Kites trump drones for aerial-photography bliss

Go fly a kite. Marketing exec Pierre Lesage finds the practice relaxing after a busy week overseeing operations at eight hotels. It’s also perfect for shooting photos.

“Since the drones came out a few years ago, kite aerial photography lost interest for a few photographers that are just looking for photographic results,” says Lesage. “I am also looking for results but I need that poetic aspect of doing it with a kite, and as long as there is wind I never have problem with batteries.”

Quadcopters are a thrill but flying kites is the zen alternative — and the photographic results are postcard perfect. It’s a way to mix tinkering with fresh air and can be as easy as picking up a prefab rig or as complicated as diving into the world of schematics and solder.

Bora Bora inspired Lesage to take to the skies. The hôtelier wanted an aerial view of the French Polynesian island’s lagoon. His plan to float a camera up with a balloon was foiled because helium proved too difficult to import, but research introduced him to the world of kite aerial photography, or KAP.

“I was under the wind of a coconut grove without any gloves or ways to attach the line to anything,” he says. “I sent the kite up, took a few pictures (not too bad), but it took me over an hour to bring everything down without putting anything into the lagoon. My hands were bleeding but I was as happy as a kid.”

The setup is basic but leaves plenty of room for sophistication. Most KAPers employ a Picavet suspension, which consists of a cross connected to the kite line at two points. Rope threads through eyelets at each of the four points of the cross, allowing give, and the camera rig’s weight stabilizes everything. Newcomers can fix the angle of their mount on the ground and set the camera to fire at automatic intervals. Veterans use radio-controlled pan cradles and video systems to get that perfect shot.

True geeks looking to design their own gear have plenty of online resources, but Lesage is too busy hopping the islands of French Polynesia and orders kites from the United Kingdom and customized rigs from the Netherlands and the United States. Provenance is unimportant; it’s the flying and shooting that ultimately matter.

“Once the kite is stable in the air, I attach the rig to the line and let [everything go] to the desired altitude for the type of subject I want to shoot,” Lesage says. “I use two systems: One is completely automatic, with the camera on interval mode shooting every five seconds with the rig rotating 360 degrees every 45 seconds. The other one is a bit more sophisticated, with a video downlink and a radio control to control pan, tilt and shutter.”

Even the best KAP system can come crashing down, though. Lesage lost a Ricoh GXR in the Cook Islands and dunked a GoPro HERO3+ into a lagoon. Replacement cameras, rigs, kites and lenses add up to an expensive hobby.

Attempting to defray the cost, Lesage dabbled in going pro. His stock photography business yields a little cash but isn’t commercially viable. There are plans for a coffee-table book but his photo app only became popular once he set the price to free. Work gets entered into contests — Lesage was a National Geographic finalist in 2010 — and exhibits in Tahiti, but KAP won’t pay the bills.

Pioneers of aerial photography weren’t successful either. Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, best known under the pseudonym Nadar, took the first aerial photo from a hot-air balloon but became famous for his portraiture. Arthur Batut brought kites into the picture in the 1880s but his initial photos went unpublished and he remains little known outside KAP circles.

With 20 years in the South Pacific under his belt, Lesage’s love of KAP shows no sign of waning. In fact he takes his gear on the road whenever he can and has flown cameras all over the world. He was impressed during a recent trip to Bolivia, where he shot the Salar de Uyuni salt flat and the desert of Sur Lípez at the country’s shared border with Chile and Argentina. Currently he’s visiting northwest Australia to see what the terrain has to offer.

“As long as there is enough wind to fly a kite I am a happy camper,” he says, “and the perspective from above reveals so many things that you cannot see from the ground.”

Images: Pierre Lesage

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Brendan Seibel

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