„…Lima – Yankee…” has been ringing in my ears for the whole summer of 2007.“
 

Of Aircrafts and Flights
Of Time and Light
Of Photographic Equipment
Of Computers
Figures of interest
Aerial photography devices

It took me almost a year to create Unseen Lithuania. That is nontraditional photography and I often get asked how one or another picture was taken. Hoping there are quite a few people who will find it interesting, I decided to describe, in short, the complicated process of creation and production, to tell you some of the technical details of interest.

Of Aircrafts and Flights

“…Lima – Yankee…” has been ringing in my ears for the whole summer of 2007. It appears so that every code of an aircraft registered in Lithuania starts with letters LY, which according to the phonetic alphabet of NATO countries are pronounced as “Lima Yankee” (the word LIETUVA would be dictated by dispatchers as “Lima-India-Echo-Tango-Uniform-Victor-Alfa”).

To create this album, I had to take off. All of the pictures, with the exception of night-time shots of Trakai, were made while airborne. Most of the work was done while flying ultralights with pilots Artūras Laukys from Klaipėda and Stanislovas Petruškevičius from Elektrėnai. The ultralight is an immensely versatile, quite slow and reliable means of transport. Even when we would unexpectedly run out of fuel or one of the engine’s cylinders would stall, we would glide down and land on some field or even on the beach. Yet the ultralight has a rather limited flying distance and besides, it is virtually impossible to obtain permission to fly it over the large cities or in controlled airspace, near airports. Therefore we performed many flights on a four-seat Polish aeroplane Wilga from Panevėžys and a German two-seater CTws from Kaunas. The pictures of the old towns of Klaipėda, Kaunas and the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant were taken from Air force helicopters Mi-8. We did several flights over Vilnius and Kaunas in a hot-air balloon.

Even though Lithuania is small, to make pictures of objects situated at different locations one must find the closest airports and runways – you cannot fly around Lithuania just taking off from one spot. With ultralights, we have been taking off from and landing at airports in Kartena, Nida, Alytus, Utena, Šilutė, Paluknys, fields near Tauragė, Elektrėnai, Raseiniai, Šilalė. We have been taking off on aeroplanes from Panevėžys and Aleksotas and helicopters – from the airport in Zokniai, the search and rescue bases in Nemirseta and Kaunas. To make aerial pictures of Vilnius, we used to take off on a hot-air balloon off the Park Vingis and a field close to the International Airport, and in Kaunas – off a field near the castle of Kaunas.

Usually I would drive to the take-off location from Vilnius and return home after the flight. When I was making pictures of Western Lithuania, I would stay in Palanga. When we were flying from Kartena to Nida, we had a couple of hours of sleep in a tent near Nida’s airport and flew back at first sunlight.

Of Time and Light

Almost all of the pictures were taken early in the morning or late at night. The low hanging sun creates a beautiful relief, its soft light is yellowish or slightly red, instead of the blinding white. If the sun is shining through the clouds, you can observe mysterious, fantastic shades. Long shadows, excellent contrast lasts for about an hour and a half after the sunrise and for about two hours before sunset.

Unfortunately, it is much harder to plan and carry out such flights than ones that take in the middle of day. The summer of 2007 was no treat – although there were quite a few sunny days, very often the sky would get cloudy in the evening and in the morning the sun would only emerge from the clouds when it was already quite high in the sky.

To be airborne and near the object you want to photograph at sunrise, in June to July you have to lift off at 5 a.m. at the latest. Depending on the venue of the take-off and the aircraft, I had to get up and start my preparations at 3 in the morning or even earlier. Sometimes, when I would wake up, the night would appear to be clear and I could look forward to a spectacular sunrise, but once I got to the airport and was preparing to fly, clouds would appear in the East or a thick fog would come, preventing the take-off. When I was flying in the evening, sometimes similar misfortunes would happen as well –
clouds would gather, the sun would hide, there would be no light in the sky and after spending some quite useless time in the air we have to get back.

