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Archive for the ‘Kite Aerial Photography’ Category

Testing the Helmet Cam

Posted by Tom Benedict on 27/05/2014

In my previous post I described the design(ish) and build of a helmet cam with a reflex sight. Over the last few days I had the chance to take it out and use it on two separate occasions for two very different purposes. Here’s how it went:

Outing #1: Documenting Kite Aerial Photography

One of the reasons I built the helmet cam is that I want to document how I do kite aerial photography. There seems to be a lot of confusion when it comes to things like attaching the camera to the kite line, how the kite goes up the line (hint: it doesn’t), and why KAPers insist on using single line kites instead of two-line or four-line kites. A good set of still photos or even a short video could answer most of these questions. I’ve tried photographing the process of doing KAP in the past, but without a second person to operate the camera it’s just not possible. Enter the hat cam.

To try this I took it with me on a recent outing to the anchialine ponds near the old village of Wainanalii. The ponds are out in the middle of a lava flow, so the only way to get there is on foot. I parked my car off the side of the Queen Kaahumanu Highway and walked in.

King's Trail

A short way in off the road you run into the King’s Highway. This is a trail system commissioned by King Kalakaua in the 1870s. Considering when it was built it’s a remarkable piece of engineering. It runs straight and flat for most of its length, and it spans much of the north Kona coast. I took it from where I parked my car to the turnoff for the anchialine ponds.

As I walked down the King’s Highway I became painfully aware that I had a kiawe thorn stuck straight through my shoe and into my foot. Every time I stepped on a rock my foot was stabbed. Right about the time I reached the turn-off to the ponds, I remembered I always pack pliers in my KAP bag. YAY! I pulled out the thorn and kept going.

Trail to Wainanalii Pond

The trail to the ponds is a little more rough and ready than the King’s Highway. It’s in reasonable shape, but there’s no doubt you’re walking on rocks. It only takes a couple of minutes of hiking the trail before you reach the ponds.

Wainanalii Pond (Golden Pools)

This set of anchialine ponds are sometimes called the Golden Pools for obvious reasons. The color comes from the plants growing on the rocks in the water. As pretty as it is from the ground, it’s even more striking from the air.

Hand Launch

The ponds are in the middle of a relatively fresh lava field so the rocks are sharp enough to cut kite line and shred kite cloth. Since the entire island is volcanic, the same can be said of a number of places I fly. I long ago learned to hand-launch my kites. Long-line launches are simply out of the question.

Clean Wind

Once the kite was up it flew beautifully. The wind has been squirrelly the past few years, but it seems that the end of the drought we’ve been having has brought back the steady winds I grew used to when I first started doing KAP here in Hawaii back in 2007. I let out about 150′ of line before hanging the rig on the line.

Hanging the Rig

The reason most KAPers hang their camera well below their kites is that the more line there is between the camera and the kite, the less the motion of the kite can influence it. Even a relatively stable kite will cause some camera wobble if the camera is suspended directly below the kite bridle. But with even 50′ of separation that motion can be reduced to a slight sway.

The rig is attached firmly to the kite line using snap hooks. The hooks don’t move on the line, so the camera is fixed to that point. All that’s required to raise the camera is to let out more kite line. To bring the camera back down it’s a simple matter of reeling the line back in.

Up and Running

After letting out some line to give the camera some altitude, it was time to do some kite aerial photography. The rig I’m using has two axes of motion: pan and tilt. Some while back I added a video downlink, but it’s not necessary to use it. I did KAP for years aiming by eye and produced some good photos this way. When I added the video link to this rig I did it in such a way that I could bypass it any time I wanted to.

That being said, the viewfinder is handy for tricky subjects or for tricky situations like the one I encountered that day. The sky was blah overcast which caused nasty reflections in the water. I stuck a polarizer on the end of my lens to cut the reflections, but because of the overcast conditions it was very sensitive to orientation. The viewfinder helped me tune the filter’s orientation at each pointing before tripping the shutter. Here are the results:

Golden Pools 1

Golden Pools 2

Except for the two KAP photos at the end all of these were done using the helmet cam. I had both the Gopro and the A2200 on intervalometer mode. Unfortunately I’d left the A2200 set for videos rather than stills, so all I got from it was a series of three second videos made every five seconds. GAAH! All of the helmet cam still photos were from the Gopro. I’m not partial to the Gopro’s fisheye effect when making stills, so I used PTLens to de-fisheye the frames. They were then cropped to a 3:2 ratio in Photoshop. Note to self: double check the mode of the camera next time!

Outing #2: Slope Soaring Videography

The other reason I built the helmet cam was to make slope soaring videos. Slope soaring is one of my favorite ways to fly RC aircraft. It requires no motor, no aero-tow, no high-start, no nothing. You just toss your plane off of a high place and use the wind to create lift. It’s about as close to pure flying as you can get. It also doesn’t cost an arm and a leg to do, which is great for someone like me. All it takes is a plane, a slope, and some wind. Honestly, it’s about as close as an RC airplane can come to a kite. (Hmmmm! Now I know why I like it so much!)

The day after the KAP session at the anchialine ponds I took my Zagi 5C and my helmet cam out to the cinder cone near Kua Bay. This has been a popular slope soaring site on the Big Island for many many years. It’s a good place to fly, but folks who are more used to grassier slopes may find the landing zone a little harsh.

I wanted to test two things: First, I wanted to make videos with both the Gopro and the A2200. Second, I wanted to make a set of stills to see how the fields of view compared. For this test I had the A2200 zoomed all the way in.

I should probably preface the rest of this by saying that with the exception of one Bixler flight, I haven’t flown a plane in months. I certainly haven’t flown slope. The wind was coming from an oddball quarter, so the lift zone wasn’t where I was used to finding it. All of this combined to make for challenging flying. Throw the helmet cam into the mix and I had a hard time splitting my attention between flying the plane and aiming the camera. I eventually did get the hang of it, but in the beginning I made a lot of short flights that ended with abrupt landings.

