Techniques - Installations, Modifications & Suggestions
Camera Position and Viewpoint

I have only tried sideways-looking stills cameras and this technique has worked well for me. The plane is banked to point the wing down at the target and this results in a gentle turn in which the camera continues to point at the target rather than passing by in a straight line. Aiming is easy and there is no panning movement to blur the image, if the turn rate is appropriate.

If the camera is mounted so as to look straight ahead a broad fuselage is likely to be required as most still cameras are excessively wide to mount in this way. Also a twin or pusher configuration would be necessary to get the prop out of the way. With the sideways mount the type of airframe is not forced on you and size is less of an issue. For video, yes, you want a pilot's eye-view, and as video cameras tend to be long rather than wide this is the logical way forward.

Vertically downwards only seems relevant if you are doing a survey.There may problems with blurring due to the ground rushing by at speed at low altitude (example), and the plane will probably need an undercarriage to protect the camera, something I feel is not necessary normally. There will be no horizon so the photos are going to have less impact if you are looking for the wider view. With a horizontal viewpoint the horizon can easily be removed by banking steeply.


Having said all this many people, myself included, have just lashed a camera on above the wing centre section and achieved reasonable results. Engineering it properly does have a lot of advantages, though: the camera is safer in a crash, better protected from rain, there is no aerodynamic issue and it looks better.

I have experimented with sideways and 45 degree views using video cameras, but was not impressed. Rearwards is good - from a hand launch you can watch yourself dwindle from a close-up javalin-thrower to a tiny dot, assuming you can keep yourself in view. A twin-boom model or a low mount in a Hercules-type model gives a clear view. View video.

Rearwards also seems to provide a more downward-pointing view, stopping the dazzle-factor caused by the sun. Unless actually diving, aircraft descend in a flairly level or nose-up attitude and the camera is pointing at the ground when climing, so I think there is much to commend this viewpoint.

Overall, for video footage a pilot's eye view is probably most satisfying and what most people expect to see. This is also the one operation for which an undercarriage is a good idea. The whole flight including take-off, landing and taxying can be filmed.
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Sky Eye 2 video
camera position
Sky Eye 2 still
camera position
Dave B's Aerial Photography Site
Camera Behaviour and Preflight Checks & Set-Up

Mention has been made elsewhere of how various cameras behave - power-save features and how to wake a given camera from sleep etc. It is very helpful to know exactly what to expect yours to do and how to combat any undesirable traits that cannot be overridden in the menus. It is incredibly annoying to have flown a perfect 10 minute flight, taken loads of shots from good angles and then find on landing that the camera shut down three minutes after take off while you where climbing to altitude. If necessary keep prodding the shutter switch just to keep it awake.

Something that will need careful consideration whatever type of photography you indulge in is how the camera will be powered on and off, and generally set up. Also, how you will verify that it is in the mode you want before takeoff. Frustration rules when you have to disassemble the aircraft to switch on, having previously forgotten this vital step. My Panasonic video camera has a typical reversible flip-out screen which covers the power switch. It fits under the wing which is banded-on. To set up, the procedure runs along the following lines:

First I preflight the model/control gear and check that this side of things is all functioning. Next the camera is switched to video mode and the screen reversed and flipped back (it must be reversed or the thing will shut down when it closes, also no can see what it's doing).

The camera is then inserted into its nest of foam, chocked with additional foam pieces and the zoom controls set to wide angle. These are easily knocked or left in the wrong position.
Sky Eye 2 still
camera installation


A small lever with guide and pull-rod is fitted to the set-up, this protrudes from under the wing LE and allows me to nudge the video record/stop button as required.

The wing is then carefully fitted so as not to knock any of the camera controls with the various cables connecting wing and fuz (this is so easy to do). The model is then ready for launch and the camera is started.

Finally, before launching I peer through a small hole in the side of the fuz to check that the red record indicator is showing on the screen.

So what's difficult about that? Nothing really, but it is easy to forget a step or knock a control, and things like the wrong zoom level are only apparent after the flight. It soon becomes painfully apparent that the less the set-up is disturbed the less these issues occur. Hence the recommendation to have power switches mounted on the outside if possible.

The stills camera is powered on/off in situ via a switch on the fuz but has a habit of powering up in low resolution so I have to check for this and correct it if required. Since this is only detectable by reading the info displayed on the screen there is a peephole in the side of the fuz. Very annoying to find you have got a set of excellent shots, but only at 640 x 480 res.

In an ideal camera plane I would have an external dashboard with all the various controls, but I suspect this will never be because of a fundemental issue - cameras are not designed for this sort of remote operation. Ah well, nice idea...
Engineering the Release Mechanism

Most modellers will opt for the easy option of using a servo or some sort of contrived cam to operate the shutter. This has the advantage that the camera is not compromised and it is cheap, but everything else is on the down-side - it is fiddly, adds space and weight to the set-up, and is potentially much less reliable. A typical compact digital will not have a socket for a remote conection - they don't even have viewfinders these days - and although some have the ability to operate via usb commands the complexity of doing this without a PC is significant to put it mildly.

The only real option apart from the servo one is to disassemble the camera, find the shutter-release contacts and make connections to them. This can be a bit daunting, and will obviously spell the demise of the camera for normal use.

