Drone Photographers Take To The Skies To Find New Perspectives

January 8, 2015

By Aimee Baldridge

Wishing you could fly might be a common desire, but photographers working the angles of a shot probably wish for wings more fervently than most people. Being able to find new or unusual points of view can open up creative possibilities, and in today’s competitive market, having a fresh perspective can often lead to commercial success, as well. Enter the unmanned aerial vehicle, a.k.a. the drone. Now that using UAVs for image capture requires neither a small fortune nor extensive use of a soldering gun, many photographers have begun to recognize them as potential tripods in the sky.

Unfortunately, the high-flying dreams of aerial drone photographers have been shot down by the Federal Aviation Administration’s prohibition on using UAVs for commercial purposes. While recreational use of drones is legal in the U.S., the FAA has put commercial use of drones on ice while the process of drafting regulations and licensing requirements moves forward. FAA watchers expect final regulations to be delayed for at least another year.

To find out how UAVs are being used commercially by photographers, we looked outside of the U.S. to Chile, where the British-born photographer Matt Wilson has been integrating drones into his toolkit. Wilson began working with UAVs in 2012, and his two collaborators pilot the drone and monitor the location for potential hazards while he captures images. 

Wilson and his partners opted for a relatively large octocopter made by Quadrocopter, which allows Wilson to mount heavier, more advanced cameras to the UAV. He often shoots with a Sony NEX-5 for stills or a compact Blackmagic Pocket Cinema camera for video, sometimes mounting a Pocket Wizard transceiver to trigger Elinchrom strobes on the ground. Wilson controls the camera position with a gimbal mount, and shoots while viewing a wirelessly transmitted live-viewfinder image on a monitor.

Because Wilson specializes in working with the location-oriented wine and hospitality industries, his clients are a natural fit for drone photography. Wilson has been hired to produce aerial shoots of vineyards, hotels, and even a shopping center under construction by clients who would have found the significantly higher cost of paying for a helicopter excessive. Using a drone also gives him more flexibility to get exactly the angle and type of shot his client wants. “I used to shoot a lot with helicopters,” he says, “and the main difference with a drone is that we can do a vertical shoot now, which gives a different perspective.” 

Wilson licenses his aerial images to clients for use on websites, in brochures and in other marketing materials. He’s seen less direct demand from editorial clients, although some of his aerial images have made their way into magazines via his clients’ publicity packages. 

Photographers in the U.S. are also seeing a demand for drone photography coming from industries that have a strong interest in promoting themselves with images of specific locations, such as real estate, construction and tourism. Eric Cheng, an experienced UAV photographer who is also the director of aerial imaging for drone manufacturer DJI, points to a demand for more technical types of UAV photography as well. “In any industry you can imagine wanting regular aerial imagery that’s registered and applied to a map, we’re seeing a ton of interest,” he says. They can include agriculture, construction monitoring, utility inspection, search and rescue and security, and clients are typically in need of multiple images of large areas—sometimes over extended periods—to monitor developments. 

In Chile, Wilson has responded to the demand for technical imagery by adding an infrared camera to his kit. “We fly in a grid over a vineyard, for instance, which would cost tens of thousands of dollars in a helicopter but will cost a fraction of that with a drone,” he explains. “We can also do 3D mapping now. We fly back and forth shooting hundreds of stills, and then it can go into a computer and build a 3D map.” Wilson also gets frequent requests for aerial video, and many UAV image makers doing commercial work in countries where it’s legal offer both still and video services. 

Of course, making aerial photography radically more accessible presents new creative options for photojournalists, as well as advertising, editorial and fine art photographers. Photographer Romeo Durscher has enthusiastically embraced using UAVs to capture panoramic shots, including vertical panoramas shot from angles that would be impossible to achieve from the ground. Fellow drone enthusiast Nate Bolt even used a UAV for an interior imaging project—a motion shoot of the New York Public Library’s cavernous Stephen A. Schwarzman building. Scott Highton—who is a licensed pilot with lots of experience in aerial shooting—uses drones in his personal work to create interactive panoramas. “There’s just something magical about aerial views,” he says. “It’s a different perspective, and that’s what we’re all seeking in our work—a way to show something in a unique manner.”

Getting into UAV imaging isn’t for creative dabblers, however. Photographers who want to use drones in their personal work or gear up for the legalization of commercial drone use should expect to invest a substantial amount of time in learning how to operate a UAV safely and skillfully. Wilson and his collaborators spent six months learning to operate their equipment and work together as a team, and another eight months doing their own shoots before taking a commercial job. They limit their aerial work to locations that they can scout beforehand, carefully control the proximity of their drone to people and constantly monitor the site for obstructions and other dangers. “If any kids come along, we just bring it down right away,” says Wilson. “We’re very strict with ourselves about that.”

One of the most common problems for novice UAV operators is the flyaway, in which a drone that hasn’t been calibrated properly isn’t able to locate its home base and simply flies off in a random direction instead of returning to the pilot. “In 99.9 percent of the cases when it does happen, it’s user error,” says Durscher. Both he and Highton recommend that photographers interested in drone photography learn the basics of calibration and control through online video tutorials and forums before attempting a flight. “Then consider going out and buying one of the cheapest and simplest ones you can,” says Highton. “Take it to a safe place that’s not around other people or animals, where you’re not likely to damage property and you’re not near an airport.”

The UAV itself and the initial investment of training time aren’t the only startup costs to consider, either. A camera that is lightweight enough to mount on a drone, a gimbal and a wireless viewfinder system are on the list of other necessities. Once commercial use becomes legal, there will likely be training and certification costs, as well as a need to purchase insurance covering the equipment and any damage or injury it might cause. Repair and replacement costs are another factor, and while UAV prices can be expected to drop quickly as the technology advances, early adopters will pay a premium. 

Still, getting a bird’s-eye view is a tantalizing prospect for photographers who want to stay ahead of the curve and be ready to meet the market demand when regulations are put in place in the U.S. And once you’ve got the equipment and training, you can take a page from Wilson’s book and let your imagination fly free. On the gear list for his next creative project: a barrel of wine, a chainsaw, and a UAV.

Related: Up in the Sky: New DJI Drone Ready for Pro Camera Work