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Archive for February, 2014

A Fun Project

Posted by Tom Benedict on 28/02/2014

I’m planning out a new photograph I’d like to do. Potentially it’ll lead to a set of photos, depending on where I go with it.

It started years ago when I was down in Waipio Valley with my kids. I’d packed a bunch of camera gear in the hopes of getting some new landscape photos, but I came too late and the light wasn’t all that good. Instead I started playing around with the cameras themselves and came up with this:

Bender 4x5 in Waipio Valley

It had its flaws, and I knew it at the time. But it was fun to make, fun to see coming off the camera, and it served as the source for a humorous demotivational poster I made shortly after:

Old School Poster

Years later I found myself down in Pololu Valley at the other end of the Kohala Coast from Waipio, this time with a Crown Graphic instead of my Bender. As before, I brought my kids. While I was setting up the Crown Graphic, my daughter walked up to ask if she could look through the camera. I was struck by the incongruity of the old camera and the young girl, and grabbed a couple of frames while she was staring at the ground glass.

Live View

The Crown Graphic has a collapsible hood over the ground glass that keeps the sun off the glass as you’re composing a photo. I figured this would make it easier to do something similar to what I’d done with my Bender, but despite several experiments that day I just couldn’t make it work. The more I worked at it, the more I began to wonder why the Bender photo had worked at all.

For starters, the Bender was in the shade when I made the photo in Waipio, and it was pointed at the sunlit landscape. This kept the ground glass from being washed out, but it made for such a wide dynamic range I couldn’t get everything to work as well as I’d liked. I also photographed the Bender at a slight angle. When I made the photos of the Crown Graphic, I was directly behind the camera. So every photo of the ground glass bore a reflection of me and my DSLR. That offset in the Waipio photo, however small, was critical. Along the same lines, the area directly behind the Bender was also in shade, so there were no brightly lit objects to create other reflections. In every photo I did with the Crown Graphic, something behind the camera was reflecting off the front surface of the ground glass. It was a nightmare.

The final piece to the puzzle had to do with the characteristics of the ground glass in the two cameras. They’re quite different. The ground glass in the Crown Graphic suffers from severe “hot spot”: the point on the ground glass directly between your eye and the camera’s lens is brighter than anywhere else on the ground glass. The Bender suffers from it, too, as you can see in the photograph I made in Waipio, but it’s a much more subtle effect.

But I know a fix for that! Years ago when I was actively doing large format photography, I picked up a little Fresnel book magnifier. Cut to fit in front of the ground glass, it helps even out the illumination while composing a photo. It must be removed prior to focusing or exposing the film, of course, but for that first phase of composition it’s useful. So I stuck the Fresnel in my Bender, ran out on my front porch, and tried it again.

Early Concept Test

Better! Better, but not great. As you can see at the top and bottom, the Fresnel I had didn’t quite cover the entire ground glass. Rats! I scrounged around town, trying to find a larger one without success. In the end I wound up ordering some full page magnifiers from Amazon.

While I was waiting for the magnifiers to come in, I started planning out spots to go to make the “real” photo: Pololu Valley Overlook is a good one. Waipio Valley Overlook is good, too. Waialea Bay, Akaka Falls, Rainbow Falls, Onomea Bay, City of Refuge, the list is long. I was like a kid in a candy store! But eventually the excitement wore off and I got back to the business of waiting for the Amazon box. >yawn<

I spent some of that time fishing for additional ideas that would make the final picture pop. As I was rummaging, I came across another experiment I’d done using the photos from Pololu. A couple of weeks after the Pololu trip I looked through the photos of my daughter and the Crown Graphic, and on a whim I tried one of them as a selective color photo, keeping only the purple of her shirt and letting the rest of the frame go gray.

Crown Graphic Selective Color

It was a neat effect, but a couple of things keep it from being what I’d call a really good photo: the tripod bag, the camera bag hanging around my daughter’s neck, and the almost but not quite background. Really, it wasn’t the best application of selective color to begin with. But could I use it with this other idea?

I tried a couple of selective color approaches, but none of them really worked out. Then it hit me: Large format photography is often associated with black and white photography. (I can’t imagine why!) So what if…

Early Concept Test 2

Yup! That’s it.

The selective color approach won’t work with all of the photos I had planned. Sunrises and sunsets, for example, don’t really work all that well in black and white. And unfortunately I don’t have Yosemite or the Sierra Nevada to play in. But I think I can come up with something other than my grill and driveway to photograph this way.

