Atop Mt. Diablo

April 28th, 2014 by Cris

On a pleasant weekend in late April the Mt. Diablo State Park held a celebration. The occasion marked the 150th anniversary of the California State Park System and the 40th anniversary of the Mt. Diablo Interpretive Association. Over the years I had taken a few aerial views of the Mt. Diablo summit and these earned an invitation to come fly a camera at the event.

Atop Mt. Diablo

A stitched panorama

As it turned out nature had other ideas. We arrived at the summit to find ourselves in the clouds. Not an unpleasant experience but not particularly conducive for kite aerial photography. By early afternoon the clouds were breaking and I tried four rounds of kite test flights. The first round found the kite pulling well but quickly disappearing into a very wet cloud. It is odd how the kite returns from some clouds relatively dry and others sopping wet. In this case it was the latter. An hour later the second test flight found highly variable winds, which for the most part were inadequate to lift the camera. The third test flight found the winds quite chaotic, shifting direction with large swings of azimuth. This was quite consistent with the visual clues provided by the low cumulus clouds. As they passed the summit, each cloud would break apart with beautiful displays of turbulence. Signs of air moving in many directions.

Atop Mt. Diablo

The Eye of Diablo.

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A new KAP rig

February 15th, 2014 by Cris

I have been flying a Canon Rebel dSLR as my principal (and darnn near exclusive) kite aerial photography (KAP) rig since July 2007. At last count I had a little over 250 KAP sessions with this rig (sound of Benton knocking on wood). I really like working with the smaller Canon dSLR cameras. They are tough. The larger APS-C sensor is relatively smooth and the higher ISO settings are more useable. On the other hand, my dSLR KAP rig is relatively heavy at 3 lb. 8-1/2 oz. (1.6 Kg) and it is a fairly expensive setup for my frequent work over water (salt ponds and wetlands) should replacement become necessary.

A few of my previous camera cradles

A few of my previous KAP rigs. The my recent workhorse – the Canon Rebel cradle – in bottom row, center.

A couple of years ago I developed a KAP cradle for the diminutive Sony NEX-5. The camera offered an APS-C sensor in a relatively small package thus promising image quality similar to my dSLR rig at substantially less weight. For reasons I cannot fully explain I just never warmed up to the NEX-5. The images were fine but the interface seemed clumsy and I always seemed to find an excuse not to fly it. After it sit around for months I ended up giving it to one of my sons.

EOS M KAP cradle

A new KAP rig based on the Canon EOS M with 11-22mm wide angle lens.

I am now trying an alternative. A while back Canon issued their own version of a mirrorless APS-C camera – the EOS M. When issued the camera seemed overly expensive for what it delivered but this last summer the prices dropped dramatically to about 300 USD. I ended up buying one with its 22-mm prime kit lens and then splurged by ordering an EF-M 11-22mm wide angle zoom from Canada (they are not sold in the US).

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My new Sony NEX-5 fledges

January 9th, 2011 by Cris

I have been flying a Canon Rebel dSLR as my principal (and darn near exclusive) kite aerial photography (KAP) rig since July 2007. I really like working with the smaller Canon dSLR cameras. They are tough. The larger APS-C sensor is relatively smooth and higher ISO images look much better. On the other hand, my dSLR KAP rig is relatively heavy at 3 lb. 8-1/2 oz. (1.6 Kg) and it is a fairly expensive setup for my frequent work over water (salt ponds and wetlands) should replacement become necessary (sound of me knocking on wood). Thus, I was delighted to receive a diminutive Sony NEX-5 as a holiday gift from my ever-supportive spouse.

KAP Rig No. 11 - Sony NEX-5

The Sony NEX-X somehow places a large APS-C sensor in its small body and, in my case, came packaged with a removable 16-mm (24-mm equivalent) prime lens. Over the last few days I set about adapting a HoVer KAP cradle I built earlier for the Canon Elph series to carry the NEX-5. The conversion is finished and I recently completed the first flight.

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Poking around the desert

October 19th, 2010 by Cris

While visiting Ridgecrest, California to take a look at the Searles Lake Gem-O-Rama event Claudia and I were privileged to spend some time hiking with Jane McEwan and Don Peterson. Over a three-day period Jane and Don took us out to the Trona Pinnacles, the abandoned Reilly Town site, Poison Canyon, and a set of sand dunes in the hills above the Searles Lake Valley. This photo set contains images from the sand dune site.

Sand dunes near Trona, California

Hovering over the sand dunes in tentative wind.

As luck would have it the winds stayed near calm for our entire stay at Ridgecrest. Time after time we would haul the kite gear out to a site only to find Beaufort 0 prevailing. The pole aerial photography rig got a lot of exercise. Still, we had presented KAP in a lecture to the China Lake Photographic Society and I was eager to demonstrate the technique for our hosts. We finally found a modest breeze at the sand dunes with a bit of acceleration at the ridge crest. Since the wind was inconsistent I flew the large Rokkaku. The kite deformed quite a bit near the ground but settled down with a bit of altitude.

