I’ve been out of kite aerial photography for the better part of a year. In that time I’ve had a couple of wonderful KAP sessions – namely when the World Wide KAP Banner came through, and when I got to fly with Ramon Pallarés at the windmills near his home in The Netherlands. But as far as flying for the sake of flying goes, the last year has been a dry well. Likewise, my tendency to constantly tweak, re-design, and re-build my KAP gear has also gone by the wayside. I don’t know when I’ll move past this and get back into KAP, and I’m not sure if I will ever get back into KAP to the degree I have in the past. But recently I’ve had the itch to make new gear. I’m taking this as a good sign.
It started off with some recent realizations. At the risk of boring the reader, here’s some history:
A couple of years ago I was flying a Canon PowerShot A650 IS – a very capable, if hefty, compact camera. It served me well, but I wanted something better. To some degree this was driven by the gear lust almost every photographer suffers from – KAPers are just as subject to this as ground photographers. But my decision to upgrade had another reason behind it: Getty Images.
Even before Getty began their program with Flickr, I’d been looking into their contributor requirements. Getty’s library of images is broken down into different collections. Each has its own requirements for its images and the equipment used to create them. I read through all the camera requirements, and figured out that there was a sweet spot in their royalty per pixel table: the 18MP DSLR. It offered the most buck for the bang, so to speak, in terms of image royalties and collections a contributor could participate in. For some collections, if you weren’t using a camera at least that large, you couldn’t play the game at all.
Then the Getty Flickr Collection came along. This was a brand new collection, using photographs their curators found on the Flickr site. No camera requirements, aside from a 5MP minimum image size. I wasn’t in the first pool of KAPers who participated in the Getty-Flickr program, but I wasn’t far behind. In that first year I earned good royalties from the photos I’d made with my A650. But Getty uses the same royalty schedule for all of its collections. That meant the 18MP break in the royalty pricing was still there, even for Getty-Flickr.
But Getty wasn’t the only driver behind my decision to upgrade. For myself, I wanted a camera with a bigger chip, better noise characteristics, and the ability to shoot real 14-bit RAW images. At the time I also thought it would be nice to get a camera I was equally happy to use on the ground. One camera for all reasons and seasons, so to speak. I’ve used Canon gear for years, so my first inclination was to get a Canon DSLR. Around this same time, though, Sony released the NEX-3 and NEX-5. These were mirrorless crop-sensor cameras that took interchangeable lenses, just like a DSLR. My choice came down to two cameras: The Canon EOS T2i and the Sony NEX-5.
At almost half the weight of the T2i, the NEX-5 was the clear winner for KAP. It offered an honest to goodness crop sensor – far larger than the chip in the A650. It had very good low light performance with much less noise than the A650. And like the T2i it also offered 14-bit RAW images. But it lacked two key features I wanted at the time: At 14.2MP, it didn’t fall inside the 18MP sweet spot Getty was willing to pay extra for. And unless I bought a bag full of Sony NEX lenses to augment my existing bag full of Canon EOS lenses, I didn’t think I would get as much out of it on the ground as I would the T2i. The NEX-5 was an attractive camera, but in the end I went for the larger, heavier, Canon.
I love my T2i. No doubt about it. The images it produces are superb, and it’s a joy to use both in the air and on the ground. But therein lay half of the problem: it became just as much fun to do photography on the ground as it was to do it in the air. Already KAP started to take a back seat. Throw in the complexity of the video down-link hardware I was trying to build and the constant hacking on my ground-side radio unit, and KAP took more and more of a secondary role in my photography. Eventually I spent so much time messing with my gear that I stopped doing KAP altogether. In time I stopped working on the gear as well. My KAP gear stayed in its bag, idle.
During this time my wife was diagnosed with a brain tumor. A year ago this month, she was operated on. The tumor came out intact, and as of her last MRI she’s still 100% tumor-free. But in case anyone has any doubts about about how long it takes people to recover from a craniotomy, it’s not out-patient surgery. Not even close. It was weeks before she could walk more than a few feet, months before she could drive. The operation left her blind in one eye, so we had to spend time re-thinking the things we did and the ways we lived. We replaced the mirrors in her car with wider ones. I got her hiking sticks so she could keep her balance on steep trails. Bit by bit we got back to the business of living life.
I went back to work after the first month, but I kept my phone on me, ready to bolt for home in case she needed me. It was even longer before I felt I could stop hovering at home every weekend. Even now, a year later, I haven’t returned to any of the evening activities I used to do, like going to photo club meetings or trying for the ever-elusive sunset KAP session. I basically turned into a care-giving hermit. Though to be fair I turned into a hermit who spends a lot more time with his family now.
