The View Up Here

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

Posts Tagged ‘Hawaii’

Whales, Waves, and Unexpected Urination

Posted by Tom Benedict on 12/12/2016

“See any whales?”

I’d been recording at Kiholo Bay for several hours before the man spoke to me, but the first hour had been plagued by technical issues. For some reason my DR-70D kept reporting a write timeout error – something usually attributed to using a slow memory card – but I knew the card was good. Helicopters and airplanes had ruined the rest of the first hour.

At that point I was almost done with my first completely clean hour of waves on my SASS and Mid-Side setup. My other recorder, a DR-05, was positioned at a small beach to the south of me, recording waves receding off of loose pebbles.

I turned around to see who’d spoken to me. He was an older man who’d been hiking along the coast and had stopped to talk. I knew his words would show up on the recording, so I figured if I’m editing I’m editing. I might as well be civil about it.

“No, not from here.”

He nodded and walked on. I turned back to my gear, but out of the corner of my eye I saw him turn and head down to the little pebble beach.

People here are, on the whole, really nice about other people’s stuff. At one point years ago I left some kites at Hapuna Beach, one of the busiest beaches on the Big Island. It wasn’t until I was unloading my car at home that I realized my kite bag was missing. I jumped back into my car, headed back to the beach, and found that someone had brought my kites up off of the sand and left them for me at the showers. People here really are great.

But still… Strange guy hiking down to a beach where I’d left gear… I didn’t want him knocking my gear over inadvertently or anything. So I kept an eye on him as he made his way down to the beach and… proceeded to relieve himself not four feet from where I’d left my gear. Recording sound. All sound. Beach sound. And now his sound. His very personal sound. He kept glancing up at me like I was being rude. I did turn away while he was occupied with his… task. But eventually I knew he’d finish and realize I’d been recording him. Which he eventually did.

One of my more awkward sessions.

(But I got a lot of really good winter wave on rock sounds!)

Anyway, I think I’ve finally answered some open-ended questions about microphones. The Alice microphones I’ve been building are beautiful, crisp, and punchy, but not all that great for recording outdoor sounds. They’re very bright, which works great for a number of subjects. Waves, streams, and wind in the trees just don’t happen to be any of those subjects. Unfortunately those are the subjects I’m interested in.

I also don’t think I’m a huge fan of mid-side recording for creating big spacious soundscapes. No matter how much I play with the balance of mid to side, I just can’t get as much of a sense of space as I do with the SASS. I find myself firmly in the camp of the partially baffled microphone array. So for now I’ll save the mid-side and LDC Alice mics for indoor recording and go back to my Primo-based mics for nature. (Though I still intend to convert my Behringer C-2 mics to surface-mount Alice electronics. They’ll make good instrument mics, if nothing else.)

There’s one last test I want to repeat, though. Early on I built an Olson Wing – a baffled double-boundary array invented by Curt Olson. This pre-dated my SASS. I remember I liked the sound, but that I liked the sound of my SASS better. Now that I’ve had a chance to try a number of other stereo recording techniques (X-Y, A-B, ORTF, M-S, and SASS), I’d like to resurrect my Olson Wing and try it and the SASS side-by-side. I’ve still got all the bits, so it’s just a matter of rigging everything back up and getting out with the gear.

It’s something of a pressing question because of something else that happened. Earlier today my wife bought me an early present: a pair of ammo boxes.

I joked with the kids that they’re for the Zombie Apocalypse. They just rolled their eyes. They know me too well. She got me the ammo boxes for a recording project.

One of the problems with unattended recording is that conditions change, weather turns, and gear gets rained on. My first unattended overnight session wound up that way. I set up to record the dawn chorus in the Upper Waiakea Forest Reserve on International Dawn Chorus Day, but during the night the clouds came in and rained on my gear. The evening chorus was spectacular, but with the rain on the leaf mast making a staccato drumming sound, the dawn chorus part of the recording was practically useless.

My gear survived, but the weather proofing was tentative at best. I’ve been looking for a good way to build a completely watertight, rain proof recording setup. Enter the ammo box.

Ammo boxes are made out of steel. They’re tough. And they have a rubber weather seal that’ll keep out a hurricane. Perfect for cramming recording gear into! My plan is to use the larger of the two boxes to house my gear, and either build an Olson Wing or an SASS around the box, depending on which one I like better. The microphones would be the only thing poking out. Everything else goes inside the box, which can then be latched shut. The whole unit can then be left overnight without any chance of rain getting inside and killing my gear.

Or pee, for that matter.

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SASS and ORTF Side-by-Side

Posted by Tom Benedict on 09/08/2016

Or top and bottom, rather.

I had the opportunity to stick my SASS rig and my newly minted ORTF bar on the same mount, one right over the other, and use them to record coqui frogs in a eucalyptus forest on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Of course whenever you record in a forest here you also get insects.

And if you happen to be within a hundred yards of a bunch of… dinosaurs? You also get them.

And the rain.

Ok, just a bunch of stuff. Anyway, here’s the recording. It’s an A-B test, switching between SASS and ORTF at thirty second intervals with a two second cross-fade.

My take: The two are different. (Well duh!) They provide different sounds. Neither one is “right” to my ear, just… different. But I’ll let you decide for yourself.

Tom

P.S. No I didn’t say which is which in the recording. What would be the fun of that?

