The View Up Here

Random scribblings about kites, photography, machining, and anything else

Archive for December, 2010

The Lunar Eclipse that Wasn’t

Posted by Tom Benedict on 23/12/2010

I had plans to photograph the lunar eclipse.  Ooooh, did I ever have plans!

This all started when a friend of mine mentioned that he needed a single image that said: “Time Lapse”.  This is no small feat since most time lapse work results in a video, not a still image.  Once he explained the use he had in mind, though, the video idea went out the window.  It really did need to be a still.  We tossed some ideas around, and finally I remembered a project I worked long and hard on, but never really made headway with.

Back when I was doing a lot more 4×5 photography than I am now, I was given a box of things that came from various sources inside the family.  One was a camera of my great grandfather’s, a “pocket” Kodak camera that pre-dated the Great Depression.  It took a roll film I couldn’t find any more, and it had what looked like a lens built along the tessar design (symmetric doublets on either side of an aperture stop) set in a wonderful old shutter.  It was dirty, gunky, and not looking so great, but I knew it was a diamond in the rough.  I couldn’t wait to remove it from the original camera and mount it in a 4×5 lens board.

At the time I worked in a chemistry lab that was making optics.  I was also learning machining at the time, so I was up to my elbows in tools and optical cleaning equipment.  I disassembled the lens (not a huge trick with a large format lens) and disassembled and cleaned the shutter.  Keep in mind this shutter dated from the 191x era.  I wouldn’t do this with a modern shutter, which looks a lot like a Swiss watch once you get the cover off.  This shutter had “Big Parts”, a term coined by a friend of mine the first time he popped the hood on a 1960’s era Mustang and compared it to his 2000’s era Mustang.  Yep, dem be bigparts!

Cleaning took almost no time, and once everything was back together I discovered the real joy with this lens and shutter: the cable release also cocked the shutter.  So once it was installed on the camera, you could make exposure after exposure on a single sheet of film without touching the camera.  This means diddly squat if you’re doing straight photography, but it’s seriously cool if you’re doing multiple exposures.

I mentioned I was working in a chemistry lab making optics.  We were making diffraction gratings, and part of my job was to document our work to the best of my ability.  Imagine you’re seeing me making wikkid sounding snickering noises and rubbing my hands together, because that’s exactly what I did when I learned this was a job function.  “To the best of my ability” meant, to me, “You get to have a truckload of fun photographing what you do, and get paid for it.”  Oh yeah!

One question we were trying to answer was how much light was diffracted into each order of the grating.  We came up with a pretty good setup for measuring this, though the setup built by the guy they hired after I left was far better.  But for fun, I aimed a HeNe laser at one of our gratings and photographed the light diffracting off of it using multiple exposures.  Here’s the sequence:

  1. Do a normal “lights on” exposure of the setup.
  2. Turn off the lights, open the shutter.
  3. “Paint” the incoming beam with an index card, your finger, a piece of paper, whatever.  Keep a consistent pace as you do this.
  4. Then “Paint” the outgoing beams coming off the grating with that same index card, finger, etc.  Again, keep a consistent pace as you do this.
  5. Close the shutter, and turn on the lights.

What you get are these beautiful light beams floating in space, casting all the right reflections, and looking entirely like a movie special effect.  It also did a great job of showing that we got most of our light in one order (we had the grating arranged in littrow for all tests) and that the other orders had very little light in them.

The lens and shutter worked like a champ!

That’s when I got the idea of photographing a sunrise.

My idea was to do something similar to the laser beam trick, but use the shutter to capture the sun at various times during the sunrise.  I figured five minute intervals would be about right.  The only difference from the camera’s perspective is that the sun is a lot brighter than our laser beam, so I had to dump a lot of light.  I couldn’t afford the neutral density filter I needed, so I used two sheets of Kodak TMX film, overexposed and developed, placed in front of the lens.  If I remember right, this dumped the sunlight down enough that I could use something approaching a normal exposure without burning a hole in my film.

Unfortunately it never happened.  I tried diligently for several months, but every sunrise session ended in disaster.  I even drove out into the country, but things still seemed to go wrong.  The idea works.  I’ve seen other people do it.  But I never managed it.

Still, nothing says time lapse like a dozen suns rising from the horizon in a single frame.  And doing this with a digital camera and Photoshop would be even easier than doing it with a single sheet of film.  I tested the idea out at the beach, and even though my focus was off and the images were fuzzy, I processed them anyway and proved to myself it would work.  I got ready for the eclipse.