You have to get the thing apart, locate the three shutter contacts and solder wires to them, find a way of bringing the wiring out and then get it all back together again. There is not a lot of space inside so this can be a challenge. I removed the shutter button and actuating rod, then found the switch solder pads or the copper tracks to them (scrape off the solder-resist lacquer) and made the connections having first planned the exit route of the wiring through the shutter button aperture.

The contacts in my cameras are arranged so that the focus and release lines are shorted in sequence to a third common line. The first two can usually be tied together and shorted to the third to focus and fire the shutter as one action. However, this may not be universal.
Timed or Switched Shutter Release

However this is achieved there is the option of firing on-demand or from a timer. Initially I used a timer firing every five seconds, this being the minimum time that the camera was guaranteed to recycle and be ready for the next shot. I did not even bother with a remote enable. It was the easiest option at the time as the radio was limited. It worked, and even had the advantage of taking shots when I was busy flying the plane, but five seconds is a long time to hold a position to ensure a shot is in the bag. Eventually I organised a direct release from the radio, which was much better.


Bear in mind that digital camera shutter buttons are invariably double-function controls, first pressure instructs the camera to gauge the exposure and acquire focus, then the final squeeze trips the shutter.

If you are going to make internal connections you may need to simulate the button action by closing the focus contact first, then the shutter one. The shutter contact may do both jobs (mine did) but then again it may fail to focus. Only testing will tell.


Manufacturers are not helpful with advice in my experience. However, it can be done and then the thing can be fired by closing the contacts with a reed relay driven from a channel switch available from most model shops. This really is the best option if you want to take more than a few shots. It may be thought that a transistor would be more sophisticated than a reed relay but issues of isolation can raise their heads and it is better to avoid potential smoke and flames by completely separating the control circuit from that of the camera.

If you are going to open the camera up to connect to the shutter contacts I strongly recommend that you also bring out the power switch connections too, then you can switch on from outside the aircraft. Also consider battery connections so that it can be powered from an external supply if no power socket is fitted. However, beware of using the main flight pack as the camera could deplete this and cause a crash. Most cameras take an amp or so, a significant current if on continuously, and the regulator won't shut down like the ESC does.

I experimented with the zoom function on the Olympus 2000Z, a 3x optical zoom covering 35 - 105mm in 35mm terms and quickly found that all it did was to optically reduce the altitude while magnifying the camera-shake.

The only value would be in zooming in just enough to remove the wing from the shot, but I quite like it there anyway. The bottom line would appear to be - don't bother, take everything at wide-angle. This is the best setting for minimising camera-shake.
Dave Blandford
Video Downlinks

I have been asked about these as a framing aid; the short answer is I have never tried one. There are available miniature video cameras that incorporate a UHF link to record to a laptop or VCR. These are used by naturalists who fit them to birds of prey.
Weather Conditions and Sun Position

Obviously, bright sunny conditions are going to yield better results than dismal grey ones, but there are other factors that influence the shoot.

If shooting in winter when the sun is low in the sky dazzle is going to be a problem. If the camera is mounted under the wing the latter can cut out a lot of extraneous light in the same way as a hand over your eyes helps. Otherwise consider a lens hood.
Warning!

All digital cameras have flash units and taking the case off will reveal the circuitry therein. The main storage capacitor is generally charged to around 400V and has enough energy to kill. It also retains its charge when the system is turned off. Typically it will be a largish plastic-covered cylinder marked something like '330uF 450V'. Probably a good idea not to touch it...


Morning and evening light has a different colour than does that at midday, and the height of the sun also affects the size of shadows cast by buildings and so alters the contrast of the photo. A lower sun can give a better picture because the contrast is higher, a high sun can make the shot look flat since there are small shadows.

Haze can be a problem - the best time to shoot is in sunshine following a prolonged shower as then the atmosphere has been washed clean. The difference this factor makes has to be seen to be appreciated.
Taking the Shots

I have found that it is easier to press a pushbutton on the transmitter than flick a toggle switch to and fro, so I wired one in parallel with the retract switch.

Once airborne on a stills flight I usually keep pressing the button every five seconds or so, taking hundreds of shots on a long flight. This way the camera never has a chance to shut down and hopefully you will catch an interesting view of something. It's always difficult to frame a shot unless it is one of yourself, so take loads. This is where a decent sized memory card comes in handy and is the main reason why I no longer use the Olympus with its tiny card.


They sound a lot of fun as one could then fly via a realtime pilot's eye-view, but there's also a lot of expense and complication creeping in. To achieve adequate results they are not needed. Great as another notch on the techno-challenge belt, but not necessary.


If sideways mounted a gentle turn towards the camera side will point it downwards to give good ground coverage with a horizon. Steep turns as low level also provide interesting shots of building and the like.

The most difficult thing to judge is the climb angle. If you shoot when climing or diving the horizon can be at 45 degrees, not good. Pulling back on the power to cut potential vibration usually results in the plane dipping its nose considerably, unless you spend time sorting out the trim. Fortunately, with relatively low-powered electric models, twins included, I have found that half-power does not cause any vibration issues. This was not the case with the IC-powered model.
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The stills camera sits on the floor on a foam layer, the VC on a false floor. Weight and space preclude fitting both at once. The shrink-wrapped circuit stuck to the fuz side (right photo) is the shutter switch.
This connects to the camera via the white plug and socket. A second connector deals with the power switch; there's a push button on the fuz by the wing dowel. In the top right hand shot the pull-rod for starting and stopping the VC can be seen.