Posted in Audio | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Mistakes Were Made

Posted by Tom Benedict on 01/04/2016

If I ever write an autobiography I’m calling it “Mistakes Were Made”. It’s an accurate statement that can be interpreted with a straight face or with a smile, and it does a good job of summing up the parts of my life that make decent stories. Let’s face it: It’s fun to read about other people’s mistakes!

Last Friday a storm system rolled through that brought with it real thunder and lightning. As strange as it sounds the weather in Hawaii doesn’t lend itself to thunderstorms, so I knew this was a rare and wonderful event, and a unique chance for me to record thunder rolling across the sky. As broken as I was (and am!) as the day darkened I grabbed my SASS and stand, slung my sound bag over my shoulder, shoved two trash bags in my pocket, and headed out.

I live across the highway from a ranch, so getting away from intruding sounds is as straightforward as crossing the highway and walking until I can’t hear anything any more. Time was of the essence, so I walked as quickly as my neck and back would let me. All the while the thunder was coming from every part of the sky, rolling from horizon to horizon, and stirring up echoes from the nearby mountains. It was perfect! When I deemed I’d gone far enough I set up the stand, took off my backpack and found…

You know when you see a school kid with their book bag, and it’s unzipped and stuff is hanging out and you tell them, “Zip up your bag! You’ll lose something!” and they, one way or another, flip you off?

I found that my backpack was unzipped, and had been from the moment I left home. In the dark I hadn’t checked, and hadn’t seen. By then I had crossed a stream, walked at least a mile through tall grass, and stepped around countless cow patties. With a sinking heart I checked to see what was missing. To my intense relief the only things unaccounted for were my three contact mics – stuff I’d built myself. I was lucky! But I still kicked myself for losing gear.

I had to set those thoughts aside and get busy if I wanted to record thunder, though. So I pulled out my recorder and cables, and started hooking everything up. Just as I finished plugging everything in, the first of the rain hit.

What I’d assumed was a lighter patch of cloud upwind of me turned out to be a rain line. I pulled the cables back out of my recorder, zipped everything up in my bag, and pulled a trash bag over it and over the SASS. I’ll just wait this out, I thought, It can’t be that much rain!

It was that much rain, and it just kept getting harder. I couldn’t even hear the thunder any more because of how loud the rain was against the grass and rocks. Without having hit the record button even once, I picked up my gear and started the long, slow, wet slog back home.

Good news is I found one of my contact mics along the way! The next day I went back and found a second. The only one missing is the one I made with an alligator clip for clipping onto fences and the like, which only took me an hour or so to make. As dumb as my mistake was, the cost in the end wasn’t all that high. Lesson learned.

But I still wish I’d recorded some of that thunder!

Tom

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Nokia N8 PUSH

Posted by Tom Benedict on 24/11/2010

Some months ago Nokia put out a call for proposals for how to use a KAP rig based around a pair of N8 phones.  At the time I’d been doing some KAP with a photographer in Kona with the goal of photographing whales in the ocean.  So I had whales at the front of my mind.  It wasn’t too much of a stretch to come up with an idea that involved doing KAP of whales.  I sent the idea in, but didn’t really expect to move forward with it.

Turns out I was wrong.  My idea was selected, and not long ago I was contacted by the N8 PUSH team to let me know.

??!  !!!  COOL!

There were some questions to answer and some details to be worked out, but everything came out ok and in the end I was given the timeline and was told to expect a package in the mail.  There’s no curbside delivery where I live, so I’ve been swinging by the post office to check out my PO box ever since.  Nothing yet, but it’s getting clooose!

The package should contain two Nokia N8 cameras, each sporting a 12MP camera with a fixed focal length Carl Zeiss lens, along with a KAP rig designed specifically for the N8, and a kite.  The two phones come loaded with the N8 KAP application, which allows the KAP rig to be controlled from the phone on the ground, and for the aerial phone to stream its video signal to the ground phone.  All in all a seriously cool setup!  I was a little skeptical of the camera at first, but hearing the Zeiss name and seeing a video clip of the camera focusing (yes, it actually focuses) went a long way toward laying those concerns to rest.  What finally did my concerns in was seeing a set of KAP images made by Ricardo Ferreira with the N8 phone.  The image quality was better than most point and shoot cameras, and worlds better than any phone camera I’d ever seen.  (For anyone who’s not familiar with KAP and with the KAP-Nokia connection in particular, Ricardo is an excellent KAPer, and developed the first Nokia KAP rig, based around the N900 phones.)

Operationally, this will be a significant change from the way I’m used to working in the field.  I don’t have a video downlink on my current rig.  The N8 rig does.  I can do movies with my current rig, but I tend not to.  In any case 640×480 is as good as I can get with my current camera.  The N8 does 720p HD video. Right now I don’t have any way to get GPS information for where my camera is in space.  Yeah, I can add a GPS photo tracker to my rig, and probably will in the not so distant future.  But the N8 phone has GPS built in, of course.  I just hope the EXIF headers on the files include the GPS information.  Even the rig itself is different.  I’m used to plugging in cables, screwing down cameras, attaching safety lanyards, and the like.  To use the N8 rig, you snap the phone into the rig and you’re done.  From what I’ve gathered, the aerial phone controls the rig via a Bluetooth connection.  No wires, no screws, no nothing.  And no legs!  The rig has no legs.  But the way it’s shaped, it really doesn’t need them.

