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Heavens and (Optical) Hell

Posted by Tom Benedict on 19/01/2015

In an earlier post I mentioned we were in the middle of a big investigation into the degradation of one of our instruments. My active role in the investigation finished up Friday, so I’m breathing a big sigh of relief. Meanwhile I started processing all the photographs I made in the course of the investigation to document the work done. I ran a couple of time lapse cameras, so the photos number in the thousands. I only used a couple of the time lapse photos, though, so the number of “keepers” was a lot smaller.

I picked a subset of the keepers to narrarate the story thus far:

CFHT with Megacam

A couple of months back one of our astronomers analyzed the images coming off of our wide field imager to measure the zero point of each filter. A zero point is the measurement of the transmission of the instrument is in a given band. Because of dirt and grime building up on our primary mirror, we expect some drop in the zero point over time. What we didn’t expect was what he saw: a 20% drop in performance in g’ band with slightly less extreme drops in all the other bands. What made this worse was that we had just re-coated the mirror. We expected to get a marginal gain, not a dramatic loss. Clearly something was wrong. When the instrument came off the telescope we went up to take a look.

First Look - Something Wrong

I’ve done plenty of sunset photography at the beach. Most days I get away with some good frames and a camera that needs a damp wipe. Other times I get stuck in an onshore and my gear winds up covered in salt spray. But even at the worst of times, I’d never seen a lens that bad.

One of my co-workers spent an entire day trying to clean the lens. Stuff seemed to move around, but he found it almost impossible to actually take stuff off. By the end of the day the lens looked cleaner, but it was still bad. We all took bets on what the performance would be the next time it went on sky. I thought we’d see at least some of the performance restored from his cleaning efforts. None of us expected what happened, though. That 20% increased to a 50% loss of light. We’d made things worse. We pulled the instrument off the telescope and went up the next day to take another look at that lens.

Winter on the Mountain

We’d just had the worst ice storm of the season. The roads were still closed to the public while the road crews took the snow blowers up to clear the roads. When we finally got to the observatory and took a look at the instrument, what we saw wasn’t promising. After a very brief hands-off investigation, we started taking things apart.

Removing L1

Our first thought was that we were dealing with a contaminant, so that’s how we proceeded. We tried every solvent we could think of to take the “stuff” off the lens: DI water, methanol, isopropanol, acetone (I cringed at this one), toluene… None of it seemed to do a thing.

Early Testing

We did eventually find some chemicals that had an effect, but the amount of scrubbing necessary to make them do anything at all was really discouraging. Eventually we found that weak acids had a stronger effect, and required less scrubbing.

Finding what Cuts the Goo

We used two techniques to image the glass throughout the process: reflected light photography and dark field photography. Reflected light photography highlights differences in thickness in thin film layers through color change. Dark field illumination highlights contaminants like dust and other particulates. We used reflected light to show the spot of “clean” we were able to make with a weak acid.

Dark Field Illumination Technique

As splotchy as the reflected light photos were, it wasn’t until we used dark field illumination that the true extent of the “contamination” became apparent.

Dark Field Image

We made a comprehensive dark field survey of the lens to see what we were dealing with. A couple of features stood out: The center of the lens appeared to be cleaner than the rest of the surface. This is likely because of the cleaning technique used earlier – radial strokes from the center to the edge. The center was the starting point of each pass across the glass, so it got the most cleaning.

Another feature we saw was the dark ring about 1/3 of the way out from the center. Our optical engineer said this is the mark left by the vacuum fixture the lens manufacturer used to manipulate the glass during final polishing and coating.

The rest of the glass appeared to be covered by a blotchy layer of… something. We took samples and sent them off to a company so they could perform an assay to tell us what the heck was going on.

Using the Microscope

Meanwhile we borrowed a digital microscope from one of the other observatories on the mountain and set it up to take a closer look at what this contaminant was. Under that much magnification we were running into issues with vibration, so we put everything on the table and tried not to breathe when we were taking exposures.

(As a quick side note, that’s my Bogen 3021 legs and 3047 head I got for doing large format photography work back in ’95! It’s the most solid tripod I’ve ever owned. Despite having one of its feet burned off in lava in 2001, it’s still going strong. I love good gear!)

Microscopy - The Problem

What we saw under the microscope wasn’t encouraging. Either the entire lens was covered in bumps of… something… or we had a bigger problem. Were those craters?

We tried illuminating the patch under the microscope from various angles to see if we could figure out what was tall and what was short. But it wasn’t until we moved the microscope to the edge of the glass that we knew for sure.

Microscopy - Even the Edge is Bad

We were looking at pits in the coating. Something had killed the anti-reflection coating on our lens.

This is when the investigation divided forces. One side of the investigation pursued the question of what had caused the damage. The other side pursued the question of how we were going to recover and get the instrument back on the sky. We collected a new set of samples to send out for assay and moved the lens to another lab to begin the next stage: fixing whatever had gone wrong.

Test Swabbing

After an understandable amount of deliberation and debate, the powers that be decided the best course of action was to remove the coating from the lens. At its very best, an anti-reflection coating cuts the reflectivity of an air-glass interface by about 4%. Typical coatings recover more like 2% of the light that is normally reflected. We were looking at a 50% loss due to scattering from the damaged coating. Removing the coating would get us back in the 2-4% range. It was an irrevocable step to take, but it was clearly a win.

