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Drone photography unleashes your creativity allowing the photographer to connect to the seemingly unconnected. Let your imagination soar.

Michael J Martin

For the past four months, I have extended my creative process in photography by using drones. For many decades now, like many other serious amateur photographers, I have used Nikon and Hasselblad still cameras with all the lenses and accessories to capture compelling images of life that is forever happening around us. I use both film and digital cameras. But, more recently, I wanted to explore this thriving drone photography world to discover how it might enhance my visual storytelling.

My first reaction is that drones are a whole lot of fun. They are very cool machines and they have evolved now to the point that anyone can fly them. Good quality drones have advanced features to help prevent you from doing stupid things, like crashing them into brick walls, the hard earth, or savage UAV-eating trees. These are all the obstacles that I sadly faced with drones in the past.

Now, these fancy drones, and even the less expensive models, have sophisticated LiDAR distance sensors which are multi-directional measuring lasers, and an arsenal of about half-a-dozen sensor cameras facing the front/rear/side/down, all driven by artificial intelligence to protect the drone and are used exclusively to see and avoid these malicious destroyers of drones. These extra cameras are sensors and are not there to actually capture pictures. They feed images to the drone-based AI computers to help pilot the drone.

Second, the politics of drones are a serious matter and you must respect the laws. So, a licence is needed. I set out and earned both the Basic and the Advanced licences as issued by Transport Canada. While I found the Basic licence was easy to write and I passed it without any prior preparation, that is only due to the fact that I am a licenced pilot, so it was similar knowledge that every pilot needs to know deeply. Photographers who are not also licenced pilots will need to prepare for this online knowledge test.

The work effort to obtain the Advanced licence was a much more serious undertaking for me and took a lot of preparation and work effort to achieve. It involves a complex written online examination that I invested over 100 hours to prepare for, and a detailed flight test under the watchful eye of a certified Flight Reviewer. I also took two online courses to prepare for both of the Advanced tests. Luckily, I passed them both, but it took hard work and a lot of study time to succeed. So, you are duly warned.

Third, is the restrictions of where you can fly drones to pursue your photography. As you might expect, there are limitations for both the drone make and model as well as flights over the public. A major restriction is to absolutely not fly your drone near any airport, helipad, or restricted aviation location. Now, this makes perfect sense since mixing drones with airplanes and helicopters can result in some serious and highly undesired outcomes. Drones can kill if not used safely.

However, when drones are used within the boundaries of the regulations and with ‘safety first’ and front of mind, they can actually be flown pretty much anywhere, if controlled by an Advanced licenced pilot and with the proper planning, coordination, and authorizations. Initially, I felt that it was over restrictive. But, now that I have been deeply involved, I no longer hold that view and see it as more of a managed flight approach, just as I perform in a Cessna or a Piper 4-seater airplane. So, not really a big deal anymore if you abide by the rules, regulations, and laws. Safety First.

Next, the advancements in the cameras on drones is rapidly improving with photography features that amateurs desire. For example, you can get high resolution images powered by a 1 inch CMOS chip designed by Hasselblad offering 20 million effective pixels of image quality. This can be for still images or video. All of the desired video resolutions are available, for example: 4K: 3840×2160 24/25/30p, or 2.7K: 2688×1512 24/25/30/48/50/60p, or FHD: 1920×1080 24/25/30/48/50/60/120p. At the highest resolutions you are streaming to the micro SD cards at 100 Mbps, so a suitable high -peed SD card is essential with an abundance of capacity.

Some cameras offer a fixed field of view at about 77° wide, which is equivalent to a 28mm lens in 35mm terms. The Hasselblad model that I fly has a high quality optical lens, but other less capable drones have plastic lenses that still do a pretty amazing job.

Most drones have zoom lenses attached that many amateurs prefer over the fixed prime lens. With a field of view of about 83° (24 mm) to about 48° (48 mm) in 35 mm format equivalent: 24-48 mm zoom range is fairly common. But, much longer zooms are available by different drone makers or camera attachments.

Most serious amateur photographers know to avoid using the ‘digital’ zoom features as they degrade the image quality. But, it is offered in a pinch if you need it. The zoom lenses have a variable aperture based upon the focal length of the zoom lens, for example, the aperture can be f/2.8 (24 mm) and adjust to f/3.8 (48 mm). The focusing range can be as close as 0.5 m to and as far away as infinity (∞). Some drones permit manual override of the shutter speed too.

The fixed lens cameras offer lower noise which is important in nighttime shooting or at sunrise or sunset. The ISO is typically 100 to 6,400 for video and can be 100 to 12,800 in the manual mode for still images. The zoom lens drones use smaller CMOS sensors so the ISO is less too. For video the zoom lens drones offer ISO ranges from 100 to 3,200 and for still images it has the same range in manual mode. So, the zoom lens cameras do not perform as well in low light conditions. There are pros and cons to the prime lens versus the zoom lens decision. I selected the prime lens for the dynamic range and the image quality.

All of the drone cameras offer the standard JPEG image format for stills. Some offer a RAW file format compliant with the Adobe DNG standards. For video, the MP4 is standard and some drones offer MP4 / MOV (MPEG-4 AVC/H.264, HEVC/H.265).

