A Buzz in the Air: The Evolution of Aerial Photography

May 7, 2015

By Theano Nikitas

The past couple of years have seen a growing cadre of pilots—quadcopter pilots, that is.

Colloquially known as drones or “birds,” the formal designation (according to the FAA) of these small flying machines is Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS). Regardless of the name, the popularity of quadcopters has grown exponentially as more multirotor devices have become available. Some—like the DJI Inspire 1—come equipped with an integrated 4K camera, while others are adaptable to a variety of camera models from GoPro, Sony and more. Needless to say, quadcopters have opened up an entirely new point of view for photographers, videographers and cinematographers.

Aerial footage—whether video or still—offers a unique perspective that can be used to raise the bar in your photography. This gorgeous image was captured in the Bahamas. All photos © Chris Crumley Productions, Inc.

We spoke with three videographers/photographers who are using quadcopters to capture aerial footage; all three expressed similar reasons for purchasing drones. Ray Roman, CEO/Creative Director of Ray Roman Films, who specializes in wedding videography, picked up his first quadcopter—the DJI Phantom—last summer, and currently owns the DJI Phantom 2 (GoPro version) and the DJI S1000 (which he equipped with the Canon 5D Mark III and 24mm lens). “I mainly wanted to enhance our films with some epic aerial establishing shots,” Roman explains.

Similarly, San Francisco-based wedding videographer Sigmund Reboquio of REB6studios added aerial footage in 2014, because “I think that it adds a little bit of flair to my films,” he says. “I have shot so many weddings, and it gets boring at times, so I took the plunge to invest in one and it actually paid off. My clients love it!” Reboquio’s current quadcopter gear includes the DJI Phantom 2 with the GoPro HERO4, along with the Zenmuse H3-3D gimbal, first person view (FPV) monitor and Futaba controller.

Chris Crumley, of Chris Crumley Productions, Inc.—a well-established underwater photographer whose expertise extends above water as well—purchased his first quadcopter in mid-2013, to “have another perspective for photography,” he says, “to give me another point of view.” Crumley currently shoots aerial video and stills with a DJI Inspire 1 and its onboard camera.

Filmmakers have long used establishing shots to to communicate information to the audience—location, time of day or simply setting the mood for what comes next. Likewise, with the proliferation of quadcopters, videographers and photographers have the ability to establish a setting with aerial shots of beautiful scenery surrounding a venue or of the venue itself.

The ultimate party favor—a “dronie.” This aerial selfie was captured from a height of about 75 feet in Virginia Beach.

Roman currently uses aerial footage to “enhance the films” that he produces for his wedding clients. Visually, he prefers “using the drone around coastal areas—beaches that have rocks and mountains in the background look great,” he says. “Once legislation is released [see sidebar at right] and we acquire the proper licenses, we will definitely offer this service as an add-on.”

Similarly, Reboquio explains that while aerials are generally used as establishing shots, “we’ve also used [aerial footage] to do creative shots of the bride and groom,” incorporated to end the film. At outdoor weddings, Reboquio may also shoot aerially during the bride’s procession and incorporate the clip into the final film.

But, like other unique perspectives and techniques, aerial photography is best used with restraint. “These drone shots shouldn’t be overused,” Roman says. “If I can use one or two shots in a film to raise the production value, that’s usually perfect.”

Although Crumley’s not a wedding photographer, he’s been shooting myriad scenarios with his Inspire 1, including the models in his Mermaid Portfolio Workshops in Mexico and the Exuma Keys. His overhead images include mermaids swimming or interacting with whale sharks.

Adept at shooting both underwater and above water, Chris Crumley captured this visually stunning aerial shot of a “mermaid circle” during his Mermaid Portfolio Workshop.

But Crumley says that real estate photography is also a hot market begging for aerial coverage. “People are clamoring for aerial footage of properties, whether it’s residences for sale or part of marketing programs for other businesses where the building is an important piece of what they’re selling—resorts, boats, marinas,” he says. “It could be retirement homes or medical facilities, too—it runs the gamut. And there’s just no end to it.”

Instructional quadcopter workshops are just starting to emerge, but most photographers we spoke with are self-taught. As Crumley notes, “There is starting to be some education on flying, but when I came along two years ago, there was nothing. You got a quadcopter, read accounts of people that flew, and just went by trial and error until you got good. Now we may start seeing actual courses on flying.”

