Drones, unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, multirotor radio-controlled aircraft, quadcopters—whatever you call them, photographers who have taken their cameras to the sky are changing the way we see the world. As these devices get easier to fly and more affordable, we should expect to see more of them for a variety of uses. But with these devices comes the responsibility of keeping yourself and those around you safe, and following the laws and guidelines that are in place to ensure that safety. Drone User Groups are available in over a dozen states across the U.S., as well as in Australia, Africa and Europe, which offer educational events and a shared passion for the applications of this technology. The Internet also offers numerous resources to help prepare beginners for taking flight. To bring you even more insight into the various uses of drones and the safety measures that should be taken when flying them, we turned to some professionals who have years of experience using these devices for photography and videography.
If the name Eric Cheng sounds familiar, you may have seen DJI's YouTube video or the "Good Morning America" segment where he flew a DJI Phantom over the Bárðarbunga volcano in central Iceland as it was erupting. Being able to pilot the device safely from nearly a mile away while capturing some incredible footage (and accidentally melting the front of the camera as Cheng tried to get it closer) just shows us one of the many ways these devices can be used to get a new view of the world—from a safe distance.
"I love that perspectives from low altitudes are essentially completely unexplored," says Cheng. "Aerial imagery has traditionally been done from manned aircraft from much higher altitudes. As a result, audiences aren't yet used to seeing such perspectives, which means that image makers can easily create and share pictures that are completely new. Drones are also almost always outfitted with stabilized cameras; they actually shoot video footage that's much more stable than an operator would be able to get with normal, handheld cameras. In addition to new perspectives, they also offer the ability to capture uncannily stable footage, even in challenging environmental conditions."
Cheng is a perfect example of someone who did plenty of research and took the time to properly and safely practice flying these devices before taking them to the sky.
"I started watching the multirotor space back in 2006," he recalls, "but didn't actually build and fly one until about three years ago. I was interested in getting cameras up in the air, but wasn't willing to spend the vast majority of my time tinkering and building. I wanted to spend the majority of my time creating, and the technology wasn't really there until relatively recently. I started by flying toy RC helicopters, practicing my spatial orientation skills in my living room—and annoying my wife. Not long after, I started strapping inexpensive cameras to the bottom of the helicopters, but it wasn't until the DJI Phantom was released that I really started spending time flying with a camera. The Phantom was the first product that tipped the creation/tinkering ratio high enough for me to really commit to the art form."
While Cheng uses drones to primarily shoot video, he also enjoys shooting stills, and his preferred subject matter comes from his 10-plus years as a professional underwater photographer.
"There's something about the way cameras move in space when the vertical dimension is available that makes me prefer video from drones," he says. "My first love is the ocean, and I've photographed remote, tropical scuba diving locations from the air, as well as interesting nature spectacles like whale shark aggregations. I'd really like to do some work over marine mammals, but regulations get complicated when whales are involved, so I have, so far, avoided them."
As DJI's Director of Aerial Imaging and the General Manager of DJI San Francisco, Cheng may seem a bit biased when it comes to his preferred gear, but the technology offers ease of use and affordability that no photographer/videographer can deny.
"I'm a huge fan of the DJI Phantom and DJI Inspire," he notes. "They're the drones that are the closest to just being tools—you take them out of the box, put them up in the air and take pictures. It's not that I don't think that drones are fun to fly, but I've spent so much time flying them that I do just think of them as tools for certain kinds of shots. DJI Phantoms are relatively inexpensive, are compact enough to fit in large camera backpacks and can be deployed in a couple of minutes."
Cheng stresses the importance of two main points that you'll find repeated here: practice and safety. "The biggest safety concern is operator inexperience," says Cheng. "Because regulations currently allow anyone to pick one up and put it into the air, there are many in-experienced operators who put drones in situations that they can't handle. Drone technology is improving at an exponential rate, which means that they're sure to get safer and safer as products are refined, but at the moment, it's still easy to ask a drone to crash into another object. If you're interested in aerial imaging using a drone, I urge you to start slowly."
