Personal Aerial Photography

A few thoughts from someone who has been doing it for a long time.

I’ve been doing aerial photography since I began flying helicopters, way back in the late 1990s. At first, it was a few digital images shot awkwardly with my left hand while my right hand was busy on the cyclic. Later, I went through a variety of different cameras mounted in and on the helicopter, some set to automatically shoot whatever was in front of them and others with limited control from inside the cockpit. I had a POV.1 camera in 2008, which I replaced with a GoPro Hero in 2010. Since then, I’ve had a variety of GoPros, right up to a GoPro 3+. (Even I get tired of throwing money at new versions of hardware.) I’ve created numerous still and video images from my helicopter, some of which still amaze me.

Great Salt Lake
This is one of my very favorite aerial photos: the north end of the Great Salt Lake, shot with a GoPro 3 mounted on the nose of my helicopter as I flew it south to Arizona last autumn. The camera was set to time-lapse mode, shooting one photo every minute. We were probably about 700 feet up here.

But the point of this discussion is this: I’ve been looking at the world from a different point of view for about 20 years now. It’s not the same point of view as an airliner cruising at 29,000 feet and 500 mph. And it’s not the point of view of a private plane cruising at 1,500 feet and 140 mph. It’s the point of view of a helicopter, usually cruising at an average of only 500 feet at 90 miles per hour, with the ability to stop, make sudden turns, or descend for a closer look.

Pilots get used to seeing the world from this different perspective. After a while, it isn’t anything special. We can get a feel for how different things might look from the air: a canyon, a river, a farm, a junkyard. That doesn’t mean it gets boring — it doesn’t. But it does mean that we don’t see anything special about it anymore.

Kind of sad, isn’t it?

That’s one of the reasons I like flying with first time passengers. I get a reminder of what it’s like to see things from a new perspective.

But I was reminded again about the novelty of seeing everyday things from above when I watched a documentary on Lynda.com called “Flight Club: Drones and the Dawn of Personal Aerial Imaging.” Listening to the people explain how they felt when they saw these low-level aerial images really helped me understand just how amazing aerial photography is, especially to folks that don’t have a helicopter at their disposal — which, admittedly, is most people.

Folks who know me well know how anti-drone I was when they first started appearing on the scene a few years back. But what convinced me that they were serious photography tools is the quality of the images they produced and the ease at which an operator could get them. I dove into drone photography last winter with the purchase of a Mavic Pro and will be doing a lot more of it in the months to come.

If you are curious about drones for aerial photography, I highly recommend you spend 25 minutes or so watching the documentary I saw last night. I think you’ll enjoy it and learn a lot about why people are so excited about it.

If you do watch, let me know what you think.

The Eclipse Trip Days 5-7: The Palouse, Spokane, and Lake Roosevelt

I finish up the trip in an uneventful way.

Although I tried hard to blog about each day of this trip shortly after it happened, I ran out of steam after my trip to Walla Walla. I think there are two reasons for this:

  • The rest of the trip wasn’t very interesting.
  • I spent a lot of time driving.

So I’ll just sum up here.

Day 5: Walla Walla to Palouse Falls

In the morning, I went down to the motel breakfast room for coffee, eggs, and sausage. They were all horrible. Honestly: I’d rather have a cold and stale Egg McMuffin than just about anything served up at a motel’s “free” breakfast. The eggs and sausage were so bad that even Penny wouldn’t eat them.

Later, after packing up and stowing my things back in the camper, we went for a walk on Main Street. I stopped at an outside cafe for a good cup of coffee. They sold fresh figs by the pound inside so I bought a pound to munch on later in my trip. I love figs so, as you might imagine, they didn’t last long.

I wanted to get some wine tasting in before I left town and to do that I had to wait until 11 AM. That’s when I hit Trust Cellars on 2nd Street. The hostess from the restaurant where I’d had dinner the night before had recommended it. I chatted with her father, the wine maker. I soon began to realize that very few Walla Walla area wineries grew their own grapes. The wine was pretty good, so I bought three bottles.

