One of the things to look for in a photo club is honesty. There are clubs where it’s all about the kudos and patting each other on the back. In my mind these really don’t do a a photographer much good. But then there are the ones where you get honest critique, whether it hurts or not. If you’re really looking to improve, it shouldn’t hurt at all. Honest critique, after all, is one of the best helping hands an artist can have extended to them.
At a recent photo club meeting, one of the members I respect highly, both for his artistry and for his honesty, gave me a critique on a set of images I showed. It boiled down to this: Great vantage point, rotten light. Ouch? Not really. He’s right.
Until recently most of my KAP work has been done under the bright midday sun. In the back of my mind I knew this. Heck, all the work I put into finding the best way to make a panorama revolved around the notion of working in sunny-16 conditions. And despite having most of John Shaw’s and Galen Rowell’s books on my shelves, I just didn’t manage to put two and two together and see that this was the wrong time to do photography of any sort, KAP or no KAP. So the critique I got was a much-needed kick in the seat of the pants. Want to improve my kite aerial photography? Work in better light.
That “better light” happens during the half hour before and after sunrise or sunset. It’s known as the “golden hour”, not just because of the color of the light but because of the quality that light brings to a photograph. They simply look better.
Of course the “hour” part of the golden “hour” is subjective, and depends a great deal on location. In far northern or southern latitudes, that “hour” can stretch on for hours and hours as the sun slowly sinks toward the horizon. Here close to the equator it’s about fifteen minutes on either side of sunrise or sunset. But the “golden half-hour” just doesn’t have that magical ring to it. So “golden hour” it is.
On the ground, doing photography in the golden hour is only slightly different from doing it at any other time of the day. Exposures are a little longer, or a lot longer, depending on how late you’re out. But a tripod fixes that. If the wind is blowing and you need a faster shutter speed, you can open up your aperture or bump up your ISO. In the days of film, you loaded a faster film and had done with it.
In the air things are a little more difficult. The kite is your tripod, and even the most stable kite will still move around. I fought camera motion during the day by using a 1/1000 or faster exposure speed. With my camera, that’s simply not available in the golden hour. With a DSLR, it’s possible to bump the ISO to 200 or 400 without suffering much of a penalty with noise. With my compact camera, ISO 100 is as fast as I can go and still get acceptable noise. And unfortunately, during sunrise and sunset is when the wind is at its squirreliest. On the West Side of Hawaii, the wind is largely thermal in origin. Thermals collapse as the sun sets, so everything is in flux during the golden hour.
One other significant difference is that on the ground the photographer can make rational choices about metering in order to render a subject the way they intend. In the air you have to set and forget. In broad daylight, I came to the conclusion that using the sunny-16 rule was the right way to go: manual exposure mode, fixed aperture, and a fixed shutter speed based on a 1/ISO f/16 starting point. Toward sunset the light is changing constantly, so a manual meter setting simply isn’t the right approach. I had to come up with something else.
All of this makes life hard. Hard, but not impossible. I started off re-learning how to photograph during the golden hour from the ground. I skipped the tripod, not wanting to lure myself into a false sense of security. Several evenings of exposure tests toward sunset at Hapuna State Park got me going in the right direction.
The first thing I found was that metering toward the sun gave shutter speeds close to what I was using for sunny-16 conditions. This meant doing foreground silhouette panoramas with a setting sun in the background could be done almost the same way I make broad-daylight panoramas. Great no-brainer:
Next, I found that when photographing 180 degrees from the sun, I got the best results from metering 50/50 sky and horizon, and then re-composing the photograph:
The shutter times were longer, unfortunately, so my tried and true way of doing panoramas was out. During the day, I’ll typically make a panorama by tripping the shutter and rotating the rig slowly around the pan axis as the camera continues to take pictures. At 1/1250 second per exposure, this works fine. At 1/100 second, this results in a bunch of blurred pictures. So I used a different approach: Set the camera to horizontal, meter, and compose each camera location individually while holding down the shutter. The images that are made as the camera is moving will be blurred, but the ones where the camera is settled in a given orientation will mostly be sharp.
One problem I ran into was the balance between sky and foreground as the sun set. As the light is falling, the sky actually stays quite bright. It’s the ground that loses light first. So the difference between illumination in the sky and on the ground eventually becomes so great the camera can’t capture both. There are a number of fixes for this, including bracketing and HDR. But from a strict photographic standpoint the best fix would be a graduated neutral density filter. I grabbed my graduated ND filter set out of my DSLR bag and headed back out to the beach.
The image on the left was done without the graduated ND filter, and the one on the right was with the filter. The filter I used was an ND 0.6 (two-stop) hard-transition graduated filter from Hitec. These are large, fragile, and expensive. But I opted to test it in the air anyway, when I felt I was ready for it.
With all the results from metering, learning to fly in the shifty sunset wind, and the results of the ND filter test, I finally charged all my batteries, packed up all my gear, and put this to the test.
Compositionally this is quite weak, but it served to demonstrate the metering and filtering I came up with for doing golden hour kite aerial photography. This panorama consists of nine images made with the camera held vertically. It’s not without flaws: the rightmost pair of images is too bright, and needs to be brought into line. But the sky isn’t blown and the shadows aren’t muddied. All in all it’s a very workable image.
The only catch with all this is that I don’t want to fly my Hitec graduated ND filter again. As I said, the filter is large, fragile, and expensive. The filter holder is also quite heavy. This serves to make my rig heavier, raise the minimum wind speed in which I can fly, and utterly unbalances the rig. My tilt servo was working overtime to hold the camera in position, which increased battery draw. No matter what I did, the filter got sand on it, and since it is made of acrylic, there is no easy way to clean the sand back off without scratching the filter.
But the results are compelling enough that I’m motivated to buy a screw-on graduated ND filter strictly for KAP. I’m pleased with the results I’ve had so far.
The next step is to try all of this with a more photogenic subject with a little more altitude. Worldwide KAP Week happens in less than two weeks, and is the perfect opportunity to really take all this out for a spin and see how it works out.