Flying high with kite aerial photography

Mr. Shabica's kite camera captured this bird's eye view of the East Chop Beach club. — Photo by Jon Shabica

Jon Shabica has found a way to combine an interest in photography and a passion for kite flying. He uses a GoPro camera to capture bird’s-eye views, most recently of Oak Bluffs.

A coastal engineer by profession from Illinois, Mr. Shabica said he’s always had a knack for photography.

“At home, when we photograph our projects, we’re typically shooting at low elevations that are maybe 20 feet off the ground,” he said.

He also has a passion for kites. “My father was a kite addict,” Mr. Shabica said. “So I’ve always been around kites. It was a big part of my childhood.”

While looking for creative ways to combine his talents, an idea dawned, and camera and kite in tow, he set out to do something different.

Using a Hero 2 GoPro—a lightweight high-definition camera with a protective waterproof case—Mr. Shabica sets the camera to fire continuously, every ten seconds within a specified time, and rigs it to the tail of his kite. Minutes later, with the kite soaring a few hundred feet in the air, Mr. Shabica waits anxiously to see what it would come back with.

“The first time I did it, I was blown away by how clear the pictures were,” Mr. Shabica said. “It’s one hundred percent to the credit of the technology. All I have to do is put it in the air. That’s the hard part.”

The timer can be set in two, five or ten second intervals. The camera is hung on a suspension system designed to keep it from spinning on the kite’s line. It is that simple.

A Chicago native and seasonal Oak Bluffs resident for the last 42 years, Mr. Shabica is the vice president of Shabica & Associates—a coastal engineering and consulting firm that helps build and restore beaches and ravines. Or, as he likes to put it, he “builds beaches.”

“Because my dad grew up out here, my family has always loved the beach. It’s fun for us, we love the water,” he said.

With a degree in medical illustration and photography from School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Mr. Shabica said his interest in aerial photography was born out of the necessity to survey the coastlines that he helps build. Now, he does it just for fun.

“It’s great for my line of work because I’m out on the water,” he said. “You get that unique perspective. But I don’t do it [kite photography] professionally.”

Although he has four kites of all shapes and sizes, his favorite is a six-foot-long inflatable penguin. “People are really drawn to this one,” Mr. Shabica said as he held the penguin kite pre-flight while standing in Ocean Park last week. The kite comes equipped with a large yellow beak and matching waddling feet. He affectionately refers to it as Betsy.

“The aim is to keep the line out of the camera’s sights,” Mr. Shabica said as he began releasing the kite’s spool. “But the picture from above is amazing.”

Mr. Shabica, now somewhat of a kite photographer aficionado, said some of his favorite photos are the ones where he can be seen in a part of the frame. A technique otherwise known as photobombing.

“I call it the Where’s Waldo factor,” Mr. Shabica said. “Although kids these days probably don’t know what that means.”

The kite’s flight time lasts no more than five to ten minutes and at its higest elevation can reach one thousand feet. But what goes up must come down, and among Mr. Shabica’s biggest concerns is safety.

“The challenge is you have to fly it over open areas, not over roads or crowded places. It’s a liability; I just don’t want to hurt anybody,” Mr. Shabica said.

How it works

There are several ways a camera can be attached to a kite. Typically, on kites like Betsy, a small and lightweight camera is secured to an adjustable rig and suspended from a line at a close distance. This distance helps reduce excessive movement between the kite and camera. The camera is also set to a high shutter speed to reduce motion blur. A wide-angle lens is preferable in order to achieve the maximum impact of each photo. Gravity helps to keep the rig level, irrespective of the angle of the kite line. Generally, single-lined kites are used, as they allow longer spool lengths and need less intervention from the person who is flying it.

Not so new

While it’s become an increasingly popular alternative to more traditional forms of photography, Kite Aerial Photography (KAP) actually dates back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A camera enabled to operate either remotely or automatically was rigged to a kite whose machinery ranged anywhere from extremely simple to more complex.

According to the website of Charles Benton, a professor of architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, this form of photography was used to provide new perspectives for how people visualized the world from both a practical and aesthetic point of view.

KAP has been used for everything from military reconnaissance and disaster assessment to scientific surveys. George Lawrence, an early pioneer of aerial photography, is the man responsible for taking the iconic “San Francisco in ruins” photograph using a series of kites and wires after the earthquake destroyed a large part of the city in 1906.

Following World War II, aeronautical engineering was applied to kites, parachutes, balloons, hang gliders, and other flying devices.

For those interested in learning more, Mr. Benton, a self-proclaimed kite photography enthusiast, runs a Kite Aerial Photography website and discussion forum that is dedicated to all things KAP.