The reflex sight made it very easy to keep the camera pointed at the plane. When making stills I found it helped to set the shutter sound as loud as I could. The camera was running a five second intervalometer, so every five seconds I heard a loud “kachunk” sound, letting me know it had taken a picture. After a while my flying fell into a cadence of one-two-three-four-click! one-two-three-four-click! At around four seconds I found myself rolling the plane so I could see the top or bottom of the wing. This was great for photography, but it exacerbated my tendency to fly off the lift. Still, the pictures were nice.

Zagi 5C In Flight

You don’t even want to see the corresponding Gopro shot from that point in time. The plane is just a dot out toward the water. The long reach of the A2200 really brought the plane in close, and the reflex sight made it easy to keep it in the frame.

Videos were a little tougher. As a test I ran the Gopro in wide mode, the A2200 zoomed all the way in, an 808 #16D keychain camera on the Zagi, and my T2i on the ground on a tripod. The T2i footage was rubbish, but the rest came out ok. I also recorded audio using a portable field recorder. My audio work isn’t all that hot, but the video came out better than I expected.

I ran into two big problems: The first was that even a tiny lapse in concentration was enough for the plane to move out toward the edge of the field in the A2200. When I really focused, it worked better. I tried putting the dot near the plane rather than directly on it so that I could shift it around in the frame. This didn’t work out too well. The field of view of the A2200 was so small, even tiny shifts were enough for it to slide out toward the edge of the frame. But with judicious editing most of those lapses could have been covered. I didn’t cover them because I wanted to see the faults with the method as well as its strengths.

The second problem I ran into was that keeping the horizon level was non-trivial. I never realized how much we roll our heads when we turn our necks. It’s astounding how much the horizon bobbled a round in the video! By the end, though, my rolly-polly horizon was getting better.

I think both of these problems would have been minimized if I hadn’t been the one flying the airplane. The helmet cam certainly lets you document your own flights. But I think its real strength may be in videoing the flights of others.

– Tom


Posted in Engineering, Kite Aerial Photography, Photography, RC Airplanes | 1 Comment »

New Experiments

Posted by Tom Benedict on 29/03/2014

Because of stuff going on outside of work and hobbies, both work and hobbies have taken something of a back seat in the last month. Typically when this happens I wind up with a backlog of work I need to do as well as a notebook full of hobby ideas I want to take on when the smoke clears and normal life resumes.

The backlog at work happened right on schedule. I’ll be surprised if I dig my way out any time in the next twelve months. And the hobby notebook? I went through the list of ideas and cleared it down to four:

Project 1 – Untaping the Gopro

Pretty simple, really. I’ve been flying my Gopro on my RC airplanes by taping it down with blue painter’s tape. I went this route for a couple of reasons: First, the waterproof case introduces a planar/planar optic in front of a wide-angle lens. This is guaranteed to degrade image quality. Second, the weight of the waterproof case almost doubles the weight of the camera. Unlike kites, airplanes are very touchy about how much weight they can carry. So I went with the “lightweight” mount: blue painter’s tape.

This is a silly thing to do for a number of reasons. If the tape gets wet (which NEVER happens up in the air in the tropics! Gosh!) it starts to fail. A Gopro falling from a couple hundred feet is an injury waiting to happen. Also, it doesn’t offer a lot of options for aiming the camera. So I got a third-party “Frame” case. I’m probably going to stick a 1/4″-20 tripod mount on top of my Phoenix and attach it to that. Lightweight, solid, and I can finally aim the damn thing.

Along with the Frame case I also got a low-profile FPV cable for the Gopro. This lets you power the Gopro from your RC system using a BEC, so you can shave even more weight by leaving out the battery. And the video end of the cable will plug into the video transmitter for both my KAP rig and my planes, so it serves dual purpose.

I’m looking forward to flying the Gopro on my KAP rig with the video cable. As wide as the field of view of the Gopro is, I’ve blown a number of good opportunities to KAP some excellent boogie board action at Hapuna Beach because the subject was off-center in the frame.

Project 2 – OrangeRX Flight Stabilizer Hack

In a thread on the KAP forum, Bill Blake mentioned the OrangeRX RX3S Flight Stabilizer sold by Hobby King. He got one and tested it as a KAP camera stabilizer, but found it to be too slow and notchy in its movements. While poking around for information about the thing I ran across a web site that had a third-party firmware for the RX3S that might solve the notchy problem (improved interrupt handlers), along with some other improvements.

While I was cruising around on that page I saw that the RX3S is basically an Arduino with a 3-axis gyro, three potentiometers, a bank of switches, and headers for servos. Take the idea of it being a flight stabilizer out of the equation and just think of it as a pre-packaged microcontroller with a bunch of cool stuff tacked on, and all of a sudden all sorts of possibilities come to mind.

One I’ve been toying with for a while is an RCKAP / autoKAP switch: In one mode it lets you control pitch, yaw, and shutter. In the other mode the microcontroller acts like an autoKAP controller and moves the camera through a fixed pattern automatically. If the RC receiver it’s plugged into has a failsafe setting on the channel that controls the behavior of the micro, you could have it default to “turn me to autoKAP” when no transmitter signal is detected. Voila! If you leave your radio at home, you get an autoKAP rig. If you bring it you get both RCKAP and autoKAP at the flick of a switch.

So yeah, I got one of these, too. Shipping from Hong Kong being what it is, I expect to see it in a couple of months. Such is life.

Project 3 – KAP / Pole Rig Adapter

This actually ties into another long-term project: building a passively stabilized pendulum KAP rig with an actively stabilized gimbal on the bottom. To do the testing for this, I want to be able to swap rapidly between Picavet and pendulum suspensions on the same rig so I could compare them under similar conditions back-to-back.

As I was going through the sketches and CAD work for the quick-change suspension mount, I realized that a slightly beefier version would mean I could take my KAP rig, flip it upside-down, and attach it to a pole as well. Yay! No more separate rigs!

That’s when it occurred to me that if I was careful about it, I could make a whole set of mating adapters. That way I could carry around one Picavet, one pendulum, one pole, and multiple KAP rigs. Depending on the requirements of the photo I could use a pole or a kite to lift the camera, and put the camera in any of the rigs I have sitting around at the moment. Versatility at its best!

