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|| News Item: Posted 2005-04-02

Pushing Pixels: From the Rafters
By Reed Hoffmann, Blue Pixel

Photo by Reed Hoffmann

Photo by Reed Hoffmann

AP Staffer Charlie Riedel's laptop, and in the center you can see the desktop of the computer in the rafters (above the goal in the background). The Quantum radio slave Reed used to trigger the camera is to the right of the laptop.
When the Big 12 tournament came to Kansas City a few weeks ago I got a call from the local Associated Press bureau asking if I could help out with the championship game. I could travel light - there was no need for a laptop or even any cameras. They had mounted a camera and equipment in the rafters, and needed someone to trigger it and take care of the images. Sounded like fun, and it was. Kind of weird to be at a basketball game shooting pictures, never looking through a camera. Of course, it was also the first time all of my pictures were in focus!

Charlie Riedel, the AP staffer in Kansas City who set everything up, called it "a poor man's remote setup." For the most part they used gear they already had to put it all together. In the rafters above the goal at Kemper Arena was a Nikon D1H and 80-200 lens mounted on a Bogen/Manfrotto Magic Arm, aimed down at the goal with the focus taped down.

The camera was hooked into AC power so battery power wasn't a problem. A firewire cable connected the camera to a small Windows computer that Cliff Schiappa, Midwest Photo Editor for the AP in Kansas City, asked their tech staff to build. Darin Henderson, an AP Communications Specialist there, put it together for them. Inside the computer were several applications set to startup automatically. This avoids having to haul a monitor and keyboard around. The two key apps are Nikon Capture Camera Control (old copy, version 2) and Timbuktu Remote. The last piece of the puzzle was an inexpensive wireless access point hooked up to the Windows box. Once this was done, Charlie could head back down to the floor.

Back at courtside, Charlie fired up his Dell laptop with a wireless card and looks for the signal being send from the WAP and computer up above. Having found it and logged on, he starts up Timbuktu Remote. This piece of software lets you control one computer (the one in the rafters) from another (the one below). With these two steps taken, he can now operate Nikon Capture Camera Control from the computer at courtside. What he sees on the screen is the desktop of the computer upstairs. Nikon Capture lets him have total control of the camera, from setting ISO and shutter speed to the processing parameters (such as sharpening, tone, etc.). He can even fire the camera from the laptop, but doesn't.

Shooting the camera by pushing a button in Nikon Capture Camera Control means a slight delay in taking the picture. To avoid that, Charlie hooked up an old Quantum radio slave to the camera. This way the firing is almost instantaneous. Now that all the work's been done, it's time for me to step in (or should I say sit down) and do the easy part. Actually, it's harder than I imagined.

Have you ever tried to shoot sports without looking through a viewfinder? You soon come to live and die by continuous - there is no "single-frame, catch the moment." You look for people crashing in on a rebound - they need to be looking up, you know - and then mash down on the remote and hope. After that comes the magic part.

Since I'm viewing the desktop of the computer in the rafters, I can watch the photos as they download to the hard drive up there (which happens fast thanks to firewire). I can choose one and zoom in to look at detail. Once I find one I like, I go through a little dance. Timbuktu Remote has an Exchange program that is used to transfer files from the remote computer (in the rafters) to the one I'm sitting at.

Remember, although you can see the photos being shot, they reside on the computer upstairs, not the one you're sitting at. The advantage here is that I don't have to worry about bandwidth problems, since the photos aren't coming into the computer at courtside. The Exchange program lets me pull just the file(s) I want from upstairs down to the computer I'm sitting at. Now just a few more steps before the picture's ready to transmit.

First things first, I want to knock the noise down. For that I turned to Noise Ninja (, the best noise filtering software around. Since there aren't any ready-made profiles for the D1H, I used the Auto Profiling feature to have Noise Ninja determine the best method. That looked good, so the next step was to crop and tone (using Adjustment Layers in Photoshop), then caption and save. From there I simply copied the photo off to a Lexar USB Flash Drive and handed it to Cliff Schiappa, who was doing the editing and transmitting of photos for the event.

What makes a system like this so nice is that once it's set up, it just sits there waiting to be used. The ability to operate the camera anywhere within the wireless network's range and wirelessly download the images frees you of having to worry about trying to get to the camera and the card within it. And the Nikon software lets you change exposure and other settings at any time without making a return trip to the rafters.

This is also a good opportunity to build a relationship with your IT staff, and perhaps make some new friends. Ask if they can help you put together a system like this. It's techy enough that they'll enjoy the challenge, and may have an old computer lying around that can be used for this. An old laptop is ideal. Make them a part of the photo team for a big event, and show them the results. They're definitely friends worth having, and it's a fun project for all.

(Reed Hoffmann is a partner in Blue Pixel, a company specializing in digital photography and workflow issues. Before that he was a newspaper photographer for over 20 years. He normally uses this space to rant about digital issues. If you have one you think would make a good column, drop Reed a note at

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