Fly Electric!

Aerial Photography

Let me start by showing you what I have achieved. With a little experimentation and perseverance, you can get some decent shots. These photos were all taken from either Bubbles or 'Electric40'.

Cholsey Shool event
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Church near Cholsey school
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River Thames near Beale Park
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Ascot model airshow
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Old Warden Airfield
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High level view of Aldermaston airfield
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Closer shot of pits area
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A corner of our flying field
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On my first attempts at photography, I replaced the hatch on my Electric40 with a camera pointing upwards (fly inverted to take shots). Although easy to mount and does not affect airflow very much, it's not easy to fly inverted when concentrating on picking your shots. It's also hard to judge when you are over the chosen spot. I have also mounted the camera on the bottom of the fuz pointing down which is easier for 'straight down' shots but a bit dodgy on landings. All in all, this is not an easy way to take aerial photos.

Much easier and better for scenic shots is having the camera mounted on the side of the fuz in front of or under the wing. Mount it flat to get part of the wing to prove you were airborne, or pointing down a few degrees so the wing is just above the top of each frame.

Despite the smoothness of an electric I found that vibration is still a problem. Some dampening around the camera helps in the form of a box with an internal foam surround (but don't make it too tight a fit). The box also helps keep dirt off the camera (particularly when landing on damp grass). I now also always take my shots with the motor off which of course is easy with an electric. Furthermore, ASA/ISO 200 film is a bit slow; 800 or 1000 pushes the shutter speed up which helps considerably. Having said that, I now use a digital camera which only has a 100 rating!

Camera box
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Canon L-1
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Canon L-1 on E40
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You can see from the photo of Bubbles below that I have made a space inside the fuz and under the wing of this new model. The camera is supported between two foam blocks and is angled so that the top edge is just under the wing. This makes it quite easy to point the camera as the wing forms the reference. There's also basically no drag as only a small opening is needed for the lens and focus beams. A simple cover closes the hole for normal sport flying which is naturally without the camera. This is the ultimate approach. I've even taken off on water with this setup.

Bubbles on-board camera (Olympus mju)
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Front view of Canon Ixus/Elph
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Better view of components
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Internal camera mounting
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Bubbles internal foam blocks (for Digi-Ixus/Elph)
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As far as camera's go, you can use any which has an automatic film advance. The modern 'compact' cameras are the most practical and I started with my Samsung 35-70mm Slimzoom. However, this camera without a box or any dampening came in at 12oz all up. It has a zoom which is unnecessary and just adds weight. It tends to be hard enough to get anything decent in the shot so a wide angle lens is all you need.

Two of the photos above show the minuscule Canon Ixus L-1 camera. It has about a 38mm f2.8 lens but uses APS film. This film allows a smaller camera design but only uses half the film surface of 35mm cameras for normal 'classic' shots (6x4's). It tends to be much more expensive to develop and print, and I don't like the huge box in which the film and prints are returned. However, it is the smallest and lightest decent camera around and gives excellent results. Furthermore, the APS format actually takes a wider angle picture (only usable if 7x4 full image prints are specified). This is wider than most conventional 35mm cameras but tends to make film processing even more expensive if used.

If you want a dedicated aerial photography camera, the best (reasonably priced) option in my opinion is the Olympus mju II (UK name and see MX2 for a good deal; different name in other countries). This camera uses standard 35mm film and processing. It also has a good 35mm f2.8 lens and can go up to 1/1000 sec, and is only slightly larger and heavier than the Canon L-1 (136 vs 125g). Of course this is without film or batteries; these take the Olympus up to 174g. A small servo mechanism adds about 27g and a light-weight box with foam about 16g (even less on Bubbles as you only need the foam). All up weight of this combination (not shown above) is 217g (<8oz). In reality this was only a few grams heavier than the Canon L-1 although a little larger.

The 'Rolls Royce' of airborne cameras is the Canon 'S100' Digi-Elph/Ixus (the name depends on the country in which you live). This is a miniature 2.1m pixel digital camera with a 35-70mm zoom. I typically fire off 70 to 80 photos in one flight which pretty much guarantees a good result. It has the added advantange of being able to review results at the field, and I've used it to try to find a plane lost in the crops. It is the size of a 1" thick credit card and weighs 227g (8oz). The servo mechanism shown above adds 31g and foam for inside Bubbles a mere 5g. This is an expensive toy to toss around the skies but with Bubbles you have a little security in that the camera is inside the middle of the plane. As a last comment, if you have not tried digital cameras, this Canon has given me the greatest reward of any camera I have ever owned (which includes good compacts and SLR's). The quality is more impressive than most 35mm cameras (don't judge the quality from my photos which are highly compressed to speed up the site - download and print some samples from 'DP Review' on my links page if you want to see full size images). This together with its small size and ability to take at least 230 high quality photos on one 128mb memory card makes it an outstanding camera. 5400 photos in less than 6 months tells its own story!

Although I would encourage anyone to try aerial photography, it's probably fair to point out that success rates are very low. Two of us have taken numerous shots at our club but have very few pictures to show for it although the above advice should save you many wasted films!

I would also strongly recommend that you choose your photography sessions with care. Dull, overcast days will give you lots of dull, overcast-looking photos. Worthless because they won't have any positive visual effect and you will be disappointed. Calm days are also a major advantage. You don't realise how much the plane gets thrown around and this leads to blurred pictures. Again, worthless! Furthermore, composition is everything, and although hard to control where the camera is pointing, 'scenic shots' with some sky and ground tend to be the most interesting.

And for the ultimate in aerial combat... Oh, I mean photography... try taking in-flight shots! Here is friend Tony Shortell's attempt at photographing my Fly Baby from his Junior 60 while trying to get close enough and positioning for a meaningful background...
Fly Baby by Tony Shortell
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