The View Up Here

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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

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Worldwide KAP Week 2010 Begins!

Posted by Tom Benedict on 10/09/2010

If you’re active in the world of kite aerial photography, chances are you already know Worldwide KAP Week 2010 starts tomorrow.  It runs from Saturday, September 11th, through Sunday, September 19th.  (Yes, that’s also “Talk Like a Pirate Day”.)  If you already have KAP gear, get out.  Wherever you are, get out over the next nine days and fly a camera.  Take pictures.  Have a good time.

As for me, I’m taking the entire week off from work.  Some people think that’s silly, but it’s one of my only opportunities during the year to really get out and dedicate a big chunk of time to doing KAP.  Looking back at the pictures I made during Worldwide KAP Week last year, and everything that’s happened since, I have a pretty positive feeling about WWKW 2010.  These are the big changes in my gear and technique:

  • I picked up a Dopero early this year, so I can fly a heavier rig in lighter wind.  From 3.5kt to 25kt, I’ve got my kites covered.
  • I’ve worked a lot on my panorama technique, added a Ho/Ver axis to my rig, and hope to make a number of good, printable panoramas.
  • I’ve also worked on my sunrise/sunset/golden-hour photography, and hope to work in better light during WWKW 2010 than I did during WWKW 2009.
  • Finally, I’ve been experimenting with graduated ND filters in the air.  I think this is the last tool I use for landscape photography on the ground that hasn’t been available in the air.  Now it’s all there.

I’ve got spots picked out all over the island, and a list of subjects longer than I can handle.  So no matter what, I doubt I’ll come away from WWKW 2010 disappointed.  It should be good.  I checked the weather and wind for tomorrow morning (my first sunrise outing ever!) and it looks like there should be nice wind on Mana Road.  Some years back I did an early morning session on Mana Road, and came away with some nice pictures.  But the foreground was too dark, and the clouds over Mauna Kea were blown out.  This time I have tools for dealing with challenging lighting, so I hope the pictures will be better.

I can’t wait!

– Tom

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KAP in the Golden Hour

Posted by Tom Benedict on 30/08/2010

One of the things to look for in a photo club is honesty.  There are clubs where it’s all about the kudos and patting each other on the back.  In my mind these really don’t do a a photographer much good.  But then there are the ones where you get honest critique, whether it hurts or not.  If you’re really looking to improve, it shouldn’t hurt at all.  Honest critique, after all, is one of the best helping hands an artist can have extended to them.

At a recent photo club meeting, one of the members I respect highly, both for his artistry and for his honesty, gave me a critique on a set of images I showed.  It boiled down to this:  Great vantage point, rotten light.  Ouch?  Not really.  He’s right.

Until recently most of my KAP work has been done under the bright midday sun.  In the back of my mind I knew this.  Heck, all the work I put into finding the best way to make a panorama revolved around the notion of working in sunny-16 conditions.  And despite having most of John Shaw’s and Galen Rowell’s books on my shelves, I just didn’t manage to put two and two together and see that this was the wrong time to do photography of any sort, KAP or no KAP.  So the critique I got was a much-needed kick in the seat of the pants.  Want to improve my kite aerial photography?  Work in better light.

That “better light” happens during the half hour before and after sunrise or sunset.  It’s known as the “golden hour”, not just because of the color of the light but because of the quality that light brings to a photograph.  They simply look better.

Of course the “hour” part of the golden “hour” is subjective, and depends a great deal on location.  In far northern or southern latitudes, that “hour” can stretch on for hours and hours as the sun slowly sinks toward the horizon.  Here close to the equator it’s about fifteen minutes on either side of sunrise or sunset.  But the “golden half-hour” just doesn’t have that magical ring to it.  So “golden hour” it is.

On the ground, doing photography in the golden hour is only slightly different from doing it at any other time of the day.  Exposures are a little longer, or a lot longer, depending on how late you’re out.  But a tripod fixes that.  If the wind is blowing and you need a faster shutter speed, you can open up your aperture or bump up your ISO.  In the days of film, you loaded a faster film and had done with it.