And when it comes to getting started, durability in your equipment is key. "You can pretty much assume that you'll crash any first drone you buy," warns Cheng, "so get something that's very durable. I also suggest starting by flying a drone that doesn't have an attached gimbal. Drones are generally quite robust and will survive crashes, but gimbals are fragile. I've written a getting-started guide at skypixel.org/gettingstarted, which lists some of the gear that I recommend for beginners."
"This is one of the biggest changes in photography since we went from film to digital" is something Barry Blanchard has found himself saying numerous times since he first got his hands on a DJI Phantom quadcopter with a GoPro mount. A jewelry designer by day and photography enthusiast in his free time, Blanchard became interested in quadcopters four years ago, and was thrilled when he was able to combine his love of photography with flying UAVs.
"It wasn't much longer after that, I found myself teaching top-tier employees of Adobe, Apple and Google just how fantastic this new view was," he says.
Blanchard, who's still a DJI user to this day, understands how exciting the thought of flying these devices is, but recommends to anyone who's starting out to do their research and learn the laws.
"Like any camera, it's just another tool," he notes. "I like to photograph the unusual, the unseen. My little masters of flight give me the ability to see the world at an angle that's never been viewed before. For the first time, anyone can see a bird's-eye view and easily record the moment for all to see.
"But common sense isn't always so common," Blanchard warns. "I'm an instructor at Photoshop World, and I highly suggest that anyone getting into aerial photography via small unmanned aerial systems (sUAS) take a class before embarking on their new journey. In my world, 'if something can go wrong, it just might' is fact. I tend to stay away from people when out and about. I study the laws in place, or suggestions, to the letter. Be it FAA or NOAA, I know the laws and will continue to adhere to them."
Blanchard advises that bigger and more expensive isn't always better, or safe, especially for new users. "Start small—the tiny units you find in hobby or convenience stores for $30," he says. "Don't go put $3,000 on a credit card just to get the latest and greatest thing because you feel you're going to make some big bucks in the real estate market. That's not the way this is done, and it hasn't been approved yet—for just anyone—by the FAA here in the United States."
Blanchard also recommends that the best way to become a safe UAV pilot is to practice, practice, practice. "Fly often, and have fun," Blanchard stresses. "Like all things in life, practice leads to perfection. A fellow enthusiast nailed it for me: I would never call someone an 'expert' in this field unless they have been flying nearly daily for two-plus years."
Blanchard compares learning the rules and regulations of flying UAVs to getting a driver's or pilot's license. "Know your local and federal laws," he says. "It's your responsibility to take the initiative by researching what's legal for your area. Someone wanting to get a pilot's license would be taught such simple rules. Just like driving a car, there are things in place to learn. If you don't, you may just get yourself into a situation you'll later regret."
Blanchard's journey into aerial photography has been an incredibly rewarding opportunity that he hopes others venture into, and while having fun, also take it seriously. "This emerging hobby has been nothing short of a great ride for me," he says. "I can only hope that any of you reading this will receive that great joy and education I've experienced. Fly often, fly safe, and by all means, show the world the pictures you take. I love what I do, and I do it often."
Oregon-based Rhianna Lakin has spent the last 15 years traveling between the U.S. and Southeast Asia, residing the majority of time in Indonesia on the island of Sumatra. After experiencing several devastating natural disasters, including one that wiped out the village she lived in, Lakin developed an interest in aerial drone photography and videography for its humanitarian, conservation and search-and-rescue applications.
"I remember wishing I could do more to help with disaster relief," says Lakin. "I felt so helpless during these traumatic events. So when I saw my first aerial video taken by a drone, I thought, wow, this kind of technology could be used to help in disaster relief, monitoring the jungle and conservation, as well as an array of other applications I'm passionate about. It was at that moment that I knew I wanted to fly. I was given a job opportunity by a local company that sold drones and have done all I can in the last three years to develop my skills."
