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Best of 2011: Jenna Close and Jon Held


Jenna Close and Jon Held are riding the crest of a green-energy wave with an industrial photography market niche: Solar panel installations shot from above. The star of their show is a remote-control (RC) helicopter named Buzz, sturdy enough to carry a Canon 5D. Lots of technology, technique and trial-and-error went into developing this system, and after a full year of testing, the pair officially introduced their “low angle” aerial services to solar clients. While Held operates the helicopter controls, Close composes from the ground, shooting through goggles and a video downlink system. Now, more than 80 percent of their work comes from requests for RC aerial images captured by Buzz.

Jenna Close and Jon Held, Oceanside, CA

Web site: www.p2photography.net

Project: Jenna Close and Jon Held’s business niche of photographing solar panels and subsequent development of the remotely controlled helicopter, Buzz.

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© p2 photography

ASMP: How long have you been in business?

JC: Four and a half years.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?

JC: I’ve been a member for five years, first in the Seattle chapter and now in San Diego. Jon has been a member of the San Diego chapter for just over three years.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

JC: Our niche is the alternative energy market and the solar industry in particular. About 80 percent of our clients come from this industry. In addition, we offer low altitude aerial photography using our remotely controlled helicopter, Buzz.

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© p2 photography

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable tool or piece of equipment?

JC: That would have to be Buzz, our RC helicopter. As we spent more time on location at solar installations, we found we had a great desire to shoot from 30 to 80 feet above the installations. Logistically it is not always possible to use a lift or hire a full sized helicopter to shoot from. To address this my partner Jon decided to learn how to fly a remotely controlled helicopter. One year later, it is a very popular item with our clients. Also, it allows us the flexibility to wait for the best light and spend time finding the right angle for the shot. And it is a bit of a spectacle to watch in action, so our clients walk away with a great experience as well as great images. Sometimes they even record a video of it to show their friends. It’s great word of mouth.

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© p2 photography

ASMP: What is unique about your style/approach or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?

JC: I think our niche market sets us apart. We hung out our shingle just as the solar industry began its latest surge, and we’ve been riding along with them ever since. We make a point to know and understand the different challenges, trends, materials and lingo within the industry in order to converse with our clients about the best way to photograph their product. We are always looking for techniques to make the imagery stand out.

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© p2 photography

ASMP: Please describe the processes and techniques central to the making of this work.

JC: When we first entered this business many companies were using photographs taken by their installers or engineers at the completion of the project. Often, the images would be shot mid-day in harsh light, the panels would be unclean and so on. Right away we utilized post-production to enhance the beauty shots. This added a value our clients wanted but couldn’t get without hiring a professional. Whether for aerial or ground shots, we fill in grass, enhance the blue of the panels, add sky if needed. We can even remove trucks or other construction debris if we’re required to shoot the installation before the final clean-up. We can also look at what type of system the client has, whether it’s a fixed mount or a tracking system, for example, and recommend which time of day and panel angle will be most flattering. We have spent a lot of time studying reflections and light and how they work with different types of panels and systems.

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ASMP: Your specialty, solar panels mainly shot from above, seems a somewhat narrow niche. How far do you anticipate taking your business in this specific area?

JC: The solar industry is a very healthy market right now, especially in Southern California. So far, the demand for this type of photography has been high. I expect it to slow down a bit as our clients build their libraries, but at the same time these companies are constantly working on new and bigger projects, so I hope the need will remain. Our next step with the RC helicopter is to add video capability. Requests for this service (video flyovers of completed installations) are growing.

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© p2 photography

ASMP: Do you also plan to target other industrial and/or green market clients with the specific type of aerial photography you’ve developed? If so, which ones?

JC: We are also looking at using the RC helicopter for other avenues besides solar. Wind is another industry we plan on marketing to, as well as biofuels. Anything large-scale is a great candidate for Buzz. A few production companies have contacted us about aerial video, and it is also a great tool for construction documentation, travel and tourism and many other subjects. There are endless applications. I want to work on some personal projects with it as well. It’s amazing how impressive things look from the air.

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© p2 photography

ASMP: Please talk about how you market your services and reach out to potential clients. Have your marketing efforts evolved along with your methods for image capture?

