I recently returned home from a 10 day trip to Daytona Beach, Florida, where I was covering the Daytona 500 as well as all the smaller races surrounding it. In those 10 days I only had one off day, for most a day off near a beautiful beach would provide the perfect time to take a relaxing day perhaps sitting at a cool beach side bar or getting attacked by a shark in the ocean, but for my photo geek self it gave me the chance to try something new and interesting.
So the crazy day started with a nice laid back lunch in Orlando at this cool little outdoor bar/grill Graffiti Junction with my buddies Alex Menendez, Donald Montague and Reinhold Matay. The night prior when we had made plans to do lunch, Reinhold had offered to take me for a flight in his personal airplane. Since I had never flown in a small propeller plane I gladly accepted the offer.
In the back of my mind the little gears in my head began turning as I thought about how cool it would be to do a remote camera on the outside of the plane. I figured I have done remotes on land and on sea, so why not air?
I half jokingly asked him as we were heading to the airport expecting an immediate NO but to my delight he loved the idea. So the plan began to quickly come together.
After arriving at the airport (which we shall refer to as Area 51-A) we opened up his hangar …..
and got to work looking for a mounting point for the camera.
My first choice was on the tip of the wing looking in at the fuselage but there was absolutely no place to clamp or screw a camera to the area and I had left my suction cup clamp home in Phoenix.
My second choice after the no go on wing tip was the tail of the airplane. Obviously with the sensitive and critical steering controls on the rudder I couldn’t just clamp a magic arm on the back as I normally do for other remotes. The only thing with an even remote possibility to utilize was a little screw hole near the top of the rudder.
If you are anything like me you are probably thinking, yea right thats not gonna work. I thought those EXACT words and pretty much was about to give up on the idea. That was until Reinholds eyes lit up and he said he could make a bracket to mount through the screw hole and wedge against the rudder. In my head I’m thinking, “yea right MacGyver.”
Little did I know I was about to be proven wrong!
Reinhold got to work with some scrap metal lying around his little workshop in the corner of the hangar.
(I wish I could say the look of determination on his face was posed but sadly it was not)
After sawing the metal to the proper length it was then hammered into a curved shape read to bolt to the second piece of metal that would form the fork that would mount around the tail for lower support.
While Reinhold worked on that Donald was searching for a good place to mount the Pocket Wizard. It looked like he found a good place in a removable section at the bottom of the rear fin
Unfortunately we would find out later it was too far from the camera for the wire to reach that far so we would have to find a new spot for the wizard.
Below is a shot of the completed metal rigging made from scrap metal that was nearly thrown away a few days earlier!
Below is a shot of the rig mounted to the airplane awaiting the camera to be mounted.
Now came the fun part of mounting the camera. I had planned on using my awesome and compact Canon G10, which can be fired remotely with a pocket wizard. After putting the camera up there and taking a test shot I realized it was not gonna work since this was as wide of a shot as it would take.
So that left me in a hard spot. The Canon G10 only costs 500 dollars, the only other camera I had with me was my brand new Nikon D700 which costs $3000. I contemplated scrapping the whole shoot but that wouldn’t make for a good blog now would it?
What the hell its only money, lets mount the D700!
Screwing the camera onto the mount was the easy part.
The hard part (and vitally important part) would be to safely secure the camera to prevent anyone on the ground (or in the plane) from being put into danger by our little shoot.
Since it was his plane (and his ass on the line more so than mine), Reinhold was very particular about how all the safety cables and zip ties would be affixed to the aircraft. On top of safety cables through the camera strap holes, triple zip ties were utilized as well as lots of duct tape to hold them against the exterior of the plane so that air would not pass beneath and lift or move any of the items.
(If you look behind the camera you can see the Pocket Wizard receiver laying on its side electrical taped to the mount, a safety cable and zip tie also secured it to the rigging)
After everything was secured and double checked it was time for me to go up on the plank (a board held between two ladders) and make the final focus and exposure adjustments.
Then Reinhold and I posed for a photo (to potentially be used later for our obituary in the event of a catastrophic failure)
One final thing to be done before the flight was to signify that the plane was in experimental mode. Here is the sign he put on the side of the plane.
At this point I was thinking “dear god I hope he flies better than he spells!!!”
One final pic of the setup after the plane was taken out of the hangar.
Below is a shot from the camera uncropped.
What the hell is that black border you may ask. Well I was using a lens that was made for a crop factor camera but I had it on a D700 which is a full frame camera. Now had I been using the Nikon 10.5mm it would communicate with the body that they didn’t match and it would put the camera into crop mode (which is bad). The reason my lens didn’t do that is because I was using the Tokina version which is a 10.5-17mm and provides a wider view.
