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Working Drones into my Adventure Shoots

Drones have drastically altered the way that I see a location.  Quite literally they add a new dimension to my work, and have opened up entirely new ways for me to look at a landscape.  The only problem is that I have probably gained a few pounds since I started using them.  I don’t always have to jog 300 feet up a fixed line to photograph climbers anymore, now I can just send the drone. Instead of hiking up a mountain for a nice overview of a landscape, I can send the drone. Instead of paddling out into a bay to shoot paddle boarding, I can just send the drone.

I’m being dramatic. I don’t always send the drone, but the fact is that they have gotten so easy to fly and the photos are quality enough that it’s become a really valuable tool in my kit.  There are plenty of times that it makes sense for me to be “lazy” because the drone angle is actually better than the alternative.

My most recent campaign for ACCESS Collective involved driving 1,000 miles to the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula shooting in some of the most remote deserts and coastlines in North America. As remote as it is, the story of a Baja road trip has been done. Telling that story in a new way became a challenge that I thought the drone would really be able to throw a new twist on.

Tools like these are great when you don’t rely on them for everything. At least for now, drones don’t compare to a DSLR and sweating it out to get into position, but they have opened up a range of angles that until now were only obtainable by helicopter or paraglider.

The following are a few images that illustrate how drones have altered the way that I shoot an adventure campaign.

Take unique images of often-photographed places


One of the clients on the ACCESS Baja campaign was ISLE Surf and SUP.  The goal was to get some unique shots of the famous Cabo Arch, but being unique in a place that is so well photographed can be challenging. I launched the drone directly from the boat and got a rare aerial view of Lizzy Coghill paddling through the arch. The image, of course. came with a risk—landing the drone on the bow of the boat as the swell pushed us around was challenging and ended up requiring leaving the drone in a hover and catching it as the boat drifted up to it.

Look for things that aren’t visible from the ground


It was late afternoon, and we had stopped shooting because the light wasn’t ideal. On my way down the beach to pass the time surfing, I noticed that my shadow was the perfect length for this aerial image—it wasn’t distorted or elongated.  Even though it doesn’t show a clear image of the surfboard, the mood is captured and the brand loved the image. Not every commercial photo needs to show logos; sometimes you can just show the feeling that they’re trying to capture.

Drones are great for angles that are just out of reach


When people first start to shoot with drones they have a habit of sending them up as high as possible. What I’ve found in practice, is that sometimes you don’t want to overdo it. The drone can used to reach a vantage point that is only just out of reach. This image could easily have been taken from a boat, but we didn’t have one.

Using drones to capture landscapes


The fact of the matter is that unless you’re willing to drop thousands of dollars, drone cameras can’t match the quality of a DSLR. With that in mind, I don’t think that the landscape images taken with drones will be as fantastic as the ones you take from a tripod. That said, without a drone, I wouldn’t have been able to get this image that shows the way that the sand undulates in Ballandra Bay unless I rented a plane. My drone folds up to the size of a water bottle, which means I can stash it in my camera bag, and it’s always available. Drones should not be viewed as a way to get out of putting some sweat equity into finding a better angle, but when that angle is impossible, they can be the only option.

The takeaway from all of this is that drones are here to stay. They’ll make themselves more and more necessary as we find new ways to use them and the quality of the images continues to improve. We still have to deal with small sensors and limitations on the focal length unless you want to spend 10k on a drone that can carry your DSLR. That said, it’s worth throwing one into your pack.

I didn’t exclusively shoot with the drone in Baja, but I did end up using it more often than I had expected. To see more of the images from Baja and a lot more from the drone, take a look at my Instagram feed.