About Me

Wells, BC, Canada
Richard is a working photographer and writer in B.C. His camera focuses on natural history. archeology, travel, and documentary photography. His photography blog may be found at: http://richardtwright.blogspot.com/

Sunday, April 21, 2013

How to take low angle aerial photos - Mast Photography

It's all a matter of perspective

The historic Kurtz and Lane Mining Claim ditchline, as seen from ground level in the Williams Creek fen.

How often have you been in a situation of wanting a little more height for your photography? Maybe you wanted to look over a wall, look down on your subject or change the perspective for a different view. I often found this to be the case. I tried the usual step ladder or putting a camera on the end of a monopod with the self-timer on and holding it as high as I could reach, but none were quite what I wanted.
One of my photographic projects involves photographing features left over from the Cariboo gold rush of the 1860s, subjects like ditchlines, cemeteries, and archeological sites. I needed a way to look directly down or get a oblique view. I needed height.  It is surprising how even a 10 foot height changes the view.
From a web search I got the idea of purchasing or building a camera mast - a 12-30 foot mast that would lift the camera to new heights.  It is surprising how even a 10 foot height changes the view.
I did look a buying one of the telescoping hydraulic masts that can be found on line but frankly I did not want to invest $2000-$10,000 before I tried it out. I had enough gear around that I was able to build one for just over $500.

Most of the mast gear ready for a ford to the far gravel bar for a straight shot.
The setup I came up with is a tripod and mast from a stage-lighting stand with another lighting pole attached on top, for a total of 20 feet.  The mast can be cranked up an additional 4 feet beyond normal with a hand crank, or a portable drill with a nut adapter. 

Beyond 20 feet I can add more sections. I actually have a choice of two stands, one heavy, best suited to vehicle transport and another lighter one that is better for backpacking into sites. (Backpacking into a site is the subject of another blog.) The price of these lighting stands depends on the make and source but generally they are around $250.

The mast is topped with a Bescor MP-101 Motorized Pan Head pan/tilt head powered by 4 AA cells and remotely controlled ($130); and the camera is tethered with a 30 foot HDMI cord through Nikon Camera Capture 2 software ($180) to a Macbook Pro. (The next goal is of course to use a wireless teather, though the Bescor needs a wire anyway.) When the site is near a road the Macbook is set on a music easel ($50) and masked with a hood or black cloth.

My first subject was the historic Kurtz and Lang mining claim ditchline, just a mile from my home. The goal was to get an aerial look at the ditchline which had straightened a creeks course for mining purposes near Barkerville, British Columbia.

The area as seen in an aerial photograph from the 1970s. The site is one-mile east of Wells, B.C. and about 4 miles or 6 kilometres west of Barkerville Historic Town.

I was working without an assistant for this shoot, which is sometimes preferable as you can screwup or get frustrated without anyone knowing, and there is no time pressure.

The mast set at 12 feet. The camera is fastened to a lower section
 of the mast with a lighting safety cable - just in case.

Now, what difference does it make? The three following shots illustrate the story.

Ground level - 6 feet. 

Mast at 12 feet. Note the telephone poles now showing on the left.

Mast at 18 feet. Note that in this shot the highway on the left can now be seen.
More importantly we get a view of the ditch heading west.
With the Nikon Camera Capture 2 tethering I could view on my laptop what the camera was seeing, and, I could make all viewing and exposure adjustments except for zooming. The focal length had to be preset. If I misjudged, then the mast and camera had to be lowered and reset.

For another example I rotated the Bescor MP 101 head through it's full range and shot in the other direction, upstream.

Looking upstream from 6 foot height.

Upstream from 12 foot height. Quite a different view.
The mast and components worked flawlessly. For this light tripod I found that 18 feet was about as high as I wanted to go without further stabilization. If I want to go to 25 or 30 feet I use a 25 pound tripod and larger diameter mast extensions. The tripod can also be weighted with sandbags or water bags and the mast stabilized further with guy lines.

I have also added a boom arm which allows the camera to look down vertically, without showing the tripod legs, for while the Bescor will rotate 170 degrees in either direction it will only tilt 15 degrees.

Since this shoot I have photographed several other sites, including a cemetery and a couple of archeological sites. I am looking for the right bird's nest to get a good view and am planning some commercial shoots, such as real estate, as houses can look so much more attractive from a few feet up.

