He shot sheet film negatives of his own manufacture one at a time with the shutter tripped by a burning fuse. He quickly adapted his technique along the lines of modern practice where the camera is suspended on the flying line below the kite and triggered by a remote device. Between now and then much has changed but Batut’s method remains a standard practice in kite aerial photography (KAP). Both cameras and kites have improved since then so that today, a keen kite flyer, with a little practice, can capture reasonable resolution imagery of open sites provided wind and light oblige.
KAP got underway in the UK when Fletcher Baden Powell took a vertical of Middleton Hall in Staffordshire in the early 1890s:
KAP in Archaeology
Early successes with KAP were in topographic recording and archaeology, famously George R. Lawrence recorded the devastation after the fire and earthquake at San Francisco in 1905 by lifting a massive 12kg panoramic camera beneath a train of 17 of Silas J. Conye’s kites and in 1913 Henry Welcome used kite captured imagery to successfully record excavations at Segadi, Jabel Moya, Sudan with a hefty wooden box camera:
A kite is a good low cost aerial platform for photography but it suffers from poor reliability in terms of accurate camera positioning on any given day. Although the number of windless days are few in the UK wind direction has a large bearing on the outcome: getting the camera over the target area is a matter of wind direction and speed, neither of which are under the control of the flier! Photography by kite is more often a case of shooting what can be shot rather than what is wanted. Results take patience to achieve and careful reconnaissance of obstructions in the flying zone is a must. It is often possible to achieve oblique aerial cover but vertical cover of a given subject can be a tough call. KAP is best suited to sites with open access in a down wind direction.
Effectiveness of method
Reliable and repeatable photo-cover by kite is not often possible and there are alternatives to a kite as a low level aerial platform. A balloon or powered UAV such as a radio controlled (RC) aircraft or helicopter are all good means of raising a camera but they too have their limitations in terms of set up costs, pilot skills, flying time and CAA certification. A kite can be a handful but it is simple, cheap and fairly easy to fly. The flying height of a kite in the UK is restricted by CAA regulation to 60m above ground level (AGL) and this is a significant constraint on photo-cover by kite. So given there’s more than one way of getting a low level aerial photo and that managing a kite is a bit of an awkward business why use one? The answer is two-fold. First it must be said that KAP has an immense satisfaction value for the kite flier, the achievement in the successful balance of wind, lift, light and load is unique. Second is the impact of the viewpoint, the world seen at 60m AGL is captivating, the low height means that human scale features like foot prints and often material condition in buildings can be seen. There is a sense of connection between land and sky experienced by kite fliers which is very different from other aerial photographers who move at speed though the air. A kite photographer becomes immersed in the landscape whilst viewing it at bird’s eye height. Tethered to both the sky and the ground a kite photographer has an awareness of landscape which is unique.
KAP requires 3 components, a camera, the means to control it and a kite.
Digital capture is a great benefit to KAP as the image count can run on until the card is full without incurring the cost of developing a 36 shot roll of film because KAP can generate a lot of unwanted material.
The weight of the camera is a big consideration, in theory the load of the camera can be lifted by a kite of appropriate size but in practice the lift needed in light winds is often marginal, with patience DSLRs can be flown successfully but the compact cameras weighing less then 300g work well with manageable kite sizes. The new generation of APSC sized sensor compacts offer good resolution for their weight. Examples being the Leica X1(lightest in the class at 283g), FujiX100, Canon EOS M, Sony NEX and Samsung Nx200.