So in addition to the PUSH project itself, I’m interested in seeing how the N8 rig behaves in the field.  I’m planning to give it a thorough shake-down and post a review here and on the KAP forums.  Luckily, there’s still some time before the whales come through the Hawaiian Islands.  So I’ve been picking out some likely flying spots where I can put it through its paces and see what it’s got under the hood.  High on the list are Kiholo Bay and Puako.  I’d love to give it a try at the summit of Mauna Kea, but cell phone signals really do mess with the radio telescopes up there.  So it’s a no-no.  Waipio Valley and Pololu Valley are also high on the list since they offer some of the more challenging wind conditions for doing KAP on the Big Island.  (Besides, on the drive back from Pololu there’s a fantastic deli in Hawi called Lighthouse Delicatessen.  Can’t beat a KAP session that ends with a great lunch!)

By the end of the land-based sessions, I should have a better feel for how the rig handles, I’ll have some seat time with it on a couple of different kites, and I’ll be ready to trust myself to launch it off the back of a boat.

Now all we need is whales!

– Tom

Posted in Hawaii, Kite Aerial Photography, N8 Push, Photography | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Challenging but Rewarding

Posted by Tom Benedict on 17/11/2010

I recently had a pair of flights that yielded really nice results.  The first was done just on a whim.  In the past I’ve flown at Mala`ai, the culinary garden at Waimea Middle School in Kamuela, Hawaii.  I like flying there for a number of reasons.  It’s a pleasant place to fly with no ground hazards or obstructions, it’s a great place to try out new ideas for orthoimaging, it’s an interesting subject, and the school uses the images to help plan future work in the garden.  One of the coolest things about the garden is that it’s largely the students who do the planning and the work.  And boy do they ever move FAST!  I’ve never photographed it twice and seen the same thing.  It’s constantly changing.

But almost every time I’ve flown there, I’ve underestimated the size of the place!  The field of view on my camera’s lens is such that the field of view on the ground in the horizontal direction is almost exactly the same as its altitude.  This helps me compose shots when doing orthoimaging.  But vertically the field of view is smaller, and in the past I’ve clipped.  This time was going to be different!  I’d fly high enough to get the whole thing in one shot!

And in the end I did:

Mala`ai - The Culinary Garden at Waimea Middle School - 11 November, 2010

This is still a composite image because I wanted to be able to rotate it to line it up better with the edges of the frame.  But there are no stitch errors inside the garden that needed attention.  The garden itself came from a single image.  As soon as I’d processed the image I let the folks at the garden know there was a new image to download.

About a week and a half ago I got a call to ask if I could photograph the Anuenue Playground in Kamuela, as well.  I’ve wanted to photograph the playground for years, but there are a number of ground hazards and obstructions that have made it less than ideal.  Even though the adjoining football/baseball field doesn’t have lights any more, the poles that used to support them are still there.  There are large trees near the park.  It’s bordered on two sides by busy roadways.  And worst of all the park is full of kids!  I have never had a rig fall off my kite line, but that doesn’t mean I don’t believe it can.  So a great deal of additional paranoia was called for.

I surveyed the place a couple of times that week, trying to find a good angle to launch and approach the park.  But depending on the direction of the wind I could add above ground high voltage power lines to the list of ground hazards.  No thank you!  It looked like the only reasonably safe approach was for the wind to blow out of the west-northwest, and for it to be super-steady.  I didn’t even bother to call back to let them know.  I felt like a failure.

Two days after I made the garden picture, I checked the wind models.  Lo and behold, the afternoon called for soft and steady winds out of the west-northwest!  Sure ’nuff, by 2:00pm the winds had shifted and the conditions were ideal.  I waited out an event that was happening in the football field, my chosen launch spot, but by 3:30pm the coast was clear.  I put up my Fled, put my camera in my ortho rig, and got it in position.

There’s one other piece of KAP gear that figures prominently into this session: my son.  I knew I’d never spot it on my own, so I asked him to grab his walkie talkies and come with me to the park.  He got on the radio and guided me in, and I checked my apparent altitude against the footprint of the park on the ground to make sure I had the field of view to get everything.

I came close.  There’s one apparatus in the park that didn’t make it into the photo set, but the rest of the park did:

Anuenue Park, Waimea

I didn’t get enough overlap for a clean crop, but it covered the bulk of the park with reasonably sharp detail.  A quick pass through PTLens to take out barrel distortion and a small amount of tilt, and then a pass through ICE to make the composite, and the image was done.

All in all the camera was in the air for only 14 minutes, taking pictures every five seconds.  The resulting set of images offered a rich selection to work from.  I feel confident that as the restoration work on the park progresses, I’ll be able to return and make additional documentation photos for them.

Can’t beat a good day.

– Tom

Posted in Hawaii, Kite, Kite Aerial Photography, Photography, Weather | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Panorama Workflow

Posted by Tom Benedict on 23/07/2010

I’ve had some opportunities to play with my camera on the ground as well as in the air, and to test a number of image sets on the software I’ve been using.  Two days ago my wife and I took our kids to Pololu Valley to go hiking.  On the off-chance the weather would be nice, I brought my KAP gear.  The weather was fantastic, with solid winds for kite flying, and beautiful partly-cloudy skies.  Time to play!