She founded the Amelia Dronehart RC Copter Group, an international group of women who are involved in the unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) industry, with the goal of inspiring other women to get involved with using this technology for good and highlighting its positive applications.
"I personally think there are a lot of things that pose bigger safety risks than consumer drones," says Lakin. "The problem is that the media has an agenda to feature drones in a very negative light; they blow stories out of proportion and choose to breed fear into the general public about privacy and safety. Could there be safety risks associated with drones? Sure, there are safety risks associated with almost everything, but we still move forward with the technology when the positive uses outweigh the safety concerns."
Lakin has always stayed as far off the grid as possible when flying, as you can see by her Instagram photos of remote waterfalls, forests, mountains and beaches. And she jumps at any chance to use drones to help others.
"I recently used my copter to help search for a missing hiker," she says, "and I'll return to Indonesia in May to use it for conservation work. I'm fascinated by the endless positive uses and feel excited about my future in drones."
When it comes to gear, Lakin says the DJI Phantom series and their new Inspire 1 are the most popular and user-friendly copters on the market. She also recommends the 3D Robotics IRIS+, which offers greater flexibility for those who are more technical.
When she was starting out, Lakin says, "I practiced in wide-open spaces where there were no people around. I also tested the built-in fail-safe modes that most drones are equipped with. I'd recommend that new users join one of the many Facebook groups or online forums. Most cities have RC pilot groups with designated flying fields, and it's helpful to find these and fly with experienced pilots."
And, echoing what we've heard from the other professional drone users: "They should also spend time reading the manual!"
It's been an interesting journey for Lakin, who found a way to take her passions to a whole new level in just three short years. "As a single mom who was never interested in technology or photography, it has surprised me to find out how much I love flying," she says, "and it has really turned me on to photography. Having a 'flying camera' to take on my adventures is so exciting. Exploring has always been a way of life for me, and aerial photography just fits that lifestyle so well."
Colin Smith is a UAV aerial imaging expert, the founder of PhotoshopCAFE.com, and the creator of the best-selling DJI Phantom Drone—Aerial Video and Photography Handbook and free drone tutorials at PhotoshopCAFE.com/drone. Given his expertise, it's interesting to learn how he got into it in the first place: He was asked by Russell Brown from Adobe to teach a drone workshop with him at Photoshop World and, having never flown a drone before, decided he'd better learn how!
"I procured some gear and started flying," he says. "Little did I know that I would be so hooked, to the point of flying on an almost daily basis, two years and six quadcopters later—I still have the six; I only lost my first one in the ocean."
A video and still shooter, Smith's favorite subject is the coast of Southern California, which explains why the ocean claimed the life of his first quadcopter, but he clearly got the hang of it.
"There's so much beauty along the Southern California coasts," he notes. "I love to fly early at sunrise when there's no one around or during our spectacular California sunsets. The view is breathtaking, and it makes for some very interesting images and footage. I also shoot aerial video while we're doing photo shoots and production work to gather a unique vantage point."
Smith reiterates how drones are changing the landscape of photography and videography. "What I love the most about using drones is the flexibility to put a camera where it was previously impossible," he says. "I'm not so worried about getting it way up, 400 feet in the air, and replicating what you can do with a helicopter. Everyone starts going as high as they can, and then the novelty of a high shot quickly wears off. I like to get in close and compose the shot using altitude, as well as distance—many of my drone shots aren't immediately obvious that they were shot with a drone, but it would be impossible to place a camera and get these shots any other way. It's total freedom to compose a photograph any way you want. This has never been possible before without some limited use of cranes, but a drone can do so much more than a crane at a fraction of the cost."
Smith recommends two different configurations for drone aerial photography. The first, he notes, is "the Phantom 2 Vision+, which is ideal for taking photographs. You see what the camera sees and remotely control the camera using a smartphone. You can compose the shot perfectly and shoot up to 14 megapixels in DNG Raw. I use this for my still and high-resolution panorama work. It can also shoot reasonable quality, very stable 1080p video because it has a 3-axis gimbal built in. The video quality is fine, but not good enough to pull stills from the clips.
