By Ilana DeBare
We recently had a fascinating encounter with a kite at Pier 94 – not a White-tailed Kite, but a camera kite.
Cris Benton is a former Berkeley architecture professor who has built a second career around kite aerial photography – using cameras attached to kites to document landscapes. On August 4, we were delighted to welcome Cris and his colleague, microbiologist Wayne Lanier, to our restoration site at Pier 94.
If you’re not familiar with it, Pier 94 is a five-acre parcel of shoreline wetlands near Hunter’s Point, owned by the Port of San Francisco. Surrounded by industrial uses such as a gravel processing facility and a rendering plant, it’s an unlikely wildlife habitat. But over the past ten years, Golden Gate Audubon volunteers have planted over 500 native plants, pulled 80 cubic yards of non-native weeds, and removed 1,500 gallon bags of trash. Pier 94 today is home to Bank Swallows, American Avocets, Killdeer, gulls, cormorants, pelicans, sandpipers and even a nesting pair of Osprey.
On August 4th, Cris and Wayne joined us at our monthly volunteer work session. Wayne brought his field microscope – a mini-lab that fits in his orange day pack – and showed us how to test the tidal ponds for salinity and microorganisms.
Cris brought his set of eight kites – each designed for a different amount of wind – and his Canon SLR camera with a 10-22 mm zoom. Cris rigs the camera to a kite with a system recently rediscovered from 1912 — the “golden age” of kite photography, before the advent of planes, helicopters and satellites.
The camera sits in a metal cradle with insectlike legs that cushion it from occasional rough landings. It hangs from a stabilized cross that attaches to the kite line in two places, looking a bit like a spider suspended on a couple of threads. Cris controls the camera with a modified model-airplane remote: One hand holds the kite string and the other uses the remote to angle the camera and take pictures.
Kite photography is ideal for aerial views that are closer and more detailed than anything taken from a plane or helicopter. “I own the space between 10 feet and 300 feet,” Cris says proudly. “A fixed-wing aircraft trying to photograph at 300 feet has to rush by. But the kite allows me to loiter with a camera and hang around in that zone.”
There’s just one catch: The wind.
The ideal weather for kite photography is a steady wind of 12 to 15 miles per hour. On a good day, Cris spends 10 percent of his time on flying the kite and 90 percent of his time on taking pictures. On a bad day, it’s 90 percent kite and 10 percent pictures.
Unfortunately, his day at Pier 94 was looking like one of those 90-percent-kite days.
That morning, the bay was wrapped in a particularly dense blanket of fog and there was almost no wind. Toward noon, we got a bit of a breeze. But it started and stopped, then started and stopped again. Cris’ kite line grew slack and he had to reel his equipment in. He switched to a lower-wind kite, and had to reel that one in too.
Finally there was enough wind to get going. Cris stepped swiftly along the length of the site, keeping the kite at a steady height and snapping photos every few feet. When he reached the end, he went back and did a second transect of photos with the kite closer to the shoreline. Wayne followed along, providing data on the exact height and distance of the camera.
By the end of the day, Cris was still not pleased with his results. He wrote in his online gallery:
It was one of those sessions where the bulk of my attention was on the kite flying and tending to camera survival. In the end the images were not very good. My 10-22mm lens somehow got set wide open (f4.0), a condition where the corners are way too soft… Add a bit of motion blur and inattention to controlling the camera as I struggled with the kite and the session image quality was the worst in a couple of years.
But take a look at what he managed to photograph!
In the above image, you can see the Bay at the top of the picture, then the shoreline and tidal ponds, and at the bottom the grassy uplands.
The following view looks south across the wetlands to one of the neighboring industrial sites.
The next picture shows the western edge of the site, where the grasslands end and there is just heavily-compacted bare grey dirt. We’re in the process of arranging to bring in 3,329 cubic yards of sediment to turn that barren area into additional fertile uplands habitat. GGAS volunteers will have a lot of digging and planting to do!
This final photo is a panorama stitched together from seven kite-camera images. It’s what a pelican or gull might see as it cruises above the San Francisco Bay shoreline. Amidst all the surrounding industrial areas, Pier 94 looks like a little bit of habitat-heaven.
Well… as I look at these photos, all I can say is… if these were the results of a “bad day,” I might faint dead away to see the photographic results of one of Cris’ “good days”!
Many thanks to Cris and Wayne for donating their time and expertise. We hope they’ll find an opportunity to come back to Pier 94 when wind conditions are better.
In the meantime, their data will help us plan and track the progress of our restoration efforts. And it already gives us a new — truly bird’s eye — perspective on the importance of this site and the restoration work done by our volunteers.
To see more of Cris Benton’s Pier 94 photos, click here. To visit his site on kite aerial photography in general, click here. Want to get involved in helping restore Pier 94? GGAS sponsors volunteer work days on one Saturday morning each month. The next ones are Sept. 1 and Oct. 6, from 9 am to noon. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or see our web site for information and directions.