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

Introduction

During the past several years, we have employed several types of KAP rigs and cameras. Our original setup is 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. All our rigs employ Picavet suspension systems (cable and pulley), and we use rechargable nickel-metal-hydrate 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. Finally the cost of such digital photography is now competitive with equivalent film methods. For this reason, we now utilize Canon digital cameras for most 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 intend to use primarily for hand-held ground shots. January '09.

Digital KAP rigs

Canon Digital Elph (2001-2012)

High-resolution digital cameras have become increasingly available at moderate cost. 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 has become 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 can 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.

Canon EOS Rebel (2004-10)

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. The new 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).

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.

Canon S70 (2005)

Our favorite digital camera is the Canon PowerShot S70. This is a compact model with a 7-megapixel CCD. It has an excellent glass-molded aspherical zoom lens with true wide-angle view (28-100 mm film equivalent). Like the digital Rebel SLR, 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 combines compact size and light weight with advanced photographic capability. It quickly became our most useful camera for many applications, particularly expansive landscape views, and we continue to use it frequently. With a large memory card, it can hold hundreds of high-resolution pictures (3072x2304 pixels). The large image size facilitates many digital or print options for editing and display.

Tetracam ADC (2008)

The Tetracam Agricultural Digital Camera 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.

Nikon Coolpix (2014)

Breaking with our Canon tradition, our newest KAP camera is the Nikon Coolpix model AW 110. It's waterproof, shockproof, and has built-in GPS, world map, and compass functions, which should be quite useful for KAP purposes. For the new 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.


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All text and images © by the authors.
Last update Jan. 2014.