Bay Area photographer uses kite to capture bird's-eye view

Wayne Freedman Image
ByWayne Freedman KGO logo
Tuesday, November 11, 2014
Bay Area photographer uses kite to capture bird's-eye view
Cris Benton, a retired professor of architecture, loves watching the Bay Area's terrain change from the sky.

MARIN COUNTY, Calif. -- When we hear about aerial photography, these days, we automatically think of drones. They're all the rage and decidedly "new school." However, this kind of photography is more than 100 years old and precedes airplanes. ABC7 News followed one photographer to see how he gets those spectacular shots from above using not much more than the wind and a string.

Some guys may drive a long way just to fly a kite; others may go even further to take a picture. For Cris Benton, they're one and the same.

We followed Benton to Fort Barry near Point Bonita in the Marin Headlands. It's a tantalizing place even with the residual morning mist.

"I'm interested in landscapes and this is a place that has layer after layer of history," Benton said.

PHOTOS: Cris Benton captures San Francisco Bay with high flying kite

He's a retired professor of architecture with a fascination for how structures change, so Fort Barry is a natural location. It has more than 100 years' worth of bunkers, missile silos and gun turrets leftover from California's coastal defense system... and they're all in slow states of decay.

"You see this up close, but it would be nice to see it in context," Benton said.

That's where the kite comes in. He uses an eight-foot, six-sided, ancient Japanese-designed kite called the Rokkaku.

"It's a pretty simple kite and reportedly, for my purposes, stable," Benton said.

It needs to be stable because Benton is about to hang a camera beneath it in a radio controlled mount he designed, and then built from workbench sketch. He says he's only lost two cameras in the past 20 years.

And he's taken thousands of photographs. Benton brought a few of them along to show us.

This is an image Cris Benton photographed using kite aerial photography. (Photo courtesy Cris Benton)

This is an image Cris Benton photographed using kite aerial photography. (Photo courtesy Cris Benton)

"By getting up and looking down, you see colors and patterns and artifacts you just wouldn't have noticed while standing on the ground," Benton explained.

He showed us some photos from a book he made after 10 years and 250 trips documenting changes to the salt flats in San Francisco Bay. Everything, shot from cameras suspended beneath kites.

He captured bubbles from a low altitude, the random crisscrossing of mudflats, and many dots on the land that were actually migrating birds at rest.

We asked Benton if he thought of himself as an artist or a scientist and he replied, "I like to think of myself as both. And I think they intersect in rich ways."

Benson is not the first photographer to hang a camera from a kite. They've been doing it for more than a century. One of the most famous is entitled "San Francisco in Ruins" - the panoramic image taken from 2,000 feet above the bay, three weeks after The Great Quake of 1906. Benton explained they a person took that shot with a 50-pound camera.

One of the most famous aerial photographs is entitled "San Francisco in Ruins." It's a panoramic image taken from 2,000 feet above the bay, 3 weeks after The Great Quake of 1906.

The ones Benton uses weigh less than four pounds. He showed us how he flies his kite and camera 200 feet high, guided by hand and wind, above the ruins of Fort Barry. It's high enough to see everything, yet close enough to capture the details in context.

"It has a past. It has a history. In understanding landscapes, how do you know where you are today in a landscape without a sense of what that place has been through time?" Benson said.

It's such a peaceful way to spend a day in a beautiful place once deigned for war.

If you would like to see more of Cris Benton's photography, click here or learn more about him here.

Book: Saltscapes: The Kite Aerial Photography of Cris Benton