I ran about 5GB of images through the camera from various vantage points.  In creating the base images I tried to incorporate everything I had learned from the earlier experiments.  The resulting photographs turned out quite well, so I’m considering the new workflow to be a win.  I’m sharing it here in the hopes that someone else doing kite aerial photography will give it a try and take it even further.  Here are the details:

  • If you can shoot RAW, shoot RAW.  I can’t, but in the near future I’ll be able to.
  • Use Manual Exposure mode on your camera.  Set it on the ground, check it, and double-check the histograms to make sure you’re getting bullseye exposures.
  • Use at least 1/1000 second exposure speed.  I’m using 1/1250.
  • Use the slowest ISO setting you can to control noise.  This is of less concern with a DSLR, but every bit helps.  I made this set at ISO 80.
  • Use the sweet-spot aperture on your lens if possible.  My lens is sharpest around f/4 to f/5.  I couldn’t use this aperture and hold the other numbers, so my lens is wider than ideal.  But the benefits in noise at ISO 80 make this a reasonable choice.  I give up some sharpness for lower noise, and keep the fast exposure speed to avoid blur.

Once the camera is in the air, all my panoramas were made with the camera vertical.  With a KAP rig this either means building the rig around a vertical camera (Brooxes BEAK rig), or using an L-bracket on a conventional rig, or having a dedicated Horizontal/Vertical axis on the rig.  I recently modified my rig to add the HoVer axis, so this is the route I went.

The idea with this technique is to start the rig on a slow spin, and to trigger the shutter continuously.  This technique was developed by a French KAPer who goes by the name of Vertigo on the KAP forums.  With a sufficiently fast shutter speed, this works perfectly.  My A650IS does one frame every 1.1 seconds.  With a 10-second-per-rev rotation rate, this works out about perfectly.  I’m upgrading to a Canon EOS T2i DSLR in the near future, which has a much faster frame rate.  I’m planning to build an electronic release cable for this camera that will give me the same 1-frame-per-second rate my A650IS has so I can continue to use this technique.

  • Start the rig rotating at a rate that gives you adequate overlap between images, and minimizes motion blur from the rotation, given the camera’s shutter speed.
  • Once the camera is rotating cleanly (no see-sawing on rotation, no jerkiness in the pan axis, no swinging around, etc.) trip the shutter.
  • Make at least two complete orbits of the camera, tripping the shutter non-stop the entire time.  This is for a couple of reasons:  First, it gives you plenty of frames to choose from in case one is blurry.  Next, it gives you a range of random tilt angles that you can use to fill in gaps later on.  Finally, if the rig starts to move, the second orbit will still produce a clean panorama.
  • If you want to make a larger panorama, change the tilt after two orbits and make two more orbits at the new tilt value.
  • While all of this is going on, do everything you can to minimize camera motion.

This should produce a nice set of images from which to work.  You may well end up using them all, so don’t toss any of them!

I use Autopano Pro for stitching.  Some of the tricks I’ve picked up will apply to other packages.  But if you find yourself scratching your head and thinking, “No, I’ve never seen that,” don’t sweat it.  Your software is different.  Skip that part.

One of the first problems I ran into is that Autopano Pro deals really well with point features, but not very well at all with linear features.  For example, it’ll match up individual stones on a beach like a champ, but it will produce lousy horizons if the horizon is just water and sky.  It makes no effort whatsoever to correct for lens distortions if the bulk of the picture is water and sky.

The fix I found was to use PTLens to correct lens distortions before using Autopano Pro.  PTLens is a $25 plug-in for Photoshop.  Even better, it’ll run as a stand-alone program and will batch process hundreds or even thousands of images at once.  If you’ve got a block of images you photographed as fodder for panorama stitching software, it’s no problem at all to batch process them all to remove lens distortions.  Water horizons should now be ramrod-straight lines across the frame.

So back to the process:

  • Run the entire image set through PTLens to remove barrel distortion, vignetting, and chromatic aberrations, but nothing else.
  • Process the images with Autopano Pro, or the panorama software of your choice.
  • Do everything you can to get completely horizontal, completely straight horizons for water.  Nothing kills a pano faster than a grossly errant horizon.
  • Save as 16-bit TIFF images.  16-bit workflow can be a real PITA, especially on a smaller machine, but it hides a lot of ills when it comes to large-scale processing like Levels and Curves.

At this point I open up the images in Photoshop.  I’m still using Photoshop 7.  I’ll upgrade to CS5 as soon as I can afford it.  But for now it still does everything I need.  Want is a whole ‘nuther story, but as far as my needs go, it’s fine.

  • View 100% and check for stitching errors.  Repair all of these with the rubber stamp or heal tools.
  • If your kite line shows up in the image, remove it using the same tools.
  • If you cropped your panorama wide enough to have gaps in ground or sky, open up all the images that went into the panorama, as well as the second orbit you made from that same location.  Use the rubber stamp tool to pull patches from any and all of the input images to repair problems on the panorama.  (This is one of the best reasons to make a second orbit!)  Since you used a fixed exposure, you should be able to rubber-stamp these into the panorama with no changes necessary.
  • Once the panorama is defect-free, look at your levels.  If you did your job setting the manual exposure on the ground, the exposure should be dead-nuts on, or need very little tweaking.
  • Do all your dodging and burning at this point to get the exposure just the way you want.  This can involve lots and lots of time, depending on how meticulous you are with your exposures.  If you’re the kind of person who got into photography in the days of film, and spent your afternoons in the positive darkroom dodging and burning the same negative over and over and over, you may be on this step for a while…

At this point the bulk of the workflow is complete.  But I would advise you not to stop here.  In Photoshop under the File menu is a command called File Info.  Click it.  It lets you edit the header information associated with your image.  At the very least I would fill out:

