Kite Aerial Photography (KAP for acronym afficianados) combines most of the good things in life. Robots, cameras, kites, and airborne danger. Anyone with a knack for assembling their own remote controlled servo motors and willing to literally put their digital camera out of their hands and up in the sky can produce remarkable shots this way.
It seems like a novel idea to attach a camera to a kite, but KAP goes back a long way. George Lawrence
flew his 46-pound panoramic camera under a kite whole battery of kites to take a famous picture of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. With the advent of remote control technology, KAP gained a possibility for real control that attracted a devoted following.
is a KAPer from San Francisco who spoke with us about the ins and outs of cameras on kite strings. Haefner caught our eye with his remarkable 360 degree panoramic images. His portfolio is full of abstracted landscapes and personal charm, all caught from above. He gave us a break down on some of the technical and artistic challenges of hanging cameras from kites.
iStock: What kind of a photography background do you have? When did you
decide to trying taking pictures from kites?
Scott Haefner: I learned about KAP approximately five years ago, and I've been active for nearly four years. My photographer friend, Thomas Dewez, a geographer from Belgium, explored the technique for studying faults in Greece. At his urging, I looked at an impressive web-based KAP gallery by Cris Benton of the University of California, Berkeley.
Immediately, I was hooked and knew I had to do that!
Besides a high school photography class, I don't have any formal training in photography. I've been shooting outdoor landscape/scenic shots for about 15 years. Prior to that, I remember toting a disc camera around when I was only 5 years old. (Those junky, thin cameras that were introduced in the 80s and seemed to disappear only a few years later. The negatives wrapped around a 2 inch disc and were so tiny (about 1 cm) that even 3" x 5" photos were full of film grain.)
iStock: Are you able to shoot fully manual by remote control, or do you need
to rely on auto settings? What's the trick to getting a good shot
from the air, and what extra challenges come associated with KAP?
Scott Haefner: I shoot in aperture-priority mode and stop down the aperture as much as possible while still maintaining relatively fast shutter speeds. In stable winds, I can obtain sharp pictures with shutter speeds as slow as 1/200 second, but I prefer to stay in the range of 1/750–1/1000 second or faster. Because I typically shoot late in the day to capture the richer lighting and longer shadows, I often need to open up the aperture to f/2.8–f/4. I treat digital like slide film, underexposing every shot by 2/3 stop to avoid clipped highlights. It’s relatively easy to recover shadow details in underexposed images in Photoshop, but highlight details can be lost forever in overexposed shots.
I set the camera to auto-focus mode and use one of the white balance presets (sunny, cloudy, etc.) except on days when the sun shifts in and out of the clouds in rapid succession. In these conditions, I choose auto white balance. I shoot in ISO 100, highest quality JPEG mode almost exclusively, as this yields the best quality images.
To command the camera, I use a four-channel, FM radio controller designed for a model airplane. I can pan, tilt and rotate the camera, plus snap the shutter electronically, all with my feet grounded on the Earth. I stripped the paint off the lens barrel of my camera, creating a large silver area on an otherwise black body and rig so that I can see which direction the camera is pointing. Although some KAPers use a video downlink to assist in composition, I prefer relying on my "mind's eye" to imagine what the camera sees when I compose the image. This has proven quite reliable, and I am getting better with practice.
The most obvious difference from conventional photography is that I carefully compose my ground-based photos as opposed to imagining what the camera "sees" for the KAP shots. Having said that, I think my background in photography--studying techniques, learning compositional rules, developing a photographer's eye, etc.--plays an integral role in the success I've had with KAP. It's not obvious at first (because I am shooting unattended, un-composed photos with the kitecam), but these photographic skills help me tremendously in my KAP shots...from picking subject matter to (indirectly) affecting my compositions.
Also, it is best to be experienced and comfortable with kite flying before attaching a camera. The more experience one has, the more likely he/she will know how to react when things go wrong.Images © Scott Haefner. Check them out on his website.