Digital Photography: On-the-Go Imaging

Duchenne MD student photographs with hybrid wheelchair rig

by Kent Treadgold on July 1, 2008 - 1:41pm

QUEST Vol. 15, No. 4

I teach a digital media class at a middle school in Everett, Wash. In this class, students learn all about digital photography and video production, including photo composition, script writing and computer editing. In addition to creating projects based on their own ideas, the students photograph the daily activities occurring at the school and produce daily newscasts transmitted via closed circuit to all our classrooms.

Orlando’s camera can be panned left or right, and tilted up or down, with a simple remote control.

This year, Orlando Valle, a bright, talented 8th-grader with Duchenne muscular dystrophy joined my class. Because he uses a wheelchair and has limited use of his arms, my challenge was to find a way for Orlando to participate fully in class. He’s able to use a computer, primarily by resting his hands on the desktop and manipulating a mouse. I felt if we could mount a camera on a tray attached to his wheelchair, he could be a very capable photographer and cinematographer.

I first contacted the school district’s assistive technology (AT) specialist. She was very supportive of my goals, but the district had no suitable equipment available. Online research for wheelchair camera mounts initially yielded equipment suitable only for people with full use of their arms; typically these were tripod-style attachments and didn’t offer the opportunity for Orlando to place his arms in proximity to the camera.

The challenge, then, was to find a camera mount that would tilt and swivel with electric motors. This needed to be battery-operated so Orlando would not be tethered to an electrical outlet. My initial search turned up only very expensive systems designed for professional use, well beyond our budget.

Ultimately, the solution came when our AT specialist suggested I visit ORCCA Technology Web site (, which specializes in multimedia software and assistive technology products. They have an AA-battery-operated pan-and-tilt system ideal for mounting on a tray. The controller is a small hand-held unit ORCCA also adapts for use with individual switches to control the motion in each of four directions. Luckily, the company is located nearby and the owner, Barney Fleming, was able to bring a unit to our classroom. We were on our way.

Orlando’s physical therapist arranged to fit Orlando’s wheelchair with a clear plexiglass tray; a fellow student can quickly clamp it to the arms of the chair. A length of wood is wedged in place between the bottom of the tray and the footrest, providing the necessary stability. The plexiglass allows Orlando to see the terrain directly in his path when he’s moving forward.

Orlando controls the pan-and-tilt camera base with his left hand and the camera’s zoom and shutter release with his right hand.

The final piece of the puzzle was the camera itself. I’ve purchased many digital camcorders in recent years for my class. In addition to recording video, virtually all are capable of taking still images of varying quality, and all have remote controls for use with the camera. However, most remotes are made to be used in front of the camera (so the user can be in the frame).

Fortunately, I discovered the Sony DCR SR82 camcorder, designed to work with an optional plug-in remote control so Orlando can operate it from behind. The remote control allows starting and stopping the camcorder, zooming in and out, and tripping the shutter for photographs. Because the camera operates from the camera mount resting on the tray, the camera’s fold-out, swiveling preview screen works perfectly; it can be adjusted to Orlando’s line of sight so he doesn’t need to have the camera up to his eye.

The camera’s optics offer good quality photographs in addition to video. By pressing the power button after the unit already is on, the camcorder cycles between video and photo modes. Orlando merely presses the appropriate remote control button to record video or to snap a photo. The SR82’s still image file size produces highquality snapshots and is even acceptable for 5x7-inch prints, more than adequate for our school use.

The disadvantage of using camcorders for still imaging is they don’t offer built-in flash. A big advantage, however, is the swivel LCD screen for ease of viewing.

Orlando has the dexterity to use the remote control for the camera mount without the extra switches available from ORCCA. He holds it in his hand while resting his arm on the table. In his other hand he holds the remote control for the camera. The only limiting factor with the camera mount is the limited range of motion up and down (the tilt) for subjects low and very close to him. This is not a major problem as Orlando usually can back up in his wheelchair to the point where the camera is aiming where he wants, and then zoom in to get the shot he desires. Essentially, he’s a twofisted shooter: He operates the pan and tilt of the camera with one hand, and controls the camera itself — including the zoom and shutter button — with the other.

What does Orlando think of his hybrid electronic imager on wheels?

“I’ve been very happy with how things work,” Orlando said. “It’s given me an artistic outlet I didn’t have before.”

Orlando has worked on video and photography projects for the school, but his passion has been a short movie based on a scary story written by fellow student Wesley Gonzales. Most of the class has been pressed into service in front of the camera, filling various roles. Wesley and Orlando are now putting the finishing touches on the project after two months of filming, photography and editing.

“I’m excited about having others see the work that Wesley and I have done together,” said Orlando. “We’re very proud about what we’ve done.”

Kent Treadgold is a science teacher at Explorer Middle School in the Mukilteo School District, north of Seattle. He also teaches Digital Media, an elective class he developed for the district.

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