We have LIFTOFF!

edited February 2011 in General
After almost a year of thinking about balloon aerial photography, I finally got together everything needed to give it a try yesterday.

Knowing that it would be a huge asset to have another KAPer along to help me figure out the radically different ergonomics of BAP as compared to KAP, I contacted Tgran in the morning to ask if he'd be willing to accompany me. Luckily he was interested and available and the weather was perfect, so we met near the University of California Berkeley campus to give it a try.

We parked about two blocks from the campus and inflated the 5-foot diameter balloon in a small parking lot. Not knowing how much lift the balloon would generate or how it would perform in the air, I had been planning on using my lightest (and least expensive!) camera, a Canon S90, on this maiden voyage. After figuring out how full to inflate the balloon, it was generating a surprising amount of lift, enough that I felt (mostly) comfortable attaching my camera rig with my new Sony NEX-5.

Tgran and I walked the inflated balloon the two blocks to the UC Berkeley campus, at times having to leave the sidewalk and walk into the street to avoid low hanging tree branches. Once we got to a large field in front of the university's main library, we started letting out line. Of course, Murphy's Law postulated that there would be a large group of young elementary school children present, and yes, there they were. They saw us and the balloon and immediately came running. We explained what we were doing, showed them a small book of KAP photos, and let them each have a turn cranking the reel to bring the balloon a bit closer to earth.

After our encounter with the kids ended we started walking the balloon around campus, moving slowly toward the 307 foot tall Campanile, which you have all seen many KAP photos of, courtesy of Cris Benton, Scott Haefner, and myself.

I was using dual 150 lb. solid-core dacron tethers, much lighter weight than my usual KAP line. I had hoped that I still had 1,000 ft. left, but I only had 700 ft, so I made two 350 ft. tethers. This turned out to be just enough to photograph the Campanile from the angles I was envisioning.

There was little or no wind the entire afternoon into the evening. This resulted in the balloon flying almost straight overhead, allowing us to walk the balloon and camera into narrow passages and tight spots that would have been impossible with a kite. After a couple of hours, I had to move my car to a different parking spot to avoid getting a parking ticket, so Tgran took over the piloting. When I returned I found that he had moved a few hundred yards to be very close to the Greek Theater, which is completely surrounded by tall trees.

Tgran needed to be somewhere else shortly thereafter, so I took over as solo pilot. I sent a quick text message to Cris Benton, our illustrious discussion forum host, thinking that if he happened to be on campus that he would be interested in seeing how the BAP system was performing. He had just finished teaching an afternoon class, and he met me a few minutes later by the Campanile. We soon made our way toward the main plaza on campus, realizing that we would have to reel in the balloon to get it under and through the campus' historic Sather Gate.

After a while, Cris departed and I moved a few blocks east toward the Berkeley Art Museum, a subject I had unsuccessfully attempted to KAP a few time before. Again I had to leave the sidewalk a couple of times to avoid trees, but I was able to reach the location I had in mind with little trouble. The light was falling rapidly as sunset approached and I hadn't changed the settings on the camera, so I only got one or two sharp images of the museum, neither of which is close to the image I had in mind.

It was time for me to move my car again to avoid a parking ticket. I reeled in the balloon and started making my way across campus toward my car. As I walked, the sunset colors kept getting more intense and spectacular. I caught a glimpse of the Campanile, now beautifully lit for the evening with exterior floodlights. It was still completely windless, and I knew then that I had to try and get a night photo of the Campanile with the sunset colors over San Francisco Bay in the background. It was an instant decision that I knew had a good chance of costing me a $50 parking penalty, but I decided that everything was so perfect that I had to risk it.

To get the shot I was picturing, I had to move east of the Campanile, and into a very tight spot in a sort of narrow passageway between two buildings. To make things more interesting, there were some tall trees and bicycle racks making the passageway even narrower. The balloon was staying directly overhead, so I was almost positive that I could safely maneuver into the necessary spot. It all went well, and I stayed in that spot for 15 minutes or so. At no time did the balloon move enough for me to have a concerns. Below is the photo of the Campanile and sunset that I was hoping to get, and also a photo of the place I was standing to get the shot.

Sunset at the University of California, Berkeley

In a tight spot

So, overall it was an incredible day. The balloon and camera were in the air for more than 6 hours. Everything went smoothly, I finally got to see how the BAP system performed, I got to spend time and share the experience with two outstanding KAPers and friends, and I got some photos that I simply couldn't get with a kite-lofted camera.

Of course, nothing is perfect and I must say that at times I had trouble preventing the balloon from slowly spinning. This resulted in my not getting the expected number of images of specific subjects, probably because the balloon spin and the pan movement pre-programmed in my CAMremote controlled autoKAP sequence combined to pan the camera more than what was desirable. I had already been warned that this could happen and had been given some advice on dealing with this from experienced BAPers, so I will be trying to implement these measures more successfully on future BAP outings.

I had a few encounters with both University of California and City of Berkeley law enforcement officers, and thankfully they were all very positive.

The balloon attracted significantly more attention than flying a kite usually does. Tgran, Cris, and I talked to a very large number of people about what we were up to. Mostly this was a lot of fun, but at times grew a bit tiring, especially when trying to move to another one of the photographic subjects on my list and experiencing significant delays.

