Kite Aerial Photography: Rig and Camera

The rig, which I attach to the kite line using a picavet suspension, enables me to aim the camera. Using a wireless controller, I can pan, tilt and rotate (switch between portrait and landscape modes) the camera. Of course, I can also control the shutter release. The rig is made of woven carbon plates fastened together by aluminum corner braces, with steel rods and aluminum gears for the rotation axes. Carbon plates are ideal because they are light-weight and stiff, and they are relatively easy to cut and sand.

DSLR Rig

Photo of the Nikon D70s rig

I built this rig in August 2005 to house my first DSLR camera, a 6-megapixel Nikon D70s with a 20mm (30mm equivalent) Nikon prime lens. A year later, I upgraded to the 10-megapixel Nikon D80. Luckily the D80 is almost identical to the D70s so I didn’t need to modify the rig to accommodate the new camera body.

Nikon D60

In March 2008, I decided to “downgrade” to the 10-megapixel D60 with an 18-55mm kit lens, which is the camera I currently use. Again, I didn’t need to modify the rig, but I did have to drill a new hole in the camera plate to shift the center of gravity slightly. The D60 is preferable because it’s lighter, and I didn’t use the extra features of the D80 for KAP anyways.

The 18-55mm lens (27mm equivalent at its widest setting) is slightly wider than my 20mm, it’s a tad lighter, and it has Vibration Reduction built-in, which is useful for KAP. Plus, it has a focus motor in the lens, which is important because the D60’s autofocus is not compatible with legacy lenses like my 20mm. (As a side-note, it’s annoying that Nikon does not include focus motors in their low-end DSLRs).

In addition to my 18-55mm lens, I also have a Nikon 10.5mm (16mm equivalent) full frame fisheye lens that I occasionally use for creative effects. The weight and dimensions of the two lenses is similar enough to use them interchangeably without affecting the balance of the rig.

The total flying weight is 1.3 kg (2.8 pounds):

Rig (including 7.4 volt, LiPo battery pack) 400 g (14.1 oz)
Picavet suspension (including connectors to attach it to the kite line) 100 g (3.5 oz)
Camera w/ 18-55mm lens (including battery and memory card) 790 g (27.9 oz)
  • thumbnail photo of the pan servo

    Pan servo

  • thumbnail photo of the HoVer servo

    HoVer servo

  • thumbnail photo of the tilt servo

    Tilt servo

  • thumbnail photo of unassembled rig

    Rig arms

  • thumbnail photo of unassembled rig

    Unassembled rig

Photo of the Nikon D70s rig in flight

Compact Rig

photo of the camera and rig suspended from my Sutton Flowform 30 kite

I built this rig in 2003 to house my first KAP camera, a 5-megapixel Nikon Coolpix 5000. In July 2005, I upgraded to an 8-megapixel Coolpix 8400, and I currently use a Sigma DP1, which I acquired in April 2008. As with the DSLR rig, I only needed to make slight modifications to the camera plate to accommodate the new cameras.

Sigma DP1

With its excellent 28mm (35mm equivalent) prime lens and large, SLR-sized Foveon sensor, the Sigma DP1 takes better quality images than any other compact digital camera I’ve owned. The detail is phenomenal, but it only produces 2640x1760 (4.7-megapixel, native resolution) images. However, Sigma markets the DP1 as a 14.1-megapixel camera, which is misleading.

The Foveon sensor is unique because it captures images on a 3-layer sensor, with one layer for each primary color (Red-Green-Blue). All other digital cameras have a single-layer sensor with alternating, RGB color filters at each pixel location. The camera’s software uses adjacent pixels to fill in the rest of the color spectrum at each pixel site.

Based on my tests, the resolution of the DP1 images is comparable to my 10-megapixel D60 when I enlarge the DP1 images to the same size in Photoshop. This makes sense—the DP1 image is being interpolated when it’s enlarged in Photoshop, and the D60 images are being interpolated in camera to produce the full spectrum of RGB color.

Although the DP1 produces exceptional quality images, the user interface leaves something to be desired. Also the quality of the LCD screen is terrible, battery life is average, and it’s slow to snap the shot and write the image to the card in RAW mode—it takes about 4–5-seconds total. Fortunately, the LCD and UI aren’t important for KAP, and I can live with the slowness, even if its not ideal.

Since it’s not possible to trigger the camera remotely, I had Mark at Harbortronics add a port to the camera that gives me remote access to the shutter switch.

The total flying weight is 800 g (1.75 pounds):

Rig (including 7.4 volt, LiPo battery pack) 385 g (13.6 oz)
Picavet suspension (including connectors to attach it to the kite line) 100 g (3.5 oz)
Camera (including battery, memory card, hood, and filter) 315 g (11.1 oz)

In terms of design, the compact rig is identical to my DSLR rig, except for the dimensions—the DSLR rig is a bit wider and taller to accomodate a larger camera. If I had my choice, I would only fly my DSLR rig because of the superior quality images it produces. However, compact cameras are typically half the weight (or less) of a light-weight DSLR, making them more practical to fly in a wider range of winds.

  • thumbnail photo of the pan servo

    Pan servo

  • thumbnail photo of the HoVer servo

    HoVer servo

  • thumbnail photo of the tilt servo

    Tilt servo

  • thumbnail photo of unassembled rig

    Rig arms

  • thumbnail photo of unassembled rig

    Unassembled rig

photo of completed rig

Panorama Rig

Coolpix 8400 with FC-E9 Fisheye Lens

Photo of the Panorama Rig

The panorama rig is much simpler than my other, 3-axis rigs. When shooting bubble panoramas, I want the camera to be aimed straight down—it is not necessary to pan, tilt, or rotate the camera. Although the camera swings around while suspended from the kite, the goal is to capture photos containing all visible ground features with a ring of sky around the edge of the circular, fisheye image. Read more about how they are made.

I use a gentLED Auto to fire the shutter, a handy device that weighs only a few grams, including the battery. The gentLED Auto uses the camera’s built-in IR sensor to communicate with the camera, and it can be set to fire the shutter at a pre-determined interval. I usually set it to fire once every 15-seconds, churning out plenty of usable images during a 10–20-minute flight.

The total flying weight is 1.3 kg (2.8 pounds):

Rig (including gentLED) 60 g (2.1 oz)
Picavet suspension (including connectors to attach it to the kite line) 100 g (3.5 oz)
Camera w/ fisheye lens (including battery, memory card, lens shaft) 1125 g (39.7 oz)
Photo of the panorama rig in flight

Downloadable Rig Plans (.pdf files) PDF icon

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