  • Title – What is the name of the original file on your computer?  Leave out the extension since that can change without changing the image.
  • Author – Your name.  You’re the author of your image.
  • Caption – Describe the photograph clearly and concisely, and include enough information so that you could read it and know where on the planet you were when you made the photograph.
  • Copyright Status – Change this to “Copyrighted Work”.  The moment you tripped the shutter, your photograph was a copyrighted work.  Not marking this just sets you up for someone to use your photograph without your knowledge.  If you choose to license your photographs under the Creative Commons license, of course, you should set this appropriately.
  • Copyright Notice – Mine reads: Copyright © Tom Benedict
  • Date Created – The date you tripped the shutter on your camera to make the photographs that went into this image.
  • City / State / Province / Country – Fill them in.
  • Source – Give yourself some hints here.  Is it a straight shot?  Digital?  Film?  Stitched?  My digital panoramas are all marked “Digital-Stitched”.

The neat thing is that most of the photo sharing sites on the Internet will automagically read your header information and fill in their own forms for you.  You may still want to provide more information than this, but the base information will be there.

The even neater thing is that in the event someone downloads your photograph and puts it on their own site without your knowledge, your header information is indexed by most search engines.  Even better, when you challenge them and they claim the photograph as an “orphaned work”, you can demonstrate that they did not make an honest effort to find the photographer in order to ask for permission since your info is all right there with the image.

So that’s it in a nutshell.  How well does it work?  See for yourself:

Pololu Valley Wetlands 2

– Tom

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From UFO to Rubbish

Posted by Tom Benedict on 21/05/2010

Back in May, 2009, I brought my KAP gear to work at the summit of Mauna Kea, and during some free time at lunch I tried desperately to get my rig in the air.  I never did get to clip on the camera, but some of the guys across the way at Keck saw the kite and wondered why a UFO was flying over our dome.  Andrew Cooper, one of the guys at Keck, witnessed the event and wrote it up in his blog, A Darker View.

I have flow on Mauna Kea, and have done some surprisingly good KAP there, despite the prevalence of questionable wind.  During my first session at the summit, I got a good set of photos from summit ridge, but when I moved less than 100m to the south, the only stable point of flight my kite had was roughly 15m below my feet!  It’s not a trivial place to fly, and certainly isn’t for the faint of heart.  I’ve flown there a couple of times since, but it’s never something I take lightly.  During one flight I let out the full 500′ of line the FAA allows kiters to use.  So far as I know I may well hold the high altitude record for kite flying in Hawaii, and possibly the Pacific.  But reading Andrew Cooper’s blog let me add one more to my list:  My kite had been flagged as a UFO!

Last week I did a session much closer to home.  In fact, this time it was just outside the door at work.  Two of my kids go to school at Waimea Country School, a small private school in Waimea.  I’ve been trying to do aerial photography of the school for ages, but I was never able to get the vantage point I wanted because of a big stand of eucalyptus trees.  In case you’ve never run into one, eucalyptus trees grow from 80 to 100′ in height.  They’re big.  They block wind, they grab kites, and they’re generally un-fun to fly near.  I’d made attempts in the past, but something was always wrong.

This time everything went right.  The wind, which normally blows along the stand of trees, blew diagonal to them.  So I was able to launch, get the kite a good 2x higher than the trees, and clip on the rig.  Once I had the camera well over the trees, I walked over to the treeline and laced the line through the tree branches until I had it just where I needed it.

St. James Circle and Waimea Country School

The flight went off without a hitch.

As it turns out the school was in the middle of its last fire drill of the year, so all the students were lined up in the field in the upper left of the frame.  I sent a copy of the shot to the school’s headmistress, who got a big kick out of it.  She wound up showing it to most of the school and the parents of the kids.  But I didn’t hear the best part until later in the week.

This morning when I was dropping my daughters off, my younger daughter’s teacher ran up to the car to tell me how much she enjoyed seeing the photo.  But she confessed that she had no idea I was flying a camera at the time.  One of the kids in her class pointed up in the sky and asked, “What’s that?”  She looked up, saw a bit of green hanging up in space, and figured it was just a garbage bag fluttering around in the wind.  “It’s just a bit of rubbish,” she told him.

So now my 6′ rokkaku, which was sewn by a friend of mine at work and framed out by me, can claim the lofty title of being a kite, being a hexagonal levitation machine for aerial photography, being a UFO, and… being a bit of rubbish.

Hey, it’s all good so long as the photography works out.

– Tom

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The Next Hurdle – Weather

Posted by Tom Benedict on 06/05/2010

I finally weighed my new rig.  I was right.  It’s not too much more than my old rig, but it’s still significant.  The camera + batteries + lens hood came in at 405g.  The new rig + batteries + legs came in at 537g.  Total flying weight added up to 942g, a significant bump from the ~850g I used to fly with.  Still, the extra ~90g of weight offers a lot more capability for the kind of shooting I seem to be doing.  Well worth it.

The next hurdle appears to be weather and everything else associated with it.  Last weekend I did get out with my rig, but didn’t get a lot of photography done.  I found nice subjects, but the weather wasn’t cooperative.  Ho hum.

This is nothing new, and this is nothing specific to KAP.  Ask any photographer, and they’ll tell you that as soon as they see a great scene setting up, the light changes.  Or the clouds roll in.  Or the clouds roll out.  Or something happens to make the shot not quite what it could’ve been.