I’m leaving for Victoria tomorrow afternoon, and will be heading over to Maui a couple of days after returning. So it may be another month before I get to try this in the field. But hey, I’ve got the scissors photo to do in the meantime. I love having plans waiting in the wings.

– Tom

Posted in Photography | Leave a Comment »

Tiny Camera – Tiny KAP Rig

Posted by Tom Benedict on 27/02/2014

I’m traveling to Victoria, BC, in the next couple of days. Any time I travel the question comes up: what camera gear should I bring? Should I bring a tripod? Should I bring kite aerial photography gear? What kinds of photography can I do? And how much time will I really have to do any of this stuff, anyway?

In this case the answer to that last question is probably “a couple of hours at best”. For personal stuff, anyway. One of the purposes of the trip is to do technical documentation photography, so I’ll have my full camera bag and tripod with me. But our days will start right around sunrise and will end just before sundown. I’m packing my graduated ND filters and some other gear to make sunset and early evening skyline photography possible, but the opportunities for doing kite aerial photography will be seriously limited.

But if I can find room in my bag, I’m planning to bring a Flow Form 16, a halo winder, and my new (to me) Canon A2200. Since my main KAP rig is massive overkill for such a small camera, I knocked together a minimalist KAP rig designed around the A2200. No servos. No batteries. Point on the ground, send it up with the intervalometer chugging away, and live for the serendipity of it all. The entire rig, including the Brooxes Folding Picavet, came in right around 57g. Add in the camera’s 133g and the all-up flying weight is still under 200g. Even if the wind isn’t blowing enough for the Flow Form to really come into its own, it should still be able to lift the thing.

Dinky Rig

There’s actually some room to shave weight off the rig. The main framework comes in just over 12g. Most of the real weight in the rig is the Picavet and the post. The post and all of its hardware is steel, so that’s where the bulk of it lies. If I have time before the trip I may change that out for a thin aluminum tube (knitting needle?) with threaded rods epoxied and pinned in each end. Some creative aluminum jam nuts and I could probably knock 10-20g off the thing.

The whole thing can be disassembled in the field and reassembled without the upper half of the frame. This lets the camera hang vertically. I don’t know how much of that I’ll do with this rig, but it’s nice to have the capability. In either the vertical or the horizontal orientation, the camera can be tilted anywhere from straight up to straight down. (It’s amazing how easy it is to get extreme motion in your axes when there aren’t any motors involved!)

I’m hoping to have a chance to take this out for a test flight before I get on the plane. But if the weather keeps doing what it’s been doing for the past several weeks, I really won’t have the chance.


– Tom

Posted in Kite Aerial Photography, Photography | Leave a Comment »

Reasons I Left the AKA

Posted by Tom Benedict on 23/02/2014

A couple of years ago I let my membership with the American Kitefliers Association lapse. A bunch of stuff was going on at the time: Rydra was getting a craniotomy to remove a brain tumor. I’d just been assigned the task of designing and building the mechanics of two CCD cameras for a new instrument. And artistically I was in the dumps when it came to kite aerial photography. When the renewal notice came in the mail, I didn’t even open it.

I originally joined so I could take part in the annual AKA KAP photo competition. The competition takes place at the AKA Annual Conference, an event I’ve never been able to afford to travel to. The rules are simple: Print up to three photos made using a camera suspended from a kite, and mail them to the AKA rep by the due date so they can be presented at the convention for review. Conference attendees vote on the photos, and the winner is declared on the last day of the convention. Only members in good standing with the AKA can compete. When I let my membership lapse, I let my ability to enter the competition lapse as well.

I had opportunities to rejoin the AKA. Rydra recovered from the brain tumor. I finished the two cameras for the new instrument. And I eventually got back into kite aerial photography and photography in general. The Annual Convention came, the competition was announced, and still I didn’t renew. Maybe next year. Or maybe not. I just didn’t feel a need to rejoin.

When I was a member of the AKA I got Kiting magazine. The format for Kiting typically includes a cover story – usually a convention – contributed articles – usually about conventions or competitions – and the reports from the Regional Directors – usually covering conventions and competitions. Oh! And one KAP article. Except for the KAP article, I really didn’t get a lot out of it. My Regional Director never once mentioned the state I live in, never once covered an event out here, and his report never really had much in it that applied to me. Increasingly, I got the feeling that if I wasn’t on the competition or convention circuit, I wasn’t really doing kites. Not the way the AKA expected me to, anyway.

I also got on the AKA’s online forums. Just like Kiting magazine, these mostly focused on competitions, conventions, and why the AKA has such a hard time attracting and keeping members. I tried to contribute to the forums, but I never got the feeling my input was ever really read. Apparently my version of kiting just didn’t apply. Over time I quit logging in. There wasn’t really anything there for me.

