Story by David Thompson
Photo by Jack Wolford
Getting a camera stuck in a tree isn’t something photographers usually worry about. Unless, that is, they shoot pictures the way Tom Benedict does: with a kite. As a dedicated KAPer, or kite aerial photographer, Benedict is obsessed (his word) with photographing the Big Island, where he lives, from above. He shoots at altitudes ranging from barely overhead to 500 feet, which is as high as the FAA lets kites fly, with or without cameras attached. “I like to tell myself it’s just another vantage point, it’s a tall tripod,” he says. “But it’s more fun to fly a kite than set up a tripod.”
Fellow KAPers around the world follow and comment on Benedict’s work via his Flickr photo stream and his blog, The View Up Here. Familiar island sights seen from unfamiliar perspectives fill his online archives: sweeping landscape panoramas stitched together in Photoshop; up-close studies of palm trees, lighthouses, ferns growing from a rooftop gutter; spy photos of turtles sunning on the sand, unaware of the eighteen-megapixel digital camera dangling overhead.
Only a true techie would take something as simple as kite flying and add memory chips, servo motors and custom firmware, and Benedict certainly has his technological chops: He’s the guy who keeps the multimillion-dollar astronomy instruments at Mauna Kea’s Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope running. But he’s a techie with an artist’s eye. He runs errands carrying four kites in a backpack and another in a kite bag slung over his shoulder. “My wife sees it as embarrassing deviant behavior on the social scale,” he laughs. “But if I see good wind and clear skies, I’m going to stop.”
On a recent sunny day at ‘Anaeho‘omalu Bay, onlookers watched Benedict launch a kite with a six-foot wingspan into the gusty breeze with a flick of his wrist, as if launching a paper airplane. He quickly had the kite hovering twenty feet above the sand, then clipped his camera rig to the string, gained another twenty feet of altitude and began snapping pictures with a radio controller. The results weren’t spectacular, but Benedict seemed pleased anyway. “I never have a bad day,” he says. “Even if the camera doesn’t come out of the bag, if there’s any wind, I always get to fly a kite.”