Bring the Right Lens

No, a telephoto lens is probably not the right one for aerial photography.

Slot Canyon

This is the slot canyon I needed to photograph from the air. The slot is actually wide enough for an ATV to drive through; there were tire tracks in the sand. (Nosecam photo.)

Yesterday, my husband and I took the helicopter out to get some aerial photos in the Alamo Lake area. I’ve been writing for Aircraft Owner Online magazine and have a bunch of stories that don’t have photos to go with them. This flight was a chance for me to do some fun flying while getting the pictures I needed.

I set up the helicopter’s “nosecam” to capture an overall view of the area. The camera has a wide angle lens which does add some distortion to the photos, but not enough to render the photos unusable. In fact, during my recent Southwest Circle Helicopter Adventure excursion last week, I captured hundreds of very usable shots, some of which you can find here. The camera has no controls; it’s set up to take a shot every 5 seconds.

My husband also brought along his Nikon D90. I didn’t pay much attention to the lens he’d bought along. He usually uses my old favorite, an 18-85 (I think) zoom, and that would be perfect for this mission. We took both front doors off and put in the dual controls so either of us could fly while the other took photos.

I took off and we headed west. Once I’d established us in level fight, I offered him the controls. He took them. I reached for the camera.

And that’s when I saw that he’d put on a 70-210 zoom lens.

I felt my heart sink as I looked through the lens. At our 500-foot cruising altitude, it was simply too zoomed in to be useful. Sure, I could take photos of the occasional grazing cow we flew past, but there was no way I’d be able to capture the “big picture” views I needed for my articles. For that, we’d have to gain another 2,000 feet in elevation.

Sorely disappointed, I put the camera down and just watched the desert scenery go by.

Bringing the wrong lens along on an aerial photo flight is something I see first-time aerial photographers do all the time. For some reason, they get the idea in their head that things will be far away and they need telephoto power to frame them properly. In a helicopter, this can’t be further from the truth. I routinely cruise at 500 feet AGL and am willing to go as low as 100 feet (depending on the circumstances) for a photographer to get the shot he needs. Some of the best photos taken from my helicopter have been taken with focal lengths less than 50mm.

Wayside Inn

The Wayside Inn is in the middle of nowhere. And yes, those are parked airplanes in the bottom-right corner of the photo. (Nosecam photo.)

A telephoto lens is a bad choice for another reason: the longer the lens, the faster the shutter speed required to prevent blur caused by a too-low shutter speed. The rule of thumb formula is generally 1/focal length for minimum speed. So a 70mm lens would require a 1/70 second minimum shutter speed. But since our digital cameras have a 1.5 focal conversion (meaning that a 70mm lens is equivalent to a 105mm lens), that ups the speed to 1/105 second minimum shutter speed. Not a big deal on a bright Arizona day, but remember: that’s a minimum rule of thumb and I don’t think it takes into account the increased vibrations of a helicopter. (I wouldn’t shoot anything from a helicopter at less than 1/500 second without gyro stabilization.)

Departing Plane

A bonus shot captured perfectly by the nosecam after we’d landed and shut down. That’s the main rotor blade parked dead center.

When I took back the controls a while later, Mike took the camera. I think he immediately saw what I meant. He was surprised. He did take some photos — among them, some bulls locking horns out in the desert — but not many. The camera simply wasn’t properly equipped for our mission.

Fortunately, the nosecam had us covered.

Two More Video Camera Accessories

One for sound, one for video.

HandyCam.jpgAbout a year and a half ago, I bought a Sony HDR-CX12 Handycam. It’s a mid-range consumer model that shoots in full 1080i HD. I bought it to fill in the gaps of the video needed to finish up a video project and, since then, have been using it on and off to shoot stock video footage. The quality of the video is amazing for such a compact and relatively inexpensive device. These days, you can get something even smaller and less costly that does the same thing.

I shot all of Cherries: From Tree to Truck with this camera. Once you get past the inconvenience inherent with the AVCHD format and have the right tools to edit, it’s really a pleasure to work with. One feature that few people talk about is the ability to archive the 4GB Memory Stick PRO Duo cards to DVDs. You can later mount up a DVD and import media into your computer, just as if you’d attached the camera or inserted a card into a card reader.

Last year I started a project that required me to do some interviews. I used a friend as a guinea pig (so to speak), interviewing him outdoors in front of his helicopter, using my camera on a tripod and a wireless microphone clipped onto his shirt. The result was disaster. The sound was gawdawful, rendering the “talking head” video completely worthless. Clearly, I needed a better sound solution.

