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Shooting From Above
In the last year, the popularity of flying a small remote-controlled drone that’s capable of lifting a GoPro camera has literally taken off. Most nature photographers have, by now, most likely seen a photo or video that was created by one. Perhaps you’ve even observed someone flying one at your local park or during your last photography outing. The aerial photo opportunities using this new technology are exciting and limitless, but not without a significant investment of time and money.
My hexacopter’s center hub is where all the components of my flight control system are located. The large center cube is my XAircraft SuperX flight controller, which contains the accelerometers that allow my copter to maintain its orientation. My black Futaba receiver with all those colorful wires coming out of it is connected to my SuperX I/O module underneath. When I give an input command from my radio remote control, this is where it’s received and processed. Also shown are my SuperX LED indicator, which blinks specific color patterns related to the flight mode and number of GPS satellites, the bottom of my GPS compass, and my OSD, which outputs my aircraft’s in-flight data via the wireless video transmitter (not shown). I personally attached every screw and plugged in every wire myself, which gives me intimate knowledge of my copter when troubleshooting.
The challenge of learning to fly a multirotor is one that most photographers will enjoy and soon feel comfortable doing. The initial gee-whiz novelty of flying eventually will be replaced by the more lofty ambition of using the aircraft as a photographic tool. These initial attempts will no doubt be disappointing to anyone who feels like they already know how to use a camera, but just try to remember that you’re learning an entirely new way of creating images.
After less than a month of flying a GoPro on my first remote-controlled quadcopter, I decided that I needed to upgrade to a larger aircraft that would be capable of lifting a high-resolution camera. I scoured the Internet for information and learned that I’d need to fly a much larger multirotor. I also started to realize that my budget might not meet my ambitions. In order to lift even a small DSLR, I’d need to fly a hexacopter or octocopter with heavy lift motors, large lithium-polymer (lipo) batteries and a camera gimbal. I found a few companies online that sold ready-to-fly (RTF) multirotors, but at a cost of between $6,000 and $10,000. Feeling discouraged, I started entertaining the idea that I could afford to buy all the parts myself and build my own hexacopter, which is exactly what I did. In full disclosure, I have an engineering degree, but didn’t know how to solder a connection when I made this naïve decision.
I also considered several factors that helped me define my multirotor’s mission parameters and helped set my expectations about what’s possible. Since I travel extensively as a professional photographer, I knew that my system needed to be transportable. I looked for an airframe that could easily fold up without requiring much disassembly. It needed to fit compactly into a hard case that could survive monthly trips to the airport and in the baggage hold of a commercial airplane. This led me to consider a 700mm diameter hexacopter over an 800mm or larger model. This medium-sized aircraft would also use lighter and more affordable motors, electronic speed controllers and 4S lipo batteries over heavier 6S lipos. The airframe that I’ve been successfully using the longest is the Tarot 690, which costs less than $200, is all carbon fiber, and when fully assembled, the rotor arms and legs quickly fold together. The motors, electronic speed controllers and propellers that I’m using cost about $75 per arm.
I concluded that if an accident were inevitable, I’d be unhappy about losing a $1,000 camera and lens, but at least not devastated by crashing my $5,000 5D Mark III. So, I settled upon flying a small, relatively affordable camera like the Canon EOS Rebel SL1. Eventually, I started using a lighter and more compact Canon EOS M mirrorless system. In the pursuit of flying an even lighter-weight camera, I’ve recently started using a Sony NEX-5 camera with a 16mm pancake lens. All of these cameras have APS-C sensors, which produce incredibly detailed 16- to 18-megapixel images. I’ve created prints of up to 24×36 inches that are sharp and look incredible.
The most important piece of technology for lifting all of this equipment into the air and keeping it aloft is the flight-control system. There are many options to choose from, including both proprietary and open-source software models. I initially purchased and flew a flight-control system from one of the better-known brands, but after experiencing two crashes using their technology, I switched to using XAircraft’s SuperX and have been flying successfully ever since. The components include the flight-control module, which contains the gyros for stabilization, a compass for navigation, the I/O module for plugging into the radio receiver to control the aircraft, and the OSD for viewing the copter’s in-flight data like voltage, distance, elevation and number of GPS satellites. The total cost of my SuperX system is about $700.