I am seriously considering attaching my Nikon Z7 with a 24mm wide angle S-series lens to a 3-axis gimbal and using it to capture stills and video. I will need a much larger drone for the added weight and I will definitely need more flying experience as the risks dramatically increase with this much investment, which is heading north of $20,000.00. But, I hope to do it next summer if all goes well with the current $4,000.00 DJI Mavic 2 Pro drone that I am flying in 2020.

Flight times need to be well planned since drones have a limited endurance often between 20 to 30 minutes. If you do not respect this limitation, you will crash the drone – trust me on this point as a voice of experience. I have extra batteries now.

Wind, rain, and fog all work against the drone photographer. High winds might make drone flying impossible and even moderate winds will shorten the flight endurance as the propellers are all working much harder for stabilized flight. So, again keep a keen watch your batteries life.

The 3-axis gimbals also draw battery power, but makes for beautiful video footage and crisp still images.

The drone flight controllers can use your smartphone or have a built-in display to provide first person video (FPV) of exactly what the drone camera sees. This is a powerful feature compared to the past when I was shooting blind with an older GOPro 3 camera. So, I can now frame the shot perfecting by panning, rising, falling, or getting closer.

For video, my drone transmits down a 1080i HDTV signal, even if you are shooting in 4K, so the footage on the SD card is always better than what you see on your controller display. In fact, this aspect caught me off-guard initially as the 4K video footage creates huge file sizes that handcuff sharing and downloading. In editing, my computer slows to manage these gigantic video clips.

For still images, the photos are downloaded and can be posted to social media fast since the controller can either be linked to your smartphone or is actually your smartphone. So, posting amazing photos on social media can be just a few clicks away. The images are still protected on your SD card for subsequent editing at home.

After just a few months and with the burden of the Coronavirus hanging over us all, learning how to fly the drone, earning the required licences, and understanding the restrictions and safety aspects has been a great summertime project to complete. I am now ready to do more and explore many more creative aspects of drone photography.

My artistic process with drones is still trapped in the technical aspects so more experience will eventually get me past this early stage. Once the drone is transparent to the creative process, I can apply 100% of my thinking to capturing compelling still images and amazing video clips.

Drones offer photographers a very unique perspective. They allow us to see things in new ways never pondered before. They can dramatically enhance our visual storytelling. I am excited to add a drone camera platform to my Nikon cameras and lens inventory. I have it all bundled in a Think Tank camera backpack ready to go whenever I get the urge to fly.

————————–MJM ————————–

Note: All of the images accompanying this article are not mine, and they belong to the various amazing photographers who captured them. They reserve all rights and ownership of their images. I simply share them as superb examples. They are all readily viewable on the internet.

Image DescriptionOwnership
TulipsCopyright by Albert Dros
Snake RoadCopyright by Calin Stan. All pictures courtesy Dronestagram, Hazel Solendar Article
Eiffel TowerCopyright by Copyright © 2020 Follow Me Away · All Rights Reserved
Wedding ShotCopyright by © 2020 Copyright – LA Drone Footage – All Rights Reserved |a C.KEMP Company
No Drones SignCopyright by ©2020. All Rights Reserved. Canva®
Women with TurtlesCopyright by Juan Martinez
Ditched AirplaneCopyright by Dirk Dallas saved to Drone Photography @szetoszeto drone photography
Drone in FlightCopyright by © 2020 Adorama Camera, Inc. All rights reserved.
ChurchCopyright by Loren Robinson
Toronto SkylineCopyright by Norm Li and Eye in the Sky Photography
MeCopyright by Michael J Martin

————————–MJM ————————–

About the Author:

Michael Martin has more than 35 years of experience in systems design for applications that use broadband networks, optical fibre, wireless, and digital communications technologies. He is a business and technology consultant. He offers his services on a contracting basis. Over the past 15 years with IBM, he has worked in the GBS Global Center of Competency for Energy and Utilities and the GTS Global Center of Excellence for Energy and Utilities. He is a founding partner and President of MICAN Communications and before that was President of Comlink Systems Limited and Ensat Broadcast Services, Inc., both divisions of Cygnal Technologies Corporation (CYN: TSX). Martin currently serves on the Board of Directors for TeraGo Inc (TGO: TSX) and previously served on the Board of Directors for Avante Logixx Inc. (XX: TSX.V).  He has served as a Member, SCC ISO-IEC JTC 1/SC-41 – Internet of Things and related technologies, ISO – International Organization for Standardization, and as a member of the NIST SP 500-325 Fog Computing Conceptual Model, National Institute of Standards and Technology. He served on the Board of Governors of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) [now OntarioTech University] and on the Board of Advisers of five different Colleges in Ontario.  For 16 years he served on the Board of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), Toronto Section.  He holds three master’s degrees, in business (MBA), communication (MA), and education (MEd). As well, he has three undergraduate diplomas and five certifications in business, computer programming, internetworking, project management, media, photography, and communication technology. He has earned 20 badges in next generation MOOC continuous education in IoT, Cloud, AI and Cognitive systems, Blockchain, Agile, Big Data, Design Thinking, Security, and more.