About a year ago I got into RC airplanes. Gliders, specifically. No, they didn’t take the place of kites for me. In a way I learned to appreciate kites even more for how cleanly they use the wind and the air. And I joined the Academy of Model Aeronautics – the AMA. So when my shiny new AMA membership card arrived in the mail, I was eager to see what the AMA’s approach was like.

For starters the publication I got, Park Pilot, covered a lot more ground than Kiting. Articles covered choosing a radio, choosing a plane, new gear reviews, how-to construction articles, tips on flying aerobatics, tips on approaches and landings, how to put together a crash kit for the field, and how to fly safely. There were even articles about competitions, but they were never the entire focus of the magazine. As a beginner, and even after a year, I felt represented.

Over time I gravitated toward sailplanes. I was a little alarmed to find out that it’s an incredibly competitive branch of model aeronautics. Speed records are set by high-end carbon composite dynamic slope soarers. Precision soaring events are won by carbon kevlar bagged wing ships flown to within a second on a clock. Timed pylon events are run using only the lift generated on slopes. I’m not a competitive guy. I fly to have fun. The AKA’s focus on competition was one of the things that drove me off. The deeper I dug into sailplanes, the less I thought there could be a place there for a guy like me.

To my delight I found that there was. RC Soaring Digest, a volunteer-published magazine for RC soaring enthusiasts, covers these competitions, but unlike Kiting it also covers construction techniques, walks around full-sized sailplanes, travel articles showcasing wonderful places to see and fly, historical articles on record attempts, even articles covering people like me who just want to put a plane up and have a good time. It’s all fair game.

Eventually I joined the RCGroups forum. Though not an official part of the AMA, the RCGroups forum is, nonetheless, the online watering hole for all things RC. There are forums there to discuss competitions and rules. But there are also forums to discuss scale modeling, DIY electronics, radios and radio mods, foam planes, home-built planes, slope planes, thermal planes, jets, helicopters, multirotors, seaplanes, you name it. If it can be flown, it’s represented. If it can be stuck in something that flies, it’s represented. And when someone like me gets on and posts a wacky idea, people read it and comment on it. Sometimes they even get excited about it.

Between the KAP Forum, the AMA, RCGroups, and RC Soaring Digest, I had my interests covered. I was disappointed the AKA wasn’t part of it, but such is life.

Some months back there was a proposed rule change for the annual AKA KAP competition. I weighed in as a KAPer, and non-KAP members of the AKA weighed in as well. The discussion was very slanted. One non-KAP participant implied that KAPers were basically greedy bastards for not donating their prints to the AKA convention auction at the end of the competition. Another questioned that sending prints to the competition could cost upwards of a hundred dollars or more, arguing that a Walgreens print only costs $25 to print and ship. (Walgreens?! Do they use Hahnemule paper and archival inks?) When KAPers pointed out that maybe… just maybe… someone who has put thousands of dollars and hours into their art might not be satisfied with a drugstore print, the non-KAPers basically blew them off. End result? No changes to the rules. Don’t like ’em? Don’t play.

So I didn’t.

Today I got email from the AKA saying how regrettable it was that I hadn’t renewed my membership, and asking me to participate in a survey so they could better serve the kiting public. So I participated. The questions were good. Why did I leave? Why didn’t I renew? What did the AKA offer that I most valued? What would it take to get me back? I answered as truthfully as I could.

Reading back through my answers to the questions, I was a little surprised at how acerbic I was. But the more I thought about it, the less I wanted to change what I wrote. Because in the end it was the truth. This is why I didn’t renew. This is why I don’t plan to come back. And this is what it will take to attract kiters like me. Want to attract new members? Learn to bend.

– Tom

Posted in Kite, Kite Aerial Photography, Photography | Leave a Comment »

A New KAP Camera(s)

Posted by Tom Benedict on 20/02/2014

I got a new KAP camera. Or cameras. I’m not sure which yet. Yeah, there’s a story here…

Late last year there was a flurry of activity on the KAP Forum regarding near-infrared kite aerial photography, normalized differential vegetation index (NDVI) imagery, archaeology, and all sorts of other good stuff. During this discussion, the Canon Powershot A2200 came up as a good donor camera to convert to full-spectrum or near-IR use.