The morning of the eclipse I pulled up the GOES10 satellite feed to see what the weather in the Pacific was like.  Lo and behold, there was this continent-sized tropical storm bearing down on us like a freight train.  I felt like one of the agonized character drawings from Hyperbole and a Half!  I could feel my hair poking up and my eyes bugging out.  GAAAH!  “I could drive somewhere!” I thought.  So I started checking web cams all over the island, including those at the summit of Mauna Kea.  Hey, how cool would that be!  Photographing a lunar eclipse from the summit!  Nope, they were opaque, too, and the summit had snow warnings.  As the clock rolled forward, despair began to set in.

After dinner, we took the kids out to the driveway to look at the completely overcast sky.  We were all wailing to some degree at this point since the kids had been looking forward to it as much as I had, albeit for different reasons.  Sadly, my wife and I put the kids to bed and moped a little.  Eventually she went out to look, just in case.  I stumbled out after her.

Sometimes life has a way of slamming the door in your face, locking it, throwing the deadbolt, and sucker-punching you through the mail slot.  Earlier in the week I’d bruised my ankle putting my son’s bicycle away.  As I stepped out of the house this searing pain shot up my leg as I rammed my bruised ankle into the scooter he’d parked in front of the door.  I stumbled past that and stepped on the pile of… of… THINGS! the kids had left on the porch.  I careened away from the pile and whacked into a board they’d been using as a bike ramp.  I reached down with a trembling hand, trying to decide whether to put the board off to the side or just throw it in a fit of rage.  That’s when my glasses fell off.  In the dark.  At that point I knew if I moved I’d squish them.

I finally shuffled over to the house, found a book light, and used it to find my glasses.  Somehow they’d folded themselves neatly and were sitting on the ground lenses up.  Go figure.  I used the light to clear off the porch enough to navigate, and walked over to join my wife.

The only ray of light at the end of this story is that she didn’t turn to me and say, “The most wonderful hole opened up in the clouds, and ohMIGOD you should’ve SEEN it!”  That would’ve sent me over the edge.  Nope, she just shook her head and sighed.

We watched the dim light of the moon slowly fade behind the clouds as it went into eclipse, then walked back into the house to read a little before going to bed.

Ah well…  There’s always sunrise.

– Tom

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Kite Repairs

Posted by Tom Benedict on 17/12/2010

So my Dopero is fixed.  I had this irrational fear it would take weeks to months to get my big red kite back in the air, but it only took a couple of days.

Part of the worry was that I would have to get some exotic parts or fabric things made of pure unobtanium or something from a store that only sold to people who made kites.  Part was that I know I procrastinate to insane degrees at time, and ran a very real risk of letting my kite fall into that category.  (Some might call this “patience” as in  “I have the patience to let my CNC mill sit idle for several years while I get up the gumption to admit I need a new controller!”  I call it procrastination, pure and simple.)  But part of the reason, at least, is that this thing is roughly the size of a small airplane, and my house is roughly not even in the same category as a hangar.

So I set it up at work instead.

I really did.  For some reason my office is the largest one in our building.  That would make me feel like I’m the CEO or Director or something, but no, I’m about as low on the pecking order as you can get.  It all started when half of the technical library was moved into the main library, and space was opened up for two offices.  I was moved in there along with one other technician.  After a couple of years of this the rest of the technical library was moved into the new technical library, so my available office space doubled.

Something strange happened about this time.  Some people in the company got concerned that giving us too much space would lead to inflated head syndrome.  So in a bold move to keep them from putting more people in my office, I arranged all my furniture into an 8’x8′ square like a little fort.  I put my chair in the middle and pretended I was up in a tree.  My office!  It worked, but I think people thought I was weird.  A couple of years later the other tech left the company, and then I found myself sitting in my little fort all alone in the corner of this great big ROOM!

Of course it didn’t last.  Someone else figured this out and moved in enough furniture to house at least three more people.  If you arranged it a little better it would handle four.  Four empty little forts ringing this big room.  Ever since then, whenever we get interns (which we seem to do a lot) they wind up sharing the tree fort office with me.  I like it.  It’s fun.   Those are the good times.  But when the interns all go their separate ways and return to their regularly schedule life, the tree fort starts to feel a little empty, like it is now.

