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Flying on the Ground: Photographing the Joy of Kite-Flying

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Kite-flying provides a unique opportunity to photograph something different and practice techniques which may help with other forms of photography. In this tutorial, we'll talk about what I found unique about photographing kite-flying and how it helped improve my ability to capture action as well as informing me when to shoot wide and when to shoot tight. Photographing kites is a great way to pick up a new hobby and it brings new meaning to the phrase, "go fly a kite."

Introduction

I hadn't flown a kite since I was a child and since video games have become so popular, I've rarely seen one in flight. Whenever I did see one, it was usually the cheap, plastic ones from the dollar store barely staying aloft even in a good breeze. But when I was told kites could be flown indoors, I was suspiciously curious. So, I headed out to the National Air & Space Museum (NASM) in Washington, D.C. to see this for myself.

Since that time, I've done three different shoots for the American Kitefliers Association (AKA) and Wings Over Washington (WOW) and have developed a healthy interest in kite-flying. I've also received invitations to various locations throughout the country for chances to photograph kites doing cool things.

The Gear

If you need or want to capture the action with little or no delay, a good DSLR can't be beat. But if that's not in the cards, your point-and-shoot will work fine. As for point-and-shoots, I personally prefer advanced ones like the Canon G-9 (and higher) as they have a Manual mode. Their shutter lag is usually shorter and their AF a little better than entry models. However, I usually lug around a DSLR or two with a lens or two when I shoot kites.

If you're a parent and will be photo-dad/mom, pick a lens that has a good zoom range. That way you can get wide and get tight without switching lenses or bringing multiple bodies. I don't like the cheap 18-200mm zooms out there because their aperture can change nearly two stops when zooming. If I had to pick, a 24-70mm or 24-105mm with a constant apeture would be my pick.

I'm a big fan of the Canon EOS 7D because it is a very well-balanced camera in terms of resolution, speed, and price. If the 5D Mark II had the newer AF system and 5fps, then I would have totally gone for it. For my style of shooting, the 7D is excellent. For you Nikon guys, the D7000 would be in the same class.

For kite-flying photos I've used the EF-S 10-22mm, EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM, and EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM. I keep one lens on each of my two bodies with the extra one packed in my camera bag or a sling pouch.

For lighting, I use one Canon 580EX II. I use one because I like to be mobile and most of the time, the camera with the 70-200 is fast enough to not need flash. I dedicate one camera as "wide" and the other one as "telephoto". So, one body gets the 10-22mm and the 24-105mm while the other usually has the 70-200mm on it all the time. I mainly use the 580EX II as a fill since most kite events are during the day outside, and I allow the ambient light to do most of the heavy lifting. This saves on juice and keeps my flash recycle times short.

Since I'm usually capturing action and emotion, I motor-drive (shoot in continuous mode) a lot. Short 5 or 8-frame bursts I find works best. It helps me capture the peak while keeping my post-production editing efficient. Few things are worse than scanning through 30 photos that look almost identical to each other. Also, too much motor-driving will dull your ability to anticipate the action and capture the right moment.

Arrive Early

If you're covering an event, either officially or not, I cannot stress the importance of getting to the venue early. This gives you time to scout around and pick spots and angles that might work well. For indoor kite-flying, this is important because the space is limited and the lighting can be inconsistent. So, grab a spot before the audience does and lock in your settings before the action begins.

During my preparations, I try to find the range of shutter speed/ISO/aperture settings I can use as well as my flash compensation. Indoors, I find myself going from ISO 800 to 3200, depending on where I'm aiming. I also keep my shutter speeds between 1/80sec and 1/250sec so I can gently blur or freeze the action. Not going above 1/250sec prevents my flash from chopping off it's output power in order keep up with higher shutter speeds.

Because I'm using lenses with different aperture capabilities, knowing how my camera will act when I change lenses is important. There isn't much of a difference between f/4.5 and f/4, but there is between f/4.5 and f/2.8. So knowing how many "clicks" I need to change is crucial when things start picking up.

So, now that the location has been scouted and the cameras have been dialed-in, we're ready to start shooting.

Indoor Kite Flying

Indoor kite-flying is very different from the outdoor kind. This is because the flyer has to generate his/her own wind energy by moving around and steering the kite more dynamically. During a performance, the kite-flyer position can change several times which usually requires changing your position and composition just as frequently.

My first time photographing indoor kite-flying was a completely new experience as I've never seen kites being flown, much less photographed them. Some of the best kite-fliers in the U.S. attend the event at the NASM's Kites of Asia event. With indoor kites, it is important to understand the relationship between the kite, flyer, music, and audience.