JC: We are currently in our fourth year of renting a booth at a large solar industry trade show. This was a big risk when we first tried it, as it is a large financial investment. So far, it has always paid off. We now have a reputation at the show and people recognize us. Since we are the only photographers there, we make a big impact. Another bonus is that many of our clients are exhibitors as well, so our work is visible at many booths at the show. It’s like a giant portfolio. We also send out mailers every two to three months, and once a year we send out a fancier piece, such as a small coffee table book, to those companies we most want to work for. Aside from that, we work very hard at search engine optimization. A fair amount of our non-alternative energy clients, which are mostly corporate and environmental portraits, come from Google searches. Our marketing efforts haven’t evolved much with the addition of the RC helicopter, but we display it at our booth now and it gets a lot of attention.

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© p2 photography

ASMP: You mention that traditional shooting methods, using a cherry picker, a pole and a full sized helicopter, all have limitations. Please talk about these limitations and any strategies you’ve developed when not making use of the RC helicopter to troubleshoot within the confines of these different approaches.

JC: Some of the sites we travel to for commercial solar installations are very remote and a cherry picker is not always available. Even when we can rent one, we have to have someone available at all times to drive it, and moving around the installation can take time and limits what we can do in good light. Our pole is simple and easy, but will only get us to 20 feet. A full-sized helicopter is a great alternative, but then there are the constraints of time, availability, cost and on occasion, excess noise. If we can’t use the RC helicopter to meet the client’s needs we usually fall back on the pole, or look around for natural high vantage points such as adjacent rooftops or hills. The RC helicopter is the best solution across the board, and since it is battery-powered it is very quiet. Sometimes, in close proximity to airports, safety dictates that we can’t fly. In that case, we either use the pole, shoot from the ground, or use a full sized helicopter so we can maintain contact with Air Traffic Control.

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© p2 photography

ASMP: Regarding the remote control helicopter you’ve developed, how much of this rig and related technology is off-the-shelf, and how much did you and your partner invent? Does either of you have a strong tech background or are you learning on the fly?

JC: The helicopter itself is a bare bones, off-the-shelf kit, although it has to be assembled from about 150 parts. Jon has a strong tech background and he researched and chose the various electronic components and system options necessary to optimize the helicopter for our purposes. Also, in the process of building it he learned how the helicopter works so he could fix it and make upgrades without relying on someone else. As to the time invested, it was a year ago that he began researching different types of remote aerial photography platforms, mostly getting information from online communities. He also found a mentor at a local RC group here in San Diego. He spent two months practicing on a computer simulator before purchasing a small training helicopter. After another four months practicing with that, we bought and assembled a second, larger helicopter powerful enough to lift our Canon 5D. Jon built the camera mount himself and rigged it with a through-the-lens video downlink and a camera tilt control. It’s a two-person operation. Jon flies the helicopter and I control the camera and compose the shot. I am not tech savvy and would never have entertained the possibility of succeeding at this project without Jon. Fortunately, he is really into this kind of stuff.

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ASMP: What kind of regulations is this craft subject to in the air? Have you had any interesting encounters with local law enforcement or the FAA?

JC: Current FAA regulations require that we fly less than 400 feet above ground level (AGL). We also do not fly at night or in winds of over 15 mph. Safety is a big issue, so we also check airspace before agreeing to a job. Understanding aviation maps is a project in itself but is very important. If the project falls within certain restricted federal airspace then we will not use the RC helicopter for the job. Jon is also a member of the Association of Model Aviators, which provides a community for support, and guidelines for safe operation of model aircraft.

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© p2 photography

ASMP: Please talk about the process for photographing with this rig. Do you have full command of the camera controls while Buzz is in the air? Can you shoot with different types of lenses? Is there any time delay due to the remote operation of the camera?