Once my camera is flying in the air, how do I know what it’s seeing? Using my camera’s Live View function, I output that signal to my SuperX’s OSD, which is then combined with the OSD’s flight data and sent through my wireless video transmitter. Next, I have a video receiver, which outputs the signal to a 5-inch LCD screen mounted on top of my radio controller. Thus, I can see the real-time view of my camera for first-person-view (FPV) flying and composing images.
Even though I’m using a super-wide-angle lens, there’s still a lot of movement and vibration affecting my camera. To overcome this, I use a gimbal that constantly uses its two motors to stabilize and keep my camera perfectly level no matter the orientation of my hexacopter. I can also control its pitch to adjust the horizon or even point my camera down at a 70º angle.
Before my camera leaves the ground, I set it in shutter priority mode to 1⁄500 sec. and choose an ISO of between 200-800, which typically yields an aperture of between ƒ/4 and ƒ/8. I also attach my Singh-Ray LB Warming Polarizer to my lens and keep it from rotating by using a small piece of duct tape. Once my camera is in the air, I can throw a switch on my radio that triggers an infrared shutter release. It then takes a picture every one second for as long as I hold down the switch.
The amazing thing about flying a remote-controlled drone is that I can photograph landscape patterns that are otherwise impossible to see. This beautiful image was created by flying my hexacopter above the Kapoho tide pools, which are located in the Puna District on the south end of the Big Island of Hawaii. This is a popular place to snorkel, but it doesn’t lend itself to being easily photographed from the ground. I flew several flights at various distances and altitudes before I discovered this beautiful composition about 300m out and 75m above once I pointed my Canon EOS M and EF-M 11-22mm ƒ/4-5.6 down at a 70º angle. I used my Singh-Ray LB Warming Polarizer to remove the reflection on the water’s surface in order to reveal the turquoise water and coral below the surface. My camera was set in shutter priority mode at 1⁄500 sec., and I selected ISO 800.
During my initial flights, I was enamored with this creative vision of photographing almost straight down onto my landscape subjects. I knew that many of the images I wanted to create would be similar to the satellite views that we’re used to seeing online or on our mobile devices on a daily basis. I thought that if it looked promising from the ground, maybe it would look even more impressive from the air. This isn’t always the case, however, and I’ve become better at identifying potential aerial photos simply by using the map application on my iPhone. Often, the best aerial subjects aren’t all that photographable from ground level, but only reveal themselves once my camera is in the air and looking down.
I still like to shoot down when I find a great subject for an abstract pattern image, but I’m increasingly shooting aerials of well-known subjects like beaches, mountains and sea stacks. Early on, I realized that these subjects were best photographed a few hours after sunrise or before sunset when contrast and shadows add texture and help define the terrain, rather than during the golden hour of diffuse light that I work with when shooting a long exposure on a tripod. I also needed to maintain my fast shutter speed, which is only possible in low-light situations by selecting a high ISO that produces an unacceptable amount of noise.
Photography using a remote-controlled multirotor is a challenging and rewarding way of creating unique imagery. It can also be disappointing, painful and even dangerous. However, the satisfaction is well worth the effort when this technology all works together to allow me to confidently position my flying camera and create beautiful aerial images.
This unique perspective of Wailua Falls on Kauai was achieved by visiting this popular overlook early in the morning before the tourist hordes descended and made flying my hexacopter too dangerous to do safely. I knew that if I flew my camera over to the other side of the canyon, I’d be able to photograph a rainbow in the mist at the base of the falls once the sun illuminated them. From the viewpoint, I hovered my copter about 175m out and 50m above the falls before angling my Canon EOS M and EF 22mm ƒ/2 STM almost straight down to achieve this oblique perspective.
Jon Cornforth is a photographer and OP blogger. See more of his work at cornforthimages.com, and go to the OP Daily Blog (outdoorphotographer.com/blog) to see more of his feature articles.