Kite Aerial Photography
Cameras and Rigs

James S. and Susan W. Aber

Table of Contents
Introduction Canon Elph
Canon Rebel Canon S70
Tetracam Nikon Coolpix
Sony Alpha Color-infrared


During the two decades, we have employed several types of KAP rigs and cameras. Our original setup was a manual rig with a camera that takes pictures at preset intervals. Our other systems are state-of-the-art radio-controlled rigs built by Brooks Leffler, in some cases with our own modifications. And more recently we build our own camera rigs from kits and components supplied by All our rigs employ Picavet suspension systems (cable and pulley), and we use rechargable nickel-metal-hydrate (NiMH) batteries for dependable power in the field.

We began with film cameras in 1996 and added digital cameras starting in 2001. High-resolution digital cameras now rival or exceed 35-mm film for image quality, and digital technology has many advantages over film techniques for kite aerial photography. Most important is the ability to review pictures immediately in the field in order to confirm successful photography. The ability to edit, display, and print digital images shortcuts photochemical processing, and digital files do not degrade with time, as color film does. Since 2005, we have utilized digital cameras for all of our kite aerial photography. The section on film camera rigs is given for historical purposes.

Most of the cameras described below were purchased from Wolfe's Camera, Topeka, Kansas. Photo at left taken with Canon PowerShot SX10IS, which we used primarily for hand-held ground shots.

Digital KAP rigs

Canon Digital Elph (2001-present)

Digital cameras became increasingly available at moderate cost at the turn of this century. The problem of putting high-resolution and good optics into a small digital camera was solved for us first with the Canon PowerShot S100 (Digital Elph; also known as the Digital Ixus in Europe). The camera is the size of a credit card and weighs just over 7 oz (200 g) including the battery. It has a 1600x1200 CCD pixel array and a zoom lens, which together produce amazingly clear pictures. The stainless-steel body is especially attractive for rugged field use. Brooks Leffler constructed an efficient rig to fly the Canon Digital Elph (3/01). The rig features full radio control of camera tilt, pan, and shutter trigger (see below). Weight of the complete rig with camera is just 625 g (22 oz).

Image courtesy of B. Leffler (2001).

We subsequently acquired the Canon PowerShot S230, which has a 2048x1536 CCD for 3 megapixel resolution, and we modified the radio-controlled rig to fit either version of the camera. Our results with digital KAP are quite satisfactory, and this camera quickly became our first to utilize for routine field work. Image resolution is comparable to 35-mm film for most purposes. The digital pictures are bright with good color balance and require little enhancement for display or printing. The digital capability means that pictures may be reviewed immediately after each flight to determine if the mission was successful. However, both these models suffered from relatively slow shutter speed, which resulted in a high proportion of blurry images.

In 2006 we upgraded the Elph series to the Canon PowerShot SD600, a six-megapixel camera with high shutter-speed capability (ISO 800). We built a new cradle to hold the camera and added a sturdy frame with shutter trigger. This camera records a high percentage of sharp pictures. Photo date 4/06.
We upgraded the Elph series again in 2012 to the Canon PowerShot 520 HS, a 10-megapixel camera with a red body. We rebuilt the cradle to hold the camera, which records excellent, sharp pictures. Notice, we now mount the antenna backward to avoid the possibility that it could appear in the pictures. Photo date 9/12. We continue to keep this camera and rig in service for site preview and back-up purposes.

Canon EOS Rebel (2004-14)

For digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) cameras, our choice is the Canon EOS Rebel. This series features interchangeable lens, filters, larger image sensors, and various advanced functions. We began in 2004 with the 300D model with 6.3 megapixel resolution. We normally operated the camera with a large zoom lens (10-22 mm) set to the minimum focal length for superwide-angle shots. This camera/lens combination was relatively heavy at 37 oz (~1.05 kg). Once again, Brooks Leffler built a superb camera rig with electronic shutter control.

Canon EOS Rebel 300D KAP rig
by Brooks Leffler. Photo date 7/04.