You can see ground-based shots of this session in Jane McEwan’s Picasa photostream.

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October 11th, 2010 by Cris

For over 65 years the Searles Lake Gem & Mineral Society has hosted its Gem-O-Rama – an interesting event that allows collectors to prospect for a few hours in normally closed areas of the Searles Lake Basin. The society bills this opportunity as “36 hours of frantic, non-stop activity to collect some of the best and most desirable evaporite mineral specimens in the world.”

Searles Lake Gem-O-Rama

Poking round for halite

This year I made the trip down to give a presentation to the China Basin Photographic Society, poke around the Searles and Panamint valleys, and participate in a Gem-O-Rama field event. This set contains pole aerial photographs taken during the Sunday morning Pink Halite/Brine Pools Field Trip. It was great fun.

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A day at the Oakland Museum

May 4th, 2010 by Cris

On Saturday, 1 May 2010, my son Charlie and I took pole aerial photographs during the daylong reopening of the Oakland Museum of California. The original building, an interesting complex designed by Kevin Roche in the 1960s, has been closed for two years during a remodel that centers on new circulation and gallery spaces elements cleverly insinuated into the older building fabric by Mark Cavagnero Associates.

(re)Opening Ceremonies - Oakland Museum

An Oak Street panorama taken during the opening ceremonies.

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Move to OSTRO, a new server

December 14th, 2009 by Cris

I have moved our site to a new Linux-based server. Note the new address:


The old server STEEL was on its last legs and I feel fortunate that we are now done with it. I am pretty sure that all of the site’s material made it over. Please let me know if you notice anything missing or you run into any difficulties on OSTRO.

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Panaxonic LX3 fledges

December 31st, 2008 by admin

After spending a bit of time looking at the DPReview collection of enthusiast compact cameras and almost, almost buying a Nikon P6000 I took the plunge and bought a Panasonic LX3 instead. My first impressions are very favorable. I am delighted with the 24-mm (equivalent) f2.0 lens, which does not seem prone to vignetting or excessive softness in the corners. In ground tests the image stabilization seems quite effective. And the camera processes RAW files at a pretty fast clip. So far, the in-camera jpg processing seems to be doing a very credible job and has me wondering if I need to shoot RAW after all. I have the camera set to shoot both and will spend some time doing comparisons between the two.

Lumix LX3 intervalometer (5 of 5)

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Bits of gear

December 2nd, 2008 by admin

Yesterday, I received a request from the folks over at MAKE for “10 or so must haves for folks who like to take photos with kites, gear, books, etc names, urls, what it is and why.” They are apparently putting together a series of holiday gift guides. I put together a (very) quick response and began to wonder what else should be there. What would you add or delete?


Here is a quick, drafty response to see if my list matches your needs. Let me know if this is on target and if you need anything else like photographs or more words.

Brooks Leffler (http://www.brooxes.com) is cited several times as a source for good reason. He runs the only KAP-oriented gear shop in the country and offers a fine selection of components at very reasonable prices. Readers outside of North America should check Peter Bults’ KAP Shop (http://www.kapshop.com/) as a similarly specialized and reasonable source.

In no particular order:

The Aerial Eye CD

The Complete Aerial Eye CD contains all 18 issues of the quarterly journal published by the Kite Aerial Photography Committee of AKA between Fall 1994 and Summer 1999. The journal contains articles on every aspect of kite aerial photography, and hundreds of pictures and diagrams and aerial images. Although some material is dated, the Aerial Eye remains one of the most comprehensive resources on KAP for serious newcomers to the craft.

The disk contains PDF files of each issue as well as a directory of sources, plus Adobe Acrobat Reader and a cover picture that may be printed to use in a CD jewel case. The price includes postage to anywhere in the world.

Sutton Flowform 16

One of the first questions facing a new KAPer is which kite to use. As with many simple questions there is no absolute answer. Much depends on the wind conditions expected, the weight of the camera cradle, and surrounding obstacles. Many experienced KAPers routinely carry a half dozen kites and select one to suit the conditions of the moment. Still, for open conditions and most starter rigs, the Sutton Flowform 16 is a fine performer. This kite does not have a rigid frame so it is easy to deploy and store. With a proper “fuzzy” tail it is a remarkably steady flyer worthy of your trust.