Design work for stuff like this is always something of an iterative process. It needs to be robust, light, and simple to build. Robust is easy: make it in large chunks. Light is easy, too (use small chunks!) but a little harder if you don’t want to jeopardize robustness. And simple to build? Yeah, that’s the kicker. I’m trying to get these down to three setups on no more than two tools. I’m almost there.

Project 4 – A Helmet Camera that Aims!

Years ago I knew a skydiver who later became a photographer and videographer. Even back then (back when film was king) I was fascinated by the hardware the skydiver videographers used. They wore specialized helmets that let them mount video cameras, 35mm cameras, medium format cameras, etc. on their heads, all of which could be triggered using a handheld remote.

That’s all well and good, you might think. No different from a headcam or hatcam mount for a Gopro. Aaaah, but there was one other thing the skydivers had that most head-mounted cameras don’t: a way to aim.

The skydivers all used reflex sights bolted to their helmets to help them aim. The reflex sight projects a dot or crosshair into your field of vision. No matter how you move your eye, the dot’s orientation is preserved. Once all the cameras are aimed to center their frames on that dot, the skydiver only needs to aim the dot at the subject and hit the button on their handheld remote. Bang! All their camera shutters trip, capturing the action.

So I looked up “reflex sight” on Ebay to see what these things cost these days. I was amazed to see they were less than $30US. WOW!

So the last project is to make either a hat or helmet camera mount with a reflex sight over one eye. By bolting a combination of a wide angle camera (Gopro, probably) and a narrow-angle camera (A2200?) on the mount, some neat possibilities open up for slope soaring videos or really any videos that require tracking a moving subject.

Unfortunately I don’t have the shop cash to spring for the reflex sight as well. Not this month, anyway. That project will have to wait.

– Tom

EDIT: I talked to my family’s CFO (aka “my wife”) and she gave me the go-ahead to pick up the reflex sight and rail. Yaaaay! But she cautioned me that if I tack a DSLR with a big bazooka of a lens on the top of my head, she will disown me.

Posted in Engineering, Kite Aerial Photography, Photography, RC Airplanes | 4 Comments »

Tiny Camera – Tiny KAP Rig

Posted by Tom Benedict on 27/02/2014

I’m traveling to Victoria, BC, in the next couple of days. Any time I travel the question comes up: what camera gear should I bring? Should I bring a tripod? Should I bring kite aerial photography gear? What kinds of photography can I do? And how much time will I really have to do any of this stuff, anyway?

In this case the answer to that last question is probably “a couple of hours at best”. For personal stuff, anyway. One of the purposes of the trip is to do technical documentation photography, so I’ll have my full camera bag and tripod with me. But our days will start right around sunrise and will end just before sundown. I’m packing my graduated ND filters and some other gear to make sunset and early evening skyline photography possible, but the opportunities for doing kite aerial photography will be seriously limited.

But if I can find room in my bag, I’m planning to bring a Flow Form 16, a halo winder, and my new (to me) Canon A2200. Since my main KAP rig is massive overkill for such a small camera, I knocked together a minimalist KAP rig designed around the A2200. No servos. No batteries. Point on the ground, send it up with the intervalometer chugging away, and live for the serendipity of it all. The entire rig, including the Brooxes Folding Picavet, came in right around 57g. Add in the camera’s 133g and the all-up flying weight is still under 200g. Even if the wind isn’t blowing enough for the Flow Form to really come into its own, it should still be able to lift the thing.

Dinky Rig

There’s actually some room to shave weight off the rig. The main framework comes in just over 12g. Most of the real weight in the rig is the Picavet and the post. The post and all of its hardware is steel, so that’s where the bulk of it lies. If I have time before the trip I may change that out for a thin aluminum tube (knitting needle?) with threaded rods epoxied and pinned in each end. Some creative aluminum jam nuts and I could probably knock 10-20g off the thing.

The whole thing can be disassembled in the field and reassembled without the upper half of the frame. This lets the camera hang vertically. I don’t know how much of that I’ll do with this rig, but it’s nice to have the capability. In either the vertical or the horizontal orientation, the camera can be tilted anywhere from straight up to straight down. (It’s amazing how easy it is to get extreme motion in your axes when there aren’t any motors involved!)

I’m hoping to have a chance to take this out for a test flight before I get on the plane. But if the weather keeps doing what it’s been doing for the past several weeks, I really won’t have the chance.


– Tom

Posted in Kite Aerial Photography, Photography | Leave a Comment »

Reasons I Left the AKA

Posted by Tom Benedict on 23/02/2014

A couple of years ago I let my membership with the American Kitefliers Association lapse. A bunch of stuff was going on at the time: Rydra was getting a craniotomy to remove a brain tumor. I’d just been assigned the task of designing and building the mechanics of two CCD cameras for a new instrument. And artistically I was in the dumps when it came to kite aerial photography. When the renewal notice came in the mail, I didn’t even open it.

I originally joined so I could take part in the annual AKA KAP photo competition. The competition takes place at the AKA Annual Conference, an event I’ve never been able to afford to travel to. The rules are simple: Print up to three photos made using a camera suspended from a kite, and mail them to the AKA rep by the due date so they can be presented at the convention for review. Conference attendees vote on the photos, and the winner is declared on the last day of the convention. Only members in good standing with the AKA can compete. When I let my membership lapse, I let my ability to enter the competition lapse as well.

I had opportunities to rejoin the AKA. Rydra recovered from the brain tumor. I finished the two cameras for the new instrument. And I eventually got back into kite aerial photography and photography in general. The Annual Convention came, the competition was announced, and still I didn’t renew. Maybe next year. Or maybe not. I just didn’t feel a need to rejoin.

When I was a member of the AKA I got Kiting magazine. The format for Kiting typically includes a cover story – usually a convention – contributed articles – usually about conventions or competitions – and the reports from the Regional Directors – usually covering conventions and competitions. Oh! And one KAP article. Except for the KAP article, I really didn’t get a lot out of it. My Regional Director never once mentioned the state I live in, never once covered an event out here, and his report never really had much in it that applied to me. Increasingly, I got the feeling that if I wasn’t on the competition or convention circuit, I wasn’t really doing kites. Not the way the AKA expected me to, anyway.