From there I went to lunch at a “southern comfort food” restaurant on Main Street called Whoopemup Hollow Cafe. I had a gumbo that was good but took half of it to go. I also had a peach cobbler for dessert that was excellent.

Then on to Walla Walla Airport. Yes, the airport. Believe it or not, quite a few of Walla Walla’s wineries have tasting rooms at the airport. It used to be an air force facility and there are lots of barracks and other buildings there dating back to the World War II era. Wineries have set up shop in these buildings. Although most are simply tasting rooms, a few also do production and/or bottling. I visited two tasting rooms next to each other, Buty Winery and Adamant Cellars. Buty had been recommended by the winemaker at Trust. Neither impressed me, but I bought a bottle from each because I always buy wine when I go tasting unless it’s simply undrinkable.

I’d wanted to hit a third winery at the airport but since I was so unimpressed with the first two and had drunk enough before 2 PM, I headed out instead.

My destination was Palouse Falls, where I hoped to spend the night. The drive would take me through much of the Palouse, a sort of mecca for photographers.

The Palouse is an area of Washington State with rolling hills covered with wheat. At a certain time of the year — July and early August, I expect — it’s an amazing place to photograph — well, rolling hills covered with green (July) or golden (August) wheat. Google Palouse Image and see what I mean.

I’ve always wanted to get out there in just the right season, but that season happens to be my cherry drying season when I’m pretty much stuck in the Wenatchee area. So I can’t see it until the wheat has already been harvested and it isn’t nearly as attractive.

The drive was a lot longer than I expected but was pleasant and scenic without the least bit of traffic. Honestly, I think that my road trips have spoiled me because of often travel to places on routes that no one else seems to use. The only time I experience traffic these days is when I’m driving through Wenatchee and have to deal with traffic lights.

Palouse Falls is a 200-foot waterfall on a place along the Palouse River where it cuts through a canyon and drops into a crack in the terrain. The visitor parking area is on a hillside overlooking the falls so most of the photos you see of the place look like aerial shots.

Palouse Falls from the Overlook
I shot this photo of Palouse Falls from the parking area not long after our arrival. The light was flat and never did get interesting during my stay.

Permit me to vent a little about No Fly zones for drones.

First of all, the No Drone rule at Palouse Falls is a Washington State law. It prevents people from launching a drone from within any State Park. Palouse Falls is a State Park.

What it doesn’t prevent is launching a drone from outside a State Park and flying it into that park. You see, the state doesn’t control the airspace. That’s the FAA’s jurisdiction. As I pilot, I know a lot about airspace and where it’s legal to fly. I also wrote a whole book about FAA Part 107, which lays out regulations for commercial drone flight that include regulations for non-commercial drone flight.

So there would be nothing stopping me from launching the drone from outside the park and flying it into the park as long as I didn’t fly over any people, kept it below 400 feet above ground level, and somehow — this is the tricky part — managed to keep it within sight at all times.

But do you want to know what’s really crazy? I could fly my helicopter into the park, which I guarantee would get a lot more notice than a half-pound drone, and maneuver it down into the canyon to get the shot I wanted. Legally. Again, the state does not control airspace and as long as my skids didn’t touch the ground inside the park I wouldn’t be breaking any laws.

Would I do that? What do you think?

It’s just an example of how absurd the rules can be — prohibiting one activity that could be a minor annoyance to a few people while allowing another activity that would definitely be a major annoyance to everyone within the park.

In reality, a better view of the falls would be from a drone hovering below the operator inside the canyon. In fact, it would be a perfect shot. But although I had my Mavic Pro with me, there were enough No Drone signs and other visitors to prevent a launch.

It was a gray day. Beyond the smoke-induced haze were clouds spreading rain in the area. I had a cell signal and could track a few rainstorms on radar. It rained a little on us, but not enough to get wet.

