Kite Photography

I’ve had a few requests for details on my kite photography setup, so here are the basics.  This is not a guide to Kite Aerial Photography (KAP).  This is a guide to Richard doing kite photography.    My approach is based on minimalism and simplicity.  There are fancier ways to do this, but after playing around I like simple solutions.  See some links at the bottom for some more comprehensive websites.  If you are like me and have no desire to reinvent the wheel, just go Brooxes.com .

Give it a try.  Kite photography is fun.  Well, except for the wind.  And the string. 

IMG_0019Sultan Qaboos Hotel, Oman

The Kite

I use either parafoils or a Fled.  There are many different kites you could use.  I like kites that get up, pull hard, and don’t break.  If you are looking, go to Brooxes.com and see the recommendations there. I don’t have enough experience to prefer one parafoil brand over another, but I do know that I don’t like more than 3 bridle lines.  

 

holmgren_kite
My Flow Form 16 and rig in Action—Courtesy John Holmgren

My workhorse is Sutton Flow Form 16.  This is a simple parafoil that measures 3.5ft x 4.5ft.  I find it works in winds from 8 mph and up.   I’m pretty careful about going high with this kite.  If winds are 10mph on the ground, they can be much stronger at 500ft.   I’ve had this up in 20 and 30mph winds; it’s not easy and one must be very careful.  Generally speaking, up is easy, down is hard with this kite.  Crosswinds play havoc.  More than once this kite has done some spectacular maneuvers as it has passed through wind layers.  One thing I really like about this kite:  if the wind drops, I can haul it in fast and it has the lift to keep my camera from crashing.  Parafoils are not very maneuverable, and once inverted, recovery is difficult.   I’ve never worked out the details, but I am convinced that there is a maximum gust this can handle.  High gusts just whip it out of control.    Each and every camera I have broken has been a low altitude crosswind gust smacking this kite into the ground.  The good news is there is now way to recover from that, so they are guilt free crashes.

My favorite is a Sutton Flow Form 8.  This is a simple parafoil that measures 2.5ft x 3.5ft.  This works best with winds above 12 mph or so.  This is my favorite kite because with a good wind I know I can send it to 1500ft and get it back down without too many problems.  I don’t use it all that often.  You would be surprised how frequently the wind on the Northern Plains is below 10mph, so I usually have to default to the Flow Form 16.  Like the Flow Form 16, if the wind dies, I can haul this in fast and keep a camera aloft (more or less).  Most of my crashes (non-fatal) are trying to get this kite up with a load in light wind.   

My backup is the Fled.  This is a big beautiful kite (60” x 80”) that can get my camera aloft in winds as low as 4-5mph.  It’s great fun to fly on days when no ones thinks you could possible fly a kite.  I don’t use it for photos all that much for one simple reason—I like high altitude shots.  I assume that if I put this kite up high into high winds, it is doomed; I’ve never done it.   I do use this for low altitude shots when I have no other options. 

Winders, String and Gloves are essentials.  I use braided dacron (usually black), 200lb or 300lb test.  I also use a 100lb braided dacron white line—the white color reminds me to be careful, both with load and cutting through my gloves.  There are fancier and more expensive lines; price and safety keep me with braided dacron.  I tend to treat string as a cuttable and disposable. This makes flying under bad conditions much more tolerable, as I can focus on getting the shot and recovering the gear.  If the string is a tangled disaster, I just cut the tangle and toss it.  I use the blood knot for splicing, half-blood, larks-head or bowline + stop knot for attaching things .  Other essential knots can be found at Brooxes.com.   Also lots of snap-swivels; get the right kind.  If it can tangle, I put a snap-swivel on it to make the untangling quicker. 

Tight fitting leather gloves, double palm (I have found that if there are any loose parts on my gloves, the string will snag).   I use halo hoop winders.  I’ve tried other winders and solutions, and have broken them all.  The hoops take a beating.   Retrieving a big kite can be a workout, but I never had any trouble walking a kite down.   I tend to fly next to my truck and use the hitch as a tie off point.   People use pulleys and other things, but I’m happy with my gloves.