200# Black Dacron kite line and hoop winder
$38 for line plus $12 for 9” hoop

Braided Dacron (polyester) kite line is a joy to use, particularly in the 200-pound test size. This line is thicker and thus easier on the hands. When kite flying gets tricky, say during the retrieval of a KAP cradle in unstable conditions, many KAPers will just lay the retrieved line on the ground and return to collect it later. The heavier weight lines handle this well and are less prone to tangle. I use black line because its presence is less jarring in the aerial images. And the hoop winder is an inexpensive, compact way to manage 1,000 feet of line in your hand and in your gear bag.

Brooxes Basic KAP Kit (BBKK)

Until recently virtually all KAP camera cradles were scratch built. Then Brooks Leffler, building on the experience of making dozens of custom rigs, developed a catalog of standard KAP cradle parts. His Brooxes Basic KAP Kit is a well rationalized, beautifully designed, and inexpensive way to get a camera in the air. Brooks’ WWW site presents a fine collection of components to fit out and extend the capacities of this basic rig.

Canon A590is with CHDK

It is always a good idea to practice (a lot) before sending your $1,000 dSLR up below a kite. Happily there are some capable point-and-shoot digital cameras that are downright affordable. A good first KAP camera is the 8-megapixel Canon A590is, which is valued by KAPers for its ability to run the open source Canon Hackers Development Kit (CHDK) software. With CHDK it is relatively straightforward to reprogram the camera to implement an intervalometer script which fires the shutter every 10 seconds. You can then send it aloft to take photographs without the complexity of radio-control in a technique called autoKAP.

PeKaBe blocks
four blocks for $40.00

KAPers use a suspension system to connect their camera cradle to the kite line. Typically attached 150 feet or so below the kite, the suspension must dampen vibration from the kite line, position the camera cradle level with the horizon, and provide something for the pan rotation motor to turn against. Most folks these days use a Picavet suspension. Named after inventor Pierre Picavet this technique places the camera cradle below a small cross with a continuous loop of line threaded between the ends of the cross and two points of attachment on the kite line. It all works well if the line can run smoothly through its connections on the cross and that’s where the PeKaBe blocks come in. These jewel-like ball bearing pulleys were developed for the radio-controlled sailboat world and are perfect for Picavet use.

Leather gloves

Three pair for $18

Attach kite line to kites large enough to lift cameras and it can (and eventually will) do bad things to bare hands. Gloves are essential. I’ve tried gloves for rock climbing, sailing, bike riding and roping but to tell the truth inexpensive leather work gloves are just fine. I wear one on my dominant (right) hand with the fingertips removed (whack goes the chisel) for better line handling.

Opti-Logic Laser Hypsometers

After 13 years of kite aerial photography I still have a difficult time judging the camera’s position downrange. I can tell if I am to the left or right of a target and easily see if I will clear it. But knowing whether I am short, directly over, or long is devilishly difficult. Enter the hypsometer, a device used in the logging industry. The instrument uses a pulsed infrared laser rangefinder to measure the distance of your KAP target while simultaneously measuring its angle above the horizon. It then does the math to display the distance to target in a horizontal plane. Repeat the process to locate your camera cradle and you will answer that downrange question precisely.

Sky Shark P400 tubes
$6.50 per tube

I have made new frames for each of my rigid-framed kites using wrapped carbon-reinforced kite spars. These tubes have been adopted from the arrow shaft industry and used widely in two-line stunt kites. They are wonderfully strong and light in single-line KAP kites too. My Rokkakus, Doperos, and Delta-Conynes have never been happier.

Radio Shack GO! MOD Nibbler 29524 Metal Cutting Tool aka chassis nibbler


One of the easiest materials for making a scratch built camera cradle is aluminum. Aluminum is light and strong. While standard hardware store angles and flats at 1/16” thick are easily worked with conventional workbench hand tools, it is a challenge to cut out small square holes and notches for mounting servos. The chassis nibbler is perfect for this job and makes quick work of nibbling out an attractive, square-edged hole at just the right size.

Climber’s sling, carabiner, and figure 8 descender

I often KAP solo. When the kite is flying well and it is time to attach the camera cradle I need a quick way to anchor the kite to staionary objects. My standard solution is to take a climber’s sling, basically a loop of flexible webbing, and loop it around whatever is handy (e.g., tree, bench, fence, or myself). I keep a carabiner on the sling and in literally a second or two can clip this to a running clove hitch in the kite line. Be sure to select a carabiner that allows you to easily slip the knot off the gate when it is time to fly again. I learned this trick from Wolfgang Beick a dozen years ago and it is the cat’s meow. I have added the figure 8 descender to the kit at Dave Mitchell’s suggestion. I carry one of these at all times and use it occasionally to ease the playing out of kite line when the kite is pulling hard.

New show in the works

August 6th, 2008 by admin

I will be one of four artists exhibiting work in Water: the Essence of Life, a show curated by Howard Chambers of Sentient Salon. Look for an opening on 11 September at a.Muse Gallery in the Mission.


Mockup - Sentient Salon exhibit

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