I’m no different.  Last Saturday morning I got out and tried valiantly to out-distance the heavy overcast that was making the skies around Waimea absolute blahsville.  I drove almost an hour out Mana Road, and never got out from under the clouds.  In the end I gave it up as a bad idea and came back with what ground shots I got.  Later that day the family and I took off to photograph the lava flow at Kalapana.  The weather was fantastic, but the lava flow had shifted, and the folks working security moved the barriers back to the point where you couldn’t see anything at all.  We finally called it a day and went back to Hilo to catch dinner before driving home.

But the weather at the house was overcast the whole time, so I can’t say we made a bad call.  Just an uninformed one.  This set me on a mission to find better tools for predicting weather for photography.  So far the best I came across is a site run by the National Weather Service.  It offers a variety of weather maps for the various islands of Hawaii, including one that indicates the extent of the VOG cloud coming out of Halemaumau Crater.  Combined with the wind maps I already rely on for flying kites, this may just be the best guide for where to find photogenic conditions for doing landscape photography on the Big Island.

I should have a good opportunity to test this over the weekend.  My daughters have a social agenda that spans all of Saturday, so my wife offered to run them around, and asked me to take care of my son for the day.  We both looked at each other like we couldn’t believe our good fortune!  My son has been my companion on more photography outings than I can count, and he’s as excited at being able to go somewhere new as I am.  So I’m using the NWS maps, my list of sites I’d like to do photography, and the Mauna Kea Soaring wind maps to plan our day.

Maybe this time we’ll have better luck.  Or maybe this time we’ll plan a head and make a little luck for ourselves in the process!

– Tom

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A KAP Outing that Wasn’t

Posted by Tom Benedict on 22/11/2009

Since finishing the Worldwide KAP Week 2009 Book, I’ve had more time to do photography, and to at least attempt to do KAP.  Last weekend I got out of the house for a few hours to do some KAP up on Mana Road, a dirt track that runs from Waimea to Mauna Kea’s Summit Road on the south side of the mountain.  The weather in Waimea was rainy, and my plan was to keep driving up Mana Road until I came out above the clouds.  This worked out better than I thought, and I eventually got to do some KAP at a large water shed.

The Water Shed

The photo received some positive comments when I posted it on Flickr, including one from someone who said how much they enjoyed seeing pictures of Hawaii that don’t appear in the tourist literature.  In looking through the photography I’ve done, I realized a good percentage of it has been done at beaches, or in places that are stereotypically tropical Hawaii.  I hate getting stuck in a rut, so the comment on the water shed photo was timely.  Exactly the kind of direction I need!

Yesterday my wife took my daughters to dance, so my son and I threw our stuff in my Jeep and headed out.  My plan was to hike out to some remote kipukas on the slopes of Mauna Loa and try my hand at KAP there.  The wind was favorable, but as it turns out the weather wasn’t.

A kipuka is a forested cinder cone that has been surrounded by fresh lava.  This cuts off the kipuka from the surrounding area, making it a pocket ecology.  Kipukas are common wherever there are cinder cones out on a relatively flat area near an active volcano.  The saddle between Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea has dozens of kipukas that host native Hawaiian flora, and numerous endemic Hawaiian birds.  My son packed binoculars to do some bird watching, and I packed my KAP gear.

By the time we got to the turn off to Mauna Kea Summit Road, it was obvious our plans had to change.  A line of clouds was blowing through the saddle between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, and already the area we were planning to hike was covered by clouds.  Rather than turn around and call it a loss, we pulled in at Puu Huluhulu, a large kipuka situated at the turn off to Summit Road.  My son and I have hiked this area frequently, and it’s a favorite of ours.  I had some level of hope that we could reach the top before the clouds rolled through, and that I could get a kite and camera airborne before things socked in.  But the clouds moved faster than we did.  By the time we got to the top everything was an opaque mass of white.  My kites stayed in my bag, but my camera didn’t.  A day that’s bad for kite aerial photography is often a good day for ground photography.  The most obvious subject to work with was the twisted trees that grow on Puu Huluhulu.  It’s trees like this that originally inspired the art of bonsai.

Misty Trees

But there were a number of other subjects that also drew my eye.  Completely overcast skies often make for poor landscapes, but they make for great macro photography.  This plant is about as big as my palm, though the adult plants grow much larger.

Fuzzy Plant

When the clouds and the wet and the cold finally got to be too much, my son and I hiked back to my Jeep.  The misty photography and macro photography felt good, but I was still disappointed that we were packing it in and turning around.  But then I remembered just how close the far end of Mana Road was.  Even better, Mana Road does lead back to Waimea.  It’s not the smoothest ride home, but it was a chance to keep the day from ending before it had really started.  I asked, my son said yes, so we headed out Mana Road.

Stream Bed Panorama

Not too far in we ran across a really picturesque stream bed.  The water wasn’t running, which was a little surprising given the amount of rain the area had received recently, but we were fairly high up so things had probably drained well before we got there.  The clouds that had made KAP at Puu Huluhulu impossible had cleared the air between Mauna Kea and Puu Oo, one of the two active vents on Kilauea.  The two steam plumes from Puu Oo and from the lava flow entering the sea near Kalapana were both clearly visible.  I set up my tripod and lined things up to make a panorama.  When I metered the sky and the ground, however, I found I couldn’t get both the foreground and the steam plumes in the same shot.  The sky was just too bright, and the overcast sky made the foreground too dark.  So I wound up shooting it as an HDR panorama.  It wasn’t quite the look I was after, but it served to balance the two strongest elements in the frame.