New KAP Camera - Canon Powershot A2200

These things occasionally go for as little as $25 US on Ebay, so I decided to pick one up. As it turns out I chose a not so reputable dealer (the negative feedback on Ebay should’ve been a clue… DOH!) so my first one never came in. Neither did my refund. If it ever shows up, I have plans for it, but I’m not holding my breath (more on that in a sec).

But while I was waiting and wishing I’d ordered from a better dealer, I picked up a second one for $29. It’s seen rougher usage than most of my KAP cameras, and came with a fairly heavily scratched screen and a really filthy lens. The lens cleaned up fine, though, and the scratched display doesn’t really bother me since it’s destined for use on a kite.

It took me a little bit to sort out CHDK on the A2200 (yes, it runs CHDK), and to get my KAP continuous remote shutter script to run the way I wanted. But at this point it’s completely up and running and good to go. It even takes the same video out cable as the A650, so I can use it with my video downlink gear, too. It’s basically drop-in ready on my main KAP rig. Yay!

At the wide end the A2200’s lens is roughly equivalent to a 28mm on a 35mm camera – a little wider than the 35mm equivalent of my A650, but almost identical to the field of view of my T2i with its 18-55mm kit lens. And at 133.22g, it’s a fair bit lighter than either the A650 or the T2i. Ok, ok, to be fair the A2200 and the T2i are completely different beasts. The T2i is a full-featured DSLR with outstanding low-light response. The A2200 has a smaller sensor than my A650, and in low-light it really starts to fall apart. But in broad daylight with a clean lens, it’s a nice camera. Perfect for a travel KAP kit.

I’m planning to gut my panoramic rig (again) and rebuild it strictly as a pano travel rig for the A2200 and Gopro Hero 3. That rig will run forever on a set of four AAA batteries, so I probably won’t even bring a battery charger for the rig. The A2200 and the Gopro can both charge off of a USB cable plugged into a computer, so I won’t even need chargers for the cameras.

I’ve got a trip planned to Victoria, BC, in the next two weeks. There won’t be much, if any, time for KAP, but I’m planning to bring the camera, rig, a halo winder, and at least one kite. If opportunity knocks, I’ll be ready.

So about the other camera… Yeah… At this point I’m having so much fun with the A2200, I’m not sure I really want to convert this one to IR. Maybe, just maybe, if the other camera shows up some day, it’ll be the donor camera. Then I’ll have two A2200’s: one normal one and one for IR. Put both of those on the same rig and… Hey! That’s a fun idea!

– Tom

Posted in Kite Aerial Photography, Photography | 4 Comments »

A New Slope Site

Posted by Tom Benedict on 12/02/2014

I admit it, I’m chicken when it comes to throwing my gliders out over a cliff, especially if I can’t find a way to get to the bottom of the cliff to recover my plane after pulling a boneheaded maneuver. This has kept me from finding really stellar slope sites on the Big Island. So far the two I’ve flown the most are the pu`u at Kua Bay and a grassy slope out at the edge of an old quarry. Kua Bay is nice because there’s no fence hopping involved. But the landing zone is all rock, and it’s over a half hour drive to get there. The quarry is great because the slope is all grass, but you have to hop a fence to get there, so it’s just a matter of time before we get chased off. Clearly I need a new place to fly.

While going through some of my earlier photography to find stuff I might put up on, I ran across a set I did at Kauhola Point at the north end of the Big Island. It’s the set this one came from:

Lighthouse from Up HighThe cliffs are heavily eroded right by the lighthouse, which makes them scary as far as climbing goes. But as I went through the other photos from the set, I ran across some showing the cliffs just to the east. Solid rock! And on one of them there was a path that led down to a rocky surfing beach. Perfect! And as it turns out I flew over a nearby farm that had a great view of the cliffs from a kite. Different day, drier season, but you can see how nice these cliffs would be for sloping. (The leaning trees give you a pretty good idea of the average wind direction here…)

Kauhola Point

The fine folks at Mauna Kea Soaring appear to have their wind models running again, so I was even able to check the conditions at Kauhola Point. (The guy who runs the wind models is a fellow slope soarer and a fellow Zagi 5C owner. He also happens to be the Director of Engineering at the place where I work. Small world!) The winds look good! If they hold through the weekend, I’m getting out with a couple of planes to go play.

I promised people at RCGroups that I’d take stills and video the next time I got out. Seems like Kauhola Point would be a great place to do this. So I’ll pack cameras, too. Report to come!