I also got on the AKA’s online forums. Just like Kiting magazine, these mostly focused on competitions, conventions, and why the AKA has such a hard time attracting and keeping members. I tried to contribute to the forums, but I never got the feeling my input was ever really read. Apparently my version of kiting just didn’t apply. Over time I quit logging in. There wasn’t really anything there for me.

About a year ago I got into RC airplanes. Gliders, specifically. No, they didn’t take the place of kites for me. In a way I learned to appreciate kites even more for how cleanly they use the wind and the air. And I joined the Academy of Model Aeronautics – the AMA. So when my shiny new AMA membership card arrived in the mail, I was eager to see what the AMA’s approach was like.

For starters the publication I got, Park Pilot, covered a lot more ground than Kiting. Articles covered choosing a radio, choosing a plane, new gear reviews, how-to construction articles, tips on flying aerobatics, tips on approaches and landings, how to put together a crash kit for the field, and how to fly safely. There were even articles about competitions, but they were never the entire focus of the magazine. As a beginner, and even after a year, I felt represented.

Over time I gravitated toward sailplanes. I was a little alarmed to find out that it’s an incredibly competitive branch of model aeronautics. Speed records are set by high-end carbon composite dynamic slope soarers. Precision soaring events are won by carbon kevlar bagged wing ships flown to within a second on a clock. Timed pylon events are run using only the lift generated on slopes. I’m not a competitive guy. I fly to have fun. The AKA’s focus on competition was one of the things that drove me off. The deeper I dug into sailplanes, the less I thought there could be a place there for a guy like me.

To my delight I found that there was. RC Soaring Digest, a volunteer-published magazine for RC soaring enthusiasts, covers these competitions, but unlike Kiting it also covers construction techniques, walks around full-sized sailplanes, travel articles showcasing wonderful places to see and fly, historical articles on record attempts, even articles covering people like me who just want to put a plane up and have a good time. It’s all fair game.

Eventually I joined the RCGroups forum. Though not an official part of the AMA, the RCGroups forum is, nonetheless, the online watering hole for all things RC. There are forums there to discuss competitions and rules. But there are also forums to discuss scale modeling, DIY electronics, radios and radio mods, foam planes, home-built planes, slope planes, thermal planes, jets, helicopters, multirotors, seaplanes, you name it. If it can be flown, it’s represented. If it can be stuck in something that flies, it’s represented. And when someone like me gets on and posts a wacky idea, people read it and comment on it. Sometimes they even get excited about it.

Between the KAP Forum, the AMA, RCGroups, and RC Soaring Digest, I had my interests covered. I was disappointed the AKA wasn’t part of it, but such is life.

Some months back there was a proposed rule change for the annual AKA KAP competition. I weighed in as a KAPer, and non-KAP members of the AKA weighed in as well. The discussion was very slanted. One non-KAP participant implied that KAPers were basically greedy bastards for not donating their prints to the AKA convention auction at the end of the competition. Another questioned that sending prints to the competition could cost upwards of a hundred dollars or more, arguing that a Walgreens print only costs $25 to print and ship. (Walgreens?! Do they use Hahnemule paper and archival inks?) When KAPers pointed out that maybe… just maybe… someone who has put thousands of dollars and hours into their art might not be satisfied with a drugstore print, the non-KAPers basically blew them off. End result? No changes to the rules. Don’t like ’em? Don’t play.

So I didn’t.

Today I got email from the AKA saying how regrettable it was that I hadn’t renewed my membership, and asking me to participate in a survey so they could better serve the kiting public. So I participated. The questions were good. Why did I leave? Why didn’t I renew? What did the AKA offer that I most valued? What would it take to get me back? I answered as truthfully as I could.

Reading back through my answers to the questions, I was a little surprised at how acerbic I was. But the more I thought about it, the less I wanted to change what I wrote. Because in the end it was the truth. This is why I didn’t renew. This is why I don’t plan to come back. And this is what it will take to attract kiters like me. Want to attract new members? Learn to bend.

– Tom

Posted in Kite, Kite Aerial Photography, Photography | Leave a Comment »

A New KAP Camera(s)

Posted by Tom Benedict on 20/02/2014

I got a new KAP camera. Or cameras. I’m not sure which yet. Yeah, there’s a story here…

Late last year there was a flurry of activity on the KAP Forum regarding near-infrared kite aerial photography, normalized differential vegetation index (NDVI) imagery, archaeology, and all sorts of other good stuff. During this discussion, the Canon Powershot A2200 came up as a good donor camera to convert to full-spectrum or near-IR use.

New KAP Camera - Canon Powershot A2200

These things occasionally go for as little as $25 US on Ebay, so I decided to pick one up. As it turns out I chose a not so reputable dealer (the negative feedback on Ebay should’ve been a clue… DOH!) so my first one never came in. Neither did my refund. If it ever shows up, I have plans for it, but I’m not holding my breath (more on that in a sec).

But while I was waiting and wishing I’d ordered from a better dealer, I picked up a second one for $29. It’s seen rougher usage than most of my KAP cameras, and came with a fairly heavily scratched screen and a really filthy lens. The lens cleaned up fine, though, and the scratched display doesn’t really bother me since it’s destined for use on a kite.

It took me a little bit to sort out CHDK on the A2200 (yes, it runs CHDK), and to get my KAP continuous remote shutter script to run the way I wanted. But at this point it’s completely up and running and good to go. It even takes the same video out cable as the A650, so I can use it with my video downlink gear, too. It’s basically drop-in ready on my main KAP rig. Yay!

At the wide end the A2200’s lens is roughly equivalent to a 28mm on a 35mm camera – a little wider than the 35mm equivalent of my A650, but almost identical to the field of view of my T2i with its 18-55mm kit lens. And at 133.22g, it’s a fair bit lighter than either the A650 or the T2i. Ok, ok, to be fair the A2200 and the T2i are completely different beasts. The T2i is a full-featured DSLR with outstanding low-light response. The A2200 has a smaller sensor than my A650, and in low-light it really starts to fall apart. But in broad daylight with a clean lens, it’s a nice camera. Perfect for a travel KAP kit.