Sony ECM-HST1Of course, the camera is a consumer model and is extremely limited in compatible accessories. But today I poked around on the Sony Web site and tracked down a stereo microphone that might do the job — if I keep the camera out of the wind. It’s a Sony ECM-HST1 microphone, which fits into the camera’s hot shoe and draws power directly from the camera. It’s not what I really wanted — I wanted a lapel mic — but it’ll have to do.

Opteka OPT-SC37FEWhile I was surfing around for the best price, I stumbled upon this little gem: the Opteka OPT-SC37FE Ultra Fisheye Lens for Digital Video Camcorders. I already have a wide-angle lens for my camcorder, but there’s nothing like a very wide angle lens to get interesting effects or get up close and personal with your subject matter. The video clip on Opteka’s Web site certainly makes it look like a useful and fun accessory. Since I owed myself a birthday present anyway, I sprung for that, too.

What’s all this for? Well, in addition to finally getting to the big project I started nearly two years ago, I have a smaller, related project in mind. Both of these tools will help me capture the video I need to do it.

At least that’s what I keep telling myself. We’ll see.

A Quick Look through the 10-24mm Nikon Lens

So far, so good.

Yesterday, the two lenses I rented from BorrowLenses.com arrived. This morning, Mike, @AnnTorrence, and I headed out for an early morning photo shoot to get a feel for them.

Nikon 10-24mm lensIt might seem odd, but I rented two almost identical lenses: the Nikon 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5G AF-S DX ED (shown here) and the Sigma 10-20mm f/4-5.6 EX DC HSM for Nikon. Lately, I’ve been enjoying the challenge of wide angle photography and want the ability to get up close and personal with my subject matter while still fitting much of it in the frame. I like the oddness introduced by a wide angle lens — the way a wide angle photo makes you look closer to see what’s not quite right. I’ve had a lot of fun over the past two years with my 10.5mm f/2.8G ED AF DX Fisheye Nikkor Lens, but that introduces too much distortion. The photos I take with that lens look downright weird. I want a lens without that much distortion that still has the ability to frame big landscape backdrops to my foreground subjects.

This could be just a stage I’m going through, but I feel a need to explore it fully to see where it takes me as a photographer.

I want to buy the Nikon 10-24mm lens. I wanted to buy it before I rented it. It has the kind of range I’m looking for to complement the 16-85mm f/3.5-5.6G AF-S DX ED VR Nikkor lens I keep on my camera most of the time. But it’s a costly lens and it wasn’t readily available from my first choice supplier. With an upcoming photo shoot, I figured renting it was a good alternative. And since my husband would also be shooting with his Nikon, it made sense to rent the Sigma so we could compare that lower-cost alternative.

The photo shoot is in Tucson, at the San Xavier Mission. About 15 members of the Arizona West Shutterbugs “Meetup” Group will be gathering there on Saturday to shoot the mission and then head into Tucson for a museum with an Ansel Adams exhibit. I’m looking forward to trying the lenses at the mission, although I am a bit concerned that my up-front-and-personal approach might put me in front of the other shooter’s lenses. I hope not. If the group shoot turns out to be a bust but the location has potential, I’ll likely return on a weekday when there will be fewer people around.

This morning, we headed out before dawn to nearby Rancho de los Caballeros, a local guest ranch. At night, their horses — all 93 of them — are kept in a big fenced in area at the south end of the property. At about 7:30 AM, the wranglers herd them all into a smaller enclosure closer to the ranch’s main buildings. They return the horses to their nighttime enclosure at around 5 PM. This movement is referred to as the “running of the horses” (even though they don’t actually run the entire mile or so). I thought it would be interesting for Ann and she did seem to enjoy it, although I don’t think any of us got any good photos. (I’ll try again another morning, perhaps from a different vantage point.)

Vulture Peak Near Wickenburg, AZ

The east side of Vulture Peak, shot at 10mm with the Nikon 10-24mm lens.

Afterwards, I took us all by Jeep down a few of the more rugged Jeep roads on the east side of Vulture Peak. The light was still good, at least for a while. We all made lots of photos from the two or three places I stopped and we got out. Then the light got too harsh and we headed back to my house.

Mike and I each tried each of the 10-24mm lenses. Mike thinks the Nikon may be better, although we really don’t have a good test yet. He’s in love with the lens and it’s very likely that we’ll buy one. But not yet. We still have 6 days with these rentals and we plan to shoot a lot of photos.