Interview with Scott Tillitt
May 22, 2004
Tell me about the inspiration that led you to explore kite aerial photography.
I learned about KAP less than three years ago, and I’ve been active for a little over two years. My photographer friend, Thomas Dewez, a geographer from Belgium, explored the technique for studying faults in Greece. At his urging, I looked at an impressive web-based KAP gallery by Cris Benton of University of California, Berkeley. Immediately, I was hooked and knew I had to do that!
Describe your photographic and artistic style. Compare your KAP shoots to your more traditional shoots.
I use KAP to obtain a new perspective of largely familiar subjects that frequently look drastically different when viewed from above. For instance, see:
- Fountain at Seattle Center
- Fire Fighter’s Memorial Fountain in Kansas City
- Palm trees at Mountain View, CA Caltrain Station
I typically shoot images late in the day to capture the richer colors and longer shadows that a lower sun angle allows. Although I have about 750-feet of kite line, I rarely use all of it; I tend to fly my camera only 20–100 feet above the ground.
Most of us peer out the windows of aircraft during flight, but we don’t typically have the opportunity to view our world from above at such a low vantage point. This, combined with the ability to hover the camera directly over the subject matter, can result in arresting images. Many KAPers like to point out that the technique is most effective when photos are shot at a higher vantage point than a step ladder would have allowed, but much lower than from an airplane. Combining this philosophy with the wide-angle lens (28 mm, 35 mm equivalent) of my digital camera enables me to create unique images.
In addition to KAP, I also enjoy shooting outdoor landscape/scenic shots. The most obvious difference is that I carefully compose my ground-based photos as opposed to imagining what the camera “sees” for the KAP shots. Having said that, I think my background in photography—studying techniques, learning compositional rules, developing a photographer’s eye, etc.—plays an integral role in the success I’ve had with KAP. It’s not obvious at first (because I am shooting unattended, un-composed photos with the kitecam), but these photographic skills help me tremendously in my KAP shots…from picking subject matter to (indirectly) affecting my compositions. Another important point to note is that I will sometimes compose after-the-fact, by cropping an image, to make the composition more favorable. However, the majority of the shots posted on my web site are uncropped.
Canon Digital Creators Award: What was the winning shot—how, where, any story from that day, that shot? Any comments from the judges?
I received the award for a group of images—actually a web page—on my site. I won the award for my 360-degree virtual reality, bubble panoramas.
These are Quicktime Virtual Reality (QTVR) panoramas that allow the user to get “inside the photo” and interactively explore a scene from a kite’s eye-view. They make the viewer an active participant, enabling him/her to spin around, up, and down.
Only two images are needed to make these panoramas. I take one looking straight down from the kite, and a second looking straight up from the ground. Both images are shot with a circular fisheye lens that has a 180-degree view (Nikon FC-E8). You can think of it as if each image contains a “hemisphere” of information: the image from the kite is the southern hemisphere, and the image from the ground is the northern hemisphere. The two images are stitched together using PTMac (a front-end for Helmut Dersch’s excellent PanoTools software) and Adobe Photoshop CS. When you rotate around in the stitched image, you are viewing it from the center of a sphere (or globe, extending the hemisphere analogy) that you’re inside of.
From the judges: “This dynamic work features numerous 360-degree panorama photos captured with a digital camera attached to a kite, and enables users to view the images from any angle by moving the mouse. The piece earned points for its innovative concept and the beauty of the photos. We look forward to the artist adding more panoramic views to this site in the future.”
Tell me about your interest in panoramas and VR. What have you done in this area? (I’ve written a bit about this method. In fact, are you familiar with Tito Dupret and World Heritage Tour? I wonder if KAPing could help him on his mission…)
Wow, I am really inspired by what Tito is doing. Hell, I should quit my day job and join his crusade! I think the KAP panos would be an excellent adjunct to what he is trying to accomplish.
