Typical Late Autumn Weather Time-Lapse

Lots of fog coming and going all day long.

I knew when I woke up yesterday morning that it was going to be a foggy day. How could I tell? I looked out my window and didn’t see a single light anywhere. The fog was all around me, blocking out the thousands of lights down in Wenatchee that keep my home from getting dark at night as well as closer in lights in at my neighbors’ homes. It was pitch black dark.

But with fog and low clouds moving around, it would be a good day for a time-lapse.

The Equipment

I went down into the garage and rummaged around in a box full of old camera equipment until I found my Canon PowerShot G5. This was my first “serious” digital camera, which I bought back at the end of 2003 for aerial photography. (Back then, I had the crazy idea that my future wasband was capable of taking satisfactory photos from the helicopter to meet the needs of aerial photo clients. That turned out to be a very expensive exercise in futility.) With 5 megapixel resolution, it was a big deal — all my digital cameras up to that point had shot in 2.1 megapixels or less. I even took it with me to Supai, the Havasupai village at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, when I went on an Arizona Highways photo excursion in April 2004.

So yes, the camera is old. At least by today’s standards.

But I don’t throw anything useful away. Even when I got better digital cameras — like the Nikon D80 I bought in 2007 and the Nikon D7000 I use now — I kept the old Canon.

Years ago, I bought a Pclix intervalometer for it and started using it as a dedicated time-lapse camera. An intervalometer, in case you don’t know, is a device or camera feature that tells the camera to shoot an image periodically per your specifications. That and a tripod are the two things you need to make time-lapse movie images. You then use an app on your computer (or smartphone, I suppose) to compile those images into a movie.

G5 and Pclix
Shown here: my Canon G5 with optical cable taped on, Pclix intervalometer, and the power supply for the camera, which is not USB.

The Pclix I have uses an optical trigger mechanism. That means it sends a beam of light down a fiberoptic cable. The light is seen by the old Canon G5 as if I’ve pointed a remote at it and it clicks the shutter. To get this to work, I used electrical tape to attach the business end of the optical cable to the G5’s remote sensor. Of course, the camera needs to be plugged into power — its old battery won’t hold a charge and, even if it did, it wouldn’t last all day. The Pclix runs on a pair of AAA batteries and I was very surprised to see that they still had enough juice to power it. But I guess an electronic timer and tiny beam of light don’t need much power.

When I dug out all this stuff yesterday morning, I was kind of surprised to find it all. (Note to self: putting things away really is a great strategy for making them easy to find in the future.) Although I still do time-lapses once in a while, I’ve been using my GoPro, which is a lot more compact and easy to set up. But my GoPros and my Nikon D7000, which has a built-in intervalometer, are all in Arizona, waiting for me to join them. The G5 was my only option.

Setting Up

I’ve always been interested in time-lapse movies. There’s nothing quite like them to show the movement of slow-moving things. You can see the ones on this blog by checking out the time-lapse tag.

Of course, the challenge is to set up a time-lapse camera before something interesting happens. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to create a time-lapse of clouds on days that clouds never made an appearance. The good thing is, the images are all digital, so if a whole day shooting results in a dull time-lapse, I can just delete it all.

Yesterday’s challenge was pointing the camera in the right direction with the right zoom magnification. (This is one of the benefits of using the G5 instead of a GoPro: optical zoom.) It was barely light out and the fog was thick when I got it all set up. I was also concerned about focus; I let the camera’s autofocus feature take care of that, but when there’s no detail to lock in on, the camera can’t focus. So I suspect there are some focus issues with individual shots.

I let it run all day from the corner of my deck, plugged into one of the outlets there, with 1 shot every 15 seconds. That’s how the Pclix was set up. I’d lost the instructions and didn’t want to mess with reprogramming it.

The Results

I checked on the camera at about 3:30 PM and discovered that its tripod had fallen over. Oops. I brought it in and saw that the last shot taken was after 2 PM, so I did get most of the day.

I brought the camera up to my loft where my office is now. It took a while to find a cable that would connect the old camera to my computer — I knew there was no chance I’d find a card reader for the Compact Flash card (which isn’t compact at all by today’s standards). I worked some magic and got the images into my computer.

Then I ran them through an app that resized them and put the time in the corner.

Then I fired up QuickTime 7 Pro — which I’ve always used for time-lapses — and created a movie with 30 frames per second. So each second of this movie is 7-1/2 minutes of the day. Here it is:

What surprises me most is just how much of the day was foggy. Keep in mind that my home sits on a shelf about 800 feet above the river. In the winter, we often get inversions that fill the valley with fog. Sometimes I’m above it, sometimes I’m in it, and sometimes I’m below it. Yesterday, I was mostly in it and above it. At one point, I looked out my office window, which faces south towards the cliffs, and it was perfectly clear. Yet at the same time, the view through the camera was nearly completely fogged in.

