A Slice of Manhattan, From 400 Feet Up

We flew a big red balloon over New York City Saturday, generating excitement, cheers and about 300 aerial pictures of the tippy-top of Manhattan.

And we had a bunch of fun.

I just posted the complete set of pictures shot from about 400 feet up. (Also viewable as a slideshow.)

Soon, I'll stitch the pictures together into a mosaic of the park.

For the how and why we did it, read on!

Initial Inspiration

About a year ago, during a conference at the MIT Center for Future Civic Media, I met Jeffrey Warren and other folks behind Grassroots Mapping. They had done fascinating work mapping and photographing the Gulf Oil Spill with kites and balloons.

More recently, I ran into Jennifer Hudon who is part of a team mapping the Gowanus Canal ecosystem in Brooklyn.

My only motivating cause was that flying a camera-balloon seemed like a fantastic project, and something my kids would love. (I was right on both counts.)

Idea to Imagery

I started with this complete guide of everything necessary and hit online and local stores for balloons, cranks and string.

The trickiest part was hacking my Canon camera to automatically take a picture every 15 seconds. There's a guide for that, too, of course. The hack turns out to be especially challenging to do with a Mac, but I was determined to pull it off, and did one evening.

Friday I saw the Saturday forecast was for a sunny, still morning. So I tracked down a tank of helium, grabbed a 2-liter bottle of seltzer to use as a camera housing and put everything in a backpack.

I also read the regulations about balloon flights, looked at the actual law and checked for any temporary flight restrictions. (That was nice to know when the police arrived!)

Saturday morning at 8:45 a.m., in a field at Inwood Hill Park, we inflated the balloon, sealed it with cable ties, turned on the camera and hooked it up with a carabiner.

Then we sent everything flying on 400 feet of pink string.

My children and I walked around the park's lagoon, joined initially by our friends Brad, Liz, Molly and Tessa -- who spotted the balloon out their 7th-floor apartment window -- and then by more families from the area.

Navigating trees was the hardest part, and twice we landed the balloon to get to the next open area. But otherwise, no snags of any sort.

Next Steps

My plan is to use Cartagen Knitter to stitch the images together into one big mosaic.

When it's done, I'll post that here, too.

Getting ready to fly

Here are a few shots from our launch this morning. Tomorrow I'll post a full dispatch, with details, information and links to the entire aerial photo set.

Photos by Kristin Keefe.