I’m planning to gut my panoramic rig (again) and rebuild it strictly as a pano travel rig for the A2200 and Gopro Hero 3. That rig will run forever on a set of four AAA batteries, so I probably won’t even bring a battery charger for the rig. The A2200 and the Gopro can both charge off of a USB cable plugged into a computer, so I won’t even need chargers for the cameras.

I’ve got a trip planned to Victoria, BC, in the next two weeks. There won’t be much, if any, time for KAP, but I’m planning to bring the camera, rig, a halo winder, and at least one kite. If opportunity knocks, I’ll be ready.

So about the other camera… Yeah… At this point I’m having so much fun with the A2200, I’m not sure I really want to convert this one to IR. Maybe, just maybe, if the other camera shows up some day, it’ll be the donor camera. Then I’ll have two A2200’s: one normal one and one for IR. Put both of those on the same rig and… Hey! That’s a fun idea!

– Tom

Posted in Kite Aerial Photography, Photography | 4 Comments »

A New Slope Site

Posted by Tom Benedict on 12/02/2014

I admit it, I’m chicken when it comes to throwing my gliders out over a cliff, especially if I can’t find a way to get to the bottom of the cliff to recover my plane after pulling a boneheaded maneuver. This has kept me from finding really stellar slope sites on the Big Island. So far the two I’ve flown the most are the pu`u at Kua Bay and a grassy slope out at the edge of an old quarry. Kua Bay is nice because there’s no fence hopping involved. But the landing zone is all rock, and it’s over a half hour drive to get there. The quarry is great because the slope is all grass, but you have to hop a fence to get there, so it’s just a matter of time before we get chased off. Clearly I need a new place to fly.

While going through some of my earlier photography to find stuff I might put up on, I ran across a set I did at Kauhola Point at the north end of the Big Island. It’s the set this one came from:

Lighthouse from Up HighThe cliffs are heavily eroded right by the lighthouse, which makes them scary as far as climbing goes. But as I went through the other photos from the set, I ran across some showing the cliffs just to the east. Solid rock! And on one of them there was a path that led down to a rocky surfing beach. Perfect! And as it turns out I flew over a nearby farm that had a great view of the cliffs from a kite. Different day, drier season, but you can see how nice these cliffs would be for sloping. (The leaning trees give you a pretty good idea of the average wind direction here…)

Kauhola Point

The fine folks at Mauna Kea Soaring appear to have their wind models running again, so I was even able to check the conditions at Kauhola Point. (The guy who runs the wind models is a fellow slope soarer and a fellow Zagi 5C owner. He also happens to be the Director of Engineering at the place where I work. Small world!) The winds look good! If they hold through the weekend, I’m getting out with a couple of planes to go play.

I promised people at RCGroups that I’d take stills and video the next time I got out. Seems like Kauhola Point would be a great place to do this. So I’ll pack cameras, too. Report to come!

– Tom

P.S. WHAT A DWEEB! After posting this I madly rushed off to RCGroups to write a post for a thread on Big Island sloping sites. RIGHT THERE was a post I made back in October last year in which I posted this same picture. GAAAH! I already knew about this place! And I forgot! I have no one to blame but myself. >sigh<

Posted in Kite Aerial Photography, RC Airplanes | Leave a Comment »

First Aerial Photography of 2014

Posted by Tom Benedict on 03/01/2014

I’ve been on vacation for the last week and a half, and still have five more days to go. This is a GREAT way to start a new year. I’ve also been doing a ton of photography. Mostly long-duration sunsets, but I finally got airborne over the last two days for some aerial photography.

Yesterday I flew a plane with a Gopro on it, just to see what it would look like. Up until now I’ve only done videos from planes. Never stills. This time I wanted to see what stills looked like. Unfortunately my setup was far from ideal, and I wound up tip-stalling about a hundred feet off the deck. I couldn’t build up enough airspeed to recover, so the plane went in. The Gopro survived, but the plane needs a new nose. I’m taking this opportunity to replace it with one that’s a little more conducive to mounting cameras. Meanwhile, the latest photograph of Mala `ai garden was done from a plane:

Mala `ai from a Plane

Today I grabbed my KAP gear and headed down to Waialea Bay for my first KAP session of 2014. To be fair, I’ve been dragging my KAP gear all over for the last week, hoping to get some flying in. But the weather has been horrid for KAP: no wind, lots of rain, and terrible light. Today changed all that. Lots of wind, no rain, and stellar late-day light.

Two at Waialea Bay

The wind was pretty rocky for this location. I used a Flow Form 16, which is normally a reasonably stable kite. Today it was swooping all over the place. I hung my T2i from the line anyway, and flew. Only two of the pictures were truly blurry, but almost all of them were soft to some degree. This was one of the only survivors. It’s reasonably sharp, though the composition isn’t exactly what I was after. Still, after days of nothing it was great to have something coming off the camera.

So here’s to 2014. May it be a year of good weather, good flying, and good times.

– Tom

Posted in Kite Aerial Photography, Photography, RC Airplanes | 2 Comments »

Video Downlink for KAP

Posted by Tom Benedict on 04/12/2013

This 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 Progression of Kites I described the additions I made to my kite bag over the years, and what those kites provided for in terms of KAP. This article describes my video downlink system.

The previous two articles were written almost as a history: “First this happened, then this happened.” But over the years as I solved the various problems I ran into with my video downlink system, I wrote articles describing what I did. So the history version of this has already been written. Rather than repeat what I wrote, this article is more of a how-to for adding a video downlink system to a KAP rig.

In its very simplest design a video link is a wire that connects the video output of a camera with the video input of a display device. It’s possible to set up a KAP rig this way, but the wire would have to be long, heavy, and would be a nasty thing to have in your hand when lightning strikes. For obvious reasons, it’s preferable to send the video signal to the ground some other way: radio.