Of course, this has motivated me to do some more time-lapses. Maybe I’ll produce a few in Arizona when I head down there for the winter. But I think I’ll leave my clunky G5 setup home.

Some Thoughts on Drone Photography

If you can’t beat them, join them.

Phantom 4
The Phantom 4 is a flying camera.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the rise of unmanned aerial systems (UAS), more commonly referred to as “drones,” these days, mostly because I’ve been able to get some good hands-on experience with the prosumer DJI Phantom 4. The Phantom 4 is marketed as a flying camera and I honestly think it’s a good categorization. Clearly it was designed for photography and it has given me a new appreciation for drones, which I don’t generally like.

Drone Threats

As a helicopter pilot, I’ve felt a rather unique threat from the rise of drones (no pun intended). I want to take a moment to explain, mostly because although my general opinion of drones has changed, my views about their threats have not.

Safety

First and foremost are my safety concerns. There are too many drone “pilots” who fly irresponsibly in places they should not be, including near airports and at altitudes that should be reserved for manned aerial flights. The FAA has attempted to reduce the risk of drone/aircraft collisions by setting a maximum altitude of 400 feet for drones. This is far from a perfect solution for two reasons:

  • Irresponsible drone pilots ignore the restrictions and fly higher than 400 feet above the ground. I have witnessed this more than once, although I’m glad to report that I wasn’t flying at the time.
  • Helicopters generally don’t have a minimum operating altitude so we can fly below 400 feet. Even my Part 135 certificate, which sets some limitations for on-demand charter flights, specifies a minimum altitude of 300 feet — this means I can legally be sharing 100 feet of airspace with UAS with charter passengers on board.

Drones are small. They can fly at speeds in excess of 50 miles per hour. I fly in speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour. That’s a closing rate, for a head-on collision, of 150 miles per hour. Does anyone really think I can “see and avoid” something the size of a 12-pack of beer coming at me at 150 miles per hour?

And if pilots are irresponsible enough to disobey FAA regulations, are they responsible enough to stay clear of aircraft?

Other drone-specific regulations regularly ignored:

  • Staying clear of temporary flight restriction (TFR) areas. There have been many reported instances of drones flying around wildfires being worked by firefighting aircraft. In some cases, these violations of airspace have caused the grounding of aircraft.
  • Staying clear of other restricted airspace. The one that worries me most is flights close to airports.
  • Keeping the drone within sight. That’s not easy to do when the drone has a range of more than 3 miles and it’s so small.
  • Not flying over people. I have witnessed this first hand many times at outdoor gatherings.
  • Obtaining FAR Part 107 certification for commercial use of drones. This certification helps ensure that drone pilots are real pilots who know and understand FAA regulations and important aviation and aeronautical concepts.

I can go on and on, but why bother? The fact is that although many drone pilots are responsible enough to learn and obey the rules for operating their drones, enough of them aren’t responsible at all. They make pilots — especially low-level pilots like those flying helicopters — worried about their safety.

Economics

The second threat I’m feeling is economic.

I’ll be blunt: over the past 15 or so years, I’ve earned a reasonable portion of my flying revenue from photography and survey flights. Drones are increasingly being used for both roles, thus cutting into my potential market.

I currently charge $545/hour for photo flights. Although I can cover a lot of territory in an hour and give two photographers a platform for aerial photos at the same time, not everyone sees the benefit. For about the same price, a photographer can buy a decent entry level photo drone and get the shots he needs. And then use the same drone another day without a further investment.

Or make a larger drone investment and get a better drone and better camera.

I’ll admit it: in many instances, a drone can get a better shot. A perfect example is a dawn photo shoot I did with a good client about two years ago. They’d staged the Wenatchee Symphony Orchestra at a local park, Ohme Gardens, and wanted sweeping aerial images of them playing. On our first pass, our downwash blew away their sheet music. (Oops.) We eventually got the shots they wanted, but I recall saying to my client, “You should have used a drone for this one.”

Aerial Orchestra
Here’s a still image from one of the aerial sequences we did that morning. Watch the whole video here; all the aerial shots were done from my helicopter.

But another client needed aerial video and still images all along the Columbia River from Wenatchee to Chelan, then up the Wenatchee River to Leavenworth and up Lake Chelan to Stehekin. This was well over a hundred miles to cover and some of it was inaccessible by car. We got all of the shots in less than three hours of flight time. It would have taken weeks to get that footage with a drone — and even then, some of it would have been impossible to get.

