The View Up Here

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Then and Now

Posted by Tom Benedict on 08/11/2013

I recently did a KAP session that brought me back to my first experiences with kite aerial photography. For anyone who reads my blog, some or all of this will be old hat except for the bit at the end. Feel free to skip ahead. If this is your first exposure to kite aerial photography, I hope the following doesn’t bore you to tears. There’s a fun story here.

Back when I first started doing kite aerial photography, I used a Nikon Coolpix 5600 in a Brooxes BBKK rig. I initially bought all the bits for a bare rig, but after my first couple of flights I ordered a leg kit and a set of PeKaBe blocks. This whole mess was driven by an ancient Futaba 72MHz radio, and had to be aimed “blind” by looking at the camera, looking at the subject, tripping the shutter, and hoping.

Current Setup

Despite the way that sounds, it worked great. I learned how to fly. I learned how to aim. I flew every chance I had, and produced a lot of good photographs. I had more hair back then, too, and most of it hadn’t turned gray yet.


Kids and time took a toll on the hair, and sometimes the KAP contributed to the graying process as well. But it was a lot of fun.

I’m a firm believer in “good enough”. “Good enough” is what I fly every time I do KAP. “Good enough” is what we do at work most of the time because “perfect” costs too much and takes too long. But I’m also a tinkerer. “Good enough” is a good reason to continually improve on what you have, because no matter how good “good enough” is, it can always be better.

Eventually I changed out the camera to a Canon A650 IS. In terms of image quality it was a massive step forward over the Nikon 5600, which was already old when I first stuck it on a kite. But it was heavier. So in making that change I had to move away from one of my “I can make it better” adventures, which was to make my rig lighter. To improve the camera I had to go in the opposite direction.

KAP Rig August 2009

The A650 treated me well, too. The improvement in image quality drove me to try new things and push myself as a KAPer and as a photographer. During this time a combination of wanting to do verticals as well as horizontals, and an overall improvement in panorama stitching software convinced me that I needed to be able to change the orientation of the camera in-flight. So I took my aging BBKK rig and added a plan-rotation, or horizontal/vertical (HoVer) axis.

Sit 'n Spin

I also upgraded the pan axis gears, changed the radio over to 2.4GHz, and made a ton of other changes as well. But that’s neither here nor there…

Bit by bit my rig was getting heavier, but more capable. I returned to some of the places I’d done KAP with my Nikon 5600, and continued to travel to new places I had never before tried KAP. It was a real workhorse.

BBKK HoVer 3

I found myself pushing it more and more. Finally I convinced myself that doing KAP in the golden hour was the way I wanted to go. But there was no way to get the high shutter speeds necessary for the A650 to perform well without introducing horrific noise to the photographs. So I took the plunge and swapped it out for a DSLR, a Canon T2i.
T2i KAP Rig - Front

More camera. More weight. But it was a good move. Not for the reasons I’d imagined, though. True, the T2i let me do KAP in the golden hour, and I used it that way when I could.

Hapuna Prince Late in the Day

But I found that the golden hour doesn’t apply to KAP the same way it applies to tripod photography. Don’t get me wrong. Good light is good light. But sunset silhouettes from the air just don’t work the same as they do from a tripod. If the entire ground is in silhouette, you might as well not be flying a kite.

Hapuna Prince at Sunset - Corrected

The real strength of the T2i in the air was its capability to generate 14-bit RAW images. Early on I learned that doing KAP at rocky beaches resulted in photographs with dark, muddy rocks and blown out white surf. I was never happy with my rocky beach KAP. The reason is that the scene was presenting more than the 8 stops of range I could represent in an 8-bit JPG image. With the camera metering the average of the scene, the rocks were darker and the surf was brighter than the image could handle. And by metering the surf or the rocks, the rest of the scene went to pot. But a 14-bit RAW can contain roughly 14 stops of information. Through careful post-processing, details that would’ve been lost in a JPG could be recovered from the RAW file.