It bears mentioning at this stage that unlike a wire, leaping into the world of radio places the operator in a new situation. At this point you’re transmitting your signal in such a way that it can potentially interfere with other wireless devices. In most countries radio transmitters are regulated, and typically fall into two categories: Either the device has been declared fit for use by an untrained person or it has not. In the US this declaration comes in the form of FCC Part 15 approval. If the device has an FCC Part 15 sticker on it, you can use it without a license. If it doesn’t, you can’t. The laws in other countries will vary, but that’s how it is here.

FCC Sticker

As was pointed out to me when I started down this road a couple of years ago, if you wind up using equipment that doesn’t carry your country’s seal of approval, it’s up to you to get whatever licenses are necessary for you to stay on the right side of the law. Unfortunately most video transmitter gear requires a license. (In case you’re wondering, that’s a picture of a 2.4GHz transmitter module from an RC radio. Most RC gear is approved for unlicensed use. The manufacturers are well motivated to make sure their stuff is certified. Video manufacturers? Not so much.)

There’s another benefit to studying for and getting your radio license. The whole point of the exercise is to give you the information you need to successfully and safely experiment in the world of radio. And that’s precisely what you’re doing! You’re exploring the world of radio by setting up an amateur TV station and a receiver. Questions that you’ll need to answer will include how much power to use, what kind of antenna to use, how much radiation exposure you’ll get, etc. By virtue of studying for and receiving your amateur radio operator’s license, you’ll find the answers to these and other questions. It’s well worth it.

Back to the video link!

The next question you’re probably asking is, “But what do I have to get to make it work?” Unfortunately there’s no right answer because there’s more than one way to do it. Here are some things to consider:

Most video hardware is built to handle either NTSC, PAL, or both of these formats. When looking at your gear – camera, video transmitter, video receiver, and monitor – keep in mind which system you’re using and make sure all your hardware will handle it. I got hardware that will handle both, so I can switch the entire setup from NTSC to PAL and back without penalty.

All of this hardware will have to be powered. In the world of FPV RC aircraft, there’s an advantage to running your video system on a completely different power supply than your radio system. That way when your video system drains your batteries dry, your aircraft doesn’t suddenly fall out of the sky in an uncontrolled heap. This isn’t as big a consideration in the world of KAP since the kite will fly regardless of the state of the batteries. (A single line kite with a dead battery flies exactly the same as a single line kite with a fully charged battery. The kite really doesn’t care.) So there’s an advantage to choosing gear that can all be powered off of a single source.

Between the transmitter and the receiver you will need a pair of antennas. At their simplest an antenna is a piece of wire trimmed to a particular length (1/4 the wavelength of the transmitted signal). At their most complex they can be fairly complicated pieces of equipment that preferentially transmit and receive in a particular direction, polarize the signal in a particular way, etc. Keep in mind that the size of the antenna is always dependent on the wavelength of the transmitted signal.

And while keeping that in mind, consider that radio gear for sending and receiving video signals can be built to operate on a wide range of wavelengths. At the longer end of the spectrum (literally) you can get 900MHz hardware. At the shorter end you can get 5.8GHz hardware. In between you can find hardware built to 1.2MHz, 1.3MHz, 2.4MHz, etc. The longer your wavelength, the better the signal will penetrate solid objects and bend around corners, and the less power it will take to get a particular range. This favors longer wavelengths. Conversely, the shorter your wavelength, the smaller your antenna. This favors shorter wavelengths. And no matter what, you don’t want your video system to interfere with your RC transmitter, either at the primary frequency or at a harmonic (n * freq). So if you’re using 2.4GHz RC gear, don’t use 2.4GHz or 1.2GHz video gear.

Finally, you’ll need some form of display on which to see the image from your camera. Options for this range from fully enclosed headsets like the ones from FatShark to standalone monitors. The display you choose will depend greatly on what you’re doing.

Regardless of whether you’re planning to build a video downlink for KAP or an FPV setup for RC aircraft, it’s really not safe to use a self-enclosed headset if you plan on operating your gear by yourself. The AMA’s safety guide for FPV specifically says you should use a spotter when flying FPV, and that they should maintain line-of-sight on the aircraft at all times. It’s really no different for KAP. If you’ve spent any amount of time flying single line kites, chances are you’ve seen them do something unexpected. If you’re watching the kite you can typically do something to recover. If you’re staring into a self-enclosed headset, you won’t notice until it’s way way too late. If you plan to use a headset for KAP, also plan to bring someone along to operate the kite. I’m a solo KAPer, so I built my system to use a monitor.

Something to look for when getting a monitor is what it does when it loses signal or encounters a glitch. Many of them switch to a blue screen. Because radio signals are almost always glitchy, this means that the monitor will spend most of its time being blue. Look for a monitor that will show static when it loses signal or encounters a glitch. Most of the ones that do will proudly tell you of this on the packaging or in the advertisement, and may even say, “Made for FPV use!” My first two monitors did the blue screen thing. Skip the pain and get a good monitor from the get-go.

Now for the real question: How do you wire all this stuff together? Fortunately the world of FPV has made these systems a lot more turnkey than they used to be. Unfortunately they’re not as turnkey as, say, plugging servos into a receiver and moving them with joysticks. Some soldering is typically required. Here’s the diagram for the system I built using Boscam 5.8GHz hardware:

FPV Wiring Diagram

I used a 3-cell LiPoly battery to power the video system, so the video transmitter is getting between 12.6V and 11.6V. The UBEC steps that down to 5V for the RC receiver and servos. I don’t use the Vcamera output on the transmitter to power the camera, and rely on the camera’s own internal battery for its power.

Keep in mind this is for a KAP system. I built out a similar system for FPV. In that case I omitted the UBEC and didn’t provide any connection between the video system and the RC system. This was in order to avoid RF interference from the airplane’s ESC, motor, and servos, and to keep the video system from draining the flight battery, as I said earlier.

When setting up your radio gear, carefully check the channels the gear can operate on to make sure the frequencies are legal in your country. Not all countries allow amateur use on all bands, and not all countries define the bands the same way. You should be able to find the frequencies used for each channel in the manual for your hardware.

