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Thoughts on KAP and Viewfinders

Posted by Tom Benedict on 25/11/2011

I still haven’t flown a video downlink system on my KAP rig. The 900MHz system I have built has about a 100′ range to it, so it really would work for low altitude KAP. It’s a matter of opportunity rather than capability. And even once it arrives I won’t be able to use the 5.8GHz system I have on order. In that case it’s a matter of licensing. Each of these will resolve themselves in time.

But having a working video system hanging around the house has got me to thinking about KAP and photography in general, and viewfinders in particular. Because that’s essentially what a video downlink is: it’s a viewfinder for KAP.

I’ve done KAP since 2007 without a viewfinder. Every KAP image I’ve made to date has been aimed by look and feel. I’ve had some real stinkers, but I’ve had some real winners, too. So I can say first-hand that the blind KAP approach works. It works quite well. And the serendipity factor of coming home and eagerly opening up the images to see what you got has a lot of appeal.

But it’s also where the disappointment really kicks in, too. I’ll give you two examples of this:

The first has to do with the Keahole Point Lighthouse. I photographed the lighthouse on three occasions, two during World Wide KAP Week 2009. The second of these was a tricky session from the standpoint of weather. There was a storm rolling in off the coast, and conditions were changing as the face of the storm approached. But the light was fantastic! It was hands-down the best session I’d had at the lighthouse, and one of my best KAP sessions to date. I got a number of really good photographs from that set. But upon review there were a couple of near-misses. I promised myself I’d go back out and give it another go. When the light was good. And the weather was right. Of course that never happened. Less than a year later the lighthouse was torn down because erosion of the coastline made it a safety hazard. Now I can never go back and get those images I almost had. The opportunity is gone.

More recently I had a session near Ookala on the Hamakua Coast. For most of the flight I couldn’t actually see my subject. So I aimed as best I could and shot eight gigs worth of photos. Fewer than 10% were keepers. The rest simply missed the mark.

This got me thinking about how I used to do photography when all there was was film. For a two week trip I’d bring fourteen rolls of Fuji Velvia and fifty sheets of Kodak TMax 100. Keep in mind that at the time this was considered to be a lot: 72 35mm color slides per day, and a little over four sheets of 4×5 B&W per day. The idea was simple: You already spent all this time and money to get there. Don’t skimp on your film. (Or your lenses, tripods, etc.) Why compromise your chances of coming home with good photographs?

This is where I am with KAP. I spend time and money building KAP rigs and learning to fly the kites. I spend time and money driving to a good location in order to do photography. I sometimes hike for hours to reach the subject I intend to photograph. And then I leave things to chance?

I still haven’t used the downlink in the field. I’m certain there are aspects to this I’m not thinking through. But one thing is clear to me: I want my viewfinder back.

– Tom

2 Responses to “Thoughts on KAP and Viewfinders”

  1. Nice post Tom, thak-you!

    I have been using a video downlink for a good while now and I think you have summed up the pros and cons pretty well. It’s a boon but it needs a lot of looking after: power supply, voltage regulation etc. Not least was an awful cross channel interference problem that took a lot of research to kill. Sure you add some weight to the rig but, as you say, why go to all the hassle (or fun- depends on your expectation eh?) to put the camera somewhere special and NOT make the best effort to frame the shot. KAP being what it is you will still get a few wasted frames but seeing what you shoot definitely ‘sharpens’ your eye!

    An unexpected difficulty I find is getting low level nadir aligned properly and the downlink is a real benefit there: especially if you are lucky enough to work 2 handed and can guide the camera in.

    ..and another thing…I sense real despair at the ‘lost opportunity’ of the failed KAP shoot- I know this well but I think we have to accept that persistence pays and a lost opportunity is really a step along the way to success!

    keep flying,


    • Tom Benedict said

      Hey, this is good to hear. There’s nothing like having someone tell you you’re not on a wild goose chase!

      I’m glad you mentioned the nadir case. The last one I did where I really wanted to nail the shot I got close, but not dead nuts on. I was after dead nuts. I’ve had enough where I did get it that I like that particular look. Good to hear the viewfinder will help.

      I don’t know about despair, but certainly some real disappointment at missing out on photographing that lighthouse again. A more abstract example of this would be if I ever got to go on a KAP trip of the American Southwest. I spent many of my summers as a kid road tripping through the Southwest with my family. It’s one of my favorite places on the planet. Some day I’d love to take a month off from work, beg, borrow, or (gulp) rent a VW bus, and drive around the Southwest doing KAP. The light in the Southwest is so fast and so fickle, it can come and go at a moment’s notice. Being able to set up a shot and nail the light would make or break a trip like that. I’d want to have the viewfinder on my rig, and have a couple of years under my belt before I tried it.

      On a related note, I’m almost ready to test for my ham license! Soooooo close.

      Blue skies!


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