But it’s still pretty handy when you actually need it.  My Dopero is 6′ high by 9′ wide.  This doesn’t seem like it’s too big until you try to set it up in a house and turn it around to get to the other side while trying to fix busted things.  In my office I could basically pick it up, carry it to the middle of the room, spin in place, and put it back down.  It worked like a charm!  I finally got to see the extent of the damage the Kite Killing Kiawe Tree did to it and start to plan my repairs.

Brooks Leffler and Jim Powers gave me some good advice on how to go about fixing the kite, so I took their advice and planned it out.  I had a bent ferrule, which I fixed using the small lathe at work.  This sounds extreme, but it’s a really easy way to fix bent round things:  Chuck up the bent round thing in the lathe chuck, disengage the gears, and spin it around.  The free end will wobble around since the thing is bent, so rotate the spindle until the bent part points up.  Push it down.  Keep doing this until there’s no wobble left.

This is a powerful trick.  At one point we had a disaster at work that bent some precision guide shafts.  I watched our machinist do this to the shafts until the run-out was less than 0.001″ across the entire 12″ length.  This impressed me.  A lot.  I would love to say I held my kite spar to this same tolerance, but I never even came close.  I figure I got it to better than 0.050″ over a 36″ length, but I didn’t measure it.  I just eyeballed it.  As far as I can tell it’s straighter than the other one that didn’t get bent.  Go figure.

The other damage was that the bow lines ripped out of the upper and lower sails.  Brooks told me to sew some #200 braided Dacron onto the pocket and run the bow line through the loop.  Keep in mind I’m an absolute ditz at sewing, and that my sewing machine can’t actually be set to the right bobbin and thread tensions to sew ripstop.  (Believe me, I tried.  Over and over and over.  I know I growled a lot and my cats hated me for a while.  But I never could make a kite on that machine.)  So even though this seemed simple in theory, in execution it was going to be something of a feat.

Some time in the middle of this whole process, when I was taking trash and recycling to the transfer station, I saw that someone had dumped a Singer Millenium Series sewing machine.  “GREAT!” I thought, “Now I can sew ripstop!”  I threw it in my car, drove to work, and rubbed my hands with glee!  I knew it might need adjustment or something, but hey, I do machining.  How hard can it be to service a sewing machine?  (Yes, I’m aware this is an incredibly naive statement on par with, “It’s just a nuclear reactor.  How hard could this be?”  Actually, I think sewing machines are more complicated than reactors…)  I figured I’d fire it up, run some cotton denim through it to find out what the deal was, and fix whatever needed fixing.  It wasn’t until that evening that I realized the flaw in my plan:  It had no pedal, no power cord, no nothing.  Unless I could get it to absorb AC power through mind power or some sort of osmosis, it wasn’t going to be any more useful than a doorstop.  Ah well…  Project for another day.  (See?  I really do procrastinate.)

In the end I finally did take Brooks’s advice, and sewed some #200 braided dacron across the pockets.  I couldnt’ do it with the Singer or with my older sewing machine, so I did it by hand.  Hey, don’t knock hand sewing.  It’s how clothes were made for thousands of years.  The whole lock stitch machine only came about very recently by historical standards.  And even I can hand sew!  (Well, sort of.  It looks more like a really crude kid’s drawing of sewing rather than the real deal.  But it holds!)  It took me a while, and I had to wear my headset magnifier to see well enough to get the job done, but the job finally did get done.

I took my kites into work this morning, and when lunch time rolled around I pulled out my Dopero (nicknamed “Porco Rosso” after a character’s airplane in a Miyazaki movie by the same name), hooked it onto my line, and gave it a test flight.  It flew great.  As good as new.  You can’t beat that.  And if I can get a Singer pedal I might just have a new sewing machine sitting out in the garage.

– Tom

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Don’t Divide Your Attention!

Posted by Tom Benedict on 14/12/2010

I had a mixed weekend for KAP.  Saturday I went up on Kohala to do some aerial photography of a property that’s set up to demonstrate sustainable agriculture and architecture.  I had an absolute BLAST!  The wind was perfect, which Kohala rarely is.  The light during the first half of the flight was fantastic.  And after the KAP work I got to use the new pole rig I’ve been building out to finish up the last of the required shots in the remaining light.  The owner of the property is a wonderful person, and we both had a great time.  It’s really tough to put a damper on that:  Great KAP, great kite flying, great light and landscape, and great company to boot.  I hope I have the opportunity to work with him in the future.