When setting up the channels on mine I ran into another problem: The Boscam 5.8GHz Rx and Tx use banks of DIP switches to set the channel. Unfortunately on one of them 1 is up and 0 is down, and on the other 1 is down and 0 is up. Even worse, the setting for channel 1 on the transmitter and the setting for channel 1 on the receiver are completely different! So for those using the Boscam 5.8GHz system, this diagram appears to be correct if you are looking at the numbers on the DIP switch banks (original source):

Boscam VTx VRx Channels

Because I knew I wanted to be able to swap cameras on my KAP rig, I wired the three video/audio/ground wires to a male servo connector and built individual camera cables that ended in female servo connectors. To swap cameras, all I have to do is swap cables.

Quick aside: If you plan to do anything with any sort of servo gear – KAP, RC airplanes, robotics, whatever – get a bag of male connectors, a bag of female connectors, a spool of servo wire, and a crimp tool. Places like Servo City carry these as stock items. I have never regretted getting mine. The only regret I’ve had is that I didn’t get bigger bags of connectors! You’ll find these come in handy for more than just servos.

Ground stations vary from person to person. I built mine for KAP, so it’s small, self-contained, and can be attached to my RC transmitter.

KAP Video Ground Station Rear

I use the same ground station for FPV. It consists of the video receiver and antenna, a monitor, and a battery. The wiring is typically a little more straightforward than on the transmitter gear. Both video receiver and monitor usually come with RCA connectors, so it’s just a matter of plugging everything in. In my case, though, the RCA cables were all male! Rather than use a bunch of female/female gender changers to connect the cables together, I made all new cables. But it’s not necessary to go this far with your gear.

Once you have all your bits and have wired them together, test it thoroughly on the ground. Having a KAP video downlink fail in the field is a bummer, but it’s not the end of the world. Most of us start off either using autoKAP or aiming by looking up at the camera, so not having a video downlink isn’t a show-stopper. It’s just not fun. If you’re building out an FPV link for an RC aircraft, losing your video feed mid-flight can be a lot more disorienting and may lead to a crash. So test first. Then test again. Then, just for grins, test it again. I spent way too many KAP sessions chasing video problems to chance it these days.

Whatever route you go, remember to fly safely whether you’re flying a kite, a plane, a helicopter, or a multi-rotor. Using a video downlink of any sort means you’re taking your eyes off of your aerial platform. In the case of a kite, finding it again is just a matter of looking up the line. In the case of an airplane or helicopter, it may take you a while to pick it out of the sky. Use a spotter. And expect things to go wrong. They always do.

– Tom

Posted in Electronics, Engineering, Kite Aerial Photography, Radio, RC Airplanes | Leave a Comment »

A Progression of Kites

Posted by Tom Benedict on 13/11/2013

In my previous post I gave a bit of a history of the cameras and gear I use for KAP. But I left out the most important part of KAP: the magic levitation machine that makes the whole thing go. The kite.

Something I didn’t know when I first got into KAP is that while any kite can lift a camera, you don’t use just any kite to do KAP. When I ordered that first Brooxes BBKK kit years ago I thought I had a good lifter kite. It was big. It had pull. Perfect, right?

As it turned out, no. It was a big parafoil with the most amazingly complicated bridle I’d ever seen. I never could quite get it in tune. The kite did fly. I can attest to that. But if the wind dipped even slightly or gusted, it would quit flying. And sometimes it would overreact to a wind shift and just take off sideways. It was fine when all I was doing was flying it as a kite. But for KAP it was frustrating!

Turns out the kite had an amazingly narrow wind range. Wind range is the term used to describe the wind speeds a kite can operate in. There are a couple of reasons why you want kites with wide wind ranges when doing KAP.

First, the wider the wind range on your kite, the fewer kites you need to cover a range of speeds. Say you have a bunch of kites that can handle maybe 4mph difference in wind speed. To cover everything from 5mph to 25mph, you need five kites. You could cover that same range with three kites that have a broader wind range.

Second, hanging weight on a kite line effectively shrinks the usable wind range of the kite. At the high end the kite will still fly off the wind and crash. But at the low end the kite will simply run out of lift, and your camera and rig will hit the ground. So if you start with kites that have a broad wind range to begin with, chances are it’ll keep flying when you hang a rig on the line.

Finally, nearly every flying session will involve a range of wind speeds. It’s inevitable. We don’t live in a wind tunnel. Real wind has dips, gusts, thermals, down-drafts, etc. Real life is messy. If you start with a kite that can deal with a range of wind conditions, your chances of keeping your camera in the air when the wind changes goes up.

I wound up selling that parafoil and getting a pair of related kites: Flow Forms.


The Flow Form is a soft kite invented by Steve Sutton. In many respects they look a lot like my earlier parafoil, except for the bridle. The Sutton Flow Form bridle is a very simple arrangement of lines that don’t need to be tuned. The tuning is all in the keel geometry. The Flow Form 16, shown here, starts flying around 6-7 knots, can lift by 8-9 knots, and only starts to over-power around 20 knots. For me it was a great place to start doing KAP. It packs down to a bundle the size of a travel pillow, and can be pulled out, shaken open, and launched with relatively little effort. It’s still my go-to kite for travel.

Unfortunately Air Affairs, the company that made the Flow Form 16 and Flow Form 8 I bought, are no longer making the kites. The KAP community is still trying to find good replacements. So far some of the better ones come from HQ Kites. But I’m still trying to keep mine patched and flying.

For the record, I don’t use my Flow Form 8 for KAP any more. It’s small, and smaller kites are more prone to react to small changes in air pressure. Put another way: they dance in the sky. This is not what you want as a stable platform for photography. By the time the wind is fast enough to let me fly a rig from the FF8, I’m ready to pack it in. At those speeds the wind is abusive.

Unfortunately, with just the FF16 in my kite quiver, there were days when the wind was too light to fly. So I started looking for other kites. This is where your local flying conditions and your own preferences for KAP will drive which kites you gravitate toward. In my case I needed lighter wind kites, so that’s the direction I went.