Why I Like RAW

In almost every respect, my KAP setup had become a tripod in the sky. I could use the same camera, the same lenses, bring home the same 14-bit images, and use the same processing as if I had made the pictures from a tripod. The only remaining step, of course, was a viewfinder that let me see what the camera was seeing.

I spent an unfortunate amount of time trying to get a video system to work. This was back when FPV systems for RC airplanes and helicopters were in their infancy. The hard lessons had not been learned, so there were stumbling blocks aplenty. But eventually the FPV community came up with some more reliable systems, one of which worked for me.

chillKAP Closeup

(Though this is, of course, Rydra who’s operating the KAP rig… I was the one photographing her. My fingernails aren’t that color.)

Which more or less brings us to today.

T2i Rig Midair #2

Six years of KAP, six years of change. Most of it has been good, even the non-KAP stuff.

One of those changes was an update to our building at work. Electrical costs keep rising, so our management made the decision to install a photovoltaic system to offset some of those costs. Not being the kind of people to do things halfway, they paved the roof with panels – 562 of them. At 260WDC apiece, it winds up being 121kW of AC power. I could see the work being done from the ground, but I couldn’t help wondering… What would it look like from the air?!

Our headquarters building has a funky roofline that looks great from the ground. Back in 2007 when I first got into KAP, I did a session over it to see what the roofline looked like from the air. The Nikon 5600 only really worked well for KAP under hard sunlight, so I did the flight during my lunch hour. The wind was marginal, but it was good enough. The session went well, and I came home with a number of good photographs.  It’s been a familiar KAP subject ever since. I still have a print of our building from that first KAP session in 2007 hanging on my office wall.

Because of my familiarity with the subject, I had a good idea where I wanted to position the camera for this new set. All that was left was to do it. The wind was rotten at lunch time, so I did the flight in the evening after work. The wind was better than it was back in 2007, but an overcast sky made the light a little more blah than I was after. Still, the session went amazingly well. The video feedback let me frame each photograph just the way I wanted it, my aging BBKK rig performed flawlessly, and the T2i delivered a solid set of RAW files for me to work from. That night after processing the photos I sent some of the pictures out via email to our company. Our Operations Manager came in a couple of days later to comment on the pictures and saw that print of the 2007 picture hanging on my wall. “Hey! You should do a side-by-side comparison. Show then and now, you know?”

I still had all the original files from that flight back in 2007 burned to CDROM sitting on my desk. I pulled up the original, got a better crop of it, and stuck it beside the one I’d just done.

Then and Now

Despite the slightly different angles, I couldn’t help comparing the two. I’ve made a lot of changes to my gear through the years: camera, radio, video, new axes, you name it. But pulling up the original JPG from that old Nikon 5600 really brought home how good I had it back then, too. All the improvements I’ve made have been marginal compared to the KAP itself. Kite, rig, camera: that’s where the real magic happens. The details are just… details.

– Tom

4 Responses to “Then and Now”

  1. Very cool to see the progression in your KAP rigs over the years! I’d love to know the history of your kites, too – they are still the barrier from preventing me from setting up a KAP rig.


    • Tom Benedict said

      You bet!

      I can write that one next. It’s in no way a comprehensive list, since there are other KAPers out there who fly kites that bear no resemblance to the ones I use. But it’ll give you an idea of where to start.


      • That would be great – thanks Tom! No rush, though; I still have to rebuild my foamcore plane, which suffered a catastrophic crash during its maiden voyage this summer (note to self: secure battery properly to prevent CoG shift during hand-launch). Oh well, at least foamcore board is cheap; I just have to find some time in between these pesky grad school assignments 😉

        Great to hear from you,

  2. […] is the third and final installment of KAP articles. In Then and Now I described the evolution of my KAP rig from my first flight to the rig I use regularly today. In A […]

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