Sunday morning I spent re-working one of the images from the Saturday session so I could get it back out for distribution.  I charged batteries, cleaned out my memory cards, and got my gear ready to go again.  3:30pm rolled around and the whole family jumped in the car to go to the beach.  Hey, this is what I was getting my gear ready for!

The wind at the beach was minimal, but enough to fly a Dopero in.  I got my Dopero airborne and on a whim I pulled out my rokkaku as well.  Some weeks ago there was a great thread on the KAP Forum regarding kite tacking.  I did some experiments with the upper bridle Y on my rokkaku, and demonstrated that you could repeatably tack a rokkaku by upwards of +/- 20 degrees.

Offset Flying

This photo demonstrates a Flow Form 16 used as an unmodified “control” kite in conjunction with a 6′ rokkaku with a 2″ offset in the bridle, tested symmetrically on both sides to make sure the offset is real, repeatable, and symmetric.

The idea works.  But a fellow KAPer, Simon Harbord, cautioned against jumping into this whole-hog.  He reasoned that by adjusting the bridle to fly the kite out of the center of its wind zone, you are reducing its performance bye a measurable amount.  Until the kite flier has a considerable amount of experience flying under these conditions, they won’t really know what the flight characteristics of the kite are when used in an offset fashion like this.  He’s right, and the first real opportunity I had to make use of kite tacking, I opted to wait for more favorable conditions rather than risk the safety of the people around me with an unknown and untested setup.

So when I got my Dopero airborne, I put my rokkaku together and did a 1″ offset on the bridle before putting it into the air.  The rokkaku flew fine, though the wind was slowly declining throughout.  In the end the Dopero was coming down, so I opted to land both kites.  The rokkaku stayed offset to the left the entire time with no chance of collision, though I had to stop reeling it in from time to time to pump the Dopero back up into the air.

Just as I was about to land the rokkaku, my wife walked up and asked me to keep an eye on our kids while she was rinsing off.  Ack!  I did a quick eye-check on the kids, landed the rokkaku, and looked up just in time to see the Dopero settle into a kiawe tree and rotate 180 degrees into it, locking it into place.  There was to be no flying it back out of the tree.

Before going into the rescue operation, a quick aside about kiawe trees.  They’re local to the Hawaiian Islands, but they’re related to the mesquite trees of the southwest United States.  Think of the thorniest tree you can imagine, then add some more thorns for good measure.  Then make it thirty feet tall and put your kite at the top of it.  That’s where my kite was stuck.

Even before I started the rescue operation, I had made up my mind not to lose this kite.  It’s $250 worth of gear, and it’s my primary light wind kite.  I pulled out my 16′ carbon fiber pole from my kite bag and headed over to figure out how.

Another quick aside about climbing trees to get kites:  Mostly I advise that people don’t.  It’s easy to fall from a tree, and any fall from a height of more than six feet can cause permanent injury or death.  Take it seriously.  It’s a quick way to be maimed for life.  I did climb the tree high enough to get me into range of my kite, but not without considering the risks and realizing I could do it without putting myself in any real harm’s way.  I always had at least two fallback branches below me in case the one I was using snapped, and the trunk was strong enough to hold up my car.  (I weigh less than my car.)

I spent the next hour using a hook at the end of my CF pole to unwrap the kite’s bridle from the tree’s branches and thorns.  I then spent more time shoving it and jockeying it until the kite sail was clear of the tree and was within reach of the ground via the pole.  Then I climbed down and used the pole to pull the kite sail to the ground.  In the end I broke the tie points for both bow lines, I broke one sail line, and I ripped off several small branches that had become entangled in the kite bridle despite my best efforts to keep it clear.  The sail itself appeared to suffer no lasting harm, but there’s still a couple of hours of repair work on the kite before it will fly again, and then the whole thing needs to be re-tuned.

All because I divided my attention at a critical moment.  Lesson learned.  Next time this happens I know how to respond:  “Can you give me just a sec to land these kites before I watch the kids?”  It really would’ve been that simple.  As I carried the rolled up wreckage of my Dopero back to my kite bag, my arms and legs scratched from the kiawe thorns, I couldn’t help thinking, “You IDIOT!”  I have a hard time calling something an accident when such a small dose of common sense would’ve avoided it.

It’s not just kid watching that causes this.  Phone calls, conversations, turning your attention to a battery change or to dig something else out of a KAP bag.  Any one of these could’ve caused what happened.  When your kite is in the air, pay attention to the kite first and foremost.  Don’t divide your attention.

