September 2017 was the month my photography journey changed. I decided to purchase a drone and attempt some drone photography. Why the drone? At the time, I was in a creative funk. I hadn’t been shooting for a good part of the summer. My inspiration for image making had dwindled. To put it simply, I was in a creative rut. From time to time I go through these phases, but this time I wasn’t feeling creative at all.
I was teaching a private processing workshop locally last summer. My client had some drone files that we processed during our session. The drone files were surprisingly decent. The images he had captured of the California coast were different. The aerial perspectives were very unique and rare. I hadn’t seen those perspectives anywhere before!
I couldn’t stop thinking of the different possibilities that could be out there with drone photography. The next day he invited me to out shooting with him and his drone. Within the first 30 seconds of the flight I was hooked! I was literally losing my mind… but in a good way. The emotions were similar to those of a kid in a candy store! I could already see the possibilities. Within three days, I had the Phantom 4 Advanced at my doorstep. And this is where my drone photography journey began.
Planning and Issues
Here’s where everything gets fun. The flying experience in exhilarating! There are buttons, menus, and icons all over the LCD! The first few flights are intimidating. With constant practice over the next several weeks, I was feeling more comfortable with the drone. I just kept taking baby steps. The next few months, I spent quite a bit of time viewing potential areas to fly on Google Earth. Believe it or not, I practically learned how to navigate/fly my drone via Google Earth.
The panning feature of the camera and navigation controls on Google Earth are very similar to those of the drone. Thinking back, it’s funny to me how something so simple like playing around on Google Earth essentially taught me how to fly the drone. With that being said, there were a few issues that were going to be problematic. The issues I recognized early on was the no fly zones, battery life, and flying/shooting conditions.
No Fly Zones
No Fly Zones are airspace restricted to drone use. National Parks, some state parks, all airports, and other designated airspace fall into these no fly zones. Air Maps and DJI Go applications allow drone users to view the no fly zone areas. And more importantly, where to fly legally and safely.
The U.S. Airspace Map at http://knowbeforeyoufly.org/air-space-map/ is another great resource for research in no fly zone areas. Typically I cross-reference areas I’ve looked at on Google Earth with two of the three applications mentioned. Also, with the latest firmware and software updates by DJI to the drones, the drones do not launch in no fly zones areas. A piece of advice… check before you fly.
The drone batteries started becoming an issue fairly quick. Battery specifications from DJI say approximately 30 minutes flying time. This is true if you’re flying within close proximity of your drone. I would say close proximity is 50-100 yards or less. The majority of landscapes I’ve flown over, a 100 yards didn’t scratch the surface of areas I explored and photographed. The problem was trying to fly the drone too far to a location. A three-mile flight to an area you want to photograph wasn’t a good idea. You couldn’t expect to have enough battery life to shoot and then fly back from the location. As a result, I was significantly reducing my time to photograph.
The solution for the limited battery life was to start hiking closer to my subjects. This actually helped tremendously. It gave me more flight time, extended exploration time, and more importantly, more time to photograph. If you can get within a mile or so of your subject, you’ll have approximately 20+ minutes of flying time, considering weather conditions and whatnot.
I can’t express the frustration of flying out to an area you want to photograph, only to have to fly back within several minutes due to low battery warnings. The conclusion here… get as close as you can to your subject and pre-plan your flights accordingly. Also…. 3-4 extra batteries is adequate for quality flying time.
Unlike our regular DSLRs, drone photography has advantages in certain conditions. Clear skies at sunrise and sunset provide nicely saturated landscapes with beautiful glowing warm and soft light… which is my favorite. This type of light really brings the landscape to life from the air. The colors mixed with the fading warm light are magical. Birds eye views shine in this type of light.
Another point I’ll make, is that the cameras on these drones do not handle flare well, so avoid shooting directly into the sun when possible. Overcast skies dapple the light and slightly mute the colors of the landscape. Birds eye views with this type of light can also be very unique. You can really emphasize textures and detail in this type of light.
Lastly, drones despise the wind! Strong winds affect the functionality of the drone. The high wind warnings that pop up on your screen will turn you into a nervous wreck. Like any other photo trip, checking the weather conditions is important, but one has to factor in the wind as well before you fly.
Summary and Final Thoughts
This is a brief summary of my experience of flying the drone over the past 10 months. The learning curve for me was a bit steep and it took a few months of practice to get comfortable flying. Each time, I went a little further and a little higher. I remained patient during the learning process. I didn’t even touch much on the processing of the drone files.
For the first several months, my processing of the files wasn’t great. I couldn’t get the tonality and colors dialed in how I wanted. There are color inconsistencies in shadowed areas and color casts problems that show up in the files from time to time. Like anything else with learning new concepts, patience, practice, and persistent are key. I kept experimenting and tinkering. Eventually, I realized that the drone files had to be handled with a “gentle hand”.
I am nowhere near an expert at drone photography by any means; I still consider myself novice at best. So I still have a long way to go to where I feel I have mastered this medium. There’s lots more to explore and photograph out there in the world. The experience of flying the drone has been exciting, fun, frustrating, overwhelming, nerve racking… but so rewarding at the same time. This is something creatively that I needed to experience. It is an experience that has continually helped me grow as an artist.
To view the entire drone gallery, please clink on the link below. There you’ll find unique and unseen aerial perspectives from various badlands around deserts of the Southwest.