JC: Buzz is outfitted with a Canon 5D. A tiny camera is fitted into the eyepiece of the 5D. This camera is attached to a video downlink that allows a second person on the ground (not the pilot) to see what the 5D sees. I wear video goggles, which look like something out of a sci-fi movie. I have a transmitter that can control the tilt of the camera. The camera has a 90-degree range and can shoot anywhere between straight-ahead and straight down. There is no time delay. As I watch through the goggles I direct Jon to fly the helicopter wherever I need for the best composition. We control the pan aspect by pointing the helicopter as needed. Our current camera mount does not pan. We get our best results using a Zeiss 18mm lens. It is a manual focus lens, so we tape it at infinity focus before we take off. We don’t have zoom capability, but the RC helicopter can maneuver anywhere we need. We can even fly it backward and have it point toward us. The camera is on a self-timer, so it takes a picture every 3 seconds. Through the goggles I can see when the camera takes the shot, so I know if we have it in the bag or not. Eventually I will be able to trigger the shutter from the ground, but we haven’t had a need to rig the system that way yet. Also, we sometimes get very interesting angles on the ascent and descent with the self-timer which are usually incidental to the planned shot but are very good. We also use a Canon 24-105mm lens, though it is difficult to get the focus correct. In autofocus mode it is finicky, due to vibration from the helicopter motor, and in manual mode it is difficult find the position of the focus at infinity. The Zeiss, with its manual focus, works best for our current applications.

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© p2 photography

ASMP: In regard to the images you capture, what kinds of parameters or conditions do you have to deal with in composing or framing a shot? Do you pre-visualize the actual scenes you want to capture or is this a more spontaneous process?

JC: Once we get to a location, we walk all the way around it and scout the best possible angles from which to shoot. We also look at Google Earth to get a sense of what’s in the surrounding area, even if the installation isn’t recorded there at that point. Since we are familiar with certain angles from which solar installations look best, we start with those. Most ground installations are square, so shooting from a corner is a great way to start. However, it is very hard to completely pre-visualize the installation from the ground, so often once we get in the air we always discover new compositions that would be impossible to scout beforehand because we can’t see the exact surrounding topography.

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ASMP: How much retouching or postproduction work is needed in these images? Please talk about any differences in image quality or distinctions in visual impact that you’ve experienced when shooting with this gear.

JC: We do a lot of retouching, as I mentioned before. It is not always needed, but in some circumstances it makes a big difference. Solar panels generally look bluer to the eye (depending on what the sky is doing that day) than they appear in camera. Also, thin grass that gives the area a green look from a lateral view may be more or less invisible from an aerial view, revealing the dirty brown look of the recent installation. Very often we will increase the blue tone in the panels, fix any patches in the grass and/or make it greener and clean up any distracting elements visible from the air (trucks in the distance, footpaths, litter, people and so on). These services are itemized in our initial estimate and never once has someone asked us not to provide them. We will also add more dramatic skies or clouds if the client requests it. Our goal is to make the installations look beautiful, and this is part of what sets us apart. We understand light and reflections in relationship to the angle of the panels as well as how much the dust is going to show up, and we work with the client to remove as much of this as possible. This is a big part of what makes our imagery different than something the installer or engineer or other non-professional would shoot at the end of the project. We are not the cheapest outfit in town, but our clients want something that makes them stand out, so more often than not they are willing to pay for the added value.

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© p2 photography

ASMP: Can you also shoot video when working with Buzz? If so, please describe the level of functionality you can achieve and/or any limitations experienced. If not, do you shoot any video footage of solar panels using other methods (a cherry picker, a pole, a full sized helicopter, etc.) or do you expect to offer this as a service in the near future?

JC: We are just now beginning to investigate shooting video. Before using Buzz we did not get a lot of requests for video, but now more and more clients are asking for aerial flyovers of their installations. We have a Canon 5D Mark II that Buzz will carry, and also a Canon Rebel T2i. We are also considering a GoPro because it is lightweight, wide angle and the video quality seems suited to our purpose. Since a lot of the installations we shoot are 2 to 4 acres, we need a wide-angle lens. At this point we’re still working on stabilization issues with the RC helicopter, as every little invisible wind gust can be seen on camera, but we are getting closer. There is certainly demand, not only from the solar industry but from production companies, ad agencies and real estate firms. We expect to have a high-quality video service available in the next few months. It is the next logical step for our company and I think demand will only increase.

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ASMP: Do either you or your partner have a traditional pilot’s license? If not, is this something you’re considering or interested to pursue for the future?

JC: Jon is a commercial glider pilot who also has an instructor’s license. For a few months out of every year he teaches at an airport in New Mexico. This keeps him current and also comes in handy when looking at airspace and FAA regulations with the RC helicopter. Since gliders have no engine, he is very experienced at reading weather conditions and this helps with the RC heli as well. He also has a private seaplane license. I love to fly, but only in the passenger seat.

