Flying is a science. And an art.
Photography is an art. And a science.
But doing both at the same time is a frickin’ nightmare.
It seems that my aerial photography is always… well… lacking. At least lacking compared to my expectations. Now I confess, the Plane Tales Plane isn’t the best photography platform in the world. Despite the fact she has visibility that rivals a greenhouse, all that wonderful 360-degree view is up and out. Fabulous to fly in, but if you want to take a picture of something on the ground, there’s a pair of wings in the way. Plus, if you take your hand off her yoke, she acts like a neglected lover; she’ll leave you in a heart beat.
And the problems don’t stop there.
You need the window open so you’re not shooting though a layer of Plexiglas, and the plane is moving over the ground at 100 miles an hour. OK, OK, it’s more like 90 miles per hour, one hundred just sounds sexier and more airplane-like. And I always hate to admit that the guy in the Honda Sonata below me can go faster than I can. (Ya gotta remember that when the Ercoupe was first developed in 1940, cars were nowhere near as fast as they are today.)
But I digress. Shooting a picture of the ground as you move over it a hundred-mile-an-hourish tends to result in funky motion-blurred images. Very pretty. Very artistic. Very useless if you’re trying to capture details of something below you. Setting the camera for very high shutter speeds can help, and some folks smarter than I suggest catching the ground target while in a sharp turn around it to reduce the ground speed over the target, which requires being a better pilot than I am.
Now, I gotta say, I have gotten some good stuff. But my bad stuff far out weighs my good stuff; and the same is true of my various camera-happy non-pilot navigators and my student-pilot son.
I don’t remember who suggested it, but during a post-flight council of war around the iMac in our library (which was displaying the latest round of sad aerial photos) someone thought it would be cool if we could mount a camera on the belly of the plane and control it from inside. I’m sure professional aerial photography outfits have been doing something like this for years, and I’m also sure such rigs cost a fortune. But with the advance of technology, the cost of things tends to drop. So Rio and I hit the internet to go shopping.
And we found that the GoPo Hero line of cameras is favored by flying photography folks, as well by as adrenaline-deficient people who jump off cliffs, wrestle alligators, and do crazy things with skateboards that break both the laws of gravity and the laws of aerodynamics. The camera is the size of a deck of cards, weighs almost nothing, and has built-in WiFi that lets any smart device serve as a remote viewfinder and controller. What’s not to love other than the price?
I logged onto my Sporty’s Pilot Shop account and ordered one on the spot.
Forty-eight hours later I was opening the box. Twenty four hours after that, I was lying on the “creeper” on the floor of the Plane Tales Hangar studying various bolts and screws on Tessie’s oil-stained belly. (If those old Continental engines aren’t leaking some oil, they’re probably out of it.)
As I don’t trust suction cups, in addition to the camera, I had purchased an Nflightcam camera mounting system that attaches itself via an existing bolt on the plane. Lisa and Rio hovered nearby offering suggestions.
My first thought had been to mount the camera behind the landing gear, out of the slipstream, facing backwards. But the only bolts and screws there were the ones on the inspection plates, and I doubted they would be strong enough. I didn’t want hundreds of dollars of camera turning into a small bomb that might do damage to targets on the ground.
After much rolling around under the plane and holding the camera in various locations we chose a spot right in front of the right main, facing forward at a 45-degree angle.
We bolted it on and it was time for a test flight or two. Rio was a true gentleman and said, “Ladies first,” but Lisa said that all things being equal she really wasn’t that lady-like (true, but a large part of her charm) and that besides, it made more sense to switch co-pilots at the terminal rather than taxi all the way back over to the hangar, and that she was licensed to drive the Jeep over there and Rio wasn’t.
Thus Rio became the first Plane Tales Photo Recon Technician.
How did it work out? Poorly. On both Rio’s and Lisa’s flights we frequently lost the signal between the camera and the iPad. The viewfinder update was slow, making it impossible to get Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment.” Plus the device was a power hog, sucking its battery dry in a few short sorties and leaving us with the question of who was going to climb out on the wing to turn on the darn camera once we got to some remote location we wanted to photograph, because clearly if we powered it up on the tarmac, the camera would be dead as a doornail by the time we got on location at 100ish miles per hour.
But the real Achilles heel of the Hero for us is really no fault of its own. It’s a matter of mission. Our mission was to shoot details of stuff on the ground. The Hero’s mission is to shoot pictures of people doing stuff above the ground and as such it has a very wide-angle lens. From 1,000 feet above our home-base city, we could photograph the entire city.
But when we tried to zoom in on say, a city block, the image looked awful. This camera might be good for aerial mapping of Pooh Bear’s Hundred Acre Wood, but it is worthless for photographing small wetlands, airmail beacon arrows, or turtle habitats—in short, all the things we do.
Had it been a cheaper toy, I might have kept it, but it was too expensive to justify keeping it. I packed it up, sent it back, and we went back to the drawing board.
With a bit more careful research, I discovered that dozens of modern “point and shoot” digital cameras can be controlled by remote. Some with zoom lenses can even do their zoom thing from a iPhone or tablet. This is really key to our mission, as depending on our circumstances, the photography altitudes can vary quite a lot, as can the size of our target.
We’re still in the process of choosing which camera to try next—once bitten, twice shy—so we’re proceeding a little more slowly now. But I’m optimistic. I like the idea of using the plane herself as a camera rather than just poking a camera out the window.
I think with a little more time, experience, and the right gear, we can be picture perfect.