"For video, I prefer the Phantom 2 with the 3-axis Zenmuse Gimbal, either the H3 3D, which carries a GoPro 3+, or the H4 3D, which can carry a GoPro HERO4 camera. The GoPro cameras shoot higher-resolution video, up to 4K, and you can extract very good-quality still frames from the video. I've set up FPV [first-person view] on the GoPro. It streams a live signal to a monitor—a Black Pearl with built-in wireless receiver—and I can see what the camera sees, as well as flight data, or telemetry, with an iOSD. You can't control the GoPro camera remotely, so you either have to start video recording or shoot time-lapse photos before you start flying."
While the experienced drone user will tell you that the safety concerns are really just common sense, a quick Google search will prove that not everyone possesses that trait when operating UAVs in public. So, to drive that point home, Smith stresses that users shouldn't "fly above 400 feet, near an airport and when there are aircraft in the area. Don't fly close to or over people or animals. Don't fly in high winds or limited visibility. Always keep a clear line of sight, and stay away from power lines and other obstacles. Make sure that children keep well aware, and don't let their little fingers get close. Always be aware of your surroundings while flying. Don't fly while intoxicated or medicated, and stay away from built-up areas. Generally, just obey the rules and respect other people's privacy, property, and right to peace and quiet."
Once a user is comfortable flying and can do so safely, Smith says to keep the rules of photography at the forefront. "Try composing photographs using the element of altitude," he notes. "Look at how near subjects are cutting the horizon line; now have control over this for the first time ever. Try some low shots, some high shots. The rules of photography—composition, lighting and storytelling—are just as important as ever with this new photography tool. You can also make some great panoramas by yawing, or rotating, your drone between images."
And, for video, Smith says, "The key is to make slow, smooth moves and avoid sudden movements or rotating too suddenly—these will ruin a perfect shot very quickly. Plan your shots, and fly accordingly. Think in shots rather than one big shoot. Line up your drone, fly smoothly, and close out your shot, following through. Then go for the next shot, one at a time."
Growing up in the small town of Kailua, located on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, Jimmy Wilkinson made the most of island life by learning surfing and photography. After someone used a drone to film him and his friends surfing on the North Shore during a spring swell, Wilkinson's curiosity was piqued.
"I checked out his rig, asked a bunch of questions and then started doing the research," recalls Wilkinson. "I got my first one a couple months later in May 2014."
Ever since, Wilkinson has been shooting mountains, ocean, beaches, islands—you name it—and founded OpticalHI, which offers photography and video services. "Living in Hawaii," he says, "we're blessed with incredible weather, lighting and scenery, which is a photographer's dream. I know of countless places that would be a great spot to shoot, and I can go to a spot that has been photographed a million times by locals and tourists alike, and get a unique view that literally no one has ever seen before. It has allowed me to rediscover Hawaii all over again and show it to the world."
Wilkinson captures that unique view with the DJI Phantom 2 Vision+ because of its versatility.
"Right out of the box, it has FPV via the DJI app that allows me to shoot stills with its 14-megapixel camera, and then with a touch, I can switch to 1080p video if the scenario calls for it. It's compact and light enough for me to put in a backpack and go to any spot that I want to launch the drone. For shots that I don't need to trek to, I'm considering getting the DJI Inspire 1, which has some incredible new features."
With such relatively new technology, Wilkinson understands the importance of gaining experience and being aware of his surroundings, especially with numerous tour and rescue helicopters to watch out for around the island.
"I have to be aware of where my drone is at all times, and I always keep my eyes and ears open for any aircraft that may be entering my airspace," he says. "There's a lot to remember once it's in the air, so you want the remote control in your hands to be second nature so you don't panic in case something happens while flying. This is technology that's rapidly growing in popularity, and we want to make sure drones aren't banned due to misuse."
