San Francisco Chronicle July 11, 2003

Full-page article by Dave Weinstein profiling a day in the life of a KAPer. Dave joined me on a shoot at Pacific Shores Center in Redwood City.

Scott Haefner seems very much on this earth as he steers his Honda Civic through Pacific Shores Center, curvaceous green-glassed high-rises bordered by bay, parkland and purple blooms.

But his mind’s eye is in the sky.

He’s sizing up the territory for its aesthetic potential—visualizing what it looks like from 50 feet up. He likes the line of palms, the lighting poles, the upwardly swooping “lips” of the building roofs.

His day pack has everything he needs—a digital camera, hardware and two kites. He spreads his gear on the grass and prepares for flight.

“You get a new perspective on the world,” Haefner says of kite aerial photography. “You may have flown in an airplane and looked out the window but you’re at 30,000 feet. Now you’ve got the opportunity to get that aerial perspective from anywhere from 10 to 100 feet off the ground.”

Kite photography, invented in the ’70s—the 1870s—flourished until the 1920s, when airplane photography took over. In France, pioneering photographers created aerial panoramas. Locally, George Lawrence sent a camera skyward to record the destruction from the 1906 San Francisco quake.

Thanks to new high-performance kites, kite photography was reborn in the 1980s. Today it’s booming, with several hundred practitioners worldwide and as many Web sites. Haefner knows half a dozen fellow enthusiasts in the Bay Area.

Most kite photographers do it for fun. A few, including earth scientists and geologists, incorporate it into their studies. Haefner, a serious amateur photographer who lives in Mountain View, does both. An environmental scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, he has studied earthquake faults by photographing them from on high.

A new sort of panorama

He’s also carved a niche by creating “bubble panoramas,” 360-degree views of a landscape that allow a viewer to step inside. By moving through the photo with your mouse you can see up, down, all around.

It’s virtual reality and psychedelia all in one, as the world spins about you with ever-changing distortions.

Haefner creates bubble panoramas by using a fish-eye lens to take one shot looking straight up and another shot from the kite straight down, then stitching them together using several software programs and a process developed by French engineer and Lego master Philippe Hurbain.

“It’s virtual reality in the sense that you’re able to get inside this image and rotate it around,” Haefner says. “You’re in control. It’s almost like you’re on this ride where you’re suspended in the air and you can turn and look in any direction you want.”

Cris Benton, one of the country’s leading kite photographers and an architecture professor at UC Berkeley, is much impressed. He calls Haefner “an up-and-comer.”

Today, Haefner’s trying for non-pano photos, which remain the bulk of his work.

“The funnest part is the composition, imagining what I might get and setting up the shot,” says Haefner, 28, an easygoing guy with longish brown hair.

It only takes 15 meticulous minutes to get the camera airborne. It’s not enough, after all, to simply put a camera in the air. The camera has to move on command, needs something solid to turn against, and has to aim properly and shoot.

He attaches the camera to a handmade rig of wood and aluminum that holds it steady, and the rig to a “Picavet,” a Cats Cradle-like device named for its French inventor that provides stability and allows a camera to pivot.

Haefner will attach the rig to his kite line once it’s airborne using a “Brook’s hang-up,” invented by kite photographer Brooks Leffler of Pacific Grove. The camera is never attached directly to the kite, but to the line, and is generally 50 or so feet lower than the kite.

“It’s not like going to the store and buying a rig and it’s done for you,” Haefner says. “You have got to be inventive and be willing to spend the time building the rig.”

A remote control box the size of a box lunch lets him aim and shoot.

Haefner sends up an $800 digital camera (it can store up to 200 exposures so he doesn’t hesitate to shoot) with a $200 lens. “You’re putting expensive cameras up there, so it’s a risk,” he says.

The kite—a soft, 30-square-foot Sutton Flowform—rises readily. “It should always be this easy to launch it,” he says.

Haefner usually flies alone—how many girlfriends or buddies, after all, possess the patience of a dedicated kite photographer? That means cradling the remote against his chest while piloting the kite with his left hand.

But today he has an observer, who holds the line when the kite reaches clean wind so Haefner can attach the camera.

The wind from the bay is strong. “It can never pull too much to attach the camera,” Haefner says. “But in terms of getting it back down…”

Aiming is a challenge. Some kite photographers send a video camera up alongside the still camera so they can see what the camera sees before hitting the trigger. But that’s more bother than it’s worth, Haefner says, “because the kite and camera keep moving so by the time you snap, the image has changed.”

Getting a little help

He depends on imagination and experience, and sometimes asks passers-by to tell him if the camera is properly positioned.

“You can see where the camera is to your right or your left,” he notes, “but there’s no way to tell how far away from you it is, whether it’s over the target.

“One of the keys is to walk around a lot, change you viewpoint and angles, try different things.

“You get a sense for it,” he says. And when he pulls the camera down he quickly checks his results on the 2-inch screen. The wind takes a turn for the worse as we leave the bay, rounding one of the buildings in search of a fountain to photograph. The kite dives, and the camera skitters across a salt pond.

No harm done, Haefner says. “I’ve never had any true crash landings.”

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