Since I’ve loved flying and been a licensed private pilot for more than 30 years, and an aerial photographer for the past 15 years, I’ve been paying attention to the fast-moving developments surrounding Unmanned Aerial Systems – UAS or UAV(ehicles) – more commonly called drones. I wanted to know what other photographers are thinking about the current state of drone photography and how it’s impacting their business, good or bad. I sent five questions to two other photographers who are using drones and asked their opinion, then I answered my own questions too.
- Cameron Davidson is a corporate, editorial, and advertising photographer in Alexandria, VA, just outside Washington, DC. He’s been photographing a mix of aerial and ground-based images for more than 30 years and has recently started shooting from drones, although he continues to shoot aerials from helicopters as well. www.camerondavidson.com
- Rob Miller is a commercial photographer in Spokane, WA, the second largest city in Washington state but well-removed from the Seattle metro area some six hours away. For ten years Rob’s specialized in architecture, interior design, and real estate photography, while also completing a variety of other corporate work. He's shot a couple of helicopter aerial jobs in the past, but has recently added, and is embracing, drone photography to the mix. www.rlmillerphoto.com
- And I’m Andrew Buchanan, a 20-year architectural and interior photographer in Seattle shooting mostly for architecture, construction, and engineering firms in the fast-growing Puget Sound region. I’ve also been shooting aerial images from helicopters for 15 years and I’m the drone skeptic in the group. I’m not convinced they’re a legitimate tool for high-quality, commercial photography. www.subtlelightphoto.com
Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.
When did you first start flying a drone and why? What was the learning curve like? How long before you shot your first commercial project with a drone?
Cameron Davidson: Four years ago. I bought a Phantom 1 and promptly crashed it within a week. More out of curiosity than anything else. At first, the learning curve was tough. I lost a Phantom 1 in a National Park (this was before the ban) because I forgot to set a home point and the drone lost power fighting a down slope wind. It now resides in a tree in a hollow in Virginia. There are those that have crashed drones and there are those that will crash drones – it’s inevitable. I shot my first commercial job with my Inspire 1 last year. As soon as I received my 333 exemption, I started shooting projects with the quadcopter. I now have the 333 and 107 exemptions.
Rob Miller: In mid-2015 my clients began to ask about drones. I had a couple of helicopter photography flights under my belt at that time but only for larger commercial clients due to the added cost of helicopter charters. The idea of flying my camera around on a drone was very appealing as it [seemed safer], was less cost to my clients, and while it was primarily for work purposes it also sounded like fun. I did not hold a traditional pilot’s license so I called the 3-4 people in my area who were certified with 333 exemptions, pilots licenses, and aviation insurance and asked them to work together. I flew with a number of them until the new part 107 rules were released. In most cases, we flew the Inspire 1 Pro in dual operator mode which allowed me to work with the pilot to position the aircraft, then I would move the camera and frame the shots independently. This way I learned the rules, the controls, and got familiar with what can be done with the aircraft. Since I passed the Part 107 test I have transitioned to mostly flying my own drone in single operator mode but I do still work with some other local pilots when there is a need to operate with two controllers.
Andrew Buchanan: I’ve only flown a hobby drone once or twice for fun in the back yard, but I’ve been a licensed private pilot since I was 15 although my license isn’t current. For the last 15 years, I’ve worked with a local helicopter company to shoot 6-12 aerial jobs per year from small two- or four-seat helicopters. Understanding air traffic control from my pilot training helps me plan my shoots most efficiently and work with the pilots to position the helicopter right where I want it. While 2-seat helicopters run around $300/hr here in Seattle, I really only need 10-15 minutes above a location to get a big variety of images. Plus, they’re incredibly efficient getting from A to B at 80-100mph in a straight line above traffic. Contrary to what many clients think, I can shoot a project within 30-40 miles of my airport for only about $300-350 in flight charges.
Do you have a preferred drone platform? Why that one? Positives and limitations?
CD: DJI is making great strides and I've been pretty happy with my Inspire 1. It seems to be the best of the lot and offers good support, too. I also own the P 4 Pro - which is a pretty nice little ship. I am considering the Inspire 2. I bought a 3DR Solo and promptly returned it when the software would not function properly. The ALTA system looks incredible as does the larger DJI ships. For now, the DJI integration works well. Since DJI purchased a majority share in Hasselblad, I may wait a generation to see if there is a 30 meg plus ship in the future. As for plusses and minuses, everything works 99% of the time but I’m still dealing with small chips that get noisy above ISO 200. With the Inspire 1 you need to test your lenses.
RM: My first UAS was the 3DR Solo and while I love the way it flies, the GoPro was a big limitation for me due to the fisheye effect and mediocre image quality. I have been very impressed with just about everything that DJI has released however. In addition to the Solo, I now own an Inspire 1 and will probably get a second one as a backup. After that I will consider adding the Mavic for its portability.
AB: First let’s be clear that there’s a huge range of drones available, from inexpensive beginner drones to large aerial platforms with cinema-quality cameras that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Mostly what we’re talking about for these purposes are those made by DJI, Parrot, and other similar sellers and run from $500-2500 dollars, altough the new DJI Inspire 2 with the Zenmuse camera that Cameron mentions below is listed at $6200 on B&H. Most have their own on-board cameras, but the less expensive ones are designed to carry a GoPro or similar small action camera. In either case, the lenses tend to be a fixed wide angle, or ultra-wide angle, and the image resolution is good, but not great — typically maxing out around 4000 pixels. Lenses on cheaper drones don’t accept filtration and the file format for still photos is typically limited to jpegs, although nicer drone cameras are starting to shoot in .dng. Some have pivots for independently controlling the camera in one or two axes (rotating, or tipping up and down), but many cheaper ones require framing of these ultra-wide angle shots simply by re-positioning the drone. And have you ever seen a vertical image shot from a drone? For me, the creative and photographic limits of this caliber of aerial photography leave a lot to be desired.
