Drones are near ubiquitous for the capture of aerial imagery, but with their increased prevalence, their use and operation has become contentious. If you are seeking an alternative, then kite aerial photography (KAP) might be for you.
Let's get this out of the way up front: KAP is not as sophisticated as using a drone. There are no route plans, no preset shooting, and none of the agility. However, what you lose in technological capability, you gain in simplicity. It's a robust technology that rarely fails and doesn't require batteries. By definition, kites are tethered, so in most countries, you can use them unregulated in at least some way (in the UK, it is up to 60 m). And of course, they tend to fly well in wind! So while not challenging drones for airborne photographic supremacy, they have some significant advantages which may suit specific circumstances. Read on if that piques your interest for the first of a two-part installment!
How many ways can you loft a camera in the air? Quite a few, judging by the ingenuity of photographers, starting with the very first aerial image by Nadar in 1858, close to the birth of photography. This wasn't for the faint-hearted, as the balloon flew to 300 m and used the wet collodion process, requiring seconds of exposure with the plate, then needing immediate development. Fast-forward to 1888 and the first kite-lofted camera successfully captured imagery over Lagrabruiere (France), likely using the more sensitive dry plate process that could work with shorter exposure times. Innovations included the use of an ingenious fuse-based timer and altitude data logger (seriously, yes!).
An improvement in both kites and cameras led to George Lawrence's landmark (and arguably best ever) photo of the immediate aftermath of the devastation caused by the 1906 earthquake-induced San Francisco fire. The 122x48cm large format panoramic negative was captured using a 22 kg camera lofted into the sky by up to 17 kites! Mind you, it netted him $125,000 then, something equivalent to $5M in 2016! For those wanting a good summary of early aerial innovation, then this article makes good reading.
So, where is KAP today? Perhaps the zenith of design and development was the early 2000s, where innovative kite designs, digital cameras, and rigs based upon miniaturized robotic components had a perfect storm of convergence that led to a wealth of innovation. Let's take those in turn.
Kites date back millennia to China around 500 BC, undergoing a myriad of designs along the way. The British army's man-lifting kite is a highlight, but don't think serious heavy lifting designs are over. What about a boat powered kite? No, not a sailing boat! SkySails have successfully supplemented the power train with a kite-powered freighter.
The requirements for KAP reduce to two elements: loft and stability. Conversely, what you don't want is maneuverability, which means avoiding stunt kites.
Loft is easily catered for in that you just build a bigger kite! Choose your design weight and wind conditions, then fly an appropriate kite. Stability comes by design with two broad categories of single-line kites. Framed kites act as sails in the sky, have good loft properties, fly at a steep angle (around 60 degrees), and if the wind dies, they float to the ground. Conversely, soft foil kites have no frame, being based on modern parafoils. Vents in the kite fill with air, forming a soft frame. They pack small, fly at shallower angles (around 40 degrees), operate in stronger winds, but crash to the ground if the wind fails (yes, it's happened to me)! In both scenarios, "fuzzy tails" can help stability by reducing rotation (see photo below). Each kite is best suited for specific conditions, so it usually pays to have several.
Camera choice is usually a delicate balance between the quality of imagery and weight of the camera. The Earth's surface reflects somewhere in the region of 30 percent of the light incident upon it. Coupled with the need for a fast shutter speed, this means that capturing sharp imagery with low noise can be challenging. If you operate on the premise of a shutter speed of at least 1/500th of a second and an aperture around the sweet spot of your lens (to maintain sharpness and depth of field), then the only latitude you have is with ISO.
For many drone users, there is no choice of camera; you go with the manufacturer's pre-installed option. When you do have a choice, it is usually best to operate the lightest camera appropriate for a job, and the Ricoh GRII is currently my go-to recommendation, with an optimal 28mm equivalent fixed focal length lens and 16-megapixel APS-C sensor. Weighing in at 250g, it's a mini marvel. However, loft is where KAP scores highly against drones, and a 1.5 kg payload is easily achievable, meaning that you can fly a Sony a7 or Nikon D850.
The final stage of the process is to attach your camera to the kite itself. Somewhat similarly to drones, a number of manufacturers have produced remote-controlled gimbals with shutter release. For example, KAPShop's 1Box takes a DSLR and combines all the remote control (RC) elements into one simple package. Below is an example of a common pan-rotate-tilt design taken from Scott Haefner's detailed rig plans that are available on his website.
Standard remote-controlled (RC) model aircraft systems and servos form the common components used in rig design, allowing rotation of the camera for full attitude control. Camera control has required the development of bespoke solutions in order to integrate a shutter release into the RC system. There are fully mechanical systems, although my experience is that these can fail. If you have an external port, then it is possible to use a modified cable that can be attached to the remote controller. Where there is only an infrared port, then GentLED's IR release can be used.
The rig then needs attaching to the kite line. General consensus is that this should be at least 10m below the kite itself to make kite launch easier and enable it to get into more stable air before you begin the delicate camera launch. Thinner lines are attached to the main kite line either by a looped knot in the main line or using metal hooks such as Brooxe's Hangups. The latter are preferred as every knot reduces line strength.
Sitting between the line and the rig, most KAPpers use a picavet, a simple suspension system that reduces some of the movement inherent in KAP photography. The picavet usually bolts to the top of the rig, with the suspension lines running through the cross in order to provide smooth self-levelling.
The best step to get going in KAP is simply to experiment: select the simplest setup to get you up and running. That usually means an old compact camera, a small kite (either soft or framed), and something like WoBie's KAP'n'Hook that is small, light, and cheap, with all the components integrated. With camera, rig, and kite all selected, you are good to go. Now, all you need is to practice flying kites, but more on that in part two!