A higher calling. Rise of the drones
In the last four years, the drone market has exploded, and anyone can now enter the drone game at a reasonable price point. But do professional photographers and filmmakers need to add a drone to their already expensive kit? Is it a necessity or a luxury, which drone should you buy, and will it make any difference to your bottom line? Christopher Quyen investigates.
There’s a certain joy that comes with being able to shoot from a new perspective. Whether it’s exploring underwater or doing extreme macro photography, new perspectives have always excited photographers and filmmakers alike. So, with drones becoming an accessible technology to all, it seems almost necessary to add a drone to your kit in order to offer additional services. But before you rush out and buy the latest drone on the market, you should ask yourself whether it will benefit your business or if it’s just something for fun. If you have decided, or are deciding, to join the game of drones, then it’s best to be prepared.
In recent years, drone technology has improved dramatically with professional drones now offering features such as in-built cameras with 4K video, obstacle avoidance sensors, and longer battery life. With so many different drones on the market, how does one pick a drone that is best suited to your needs? This question can often be answered by another question: What camera do you want to shoot with?
Co-owner of Seattle-based Aerial Edge, Brad Meier says if you are planning to shoot with heavy, high-end cameras such as an ARRI Alexa Mini or RED Weapon or Helium, you will need a high-end drone that can manage the burden. For Aerial Edge, the Freefly ATLA 8 was the best option. “The ALTA 8 is large and powerful enough to lift most any camera and lens combination that productions require, yet still folds down into a relatively small footprint for travel to and from locations,” says Meier. If you’re wanting to fly a mirrorless camera though, technical editor of Drone Magazine and drone videographer at Droneheadz, Andy Willmott, suggests the DJI Matrice M600, which he uses with the DJI Ronin MX gimbal. “The camera plugs into the gimbal so we can control the shutter from the DJI transmitter,” says Willmott. “If we want high resolution stills, we put a Sony A7R II on the Matrice to take photos. We can also put a RED camera on the Matrice.”
But if you’re looking for a whole package solution, then drones such as the DJI Inspire, Phantom and Mavic range, or Parrot Bebop 2 might be what you need. These drones all have cameras attached to gimbals that can shoot at up to a 4K resolution and are easily transportable. Award-winning photographer, journalist, author, and co-founder of stock agency, VWPICS, Kike Calvo is an avid user of the DJI Phantom 4, and has had his work published in National Geographic. “The Phantom is compact enough to fit in an easy-to-carry backpack, like its predecessors, but it incorporates the most advanced features available,” says Calvo. Ultimately, it comes down to how much you want to invest in your drones and at what capacity you want to offer services as part of your business.
Find your industry
When you have a drone, it’s important to know what industry you want to service. Finding a niche for your aerial services can be a great way of building consistent clientele within an industry. Real estate and landscapes are often the first industry most drone users imagine servicing, but Willmott says there are plenty of other industries that we’re missing out on. “We shoot a lot of yachts, boats and events over the water. We’ve done some events and music festivals as well, shooting burnouts at Eastern Creek is always fun because you can get a perspective that you can’t imaging getting any other way,” he says. George Webb from Life Studios, a Vancouver-based wedding cinematography and photography studio, has utilised the DJI Inspire as a storytelling tool for weddings. “We generally use drone shots to establish where a story is taking place and to help create a sense of epic wonder. They’re also great for transitions and for placing the people who are central to the story within their environment,” says Webb.
There is also a market for high-end productions such as films and commercials, but the cost of investing in these industries is relatively high given specialised equipment needed to operate high-end cameras with drones. Meier, who has been piloting unmanned aircrafts for twenty-four years says a niche of high-end shooters who operate purely in drone cinematography has emerged. “Our business provides aerial media almost exclusively so our entire structure is reliant on drone flying. It’s definitely a niche market which is why it only works at the highest levels of production,” says Meier. Photographers, like Calvo, are also starting to use drones for personal and art projects, like he’s done with his project, World of Dances. I started thinking; why not do something different? Why not try to capture something like ballet dancers from the air? I decided to be a pioneer in using drones to capture art and dance.”
Keep it safe
With more drones in the skies, the law has been changing to keep drone pilots in check. As of September 2016, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) reduced regulatory requirements to fly very small drones commercially. Operators using drones under 2 kilograms will not need an RPA operator’s certificate, or a remote pilot licence, thus making the commercial use of drones more accessible to shooters. However, drone pilots must notify CASA five business days before flying their drone commercially and operate within the standard operation conditions. Failure to comply with these conditions can lead to hefty fines. A US company, SkyPan International, was recently fined $200,000 for constantly breaching air safety regulations, although the original fine applied by the Federal Aviation Administration was $1.9 million. “CASA takes all reports of potential breaches of the drone safety rules seriously. CASA can issue fines of up to $900. If the matter is taken to court fines can be imposed up to $9,000,” says a CASA spokesperson.
