Kite Aerial Photography

1/11

Right around the same time that I fell into my Summer Youth Programs gig, I started dabbling in kite aerial photography, or KAP for short.  "Kite photography?" you ask, "What, like you put a camera on a kite?"  Basically!  Around 2010 I started throwing point and shoot cameras in the air on timers to get wacky aerial perspectives. Predictably, the photos were blurry and I broke several cameras.  Then, in a brain fart, I wondered if it would be possible to hoist a camera into the air with a kite.  This was before drones became a big thing so thinking outside of the box was still an okay thing to do.  Lo and behold, a group of a few hundred die-hard kite aerial photographers from around the world had holed themselves up in a forum and welcomed me with open arms.  I quickly became hooked.

The basic gist of kite aerial photography is that I would fly a big kite to generate lift to haul a camera up into the air.  The kites had to be big - some of my favorites were 5'-8' 

tall and could pull with 10-15 pounds of force with a steady wind.  Once up in the air, I'd attach a camera rig to the line and reel out more string to send it up higher.  The camera rig was automated to spin in small increments while remaining (mostly) level.  When I started out I used servos to trigger the shutter, whereas later I used cameras with built-in intervalometers to reduce weight and camera shake.  I never knew what the camera was actually seeing, but with practice I could get an idea of how high I'd need to be and how far from my target to get a good photo.  

Obviously kite photography has some downsides.  If the wind isn't blowing, I couldn't take photos.  If it blew too much or erratically, I'd get knocked out of the sky.  I couldn't fly just anywhere either, having to rely on big open spaces for emergency landing sites in case the wind dropped.  Only twice did I ever get a kite stuck in a tree, and both times I managed to get it and my gear out safely.  Since I didn't know what I was taking photos of, I'd have to take hundreds per outing and cull the bad ones for just a handful of keepers.  This meant enduring an hour or more in the blowing wind each trip and was an effective way of building up my cold tolerance.  

The results were incredible at the time, and still hold up to modern drone shots due to being able to use heavier mirrorless cameras for long periods of time.  When I really hit my prime in 2013-2015, I was the only low-level aerial photographer in the Keweenaw area.  Nobody had seen photos from above of our region's landmarks and towns before and tons of my photos went viral.  My kite flying hay-day happened to coincide with two brutally cold winters that froze over lakes to a depth where I never had to worry about falling through thin ice.  I had perfect flying patches almost everywhere!  Flying in the summertime actually was a bit harder as all that ice melted and became a major hazard to my camera's health.

All good things come to an end though, and soon there were dozens of drone pilots buzzing around taking photos far more quickly, and in places where I could never reach. I'd also exhausted nearly every place I wanted to take photos of from above, significantly diminishing my interest.  I'd seen everything I wanted to see, and soon I was consumed by other photo projects and new endeavors.  I effectively hung up my kites and entered retirement in 2017.  Who knows though, I still have all of my gear and could make a comeback someday.  Only time will tell!

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© 2016-2020 Nathan Invincible Miller