a KAP standpoint.  I wound up staying at the Porto Vista Hotel in Little Italy.  I highly recommend it for a couple of reasons:  1 – It’s a nice hotel.  That’s tough to beat.  2 – Close proximity to a lot of good KAPing.  3 – It’s in Little Italy!  As it turns out it’s also close to a camera store, which I didn’t visit, and a Blick Art Supply, which I did.  Twice.  It’s about a two minute walk to the nearest trolley station, and it’s only a few blocks from the Maritime Museum, which boasts some outstanding KAP subjects.  Unfortunately none of the KAP I did there really worked out.  This is the best of my efforts:

Maritime Museum

Further down, there were a number of other good subjects.  Some I wound up photographing with a pole, others with a kite.  By far the best KAP I had in San Diego was at the marina at Seaport Village:

Seaport Village Marina

The wind was steady enough to let me do some panoramas as well, one of which turned out nicely:

Seaport Village Marina Panorama

Heading back toward the hotel is the USS Midway and the statue, “Welcome Home”, which I photographed using a carbon pole:

Welcome Home

If you’re already taking framed kites with you, I highly recommend bringing a lightweight pole as well.  The carbon pole I use is a collapsible fishing pole intended for breem fishing.  It’s far from ideal, and the performance isn’t up to that of the higher end carbon fiber carp poles.  But it’s light, it’s portable, and it only cost me $20 at K-Mart.  I had no problems transporting mine, but even if it did take damage, it was cheap insurance against poor wind or restrictions on flying.  It also let me do some night photography in and around Little Italy:

Fountain in Little Italy, San Diego

Little Italy at Night

The only time I flew once the conference began was on a day when there weren’t any afternoon sessions I really wanted to attend.  Instead I grabbed my gear, got on the trolley, and headed over to the SDSU campus.  The wind was plenty strong, the weather was clear, and it should’ve been a fantastic KAP session.

It wasn’t.  The wind was strong but turbulent, and before I even got a camera up, my Dopero inverted.  I was in the middle of setting up my rig, so everything was clipped off.  I frantically tried to unclip my winder and line in time to let line out and try to save the kite, but I was too late.  The line came down across the Malcom A Love Library.  My heart sank!  I had no way of telling if the kite had hit the roof, or the glass dome just beyond.  I felt like an idiot.  Overwhelmed with dejection, I packed up my gear, reeled in the line, and walked over to see what the damage was.

Lo and behold, there was my kite dangling about halfway down the side of the building.  It was out of reach of my pole, but to my immense surprise it had inverted again just before landing, so it was sitting nose up!  In case you’ve never seen a Dopero, one attribute of this beautiful kite is that it is extremely stable.  Once it’s pointed in a given direction, it really likes to go in that direction.  It’s a little sluggish on reacting to changes in wind direction, which is one of the things that makes it an excellent kite for KAP.  I knew if I put some tension on the line, it would try to fly.  More to the point, it would try to fly straight up and off the library.

I went back out to where I’d been standing, took up all the slack I could, and heaved.  The tension in the line built as it stretched, then I felt two distinct yanks as the kite cleared the far side, and then the near side of the building.  A little shaken, a little wiser (I hope) I brought my Dopero down, packed it away, and sweated for a little while.

In the end I changed winders and switched to a 6′ rokkaku.  It wasn’t enough to lift the camera reliably, but I got some decent low-altitude KAP:

Flower Bed Outside Hepner Hall - SDSU

Love Library Plaza - SDSU

Love Library - SDSU

Shortly after I packed everything up, jumped back on the trolley, and got back to the conference for the evening session and poster presentations.  By the time I got back to the hotel, I was beat.  But a KAP session isn’t complete until the gear is checked, so I examined my line for fraying (surprisingly none!) and checked my Dopero for dings.  It got a small tear in the sail, which I opted to fix once I got home.  Other than that, I got away unscathed.

More to the point, I got away lucky.  The lesson was still learned:  If the conditions aren’t right, it’s better to walk away than to risk hurting someone, damaging property, or damaging your own gear.

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