Has offering drone photography to clients expanded your jobs, or have you seen it take away from your helicopter-based aerial jobs, if you ever shot those?
CD: A few clients are asking me to include drone aerials in location shoots. It has taken away from helicopter projects. I know of a well-known and highly-respected helo film pilot in the deep south who did not fly a single still photo flight last year. A pilot asked me last year why I still shot from helicopters - he had lost most of his photo flight business to photographers flying drones.
RM: Having the drone offering has expanded my capabilities dramatically. Many of my jobs are exclusively for aerial work with the drones. We can get much closer to the subject and come away with stable, smooth video and high quality images right out of the camera. It’s still a supplement to other forms of video and stills but gives my company a very well-rounded offering of services. On the other hand, having to wait very long periods for the FAA to approve airspace authorizations causes some of my work to still be done via helicopter.
AB: I have lost a few new jobs to drone photographers but my regular stable of aerial clients are sticking with my helicopter version. I think many clients assume drone photography must be lots cheaper. If I get the chance to explain the costs and also the licensing and regulatory requirements to fly a drone legally and safely, and also what I feel the technical limitations of drone photography are, then I find even potential new clients are willing to hear me out on why I’m not shooting with drones yet and to consider shooting aerials from a helicopter.
How do you feel about the technical limitations of still photos from drones? Are the smaller camera sensors and fixed lenses limiting, or have they achieved a technical and quality level whereby it’s irrelevant for most clients?
CD: The small digital chip is the biggest problem. A 35m size chip with 30 + megs would go a long way to making work easier and significantly better quality. Quality, for my clients, is never irrelevant. I'm finding Capture One does a good job with the Inspire 1 Zenmuse X5 chip and with the Phantom P4 Pro (the 1" chip).
RM: The technology has matured fairly well. DJI now has the Z3 camera with zoom capability and the X5 series cameras have 16 MP micro 4/3 sensors with interchangeable lenses. In addition to DJI’s proprietary offerings, the category of “heavy lift” drones can carry your full size DSLR or even a cinema camera such as a RED or Black Magic series with relative ease. The Inspire 2 now offers what was previously only available in high end aerial cinema equipment including obstacle avoidance, separate cameras for pilot and camera operator, 5.2K CinemaDNG RAW footage, flight time of 27 minutes, and a top speed of 58 MPH. My architectural photography clients still love traditional ground images shot by cameras with larger sensors but have also begun to add aerial shots too. I have not yet heard any complaints when this combination is delivered.
AB: The technology involved in flying, positioning, and navigating these drones is pretty awesome. Combined with cameras capable of full-HD and even 4k video, they offer incredible opportunities for aerial video. But when it comes to the higher resolution needs and the motion-less nature of still photography, the cameras on these platforms still seem pretty primitive to me. When shooting from a helicopter, I can use the same cameras and lenses I use for ground-based shoots; I change lenses from super-wide to telephoto as often as I want; and I’m shooting in RAW format on a full-frame sensor for maximum post-processing and output options. Basically, I’m putting my very same gear, experience, and workflow to work making great, creative images just as any of us would on the ground. For me, the technical limitations of still image files shot with a drone camera don’t justify the cutting-edge platform of the drone itself, not when there's a good alternative. Now that DJI owns a majority of Hasselblad as Cameron mentioned, we might be in for a welcome technical revolution. Until then, I have yet to see a drone platform that offers comparable still image quality, gives me the same creative control as a handheld camera from a helicopter, and that’s affordable for what my clients are comfortable paying.
Lastly, when you use a drone on a job lately, are the drone photos usually the main deliverable of that job or are they part of a package to supplement other types and viewpoints? In other words, are clients hiring you specifically for drone photography or are the drone photos mostly additional services to a job you would otherwise shoot?
CD: For most jobs, it is part of a bigger package. I shoot a lot of large landscape - either corporate, industrial or environmental and the drone photographs are usually part of the complete set of images. Right now, clients are hiring me for my vision and it does not matter how I deliver it. The drone is another tool in the tool box. I've had clients ask me to shoot aerials over cities with a drone and I've moved them over to why we should shoot from a turbine helicopter - safety being the biggest concern.
RM: My clients hire for a good combination of both. I recently put together an aerial-only video and still image package for a land developer with 10 acres to sell, and the next week did a marketing package for another client with the full offering of aerial and ground images and video. It makes a very good supplement to what we already do but can also be the primary reason you get hired in today’s marketplace.
AB: I typically shoot 6-12 aerial photo jobs per year, and I’ve not lost any of those to drone photographers – at least that I know of. The aerial jobs I shoot tend to be primarily just that – aerial photo jobs. Very occasionally a client will take me up on an offer to include an aerial shoot as an add-on to a larger job, but my aerial photo jobs tend to be more specific to that niche.
Regardless of your choice of aerial platform, please use this post only as a reference and a starting point for your own research and preparation. It is every pilot's individual responsibility to know and follow all relevant safety regulations to keep the skies safe for all of us. For more information on the regulations for the commercial use of drones for photography or other purposes, see our post What You Need to Know About Flying Drones Commercially.