– Tom

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Keep Your Source Images!

Posted by Tom Benedict on 11/12/2010

Out of the blue, I got five requests for photos to be licensed through Getty Images.  Hot diggity!  As I watched each request come in I was getting more and more excited.  Some were obscure images, some were ones I’d pitched to Getty in the past, hoping to get into their program.  Most were panoramas, and several were really really big (60MP +) panoramas.  Yahoo!

As I started pulling up the high resolution versions of each of them, though, I realized there was a problem:  I’d done most of them well before I picked up my license for Autopano Pro.  That meant I’d stitched the panoramas on software that I didn’t have a commercial license to!  The real culprits, for me, were the ones I did using Microsoft ICE.  It’s a very capable package, it’s easy to use, and it does an outstanding job.  But it also comes with a license that strictly forbids commercial use of the resulting images.  I had a couple that I’d made with Autostitch, but most of them were ICE images.  DANG!

Most of the time I’m a packrat, especially when it comes to computer files and photographs.  I save everything.  Most of the time, anyway.  On a couple of occasions in the past I’ve listened to other people who said there’s no need to save originals if you have your finalized version on disk.  Ok, whatever you say…  And on more than a couple of occasions I’ve gone back to try to re-work an image or a panorama and cursed my name for ever erasing the originals!

This fear was clutching my heart as I raced through my hard drive, DVD file, and personal memory in search of these images.  I found the originals for all but one.  And as I flipped back and forth through my photostream on Flickr trying to figure out when exactly I’d done the photography for the panorama in question, I got that sinking feeling of remembering dragging that folder to the trash.  GAAAAH!

But as I pointed out I’m a packrat.  Several years ago I set up a pretty noxious cron job on a pair of Linux computers that periodically did a disk sync using scp.  Cringing, and knowing what the answer was likely to be, I logged onto one of them and poked around.  Lo and behold, there was a directory dated right around the right time with the right location on it!  I looked inside, and there were all the images from the flight, from the hike to get there, everything.  YAAAAY!

It served as a lesson to me:  Keep your source images!  Always!  No matter what!  As soon as I get a chance to sit down for any length of time, I’m going to burn this set off and put it in the DVD file with the other shoots from the same time period.  Never again…

– Tom

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No KAP, Just Kites

Posted by Tom Benedict on 09/12/2010

It’s been a rough couple of weeks at work.  We’ve had issues with a couple of our instruments, and we’ve been going at them pretty ruthlessly.  My days have more or less consisted of waking up, making coffee, going to work, cranking hard, coming home, eating dinner, doing the dishes, and going to bed.  Not much joy there.

Last night I came home just after the sun had set, but still about an hour and a half before dinner time.  There was a gentle kona breeze, it wasn’t too cool outside, and my kite bag was right there.  Forget cleaning up the living room!  I grabbed my bag and went outside.

The wind on the ground was pretty minimal, but I got my 6′ rokkaku airborne and climbing high without too much trouble.  As the sky darkened, I eventually lost sight of the kite.  I just had this line stretching up into the night sky.  Of course I had to play!  One of the kids went inside and came back out with one of our book lights.  We clipped it onto the line and sent it aloft like a little wobbly star of its own.  Things got pretty dim up there, but we could still see it even after the sky was pitch black and the kite was nothing more than a hint and a mystery.

We all had a blast.  No cameras, no KAP rig, nothing but kites and a sense of fun.  Night kiting is really cool!  The book light survived the flight with flying colors, but it left me wondering if I could get some small lights to tack onto my kite sail.  I did a Google search and found some nice magnetic blinking LED earrings that would attach to a kite sail with ease.  I was all set to order them when my wife showed me something even cooler on the Into the Wind site:  Glowire.  It’s electroluminescent “wire” that you plug into a high frequency source (9V battery plus a high frequency inverter) which then glows like neon.  The kit sold by Into the Wind comes with the inverter and two five foot lengths of EL wire.

I begged Santa to remember I really had been pretty good this year, and that coal was hard to come by in Hawaii.  Then I mentioned to Santa that my AKA membership got me a 10% discount at Into the Wind.  Santa let me place the order.  But I promise to act suitably surprised when I open it!

It looks like we’re going to have gentle kona winds again tonight.  Lights or no lights, I’m getting out with my kite.  It’s a great way to end the day, regardless of how the day itself went.