So we went back to the weak acids that had worked earlier, and began to experiment with concentration. The trick was to strike a balance between an acid that was strong enough to remove the coating in no more than a handful of applications, but not so strong it would attack the underlying glass. Our optical engineer identified a handful of acids that would be reasonably safe to use on the glass, and maximum exposure times we could use without damage. Hydrochloric seemed to be the best match, so we went back to testing.

Test Swab Technique

At 4% concentration, HCl was clearly removing the coating after only ten seconds of light scrubbing with a swab. The only problem was that even at 4% it was stronger than the concentration used by the glass manufacturer during their own testing.

Reflected Light Image - HCl Concentrations

We switched to a weaker solution: 50:1. At the same time we also wanted to minimize mechanical abrasion of the glass, so rather than going for a more aggressive swabbing action with the weaker acid, we tried a prolonged soak using a lens tissue saturated with acid.

Reflected Light Image - First Successful Soak Removal

After five minutes with an approximately pH 1.0 solution, we finally had something we could turn into a real procedure for stripping the lens.

At these concentrations the acid was about as strong as the white vinegar we’d tried earlier, and vapor concentrations were low enough not to require respirators. Respirators can be uncomfortable at the best of times, but at 14,000′ of altitude the restricted breathing is more than just a matter of comfort. It can mean having to break up work shifts to give people the chance to breathe. Working with just gloves as PPEs made life a lot easier.

Highway to Hell - Putting Acid on a Lens

There is something incredibly wrong about deliberately pouring acid onto a coated optic. Even knowing that the coating was shot, and that we couldn’t operate with that coating in place, I felt dirty when we loaded the first of several “patches”. Some part of me whispered, “You’re going to optical hell for this, boy.” With my heart in my throat I poured spoonful after spoonful of acid onto the patch.

Making of - The Work Begins

All of this was complicated by the fact that I was still doing photography of the procedure as we went. (Now you understand why I used time lapse cameras!) At times the cameras got in the way and slowed things down, but we all agreed that having a good documented record of the work was more important in case we missed something and had to re-establish what we’d done at some later date.

Dark Field Image - The Work Begins

It certainly helped that the technique worked. It wasn’t perfect, but it worked. We set up the next patch and began working in earnest.

Staying the Course - The Work Continues

There were a couple of features on the glass we weren’t certain of. One was the dark ring a third of the way out from the center – a ring left by the vacuum fixture the manufacturer had used to handle the glass. Would the acid work on that area? When we looked at it under the microscope the coating appeared to be less damaged than in other areas. Would that make it tougher to remove? Or easier?

Reflected Light Image - The Ring

The answer, as we learned, was tougher. The coating at the ring was less damaged than in other areas, but it was still damaged. It still needed to be removed. We only hoped that longer exposure to acid would eventually take it off.

Dark Field Image - End of Day 1

By the end of the first day we’d made some real progress. We were clear out to the dark ring, and had started on another potential problem area of the glass. After doing a DI water wipe to remove any remaining acid we made a dark field image to see how we were doing. The prognosis? GOOD!

For the record, the apparent scratches in the center of the lens are actually on the lens cover we bolted to the bottom of the lens. The glass itself is scratch-free.

Finishing Touches - Pipette Works Better

Day two was more of the same. We worked our way out toward the edge of the lens and continued to work on problem areas like the dark ring and a couple of other spots. As the problem areas got smaller, our patches also got smaller. At one point someone remarked that it looked like the lens had had a massive shaving accident. By then we knew the technique was clearly working, so the joke wasn’t as forced as it might’ve been earlier in the week. We could actually laugh without wincing.

As we neared the outer edge of the lens, the slope of the glass made it more likely that acid would run off our patches and down to the RTV that held the lens in its cell. Rather than spooning it on as I had the previous day, I switched to a pipette. Over the course of the day I put about a third of a liter of acid on our lens 0.09ml at a time. By the end of it my thumb was tired.

The lens has a 20mm wide baffle that fits around the outside diameter of the glass. This shadows the transition onto the AR coated surface, and covers the first 10mm of coating. We decided to leave the coating on the glass in this area. It wouldn’t affect the lens’s performance on sky, and it meant we had something of the old coating left in case we decided to get more chemical assays done in the future.

Edge Effects - Something Still there

In the areas we did remove, though, we saw a curious thing: We could still tell where the AR coating had been. Something was still there. Whether it was an undamaged underlying coating or just a chemical stain on the glass we couldn’t tell. It didn’t seem to scatter light the way the damaged coating had, though, so we left it alone.

Reflected Light Image - Coating Gone Lens Back

At the end of the second day the lens looked like… well… like a lens again. We did a final rinse with DI water and a final clean with methanol, then reinstalled the baffle and called it good.

Last Dustoff

The next day we blew it off with our version of canned air: high purity nitrogen and a regulator. In volume it’s cheaper than canned air, runs no risk of depositing stuff on the glass by accident, and lets us cover a lens this size in a matter of minutes. It’s a heckuvalot faster than the little Rocket Blower I use on my camera gear!