Tired from driving and still hoping to do some nighttime photography there, I paid for a campsite and parked next to it. This was apparently a no-no, as I learned from a ranger in the morning. He didn’t cite me but he did lecture me until I pretended to understand and agree with the absurd rule. Yes, tent campers are allowed to park in the lot and then pitch a tent on the grass and sleep in that. But no, people without tents can’t just park a car or truck in the lot and sleep in their car or truck. The rule had nothing to do with parking but everything to do with where you actually slept. If I had pitched a tent and slept in that, there would have been no problem. Next time, that’s what I’ll do.

Palouse Canyon
I think the view down the river from the falls is far more interesting than the falls themselves. Look at those layers of basalt!

In the meantime, the girl who’d parked near me and slept in her car, slipped away while I was being lectured. I didn’t turn her in. Heck, not everyone can afford camping gear. Why shouldn’t she be allowed to spend the night in a safe place, sheltered by her own vehicle? The rule was absurd and I certainly had no intention of helping them enforce it.

Of course, the sky never did clear up that night so I didn’t get the opportunity to do any night photography.

All in all, I consider my trip to Palouse Falls a disappointing bust.

Day 6: Palouse Falls to Lake Roosevelt via Spokane

My Palouse Falls experience left a bad taste in my mouth that I was eager to wash away. I figured that a trip to Trader Joe’s in Spokane to stock up on a few pantry goods followed up with lunch in my favorite Ethiopian restaurant — okay, so the only Ethiopian restaurant I know — would fix me right up.

But I did make one interesting stop along the way: Steptoe Butte.

Steptoe Butte is a granite outcropping that juts up out of those rolling hills. It’s tall so, as you might expect, they put antennas on it. There’s a road that spirals up to the top and offers unobstructed views in every direction.

View from Steptoe
The view from Steptoe Butte. I think this was north, but it could have been any direction. The view is pretty much the same no matter where you look: lots of rolling wheat fields.

Road to Steptoe Butte
When I say the road spirals, I’m not kidding. Here’s how it looked on Google Maps on the way down.

On the day of my visit, it was still hazy with smoke. It was mid afternoon and the light was flat. In other words, not the best conditions for landscape photography. Of course, camping isn’t allowed up there so anyone with the thought of spending the night after a golden hour evening shoot or before a golden hour morning shoot (or both) would be disappointed. No camping anywhere near there at all. Still, photographers make the long drive out there pretty regularly before dawn or back after sunset to be there at the right time. That wasn’t going to be me, at least not that day.

I came back down and continued on to Spokane. A little over an hour later, I was battling local traffic to maneuver my rig into a Trader Joe’s parking lot (which, fortunately, was part of a strip mall parking lot), shopping for things I can only get at TJ’s (if you like sardines, their sardines in olive oil are the best), and then making my way to Queen of Sheeba Ethiopian Cuisine on the Spokane River (great food).

Then I faced the option of ending my trip by making the 3-1/2 hour drive home or staying on the road one more day and finding an interesting campsite to spend the night. Not really fully decided either way, I found a few potential overnight destinations on the map that were also on the way home. If I found a spot I liked, I’d stop. Otherwise, I’d drive home.

I wound up along Lake Roosevelt, a very large lake on the Columbia River created by the Grand Coulee Dam. I’ve flown over it a few times and it’s the kind of place I’d really like to spend more time exploring, preferably with a boat or even a houseboat.

It was late Thursday afternoon, and the first campground I stopped at, Keller Ferry Campground, was crowded with loud RVers and their loud families. I almost backed into a campsite that was not much more than a glorified parking space in an asphalt lot with a picnic table on the grass nearby. But I knew I’d hate it and I hate paying for things I hate. So I pulled out and continued on my way.

The second campground, Spring Canyon, which was nearly all the way to Grand Coulee, was much more pleasant. Lake Roosevelt is a National Recreation Area and this campground was managed by the park service. The other was managed by a concessionaire and you can really tell the difference. The sites were on a hill with views of the lake. The spots were spread out a bit with lots of shade but little underbrush. I drove around and finally found an open spot that just happened to be designated as handicapped. A sign said that if it was still available after 6 PM, anyone could have it for one night. (Apparently, handicapped campers need to get where they’re going by 6.) It was 6:30. I only needed it for one night. I backed in, checked the level, was satisfied, and shut the engine.