This camera rig was fairly heavy; total weight of the camera, 10-22 mm zoom lens and rig was 54 oz (~1.5 kg). It required a large kite flying in a steady, strong wind. Operation of the radio-controlled rig is quite smooth, and a "fast-shutter" (sports) mode is most effective for achieving a high percentage of sharp pictures in spite of camera motion.

In 2010, we acquired the Canon EOS Rebel XS 1000D model with a 10.1-megapixel sensor and more advanced functions. It came with a standard 18-55 mm zoom lens with image stabilization, to which we added a 0.7X auxiliary lens. When set to the shortest focal length, this lens combination creates superwide-angle views with focal length equivalent to 12.6 mm (35-mm film equivalent).

JSA tests the Canon EOS Rebel XS camera rig hanging from the ceiling in his office. The superwide-angle view makes the small room look big. Feb. 2010.

This camera/lens package weighs only 28 oz (0.8 kg), which is considerably lighter than the older camera/lens unit. Only minor modification of the radio-controlled rig was necessary to accommodate the new camera. Weight of the camera and rig together is 45 oz (~1.3 kg). We utilized these digital SLR cameras for KAP quite a bit up through 2014, but not since.

Canon S70 (2005-2018)

One of our favorite digital cameras was the Canon PowerShot S70. This is a compact model with a 7-megapixel sensor array. It has an excellent glass-molded aspherical zoom lens with true wide-angle view (28-100 mm film equivalent). Like the DSLR (above), it has a fast-shutter mode which results in sharp, clear images even with substantial camera motion.

Canon S70 camera rig in flight. This rig is based on the robust titanium frame built by Brooks Leffler originally for a film camera. We constructed a new aluminium cradle to hold the S70 camera, and we added the gent360 to stop pan creep. Total weight of camera and rig is 28 oz (0.8 kg). Photo date 7/05.

This camera combined compact size and light weight with advanced photographic capability. It quickly became our most useful camera for many applications, particularly expansive landscape views. A large memory card holds hundreds of moderate-resolution pictures (3072x2304 pixels). The large image size facilitates many digital or print options for editing and display.

We used the S70 camera for many years in the radio-controlled rig. Then in 2015, it transitioned into an autoKAP rig in which it continued to see frequent service. Since 2005, in fact, the S70 was our go-to camera at nearly every site we worked in North America and Europe. We finally retired this veteran camera from active use in 2018.

Tetracam ADC (2008-2009)

The Tetracam Agricultural Digital Camera (ADC) is designed to photograph green, red, and near-infrared portions of the spectrum, specifically 0.52 to 0.92 µm wavelength, at 2048 by 1536 (3 megapixel) resolution. The camera employes a special lens to transmit near-infrared radiation, and blue light is excluded. The resulting pictures are false-color images: green appears as blue, red is shown as green, and near-infrared is red.

Tetracam ADC.

Based on a basic KAP kit from Brooks Leffler, we built a radio-controlled rig to operate the Tetracam ADC camera. The rig has full manual control of camera tilt, pan, and shutter button. The camera itself is approximately the same size and shape as an SLR-type camera. The main drawback is camera weight, which comes mainly from 8 AA batteries. Eight conventional alkaline AA batteries weigh about 6.5 oz (~185 g); whereas 8 AA lithium batteries are only about 4 oz (~110 g). Thus, replacing alkaline with lithium batteries reduces weight substantially and provides longer-lasting power. We rejected rechargable AA batteries, because of lower output (1.2 v) compared with standard batteries (1.5 v). Total weight of the camera, rig, and batteries is 37 oz (just over 1 kg).

Tetracam ADC camera rig built with some customization from the basic KAP kit by Brooks Leffler. Photo date 6/08.

Color-infrared photography was initially developed during World War II for camouflage detection. Important scientific applications include vegetation, soil, and water resources. In this format, vegetation appears bright pink and red, because photosynthetically active (green) plants strongly reflect near-infrared radiation. Water bodies, in contrast, strongly absorb near-infrared energy, regardless of water depth or turbidity. Because blue light is excluded, shadows appear quite dark. Thus, many color-infrared pictures have high contrast between bright vegetation and dark shadows and water bodies.