After a quick trip to the fuel pump where I was given the pleasure of paying for $103 bucks worth of fuel it was time for a short test flight at low altitude and speed.
Once in the air we took a group photo.
From left, Me, Donald, Reinhold
Everything went well on the flight so we landed and anxiously looked at the images.
Houston we have a Problem!
No the camera didn’t fall off or anything. I was guilty of being an idiot (its a regular occurance). While I checked everything multiple times I didn’t look at what I had the exposure compensation on. Since the light would be changing drastically throughout the flight depending on our direction, the sun going behind clouds and such I had the camera set on aperture priority. The exposure compensation was on +.03 which made everything brighter than it should have been resulting in about 500 images exposed like the below shot.
Nikon D700, Tokina 10.5-17mm, 1000iso, f6.3, 1/1600th
Thankfully we did a test flight and I was able to make the needed adjustments to not totally waste the shoot.
Most photographers I know would never show off such a blunder on their part but I always show my failures to show my readers that EVERYONE, no matter how good you think you are, makes stupid mistakes and as long as learn from them it will help you make less and less of them down the road thus making you a better photographer.
After dialing the exposure compensation down to -.03 I took a lame test shot to see how the adjustment looked.
Nikon D700, Tokina 10.5-17mm, 1000iso, f6.3, 1/8000th
Exposure looked good but since the sun was dipping lower in the sky I decided to drop the ISO down a lot in hopes of getting some blurry ground shots after sunset. So back up the ladder I went to make one final adjustment.
The nice light looked good so we took another group photo (for dental identification purposes)
Then it was flight time!
Here is few minute long clip of all individual still frames put together to form a movie almost. Had I thought of this before the flight I would have shot every few seconds and it would have looked much more fluid.
(since we are talking nearly 1000 images I didn’t crop the lens edges out nor did I tone any of them so forgive how bland they look)
We were very lucky to have a nice sunset with some pretty clouds to really enhance the shoot.
Nikon D700, Tokina 10.5-17mm, 200iso, f6.3, 1/800th
As we flew around I would press the button on the Pocket Wizard to fire off shots every few seconds.
Shameless product plug in 3….2….1…..
Ok back to shooting.
I had Reinhold fly directly into the sun a few times because I knew it would make the aperture priority underexpose big time potentially making for a cool dark looking shot.
Nikon D700, Tokina 10.5-17mm, 200iso, f6.3, 1/8000th
As we banked to the right I caught a pretty cool shot as the exposure went back to normal but still included the sun reflecting off the water.
Nikon D700, Tokina 10.5-17mm, 200iso, f6.3, 1/800th
Next we flew over downtown Orlando and did a hard bank to get the city in the left side of the shot.
Nikon D700, Tokina 10.5-17mm, 200iso, f6.3, 1/125th
We flew around for another 15 minutes or so then headed back towards the airport after sunset. As we were making a low turn I got a cool shot that had a fair amount of blur to it making for the type of image I had envisioned.
Nikon D700, Tokina 10.5-17mm, 200iso, f6.3, 1/2.5th
Of course every time I look at that shot I wonder what if I had set up the camera to shoot even slower. It woulda looked amazing. Oh well there’s always next time.
We flew towards where the sun had just set and the camera exposed for the bright sky which made for one more cool underexposed shot.
Nikon D700, Tokina 10.5-17mm, 200iso, f6.3, 1/40th
It was finally time to land.
Unlike his spelling, Reinhold made a perfect landing.
Nikon D700, Tokina 10.5-17mm, 200iso, f6.3, 1/2.5th
Once off the runway Donald opened the back door and peeked out the side to make sure we still had the camera attached.
Nikon D700, Tokina 10.5-17mm, 200iso, f6.3, 1/2nd
Once we came to a stop the three of us were super anxious (especially me) to see the results of the flight. But we found enough time to once more pose for a goofy group photo.
Nikon D700, Tokina 10.5-17mm, 200iso, f6.3, 1/1.3rd
Below is a video put together by superstar editor/photographer Guy Rhodes showing some behind the scene moments as well as some highlights of the flight.
Awesome job Guy! (well worth the $104.99)
After inspecting the camera to make sure everything was ok I noticed one tiny issue.
A bug was stuck on the front of the lens. Much better than a bird…right Sully?
All in all it was an amazing day spent with friends having fun being the photo geeks that most photographers are. We capped off the night with dinner at a downtown Orlando bar while I did my initial edit.
Thus ends the adventure of my first (and not last) aerial remote camera!
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