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ASMP: Are there limitations to weather or lighting conditions in which you can shoot with this rig?

JC: We don’t fly at night, though it is possible with specialized lighting on the RC helicopter. We don’t fly in rain, snow or in winds over 15 mph. If we are on the shoot and the conditions aren’t safe, we just wait it out or reschedule. Luckily, we mainly shoot in the California, New Mexico and Nevada area where there is a lot of sun. We recently shot a job at the Cincinnati Zoo during a particularly rainy month, and we were able to photograph for only two of the six days we were there. We had looked at satellite weather ahead of time and knew that a weather front was coming in and we scheduled some extra days. On one of those days there was less than an hour of usable light, but since we can get the helicopter in the air in just a few minutes we still came away with good images.

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© p2 photography

ASMP: How is the RC helicopter powered, what is its speed when you’re shooting with it and how is it transported when you’re in transit to/from an assignment? Do you package and transport this item the same as you would regular photographic gear?

JC: Buzz is powered by lithium polymer batteries. Each battery is 25 volts with a capacity of 3.3 amp-hours, and Buzz needs two to fly. When carrying the Canon 5D, Buzz can fly for 6 or 7 minutes on a set of batteries. We have five sets of batteries and can recharge them in the field from a car battery.

We normally use a shutter speed of 1/500 of a second. This is ideal and pretty much guarantees a sharp image regardless of gusts of wind, etc. We can currently go down to 1/200 of a second if needed. We generally use Shutter Priority mode, since we can’t adjust anything once we are in the air. We also set the camera at 1/3-stop underexposed. This keeps the sky from blowing out. We also check exposure after every landing.

Buzz has a rotor diameter of about 54 inches. It can be broken down to fit in a 14- by 20- by 9-inch case that fits in most airline overhead compartments. Buzz always travels as carry-on, never in checked luggage. But just like lithium photo batteries, our somewhat larger lithium batteries must be carried on as well, never checked. Each battery is kept in its original packaging, in bubble wrap and a cardboard holder, and we then set them all into a single carrying case. We also carry a printout of the TSA battery regulations in case we run into trouble. So far, we have not had any problems, but there are reports that others have. We arrange for a local hobby store near our destination to have a supply of acceptable batteries in the event that ours don’t make it on the plane. Buzz takes about an hour to break down for commercial airline travel.

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ASMP: Do you need specialized insurance in order to operate Buzz? Have you had damaging crashes or emergency landings to recount?

JC: We have $2 million liability coverage specifically for the RC helicopter. This is imperative. It costs us about $1,200 a year, and I would never fly without it. We have not had any crashes or emergency landings on the job, and this is in part due to Jon’s extreme diligence and skill. He takes our smaller training helicopter out and practices with it every day, honing his skill and learning emergency landing techniques. The RC helicopter is a complicated machine and so we have developed a checklist of about 20 items that we run through every single time the helicopter takes off. This includes checking all mechanical and electrical connections, camera mount security and so on. There are also several uncontrollable elements we encounter such as insects, birds, gusts of wind, lightning and the like. Bees especially are attracted to the helicopter and generally do not fare well in the encounter. When he is flying the helicopter Jon has to keep his hands on the controls at all times and his eyes focused on the helicopter, and that means no swatting at insects if they should land on him or (yes, it has happened) sting him. Now he wears long sleeve shirts regardless of the weather.

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ASMP: How do you figure the research and development cost for Buzz into your pricing for assignment work? How are the R&D costs reconciled in terms of your overall cost of doing business?

JC: A common misconception with Buzz is that it is cheaper than hiring a full-sized helicopter. When we set out on this project we did not intend to provide a cheaper alternative to traditional aerial photography and we do not market it as such. Getting Buzz off the ground cost us a full year of Jon’s time and about $6,000. Jon is constantly upgrading, practicing and looking at new technology, and this will continue to be a part of our workflow as long as we have Buzz. These costs are definitely added into our price, but they are easy to explain to a prospective client. What we offer are photographs that are more interesting and more dramatic than those shot with a traditional helicopter. It sets our clients apart from the crowd. We can even shoot portraits with the RC helicopter if there is a need. We have flexibility with time and can wait for good light. We are not constrained by pilot and airport schedules. If the light is terrible the day of the shoot, we can easily return the next day, the next week, or whenever is convenient for the client. In return, they pay for our skill, our time spent and the equipment involved. So far, no one has questioned the benefits or the price.

