On the Quality of KAP Sessions


I have been on a bit of a binge lately with five KAP sessions in South San Francisco Bay during the last week. September is a special month for my work in the Hidden Ecologies project. There is always a month or so this time of the year when my six-month hiatus due to the nesting season is over and the winter rains have yet to arrive. This is when I have access to salt ponds in their most vivid state.

Salt Pond E6B Salt Pond E6B

Views from Salt Pond E6B – a large contemporary pond that, like many others, holds the ruins of earlier works.

In any event I was struck by the contrast between two back-to-back sessions in a new section of the salt ponds at Eden Nature Preserve. The first trip was late in the day and I was making an exploratory hike over terrain I had not previously visited. Parking the car on a levee I launched the Sutton 16 in a steady 18 mph breeze and it soon lifted the dSLR rig with just the right amount of authority – sufficient lift but not much more in a wind that was as smooth as butter. I left my KAP gear backpack in the car and hiked a couple of miles while happily clicking away as the light faded. Toward the end the breeze faded too until the Sutton 16 could no longer handle the load. After a slow, controlled descent I packed up the gear and enjoyed the hike out.

I returned to the same spot the next day filled with ideas of what to shoot based on the previous day’s scouting. Parking in the same spot around 2 pm I found a slight and somewhat inconsistent breeze. As I started to frame the large 8.5-foot Rokkaku the breeze freshened a bit so I changed to the 7-foot Rokkaku. After getting the dSLR rig in the air I strapped on my backpack and headed off for a 5-mile loop. The pack carried the remaining Rokakkus (6 & 8.5 feet) and two Sutton Flowforms (16 & 30). I used them all on the hike (the Sutton 16 twice) as the wind fell off at first, then built rapidly, fell off again, and finally settled in as a brisk sea breeze. Worse yet, I could never achieve a good balance with the wind and spent most of the day handling an overpowered kite or fretting with bare minimum lift.

Underpowered KAP

Here my Sutton 16 is barely lifting the dSLR cradle in 11-13 mph winds. The camera is floating a mere 10 feet or so above the salt pond landscape with 150 feet of line played out – sort of frightening given the unforgiving nature of the landscape and the constrained maneuvering room.

The contrast between the days left me thinking about two quality metrics I use to rate KAP sessions. There are surely many indicators for how well a KAP session has gone: the quality of photographs captured, the folks one meets, the survival of airborne gear and so forth. Of late I have thinking about two indicators that nicely summarize session quality:

Number of kites deployed
– I treasure my one-kite days, the days when I select just the right kite and it flies well in a steady wind. And then there are the six-kite days when I just cannot seem to get the right kite up for the wind that is to come. I once, when the wind was fading in a counterintuitive fashion, had a six-kite day in which I never got a camera aloft during two hours of kite rigging and flying.

Ratio of kite thinking to photo thinking – I mostly work with the kite line in one hand and my radio in the other. In the best of sessions the kite basically tends to itself while I devote all conscious thought to taking photographs allowing the ratio to be something like 10% kite / 90% photo. However, there are also times when the kite flying is on the ragged edge – kites at the extremes of their capabilities, a kite somehow out of tune, or hazards such as trees and power lines. In these cases the ratio can invert to 10% photo / 90% kite and KAP becomes more like work with a dollop of stress.

These days when Claudia asks me how it went after a day in the field I can respond that it was a one-kite day at 10/90 (my first day at Eden Nature Reserve) or six-kite 70/30 (the second outing).


I made a third trip to Salt Pond E6B last week and it was a one-kite day with a 10% kite / 90% photo cognitive split. The 6-foot Rokkaku was aloft with the dSLR rig for over three hours. I hiked over two miles with gear in the air and had a fine session indeed.

Catenary kite line

This full resolution crop shows the lovely catenary shape assumed by my near limp kite line.

For portions of the time the winds were so low that the kite and camera cradle formed a closed system that drifted around the sky trailing a kite line that was ever so loosely connected to me (as in the image above). This was a fine example of what Simon Harbord calls fingertip kite flying.

For an hour or so I had an interesting, slow, gentle oscillation with the Rokkaku – the result, I think, of having the tow point set too high. The cycle, which would last a 2 – 4 minutes, began with the kite stalling out high and drifting slowly downwind. After it drifted to a relatively low angle, the kite line between me and the camera cradle would become taunt again and the kite would climb to the heights where it stalls out. This was perfect for my purpose because it allowed me to shoot low and and high views as I hiked the levees. The camera cradle elevation varied from around 100 feet above the ground to perhaps 350 feet and I could accelerate or retard the cycle by how quickly I walked.

Later in the day the winds gathered enough to cause a bit of strain and ultimately the decision to pull the gear down.

Images from the session are available in this Flickr set.

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