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Kite Aerial Photography

Kite Aerial Photography, known as KAP by those who practice it, has been around for very many years, it involves suspending a camera from a large kite and controlling the shutter either by radio or with another cord. The camera is well wrapped and operators gain experience of flying kites before they hang a camera on the bottom.

A brief history

Kites became a major area of study and research in the end of the 1800ís before aircraft existed. They were explored as a way of lifting everything, from building supplies to passengers, and this is the time when kite photography was first undertaken and formed some of the earliest aerial photography. Long before this the concepts of perspective had been used to create drawings without going into the air, and the first aerial photography is thought to have been from a balloon, and a cartoon was published in 1862 showing a photographer hanging out of a balloon. The earliest aerial photograph from a balloon, I have been able to find, was taken in 1860, although the claimed first was in 1858.

The French Army, in a campaign in Italy in 1958 is said to be the first military aerial photos, and it was widely used in the American Civil War.

In the late 1880ís it is thought the first kite photographs were taken by Arthur Batut an  inventor who lived a life centred on the French town of Labruguiere. He used a slow burning fuse to fire the shutter and when the shutter fired a piece of paper was released so he knew it had happened and could bring down the kite, he hung an altimeter in front of the camera so that the height and therefore the scale could be worked out.

In 1906 George Lawrence took a photograph of San Francisco from the air after the 1906 earthquake, using a large moving slit panoramic camera producing a negative 18 inches by 48 inches. This was lifted to 2,000 feet by a string of nine kites, and fired with an electric wire.

More recently

Film camera with self timers were popular at one time but they did require the kites to be constantly pulled down and put up again. Basic geometry was used to set the angle of the camera and by the angle to the kite and length of string in use work out where it was pointing. Others just used wide angle lenses and didnít have to worry about such detail.

Next people started to use radio controlled equipment often obtained second hand using the small equipment that model plane people grew out of. This created in some places a little friction with the model aircraft people as unmodified these were on their frequencies.  There are many people who enjoy the hobby of kite aerial photography, and vary from those who use a simple kite and a disposable camera, to those who have huge and highly controllable equipment. 


The digital age makes this far easier to undertake than ever and to know as you proceed what you are getting. Particularly some of the point and shoot cameras are extremely small, and with remotes easy to trigger at a reasonable distance. Being so small they can be flown from a toy kite, making this hobby available to everyone.

Of course there is no reason why, should you have the desire, that you cannot make a more controllable more amiable system. Rather than look through the viewfinder of a DSLR we could use a small radio security camera, transmitting back to a portable TV receiver, on which they can draw the area included in the photograph with a chinograph (wax) pencil. With a radio controlled small pan and tilt the camera can be moved and images lined up, before the shutter is fired. With a radio base we receive the images on a laptop and set most camera controls.  Having said this, although there are very many people involved in kite aerial photography, clubs, calendars, competitions and more and some very elaborate kites, platforms and special stabilisers in use I can't find any trace of anyone using the above arrangement.

Kites today are available in a very wide variety of styles from the traditional cross stick and material, and box designs to versions that have no structure and are inflated by the wind and operate in a similar way to a paraglider or modern display parachute. Generally larger kites are required in smaller winds, and smaller ones are used in higher winds.

The simplest platform uses a device called a picavet, that at first sight looks complicated but on closer inspection you will find is string and some small pulleys and does a great job of keeping the camera level.  Details of how to put one of these together is shown at  http://www.kaper.us/basics/BASICS_picavet.html

This is a page of a very useful website that provides a lot of information on kites, and the technology involved in this hobby. Their links page also shows many sites of those involved, quite a few photographers in the UK, a more complex page. But with loads of tables, lengths etc to achieve this is at http://www.gentles.info/KAP/PICAVET/experiment.htm

So this involves hanging a camera on a special cradle or harness from a kite and using this to get a low cost aerial photography. This can be anything from 10 feet off the ground up to nearly 200 feet nearly anywhere needed, with permission up to around 2,000ft. Only tethered balloons and helicopters compete with what can be obtained but is dependent on the wind being suitable to fly. Using a variety of kites, quite a range of wind conditions can be handled.

Several people recently have developed composite kites and helium balloons, getting the stability and lift from the balloon while gaining faster deployment and positioning from the kite, I also think a balloon with no kite would have to be quite large to lift a reasonable load.  One commercial system we saw advertised said they could lift larger weights than the small point and shoot illustrated, but when we emailed them with details of the weights of a full system similar to the one outlined above they didnít bother to reply.

A number of the kite forms are stable and can be brought down without risk to equipment and if you were to use a a lighter more responsive kite that might be more prone to dropping rapidly when the wind dropped, it should be possible to deploy a very light weight parachute using a radio control if thought necessary. Generally the heavier and more valuable the load the more protection and concern you are likely to have, while a light weight point and shoot could survive quite a bump if protected only by bubble wrap. Many who are involved in KAP have a variety of kites extending the number of days and conditions when they can fly. There are also line cutting safety devices that let the air out fast and bring the kite down if it starts to take you away.

On the commercial front archaeology site surveys appear to be the greatest users of KAP, the problem for most is the reliability of the wind. No wind and you can't fly, too much wind and you get lifted off the ground. A scientific paper that touches on this can be found at http://www.emporia.edu/kas/trans104/aber1/aber1.htm

Although many people are involved, most appear to have been those interested in kite flying and displays and who have then moved into KAP, or had a particular application such as archaeology studies or schools using it as a  teaching means. Although the individual items are all generally available it's a case of putting them all together, and in most areas the need for across discipline knowledge and interest tends to leave some areas behind. As far as I am aware there is no picture library of KAP images, and we havenít come across anyone taking pictures to put on picture libraries using this means. With the exception of those with specific special interests, others are generally flying smaller, lower weight cameras. In the future I expect to see photographs of the coast particularly where there is usually some wind and landscape on upland areas for a similar reason,  plus perhaps some wildlife photography done by being able to get up with the birds. With small radio TV cameras, I would not expect it to be long before news reporters wanting footage of accident scenes and the like start to make use of kites.

Other ways that you can get a camera off the ground include pole photography, nothing to do with pole dancing, this involves putting a camera on a long telescopic pole often connected to a vehicle, again currently only small point and shoots tend to be used, helium blimps that are large and perhaps fly in the opposite conditions to kites and hot air devices ranging from robot hot air balloons, to single person ones to passenger carrying types. These all can be operated tethered or loose. Radio controlled planes and helicopters, as well as people carrying planes, helicopters and airships, are at the higher cost options. In between these we have paragliders and more interestingly paramotors. With a paramotor you have a paraglider (air inflated double parachute) and a small engine to get you airborne. The larger the engine the easier it is to get it in the air. We had one with a very large engine, just three steps forward and we were flying, but sold it a few years back now. I find kites and possibly hybrids interesting and something that when time permits I want to play with further.

See also the Law Relating to KAP

See also on the internet






Arthur Batut museum  http://www.tarn-web.com/english/ukbatut.htm


By: Keith Park Section: Photography Section Key:
Page Ref: kite_photography Topic: Photographic Techniques  Last Updated: 07/2009

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