In the air things are a little more difficult.  The kite is your tripod, and even the most stable kite will still move around.  I fought camera motion during the day by using a 1/1000 or faster exposure speed.  With my camera, that’s simply not available in the golden hour.  With a DSLR, it’s possible to bump the ISO to 200 or 400 without suffering much of a penalty with noise.  With my compact camera, ISO 100 is as fast as I can go and still get acceptable noise.  And unfortunately, during sunrise and sunset is when the wind is at its squirreliest.  On the West Side of Hawaii, the wind is largely thermal in origin.  Thermals collapse as the sun sets, so everything is in flux during the golden hour.

One other significant difference is that on the ground the photographer can make rational choices about metering in order to render a subject the way they intend.  In the air you have to set and forget.  In broad daylight, I came to the conclusion that using the sunny-16 rule was the right way to go: manual exposure mode, fixed aperture, and a fixed shutter speed based on a 1/ISO f/16 starting point.  Toward sunset the light is changing constantly, so a manual meter setting simply isn’t the right approach.  I had to come up with something else.

All of this makes life hard.  Hard, but not impossible.  I started off re-learning how to photograph during the golden hour from the ground.  I skipped the tripod, not wanting to lure myself into a false sense of security.  Several evenings of exposure tests toward sunset at Hapuna State Park got me going in the right direction.

The first thing I found was that metering toward the sun gave shutter speeds close to what I was using for sunny-16 conditions.  This meant doing foreground silhouette panoramas with a setting sun in the background could be done almost the same way I make broad-daylight panoramas.  Great no-brainer:

KAP Sunset

Next, I found that when photographing 180 degrees from the sun, I got the best results from metering 50/50 sky and horizon, and then re-composing the photograph:

180 Degrees from Sunset

The shutter times were longer, unfortunately, so my tried and true way of doing panoramas was out.  During the day, I’ll typically make a panorama by tripping the shutter and rotating the rig slowly around the pan axis as the camera continues to take pictures.  At 1/1250 second per exposure, this works fine.  At 1/100 second, this results in a bunch of blurred pictures.  So I used a different approach:  Set the camera to horizontal, meter, and compose each camera location individually while holding down the shutter.  The images that are made as the camera is moving will be blurred, but the ones where the camera is settled in a given orientation will mostly be sharp.

One problem I ran into was the balance between sky and foreground as the sun set.  As the light is falling, the sky actually stays quite bright.  It’s the ground that loses light first.  So the difference between illumination in the sky and on the ground eventually becomes so great the camera can’t capture both.  There are a number of fixes for this, including bracketing and HDR.  But from a strict photographic standpoint the best fix would be a graduated neutral density filter.  I grabbed my graduated ND filter set out of my DSLR bag and headed back out to the beach.

Graduated ND Test 1

The image on the left was done without the graduated ND filter, and the one on the right was with the filter.  The filter I used was an ND 0.6 (two-stop) hard-transition graduated filter from Hitec.  These are large, fragile, and expensive.  But I opted to test it in the air anyway, when I felt I was ready for it.

With all the results from metering, learning to fly in the shifty sunset wind, and the results of the ND filter test, I finally charged all my batteries, packed up all my gear, and put this to the test.

Hapuna + Graduated ND Filter

Compositionally this is quite weak, but it served to demonstrate the metering and filtering I came up with for doing golden hour kite aerial photography.  This panorama consists of nine images made with the camera held vertically.  It’s not without flaws: the rightmost pair of images is too bright, and needs to be brought into line.  But the sky isn’t blown and the shadows aren’t muddied.  All in all it’s a very workable image.

The only catch with all this is that I don’t want to fly my Hitec graduated ND filter again.  As I said, the filter is large, fragile, and expensive.  The filter holder is also quite heavy.  This serves to make my rig heavier, raise the minimum wind speed in which I can fly, and utterly unbalances the rig.  My tilt servo was working overtime to hold the camera in position, which increased battery draw.  No matter what I did, the filter got sand on it, and since it is made of acrylic, there is no easy way to clean the sand back off without scratching the filter.

But the results are compelling enough that I’m motivated to buy a screw-on graduated ND filter strictly for KAP.  I’m pleased with the results I’ve had so far.

