A view from a kite

Some thoughts about kite aerial photography

A kite soars.

It lifts off effortlessly, riding a gentle breeze, steadily gaining altitude; ten meters, twenty, a hundred, and more. The only sound is the hissing of the kite line unwinding.

Then the line runs out; the kite stops, adjusts itself into the wind and ceases to move. Like it’s nailed to the sky, the kite is exactly where it belongs. It is at home up there with the clouds.

Fiery smoketrees in the autimn. Karst ridge above Lukini, Slovenia. Kite aerial photo, Nikon 1 J1 on a Great White Delta kite.

It is a mesmerising and nostalgic sight. Kites drag the onlookers back to their childhood, when they ran through the meadows with a string in hand, trying to make a crudely made paper kite to fly, avoiding the dreadful kite-eating trees.

But when the kite flew, it really flew. It was a moment when everything stopped and nothing mattered; there was just the kite flying — an embodiment of flying. And it was perfect.

River Ižica, Ljubljana Marshes landscape park, Slovenia. Shot with Canon A810 on a Great White Delta kite. See the full story here.

A large kite in the sky hijackes a gaze like a campfire does, an ocean exhaling upon the shore, or the smoke billowing up in swirls from a lit cigarette late in the night.

It’s the silence, I believe. We fly noisily, even deafening. You can feel the immense effort needed to lift us terrestrial beings burdened by gravity into the skies. Birds and bats (and pterodactyls, presumably) fly sublime. A kite, though artificial — a thing — is more like an Andean condor than a plane. It’s a magnificent being.

So you start imagining what a kite can see from up there, high above the chimney tops …

Intermittent Lake Cerknica in the late spring. The waters have just receded, the streams have returned to their meandering channels, lush meadows are emerging again and everything is hastily growing, blooming, flowering ... See more about this natural gem of Slovenia — a Ramsar and Natura 2000 site — here. Kite aerial photo, Nikon 1 J1 on a ‘french military’ kite.

One day we had a kite — a two-line stunt kite — in the trunk of a car. So we thought it would be fun to simply tape a phone to the spars — and let it shoot an aerial video. Ther result was … well, see for yourself:

First try with a phone taped to a stunt kite.

It sure was fun, but the imagery is far from spectacular — or beautiful. Turns out you need a one line stable kite, not a stunt one. And it has to be big to lift a proper camera. And you should not attach the camera directly to the kite.

One can always buy a large kite, but we thought it would be cooler to make one. After some research we decided on a large Rokkaku kite, an old Japanese design renowned for its stability, high lift and the ability to fly in low wind; a simple hexagonal shape with three spars. We got some ripstop nylon the sails are made of, some carbon spars, a couple of hundred meters of strong kite line, borrowed a sewing machine — and voilà!

Hiding behind a Rokkaku kite.

A 2 by 1.6 m Rokkaku is a gentle beast. It is hard to imagine how that large a thing lifts so smoothly in a breeze so light. And how it keeps climbing steadily, and how it is like nailed to the sky when the line runs out …

Rokkaku is an ideal kite for kite aerial photography beginners — it is simple to make and assemble, it is stable and forgiving, does not pull like an untamed horse, and it can lift a lot. We started doing aerial photography with a cheap Go-Pro ripoff camera attached to the kite line, and the first results were quite promising:

Our first kite aerial photography session, Bohinj lake, Slovenia. Shot with Denver Jumper II action camera on a Rokkaku kite.

However, there are a couple of drawbacks using an action cam simpy tied to the kite line. The image quality is sub-par (the wide-angle distortion is especially annoying), and while it is true the Rokkaku is very stable, it is not perfectly stable. It still sways and dances in the wind, so the camera is swinging and shaking, making the videos barely watchable, and the low-res stills pulled from videos just aren’t that cool.

The solution is to get a better camera — a compact or a mirrorless — and to attach it to the kite line via a special stabilising rig called the Picavet.

A simple Picavet rig with Nikon 1 J1 mirrorless camera attached. The pulleys and strings make the rig stay horizontal regardless of the kite line angle. Please ignore the tangled mess — usually it is not like that.

When we got this rig and a better camera — a compact and light Canon A810 when the wind is low, and a heavier mirrorless Nikon 1 J1 for stronger wind — we finally started with some serious KAP.

In the year of doing this, a couple of other kites joined the venerable Rokkaku: a 1,6 m Royal 69 sled for strong, turbulent wind, a 333 cm Great White Delta for high angle flying, and ‘Millie’, a 2 by 2 m French military kite for truly enormous lift (5 kg+).

Our KAP kites: the Royal 69 sled, the Great White Delta, and Millie the French military kite.

And now to your question: “Why don’t you just get yourselves a drone?”

Kites are pretty much unsteerable and at a complete mercy of the winds. They hate the turbulence (that is prevalent near the ground and messes with the kite until you get it higher into the smoother wind) and the dreadful kite-eating trees are preying upon them. So really — why don’t we get adrone for aerial photography? Those little tecnology marvels turn you instantly into an aerial cinematographer, shooting spectacular 4k videos from the air, assisted by GPS and 3 axis gimbals and auto-tracking and autonomous flying and obstacle avoidance and whatnot.

Well, the first answer is because it is so much fun. Just looking at the kites climb is fascinating, meditative, soothing. Listening to the wind, trying to harness its power, is so delicate and harmonious. And the rush when the kite lands and you flip through the pictures on the camera screen — What did we get? What did we get? — is reminiscing of the old times when you had to wait for the film to develop. It’s nostalgic, and beautiful, and exciting, and … yes, fun.