Pools

By the time I’d finished the panorama, my son had hiked up slope to a really pretty tree.  Rather than follow, I hiked down the stream bed until I reached the pools I’d spotted while photographing the panorama.  The overcast sky made for nice reflections, so I arranged things for a low angle shot that would pick that up.

Lichen

The same soft light that made for good close-up photography on Puu Huluhulu also made for nice macro photography here.  Some recent experiments at work using CombineZP made me want to try the technique in the field.  The idea is to take pictures at a range of focuses, and use CombineZP to take the sharpest part of each shot and combine them into a single image with infinite apparent depth of field.  I don’t know how enamored I would be of this if I didn’t have CHDK running on my A650.  One of my favorite scripts is a bracketing script that will bracket whatever your last control setting was.  I use it to do HDR photography, but it can also be used for CombineZP.  The A650 can be set to do manual focus, so once MF is selected, the bracketing script can be set up to rack focus through a nice wide range, taking pictures along the way.  I set this to do 37 focus positions, shifting by 3 clicks in focus each time.  (The A650 has well over a hundred focus positions, so techniques like this are quite straightforward.)  When I got home I put the files into CombineZP, and got this in return.

Nene

A few miles down the road my son spotted nene off to one side.  I stopped and got out, with some faint hope of photographing them.  Unfortunately the A650 doesn’t have much in the way of long focal length in its zoom range.  I’ve tried several times to photograph nene with my 20D, but light, weather, or the patience of the birds has always thwarted my attempts.  I was overjoyed to find these geese to be very patient with me.  They let me get quite close without reacting much at all.  I was happy to walk away with a couple of good photographs of them.

Nene

Mana Road is miles and miles of beautiful scenery that changes every time you go around a bend.  I’ve been out on it several times, and each time there is something different to photograph.  I still haven’t figured out quite how I’d like to photograph the koa forest the road winds through, so that’s still one I have to return to once I have a clear idea in mind.  Just past the koa forest, though, the road became quite muddy.  At one point the road dropped away entirely, and I was looking out past my Jeep’s hood into space.

I’m sure there are those who would give a loud “WHOOP!” and hit the gas, but I’m not one of those.  I hit my brakes, turned off the engine, and got out to look.  I saw a muddy slope with about a 25% grade, maybe 40′ high, and covered in skid marks.  I wasn’t keen on the idea of driving it, but of course I had to photograph it!

Whoops!

The wind was too gusty to get a stable kite shot, so I opted for my 20′ carbon fiber pole.  This is a converted breem pole I picked up for $20 and stuck a ball head on for photographic work.  Setting up the shot took about as much time as setting up a tripod, and the CHDK intervalometer script meant I didn’t need to remotely trigger the camera.  All that was required was a little patience waiting for the “click!” sounds coming from the camera, and lining things up between shots.

The Watershed

After photographing my Jeep and the slippery slope, I wound up backing out and going down the lower road.  This avoided the inevitable skid, and got us back on track.  A little further down the road we came across a water shed.  This is smaller than the water shed I’d photographed the previous week, but being closer to the road it offered more opportunities for close photography.  These water sheds are essentially large catchment systems used to collect rainwater for the cattle that graze in the surrounding fields.  The roof of the shed has gutters that are piped into the tanks.  When it rains (which it does quite frequently) the rainwater runs off the roof, through the pipes, and into the tanks.  The water in the tanks is then diverted to troughs for the cattle to use.

The Watershed

I’ve driven past this water shed several times, and have made numerous attempts to photograph it.  But I’ve been disappointed with the results.  I know the picture I’m after, but I just never managed to get it.  This time I got close.

Ideally I’d have liked to be about five to six feet to the right, and aimed the camera more to the left.  Unfortunately there’s a barbed wire fence in the way that makes that angle painful, if not impossible.  I’m still working out how to get the shot I’m after, but this one worked out better than the others I’ve tried.

I did finally get a kite airborne once.  I was on the leeward side of a stand of trees, so the air was minimal and tossy at the ground, and blowing like a freight train higher up.  Kite handling was rough, heavy, and not fun at all.  I clipped on my KAP rig and tried to do some photography of a water tank that’s managed by the water department.  With the wind through the trees and the altitude of the rig, I couldn’t hear the shutter whenever I told it to take a picture.  So it was no surprise when I got home and saw that the only picture I had from the one KAP session of the day was a picture of my feet when I tested the shutter on the ground.

Ah well…

So it was the KAP outing that wasn’t, but I still had a good time.

– Tom

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Join the Club

Posted by Tom Benedict on 03/10/2009

A few weeks ago, my wife and I took the kids to the county fair.  (Yes, even islands in the middle of the Pacific get to have county fairs!)  It was a great day, full of rides, surprisingly good food, and a stop at a booth where the Hilo Photography Club was showing some of their member photography.  Seeing other people’s prints on the wall got me to thinking about how isolated I am with the photography I do.  I trade notes with two of my co-workers who are into photography, but for the most part that’s it.  Every other interaction I have is online through Flickr, or through various forums for aerial and kite aerial photography. It’s strange, because for the most part I really am a loner.  But I found I really wanted to join a photography club.  Bad.

But driving to Hilo, especially on a weekday night, really didn’t hold much appeal.  I work during the week, and it’s an hour and a half to Hilo.  This would be like driving from Sealy, Texas, to the middle of Houston and back.  On a Wednesday.  So I looked around and found there is a second photography club on the island, based in Kona.   It’s not exactly in town, but forty-five minutes is still better than an hour and a half!  I liked the photography I saw on their web site, so I figured I should give it a try.