And a four-hour shoot from Seattle to Mount Rainier along often remote areas of the Green River? I can’t even imagine doing that with a drone.

But not everyone sees that. So I see drones threatening part of my livelihood.

Flying Cameras

My generally poor opinion of drones was significantly changed this past week. What changed it? Getting my hands on a Phantom 4 and seeing the quality of the photos and videos

My friend Jim — a gadget guy if there ever was one — has one of these drones. He started off by showing me some of the video he’d shot on an RV vacation in the southwest with his wife last summer. I was immediately struck by how rock-solid and clear the images were. I’ve created footage with a GoPro mounted in various places on my helicopter and have seen footage created with high-quality professional video cameras from my helicopter both with and without gyro-stabilized mounts — Jim’s footage was as good as or better than any of that.

From a flying camera that costs less than $1,000. To put things in perspective, that’s less than my Nikon DSLR, which doesn’t fly.

Then Jim and I took the drone out for a few flights. It was remarkably easy to fly, even if you choose to do so manually. The controller has two sticks that were immediately familiar to me as a helicopter pilot. The left stick handles ascent/descent (like a helicopter’s collective) and yaw (like a helicopter’s anti torque pedals) while the right stick handles direction of flight (like a helicopter’s cyclic). The drone is amazingly responsive, but what really blows me away is that releasing the controls brings the drone to a controlled hover at its current altitude. And if that isn’t enough, several program modes and tools make it possible to program a flight. The damn thing can literally fly itself.

Phantom 4
Jim’s Phantom 4, awaiting takeoff near Vulture Peak in Wickenburg, AZ. I got a chance to experiment with both manual and automatic flying modes.

I could go on and on about the Phantom 4’s feature set — which I understand is shared by many competing products these days — but I won’t. I’ll let you explore them for yourself. There’s plenty of information online.

I will say this, however: As someone who has been involved in tech for a long time — hell, I wrote books about computers for 22 years starting way back in 1990 — I’m not easily impressed. The Phantom 4 completely blew me away.

Me? A Drone Pilot?

Part 107 Explained
Want to become a commercial drone pilot? Start by learning all about the FAA’s Part 107. This book will help. Buy the ebook edition on Amazon or from Apple. Or buy the paperback edition on Amazon.

Jim, in the meantime, is looking to upgrade and offered me a sweet deal on his Phantom 4 with lots of accessories. That got me excited about owning one of these flying cameras. So excited that I watched all of the Phantom 4 tutorials on DJI’s website, worked through the FAA’s UAS pilot online training, and took (and passed) the FAA’s Part 107 pilot test. All I need is a meeting with the FAA and a sign off to become a certificated UAS pilot.

What does that mean? I’ll be legal to conduct commercial UAS flights. That means I can create (and sell) some of the photos and images I collect with a flying camera like the Phantom.

But I have other ideas for how I can make drone photography part of my professional life. Stay tuned; I’ll be sharing more on this topic in the months to come.

After all, if you can’t beat them, join them.

Home Tour, 8-Oct-16

Another look at my work-in-progress home.

On May 20, 2014, I began blogging about the construction of my new home in Malaga, WA. You can read all of these posts — and see the time-lapse movies that go with many them — by clicking the new home construction tag.

I had a friend I hadn’t seen for about a year come over for dinner on Saturday night. It was a good thing he came. I had a few little projects that I’d been putting off for two long — the trim around my bathroom door being the biggest one — and knowing he was coming motivated me to finish them. It also motivated me to clean the place up and throw away a lot of the junk that had been accumulating. I am the queen of clutter and I’m really working hard to control it.

My Red Sofa
I get very serious when I clean. I even took out the leather cleaner and wiped down my living room sofa.

Once my home was all spiffed up, I figured I’d take the opportunity to do a quick video tour. I’ve been videoing various parts of my new home construction and it’s kind of neat to go back through my archive and see where I was at various points.

My living space is about 95% done at this point. I have my Certificate of Occupancy — I got it last spring — so there’s nothing left to get inspected. There are three big finishing projects, though:

  • Build a ladder to my loft. I already have all the wood and hardware. I just have to stop procrastinating and get the job done.
  • Finish the tile around my shower stall. Again, I have most of the materials I need. I just absolutely detest working with tile. So I procrastinate.
  • Paint and trim the stairs. I’m going with paint because it’s durable and cheap. But I still have to sand the steps, paint them, and then add trim along the sides.

I also have some “baseboard” trim work to do. I’m using quarter round to keep it simple. There’s not much left to do. I might knock it off Monday afternoon.

Anyway, here’s the video. Enjoy.