Last Look - Something Right

With the lens back on the instrument and the baffle back in place, we took one last look before putting it on the telescope. This is almost the same lighting that we used the first time we looked at the lens several weeks prior. The difference is striking. Before, I couldn’t even get my camera to focus on the bolt heads inside the optical tube assembly. This time? Not only could I focus on each of the bolts in the OTA, I could see all the way up to the pickoff mirrors for the guide cameras, and focus on the optics of the guide cameras themselves. Now that’s what a lens is supposed to look like!

Of course the day ran late. We were all getting used to leaving the mountain later than normal. With the instrument reassembled, we all sighed a big sigh of relief. And I finally got back to doing the kind of photography I prefer: landscapes.

Winter Ice

A little less snow and ice than when we started, but I couldn’t pass up the light.

We went up the next day to put the instrument back on the telescope. Everyone was eager to hear the news: Did we get the light back? A couple of people stuck around headquarters after the exchange to watch the first images come off at the beginning of the night. I opted to go home and spend the evening with my family. About 7:30pm I got a call from the remote observing room: The images looked great! The light was back! It was the best news I’d heard in weeks.

At 8:30pm I got a second call, this time from my boss. The filter mechanism had jammed. “When do we go up?” I asked. I knew the answer. It was bound to be some version of “Right now!” We drove back up and cleared the filter jam. While we were working on it the glycol chiller system stopped working, so we purged that. Then our all-sky infrared camera stopped working, so we worked on that. It was almost 2am by the time we finally headed home for the second time.

“Hey, is that the volcano?” my boss asked. Off in the distance we could see the Halemaumau vent lighting up its cloud of volcanic gases. “Sure is!” I replied. “Pull over and take a picture,” he said.

This is the thing I love about the people I work with. My boss had been up the night before doing on-sky engineering. We’d just been through weeks of hell trying to get this instrument back on sky. Its first night back, two more systems on it fail. By the time we finish it’s two in the morning and we’re zonked. But people still take the time to appreciate the beauty of the place we live, work in, and call home. I pulled over and set my camera down on a rock so I could take a picture of the volcano at night.

Volcano and Stars

It was a good day.

– Tom

Posted in Astronomy, Engineering, Hawaii, Photography | 6 Comments »

Gluttony to Famine – Still No KAP Test

Posted by Tom Benedict on 23/12/2012

Yesterday there was too much wind. This evening when I went out to test the changes to my pano rig, there was no wind. My son and I drove as far south as Anaehoomalu Bay trying to find even a breath of wind to put a kite up with. But no dice.

Soooo… Yep, you guessed it. More long duration exposure photography! This time I photographed sunset from the south end of Anaehoomalu Bay. There are some nice rocks on that end of the beach. If you walk out far enough, there are some nice vantage points from which to work. I was fortunate enough to find a set of three rocks so my tripod could stay (mostly) dry. Unfortunately there wasn’t a rock for me to stand on. So I stood in the surf and tried not to step on any sea urchins.

Despite a soldering session earlier today, for some reason my remote shutter release is still not working in the field. (I swear it worked fine when I tested it at home!) So I was stuck doing 30-second exposures again. About an hour after I first stepped into the water, the sun set. I packed my gear and headed home.

This is a stack of six 30-second exposures, all made back-to-back. Total open shutter time is three minutes:

Sunset at Anaehoomalu Bay

I can’t wait to try this with waterfalls.

– Tom

Posted in Hawaii, Photography | Leave a Comment »

The KAP Test That Wasn’t

Posted by Tom Benedict on 22/12/2012

I tried to get out and test my upgraded panoramic KAP rig. I really did. With less than an hour to go before sunset I drove down the mountain to the ocean, hoping for good wind. I didn’t get it.

What I did get was some of the nastiest offshore wind I’d ever seen. Even miles from the ocean, I could see it was black. Not really Homer’s wine dark sea. More like a wind-whipped daemon. “This can’t be good,” I thought.

As I drove past the Mauna Kea Resort, I checked the palm trees. These are some of my favorite trees to check for gauging the wind at Hapuna Beach. I had never seen them so bent over and flattened. Hapuna was a no-go. As I came over the rise, I could see the pattern extended all the way down the coast. And with less than half an hour of light to work with, I realized the game was up.

So I did the only thing I could: I zoomed down to Waialea Bay, left my KAP gear in the car, and grabbed my tripod instead. Finally! A chance to play with long duration exposures!

I’ve had this 10-stop ND filter for a couple of weeks now, but except for a few sessions at Hapuna Beach, I hadn’t really had a chance to play with it. Oh, and those sessions at Hapuna? Not so good. Hapuna Beach State Park is a people park. But it’s not people I’m after for long duration photography. It’s scenery. If any beach could provide that, it would be Waialea Bay.

That’s when I remembered I’d broken my remote shutter release a few weeks ago. “Broke” is really too strong a word. I… wounded it. The cable had come apart where it enters the case, so it wasn’t tripping the shutter reliably. (Yes, this is yet another small project I’m going to take on during my vacation.) “No matter!” I thought. “I’ll stick with thirty second exposures and stack them!”

Stacking is a trick that amateur astronomers have been using for aeons to get long exposures without incurring too much dark noise. Even better, by stacking multiple exposures you can beat down photon noise as well. So it’s actually a win. The only catch is that the read noise adds with each exposure, so there’s a point of diminishing returns. I planned to stack four 30 second exposures to get two minutes of total open shutter time.

