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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Get Above It All


Aerial imaging using consumer-level “drones” is now within reach of any photographer. In this first in a series of articles, we embark on the steps to get started.



This Article Features Photo Zoom

There has been a massive increase in interest in aerial photography and videography among photographers in the past year. Thanks to the inexpensive and easy-to-use DJI Phantom and GoPro cameras, the learning curve for getting into this kind of shooting has been dramatically shortened. Above: Eric Cheng travels around the world with his Phantom and GoPro setup. Here, the sailing vessel S/Y Bella Principessa sits photographed from above at Swallows Cave, Vava'u Islands, Tonga.

The camera sweeps low and steady across a field of large boulders, trees and a wide river whose water churns inexorably toward an unknown destination. Suddenly, the ground drops away revealing a thunderous waterfall. Millions of gallons of liquid are in free fall and a colorful rainbow arcs across the billowing mist.


The Phantom quadcopter with GoPro HERO3 camera attached.
During the entire history of photography, perspectives from above have been difficult, if not impossible, to capture without budgets large enough for the chartering of full-sized aircraft (helicopters and airplanes). Aerial imagery provides an unparalleled sense of scale and context to a story, but the challenges involved in achieving such shots have prevented most photographers from even attempting to get them. In the past few years, developments in a new form of remote-controlled unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) called "multi-rotors" have opened up easy-to-accomplish, aerial imagery to photography on a budget.

The Quadcopter That Changed Everything
In December 2012, a Hong Kong-based company called DJI Innovations released a ready-to-fly (RTF) quadcopter called the Phantom. Inexpensive, toy quadcopters had begun to be available on the market, but the DJI Phantom differed in that it targeted mainstream pilots rather than hobbyists wielding soldering irons. It was truly ready to fly out of the box, featuring a GoPro camera mount and a GPS flight mode that would hover the quadcopter in place, by default. Overnight, it made aerial imaging accessible to just about everyone.

DJI has since announced the Phantom II and Phantom Vision, which likely will be shipping by the time this issue hits newsstands. The new quadcopters feature more power and extended flight times, and the Phantom Vision includes a built-in camera and a mobile iOS app that supports real-time video previews, camera control and telemetry via a repeater that clips onto the transmitter (allowing for app-to-aircraft communication far beyond typical Wi-Fi range). Competitors have also emerged on both sides of the Phantom, including the Blade 350 QX ($469.99) on the toy/hobby side and the 3D Robotics Iris ($729.99), a proper "drone" with autonomy and open-source community support as emphases.


Cheng launching the Phantom from a Tongan beach.
The Phantom and its recent competitors are fantastic, entry-level UAS for aerial imaging because they hide a lot of complexity from the pilot. The Phantom, in particular, is to be commended; no other quadcopter has been around for a year of proven, reliable flight for so many beginner pilots.

It only takes a few minutes to set up the Phantom for flight, and its GPS flight mode allows a prospective aerial photographer to launch the quadcopter into a stable hover at any altitude without requiring advanced piloting skills. The Phantom comes with a GoPro camera mount and the mount supports both housed and unhoused GoPro cameras. Although an unhoused GoPro reduces payload weight, new pilots might want to fly with their GoPros housed to protect the camera during crashes. Lighter cameras are certainly available, but GoPros take both high-quality stills and video, and are a good value for their size and cost.

Setting Up For Flight
The Phantom comes packaged in a box that takes cues from Apple product packaging, and all one needs to do to get in the air is to screw on the landing struts, attach the propellers, put 4 AA batteries in the radio, and charge/attach the battery. The Phantom uses DJI's Naza-M flight controller, which DJI also sells as a standalone flight controller targeted at multi-rotor hobbyists. A Naza-M flight controller with GPS costs $399 by itself, which suddenly makes the Phantom especially attractive.

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