Larger Flow Forms were available, but I wound up going with framed kites. Soft kites are good for getting “reach” (downwind range) without incurring too much altitude. For getting out over water, or for flying over difficult to reach subjects they’re great. But for getting lots of altitude when you have to stand close to your subject they’re not ideal. For that, framed kites are a better choice.

My first framed kite was a 6′ rokkaku a friend of mine sewed using the plans from Gary Engvall.

Hexagonal Levitation Machine

A well-tuned rokkaku provides a great deal of lift in a little amount of wind, and is a joy to fly. A poorly-tuned rokkaku is a disaster on the end of a string. I can vouch for Gary’s plans, my friend’s prowess with a sewing machine, and above all Gary’s bridle tuning guide found on that same web page. This kite continues to be one of my favorites. It’s 6′ high and 5′ wide, and breaks down to 5′ if I leave the cross spars in place. It’ll break down to 32″ if I break down the spars.

I later added a second rokkaku to the bunch, a 7.5′ from Didakites. The bridle it came with was awful, but after I replaced it with as bridle made to Gary’s specifications, it became a solid flyer. Because of the sensitivity to bridle tuning I don’t recommend rokkakus as first kites. But they make great second (and third!) kites.

About that same time I also made a new winder out of half inch plywood, a bunch of bolts, and a skateboard wheel. It’s shown here with my Didakites rokkaku.

The winder

It flies in lighter wind than the 6′ rokkaku, and is now my main kite for lifting my DSLR rig. (Remember how heavier rigs will reduce the wind range of whatever kite you’re using? It also helps to start with a kite that can lift more weight.) This one is 7.5′ high and 6′ wide, and only breaks down to 6′ unless I break down the cross spars. So it’s a little less convenient to carry, but it’s fun to use.

In an ever-expanding quest to fly in less and less wind I picked up two other kites along the way. The first was a Fled, a kite specifically designed for KAP by Brooks Leffler.


It’s almost the same size as my green rokkaku, but flies in much less wind. It’s also not capable of carrying as much weight. Like the Flow Form it has a bridle that doesn’t require tuning, so it’s a good beginner kite. But it’s only really suited for lifting the lightest rigs. I’d never fly my DSLR on this. But I’ve flown compact cameras, cell phones, and Gopros, and it’s one of my go-to kites for mapping. (Mapping KAP rigs only let the camera point down, and tend to be very light and easy to use.) It breaks down to the same size as my green rokkaku unless the vertical spars are disassembled as well.

The other is a DoPeRo, another kite also specifically designed for KAP by Ralf Beutnagel:


DoPeRo is short for Double Pearson Roller. If you imagine the above kite without the rectangular center panels, that’s what a Pearson Roller looks like. Throw in those panels and it’ll haul up even heavy DSLR rigs in almost no wind. The one catch with the DoPeRo is that it’s 6′ high and 9′ wide. It’s big. In my case it’s too big and too complicated to be assembled without putting it on the ground.

Here’s another instance where your local flying conditions will dictate some of your choices. A great deal of the KAP I’ve done has been over raw lava. If you’ve never stepped on rock that’s less than a hundred years old, imagine standing on a pile of broken glass. Early on I learned how to hold a kite in the air while installing all of its spars, and then launch it without letting it touch the ground. I can’t do that with the DoPeRo, so I can only use it at sites that are ground contact friendly.

I love flying the DoPeRo, and try to get it out every time I go to the beach. But it’s not my primary KAP kite because of the whole issue with the razor sharp rocks. DARN! If you do the bulk of your KAP from grass fields, though, keep the DoPeRo in mind. It’s a good performer. Like the rokkaku, it’s sensitive to tuning. In this case Ralf’s original plans are the go-to for problem solving.

One whole branch of the kiting world I haven’t mentioned is deltas. There are some incredibly affordable delta kites that make beautiful lifters. The Levitation Delta and its sister kite, the Levitation Light, both from Into the Wind, are excellent lifters for under $100 US. Unfortunately I don’t own either one so I can’t tell you of my first-hand experiences. But I’ve seen both flown, and can attest to their utility for KAP.

A delta I have flown is the PFK Nighthawk. As far as I know these are only available from Paul’s Fishing Kites in New Zealand. These are some of the craziest kites I’ve ever flown. They start flying around 6-7 knots and can lift upwards of 10-12 knots. I don’t know the top end of the wind range on the Nighthawk. A fellow KAPer has flown a Nighthawk off of a boat in gale force winds, and managed to do KAP of the boat. It is an insane kite. I find that it pumps the line when it’s up in a lot of wind, though, so if your KAP rig is prone to oscillating it may not be your best bet. Either that or add a bungee between the kite and the rig. (Yes, this works. But that’s another post…) When every other kite is hiding in your kite bag, the Nighthawk can still come out and play.

One last delta I have used for KAP was a 19′ delta I borrowed for an archaeological KAP session.

Big Delta

This thing is terrifying to fly. I’d only use it for KAP if I was absolutely desperate. I have a standing offer to buy one of these from a kite shop that closed its doors a while back. I might get it simply for lifting line laundry at kite festivals. But only if I flew it off an anchor, and only if I was using #500 line or stronger. Even in light wind it’ll go from slack line flying to iron bar arm-wrenching pull in seconds. It’s a monster.

There are lots of kites out there that are good for KAP. The KAP Forums are a great place to ask questions and get feedback on any kites you might be interested in getting. The folks there are some of the finest in all the Internet. Kites, cameras, rigs, radios, no matter what your question is, that’s the first place I go.

Something to keep in mind if you get into KAP is that conditions won’t always lend themselves to flying a camera. In those instances you can always just fly the kite to fly the kite, and enjoy the scenery for its own sake.

Evening Landing

And should you accumulate a whole quiver of kites for doing KAP, they can all get air time when the wind is wrong, the light is bad, or you just don’t have a subject that turns you on. It’s all fun.

Three Birds on a Wire

Besides, once you get into kites it’ll give you a whole new perspective on the world. We all live under the same sky. We all fly in the same wind. And when someone tells us to get lost, we all get to go outside and play.

Go Fly A Kite Poster

– Tom

Posted in Kite, Kite Aerial Photography | 7 Comments »

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

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