Notes on Kite Aerial Photography: Equipment



Cameras are arguably the heart of your kite aerial photography system. Without your local assistance a kite-borne camera must establish proper focus, adjust for exposure, establish a shutter speed to reduce motion blur, and advance the film. There are certainly exceptions to this rule. Cameras without a motorwinder can be used to take exposures one frame at a time but the tedium of lowering the kite (or camera) for each exposure should not be discounted. Fixed-focus cameras eliminate the need for a focusing system by combining distant focus and small aperture. But most aerial images are taken by automatic cameras. Happily many options are available.


This section will profile the cameras that I've been using for kite aerial photography. I will also speculate a bit about one as yet untried and eventually report on the experience of others. I wote in 1995 that this page "is a work in progress" only to find when revisiting in 2003 that there had been precious little progress of late. I must make amends.

Minolta Freedom Vista (50K jpg) - not recommended.

My first aerial images, and the majority in the gallery pages in this web site, have been taken by a Minolta Freedom Vista point-and-shoot camera. This model was recommended by Brooks Leffler in the inaugural issue of the Aerial Eye and is mentioned in several posts in the rec.kites archive. It produces images in the 'letterbox' panoramic format which I have processed as though they were normal images. This is much less expensive and allows the selection of a smaller set of successful images for full size panoramic reprints.

The Minolta Freedom Vista is a relatively inexpensive camera - I purchased mine at Ritz Camera for $70 on sale. Ritz also offered an inexpensive 2 year extended warranty for about $15. I mentioned my intention to hang the camera from a kite (using the phrase "in harm's way") and they said bring back the carcass and they will replace it. So, I've come to think of it as my stand-in stunt double - the perfect learning curve camera.

All in all, the camera has performed well. Its 24-mm wide angle lens grabs a wide scene. It is a light camera at 7-1/4 ounces including film. This is useful as one develops the ability to imagine what the camera is seeing (composition in absentia.) While adequate, it is not the sharpest lens around and it suffers from the vignetting characteristic of inexpensive point-and-shoot wide angle lenses.

Update 2003: in 1995  I recommend the Minolta Freedon Vista as a fine starting point. I must have been giddy with the excitement of my first KAP images. In retrospect, the camera worked well mechanically but has a lackluster lens. Images are fuzzy and lack contrast. I recently ran a roll of film through camera after a five year period of disuse. It will be my last roll..

Yashica T4 (46K jpg) - recommended

In my first year or two I shot most of my images with the Yashica T4 - a point and shoot camera with a 35-mm Carl Zeiss lens. The lens is sharp and I like the clear, well-focused images that the camera produces. The T4 has developed a favorable reputation among photography buffs. Like the Minolta Vista it is a light camera at 7-1/4 ounces with film. The one I fly is my second, the first having succumbed to a swim in the Sierra Nevada. Both of my T4s have performed flawlessly.

Any full-frame image in the first 50 pages of the gallery section has come from the Yashica T4. The camera is more expensive than the Minolta (as low as $120 from a mail order source.) Yashica has recently introduced a T4 Super. I bought one for Claudia and have not flown it from the kite. It seems very similar to the regular T4 but has minor and reasonably nice improvements including a waist-level finder, a better LCD display, and modest weatherproofing.

I can add now that I've taken around one hundred rolls of KAP photos using the T4 and it has held up remarkably well. The faster shutter speed helps, I think, as I seem to have relatively few blurred images - maybe 1 in 20 except when flying in low light. Film advance and rewind have worked flawlessly. Exposures are generally well balanced. The camera hardly has a scratch on it. My single complaint is that the lens tends to flare when the sun is near the frame and I've lost interesting images due to this. I've been thinking about a velcro and cardboard lens hood. Has anyone out there done such a thing for a point and shoot camera?

In September 1996 I finished KAP Rig No. 3 which is built around a Yashica T4 Super (see below). At that time I retired KAP Rig No. 1 and the original T4 it carried. Turns out I had borrowed the camera from wife Claudia and she wanted it back. After fine service it has now resumed the terrestrial life of a normal camera.

Philip Greenspun, of Travels with Samatha fame, provides a brief discussion of point-and-shoot cameras including the T4 at his MIT-based Web site.

Roy Latham has been using a T4 for kite aerial photography and posts example images on his web page.

Canon Rebel X and subsequent Rebels (33K jpg) - highly recommended

During August of 1996 I built my KAP Rig No. 2 based on a Canon Rebel X single lens reflex. One might argue that the principal advantage of an SLR - composition through the picture-taking lens - is of little value in kite aerial photography. After all the photographer is usually dozens if not hundreds of yards from the camera at the time of exposure. My interest in the SLR was for a different reason and I can sum it up in one word: W I D E. I have been yearning to take photographs with a sharp, wide-angle lens and it seems the easiest route to this is an SLR. So I purchased a Rebel X (12 oz., the Rebel XS model has a superfluous flash), a Canon EF 24-mm f-2.8 lens with lenshood (9.5 oz., shown), and a Canon EF 50-mm f1.8 lens (6.75 oz.) from B&H in New York. I've since added the super-wide Canon EF 15-mm f-2.8 fisheye lens with integral lenshood (12.5 oz.) purchased used from a stock photographer in Santa Barbara.

At this writing (November 1996) KAP Rig No. 2 has been flown a dozen times and the Rebel X has performed very well. Its matrix meter yields balanced exposures and the autofocus has yet to be confused. The body is quite light and a remote control jack allows the shutter to be fired by a relay. Altogether a pleasing, and relatively inexpensive, option for getting a SLR in the air.

Update 2003: After 400 aerial rolls or so through the Canon Rebel X I can report it has been a dandy camera for KAP purposes. It remains light and the composite body turns out to be pretty tough as tested by a few rough landings here and there (see my Bryce Canyon adventure). Over the years Canon has continually upgraded the entry level Rebel. A coupleof years back I replaced the Rebel X with a Rebel 2000 and this camera has also performed well. .

Yashica T4 Super (27K jpg) - recommended

I had so much fun building KAP Rig No.2 that I kept at it in the workshop and built KAP Rig No. 3, a 1 lb.-3 oz. replacement for my original rig. I purchased a new Yashica T4 Super for the new rig and it has performed well. It is quite similar to the original T4 with the addition of a modest amount of weather resistance and a waist-level viewfinder.

Update 2003: I've shot a few rolls with the T4 Super and it performed well. However, since the Canon Rebels performed better and carried wider lenses they became the go to cameras for my work. My elegant KAP Rig #3 and its T4 Super have seen little use.

Update 2003: In the works are sections on the Canon Digital Elph S100, S200 and S400, Kodak single use cameras, point-and-shot cameras acquired at garage sales, and 1970s vintage rangefinders.

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