Issue 33: Kite Photography With A Digital Camera

If you visit the website at the end of this article you can view over 800 pictures of kites and kite related activities. The electronic age has brought to us a couple of great inventions for sharing pictures of whatever subject we choose: the Internet and digital cameras. No longer are we slaves to the chemical process of film photography and the sharing process known as the US Mail. With a website we can place pictures of every subject from grandkids to the Grand Canyon

Over the past 2.5 years, I have become one of the more prolific recorders of kites through still photography. I didn’t plan for this to happen, but a combination of events, including access to a low cost, huge website has allowed me the luxury of placing relatively large high quality pictures of kites on my website. This has happened to the extent that I am often asked what camera to buy or how I get my pictures to look like they do. As with most subjects, we can divide this into three areas: before, during and after.


In this case, before simply means getting a digital camera. Easy except there are dozens and dozens of choices and you can spend well over $1000 on just the camera. Fortunately for us, a good quality digital camera can be had for $300. That doesn’t sound too cheap compared to film cameras. And on top of that, digital cameras aren’t quite as good as film cameras. Then why should you buy one? Well, think of the environment and long term money. Digital cameras require no chemicals for film processing, no paper unless you want to print and no driving to and from the processing lab. In addition, you save after the purchase by not having to buy film, pay for developing and printing or reprints.

I won’t tell you what camera to get. I will tell you it should have at least a 3X optical zoom (digital zoom is worthless) and it should cost at least $300. By doing this, you will automatically get a pretty good camera. Presently I am using my son’s Fujifilm 3800 and before that I was using a 4 year old Nikon 900s. Digital cameras have a half-life of about 6 months. In other words, every six months your camera is worth half what you paid for it. OUCH! Yes, true but that is the reality of this arena.

For most of us, a 3MP (mega-pixel) camera is plenty. If you need more than that you really don’t need to read this article. You probably already know more about the subject than I do. Cameras and video recorders are overlapping more and more. Within a year or two, one device will serve both needs. But not yet. Just realize what is important to you. If you shoot far away subjects, you might want a larger zoom lens (6X, 8X). If you shoot bugs you probably want a camera with a great macro capability. Ask questions, read reviews on the Internet, try out a friend’s camera.

The biggest problem film users have is getting use to the delay in actually taking a picture. With film, when you push the button you get the picture. With digital, you push the button, and you get a picture somewhere between 0.1 and 1.0 seconds AFTER you think you should. This can be really annoying, particularly with action subjects. And when you do decide which camera to buy, also buy some spare batteries and a larger memory card to record the images. The one the manufacturers give you with the camera is way too small to be practical. So go out and get ready to spend about $400 for digital “stuff”. Then we can take some pictures.


Okay, you got a great camera your friend suggested. You read the manual (I hope you did) and you have shot a few pictures of the family, the dog, and the car, anything that would hold still for you. Now you want to take pictures of kites. When I got into kiting, I wanted to know everything right away. So I went on the Internet and started surfing. And I saw little pictures of kites, on the ground, in front of a fireplace, next to the owner. Everywhere but in the air. DUH! It’s a kite. With the advent of high speed Internet, larger pictures could now be viewed without huge download times.

I started taking pictures of kites with my Nikon 900s (1280 x 960). Now this isn’t a lot of pixels if you want to print anything above a 4″x6″ picture, but it was huge for Internet pictures. Now digital cameras are capturing images on the order of 2000 x 1500 and up. Image quality is very good from even a few years ago. So what have I learned on the subject of Digital Kite Photography. I am going to keep this very simple and present you with a list of what I do to capture a kite picture:

1 Shoot late in the afternoon (last two hours of sunlight) 2 Have the kite backlit (kite is between the sun and you) 3 Have the pilot stall the kite 5 to 20 feet off the ground 4 Take picture with kite up close (fill the screen) & pilot in the distance 5 Have the kite crossing the horizon line of the background 6 Pay attention to your background 7 Shoot up at the kite (sit on the ground if you have to) 8 Take lots of pictures (it’s digital, go ahead)

There are other “guidelines” but these should get you started. The biggest problem with the digital camera “shutter lag” is handled by having the kite stalled and presetting the camera by pushing the shutter button half way down to lock the focus and charge up the CCD (which captures the image). This way when you push the button, the lag time of the camera will be less than 1/4 second and the kite is holding it’s position in the stall. If you just try to take a picture of a flying kite and pushing a button like you would with a film camera and “panning with a high speed setting” you will get a picture of sky or the ground or a blurry kite.

As you practice and start seeing your results, you can vary what you do to get your desired effect. For me, I want the kite to fill the screen and be totally the center of focus. If the pilot is in the shot, that is a bonus. The main thing for me is that the kite looks like it’s flying. It’s in the air. It’s above the viewer and that is how we usually see a kite when we are flying. That’s why it looks so normal. Don’t shoot the kite below you and on the ground. It trivializes the kite.


When you have downloaded your pictures, you will see that at least half of them are garbage. Throw them in the trash (makes sense). See which ones you like and why you like them. If they are all bad, go out and shoot some more. When you have a few pictures you like you are ready for the final step, the step most people leave out. Since you have already spent $400, go out and spend about $100 more and get an editing program like Adobe Elements. This is a lower cost version of the industry standard software Photoshop. Then do the tutorial. Read the book. Ask annoying questions of people who use this software.

You will then be ready to present the photo in it’s best light. Every photo (and I mean every) I take goes through what is called Post-Processing. I will crop the photo down to the composition I like. I will edit the photo using Level Adjust to expand the black/white levels and possibly use a Sharpening Filter to make the photo snap into clarity. Sometimes I will rotate the photo to make the horizon line horizontal (what a shock). Beyond this I will enhance areas of light and dark, change the color of subjects, take 2 or more images and combine them into one great picture.

Yes this is more work. But it is the frosting on the cake and it is what separates the plain jane photos from the ones which people come back to view again and again. And if you are really nice, you will proportion your photos for people to use as their computer screen wallpaper.

Kite photography is still just photography. If you weren’t good with a regular film camera, you will still be bad with a digital. Digital cameras are just another tool to be used by the craftsman. You’ll only be as good as you want to.

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Author:John Chilese

John Chilese is a well known kite photographer, and was very active in the California Bay Area kiting scene before moving to his current home in Las Vegas... You can browse a large collection of his photos on his WebShots page:

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