Castles In The Sky

November 1, 2008
By Bret

This last August, we took a nice long vacation to Northern California and spent some quality time with just about all of our in-state family. On the Lake Tahoe leg of our trip, we spent a long morning playing in the shallows at Meeks Bay.

While helping the toddlers build and destroy sand castles, I had an idea for a photographic project.

Andrea’s brother Sam was there with his new Canon 30D, and we spent the better part of an hour trying to get decent pictures of short-lived sand castles. How short-lived? Very…they only existed for the 0.279 seconds it takes to fall 30 inches at an elevation of 6351 feet.*

The general plan was this: while sitting by the shore, I would fill one of the castle tower molds with wet sand and pack it tightly enough that it would stay in place when I turned it over and held it upside-down. Once Sam had locked the camera’s focus, I would start squeezing the mold until the sand fell out. He would try to time the exposures (using the 5 fps continuous shooting mode) to catch the tower mid-air.

The concept was pretty straightforward, but there were a few issues that made it difficult to get good photos.

For one thing, it’s difficult to get a closeup photo like that in such a short window of time. Sam was zoomed in enough that only part of the fall distance was in-frame, so that window was even less than the 0.279 seconds I estimated above. I tried to sense when the sand was about to fall and warn Sam, but that was hard to gauge. When it was ready to go, it would just go.

The other main issue that made taking these pictures a process was getting the amount of water right. Too much water, and the sand would just pour out. Too little, and it would come out in unrecognizable chunks. A lot of that hour was spent tapping, shaking, pouring, and then picking up failed attempts…

And then just when we thought we had a handle on everything, switching to a tower of different shape and/or size would change everything. But the weather was beautiful, company was good, and we had plenty of time to work on a silly, spontaneous project.

Ah, sweet summer vacation.

We started with round towers

Small square towers were the most finicky...

Half a large square tower - too dry

Large square tower - too much water

* Based on an adjusted value of gravity taken from’s Atmospheric Properties Calculator.

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