These rules act as a precautionary measure in case your drone goes rogue and there is a loss of control or equipment failure. With 2016 seeing news about drones losing signal and flying off into the distance, or drones falling out of the sky, CASA recommends that all drone users abide by the safety rules to protect people and property. CASA also says there are also a lot of rules that drone users should know about, but often forget, or tend not to abide. “People must never fly their drones near bushfires. Drones flown near bush fires are likely to force aerial firefighting activities to cease, setting back fire operations and putting the public at greater risk,” a CASA spokesperson confirmed.
Furthermore, if you’re serious about flying your drone, finding the right insurance is especially important with so many hazards in the skies. From tree branches snagging your drone, to eagles attacking unsuspecting drones, all it takes is one little accident for your drone to put it out of commission. Luckily, Willmott says companies such as QBE and Osmans Insurance Brokers have adapted to start covering drones. A commercial insurance policy for a DJI Phantom 4 covering liability up to $1 million can run as little as $600-$800 a year.
It’s all about perspective
Seeing the world from the air is a lot different than being on the ground with your camera and experimenting with different compositions and angles. If not done right, the aerial vantage point can become boring over time. So how can you ensure that your drone footage is always compelling and captivating to your audience? “The key to dynamic drone imagery is ensuring that you have an interesting subject that the drone can interact with: a motivating element that makes the drone shot worthwhile,” Webb says. “Another important thing that makes drone shots stand out for us is the change between high/low and near/far; if a drone shot remains so high that no-one subject is clearly distinguishable, that shot is pretty boring.”
Russian-based photographer, Maksim Taroslav says that the secret to getting captivating drone shots is discovery. “At some point, I realised that it’s not enough for me just to change the angle of shooting by rising higher. To look for things hidden from us – that’s interesting. To explore. To study. To turn every flight into discovery. The earth is a huge canvas where nature makes its masterpieces. It has its own colours and tools which are live, real,” he says.
Before there were drones
But sometimes, drones may not be the best option. Before drones, photographers and filmmakers used helicopters and planes to capture aerial shots. Adelaide-based photographer, Simon Casson prefers shooting from helicopters. “As more drone operators come into the market, using a helicopter becomes a point of difference,” he says. He stresses that it is more reliable to shoot from a helicopter. “I push the high quality and service angle to my clients and although I know there are some top level drone operators out there, I push the reliability factor – recently I have reshot jobs that were originally shot by drone.”
Tasmanian-based photographer, Paul Hoelen has also continued shooting from helicopters purely due to the style of his photography and the immense adrenaline and rush you get from capturing shots leaning out an open door. “You can cover huge distances and fly for far greater lengths of time, use heavier and higher resolution equipment with much greater ease, such as high-end medium format systems, like Phase One, that can help you produce unbelievable results,” Hoelen says. He also states that you can better respond to your subject matter with the camera in your hand, as opposed to fiddling with a drone. The con that comes with shooting with helicopters though is the cost for clients. “Charters can range from $1,300 to $1,900 per hour, depending on the aircraft,” says Casson. While it hasn’t swayed Casson and Hoelen to completely switch over to drones, they both acknowledge the capabilities of drones for client work due to portability and lower-cost.
Game of Drones
With drone technology improving rapidly, having high-quality aerial footage can be as easy as carrying a pocket-sized drone around on shoots. But the one thing that photographer should take with them on all drone flights is a duty and responsibility to ensure the safety of others. Overall, it’s an exciting time to invest in drone technology if you can see it benefiting your business, or you just want to capture something different. It’s obvious that the game of drones will be one that will continue to evolve as we move forward into the future, and whether you choose to play the game is entirely up to you.
Condensed CASA Guidelines
- You should only fly in visual line-of-sight, in day visual meteorological conditions (VMC). That means:
- No night flying (generally).
- No flying in or through cloud or fog.
- Be able to see the aircraft with your own eyes (rather than through first-person-view [FPV, binoculars, telescopes]) at all times, (unless you operate under the procedures of an approved model flying association.).
- You must not fly closer than 30m to vehicles, boats, buildings or people.
- You must not fly over populous areas such as beaches, heavily populated parks, or sports ovals while in use.
- You must not fly higher than 120m metres above the ground.
- You must not fly in a way that creates a hazard to other aircraft, so you should keep at least 5.5 km away from airfields, aerodromes and helicopter landing sites.