In short, it worked. I got set up just as the sun began to set, and I made 30 second exposures until the light was gone. When I got home I started to play. And this is what came out:

Waialea Bay Sunset

Not the KAP test I was hoping for, but somehow that’s ok.

– Tom

Posted in Hawaii, Photography | Leave a Comment »

Scary, Smart, Loud ‘n Clear – My Weekend

Posted by Tom Benedict on 20/08/2012

Sorry, no good machining stories or photography stories from the weekend. I did start drawing up the main halyard winch from our Pacific Catamaran in the hopes of building a new one, but it also looks like I can press the old one back into service with a little work. And I brought my KAP gear to the beach on Sunday, but didn’t put a camera up. Still, the weekend wasn’t without story material:


Saturday morning, we decided to pick up all the toys in the yard, clean up the porch, basically de-redneck. (No, my Jeep is not up on blocks yet, but that’s another story from the weekend.) My son grabbed all the slippers and crocs from the back porch and took them inside to clean. Why he brought them inside to clean in the bathtub instead of using the hose outside, I’ll never know. But he did. And somehow I wound up having to clean the tub, not him. (Go figure…)

About halfway through, the screaming started. Loud screaming. Screaming with purpose! That could mean only one of two things. I tore off running for the bathroom. “What happened?!” I yelled.

I saw a brown widow spider!” my son replied.

I took two things away from this: One, there was a brown widow in my bathroom – my son knows full well what they look like. Second, he saw it, but wasn’t bit by it. WHEW!

In case you’re not familiar with brown widows, they’re quite similar to black widows. Their bite packs only a slightly less mighty wallop than the bite of a black widow. For a kid his size, it would’ve meant an ER visit at the very least. And yeah, the place where we live is rife with them. Normally when we encounter a stray animal in the house, we stick it in a container and take it somewhere safe for the animal to be released. But I draw the line on centipedes and brown widows. My younger daughter teared up when I flushed it, but down it went. I breathed a sigh of relief. So did my son.


Some months back the left side mirror on my Jeep fell off. The pivot had rusted through, and it just flopped off on the ground one day. There was no way to put it back together, so I ordered a new pair of mirrors off an online Jeep parts retailer. The new mirrors came in a few days, and… there were no instructions. I looked through my repair manual. No help there, either.

From what I could see, they screwed in from the inside of the door. ??! The inside? How the heck was I supposed to do that? I looked at the door, but didn’t see any real way to get at the screws. So I tossed the mirrors in the back of my Jeep and learned to drive with two out of three mirrors. For the record, no, this isn’t safe. And no, it’s not smart. And actually, I’m pretty sure I could’ve been pulled over for it. But my options were starting to look like removing the door panels, taking out the windows, and then drilling through the inside of the door since there was no other way to get at the screw heads. I figured I could wait on it until my next safety inspection.

Which, of course, came due in August. Oh wait! It’s August! And just in time, my car blew a turn signal bulb, lost most of its brake fluid, and came due for an oil change. It really does hate me. I swear it does. But I love it anyway. So Rydra and I drove to NAPA and picked up stuff for an oil change, air filter change, a new set of bulbs, and brake fluid. When we got home she said, “You need to replace that mirror if you want to pass inspection.”

“Yeah, I have them right here.” I showed her where they’d been living in my car for the last few months.

“Why haven’t you put them on?” she asked.

I went into the whole song and dance about how I’d have to take my doors apart, maybe drill into them, etc. I sounded like a total whiner, I’m sure. She stared at me through all of this, then proceeded to show me how the covers snap on and off of the things so you can get at the screw heads really easily, because they’re on the outside of the door where a sensible person would put them. What I had been struggling with for months, she figured out in under ten seconds. >sigh<

(Now do you see why I get frustrated when we can’t find any women applying for our telescope engineer positions!)

She graciously helped me install my new mirrors, and stood by while I topped off the brake fluid. “Why was your fluid low?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I replied.

As she walked inside she said, “I’d look for a leak if I was you.”

I looked under the car. Brake fluid was oozing out of my left rear brake. >sigh< One more repair on the list: rebuilding the rear brakes.

Loud ‘n Clear

After the whole “let’s work on the Jeep!” fiasco, we headed down to the beach. I love going there. It helps that Hapuna Beach, one of the top ten rated beaches in the world, is less than fifteen minutes from our house. I also just never run out of stuff to do there. From swimming to boogie boarding to diving off the rocks, it’s a great place to go. Of course half the time I do none of those things because I’m doing something else. Reading a book, flying a kite, doing kite aerial photography, it’s all fair game.

Hapuna A650 July, 2011

This time I brought my KAP gear, but I brought something else as well: a shortwave radio. I’ve had one for ten years or so. But ever since getting my ham license, it’s been something of a tease. “Here! You can listen, but you can’t taaaaalk! Hahahaha!” Yeah, whatever. But until I have my General license and an HF rig to use, it’s as close to the longer bands as I’m going to get. Like the song goes, it’s not having what you want, it’s wanting what you’ve got. So rather than stress it, I’ve been having fun with it.