Capture the skill and grace of the flight as well as the crowd's reaction and interaction. Pay close attention to children and their parents. I use my 70-200mm to hone in on the expressions, especially if I'm on the opposite side of the area. The 7D's cropped sensor gives me some extra reach. I use my 10-22mm to express the space and to play with perspective. The 10-22mm allows me to get in really close while getting in a lot of the scene.

Working in close requires a good understanding of what's going on, situational awareness, and most importantly: permission. Although kite-fliers love to have their craft photographed, they're there for the audience and the audience's entertainment is priority. Your presence should not interrupt the flow the flight. To minimize the risk of getting hit by a kite, flier, or caught in the strings move in, shoot, and move out quickly when you're working close.

For more stand-off work, get a good angle where you have the option of isolating the subject or zooming-out for more context. Shooting high and shooting low are great options.

Outdoor Kite Flying

In some ways, outdoor kite-flying is easier to photograph than indoor. Firstly, the kite-fliers are much more stationary because the wind is providing the flying energy, allowing for easier composition. However, the kite can move faster because of that additional energy, especially if it is a sport kite. Also, the audience is more mobile as well because of the larger area.

During the annual Cherry Blossom Festival, downtown Washington, D.C. is packed with events and tourists for weeks. One of the most popular events is the Kite Festival. Essentially the entire length of the National Mall is covered with people flying kites, with a lot of it concentrated around the Washington Monument and down the World War II Memorial.

Since it is usually sunny around that time of year, I crank my ISO low to 100. I frequently use ISO 200 with the highlight tone priority when the light is very contrasty. To keep the colors poppy and not clip my highlights, I under-expose a little. In contrasty situations it is extremely important to nail your exposure especially if you're shooting JPEG. Shooting in RAW gives you more leeway, but at the price of larger files.

For outdoors, I tend to stay a little wider because I'm freer to move around. I can get physically closer to my subject. Here the 10-22mm and especially the 24-105mm are used a lot. I use the 70-200mm occasionally, but that is for far off action and at f/2.8 to drop-out the background.

Kites are colorful and come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. Show them off. Give the larger kites a sense of scale.

However, the most important thing regarding photographing kites are not the kites themselves, but people's interaction with them. Capturing that joy of something so simple is that thousand-word picture.

Problem-Solving

Having fun photographing kites isn't without it's challenges. Indoor and outdoor present their own obstacles that need to be resolved in order to make great photographs.

Indoor kite-flying presents the familiar problems of movement in low-light environments. Motion blur and camera-shake become problems whenever your shutter speed dips below your lens' focal length. At around 1/125sec, movement like waving hands and darting kites become blurred. To solve that, crank up the ISO. The images will have more grain, but crisper action will be the result. However, don't eliminate too much movement as it risks taking the "life" out of the movement. We're capturing the moment, not oppressing it.

NASM's usual spot for indoor kite-flying has major shifts in both light intensity and color. On one end you have a 3-story wall of windows, pumping in strong daylight, but only about halfway into the performance area. On the other end is a comparatively dimly lit museum with some tungsten spots lighting the other half. It's not uncommon to have color contamination at two different sides of the same photo.

I dislike using auto white balance, but in this situation, I bite my lip because I know that in some of my shots I'll be warm and in others cool. Some of the color contamination can be fixed by shooting in RAW, but you'll still be picking your poison when trying to neutralize the tints. I just pick the dominant tone in the scene and move on.

Outdoors presents the problems of contrasty light and people crossing into your shot. During a sunny day, your camera's metering is battling to make up it's mind. If you point it at something dark colored, you'll end up over-exposing. If you point it at a white wall, your scene turns into night. Over exposure easily clips highlights in contrasty light, which is much harder to recover than shadows. This is because the light sensors have mathematically maxed-out.

People crossing into the shot, invariably ruining it, can be hard to avoid. This is another reason I motor-drive in short bursts and use a DSLR rather than a point-and-shoot. DSLRs have extremely short shutter lag and their AF systems are faster and more accurate. That being said, backlit subjects can bully the AF and cause it to jump around. To avoid the invaders, it is best to anticipate the action and position yourself accordingly. Timing is everything when working in a place where most are oblivious to your shot.

Don't stick to just one spot in the area. Keep moving to find different angles and different vignettes within the main event. Grab the same scene multiple ways and see how each one says something different.

Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed this article about photographing kites. Although it looks simple, photographing kites combines many aspects of different kinds of photography into one. Capturing the peak of the action — as in sports photography, tracking a kite in flight — as in bird photography, being unobtrustive — as in performance and child photography. And don't forget, when you're done making great kite photos, put the camera down and fly a kite!

If you have any kite photos, a link to them in the comments! We'd love to see what other kite festivals look like as well.

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