– Tom

P.S. WHAT A DWEEB! After posting this I madly rushed off to RCGroups to write a post for a thread on Big Island sloping sites. RIGHT THERE was a post I made back in October last year in which I posted this same picture. GAAAH! I already knew about this place! And I forgot! I have no one to blame but myself. >sigh<

Posted in Kite Aerial Photography, RC Airplanes | Leave a Comment »

An Avenue to Grow:

Posted by Tom Benedict on 03/02/2014

Ever since Flickr involuntarily “volunteered” me to beta test their latest round of so-called improvements, I’ve been looking for alternate sites. I got a year’s membership on ipernity and loaded my better photos from Flickr onto my photo stream there, but after a few weeks of using it I realized it wasn’t really what I was looking for, either. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I didn’t want another photo sharing site. What I wanted was a site that would force me to grow as a photographer. I wanted critique.

Critique is unfortunately where most photo sharing sites and photo clubs fall down. Show and tell? No problem. Accolades? Got you covered. But hard-core, cutting critique? Most clubs won’t go there because of the ill will it can cause between members. And most photo sharing sites really aren’t set up for it. Instead they rely on statistics like the number of views or the number of favorites a particular photo gets. These are readily available metrics, so they’re easy to use.

Unfortunately neither is a fair measure of a photograph. To date, some of my most viewed photos on Flickr are the contents of my first aid kit and a photo of my amputee cat. It’s not because they’re stellar photos; they’re not. It’s because they are well keyworded using keywords people search for frequently. Some of my better photos, at least in my mind, lag far behind these in terms of numbers. And when comparing photos between two photographers, the numbers depend more on how many followers each of the photographers have and how many groups they belong to than on the merits of the individual photographs.

Real critique requires people to look at a photo and tear it apart. Where does it succeed? Where does it fail? What could have been done better? What was over-done in the first place? Can the photo be salvaged by re-processing? Or does the photographer have to go back to the drawing board, so to speak, to create a better photograph from scratch? It’s a tall order. I’ve occasionally provided this service to other photographers, and have occasionally asked for them to do so for me. But a whole site that’s set up this way? Does one even exist?

It turns out one does. My search led me to, a site that was designed from the beginning with critique in mind. Photographers can post whatever they like to their own photo gallery on 1x, and other photographers can view the pictures and comment on them, just as they can on Flickr or ipernity. At that point, however, the similarities end.

On a photographer can also submit their photos for critique. These show up in a special critique gallery. Other photographers are encouraged to view, judge, and critique the photos they find there. (“Encouraged” is a kind way of saying: If you want to submit one of your photos to critique, you have to provide three substantive critiques of your own first.) Moderators read through the critiques to cull the useless ones: “Great pic! Faved!” or “U suk, bro!” The result is that when you submit a photograph to critique, you typically come back with real feedback you can use to make your photo better. I’ve been on for about three weeks, and in that time I’ve submitted four photos for critique. I received some really useful feedback that led me to re-work two of the photos in response to the comments. After posting the new verisons I received additional feedback that led me to re-work one of them a second time. I can honestly say that the new versions are much stronger than what I started with.

Having your photos critiqued and providing critiques for others forces you to think about light, composition, color palette, leading lines, tonality, message, and everything else that goes into a photo. You learn to look at your own work more critically, which is both a blessing and a curse. Photographs you used to think were great may not look as good any more. But others you might not have invested much time and effort into begin to look like diamonds in the rough, worth a second look. Even better, you start to think about these things while you’re working in the field. Critique trains you to see as an artist. offers one more level of feedback: curation. The site maintains a curated gallery of photos that have been hand-picked by the site curators. A photograph is only considered for curation once the photographer submits it, so only a small percentage of the photos on the site are ever judged this way. Of those, only about 3% make it into the site gallery. So the competition is quite fierce, but the results are worth it. The caliber of the photography in the site gallery is excellent.

The curation process is a little more convoluted than the critique process: Photographers are asked to provide curation comments the same way they’re “encouraged” to provide critique, and they’re asked whether they would publish the picture or not. This results in additional feedback to the photographer who made the photo, and results in a “popularity vote”. The critique process doesn’t actually depend on the popularity of a photo, but if the site curators are on the fence about whether or not to publish a photo, they may look to see how popular it is or what comments have been left for it. Ultimately, though, the decision is in the hands of the site curators, not the other photographers on the site. I’ve only submitted two photos for curation so far. Neither got in.

The level of membership you have on the site determines how many photos you can submit for critique or curation per week. My level of membership allows me to submit one photo per week in each category, so I’ll have to wait before I can submit any more. Not having my photos make it into the site gallery is honestly fine by me. It means I have room to grow. And that’s what I came to for: to grow.

– Tom

Posted in Photography | 4 Comments »