For a stunning bird’s eye view, launch a kite (or a balloon)

Sunset at UC Berkeley, taken by a camera lofted by a helium balloon on February 4th, 2011. Copyright: Michael Layefsky

Michael Layefsky’s passion for aerial photography was born one day in 1997 when he was taking one of his customary walks on the UC Berkeley campus and he came across “this guy flying a humongous kite on the big lawn in front of the library”.

The “guy” turned out to be Cal architecture professor Cris Benton, an early adopter of kite aerial photography, whose stunning work can be viewed on his website and Flickr pool.

“Cris is both very talented and an educator. The internet was in its infancy when he started but he set out to document and provide information on KAP, as its known,” says Layefsky, who quickly became an eager student.

Rice terraces, Tirtaganga, Bali, taken by a camera lofted by kite on July 13, 2009. Copyright: Michael Layefsky

An early attempt by Layefsky to capture images from a camera rigged onto a kite took place in Berkeley’s Cesar Chavez Park. “It was really windy and way too hard to navigate the kite,” he recalls. “My wife nearly had her arm pulled out trying to help me.”

Layefsky, who lives in Berkeley and whose son attends Berkeley High, has since switched from kites to less precarious helium balloons and many of his images are now under license to Getty Images.

Although Layefsky considers himself an amateur, and works a day job at the Cancer Prevention Institute, he took a four-year photography course at Berkeley City College, networks with the worldwide community of KAP photographers, and practices the craft regularly and wherever he goes. He has images from the Netherlands, Paris, Thailand and Vietnam, among others, in his portfolio.

Berkeley Art Museum on Bancroft Way, taken by a camera lofted by a helium balloon on February 4th 2011. Copyright: Michael Layefsky

He says he loves taking shots which have a strong architectural element, such as the fan-like roof of the Berkeley Art Museum (above). He has also snapped Grace Cathedral, the DeYoung, the Legion of Honor and SFMOMA in San Francisco.

Dispatching kites outfitted with camera rigs in built-up areas can be dangerous, given the prevalence of power lines. “One mistake and it could be the end,” says Layefsky. He says that asking permission to launch kites is not always fruitful as it is invariably denied. And there was the one occasion when he skirted close to the hand of the law. He had been shooting in the skies above a petroleum depot in Richmond and the local police asked him to leave. Shortly afterwards, a federal agent visited him at his home

"Junkers", taken by a camera lofted by a kite above Richmond. Copyright: Michael Layefsky

Layefsky points out that aerial photography seems to be in vogue at the moment, with movies and TV shows often featuring sweeping shots taken from the air. “It’s a compelling vantage point,” he says. “I am pretty obsessed with the views you get from up there. You get a subject in a context you just can’t get from the ground.”

King swimming pool in Berkeley, taken by a camera lofted by a kite on June 25th 2008. Copyright: Michael Layefsky

A solo exhibition of Layefsky’s photographs will open at the main branch of the Berkeley Public Library in June.

Visit Layefsky’s Flickr pool to see more of his work, including a set of photographs of Berkeley.

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