I remember being absolutely blown away by these kite-based panoramas when I first discovered the technique. In the months between learning about KAP and applying it, I combed the web for all the information I could find. Early on, I came across a site by French photographer and Lego-master, Philippe Hurbain. From what I can tell, he was the only person in the world creating aerial, QTVRs from a kite at the time. Luckily for me, he documented the process that he invented in enough detail that I was able to emulate his technique and create my own stunning panoramas.
As it turns out, KAP (and the bubble panos in particular) is a merging of several hobbies. I’ve been interested in photography since I was a young lad, and not long before I began KAPing, I developed a keen interest in panoramic photography. In addition, when I was growing up, I dabbled with electronics and enjoyed racing my radio-controlled car around the neighborhood streets.
Any particularly memorable shoot?
I divided out my favorite shots in a separate gallery on the web.
In particular, I really like the self-portrait I took at Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park in Utah this past summer. The dramatic color of the sand dunes combined with the boardwalk and shadows all come together to make a memorable image. In addition, it’s a very rare shot—a self-portrait, with kite in hand, looking straight down—because kites typically fly at angles much less than 90-degrees. In this case, my Dopero kite got caught in a thermal and “overflew”, going past vertical, probably to 110-degrees or so. Besides causing considerable anxiety on my part, the camera got tangled in the line. In the midst of this “crisis,” I was able to snap one of my favorite shots just before it was too late.
Have you exhibited your KAP photos anywhere? Other photos?
I’ve exhibited my work twice at a gallery in Carmel, CA (once for the KAP shots, and another time for my traditional landscape shots) and I plan to seek out more venues in the future.
Briefly tell me about your personal interpretation of KAP. Describe your rig(s), camera(s) and other equipment—particularly any favorites and how you use them (i.e. different rigs for different environmental situations, different cameras for different looks). Your technique and process.
I house my Nikon Coolpix 5000 digital camera in a hand-built rig made of carbon fiber, which hangs from the kite line approximately 50–100 feet below the kite. Like most KAPers, I use a Picavet suspension to attach my camera. The Picavet is a cat’s cradle-like device made up of string threaded through tiny pulleys. It is a self-leveling system that stabilizes the camera by dampening motion and by inhibiting the camera’s ability to twist.
I usually fly a Sutton Flowform kite to lift my rig. I have two Flowforms—one is 16 square feet and the other 30 square feet. I also use a six-sided, Japanese kite called a Rokkaku and finally a Dopero, a kite designed especially for KAP by German KAPer, Ralf Beutnagel. Each kite has a specific wind range for optimum performance; with my present lineup, I can lift my 2.2-pound camera rig in winds ranging from about 4–25 MPH.
I prefer to fly one of the Flowforms because it is so easy to setup—I simply remove it from the bag, and the wind catches it, opening the kite and sending it skyward. The Flowforms also pack down extremely compact. I can fit both of them in a single daypack that holds all of my other KAP gear. The Rokkaku and Dopero, on the other hand, are “rigid” kites, meaning that they have spars. When disassembled, the longer spars are still 1-meter long, so these kites are not as easy to manage. They also take considerably longer to set up (it’s very much analogous to setting up a tent).
To command the camera, I use a four-channel FM radio controller designed for a model airplane. I repackaged my transmitter so that I can wear it on my belt, thereby freeing both hands for kite flying. In addition, repackaging my transmitter enabled me to create more intuitive controls—a slider for tilting the camera, a two-position toggle switch for panning, a flip switch for changing the camera’s orientation from landscape to portrait mode, and a push-button switch for snapping the shutter electronically.
I stripped the paint off the lens barrel of my camera, creating a large silver area on an otherwise black body and rig so that I can see which direction the camera is pointing. Although some KAPers use a video downlink to assist in composition, I prefer to rely on my “minds eye” to imagine what the camera sees when I compose the image. This has proven quite reliable, and I am getting better with practice.