Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Some airplane shooting buffs lately have started hoisting their cameras up on tall poles to get a high angle on their subjects. This has a number of advantages when shooting planes on the ground. Small planes are considered to be flattered by an angle that shows the upper surface of the wing; you can sometimes hoist the camera high enough to shoot into cockpits; in museums, you can get above the clutter of guardrails and display cases; plus it just looks different.

With digital, especially if you have a remote or articulated live view screen, this is easy. I decided to see if it could be done with a real man's camera. The other constraint on my rig was that it must be very portable -- enough not to require any extra baggage when flying on business trips.

My chosen camera was an Exakta VX-IIa with waist level finder.

I figured that I could hoist the camera (prefocused) inverted on a lightweight tripod, compose by squinting overhead at the groundglass, and fire it using a long cable release. I obtained a cheap Sunpak tripod, $30 brand new from B&H, which has the useful property of collapsing small enough to fit in a standard small airline roller bag, and a 40-inch cable release. The first problem I encountered, fortunately during a trial run at home, was the discovery that the pan-tilt head that is permanently attached to the Sunpak will not invert. I therefore had to go to the hardware store and spend another $3.50 on a bracket and some nuts and bolts of the proper size to build a mount to hang the camera from the tripod head. That worked well enough. Here is a picture of the rig, "in the field" so to speak.

Problem number two surfaced only when I was prowling around Chino airport looking for targets for my first test of the system. When used with an auto lens having a pass-through shutter release, the Exakta requires the trigger pin from the cable release to stick out a very long way to trip the shutter -- longer than any cable release I own, including the 40-incher. I do have an old mechanical self-timer whose pin projects far enough, but was useless because of the Exakta's shutter position, which would have the timer project forward and appear in the frame. The only alternative was to use a non-auto lens with no pass-through release -- or, as I ended up doing, kluge this by mounting an auto lens not quite all the way while wrapping the pass-through arm in a rubber band to induce a stop-down mode. This worked but was not quite satisfactory. If you think it might be hard to compose through a 24x36mm groundglass that you are balancing on a pole 3 feet above your head, try doing it with the lens stopped down to f/11 or so. These shots were taken in that manner, at the Chino Airport in November and during my visit to Fantasy of Flight last weekend. Lens was a Vivitar T4 24/2.8; film was drugstore-brand Fuji 200 neg film and Velvia 100.

All in all, it was successful as a proof-of-concept trial. I spent some time trying to modify the cable release so that it will trigger an Exakta through the pass-through shutter release, but to no avail. Eventually I solved the problem by buying a Miranda Sensorex, which has interchangeable finders like the Exakta but no funky shutter release issues; also it's a more modern and reliable camera all around and its tripod socket is flush with the bottom, giving greater stability on the bracket. I'll practice more with this system over the next few months and maybe, when airshow season rolls around, I'll even consider heaving a 6x6 TLR up there.

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