A small bay in the intermittent Lake Cerknica, Slovenia.

There are other, more reasonable reasons for using a kite to lift a camera. Number one is cost, of course. A cool and useful drone is waaay more expensive than a large kite, especially if you sew one yourself. If you consider the lift, even more: our Millie can carry 5 kilos of cameras and other equipment in an easy (15, 20 km/h) wind. Can your drone do that? ;-) Another strength of a kite is its flight time: an average drone flight is measured in minutes, while a kite flies as long as the wind blows. You simply walk it over anything you want to capture!

Cute little church of St. Volbenk (St. Wolfgang of Regensburg) with its conchial apses from 17th century. Zelše, Slovenia. Shot with Nikon 1 J1 on a delta kite. See more about this unique little church and its history here.

And the kite is really quiet. Even deltas (which are famous for their flutter) are emitting much less decibels than four — or eight — propellers. The camera is attached to the kite line tens of meters below the kite itself, so even the flutter is not an issue. If you want to monitor som wildlife, or to film birds’ nests high up some trees, you need to approach stealthily. And a kite is perfect for that.

Bikes on the beach. Confluence of rivers Sava, Kamniška Bistrica, and Ljubljanica near Podgrad, Slovenia. Shot with Canon A810 on a Rokkaku kite.

That’s why kites are making a bit of a comeback — not only for hobbyist aerial photographers, but for scientists too. Kite aerial photography actually started as a scientific tool over a century ago. Kites present a great alternative airborne platform for various scientific projects, enabling a unique birds-eye view of places of scientific interest, long-term monitoring of various ecosytems, archeological sites and urban areas, mapping and measurements of air, ground, soil, vegetation, flood areas and everything else that needs to be looked at from above.

Top shit photo. Looking straight down into the giant excess sludge (i.e. — shit) processing part of Ljubljana central waste water treatment plant in Zalog, Slovenia. Shot with Canon A810 on Royal 69 sled kite.

In short, kite aerial photography is a great hobby and a promising tool for various projects where a flying platform is needed. It is so pristine and simple: just get a kite and a camera and start flying. You will never go back, I promise.

The kite aerial photography/videography/science community is very much alive and vibrant today. There is a (venerable) KAP resource depository and forum curated by Charles C. Benton at University of California, Berkeley — a great entry point into KAP. John Wells at West Lothian Archaeological Trust and his team are using kites for real archaeological discoveries. There are numerous other kite aerial photography forums, websites, Facebook pages and groups, science articles and Flickr collections … so there is a lot going on — and you will surely be welcome when you decide to fly a kite with a camera suspended from it! ;-)

And while you are sewing your first kite, enjoy some more kite aerial photos (and don’t forget to click on the links … some stories are really cool!) … ;-)

A haunted swamp. See more about this unique place, the last remaining raised bog of Ljubljana Marshes here.

Roman engineering: river Ljubljanica was moved in its enirety by the Romans in the first century AD, for easier transport of blocks of marble from a nearby quarry. Read more about this extraordinary engineering feat.

Pristine forests of Bloke plateau, Slovenia. Shot with Canon A810 on a Rokkaku kite.

Meanders of river Unica, Planinsko polje, Slovenia. Kite aerial photo, Nikon 1 J1 on a ‘french military’ kite.

Ruins of Haasberg castle, Planina, Slovenia. Kite aerial photo, Canon A810 on a Royal 69 sled kite. See more about this impressive ruin here.

Žale central cemetery, Ljubljana, Slovenia. Kite aerial photo, Canon A810 on a delta kite. See more about the last home of the people of Ljubljana here.

Unica river in the winter. Planina karst field, Slovenia. Nikon 1 J1 on a Royal 69 sled kite. And maybe — maybe! — there is something in the river!

Underwater forms, Vodonos sinkhole area, Lake Cerknica, Slovenia. Shot with Nikon 1 J1 on a Great White Delta.

Ljubljanica river near Bevke, Slovenia. Near the bend a Roman boundary stone was found, resolving an old question about the internal borders of the Roman empire.

Abstract aerial art. Canon A810 on a Great White Delta.

Iška Moor nature reserve, part of Ljubljana Marshes landscape park, Slovenia. This protected ecosystem is a refuge for many endangered plants, birds, butterflies and other animals. Read more about this fascinating and unique place here.

Church of st. Quiricus, above Lukini, Slovenia. See more about this old church and its mysterious patron here.

Strunjan salt pans, Slovenia. These saltworks are hundreds of years old, and salt is still produced here in a traditional way. Read more about these northernmost salt pans in the Mediterranean.

…​

Bend of river Sava near Šentjakob, Slovenia. Read a great story about how the river erosion destroyed the farmland — but created a nesting place for a colony of a critically endangered bird species!

Urban KAP. Stožice sports hall and stadium, Ljubljana, Slovenia.

Retreating waters of Lake Cerknica, Slovenia.

But wait — there is more!

For in-depth stories behind — or illustrated by — kite aerial photos, please visit the official KAP Jasa website.

For tips, suggestions and ideas about kites and other KAP gear check this page.

Any question regarding kite aerial photography will be gladly received and promptly answered — just send them to kap.jasa@gmail.com.

You can follow KAP Jasa on Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, Ello, and Twitter.

And every clap is greatly appreciated! ;-)