With 16 years of intermittent involvement with TIGHAR’s Earhart Project and 5 trips with the group to Nikumaroro as they conducted their field work, the underlying technology of documentary film making has gone through dramatic shifts in that period of time. The first year I worked with TIGHAR the A camera was Betacam SP format and the B cameras were a Sony PD 150 and a Canon DV camera. Subsequent trips in 2007, 2010, 2012, and 2015 saw the shift to file based cameras (2007) which has continued through the present. Between 2007 and 2010 the camera technology shifted from 720P to 1080P as the base recording format, storage capacities exploded which allowed virtually unlimited shooting. The advancements in digital stills camera tech allowed expanded use of time- lapse photography and finally Go Pro cameras provided a way to work both above and below the water line in creative ways.
The biggest and most exciting development was the emergence of small GPS stabilized UAV’s that finally freed the camera from being stuck on the ground with the land team as they hacked their way through spider webs, mounds of live and dead scaevola. Having a view from above adds a compelling dimension to the documentary photography possible with the Earhart Project. This was first demonstrated in 2001 when the scout helicopter from a tuna boat randomly showed up and landed on the island. We were able to capitalize on that moment and get a ride in the aircraft filming a complete overview of the island.
In 2015 having small UAVs made documenting the work of the land team easier and better, showing the scope and context of the island in ways that I had never been able to do prior to this time. While having aerial capability is a huge advantage, the technology is not perfect. In the time shooting that year there was a massive solar storm in progress which affected GPS dramatically in a negative way. UAV operation was impacted by random erratic aircraft behavior which resulted in numerous aborted flights and the loss of one aircraft in the ocean after a flyaway event. Even with that unfortunate event, the dimension that having an aerial view in this documentary project has been immensely positive.
The photo below shows a search party making its way through a scaevola forest to search an area of interest. The shot comes from a DJI Phantom drone equipped with a Go Pro Camera.
The image below here is a still pulled from a POV walk through of the same area shown in the picture above. Without the drones we used on this expedition in 2015 the camera would be stuck in POV mode on the ground the whole time slogging through scaevola, vast spider webs, and terrain where it would be impossible to move the camera independently of the subjects. Considering the terrible flying conditions at the time, solar flares and trying to get close in coverage in dense vegetation, this is an instance where aerial photography is indispensable.