To gain that second-nature control, Wilkinson says it's important to "read the entire instruction manual front to back, and read all the laws and regulations in your city and state before you even attempt to fly it. Make sure you completely understand how your drone works and never rush to fly it. Start slow, and learn the fundamentals of flying in large open fields, preferably with no one else around. Above all, have fun, use common sense, and start seeing the world from a whole new perspective!"
San Diego native Aldryn Estacio feels like he has rediscovered his hometown since beginning to fly drones. An event/family/lifestyle photographer for 10-plus years, Estacio started flying quadcopters towards the end of 2013 when the DJI Phantom 1 was still fairly new.
"When I put a GoPro on my Phantom and saw this new dimension open up, I was instantly hooked," he recalls. "The best thing about using drones is perspective. Even low-altitude flights create an amazing new and dramatic perspective."
Estacio now uses this perspective to create large vertical and horizontal panoramic photos. "I love doing large-format prints, so doing multiple image compositions are a must," he says. "I used to do a lot of videography and editing in the past, but photography is where I put more of my focus."
One of the major lessons Estacio's experience flying drones has taught him is having patience. "I understand that it's an exciting field," he says, "but taking shortcuts is where things go wrong. People need to understand that this is still emerging technology. Avoid crowds, keep line of sight and, simply, take your time and do a full preflight checklist. Once you're one with the craft and orientation, then experiment. Until then, don't be in any rush."
For anyone starting out, Estacio recommends a trainer indoor drone like a Hubsan, and once that's mastered, move up to a DJI Phantom and then to an Inspire or S-series drone. But, according to Estacio, the wait is definitely worth it.
"Flying the new DJI Inspire has been unreal," he says. "It's so stable in the air that I literally have a tripod in the sky. Their products are amazing out of the box and are extremely user-friendly. The drone market has exploded, and I feel that everyone is playing catch up to DJI, as they have jumped so far ahead of the competition. Their products are rock-solid, and they're always innovating."
Once a user has the piloting down, Estacio says it's time to go back to basics and remember why you wanted to get a camera up there in the first place. "Keep it simple!" he notes. "Some of the best photos are some of the simplest ones. Some of the best videos have minimal movement, pans or even edits. Keep flying and shooting all the time because everything you take will be one of a kind."
Peter Sachs, Esq., a private investigator and attorney, and founder of the Drone Pilots Association and dronelawjournal.com, has been a manned helicopter pilot since 1983, but began flying drones for their ease of use and relatively low price point. "Helicopters are way too expensive to rent, if you could even find a place to rent one, so I've been flying drones for about three to four years," he says. "It's far cheaper, safer, and allows me to get the photos I want to capture quickly and easily, from a unique perspective that can't be otherwise taken, even using manned aircraft."With his expertise as a legal professional, and as a drone operator, Sachs offers the following advice.
1 The major safety concerns when operating drones are the aeronautical knowledge and skill level of the drone operator. Only he or she can assure that each drone flight is flown safely and responsibly. Those lacking that knowledge and skill shouldn't fly drones.
2 New users should read the device's full manual several times. Practice often in a large and open area free from obstructions. Familiarize yourself with restricted airspace so you can stay out of it at all times.
3 Stay abreast of current news/regulations/restrictions at dronelawjournal.com, which reflects the current state of federal law.
4 Hobbyists are currently requested to voluntary abide by the suggested guidance of FAA Advisory Circular AC 91-57 (www.faa.gov/documentLibrary/media/Advisory_Circular/91-57.pdf).
5 Commercial operators have no federal law to follow at this time. They will in the future, when the FAA's proposed rule for small drones is finalized, but that's several years away. The FAA claims commercial operators must obtain a Sec. 333 Exemption to operate commercially, which are expensive and very restrictive to use. Although a commercial operator may, in fact, apply for an exemption, if they wish to, the FAA has never once taken enforcement action against any drone pilot merely for operating commercially. So, in Sachs' opinion, there's little incentive to apply for an exemption.