When I needed some aerial photographs recently, I decided to try an ‘old school’ method – by flying a kite. After a bit of research, I purchased an inexpensive delta wing kite with a wing span of about six feet, a GoPro camera, and a Picavet camera mount.
I flew my new kite without a camera first to see how it behaved, then got ready to try out the aerial rig. My first attempts were laughable as the wind had died and in my impatience, I would run along the beach to get the kite to ascend. But as soon as I got tired of running, the kite and camera plunged into the lake or onto the sand. No harm done. The GoPro is a good choice for starting out as it’s waterproof and practically indestructible.
Eventually the wind steadied and lifted my kite into the air. Then I attached the camera mount to the string, a bit of a distance from the kite itself to lessen the motion. The camera clips on to the string with a clever device known as the Picavet Mount. Invented by Pierre Picavet in 1911, the mount uses a ‘cat’s cradle’ string arrangement that lets the camera remain level even though the kite line angle constantly changes.
I let the line out until the kite was flying a few hundred feet above me. The GoPro camera’s built-in intervalometer was already activated so the camera was continually shooting at the rate of one shot every five seconds.
After about 15 minutes of kite flying, I reeled the rig back in, removed the SD storage card from the camera and downloaded the images onto my computer. Most of the pictures were less than perfect due to the crazy motion of the kite but several of them were very good. I was thrilled! The system worked!
Kite Aerial Photography, or KAP for short, has been around a long time. KAP aficionados will argue about whether the French or the English were the first to do it, but both were successfully shooting pictures by the late 1880s. Early kites had to be quite large to haul up the bulky cameras of the time and triggers were either mechanical or timed explosive devices. One of the most famous early photographs is the image of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake using a large panoramic camera and a stabilized kite rig.
There’s something very appealing about kite photographed images. The lower altitude gives a more recognizable perspective than photographs taken from an airplane. Sure, you can rent a helicopter to get those low-level images but for much less money, you can own and operate your own kite rig!
There are lots of people who take this hobby very seriously and get some amazing images. They will undoubtedly be using more sophisticated rigs than my timelapse method. Their cameras will probably have motorized aerial platforms with radio controls for aiming the camera and triggering remotely, perhaps even transmitting live video feed to the ground so that they can see what the camera sees.
The GoPro has a very wide angled lens which gives a slightly curved horizon. I don’t mind the look as it gives me the impression that my kite has ascended so high that it could see the curvature of the earth! A digital point-and-shoot or a DSLR camera would give you a more normal perspective. A high shutter speed and image stabilization are also important factors in acquiring the perfect aerial photograph.
I discovered an unexpected benefit from my kite photography efforts. I realized that kite flying was something I hadn’t done since I was a kid! The joys of seeing my tethered friend dancing about in the clouds was pretty awesome and brought back some pleasant memories. And when I brought the kite down, I had hundreds of images showing me what the world looked like from its point-of-view. Maybe these KAP enthusiasts are just using the photography angle as an excuse to get out there and be a kid again!
Whatever your reasons, KAP is a fun hobby that’s not too expensive and gives you some technological challenges and opportunities to get creative in an outdoor setting.