I have to admit that the overall experience far exceeded my wildest expectations and it was one of the most fun days I've had in years. I started calculating how many days I could spend BAPing if I divided my entire life savings by the $20-$30/day it would cost for helium. I will probably


  • All your planning for BAP really paid off. With zero wind it really was fairly stress free. When the wind picks up we'll see if you can compete with Jackan's or Simon's stories :)

    On the other hand the lack of a parking ticket was dumb luck. They tend to get me within ten minutes of a violation.
  • edited February 2011
    I realized this evening that I forgot a couple of other friends who provided valuable information regarding BAP. Pierre Lesage replied to my questions with a very thoughtful email comparing BAP and KAP. Emmanuel Leconte answered my questions for hours as he gave me a ride from KAPiNED to Lille on my way to Paris, and then answered more questions by email many months later. Thank you both! I have gone back and added your names to my original post. Hopefully I haven't forgotten anyone else!
  • Magnificent results, Michael! Bravo!
  • Thanks Michael of warm story, positive feedback and congratulations of successful maiden flight! Absolutely well done and amazing shoots!
  • Michael,

    That first shot is just breathtaking. Thanks for sharing your tales of this maiden flight. You are making me think very seriously about a balloon, particularly for working in populated areas under low wind conditions.

  • Congratulations Michael !!
    You did a amazing job, believe me my first BAP picture wasn't so spectacular.
    When the wind is very low like that the balloon is completely steady the line is slack and it's a great pleasure to shoot in so quiet conditions.
    Do you have some pictures of your balloon and rig ?
  • edited February 2011
    Thanks, guys!

    One thing I forgot to say in my original post is that I was concerned that the clear polyurethane balloon would be invisible, especially to light aircraft. At least on this sunny day, the sunlight reflected off it nicely. People came up to me and told me they had seen the balloon from more a half mile away. Hopefully that is also the case when viewed from the sky and it is also visible to light aircraft. I am considering taping some colored tissue paper to the balloon to provide some contrast.

    @Maneke - Here is a photo of the setup taken by Cris Benton:

    Helium balloon and camera rig
  • This is a fine story to read. Thanks for shearing this experience and for such nice results.
  • Congratulations, Michael. Great pics.

    The world still needs to find a fast, small-quantity hydrogen generator so you wouldn't have to buy helium. That would be lower cost, environmentally better, and give greater lift. I looked into this once before, and basically didn't find anything practical. But you never know. It could happen.
  • Hey Michael !
    You look so professionnal with all that equipment !! :-))
  • edited February 2011
    Hi Michael

    Congratulations! Amazing photos, and a great story.

    Next time you need to move your car - try this .... (the BAP-mabile)

    imageBAP-mobile" alt="Bap-mobile" />
  • Hey man! That's ILLEGAL!
    If you did that in the UK the traffic cops would be all over you in seconds
    for not having a licence plate
  • edited February 2011
    HA! Perfect Geordon, that's exactly what I need. Since I don't have a sunroof, though, I think I'll simply drill a hole in my hard-topjust big enough for my tethers.....
  • Great story Michael. Congratulations on taking this idea all the way and making it work.
  • Thanks for sharing this memorable maiden flight. I am impressed with the results but I am even more impressed by the preparation of this flight which I think took almost a year if not more
  • edited February 2011
    I appreciate all the comments, everyone!

    Compared to Tahiti, helium pricing is much more reasonable here in the Bay Area, costing $32 per 100 cubic feet, which is roughly $11.30 per cubic meter. The 5-foot balloon requires only 65-75 cubic feet, costing about $25-$30. With the lightweight rig made by Brooks, it easily lifted the Sony NEX-5 which is also lightweight, but not extremely so at 350 grams (with the 16mm lens). I realized after emptying the balloon that I should have tried it with the 18-55mm lens, which adds an extra 130 grams to the payload. I'm fairly sure that the balloon had more than adequate lift for the extra weight, but I still wish I had tried it.

    For me the bottom line was to lift a camera with good optical quality with the minimum amount of helium necessary, and I think I found an excellent combination with the NEX-5 and the 5-foot balloon. It probably lacks some of the stability of a helikite, but it's much more economical and did a fantastic job. I'll be working on the stability issues, but even as it, I was able to get some photos I've been thinking about for a LONG time.
  • edited February 2011
    Very inspiring, Michael. Bravo! I believe your cubic feet -to- cubic meters conversion is incorrect. According to Google:

    100 (cubic feet) = 2.83168466 cubic meters

    Which makes it roughly USD $11.30 per cubic meter, roughly twice as much as Emanuel's deal in Belgium.

    Out of curiosity, I called our local gas supplier on the island, and my deal is much better than Pierre's:
    TypeUSD price per
    100 Cubic Feet
    USD price per
    1 Cubic Meter
    Helium 350 Balloons - 99.95%$63.16$22.30
    Large Purity Helium - 99.99%$97.26$34.35
    CP Helium - 99.999%$138.94$49.07
  • Thanks, Hussam. I actually did find the proper conversion value, but somehow, after a very long day, I applied it incorrectly to the price. I've made the correction in my post.
  • edited February 2011
    Wow, very impressive...especially for your first outing!

    You said:

    "I started calculating how many days I could spend BAPing if I divided my entire life savings by the $20-$30/day it would cost for helium."

    I think you'd run out the world's supply of Helium before you exhausted your life savings.

  • Nice story michael , i wish i had a ballon and start takin pictures , but i just start whit ( KAP) so i still have alot more to lern . Thanks for the Story.
  • edited August 2011
    It is very interesting ,the balloon can be used and provide us new possibilities !
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