– Tom

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First Aid 101

Posted by Tom Benedict on 06/12/2010

I did a fair bit of photography over the weekend.  Saturday I did aerial photography over a swim meet, which was really cool.  Sunday I did some private photography at a school function, and later hauled all my gear down to Hapuna Beach to play around.  I flew three of my five kites, but never flew a camera.  There just wasn’t enough wind.  But the one I was looking forward to was the annual parade in Waimea where all the trucking companies on the island deck out their trucks with lights and decorations, and cruise through town.  It’s the only parade I know of that consists almost entirely of big rig tractors and dump trucks.

We got there a little late, but there was a prime spot wide open.  There was too much wind to use a pole rig, and I was getting exposure times of 10+ seconds anyway.  But lots of opportunities for nighttime blur photography with tons of lights.  Yay!  I set up my tripod and camera and got ready.  The kids  were looking forward to it, too, so I expected to have a grand time all ’round.

Two minutes after they announced the parade had started, I hear screaming.  Really familiar screaming.  Out of the darkness my son comes stumbling up with his hand on his head.  Turns out he’d been playing tag in the dark and ran straight into a rock wall, head-first.

It’s at times like these that you actually appreciate having a cell phone.  I gave my wife the high sign, threw my camera gear in my pockets, and led my son toward the car.  They block off the streets for several blocks for the parade, I was doubly thankful my wife had insisted we park on open streets on the side that leads to our house!

Head injuries can be really nasty, so I started assessing my son’s level of consciousness.  He passed with flying colors, and was even walking straight by the time we reached the car.  I keep a first aid kit in all our cars and in my KAP bag, so I grabbed the one out of my wife’s trunk.  In addition to the normal stuff I keep a flashlight in all our first aid kits for times like these.  Good pupil response, and I could finally take a look at his head.  Scrooched up, but nothing bad.  A quick skull check showed no soft spots, no swelling, and no tenderness except at the wound site, which is understandable.  I knew in a couple of minutes he’d be fine.

But what really impressed me was that my son never took his hand off his head until I asked him to.  Even as he was stumbling across the grass toward me, right after hitting his head, he had his hoodie clamped to his head as a compress.  First aid 101:  Apply pressure to the wound to stop bleeding.  And head wounds bleed like nuts, so it was the right thing to do.

I complimented him on his quick action and perseverance.  Most people will take their hand off to check if the bleeding has stopped.  Don’t!  That’s a great way to tear a forming scab.  Keep pressure on for at least five minutes, and don’t remove any dressings once they’re on.  In the case of his hoodie it wasn’t glued to his head yet, so we were able to remove it without risking damage to a forming scab.  In the end I gave him a thorough going over, but he’s the one who got the bleeding under control.

The best part was when he saw his hoodie, which was by then covered with blood.  He started bawling, and asked, “Are we going to have to throw it away?”  I assured him we wouldn’t.  When we got home I started a load of laundry with cold water and OxyClean, and told him in the morning it would be as good as new.  He woke up early the next day and started folding laundry.  Lo and behold, there was his favorite hoodie clean and stain free.  Happy kid once more.

I think it’s a really good idea to teach kids the basics of first aid as well as learning it yourself, as a parent.  Nine times out of ten, the injuries a kid gets happen while they’re out having fun and playing with other kids.  I don’t know how many times I hurt myself as a kid, and really didn’t have a clue what to do about it.  It was nice to see that even right after bashing his head into a wall, my son responded correctly and self-administered first aid.  I sleep easier at night knowing he knows what to do.

– Tom

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Breathing New Life into an Old Camera

Posted by Tom Benedict on 04/12/2010

So the title is a little misleading.  The camera really isn’t that old.  I built it a couple of years ago, but stopped using it after a while.  The camera in question is a 4×5 large format film camera built specifically for doing kite aerial photography, shown here with a Nikon Coolpix bolted to the side.

Needing Wind

The camera has flown on several occasions, but it’s not the easiest thing in the world to use.  Sheet film is loaded in standard 4×5 film holders in the back, and exposures are made one at a time.  To make another exposure, the camera must be reeled back down to the ground, the film holder changed, and the camera must then be taken back to altitude.  At several dollars worth of film and processing per shot, it’s an expensive and time consuming way to do KAP.  But the film that comes out of it is nothing short of spectacular.