Upon launching the Tetracam camera rig, the crew takes a self portrait. Active vegetation appears in pink and red colors; vegetation is highly reflective for near-infrared, so is much brighter than normal and appears somewhat fuzzy. Note that vehicles and fence poles are sharply defined. Photo date 6/08.
View over Nature Conservancy marsh in central Kansas. Water bodies are quite dark in color-infrared format, regardless of water depth or suspended sediment, although some sun glint is visible in the foreground. Photo date 6/08.

Our biggest problem for operating this camera routinely proved to be adjusting the lens focus and zoom properly. Considerable trial-and-error testing was necessary to achieve suitable field for view and focus, which are fixed with locking thumb screws on the lens. The image file format is proprietary, and special Tetracam software is necessary to process and display the false-color images. The low-resolution sensor and images were disappointing, and we utilized this camera for only two years.

Nikon Coolpix (2014-present)

The Nikon Coolpix model AW 110 was a break with our Canon tradition. It's waterproof, shockproof, and has built-in GPS, world map, compass, and Wi-Fi functions. Camera GPS location and compass look direction are recorded for each picture, which are quite handy for KAP. For this camera, we constructed a radio-controlled rig from the Brooxes Deluxe KAP kit with a few extras—see Brooxes (page down).

Beginning stage of building the Nikon KAP rig. A full sequence of construction stages and tips are presented here for benefit of other KAP enthusiasts.
Building a KAP rig.

Nikon KAP rig in flight. Because the body is waterproof, a small microservo is used to depress the shutter button.

Image size is 16 megapixels (4608 x 3456 pixels), and image format is 4:3 width-to-height ratio, which is the norm for most compact digital cameras. Picture quality is excellent using the camera's auto function. It took us a while to become accustomed to this camera, but now it's one of our favorities, and we use it at nearly every site we visit.

Sony Alpha 6000 (2017-present)

The Sony Alpha series is an example of mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras (MILC). These cameras have all the advantages of DSLR cameras, namely interchangeable lenses, use of filters, and large sensor arrays, but without the mirror-and-pentaprism system and optical viewfinder. MILC are, thus, lighter and more compact than equivalent DSLR cameras, which are big advantages for KAP.

We acquired a Sony Alpha model 6000 camera in 2017 and also had access to another similar camera that was modified for color-infrared imagery. We constructed two rigs with kits and components from The first rig is a conventional radio-controlled setup in which an infrared LED triggers the camera shutter. The second rig is for autoKAP, again with an infrared LED to trigger the camera shutter. The color-visible or color-infrared cameras may be used with either rig.

Sony color-infrared camera flying in the radio-controlled rig. The photographer on the ground has full control of camera pan, tilt, and shutter. A small infrared LED on the aluminum post (*) triggers the shutter. Total weight of camera, rig, and batteries is ~0.85 kg (~1.9 lb). Thanks to Japanese colleague T. Nagasako for field assistance testing this rig in 2017.
Sony color-visible camera in the autoKAP rig at the workbench. A small electronic device (^) controls automatic pan, tilt, and shutter, and the shutter is triggered by an infrared LED (>), both from J. Gentiles ( Note the absence of a radio receiver and antenna. Mirror provides back view.

The camera's "auto" function proved impractical for KAP, as the low ISO (100) and slow shutter speed resulted in many blurred images. To correct this problem, we raised the ISO value to 1600, and the images turn out sharp and clear. With a 24-megapixel sensor (6000 x 4000 pixels), the high-resolution images provide great spatial detail. The image format is 3:2 width-to-height ratio, which is the standard for SRL cameras. We normally fit the camera with a 16-mm fixed focal-length lens and UV filter for wide-angle shots.

Color-infrared KAP.

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All text and images © by the authors.
Last update January 2019.