There are 2 approaches to rig design, one is to simply automate camera control and let image capture occur at a fixed time interval. The other is to use radio control to direct the camera. Camera control is improved by use of a video relay to ground and by gyro stabilisation of the tilting axis of the rig. A radio controlled KAP rig is also suitable for use mounted atop a pole or hung under a balloon where weight considerations are also important. Rigs are available in kit form or assembled in a variety of configurations from www.kapshop.com
Kite and line
The basics are that the kite needs to be big enough to lift the load and stable enough to take a photograph from. Not all kites behave well enough for photographic purposes, traction kites are not ideal with most kite photography being taken from single line kites. The majority of kites have quite a narrow wind range in which they will be stable, for example a kite big enough to lift a 1kg load in Beaufort (Bft) force 3 may well be at risk of either snapping its spars or being blown over in Bft 4. The quality of material and manufacture are important, a kite needs to be precisely symmetrical, flexible enough to absorb gusts and strong enough to take the forces acting upon it but at the same time light enough to create the maximum possible lift. A good KAP kite will be stable across a wide wind range and be capable of lifting about 1kg in about 5mph wind speed, this works out at a minimum sail surface area of about 2.5msq. The quality of the airflow supporting the kite is important and smooth breezes are better than blustery. The variation in wind speed will produce a variation in flying height as well as the risk of either stalling the kite in a lull or being overblown in a gust. Large (3m wing span) delta kites, the classic Japanese Rokkaku and the recently developed flowform and parafoil types can be effective. Large kites (4m2 is a typical light wind lifter size) can be difficult to handle and ideally a balance between the kite, the load and flier should be achieved to enable the movement of the kite and rig across the landscape. Kappers flying heavy (DSLR) cameras tend to use a ground anchor to manage the forces involved in controlling the large kites required.
The best work is achieved in steady light winds of Bft 2 and 3. It is possible to work in higher wind speeds but the turbulence common in Bft 4 and 5 tends make positioning camera difficult as well as creating camera movements well beyond the range of image stabilisation.
Applications for KAP are limited to sites which lend themselves to kite flying where good pictorial records can be captured of a site and its condition. The low view-point records site context without compromising detail and often provides useful visitor orientation images of heritage sites because of the ‘human scale’ effect of the low height.
Since Arthur Batut took his first image the new technologies of ripstop nylon, high tensile Dacron line, digital image capture and radio control have made photography by kite achievable by anyone who is happy flying a kite and is ready to capture a new perspective on the world around them!
The principle source for information on KAP is the KAP forum hosted by Berkeley University and also www.arch.ced.berkeley.edu/kap
A summary of know how is on the KAP Wiki
The excellent KAP shop has a good stock of rig components and a lot of helpful advice.
A good selection of archaeological KAP applications in the UK is collected by the West Lothain Archaeology group at: www.armadale.org.uk/kite.htm
Rand Eppich, Antonio Almagro, Mario Santana, Ana Almagro: The view from above overview and comparison of low cost aerial photographic techniques. Raymond Lemaire International Centre for Conservation, KU Leuven, Belgium 2011
Mike J. Smith, Jim Chandler and James Rose High spatial resolution data acquisition for the geosciences: kite aerial photography Earth surface processes and landforms. Landforms 34, 155–161. 2009
British Kite Flying Association: Kite Flying and the law Version 1.0 23 September www.bkfa.org.uk 2008
David Wheeler: TIGHAR KAP Guide The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery July 8, 2007
Beaumont Newhall A KAP Timeline : Aerial Photography in the Early Days Drachen Foundation Journal Summer 2007
Craig Wilson Hanging by a Thread (A Kite’s View of Wisconsin) Itchy Cat Press. USA . 2006.
James S. Aber and Susan W. Aber, Earth Science Department, and Firooza Pavri: Unmanned small-format aerial photography from kites for acquiring large-scale, high-resolution, multiview-angle imagery. ISPRS Commission I/FIEOS 2002 Conference Proceedings, 2002.
Serge Negre Vu du ciel (Eye in the sky) Société d’études et de Recherches Archéologiques et Historiques de Labruguière 1999
Christian Becot Photographie Aérienne Avec Cerf-Volant, C. Becot, 108 Rue Médéric, 50110, Tourlaville, France. 1995
Andrea Georgopulos Balloon and kite photography: an historical overview ISPRS Commision V ISSN 02528231 1982
Andrea Georgopoulos Low Altitude non metric photography using a kite ISPRS Commission V ISSN 02528231 1982