The next step is to try all of this with a more photogenic subject with a little more altitude.  Worldwide KAP Week happens in less than two weeks, and is the perfect opportunity to really take all this out for a spin and see how it works out.

– Tom

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Life Catches Up

Posted by Tom Benedict on 15/08/2010

Sometimes live has a way of kicking you where it counts.  Hard.  Some weeks ago I ordered a Canon T2i and 18-55mm kit lens.  My intention was to convert most of my KAP gear to the T2i, and use a single camera on the ground as well as in the air.  That was the idea, anyway.

The first sign of trouble came when the vendor refused to ship through any carrier than UPS.  I really wish more vendors would use the US Postal Service and their excellent Priority Mail option.  I live on an island in the middle of the Pacific.  Flat rate means flat rate, whether it’s going from Houston to Austin or Houston to Hawaii.  With UPS, it matters.  A lot.  A second day package typically takes three to four days and costs upwards of $30 to ship.  That same package shipped Priority Mail costs about $5 and takes… three to four days.  No brainer in my book.  In any case they couldn’t be swayed, so I gave them my work address.

The next sign of trouble came when they said my work address wasn’t on file with my credit card.  ??!  No, obviously not.  But I’ve shipped packages there in the past.  After a fair bit of discussion with them, they told me this is a favored scam technique to use stolen credit card numbers.  It also means you can’t order a gift for someone from them and have it drop-shipped to another address.

Around the time that we got all this sorted out, reality started to hit in other ways.  I had an optometrist’s appointment, and needed new glasses.  $300.  One of our cats got sick and needed veterinary care.  $250.  I goofed and forgot about school and school supplies.  $250.  (Kids are expensive!)  They kept adding up.  I saw the writing on the wall, and once I got shipping sorted with the camera vendor, I had to apologize and cancel my order.  The money for my T2i was spent before the order ever cleared all the confusion over shipping.  Not on camera gear, but on life.

I wish that wasn’t how things worked, but for me it is.  Despite my efforts to push myself and my photography to the point where I can turn semi-pro, it hasn’t happened yet.  I’m still a hobbyist.  My wife assures me the time will come, but for now I’m still using my A650 and plan to make the most of it.

– Tom

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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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Bit the Bullet – New Camera

Posted by Tom Benedict on 20/07/2010

I bit the bullet and ordered a new camera: a Canon T2i.  This decision has been a long time coming, and was the result of a fair bit of research into new cameras, but also into the requirements and expectations of stock photography agencies.  The T2i wound up being an ideal choice for a number of reasons, but there were three main drivers:

The first is that it’s a Canon.  This sounds like brand favoritism, but to any photographer my reasons will probably be self-evident:  I’ve been using Canon gear since the mid-90’s, so I’ve got a fair bit of Canon glass in my bag.  Switching brands would mean limiting my choice of lenses, or worse yet having to replace them at extreme cost.  I can barely afford the camera.  Buying new lenses was out of the question.

Next, it has an 18MP detector.  This is not a random number, and since doing research into requirements at Getty Creative, I have to wonder if they aimed the camera specifically at the semi-pro stock market.  More to the point, I’m wondering if the Canon 7D was aimed at the semi-pro stock market.  The T2i, or 550D, is clearly aimed at high-end amateurs rather than professionals.  But in the end that wound up working in my favor.

Finally, it’s the lightest 18MP DSLR on the market.  This, combined with the relatively lightweight 18-55mm kit lens, makes an ideal aerial DSLR.  My current rig weighs in at almost 1.2kg.  This camera weighs only about 250g more than my current camera.  I have different aims for how I want to use it, and the rig I will likely put it into.  I think I can keep the weights of the two rigs almost the same.

The benefits are huge.  In addition to the higher resolution, 5184×3456 as opposed to the 4000×3000 I’m using now, the physically larger pixels on the T2i make for lower noise and better low-light sensitivity.  In terms of field work, this means I can do KAP at dawn and dusk, and can keep doing KAP well past sunset.  In terms of the commercial viability of my work, I’ll be in a position to sell single shots as well as panoramas.  On the ground or in the air, it’s a show-changing camera.  I’m looking forward to it!