Of Photographic Equipment

All of the pictures included in the album were taken with a Hasselblad H3D-39 digital camera. Introduced in early 2007, that was a digital camera that offered the highest possible resolution. I chose it since I wanted to make pictures of highest quality possible for this big scale photo project. The strengths of this camera are its enormous resolution (a 48 x 36 mm sensor, 39 Mpixels), a very wide dynamic range, proprietary RAW FFF format, which allows to save immense amount of visual information. However, this camera is quite heavy and slow (one shot is made in every two seconds). Hasselblad’s distinguishing feature is the unique lenses with a built-in central shutter. The entire frame is exposed instantly, yet the shortest possible exposure time is 1/800 of a second. I used two Hasselblad lenses: a 50-110 mm 3.5 – 4.5 zoom and a 28 mm 4.0 prime. The latter lens has a super wide angle and was designed exclusively for Hasselblad digital cameras.

Hasselblad H3D-39 was a brand new model and so I had to have something to replace it with should it become jammed or broken. The backup camera was a Nikon D2X with a Nikor 17-55 mm 2.8 zoom and a Nikor 10.8 mm 2.8 fish-eye lenses. This camera is very fast (up to 8 shots per second) and is capable of very short exposure times of up to 1/10,000 of a second.

I would usually make about 400-500 shots during one flight, which required up to four Lexar 8GB Compact Flash memory cards. One of the most difficult things in aerial photography, especially when using an ultralight, is to change memory cards, batteries and lenses. It is a very awkward thing to do with a hurricane-type stream of air blowing, and when it is cold and fingers become stiff it gets dangerously difficult (no one would be too happy about having a 2-kilo piece of metal and glass falling out of the sky).

For navigation we used printed and GPS maps. To later identify the location where every picture was taken I would synchronize the timers of the camera and a Garmin GPS device before each flight, and would save the track data after. In this way the time a picture was taken will always allow to tag the place it was taken at.

Of Computers

Doing a project like this with anything but digital equipment is a hard thing to imagine. Taking the pictures on a film-based camera that uses 6 cm, 12-shot film would require more than 1,500 rolls!

Digital equipment allowed me not to save up on takes, and to thoroughly cover a great variety of angles. Right after a flight, I would save all data from the memory cards to a portable Apple Mac Book Pro (17”, 250 GB HDD, 2.4 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 4GB RAM) and a backup external 500 GB Lacie hard drive. The original Hasselblad file format can only be recognised by the proprietary software FlexColor, which I used to convert all pictures into the universal Adobe DNG digital negative format. To catalogue the pictures, I used the Adobe Lightroom 1.1 application. Upon returning back to Vilnius, I would save all pictures on the main Apple Mac Pro 2x3 GHz Quad-Core Intel Xeon computer with a 30” Apple Cinema monitor, 5GB RAM, 3 TB of internal hard disk space and a 4 TB external RAID disk array. I would make extra copies of pictures in the original Hasselblad RAW and Adobe DNG format on backup external 1TB disks.

Figures of interest

Flights made 51
Hours spent airborne 88
Average altitude of flights 92 m
Total distance flown nearly 7 500 km
Distance travelled by car over 10 000 km
Shots taken 19 468

Aerial photography devices

Tool Strengths Weaknesses
Ultralight

 

Low speed, little vibration, relatively cheap, can land on and take off from any field. Cables holding the wings obstruct the view, it gets pretty cold in cooler weather, no flights allowed over cities.
Aeroplane Wilga

 

Long flying distance, excellent visibility with doors removed. Too high speed, sense of vibration.

 

Ultra light aeroplane Good range of speeds, long flying distance. Hard to make photos through the small window, no low-altitude flights.
Helicopter Mi-8

 

Excellent range of speeds – can virtually hang suspended in one place at low altitude in uninhabited areas. The most expensive device, difficult planning of flights.

 

Hot-air balloon

 

Low speed, no vibration.

 

Almost uncontrollable flight direction, short flying distance, requires additional transportation, expensive.
Crane

 

No permits from civil aviation administration required, long-exposure night-time photography possible. Clumsy transportation, limited altitude.