But a radio is nothing without an antenna. And often it’s the antenna that makes the real difference, not the radio. So some months back I started looking into what I could do to improve the reach of my shortwave. The idea is pretty simple: Run three wires in parallel, each of a different length, and connect them all at one end. Make the lengths right, and you have a multi-band antenna. I got the idea from this site. (Yes, yes, the site calls for four wires. I only had three-conductor wire on hand, so I lost one of the bands. It’s still pretty darned cool!) But rather than hang this from a tree or a post, as in the article, I suspended it from a kite line. A ground wire running down into the wet sand let me use the beach and ocean as my ground plane.

The antenna went together in an afternoon, and was easily rolled onto an old kite line spool I had lying around. And that’s where it sat for a long, long time. We had stopped going to the beach for a while, so I didn’t have reason to pull it out. This time, I was pulling it out!

The antenna weighed less than my DSLR KAP rig, so I knew the kite would lift it. Once it was airborne, I clipped the antenna on and let line out to hoist it up. Every ten feet or so I had another clip so the kite line would support the antenna for its full length. When the entire antenna was up, I tied off the kite line and set the ground spike in the sand. Then I plugged the antenna into my radio and turned it on.


I had no idea the radio waves were that jammed. I picked up China easily, then picked up several Australian stations. Next was a whole set from South America (though my Spanish is too poor to figure out which ones). Next was Japan. These were all incredibly clear. It didn’t even qualify as DX the signal strength was so high. I thought I heard one that was either German or Dutch, but I couldn’t be sure. Just to make sure the antenna was actually doing something, I unplugged it. (It’s a receiver, so no chance of a blown output amplifier stage.) Dead silence. I plugged it back in, and WHAM! Everything was back.

We had to leave well before I was done scanning all the bands my antenna gave me. I didn’t even take notes on which stations I’d picked up. There were just too many. I’ll be more systematic next time. I swear.

When I got home, I did some poking around just to see what it would take to do this with an HF transceiver. As it turns out, not much. Since this was a receive-only antenna, I got away with using very lightweight wire. But MFJ makes a multi-band center-fed dipole that looks like it would hang from a kite line, too. The antenna is rated for 1500W of transmitter power. I doubt I could find an HF rig that would fit in a backpack that could even come close to that. So the antenna problem is solved.

Just more incentive to hit the books and get my General license. Meanwhile, I’ve got something new to do at the beach on the weekends.

– Tom

Posted in Engineering, Hawaii, Kite, Kite Aerial Photography, Radio | 5 Comments »

KAP Gone Wrong

Posted by Tom Benedict on 26/02/2012

Not every kite aerial photography session is a success. Some are less than satisfying. Some, outright failures. And others are disasters.

Today’s session was something between less than satisfying and a failure. After checking the Mauna Kea Soaring wind models I’d planned to fly just south of Mahukona at a historical site I’d flown at before. It’s a tough spot to fly because most of the time it’s downwind of Kohala Mountain. The rare days when the wind shows up, it’s because of a weather pattern that causes wind to follow the curve of the shoreline. Today was supposed to be one of those days.

It wasn’t. The wind was so flat, I didn’t even bother to stop. Sometimes the wind models are less than accurate. When that happens, I try to come up with an alternate flying location. The models said the wind at Kauhola Point would be in the 12-15kt range. Not my favorite, but not bad. I drove past Mahukona and kept going until the turn-off to Kauhola Point.

Things didn’t look right there, either. There was almost no motion in the large palm trees along the road. “Ok,” I thought, “The point is a good couple of miles from here, and can be in a different wind regime. Give it a chance!” I gave it a chance. But when I got there the wind was hardly blowing. I debated putting up the Dopero, but settled on a 7.5′ Rokkaku instead. The kite went up, the pull was just enough to lift the rig, and things looked pretty good.

Kauhola Point used to be the home to a pretty cool lighthouse that was built back in the mid 30’s. I photographed the old lighthouse during World Wide KAP Week 2009. At the time it was one of my favorite KAP images.

Kauhola Point Lighthouse

A year later the lighthouse was torn down because of the severe erosion of the coastline directly underneath the foundations.

Lighthouse from Up High

The Coast Guard removed every trace of the lighthouse as well as the old foundations for the generator and engine that used to power it. The lighthouse was replaced with a “monopole structure”, an increasingly common practice when older lighthouses are torn down. Prior to seeing the new lighthouse at Kauhola Point, the only experience I’d had with monopole structures was the lighthouse at Ka Lae at the south end of the Big Island.

South Point Lighthouse

The first time I went out to Kauhola Point after the new lighthouse went up was quite a shock! The new one was located farther inland to remove it from the eroding coastline. And it was tall! Far taller than the lighthouse at Ka Lae. But it was still a monopole. Deep down, I was disappointed. I think there’s value in old designs that more efficient stainless weldments just can’t match.

But a good kite flying spot is a good kite flying spot. I’ve returned to Kauhola Point several times since. The monopole is just as challenging to photograph as the old lighthouse, and I wanted to give it a try with the video down-link on my KAP rig. The light was wrong, but the wind appeared to be friendly.

Monopole Lighthouse II

The video down-link let me line up only two really good photos. This first one was nearly directly-down, and worked well straight off the camera. I could’ve wished for a little more room on the bottom, but all in all I’m pleased with how it turned out.

