Kite aerial photography gift guide (KAP)

Craft & Design
Kite aerial photography gift guide (KAP)

This year we’re pleased to have the first ever Kite aerial photography gift guide (KAP) on the web by Charles Benton, author of “Kite Aerial Photography Puts Your Eye in the Sky” from MAKE volume 01. Charles Benton is an inveterate tinkerer from Berkeley, Calif., where he serves as a Professor of Architecture for the University of California, Berkeley. Benton’s research in Building Science often involves the design and construction of prototype devices.

If you ever wanted to take photos from high in the sky, this is the guide for you!

Brooks Leffler ( 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 ( as a similarly specialized and reasonable source.

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The Aerial Eye CD
Price: $30
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.

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Sutton Flowform 16 & more
Price: $110

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 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.

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200# Black Dacron kite line and hoop winder
Price: $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.

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Brooxes Basic KAP Kit (BBKK)
Price: $55.00

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.

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Canon A590is with CHDK
Price: $113

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.

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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
CostCo / 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.

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Opti-Logic Laser Hypsometers
Price: $409.00

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.

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Sky Shark P400 tubes
Price: $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.

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Radio Shack GO! MOD Nibbler 29524 Metal Cutting Tool aka chassis nibbler
Price: $10.99

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.

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Climber’s sling, carabiner, and figure 8 descender (1, 2, 3)
Price: $35

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 whatever’s handy. 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 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.

2 thoughts on “Kite aerial photography gift guide (KAP)

  1. Kenny Kelly says:

    This is a well written and very informative gift guide. Thanks for the read.

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