I just got back from another amazing trip to the Big Island of Hawaii. I was planning to spend most of my trip photographing humpback whales and also flying my remote controlled hexacopter. The whales and the weather mostly conspired against me, but my trip was long enough that I was able to take advantage of a few good days of weather between storms in order to fly my copter. This aerial image of the Kapoho tidepools is a beautiful example of the kind of abstract image that I have envisioned ever since I started flying copters. This intricate lava and coral reef system is located on the south end of the island in the Puna District. The interesting thing about an aerial image like this is that the scene looks better once the sun gets high enough in the sky to flood the terrain in high contrast light. I’m talking about the kind of light that would send a landscape photographer into a long diatribe about it being too harsh and unshootable.
My regular readers, fans, and friends are probably already familiar with my remote control aerial photography ambitions of the last 1/2 year. I’ve had some ups and downs, but if someone would have told me when I started this endeavour that it would require $15,000 and 1000 hours of my time, I would have told them that it was nuts! However, that is exactly what flying has required. At this point, I am fairly confident that my equipment is reliable, so I’ve been flying a lot over the water and treacherous terrain, as this aerial image of Wailua Falls on Kauai can attest. I knew that if I could get my hexacopter up and over to the other side from the tourist viewpoint, that I would be able to photograph this rainbow in the mist at the base of the falls. This was also among the first uses of my new camera gimbal. This still blows my mind every time that I fly my copter and watch how stable my camera’s live view feed is on my video monitor.
In the last 6 months, I have spent a lot of time reconsidering my overall photography ambitions while also healing my back injury. It has not been my most productive 6 months, but I have also been doing this full-time for 13 years now, so I can live with a little bit of ebb and flow to my ambitions. During this downtime, I have invested way too much time and money learning to build and fly remote controlled hexacopters. Call it a drone if you must, but I find this word leads to negative connotations due to the media’s overemphasis on scaring people. I find the new technology fascinating and am excited to explore an entirely new world of possibilities creating images that no one has ever seen before.
This is a recent aerial photo that I created of Kiholo Bay located on the Kohala Coast of the Big Island of Hawaii. I have previously visited this location to create a traditional landscape photo using a tripod, but been unsuccessful. The biggest limitation has been that it just doesn’t look that interesting from shore. So, I decided to explore this beautiful bay from the air. The photo that I envisioned was to show the beautiful turquoise color of the water and the coral reef surrounding the lava island.
My hexacopter is only capable of flying my camera for about 15 minutes at a time, so I used my early flights to scout for a composition. I did this by using the first person view (fpv) offered by using my camera’s Live View and video transmission system which sends the signal down to my remote monitor. Eventually, I determined that I needed to hover in this location about 20m up in the air. I found the color of the water mesmerizing and the shape of the lava island compelling. When I zoom in at 100% resolution, I can also see several sea turtles resting along the shoreline.
BLECH! That is exactly what I felt like doing during my recent aerial shoot of Mt Fairweather. My pilot gave me ample opportunities to back out of the flight. He told me that even though the weather was clear in Haines that it was going to be a bumpy ride over Glacier Bay National Park to the outer coast. I repeatedly assured him that I was an experienced photographer who was not afraid of anything. I was wrong.
While the initial flight went smoothly, the enormous lenticular cloud over the summit of Mt Fairweather in the distance was indication that it was going to get a lot more interesting. I was disappointed that I was not going to photograph the summit, but my compensation was this dramatic multi-layered cloud. I also anticipated that my earlier photos were going to have the best light since the sunset was going to be prematurely blocked by marine clouds on the horizon. As promised, the flight eventually became much rougher as we flew over the highest mountains en route to the outer coast. As we worked the small plane into position to start taking pictures, I looked down 14,000 feet to Lituya Bay and reminisced about the week that I spent there photographing wildflowers in June 2009. I opened the window every few minutes, but the combination of cold air rushing in and turbulence made me regret not having taken a Dramamine earlier. The prominent ridges and shadows beneath the mountain appealed to my vision of how I wanted to photograph the mountain. I had to concentrate like never before in order to open the window and use my camera through the hard-banking and bumps. Physically, this was one of the most challenging photos that I have created, but I am pleased with the results.
This image of Mt McKinley is from the sunrise flight that I did over the Alaska Range in September. I had a lot of fun flying with the doors removed; the only downside was that I had to wear so many clothes to stay warm. I got a deal from pilot Don Lee to fly in his small Piper aircraft, but I forgot to consider that a smaller plane might not be able to reach the altitude that I like to shoot from. We only managed to coax the plane up to about 9000′, rather than the 12,000′ elevation that I normally shoot from in a Cessna. However, if I had been up any higher, the glaciers and ridges would not have provided as much depth leading up to the summit. I created this image with my Canon 5DmkII and Carl Zeiss 50mm f1.4 ZE lens.
In September, I took advantage of a week of spectacular weather in Alaska, and did some aerial photography of the Alaska Range. My primary ambition on this flight was to photograph Mt McKinley at sunset, but I departed Talkeetna airport early enough to also do some “sight-seeing”. As the small plane I chartered approached the mountains, we first flew up the dramatic Ruth Gorge. Back when I used to climb, I read a lot of mountaineering stories about the granite spires of the Ruth Gorge, so it was nice to finally see these monster walls for myself. I was particularly impressed with the Moose’s Tooth. Sunset light never penetrates this location due to the mountains above the Ruth Amphitheater, but in this image the clouds clinging to the summit ridge added a layer of drama. Since I no longer climb, I am unlikely to summit this granite myself, but I had an amazing experience flying so close.
When I shoot aerials, there are a few things that are required in order to create the images that I want. First, I need a pilot who is competent and knowledgeable of the local geography. Next, the window of the airplane must lift up or the door must be removed in order to have an unobstructed view. I need good communication with my pilot in order to tell him/her where to position the plane. Once on location, I need to decide quickly what is the best composition while the plane is moving and the light is changing. Finally, I use a normal lens like my Carl Zeiss 50mm f1.4 ZE lens to capture a wide shot that doesn’t include the wing of the plane. During each brief pass at my composition I take 10 to 20 photos at 4fps with my Canon 5DmkII. Once I’m back home editing my images, I look for the image with the strongest composition, nicest light, and, hopefully, a level horizon.
During my recent Alaska trip, I was able to see Mt McKinley almost everyday due to the perfect clear weather. To see the mountain even 1 day is very rare, let alone for 10 days straight. My normal landscape images from the ground were just not very exciting, so I hired a small plane 3 times with various friends in order to fly over the Alaska Range at sunset and sunrise. I did not get the sunset image that I was after on my first flight, but I figured out exactly where I wanted to return to shoot on my second flight. I liked this location because I was slightly back from Mt McKinley (left) and Mt Foraker (right) and able to line them up with these repetitive ridges giving the image some depth rather than just a simple mountain portrait.
I created this image while hand-holding my Canon 5DmkII and Carl Zeiss 50mm f1.4 ZE lens with the airplane’s window open so that I could shoot without the glass obstructing my view. My camera body shoots 4fps. If I hold down the shutter release button I get about 12 images before I fill-up the camera’s memory buffer. With my Sandisk 16GB Extreme CF memory cards, I can photograph almost 600 images before my card is full. That comes out to only 2.5 minutes of actual shooting before I fill-up the card! Over the course of almost 3 hours of flying that is a minimal amount of time. There is a lot of teamwork and communication involved between me and the pilot in order for me to create an aerial image like this. Of course, when I am back home I then have to edit 3000 images of the exact same thing looking for minor variations to find the image with which I am happiest.