Monopole Structure I

The second was supposed to be half of a pair of photos for a diptych. I wanted one looking at the lighthouse facing toward shore, showing the vegetation at Kauhola Point, and a second looking at the lighthouse and facing offshore, showing the rough waters around the point. I only got the first half of the diptych done before things started to go bad.

As I walked the kite around for the second shot, I noticed it was flying to the left of downwind. Typically on a large kite like a Rokkaku, this means the kite is over-powering. Small asymmetries in the kite are being amplified because the frame and sail are distorting, and it simply can’t fly straight anymore. I was flying with the winder clipped off to a waist belt, so I hadn’t noticed how hard it was pulling until I saw it flying off the wind. A quick check of the tension on the line and I knew I couldn’t reel it in by hand.

Most kiters will tell you that the only way to wind kite line is to walk the kite to the ground and then reel the line up off the ground with no tension on it. If your flying locations are all big wide grassy fields, that approach works quite well and puts the least load on the kite, line, and flyer. But not every location offers this convenience, especially when the kite flyer is flying in order to do aerial photograph.

Self Portrait at Wailea Bay

Lucky for me, there’s enough room at Kauhola Point to tie off and walk down. But not so much that I could get all of the line down in one pass. I tied off to one of the many cement posts that dot the point and used one of my spare carabiners to bring the line down.

I wish I had photos to share of this part of the session. I don’t. I was too busy trying to bring my kite and camera down before my DSLR was dunked in the ocean, slammed into the ground, or wrapped around the lighthouse. I was also too busy swearing at myself as the wind steadily increased. What had started off as a nice five knot blow was well over fifteen by the time I had things ready to start walking the kite down. Even with gloves my hands were killing me by the time I brought it down far enough to get my camera off the line. With the camera secured, I thought the kite could be brought down a little more easily. I was wrong.

When I tell people that I do aerial photography using a kite, most people conjure a mental image of a small store-bought Gayla delta with a microscopically small camera taped to the kite or to the kite line. The reality is that I often fly over two pounds of camera gear using a kite that can lift it with ease.

T2i KAP Rig - Front

The kite I was using was never designed to fly in anything more than about ten knots of wind. I had almost doubled that, and the pull on the line was well over forty pounds. It’s hard to appreciate just how much pull a large kite can generate until you’re on the other end of the line.

I almost got it. Almost. Toward the end I found myself wishing the line would just break so it would all be over. I didn’t really want to lose the kite. It’s expensive, and I didn’t really want to have to replace it. But I would’ve offered it up to the sea if it meant I could be done.

Which is almost how it happened. With only fifty feet of line to go, the kite wrapped around the lighthouse and then tried to fly back. The line caught on one of the many bolts that hold the monopole together, and separated. The kite narrowly avoided flying into the ocean by hitting a tree. The line collapsed to the ground, and so did I. With what strength I had left, I cheered.

Getting a kite out of a tree is a matter of having the right tool for the job. I typically travel with some sort of pole in my kite bag. I was lucky enough to have a 24′ painter’s pole strapped to the top of my car, so I used that to fish the kite out of the tree. The wind continued to rise, and the kite was still giving me a good fight until I pulled its spine out and wrapped it up.

I still had a fair bit of work to do before I could pack up. My line was a shambles, my gear was spread all over the place, and I’d managed to lose my sunglasses. I put up a PFK Nighthawk to clear the line and wind it on cleanly. By the time I had all the line up in the air and the tangles free of the winder, the Nighthawk was pulling hard enough to lift my rig. It was well over twenty knots. I did hang the rig from the line and tried to make a few more pictures, but they were flops. Eventually I packed everything away and headed home.

It wasn’t until I was driving back toward the highway that I realized how lucky I was. Sure, the session was less than satisfying. I could classify it as bad. But aside from losing about a hundred feet of line, I had no real loss of gear. I recovered the kite, the rig was taken down safely, and the camera suffered no damage. Not a bad way to end the day. I even found my sunglasses!

– Tom

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Tsunami Repair

Posted by Tom Benedict on 20/08/2011

Last weekend I stopped off at Anaehoomalu Bay to try to fly my new T2i KAP rig, but the wind was too low to fly a kite, much less a camera. Instead I looked around and saw that the section of beach that had been washed out by the tsunami had been replaced! I talked to some of the maintenance workers there, and they said the work had been done two weeks earlier. I couldn’t fly a camera then, but I vowed to come back as soon as conditions were better.

This morning I checked the wind and saw that conditions were almost ideal. I grabbed my stuff and headed out, hoping the wind models weren’t wrong. I wasn’t disappointed. The wind was higher than I expected. It was high enough I could fly the rig from my 6′ rokkaku. I did two flights, one with a circular polarizer and one without. The sun was almost directly overhead, so the set with the polarizer worked better than might be expected. In the end I made just over a hundred exposures, some of which stitched together well enough to show the repair:

Anaehoomalu Bay Tsunami Repair

The new sand is a different color from the original sand on the beach, though I expect that’ll become more subtle over time. Even after just three weeks the water in the fishpond has already turned the characteristic green it has been in the past. In time it will be hard to tell something had happened at all. One of the clearest signs remaining is the wide delta of sand out in the bay, extending toward the reef. Other than that things really are returning to normal.

At the moment the entire repair is faced by giant sandbags, and signs along the repair ask people not to walk on the sand bags. I hope that the plans include dumping more sand in front of the sand bags to recreate the beach that was washed away by the tsunami. I also expect there are plans to repair the stone wall that was destroyed. Time will tell.

