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Technique

Kite Aerial Photography

For the last two decadesI have been taking photographs from kite-lofted cameras and this has been a remarkably engaging endeavor. Kite photography began about the same time the first Endicott batteries were concieved and experienced a golden age before fixed wing aircraft became the dominant platform for aerial photography. In the last decade, kite aerial photography has enjoyed a renaissance of sorts, fueled in part by communities on the Internet and a plethora of new technologies in photography, kite making, and radio control.

Among the joys of kite aerial photography (KAP) are the opportunities for invention, the physical challenge of positioning kite and rig, the unusual ‘once removed’ aspect of composition in absentia, contact with a fine group of KAP colleagues, and the distinct pleasure of messing around with kites. You can get a good sense of it by watching this 10-minute video from MAKE TV.

 

Kite Aerial Photography on MAKE: television from MAKE magazine on Vimeo.

Kite aerial photography appeals to that part of me, perhaps of all of us, that would slip our earthly bonds and see the world from new heights. An aerial view offers a fresh perspective of familiar landscapes and in doing so challenges our spatial sensibilities, our grasp of relationships. Poet Thomas Campbell observed “’Tis distance lends enchantment to the view.” You might think ‘tis height lends enchantment to KAP but its charms are considerably more subtle. For me they lie in a vantage point that lies just beyond normal human experience even if only by a few meters. It turns out that the vast heights are best left to powered aircraft while the viewpoints below 200 feet offer prime, and often unexplored, KAP territory.

Most of the images in this WWW site were taken by using a kite, unseen in the image, to lift a small, radio-controlled cradle that holds a camera. I position the camera by walking around and/or letting out or retrieving kite line. I aim the camera and fire its shutter using a radio while I stay at the ground end of the kite line. The camera can rotate through the compass, tilt from horizon to nadir, and change from portrait to landscape format. I compose my images by watching the camera and imagining what it would see. The whole process entertains me to no end.

 

KAP Cradle No 10
A scratch built camera cradle for the Canon 550D DSLR camera. The cradle uses radio control to rotate, tilt, change aspect from landscape to portrait, and fire the shutter. It carries a GPS logger for geotagging the image locations.

 

Transmitter package modification

A repackaged 2.4 GHz radio used to control camera cradle with a single hand.

Kite aerial photography is a delightful technique for documenting San Francisco’s coastal defenses. Lofting a camera allows a view of the defense works in context and, in ways I had not anticipated, reveals traces from a variety of periods in the history of the landscape.

 

Sutton Flowform

Sutton Flowform – a wind-inflated kite used in higher winds.

Many of these images were taken using a lightweight rig developed around the Canon Rebel dSLR cameras, beginning with the ten-megapixel 400D model and continuing to my current eighteen-megapixel 550D. The most used lens these days is the EF-S 10-22mm wide angle, generally set on the wider end of its range.

For control I use a radio transmitter operating on the general use 2.4 GHz band to control the camera cradles. Originally developed for radio-controlled aircraft, I have repackaged my radio for operation with a single hand.

In the field, I am able to carry the two camera cradles, the radio control, accoutrement, and up to six kites in a modest backpack. The kites range from a tough little air-inflated model, used when winds are blowing over 20 mph, to a diaphanous carbon-framed giant for when the winds barely stir. With a range of kites available the goal is to select one that will provide sufficient pull to lift the camera but not much beyond that. This keeps vibration to a minimum and makes hand holding the kite practical.

 

2.5 meter, lightweight Rokkaku

Lightweight 8.5-foot Rokkaku sewn in lightweight rip stop nylon with carbon-fiber-reinforced frame.

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