Starting out as a small photography cooperative, Photosafari.kz has grown into an international project to show off Kazakhstan’s natural desert beauty.
This year, with the support of Intel, the website’s photographers went on an expedition to explore and document the Mangystau Peninsula, a wild landscape of dramatic valleys, sweeping dunes and epic mountain ridges.
To get the best shots on a remote trip like this, it’s vital to have the best equipment. For Konstantin Kikvidze, one of the project’s creators, this reliance on technology starts with the vehicles they use.
Considering that the wild Mangystau region has few roads, the Photosafari team drove “off-roaders ready for trackless roads, a 4×4 minibus, and trailer houses equipped with running water, gas, fridges, solar batteries and electricity.”
Kikvidze and his team packed their vehicles with 11 cameras, around 30 lenses, plus 13 tripods and monopods. They also needed to fit in 20 heavy batteries, four hand-held radios, plus assorted photography accessories including reflectors, power cables, wiring, special tools, remotes, filters and adapters.
Three flying camera drones and a steadycam case contributed the majority of the weight on the expedition, alongside a dolly slider with a pan/tilt head for specific time-lapse shots. They also needed to take several computers.
“As there is limited space in the vehicles, we have to think about our priorities when choosing [our] equipment,” explains Kikvidze. “As a result, we took 2-in-1 Asus Transformer Book T300 Chis with Intel Core M with us.
“Two of these compact computers weigh 1.45 kilos and replace several gadgets we had to take with us on earlier trips. With the 2-in-1 Transformer Book we weren’t faced to choose between a laptop and a tablet. When required, the docking station can be left at the camp, meaning we can set off for the site of the shoot with less on our backs – just the gear and the tablet.”
The Photosafari team take their stunning landscape images using Nikon D800 and D800E cameras, together with an array of different lenses.
“When it came out, the D800 was the highest resolution compact camera with a Bayer matrix — over 36 million pixels,” says Kikvidze. “In addition to taking wonderful photos, these cameras let us shoot high-quality video at a resolution of 1920 x 1080 (Full HD) and 30 frames per second. The wide dynamic range of the camera makes it possible to shoot in poor light, which is very helpful on our trips.”
To shoot video and photos in hard-to-reach places and from the air, the team uses more advanced technology — drones. Built with German electronics and off-the-shelf solutions from DJI, they have two workhorse machines that take turns flying.
“We also have mobile drones that fit in a backpack and help us during hiking trips,” says Kikvidze, “as well as a heavy drone that can lift a heavy video camera and can last a long time without recharging.”
Not all of Photosafari’s equipment is off-the-shelf, however, and one of the dolly sliders they use is controlled by an Intel Edison board.
“We call this slider the Mealofon,” says Kikvidze. “We were unhappy with certain small things in the original design of its electronic tilt head. For example, we couldn’t save the settings or pre-set the parameters of the shoot, and the LCD monitor wouldn’t let us see all the settings and parameters at the same time and change them on the spot.
“Plus, it didn’t have a keyboard: numbers would change depending on how long the only button was pressed. These small things added up to serious problems and made us lose precious time. And time is of the essence when the sun is setting and the photographer only has a few minutes to capture the best shots.”
The main problem, explains Kikvidze, is that the Mealofon does not have any non-volatile memory or a big screen. Tablets do, but how could the two things be connected together?
“[This] is where we found out that the Intel Edison chip could make this possible and it was easy to proceed from there. The Intel microcomputer easily integrated with the slider card and it did a great job connecting to the tablet via Wi-Fi. Then all we had to do was write a program aimed at achieving our goals — slow-motion video, recording time lapses, and so on.”
Kikvidze and his team found that 2-in-1 devices were far more convenient than tablet devices. They have a real keyboard, as opposed to a virtual one, which helps quickly enter shooting parameter values. Ultimately, the Edison-hacked gadget has opened new horizons for Photosafari’s photographers.
“It became evident that using Intel [inside key devices] provided additional capabilities for our photoshoots. So now we are reworking the program completely. Version 2.0 will come out soon and we’ll see what the result looks like.”