It wasn’t until after I paid the $12 fee in the self-pay station that I regretted my choice. That’s when the white trash family in the site next to me went off the rails. They had three young sons aged 12 and below and one of them — I never could figure out which one — was misbehaving. That got dad yelling and threatening. Then mom joined in. Soon they were both yelling and cursing at each other and the kids. I have never heard a couple throw the F-bomb so loudly in public in front of their own kids and other kids as much as these two did. Fuck this fucking fucked up thing. Well, okay, not exactly that, but close. It reminded me too much of time spent with my ex-brother-in-law, a low-life loser who couldn’t complete a sentence without some form of the word fuck in it. But these people were doing it loudly in a campground full of families.

I wanted it to stop. I looked around for a ranger but didn’t see anyone. I was just starting to wonder if it was worth complaining to the campground host when they finally settled down. I think someone got sent into the tent. Mom settled into a chair to study her phone. Dad disappeared.

You don’t get scenes like this when you camp out in the middle of nowhere. You get the sound of nature — wind, birds, falling water, coyotes, squirrels high in trees chattering at small dogs on the ground — or no sound at all.

Anyway, things were fine after that. I ate reheated leftover Ethiopian food on the back steps of my camper, looking out over a campground that was settling down for the night. Someone nearby — maybe in the camper van? — started playing a flute and it sounded very nice. I took Penny for a walk around the campground and then we climbed up into the sleeping area for bed.

Day 7: Lake Roosevelt to Home

I woke up before dawn, as usual. I had coffee while Penny slept in. I caught up on Twitter and did the word puzzle I try to start each morning with. Each morning I have an Internet connection, anyway. It’s a daily puzzle and I’ve done it faithfully every day for the past 70+ days.

When it got light, I took Penny for a walk down on the beach. I let her loose to run on the sand. She loves the beach.

Dawn at Lake Roosevelt
Dawn at Lake Roosevelt.

It was quiet and very pleasant. I watched the sun rise and saw the first light hit hillsides beyond the dam. I wished I had my boat with me. I thought about boat camping. I had recently bought a new tent that would give me, Penny, and even a companion plenty of space to camp in and was eager to use it along a lake or river.

Back at camp, I made breakfast and ate it on the back steps. Other campers were waking. There was no sign of life from the tents at the loud family’s camp. I wondered if the husband or wife had killed the family during the night.

I did the dishes and went through my morning routine. By that time, the loud family was awake and breaking camp. They sure didn’t look like happy people. I wonder sometimes why people bother going on vacation when they spend so much time fighting with each other and staring at their phones.

Penny and I went out for another walk. Although I’d only planned to walk around the campground, I found a “nature trail” and started up that. It was a dirt path that climbed up a hillside with numbered markers along the way that had likely, at one time, corresponded to points on a self-guided tour. There were a few benches along the way that looked like good places to stop and look out at the lake and contemplate life. I stopped at the one at the top of the hill. There were nice views from up there of the lake and campground. The trail continued and we followed it, not sure where it would lead us. It wound up bringing us back down to the campground, no far from our site.

Lake Roosevelt
A view of Lake Roosevelt from the highest point on the trail.

The loud family was gone. There was an inflated beach ball under my truck. I fished it out and gave it to a family with small kids that was camped nearby. The one that spoke English thanked me and handed it off to two young girls who immediately started playing with it. The rest seemed to speak Russian.

I was already ready to go. So I hopped into the truck, started up, and asked Google to show me the quickest way home.

I did stop at the dump station on the way out to dump the holding tanks. I have a very convenient place to dump at home, right near the door to the garage where the camper lives. But I’d rather dump before going home. Then I can add a gallon of clean water and chemicals to the tank and let it slosh around in a sort of cleaning cycle on the way home. It’s a losing battle to keep the tank sensors clean but I haven’t given up. This is just one strategy in my fight.

