Personal Aerial Photography

A few thoughts from someone who has been doing it for a long time.

I’ve been doing aerial photography since I began flying helicopters, way back in the late 1990s. At first, it was a few digital images shot awkwardly with my left hand while my right hand was busy on the cyclic. Later, I went through a variety of different cameras mounted in and on the helicopter, some set to automatically shoot whatever was in front of them and others with limited control from inside the cockpit. I had a POV.1 camera in 2008, which I replaced with a GoPro Hero in 2010. Since then, I’ve had a variety of GoPros, right up to a GoPro 3+. (Even I get tired of throwing money at new versions of hardware.) I’ve created numerous still and video images from my helicopter, some of which still amaze me.

Great Salt Lake
This is one of my very favorite aerial photos: the north end of the Great Salt Lake, shot with a GoPro 3 mounted on the nose of my helicopter as I flew it south to Arizona last autumn. The camera was set to time-lapse mode, shooting one photo every minute. We were probably about 700 feet up here.

But the point of this discussion is this: I’ve been looking at the world from a different point of view for about 20 years now. It’s not the same point of view as an airliner cruising at 29,000 feet and 500 mph. And it’s not the point of view of a private plane cruising at 1,500 feet and 140 mph. It’s the point of view of a helicopter, usually cruising at an average of only 500 feet at 90 miles per hour, with the ability to stop, make sudden turns, or descend for a closer look.

Pilots get used to seeing the world from this different perspective. After a while, it isn’t anything special. We can get a feel for how different things might look from the air: a canyon, a river, a farm, a junkyard. That doesn’t mean it gets boring — it doesn’t. But it does mean that we don’t see anything special about it anymore.

Kind of sad, isn’t it?

That’s one of the reasons I like flying with first time passengers. I get a reminder of what it’s like to see things from a new perspective.

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But I was reminded again about the novelty of seeing everyday things from above when I watched a documentary on called “Flight Club: Drones and the Dawn of Personal Aerial Imaging.” Listening to the people explain how they felt when they saw these low-level aerial images really helped me understand just how amazing aerial photography is, especially to folks that don’t have a helicopter at their disposal — which, admittedly, is most people.

Folks who know me well know how anti-drone I was when they first started appearing on the scene a few years back. But what convinced me that they were serious photography tools is the quality of the images they produced and the ease at which an operator could get them. I dove into drone photography last winter with the purchase of a Mavic Pro and will be doing a lot more of it in the months to come.

If you are curious about drones for aerial photography, I highly recommend you spend 25 minutes or so watching the documentary I saw last night. I think you’ll enjoy it and learn a lot about why people are so excited about it.

If you do watch, let me know what you think.

4 thoughts on “Personal Aerial Photography

  1. Brilliant documentary. Lots of Phantoms and go-pros and many of those interviewed worked with DJI, but other drones are available…
    The scenes that hooked me in were the whale shots, flying through the ‘Arches’ and that long exposure stunning final image. Very creative, very skilled.
    I’ve been enjoying drones for three years now. I was a slow and careful learner and I have not crashed one of mine yet (only a matter of time).
    My neighbour’s grandsons saw my drone ascend from my back garden and they came round to ask if they could look. I said ‘fine’. They are 9 and 11 years.
    “Could we have a go?”
    I offered my cheap old Potensic thinking: ‘Am I nuts or what!?’ “Keep it nice and low”, I said.
    It took me a full day to fly with any confidence, they picked-up the skill, ab initio, in about four minutes. I am astonished at the neural plasticity of kids. The younger one did crash it but a new motor from Potensic took 30 minutes to fit and she is still airworthy.
    I think the best images are produced when one person pilots the drone and another controls the camera.

    Have you bought a new Mavic?

    • I did replace my Mavic. DJI gave me a good deal. And I know now how I lost it — totally pilot error (although I don’t know what I was thinking when I did something so dumb). I’ve been practicing with the new one, prepping for some work-for-hire over the winter months in Arizona.

      Kids are amazing. They can learn some things that us older folk struggle with. I think that’s because they grew up with video games that require a high level of eye-to-hand coordination.

      The Arches footage was amazing. Of course, all that is illegal now. You can’t fly a drone in ANY national park or monument in the US and there are many states (including Washington) that don’t allow them in state parks. It’s a shame, really, but also somewhat understandable. People can be pretty abusive with drones, flying too high or low, flying over people, annoying wildlife. What are these people thinking?

      The Mavic — and other relatively new DJI (and other?) drones — pretty much flies itself, making it very easy to fly and do photography at the same time. The other day, I experimented with its Point of Interest feature, where you specify a point, distance from it, and altitude. It then automatically flies around it, keeping the camera pointed at it. You can even set the flight speed and camera tilt angle. Amazing. It’s impossible to get bad footage using a feature like this and I expect to use it a lot this winter.

      I thought the documentary was a great way to explain what the excitement is all about to someone who doesn’t get it. For me, I didn’t get it until I saw footage my friend shot and got a chance to fly his Phantom 4. I was immediately sold.

  2. Glad you are having fun with your new drone.
    PoI sounds very clever.
    I was surprised that your National Parks have already banned drones. Your open spaces are so vast I can’t imagine that there would be a problem. I have been lost in a few of them up in Wyoming and Alaska. I can see that the South Rim of the GC might get too busy in the summer, parts of Yosemite maybe, but mostly they are huge areas, by UK standards, at least.
    Those guys who filmed their drone going through the Arches got away with it; or was that before the ban?

    • Their Arches fight was before the ban. The ban is only about 2 years old.

      I definitely agree about the vastness of our National Park. Last winter, I camped out near a remote sand dune area in Death Valley National Park. I was there for about 48 hours and saw only a handful of vehicles — including a ranger who stopped by to make sure everything was okay and some hikers who went out for a sunset hike and nighttime return. ( I didn’t see any wildlife. Surely it wouldn’t hurt anyone to get some nice aerial footage of that sand dune when no one was around, would it?

      Ditto for so many of the more remote areas of large parks like Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, etc.

      But it’s easier to make a blanket rule for an entire park than to set down logical rules and expect people to follow them. With more and more parks adopting these rules, soon there will be very few interesting places where drone flight is legal.

What do you think?