It was a good day. The T2i KAP rig worked well, I was able to photograph the repairs, and I’m getting a better feel for the weight of the new rig in the air. Can’t beat it.

– Tom

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A Good Session and a Question

Posted by Tom Benedict on 05/08/2011

A whole slew of recent obligations have made it increasingly difficult to get out and do KAP. I griped enough about this in previous posts, so I won’t repeat it here. It’s all downer stuff, and things have changed since then.

Some time off, some much-needed kicks in the seat of the pants, and a new outlook on photography got me past the photographer’s block I hit about a month ago. In particular an article by James Gentles helped me to see with new eyes and enjoy getting out with kites and camera. Last weekend I took my gear to Hapuna Beach and played around. The wind was great, the clouds looked nice, and dang it if James’s article wasn’t right on the money when it comes to KAP and sunlight. I had a great time.


On a whim I took my gear for a walk down the beach toward the State Park end, and made a number of panoramas that worked out well.

Hapuna Beach State Park from North End

I was curious what the view was looking back the other way toward the Hapuna Prince Beach Resort, and was impressed with how it came out. In the foreground is the northern pavilion in Hapuna Beach State Park, and in the background is the Resort.

Hapuna Beach State Park and Hapuna Prince Resort

I’m still trying to do photography for sale through Getty Images, so I was trying to make good, technically solid photos that would meet their requirements. As I walked back toward the spot where my family was playing, I remembered something a fellow photographer and Getty contributor said: It’s very hard to sell a vertical panorama. He’s tried over the years to make vertical panos that sell, but without much luck. Two of my kids were making a big sand pit that I figured would look nice from a high angle, and the line of the waves on the sand looked good, too. So I made a vertical of the beach with the kids in the foreground, the surf in the midground, and Hualalai in the background.

Hapuna Beach South VPan 2

When I got home and processed everything, I was really happy with how the session had turned out. I got solid panoramas with few to no errors, and a number of good single-frame images as well. It was a good day of KAP.

A couple of days later I put together a set of photos and submitted it to Getty Artist’s Choice for review. I didn’t have enough from the Hapuna flight to fill out a full set, so I included a couple of Halemaumau erupting at night, one from Akaka Falls, and a photograph of the stream running through Hawaiian Tropical Botanical Gardens at Onomea Bay. To my delight they selected one of my images for sale in the Getty Flickr Collection. But to my surprise it wasn’t any of the aerial panoramas. It was that stream in the botanical gardens.

Stream in Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens

I almost didn’t include it in the set. I figured it was too tropical island cliché to be of any interest. How wrong I was!

So I sent email to the editor in charge of the Flickr Collection at Getty Images. He’s busy, so I don’t know when, or if, he’ll be able to reply. But I had to ask: What Hawaii imagery are they after?

I know Getty is interested in low altitude aerials because other KAPers list photos on Getty. I know it’s not a people vs. no-people because none of my photos with people were selected. I know people use Hawaii imagery because I’ve seen other photos from Hawaii in their catalog. And it can’t be a resolution issue since most of my panoramas are at least 10k pixels wide with decent noise. But I’m obviously missing something. The last thing I want to do is waste the editors’ time. I hope he has time to reply. It will do us both a favor.

Regardless of his answer, I don’t think this will change how I do photography in the field. When I found out that Getty Images needed photos of people in public places, I submitted more of the people pictures I’ve already been making. When I found out that more pixels is better, I started submitting more panoramas and bought a higher resolution camera. I’m still doing the same photography I like to do. I’m just choosing different photographs to share.

– Tom

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It’s a Need

Posted by Tom Benedict on 28/06/2011

Bill Blake was right. I couldn’t keep from flying kites and doing KAP once the pressure of project work was gone.

We’ve got family visiting on-island. A couple of days ago we went to Hapuna Beach in the afternoon. This is a regular KAP spot for me. It’s a good beach for the kids, and there’s plenty of room to do KAP, sport kites, or whatever. When we arrived the wind was good for sport kites, so my wife and I flew our Widow until she got tired and went out for a swim. I switched to KAP and made a couple of panoramas, as well as some aimed photographs of the kids. When the wind began to fall off I landed the rig and packed it away.

Hapuna Prince Resort

On a whim I put my 6′ rokkaku back up, clipped it off, and put up my Dopero as well. They fly at different enough angles I can clip them to a single carabiner and let them fly from the same point. When the wind picked back up I toyed with the idea of putting the rig back up, but my heart wasn’t in it. The kites were just too much fun. So I downed the Dopero and put up my Nighthawk, then downed the rokkaku and put up my Flow Form 16. In each case the flight angles were such that no two kites wanted to run into each other. It made for a really fun session, albeit without pictures.

Toward the end the wind began to pick up in earnest and a silly thought struck me: I’ve had bad luck flying two kites from a single line. I didn’t have my 100′ tag line I normally use for this, but I did have two kites flying successfully from a single carabiner. One was on my #200 Dacron on the beast winder, but the other was on #150 Dacron on a relatively light hoop winder. The kites were providing plenty of pull, so…

I tied up the hoop winder to the carabiner using my flying strap and reeled the whole mess out into the sky. Yaaay! Two kites off a single line! Well, sort of.