– Tom

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Revisiting the Garden

Posted by Tom Benedict on 10/07/2010

The public middle school here in Waimea has a garden, Mala`ai.  It’s a culinary garden rather than a decorative garden, but the students who maintain it have done a great job of making it a lot more than just a bunch of rectangular plots of plants.  On the ground, it’s a rich and wonderful experience for the senses.  But from the air, you really get a feel for the planning, work, and artistry that goes into Mala`ai.

Mala`ai Overview

I started doing KAP at Mala`ai some years ago.  It all started quite by accident.  My son attends Waimea Elementary School, and I was down at the school on a weekend to photograph some rooflines.  As I walked my kite back toward my car, someone approached me and asked about photographing the garden.  Truth be told, I’d intended to photograph the garden for some time, but didn’t know if it was ok with the people who worked there.  As it turns out, it was more than ok.  They were excited by the idea.

This has since turned into a really good relationship with the folks who take care of the garden.  The students are constantly changing and adding to Mala`ai, so every time I go back it’s different.  No, it’s better.  And each time I go, I try to make at least one large composite that covers the entire place.  They print these as posters, and hang them on the wall in the classroom so they can use them for planning purposes.

My daughter is starting at Waimea Middle School this Fall.  She spent several years working on the garden at her elementary school, and is interested in taking the gardening classes at Waimea Middle School.  So in a way this most recent picture is a gift for her, too.  Here’s hoping she enjoys it.  And here’s looking forward to all the changes she and her classmates will make over the course of the next several years.

– Tom

P.S.  If you’re a KAPer, or even if you’re a kite fanatic who’s never dangled a camera from their kite line, see if there are any community gardens, school gardens, or other non-profit gardening projects in your area.  Aerial views are extremely useful for planning purposes.  KAP is one of the least expensive, most readily available forms of aerial photography around, and is ideally suited for making overviews of gardens.  Consider volunteering your kites, your cameras, and your time.  Seeing a garden change over time, and knowing you had a hand in it, no matter how remote, is incredibly rewarding.

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The Good and The Bad

Posted by Tom Benedict on 09/07/2010

The 2010 SPIE Astronomical Instrumentation conference was a blast.  We worked some seriously late hours, and all of us were dragging our tails by the end of it.  But the amount of information I came home with was…  for want of a better term, it was astronomical.  But that’s a post for another day.  This one is about the KAP I managed to do while I was there.

“Managed” is the right word to use in this case.  Sunset was at 8pm, and the only full day I had to do KAP was the Saturday before the conference.  I had some problems with my flight, so most of that day was lost.  Even so, it was the most productive day I had, from a KAP standpoint.  I wound up staying at the Porto Vista Hotel in Little Italy.  I highly recommend it for a couple of reasons:  1 – It’s a nice hotel.  That’s tough to beat.  2 – Close proximity to a lot of good KAPing.  3 – It’s in Little Italy!  As it turns out it’s also close to a camera store, which I didn’t visit, and a Blick Art Supply, which I did.  Twice.  It’s about a two minute walk to the nearest trolley station, and it’s only a few blocks from the Maritime Museum, which boasts some outstanding KAP subjects.  Unfortunately none of the KAP I did there really worked out.  This is the best of my efforts:

Maritime Museum

Further down, there were a number of other good subjects.  Some I wound up photographing with a pole, others with a kite.  By far the best KAP I had in San Diego was at the marina at Seaport Village:

Seaport Village Marina

The wind was steady enough to let me do some panoramas as well, one of which turned out nicely:

Seaport Village Marina Panorama

Heading back toward the hotel is the USS Midway and the statue, “Welcome Home”, which I photographed using a carbon pole:

Welcome Home

If you’re already taking framed kites with you, I highly recommend bringing a lightweight pole as well.  The carbon pole I use is a collapsible fishing pole intended for breem fishing.  It’s far from ideal, and the performance isn’t up to that of the higher end carbon fiber carp poles.  But it’s light, it’s portable, and it only cost me $20 at K-Mart.  I had no problems transporting mine, but even if it did take damage, it was cheap insurance against poor wind or restrictions on flying.  It also let me do some night photography in and around Little Italy:

Fountain in Little Italy, San Diego

Little Italy at Night

The only time I flew once the conference began was on a day when there weren’t any afternoon sessions I really wanted to attend.  Instead I grabbed my gear, got on the trolley, and headed over to the SDSU campus.  The wind was plenty strong, the weather was clear, and it should’ve been a fantastic KAP session.