Our route home took us down the east side of Banks Lake, over the dam at Coulee City, and then up onto the Waterville Plateau. I made a quick stop to look at a vintage pull trailer in Waterville where I chatted at length with a man who’d stopped to do the same thing. Then we descended down to Orondo. I stopped at Katy Bee’s farmstand-turned-cafe for lunch and an ice cream. From there, it was less than 30 minute to get home.

My first vacation for the season was over.

More about the Wind Machines

A few new videos.

Back in April 2015, I blogged about the wind machines commonly used for frost control in the Wenatchee Valley. Resembling tall fans, different versions of these machines can be found in agricultural areas throughout the west wherever frost — especially early spring frost — is an issue. Around here, they’re often in low areas subject to thermal inversions.

Wind Machine
The wind machines that were running this morning. That’s the Mission Ridge Ski resort in the background. Photo shot with my Mavic Pro.

The machines are fans that generate wind. The blades spin fast — faster than you might think watching the video below — to circulate the air. The fan heads rotate to constantly change the direction of the wind. The net result is that the air is circulated, bringing warm air from above down into the crops.

In the almond orchards of California, they use helicopters to do this. I think it’s because the orchards are so big that they simply can’t install and maintain as many wind machines as they need. The helicopters are likely a lot cheaper in the long run, especially when you have a few years in a row when they’re not needed. I’ve been on frost control contracts for the past five winters now and have yet to turn a rotor blade over an almond tree. (Global climate change?)

This winter was particularly long, setting the tree fruit back two to four weeks. The cherry trees are still blooming around here; last year, the cherries were already beginning to redden in the orchards closest to my home. Nighttime temperatures at my home have been in the low 40s. But in the orchards below me, pockets of colder air form. And this morning, they got cold enough to trigger the temperature-set auto start feature on the wind machines in the closest orchards.

I don’t know exactly when they started. I was up at 4:30, reading before getting out of bed, and I didn’t hear them. But by the time I made my coffee at 5 AM, I could hear them faintly through the walls and windows of my my home. I stepped out on the deck for a better look in the predawn light. The sound was louder and I could see two of the machines to the west spinning. My ears told me that one to the northeast, which I can only see from a handful of spots on my deck, was also spinning.

Here’s the zoomed in video I shot with my phone. When I shut up, you can hear the wind machines.

I did a Periscope — that’s a live Twitter video — of the wind machines. A handful of people tuned in and I answered questions as they came up. I was frustrated that I couldn’t zoom in. I signed off, used the video feature on my phone to capture a short zoomed-in clip, and posted it on Twitter. Then the sun rose and the light got good and I did another Periscope that was mostly to show off how beautiful the area was. The wind machines droned in the background of my voice as I described various things and answered questions.

I went inside, washed some pots from cheesemaking, and listened to the radio. I could hear the wind machines faintly through the walls and windows. I was sort of bummed out that I couldn’t give people a better view.

And then I remembered my Mavic Pro.

It took only two or three minutes to set it up. I launched it from my deck, got the video camera going, and sent it to the wind machines, stopping before it got so close that the wind could affect it. The light was beautiful and the image the Mavic sent back to me was clear. I hovered for a while to capture a good clip and then flew around a little, just taking in the view with the camera running. I stopped the video camera, took some stills, and then flew home for some more video of my home and the area around it.

Back inside, I made a fresh cup of coffee and spent a few minutes editing the video and setting it to music. It’s unfortunate that the Mavic doesn’t capture sound, but I understand why: it would be capturing its own buzzing sound, which isn’t pleasant. So music will have to do.

A side note here: I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how much I like living here. I realized — and I think I mentioned in one of those Periscope videos — that I like it here more than anywhere else I’ve lived. I’m not sure if it’s because of the place itself or the fact that I have a home with an amazing view built to exactly meet my needs or because after a stifling relationship that went on a lot longer than it should have I finally have the freedom to do what I want to do with my life and time.

Whatever the reason, I just want to remind readers that we all have just one life and it will eventually end. Don’t waste it stuck in a rut or in a place you’re not happy.