Recently, though, I’ve started taking my gear out. Mostly it’s when I go to the beach with my family, but about a week ago I lined up another session at the Mala`ai Garden in Waimea. It felt strange even talking about doing KAP. To my surprise I felt guilty.
Guilty? For even thinking about doing KAP? How weird is that?
It gave me pause. And it made me think about where I’d wound up. First and foremost, I felt guilty for doing something strictly for me. My kids aren’t interested. My wife isn’t interested. Except for two line sport kites, I’m the only one in the family who flies kites, much less hangs a camera from one. But I also felt guilty for photographing something I couldn’t then market to Getty. I was doing KAP for the sake of doing KAP. And somehow that felt wrong.
Where I’d wound up was somewhere very very dysfunctional. I talked about this with my wife, and she assured me that she was well past the point where she needed me hovering every second of the day. I can’t disappear for entire weekends, but taking off for an afternoon of KAP isn’t a problem. And feeling guilty about photographing something just because I want to? That’s something I’m more than happy to take on and conquer. Photography should be fun.
All of this made me look at my gear with fresh eyes, too. What I saw didn’t make me 100% happy. It was time for a change.
Every piece of engineering has its shortcomings. Every piece of equipment can be improved. This was the first time in a long time I was interested in improving my KAP gear. Even more than the go-ahead from my wife, this let me know that maybe I was coming out of the hermit cave. Maybe it’s real.
In hindsight I don’t think my one size fits all approach was necessarily the right way to go. It makes for feature-heavy gear that compromises weight and complexity in favor of flexibility. But there are other ways to achieve flexibility than to throw in every bell and whistle that comes to mind. Rather than have one set of gear that must serve all needs, I think a small set of semi-specialized gear might be the better way to go. It’s still too early to say what I’ll eventually do, but right now I’m leaning toward three changes:
The first is to gut my DSLR rig and rebuild it with simplicity in mind. I’m keeping the pan and tilt axes, and I’m re-vamping the power supply system for the video downlink. I pulled one of the joysticks from my ground-side radio, and plan to install the video receiver in its place. The radio will look exactly like a two-stick RC radio, except the right stick will be replaced with a monitor, and there will be a second antenna jack for the video antenna. Small, simple, and reliable, with no loose wires to get caught on.
The second is to build an autoKAP panorama rig for the T2i. This would be a pan-only rig similar to Brooks Leffler’s BEAK, but built for a DSLR. I have a Pololu Robotics Micro Maestro built out as a rig controller, and I have a spare Picavet with PeKaBe blocks sitting around from an earlier project. I still need a couple of parts from Brooks to finish this off, but the idea is to have a lightweight rig I can bolt the T2i into and send aloft with no further interaction required from the ground. I’ve done enough panorama photography with my A650 HoVer rig to have a pretty good idea what I want from this thing. I just need to do it.
The third rig is the most challenging, but also the most enjoyable of the bunch: I’m going to make an autoKAP rig for my phone.
In a word, the T2i rig is heavy. It weighs in just over 1kg, or more than two pounds. The wind has to be just right, or it won’t even fly. I want something lightweight. Even more, though, I want something that means bringing less gear with me instead of more.
No matter where I go, I carry my phone with me. It’s light, it’s got a capable camera on board, and turning it into an intervalometer camera is a simple matter of downloading the appropriate app. Bolt it into a super lightweight pan/tilt rig, and it’s an 8MP KAP workhorse. Add some smarts, and it may be even better than that.
The Pololu Micro Maestro has six ports on it, any of which can act as a servo output port, a general purpose digital I/O port, or an analog input port. Headphone audio jacks typically output 1V peak-to-peak. A generous audio signal should be detectable through the Micro Maestro’s ADC input. Every camera app I’ve tried on my phone makes a loud shutter “click!” sound when a photo is made. My plan is to make a cable to connect my phone’s headphone jack to the Micro Maestro. I should be able to use the sound of the shutter click to trigger the next rig move. The Micro Maestro is flexible enough to let it drive a pan-only rig, a pan-tilt rig, or even a HoVer rig. It’s just a matter of sensing the shutter sound from the phone and getting the rig positioned before the next image is made.
The end result will be a very small rig – a little larger than my phone – that I can toss in my kite bag. When the wind is light, I can strap my phone in and send it aloft while I relax on the ground. And for travel KAP, it would be a tough combination to beat. No radios, no DSLR bag. Just a chunk of hardware smaller than a paperback book.
I’m still swamped at work. I’m still trying to work through the feelings of guilt when I think of going out by myself to fly a kite. And at the moment I have very little money to throw at new KAP gear. So I don’t know when I’ll get most of this done. But the changes to my existing DSLR rig are already in the works, and I’ve started drawing up the bits for the phone rig. Time will tell if I’m really getting back into KAP. But for now it sure feels good.