It wasn’t.  The wind was strong but turbulent, and before I even got a camera up, my Dopero inverted.  I was in the middle of setting up my rig, so everything was clipped off.  I frantically tried to unclip my winder and line in time to let line out and try to save the kite, but I was too late.  The line came down across the Malcom A Love Library.  My heart sank!  I had no way of telling if the kite had hit the roof, or the glass dome just beyond.  I felt like an idiot.  Overwhelmed with dejection, I packed up my gear, reeled in the line, and walked over to see what the damage was.

Lo and behold, there was my kite dangling about halfway down the side of the building.  It was out of reach of my pole, but to my immense surprise it had inverted again just before landing, so it was sitting nose up!  In case you’ve never seen a Dopero, one attribute of this beautiful kite is that it is extremely stable.  Once it’s pointed in a given direction, it really likes to go in that direction.  It’s a little sluggish on reacting to changes in wind direction, which is one of the things that makes it an excellent kite for KAP.  I knew if I put some tension on the line, it would try to fly.  More to the point, it would try to fly straight up and off the library.

I went back out to where I’d been standing, took up all the slack I could, and heaved.  The tension in the line built as it stretched, then I felt two distinct yanks as the kite cleared the far side, and then the near side of the building.  A little shaken, a little wiser (I hope) I brought my Dopero down, packed it away, and sweated for a little while.

In the end I changed winders and switched to a 6′ rokkaku.  It wasn’t enough to lift the camera reliably, but I got some decent low-altitude KAP:

Flower Bed Outside Hepner Hall - SDSU

Love Library Plaza - SDSU

Love Library - SDSU

Shortly after I packed everything up, jumped back on the trolley, and got back to the conference for the evening session and poster presentations.  By the time I got back to the hotel, I was beat.  But a KAP session isn’t complete until the gear is checked, so I examined my line for fraying (surprisingly none!) and checked my Dopero for dings.  It got a small tear in the sail, which I opted to fix once I got home.  Other than that, I got away unscathed.

More to the point, I got away lucky.  The lesson was still learned:  If the conditions aren’t right, it’s better to walk away than to risk hurting someone, damaging property, or damaging your own gear.

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SPIE Poster

Posted by Tom Benedict on 08/06/2010

As with most of the projects I do for work, the SPIE poster didn’t work out 100% as expected.  Once I started going through the photographs and diagrams I wanted to stick on the poster, and figured in the size everything had to be in order to be readable at a distance, that 36″x45″ started to look awfully small.  And no matter how neat I tried to make it, that background texture of snow was just distracting.  So out went the theme of “cold” and in came the theme of “I have no clue what I’m doing.”

So I ran with it.

SPIE 2010 - Espadons PCC Poster

I really didn’t know how I wanted to lay the poster out, so I gave up and didn’t.  The text blocks were set on a page I tore out of a notebook and scanned on our Xerox Workcentre printer.  The photos were set in Polaroid-like frames I’d used for the KAP talk I gave a couple of weeks ago.  (True Polaroid frames are taller than they are wide.  These were tweaked to fit the aspect ratio of the photos.)  The graph and diagram were superimposed over the graph paper letterhead we use at work, likewise scanned on the Xerox.  The only traditional object on the poster is a JPG reconstruction of our monitoring web site for this cryosystem.  If the poster looks scattered, it’s because I was, too.

But in talking to people around the company, the feedback I got was that the approach actually worked.  The whole job of the poster at a poster session is to draw someone’s interest long enough for them to come over and talk.  Even if they come over to ask what the @#$^ I was drinking when I made the poster, that’s good enough for me.  If they want to talk cryocoolers, that’s fine.  If they want to talk poster layout, that’s ok, too.

The best part was when I brought my 11″x17″ test print of the poster home last night.  One of my kids asked what it was.  “It’s…  It’s my science fair poster!”  And know what?  It’s true.

– 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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