Before he purchased his first quadcopter last February, Reboquio says he bought a “small, tiny copter (4 channel) for $40 and practiced inside my house. That tiny copter actually helped a lot just to get a feel for it.” He eventually transitioned to practicing with the quadcopter in a park. “At first, you’d watch YouTube videos,” Reboquio explains, “but nothing really beats going out there and trying it out.” After 20 hours of flight time, Reboquio began offering aerial footage to his wedding clients.

“There’s a lot more that I want to know how to do and do it well,” Crumley admits. “You can watch a movie and you can see the techniques that are being used by the camera [operator]. It takes a while to learn and develop those skills, so that’s what I’m working on.”

Shot from a height of about 100 feet, the setting sun at dusk provides soft lighting of this oceanfront amusement park’s ferris wheel.

While photographers may be capable of flying solo, it’s often more convenient to work with another pilot. Roman, for example, partners with his son, who drives the drone while the photographer controls the camera movements with a second controller. “I direct the flight path,” Roman says, “so we can execute the shots.”

Reboquio’s pilot is a “fellow wedding videographer who happened to also have a quadcopter,” adding, “he’s self-taught and flying all the time.” When looking for a pilot, Reboquio suggests that you “look at their portfolios and ask how many hours they’ve flown a quadcopter before.” And, when you find a suitable flyer, “Make sure that you give them specific instructions on the objective of the shoot and what shots you need,” Reboquio says.

Another alternative, once you’re skilled, is to train an assistant. Crumley, who uses two controllers—one for flight and one for the tilt and pan of the camera—sees his next step as training his assistant.

Quadcopter photography is in its infancy so expect a lot of changes and advances in the future, but no doubt there are exciting times ahead. “We’re in sort of the Model A era of aerial photography using drones,” Crumley says. “The [technology] that’s coming down the road—there are going to be things that you can’t even imagine.”

Rules of the Sky
FAA regulations regarding drone use are in flux, so be sure to check www.faa.gov and knowbeforeyoufly.org on a regular basis for the most up-to-date info. In February 2015, the FAA issued proposed rules for drone operation and pilot qualifications. Until the new rules are finalized and go into effect, however, you need an exemption from the FAA to fly a drone commercially.

In advance of these new rules, the FAA has loosened the guidelines for those exemptions. With the new exemptions, you’ll be allowed to operate an unmanned aircraft (UAS) that weighs less than 55 pounds at or under 200 feet anywhere in the country except restricted airspace or major cities as long as the UAS is operated:

A. During daytime Visual Flight Rules (VFR) conditions
B. Within visual line of sight (VLOS) of the pilots
C. Certain distances away from airports or heliports

While it’s still up for public debate, the FAA has laid out a number of rules it wants to see govern commercial drone use. Among them:

A. UAS must weigh less than 55 pounds.
B. UAS must remain within visual line-of-sight (VLOS) of the operator or visual observer unaided by any device other than corrective lenses.
C. UAS may not operate over any persons not directly involved in the operation.
D. Daylight-only operations (official sunrise to official sunset, local time).
E. Must yield right-of-way to other aircraft, manned or unmanned.
F. Maximum altitude of 500 feet above ground level.
G. Minimum weather visibility of 3 miles from control station.
H. Pilots/Operators must be over 17 years old and obtain small UAS certificate, pass a recurrent aeronautical knowledge test every 24 months.

Safety Tips
Beyond the FAA’s rules, common sense should also govern how you operate your drone. Here’s some practical advice from drone flyer Chris Crumley.

1. Know your drone and how to operate it. Study the manual, educate yourself and practice, practice, practice.
2. Speak with your clients about what you (and the drone) can and cannot do.
3. Make a preflight checklist and “go through it religiously every time you take off,” says Crumley. His preflight checklist also includes takeoff and landing actions.
4. Do not fly over large groups of people.
5. Do not fly near children, pets and other animals whose actions and movement may be unpredictable.
6. Check windspeed to ensure that it’s not greater than the speed capability of the drone.
7. Make sure the battery is charged and exceeds what is needed for takeoff, flight and landing.

Drone Devices

The DJI Inspire 1 features a built-in 4K camera and a full, 360-degree view.
Prices: $2,899 (with single remote); $3,399 (with dual remotes)

At 2.2 pounds, the DJI Phantom 2 offers customized H3-2d and H3-3d Gimbal support and a smart battery that delivers 25 minutes of flight time.
Price: $1,099

The GoPro HERO4 (which attaches to a drone) offers UHD 4k30 video and 12-megapixel photos up to 30 fps.
Price: $500

Related Links

Take Me (and My Drone) to Church

The Flying Camera Drone Controversy

On the Importance of Not Being Dumb with Your Drone