Two Kites One Line

Bill, you’re right. Kites are just too much fun. A kite wasn’t meant to live in its bag. It was meant to live in the sky.

– Tom

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World Wide KAP Week 2011 – Day 6

Posted by Tom Benedict on 05/05/2011

One kite did make it out of my bag today, but that’s as close as I got to flying a camera today.  The wind models didn’t appear to run last night, so I guessed at the wind and the weather and drove to Pololu Valley.  I’ve flown in Pololu before, but this time I had a different plan:  I’d fly from the top of the far side of the valley and try to get a panorama that would take in the northern end of the entire valley region.  Or that’s what I thought, anyway.

I drove across Kohala through dumping rain.  Kohala generates its own microclimate, so it was a fair assumption that this was all generated by the mountain itself.  But by the time I reached Hawi on the north side and turned to go through Kapaau, I knew I’d messed up.  The weather system was coming in off the water.  Oops.  It dumped buckets for much of the drive, but by the time I reached Pololu it was only spitting rain.  I grabbed wet weather gear and hiked in anyway.

The wind was fast and gusty, so I launched my Flow Form 16 when I reached the valley floor.  It sort of flew, kind of, but not really.  After a few minutes I packed it up and kept going.  Some years ago I’d hiked up the far side of the valley so a friend and I could backpack in one of the other valleys.  I knew that much of the trail, and knew there were two spots that would potentially provide a really good place to do KAP.  One was a spot that overlooked Pololu, and the other overlooked the valley we had camped in.  Up I went.

The climb up the far side of Pololu is deceptive.  It keeps feeling like you’ve reached the top.  Unlike the north side of the valley the switchbacks are hidden in the trees, so just when you think you’re done with the ascent you find out there’s another hundred feet of trail to go.  Then another hundred.  The another.  By the time you’re done you realize both sides really are the same height.

I hiked in to the valley where I’d camped and checked out the first vantage point.  It really would be a great place to KAP, but the wind was blowing the wrong way and it was gusting between 10kts and 25kts.  It was all over the place.  I finally gave it up as a bad idea.  I’m sure I could’ve flown something, maybe even flown a camera.  But it would have been a punishing session that would’ve resulted in a bunch of blurred photos.  Not worth it.  I turned around and hiked back.

The second vantage point was supposed to overlook Pololu, but there wasn’t really a safe way to launch.  The wind was still gusting, and I would’ve had to pay out all 1000′ of line on my winder to get the camera to the point I wanted.  Tour helicopters were coming over the ridge well below the 1000′ mark, so again I gave it up as a bad idea.  Maybe in better weather, but not today.

I hiked back down only to see a black line of rain hitting the water about a quarter mile offshore.  Squall!  I had enough gear to cover my cameras in case of a rainstorm, but it’s no fun hiking when it’s really dumping, and the trail isn’t really safe under those conditions, either.  Despite really needing to take a break, I hitched up my bags and hoofed it up the trail.  By the time I reached my car I was exhausted.

There’s a beautiful silver lining to this story. Some friends of mine run a deli back in Hawi, the Lighthouse Delicatessen.  Lunch time!!  This is one of the best parts about hiking in Pololu.  After tucking away a french dip sandwich and a really good ginger beer, I got an order of soft pretzels and drove home.

Not my best KAP day ever, but everyone enjoyed the pretzels including me.  Not a bad end to things.

– Tom

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World Wide KAP Week 2011 – Day 3

Posted by Tom Benedict on 02/05/2011

I managed to squeeze in two sessions today.  One turned out well, the other… not so well.

The day started at Anaehoomalu Bay.  Ever since the tsunami I’ve been fascinated by how the sand moves around now that the fish pond is open to tidal flow.  It’s still evolving, and is quite different from the session I did there a week after the tsunami.  I didn’t make a good panorama of the break in the fish pond wall this time, but instead focused on the resort area and the beach.

Waikoloa Resorts May 2011

Anaehoomalu Bay Beach 2011

I flew the Nokia Push N8 gear here, too, with mixed results.  There’s new software for the phones that fixed many of the ills that were causing me grief in the field.  I tested the software out at home with really good results, but somehow got something wrong when I flew at Anaehoomalu Bay.  None of the stills took at all, and all the videos were rotated ninety degrees to one side.  BUMMERS!  I was really looking forward to processing the several panoramas I did this morning.  I’ll see what I can do with the video, but I’m not holding out too much hope.  Of course this means I need to return here for a redemption round with the N8 hardware once I get this sorted out!

In the afternoon the family and I went to Hapuna Beach.  The wind at Hapuna has been slim to none the last several times we went.  I didn’t really hold out much hope, but I brought all the kite gear anyway.  The wind was lame.


But the sunset was really quite fine.

Sunset Boogie Silhouette

I’m not sure what tomorrow will bring.  I have at least one KAP session I need to do for work, possibly two.  I also have an elevated pole session I need to do for the school my daughter goes to.  It should be a good week!

The only real downer in all this is that I got my first migraine after returning home from Hapuna.  Not much pain, but full-throttle visuals and nausea.  Maybe too much staring up into a bright, sunlit sky?  Who knows.  I just hope I can get out tomorrow.  World Wide KAP Week only comes around once a year!

– Tom

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