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ASMP: Is there any aspect of the development or operation of your RC helicopter and your related photographic services that might be patentable or open to trademark protection? If so, please describe what you’re doing to pursue this and the procedures involved.

JC: That’s a good question. At this point, probably not. Everything we use is also used by others; in fact, it was recommended to us by others. The RC community is large and packed with knowledgeable enthusiasts. Many have been happy to share their experiences with us and have been absolutely instrumental in helping us get to where we are today. These folks are very skilled model-aircraft flyers, some of whom dabble in photography as a hobby while flying around and are very willing to share what they’ve learned. Just like the photography industry, RC flying has made great advances in recent years and there are many choices out there about what to fly, what motors to use, what blades, landing gear and so on. We could not have gotten where we are so quickly (and for relatively little money) without that community.

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© p2 photography

ASMP: In terms of your aerial photography of solar panels, did you ever consider or try to photograph in tandem with activities such as paragliding, hang gliding, parachuting and so forth? Based on your experiences in working with Buzz, please comment about the potential for image making using these methods.

JC: Another interesting question. I am a huge fan of George Steinmetz, and if I had to steal one person’s career it would probably be his. There is a guy in Vermont who shoots aerial photographs from a balloon that is tethered to his pickup truck. Another guy in Seattle uses an RC blimp. All of these things are viable options. I don’t know a lot about paragliding or hang gliding, as I have yet to try either. The thing about RC helicopters is that they are relatively stable and yet very small. You can hover around four feet above an object, depending on what it is.

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© p2 photography

ASMP: How many people are on your full team and how do you organize and manage this enterprise?

JC: P2 Photography is made up of Jon and myself. For most of our shoots, we work in tandem and assist each other. No one is the lead shooter, we just work together depending on who has the first idea. It’s a pretty organic process, but it works well because we are so familiar with each other. Jon might help me shoot something, then say, “Ok, I’ve got an idea over here… can you bring that light over this way…?” and I will hand off the camera and become the assistant. With RC helicopter shoots our responsibilities are more defined: Jon is the pilot and I compose the shots and operate the camera. While he sets up, I will be chatting with the client, answering the inevitable questions about Buzz and keeping them a safe distance from the helicopter. In other areas of the business, I do all of the retouch and most of the marketing, although everything we do must be approved by both of us. I also manage the business end of things with QuickBooks. Jon usually answers the phone, as I am terrible at it. He is also in charge of all helicopter-related areas and all tech or repair-related issues with our other equipment. Because there are two of us, we rarely have need of an assistant for our type of jobs. You could say that the rest of our team is our great community of photographers and assistants here in San Diego, all found through ASMP, many of whom are now close friends. If for whatever reason we can’t do a job, we offer it to one of our trusted ASMP buddies and they do the same for us.

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ASMP: According to your Web site you’ve also been involved in licensing your images through stock distribution agreements. Please talk about these efforts in terms of the logistics involved in obtaining permissions and releases from property owners, while describing the return you have seen on these efforts to date and the potential for future growth in this aspect of your business.

JC: Our stock shoots are usually completely separate projects from work with clients. Since most of our commercial work involves photographs of custom solar installations, clients do not want these images to be available to represent the competition. Occasionally we will reach an agreement with a company wherein we can license images of their installation with restrictions. Generally these restrictions limit the images to territories where the original company doesn’t operate. Still, this is rare, so most of our stock contributions are conceptual images centering on climate change and lifestyle. When shooting stock, we get a model and property release whenever possible. This increases the salability of our images and makes sure we aren’t violating any rights. Property releases for solar installations are particularly necessary in that companies can easily recognize their own work, even if the general public can’t tell the difference. For the past 3 years we have been represented by Green Stock Media, which is a wonderful boutique stock agency centered around alternative energy. Recently we were asked to join Aurora Photos and we’ve decided to accept their offer. While stock isn’t a huge part of our revenue stream, I think the demand for high quality images relating to alternative energy will continue to grow. For us, it’s a great way to make some extra cash while shooting personal projects that relate to our niche, but we don’t rely on it to pay the rent.

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© p2 photography