Still, things are never that easy.  The first person I had to convince was my wife.  It may be my idea to join the club, but our time belongs to the both of us.  Once I told her it was one night a month, though, she was ok with the idea.  As it turns out the club met the following evening, so with my camera bag in hand and an address written on a scrap of paper, I jumped in my Jeep after work and headed out.

One problem with addresses on this island is that they assume you know the roads.  Despite its being a fairly small island, there are still a lot of roads!  I didn’t exactly get lost, but I didn’t know where I was, either.  It took a while, but I finally got there.  The meeting was low-key, the folks were pretty friendly on the whole, but I was surprised how little interest there was in talking to a newcomer.  I literally sat in the corner, and despite working up the courage to speak up during the critique session, no one showed much interest in me, or even asked what kind of photography I was into.

Nonetheless, I liked what I saw.  The critiques were constructive, but they were also pretty direct.  No bubbles there!  If someone didn’t like a thing, they said so.  But they also said why, which is the real point of a critique.  At the end of the meeting I was determined to come to a second one, and to bring pictures to show and get feedback on.  The president of the club took down my name and email address, and invited me to the next meeting.

Choosing which pictures to bring took some work.  I didn’t necessarily want to show my flashiest images, but I did want a representative sample.  I also didn’t want to have to wade through the opinions that KAP was just a cheap alternative to helicopter aerial photography, so I tried to include images that showed things that helicopters can’t do.  I intend to bring my KAP bag to the next meeting as well, when I’ll be able to show these pictures, so I also tried to include images that demonstrate the portability of KAP.  This is the set I came up with:

Here There Be Dragons

Here There Be Dragons – I wanted to open with this one, mostly to show that KAP can be used around people, and at an altitude that could also be done using a ladder.  This is a common technique on the ground when a little more height is called for, so it’s a situation I hope enough of the photographers have found themselves in to have a feel for the angle I was after.  But a ladder would’ve cast a shadow here, whereas my KAP rig did not.  So even inside the scope of vantage points available to a photographer on the ground, KAP can offer possibilities.  (Plus making that dragon was fun!)

Flying in a Blue Dream

Flying in a Blue Dream – Most aerials I’ve seen are obliques, typically taken out of the side of a helicopter or airplane.  I wanted to include an ortho image, not as an example of remote sensing or mapping, but as an example of an artistic image.  I really liked the feel of this when it came off my camera.  It felt more like a 4×5 ground glass composition than a digital camera composition.  The honu in the upper center are almost secondary to the sweeps of color in other parts of the frame.

Gemini North

Gemini North – This is one of those “KAP is portable!” pictures.  It also indicates a place where doing the photography from a full sized helicopter would be difficult.  This is at 14,000′ above sea level.  There are only a handful of helicopters on the island that can hit this altitude, and none of them are available for photography.  It could’ve been done with an airplane, but not easily, and not without violating FAA airspace regulations.  As an added benefit, this also shows how RC helicopter photography and KAP don’t necessarily overlap, either.  I doubt many RC helicopters can fly at 14,000′ altitude, either.  For KAP, I just used a bigger kite to compensate for the thinner air.

Kauhola Pt. Lighthouse

Kauhola Pt. Lighthouse – I wanted at least one picture where the camera was suspended over the water.  This is that picture.  I don’t know of any vehicle-mounted mast photographers on the island, but I’ve run into enough online to know that there is a misconception with some of them that a mast answers all needs.  Many of the places I fly don’t have roads, much less solid ground directly underneath the camera, so shots like this really couldn’t be done with a mast.  An RC helicopter or RC airplane could’ve done it, but the air was pretty heavy that day, and unfortunately fairly rough as well.  Even with a kite it was a tough day.  With an RC helicopter or airplane it would’ve been pretty nasty.  My hope with sharing this photograph is that this is a lighthouse that the club has visited in the past.  I wanted a subject at least some of the people in the club were familiar with so they could contrast this one against pictures they had done and see some of the vantage point possibilities KAP can open up.

Green Sand Beach

Green Sand Beach – I know the club did a trip to South Point.  I don’t know if they made it all the way out to Green Sand Beach, but most of the residents on the island have been there at one point or another.  It’s a fantastic place to do photography, but 99% of the photos are done to the left of where this one was made, so none of them show the backside of the cindercone that forms the beach.  Even when helicopters overfly the beach, they tend to come in from the same angle every time.  So far as I know this is the only photo of Green Sand taken from this location.  It’s well below 500′, so KAP or an RC aircraft are the only ways to get there.  Add to that, it’s pretty far off the beaten path.  A kite really is the easiest way to get this angle.

Kiholo Bay

Kiholo Bay – I included this one for a couple of reasons:  It’s recent, so it’s more or less “what did you shoot in the last month?”  I’m not cheating here by going back to the archives.  It really is a recent photo.  It’s also a good poster shot for portability since there are no roads out here.  It’s a half hour walk across the lava, or you don’t get to see it at all.  This is also one of my more planned images, so it makes a good conversation starter for the idea of planning a KAP session, or any photography session for that matter.  KAP isn’t random by any stretch of the imagination, any more than any other form of photography is.  This photo does a good job of demonstrating it.

I cropped and sized the images to work with the 1920×1080 format of the projector the club uses, and packed them off in email to await the next meeting.  The date is set for October 15th, so I hope I have good things to write about afterward.

– Tom

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