I will be posting more mast photos in the next couple of weeks.
All photos taken with a Nikon D7000, Nikkor 18-105mm lens at 25 mm, f8, 1/250th.

If you have any questions on the setup leave a comment.



Copyright 2013 Richard T Wright.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Researching Col. John Van Houten - a continuing story

The brutal death of Col. John Van Houten

This post is a postscript to:
How Wyatt Earp avenged a Barkerville Miner;
and from 2009:

April, 2013.
Amy and I returned to Tombstone and area to shoot a video based on this story. When edited it will appear on YouTube. This is a continuing research project into Cariboo miners who took part in US silver and gold rushes.

Amy Newman at the Brunkow cabin, the site of Van Houten's death.
San Pedro River, Arizona, April, 2013
On a hot, windy and overcast morning we visited the Brunkow cabin and mine, just west of Tombstone, where Col. JohnVan Houten was murdered, supposedly by Frank Stillwell and James Cassidy, a site sometimes described as "the most haunted cabin in the U.S." Van Houten was, according to newspaper accounts, "beaten in the face with a rock until he died." No dramatic shootout here - just a brutal rock in the face. Stillwell was to go down in history as the murderer of Morgan Earp, brother of Wyatt Earp, who later killed Stillwell, avenging Morgan and by coincidence, Van Houten.
Van Houten, covered more completely in previous blogs, was a Cariboo, B.C. miner and Victoria merchant, with a family in Nanaimo. In the 1870s he and many others headed south to the new silver mines of southern Arizona.

The cabin can be seen in the upper left, at the crest of the small, light-coloured rise. It is above a small dry wash. The area is littered with many mine sites, most of which are associated with the town of Charleston, now completely gone, across the highway.

According to local legends over 24 people have been murdered at this cabin site, including German mine owner Frederick Brunkow, who was found in a mine shaft with a drill steel through his chest. He and some of his workers had been murdered by Mexican employees. Over the years the body count evidently increased, and included Barkerville, Cariboo miner Colonel John Van Houten who died here November 9, 1879, at age 55.
The reason for the murder is lost in history but at the time it was suspected to be over some claims that Houten had staked and that Stillwell and Cassidy laid claim too.
A mine shaft near the Brunkow cabin.

This time we wanted to see the cabin site and revisit his grave. I had located the cabin with the help of earlier visitors and Google Earth but when we got there we found that the image on Google was a later mine ruin. Then Amy spotted the cabin, just a low pile of adobe, across a mile of desert.
There isn't really much left. The site has been picked over by treasure hunters, shot up by wanton gunners, and torn down by souvenir hunters taking home chunks of adobe - none of whom knew who Van Housten was, most of whom were here to experience paranormal visitations.

Mine tailings near the Brunkow cabin site. It is unclear which shaft is the original Brunkow shaft or mine.

From a photography perspective the shooting was less than perfect. The light was flat and uninteresting and the wind howled. We shot videos on the Nikon D800, mainly with the 16-35mm lens, and the images were great. The D800 was a dream with full resolution 1080p. But my Apex shotgun mic would not record  - likely a wiring failure, so we were forced to use the in-camera mic and later tried out a handheld Shure 58. The in-camera mic is less than perfect in any situation as the mic picks up internal camera noise, and is useless in the wind. I now have to transcribe everything I said and do a voice-over recording when the video is edited.

There is nothing left of Van Houten here, except his spirit, and his story. I must admit to a certain melancholy here, which Amy managed to capture on video.  Here we were at a spot where a Cariboo miner died - right here. No one in Barkerville, B.C. speaks his name and only a few know his story. It is highly unlikely that anyone has ever visited this site on his behalf or to find out this story. He is, until now, forgotten, as are so many. I found that sad. I think it matters that we visited.

We moved on to Boothill Cemetery in Tombstone where we knew Col. John Van Houten was buried. His marker is terse. When we were last here it read: "Van Houten, 1879". Since then some has scrawled the word "Murdered" on his tombstone.
Most visitors walk right by his grave, more intent on visiting his neighbours the McLaurey's and Clantons. 
Col. John Van Houten lies here in the Arizona desert, a long way from the green hills of Cariboo.

The well tended grave of Col. John Van Houten, a Cariboo miner, in Boothill Cemetery, Tombstone Arizona.
All photos by Richard Wright.
Tombstone at night. D800, 16-35mm Nikkor. All photos by Richard Wright


Copyright 2013 Richard T Wright