Knife.  Big kites, strong line, Northern Great Plains.  It’s just common sense.  I’ve never cut loose and lost a rig.  I have been put in uncomfortable situations where the wind came up fast and I had to cut loose to change a tie off from me to an inanimate object.  (Why is the kite tied to me?  Because I am walking transects over the area I want to photograph.) 

IMG_1455
Devils Lake, ND

The Camera

This is the simplest equipment issue.  I use an inexpensive Canon and the Canon Hackers Development Kit (CHDK).  The Wiki taught me all I needed to know, and supplied an intervalometer.  The intervalometer allows me to set the camera to take a photo at a set interval.     I generally go with 2 or 3 second; an 8gb card is more than enough for a flight.  Start the camera, launch kite, retrieve kite. It’s that simple.  I always check exposures and adjust as necessary before launch.   Sometimes CHDK can get my camera working at its maximum shutter speed.  This can be a bit it or miss depending on the model.  The two important things to know if you want to try  CHDK—it can’t break your camera, and it looks much harder than it really is.  

The camera I currently am using is a PowerShot A3300.  Why that model?  Because I got it on sale for $86.  I bought two, and broke one within two weeks of having it.  When shopping I look for two things—is there a CHDK written for the model, and does it zoom out to 28mm equivalent or similar.  As an aside, I long ago decided to only use Canon; I find it has been hugely beneficial to really know my camera operations, and all Canons are more or less the same. I am, of course, not happy when I break a $96 camera, but I guess more than half the time I fly in conditions where I simply couldn’t risk putting my G10 into the air.  I break about 2 cameras a year, which is cheaper than a G10 replacement.  The fatal crashes are always the same—shatters the lens extension mechanisms.   

 

caraher--the crash
The Recent Fatal Crash—courtesy William Caraher

This is an idiosyncratic solution for my situation. I tend to fly in places in the middle of nowhere that I will never visit again, no matter what the weather.   I’ve crashed enough now that I’ve got some ideas about how to put my G10 up and keep it alive.  My “art” is now being limited by the lack of easily used exposure controls and the limited shutter speeds of the cheaper models.  I’ll update once the G10 starts flying.

IMG_1975
Fort Abercrombie, ND

The Gimble

The gimble is the support system that allows you to suspend the camera from the kite (or more properly the kite line).  They are many options out there.  I am quite happy (no surprise) with the minimalist Brooxes Simplex Kit.   (Using the CHDK means I don’t need a shutter trigger).   The picavet cross system is brilliant and easy.   It’s simple. bombproof, and doesn’t tangle.  To attach to the kite string, I use  Brooxes Hangups  (or KAPS-Klips™). These hold tight; the camera regularly does 360s around the kite string, and on occasion the kite does 360s.   The KAPs-Klips can slide a bit.

The gimble allows you to set the angle of the camera.  I tend to go 10-20 degrees off of horizontal.  This almost always gives me total coverage of whatever site or scene I am trying to capture.  Going purely horizontal lessons the chance of capturing everything. I also have found that photos without a horizon line are boring and tend to make orientation and scale difficult to judge.  Tilt can be toward or away from me, depending on where I am and the wind direction.

I have a Brooxes Electric Autokap Kit that will rotate the camera 360 degrees around a vertical axis.  This works great at home and at the park, but I haven’t had much success under difficult field conditions.  That’s mostly a matter of user-error and lack of patience.   The need for the 360 degrees rotation is much greater for low altitude shots, scenery shots, and shots that include buildings. 

Also

A mosaic of kite photos done in the summer of 2012 as part of the UND Man Camp study. Music is Kona in Tioga by Timothy Pasch and William Caraher. Bonus info: the kite did not one but two 360 degree loops during the photo sessions. Try and spot ’em (they make me cringe).

Some Websites

Notes on Kite Aerial Photography

KAPwiki

KAP Summary Table of Contents

Brooxes.com