The real catch has been aiming it.  Unlike my other KAP rig, this one has no servos, nothing to define a position.  The angles are all set on the ground, the camera is sent aloft, and the shutter is triggered through an RC transmitter.  The viewfinder is hope, plain and simple.  Another issue that has plagued the camera in the past is vibration.  It moves around in the air.  Because it has such a large cross-section and so little weight, there’s minimal moment of rotational inertia, so the camera bops around in the wind like a balloon.

But I think I have a solution for both of these issues.

A while back I got parts to build a mast head for a 25′ painter’s pole I have.  I since found I prefer to hang a full blown KAP rig from the top of the mast so that I can use my same field techniques with the pole that I do with a kite.  This has made for some nice big panoramas, even in very low light situations.  So I have all these parts lying around: transmitter, receiver, 900MHz video downlink, video camera, monitor, the whole nine yards.  Since I’m doing panos with both the mast and the kite rig, there’s no real need for video downlink.  But with the 4×5…

I don’t have the servos I’d need to move this thing around in the air.  But if I can see what it’s pointing at, I can decide whether to trip the shutter.  Also, if I can see when it reaches a point of minimal motion, that should help get rid of the motion blur I’m getting from high frequency oscillation.  So I’m planning to fit the video downlink rig onto the 4×5 KAP camera, and see what I see on the ground.  With any luck this may breathe new life into the thing, and let me try my hand at film once more.

– Tom

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Photography – Keywords and Tagging

Posted by Tom Benedict on 03/12/2010

There are two aspects of photography I really don’t have a good handle on.  The first is very subjective:  I have a hard time knowing what will be interesting and what won’t.  I belive I’ve posted on this before.  What I like is rarely what other people like.  The long and the short is that I’m a very bad judge of what people want, what sells, and what an agency like Getty is looking for.  Thank goodness for Flickr!  There’s a group set up for people who have sold through Getty to post the images they have sold.  I spent some time looking through it, and learned a lot.  There’s a look and feel to a stock image that has less to do with subject matter and style, and more to do with composition.  For the most part this is good news since a good number of my photographs are composed in a way that would work.  But it also explains why some of my pictures really aren’t of any interest.  In short, it would be hard to use them for anything but a poster.  Lesson learned.  The next time I get out with a camera, I’m going to play more with composition and see what I come home with.

The other is less subjective:  Keywords and tagging.  It was eye-opening to see how Getty tagged my photos, and to look through the Flickr group of selling images and see how they were tagged both on Flickr and on Getty.  I took notes, shuffled things around, tried to categorize as much as possible.  Then I had my epiphany:  Keywords follow the same rules as journalism 101:  The Six W’s:

  • Who
  • What
  • When
  • Where
  • How (Yes, I’m aware this is not a W word.)
  • Why

Keywords really need to answer all of these.  This is how I broke it down:

Who:  Include all information on the people in the photograph

  • “People” / “No People”
  • Children / Adults
  • Single Person
  • Man / Woman
  • Boy / Girl
  • Occupation: Doctor / Machinist / Artist / Engineer / Teacher / Executive / Custodian / Cowboy / etc.
  • Name (if a recognizable celebrity)

What:  Include all compositional elements.  This is a sample from some shoreline seascapes:

  • Landscape / Seascape / Nature / etc.
  • Sky (if visible)
  • Blue Sky / Cloudy / Clouds / Weather
  • Ocean / Sea / Water / Calm Water / Choppy Water
  • Beach / Coast / Coastline / Shore / Shoreline / Water’s Edge / Bay / Inlet / Sound / etc.
  • Land / Hills / Mountains / Volcanoes / Valley
  • Rock / Sand
  • Grass / Forest / Trees / Grass / Plains / etc.
  • Animals / One Animal / Animals in the Wild / Animals in Captivity / etc.
  • Lighthouse / Hotel / House / Cabin / Tent / etc.
  • Transportation: Boat / Car / Train / Bus / Airplane
  • Activities: Swimming / Hiking / Running / Relaxing / etc.
  • Colors: Blue / Green / Brown / White / Red / etc. (This is more important than I ever gave it credit for)

When: If this is an event that is tied to a particular time (e.g. tearing down the Berlin wall) mention it.  But also mention these

  • Sunrise / Sunset / Daylight
  • Dawn / Dusk
  • Morning / Evening
  • Day

Where: Give as thorough a description of the location as possible

  • Location Name
  • City / County / State / Country / etc.
  • Outdoors / Indoors

