Helicopter Photography

This is a story that makes you feel good about aerial surveillance, but keep in mind it’s still a story about aerial surveillance. It’s getting to be straightforward for anybody to fly a camera wherever they want to. I’m amazed how many videos on YouTube show people doing this same basic thing. Having said that, it must be said this guy is especially good.

Jason Lam sits at the center of the Venn diagram with two circles labeled “professional photographer” and “radio-controlled helicopter hobbyist”. Putting them together, he’s able to make movies like this.

He did it by building his camera-holding rig and attaching it to an off the shelf model helicopter. Here’s what the rig looks like up close.

So that’s what someone can do when they use a standard camera and a standard helicopter. But there is a shocking amount of talent in the world. Let’s look at what young William Thielicke is capable of. Oh, it appears that, in addition to mounting a camera on a helicopter, he’s invented his own helicopter. And made a really good video out of it. And he’s 29.

Remember, when you hear that buzzing sound, to look up and smile.

(Via Yann’s Techno Toys Blog)

Color pictures from Czarist Russia

People who lived before World War I were grainy variations of black, white, and gray. We know this to be true because of the photographic record. But those remote monochrome images also serve an important purpose. They separate us from those oddballs who did so many stupid things.

Then, out of the blue, comes something like this: color photography from czarist Russia. Look at this astonishing exhibit from the Library of Congress. The Empire That Was Russia: The Prokudin-Gorskii Photographic Record Recreated.

It’s both beautiful and heartbreaking, because the people look so real. What do we know that they don’t know? What do they know that we don’t know? Pictures like this force you to admit that maybe they weren’t comical stop-motion fops with waxed mustaches. Look at these peasant girls from 1909.


1909! Ye gods! I think that middle one was in my third grade class.

Galaxy on the rise

Once on a camping trip in Utah, I took a picture of our group late at night. I had a tripod and used a long exposure, but not being a very skilled photographer, I wasn’t sure how it was going to turn out. When the pictures came back from the lab, I was in for a surprise (historical footnote: in ancient times, photographs were “developed” at remote mountaintop “laboratories” and returned to you on the backs of fast-trotting donkeys). I couldn’t find my night-time snapshot. It was a while before I realized what looked like a mid-day shot was actually taken at midnight. The sky was bright blue and the colors were vibrant. Only the tiny traces of stars in the sky and our blurry faces gave it away. It was hard to believe my little camera could see such a different world.

On Kevin Kelly’s sprawling site I came across this lovely time-lapse animation taken at a star party in Texas. Amazingly, it was taken with an SLR camera on tripod. Put on your slow eyes and watch the earth turn.


Galactic Center of Milky Way Rises over Texas Star Party from William Castleman on Vimeo.

I’m familiar with what the Milky Way looks like in dark skies, so I was watching this video thinking “It’s going to be subtle… is that it? No… is THAT it? No.” But that camera has better eyes than you or I do. When the galaxy comes up, trust me, it’s not subtle.

Time-Lapse Clouds

Matt Simoneau sits around the corner from me at work, and he made this nifty time-lapse video. He calls it Clouds Outside My Office Window. Well, Matt’s view is my view, so these are also clouds outside my office. Like he owns the clouds! Those are my damn clouds.

Click on through to see the animation. As you can see, life at a software company is pretty dynamic. It gets crazy some days. For example, did you see those cars go flying through?

The story of how Matt got his camera to take these pictures is a good illustration of how communities can put open source code to work. The Canon camera that he used to do this didn’t originally have the time-lapse feature. But amateur code sleuths figured out how to hack into the camera’s firmware and give it new features. If you have a Canon camera, you get to benefit for free. This ends up being very handy for people like kite aerial photographers. Not to mention amateur intervalometric photojournalists like Matt.

Behind the CLICK: the anatomy of a camera shutter

Most of us have put away, given away, or thrown away our old film-based cameras. No more 35 mm film canisters… now we have sleek solid state digital cameras. Except that the shutter, as ever, is still a tiny clockwork marvel of gears and levers.

You press the button on top of your camera and it goes CLICK. But what happens during that click is surprisingly complex. It’s especially complex for the shutter on a Single Lens Reflex (SLR) digital camera. For instance, consider this puzzle. How does a shutter mechanism that can only operate at 1/300 of a second nevertheless provide an effective shutter speed of 1/3000 of a second?

Derek Miller of penmachine.com put together a great piece explaining how this is possible along with many other fascinating details. Here’s the post: Camera Works: shutters, flashes, and sync speed. Don’t miss one of the resources that he points to, Jeffrey Friedl’s presentation of some high speed photos taken of a lens-less SLR in action. You won’t believe all the craziness that happens in 87.8 milliseconds every time you take a picture.

Live! Nudis! (toxic nudibranchs, that is)

Some animals live up to their cool names. Animals like the toothy velociraptor and the mysterious leafy sea dragon. Others, despite their nifty cognomens, fall short. For example, the Northern beardless-tyrannulet (not to be confused with the Ruby-crowned Kinglet) is a comparatively plain little flycatcher.

But I imagine any animal might have a hard time living up to a label as racy as “toxic nudibranch”. Except, of course, for the toxic nudibranchs. Don’t do them the disservice of calling them mere “sea-slugs”. And if you’re talking about them at your next cocktail party, remember to pronounce it NUDIBRANK.

The photographer for these amazing images is David Doubilet, and I recommend the accompanying video.

[Spotted on visualcomplexity.com]

Liquid Sculpture

High speed photography has become increasingly commonplace. Even so, every now and then you see pictures that remind you how much your slow eyes miss, especially when the pictures are artfully made. Here’s a site called Liquid Sculpture that specializes in beautiful art prints of splashes frozen in time. The artist’s name is Martin Waugh, and his pictures capture nifty umbrella and crown splash shapes. As long as you’re browsing, don’t miss the dainty drop-water globe and the unmistakable juggling nipple (honestly).

Here’s a page I came across a few days ago that is not so artful but plenty nifty: Between the Seconds on slightlywarped.com.

When I see images like this, I like to imagine taking a complex pattern of water flow with all its swirling eddies and dimpled standing waves, and freezing one instant of it into a solid image, a sculpture that you could look at from any angle, something like a bullet time effect. These days it should be possible to do something like that, with laser scanners and 3-D printing, but I have yet to see anyone try it.