How: Technical aspects of the shoot or the image

  • Orientation: Horizontal / Vertical / Square / Panorama (2:1 or greater)
  • Point of View: Aerial / Directly Above / High Angle / Low Angle / Distant / Close / Macro
  • Methodology: KAP (in my case) though I don’t think this will necessarily drive viewers to your picture.
  • Color Image / BW Image / Black and White Image
  • Vivid / Muted
  • Photography (as opposed to some other digital medium)

Why: These are descriptive words you can use to describe a scene and convince the viewer why they should invest emotional value to it

  • Vacation / Holiday
  • Travel / Travel Destination
  • Tranquil
  • Idyllic
  • Beauty in Nature

Keep in mind that the entire reason for keywords is so that your pictures show up in more searches, and drive more viewers to look at them.  They have to be relevant.  For example, don’t tag an image with “airplane” if it’s a picture of a flower.  But they should cover as many aspects as possible that people might search for.  For example, that flower image should be tagged with “flower” as well as the common name of the flower, the latin name of the flower, the primary colors in the flower, its season, and a whole host of descriptive words: “colorful”, “vivid”, “cheerful”, etc.

So where does this leave me?  I now have a plan for how to tag all my future images and sets that I upload to Flickr.  But what to do with the 1000+ images I already have on the site?  That’s a tough call.  Retroactively going through a Flickr stream to add keyword tags is exhausting.  Practically anything you can do to speed it up runs the risk of being inaccurate (airplane = flower? no).  I do think I’ll go back through and try to tag the ones I think lend themselves to stock photography.  But that brings me back to the first point I learned: I really don’t have a good handle on what people want.  Not yet, anyway.

I’m learning…

– Tom

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Stay Safe

Posted by Tom Benedict on 01/12/2010

I have the dubious honor of being the person at work who has filed the most injury and near-miss forms.  It’s reached the point where my boss doesn’t even want to see me approach the first aid kit, and my co-workers nicknamed me “Bubble Boy”.  But hey, the point of the paperwork is to bring any and all accidents or potential accidents to the attention of our safety committee so they can look at what happened and see if there’s a way to prevent that kind of injury in the future.

Sometimes the changes are small.  Here’s a good example:  At one point I injured myself while using our small mill because the right-hand crank for the table came a little too close to a toolbox.  My hand whacked the toolbox, and a good 2″x.5″ patch of skin was removed from my hand.  It hurt about as bad as that sounds.  The fix?  Move the #$%@ toolbox 8″ to the right!  Done.  No real cost, and no repeat of that injury in over seven years.

Other times the changes are more involved.  But not often.  Most of the changes really are small.  It really doesn’t take a lot to be safe.  Just a little common sense.

And with that introduction, let me introduce you to my latest injury:

Gloves are good, but...

It’s not work-related this time.  This was 100% me.  If you can believe it, it’s a kiting injury.  Consider this:  Even a modest kite can put upwards of ten pounds of force on the kite line.  Under that kind of force kite line starts to behave like an abrasive hacksaw.  Common sense says wear gloves when working with kite line.  I do this regularly, and keep a pair of leather gloves in my KAP bag for just this reason.  And you’ll notice in the photograph above, my hands are injury-free.  I was wearing my gloves!

But my arms weren’t.  I also tend to wear a beat-up old cotton work shirt when I’m out doing KAP.  But this time I was wearing short sleeves.  The wind picked up, the kite started to pull harder and harder, and I had to bring it down.  Two of us got on the line with our leather gloves, but it was still a struggle.  I wrapped the line around my elbow to get a little more purchase on it, and the line slipped.

Common sense, right?  Not so much.  I’ve seen people make the same move with rope, fishing line, all kinds of stuff.  I’ve even seen one kiter proclaim that using this maneuver means the line cannot slip, and that he therefore doesn’t need to wear gloves at all.  From first-hand experience I feel safe in saying:  BALONEY!

Whenever you put your hand on a rope, string, line, cable, chain, etc. you must assume that it will at some point move.  The line could fail and the suspended weight could pull it through your hand.  The wind can change and the kite will pull the line through your hand.  The thing your rope is attached to might unexpectedly move, and will pull it through your hand.  Insert scenario X, Y, or Z, and they all come back to this:  No matter what you do it can move.  Do it enough times and eventually it will.  If you’re not protected, you get hurt.

Such was the case here.  The line slipped, I got a nasty rope burn from #200 Dacron line, and from now on I won’t pull that maneuver unless I’m wearing long sleeves.  Lesson learned.

Stay safe, folks.  Even when you’re just flying a kite.

– Tom

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