“How I Got Into Aerial Photography and Lessons I’ve Learned”

[Editors note: We here at DARC are hugely proud of the amazing group of people coming together throughout the UAS and drone universe.  Among them is Justin Edwards, founder of DroneAbove, a blog focused on aerial photography and one of the hundreds of people we’ve consulted as we’ve planned the event.

In this post Edwards shares a bit of personal history with aerial photography and some advice to up and coming aerial photographers.]

Edwards flying his QAV500 on a job with his son

My name is Justin Edwards and I am the founder of DroneAbove.com. I have been tinkering with remote control stuff since I was 10 years old.  I never really outgrew the hobby and remained casually interested for years.

In early 2007, I saw one of the first FPV (I use the term FPV to mean controlling RC stuff with downlink video) videos on YouTube. It blew my mind.  It did not take long for me to start working my way up the steep learning curve, studying forums and ordering all sorts of video gear.  Getting it all to work well together took awhile, but finally I was able to get a plane up in the air that would transmit video.

Eventually, I found videos of people flying multicopters and I started down that path as well.  Again, development took a long time because for several years there was no such thing as a ready to fly quadcopter. I tried three times to cobble one together – each time swearing off multicopters.  The allure kept me going though as with each build I got closer and closer.

Finally, on my fourth try, I marked my first successful quadcopter flight.  The big change was the release of the DJI Naza flight controller.  Once I got that quadcopter flying, it was easy to put FPV gear on it and start capturing aerial pictures and videos.   After that, further innovations came at a rapid pace. The moment I saw the video that Robert from UAVproducts.com posted, which deployed the DJI S800 and the brushless Zenmuse gimbal. I was blown away.

In July of 2012, I launched DroneAbove.com, in an effort to explore the demand for commercial uses for unmanned aerial photography and video shortly thereafter.

Over the past few years, I have learned many lessons about drones, FPV, and aerial photography.   For anyone who is considering aerial photography as a hobby or profession, here are some things to consider.

Image via DroneAbove

What is the demand for aerial photography like?  The market for aerial photography is small, but has potential for growth.  At this stage though, the problem with some jobs is that the market has not found equilibrium.  For example,  Real estate agents will always want aerial photography and video of their properties because it makes them look good to their client.  I can envision a day in the near future where all listings have an aerial photograph taken by a drone. Real estate agents however do not like to pay much more than $100-250 and it is difficult to justify such low paying jobs because the equipment is too expensive and fragile.  The other issue for me has simply been opportunity cost.   Aerial photography doesn’t pay all the bills and, for me, I have to maintain another job that requires my presence to make money (trading stocks).

DJI Phantom, Photo By woodyrr

What are the major costs involved?  Technologies are changing fast and with the DJI Phantom on the market the expensive flight equipment barrier is quickly coming down but the camera options for aerial photography are still pretty limited.  I have found that to offer true aerial photography solutions for clients, you need to be able to shoot with a wide-angle lens as well as a more traditional narrow-angle lens.

As amazing as the Go Pro 3 Black is, you can’t put a narrow angle lens on it.  Wide angle lenses are perfect for showing off a structure like a house, but terrible for showing off a view of downtown because it looks so far away.  I discovered this when I was shooting the F1 track from a nearby parcel of land.  Every picture I took made it look like the track was significantly farther away than it actually was – not good when you are trying to highlight the proximity to the track!  I eventually solved this problem by hacking a Canon point and shoot to take a picture every 2 seconds and then strapping it onto my copter. There is still some room for improvement to be had in low cost camera technology.  There is a need for a dedicated aerial camera that is small, can shoot pictures on a time delay or remote switch, has low latency video out, and most importantly can change lenses for different applications.

How do you handle curious bystanders?  People always want to come up and ask questions when you are out flying.  Most people are interested in the technology and think it is cool, but you will always get the stray weirdo who can do nothing but envision your little copter spying on his wife or carrying a remotely operated glock handgun.  In my experience, these people have spent way too much time getting brainwashed by the media to see that you are just flying a remote control helicopter.

What was your favorite job so far?  As I’ve described, real estate has some potential to impact the aerial photorgraphy market. I think it might be logical to assume that eventually smart realtors will take a keen interest in this hobby to set themselves apart so I would expect competition in this space to increase as the barriers to entry continue to fall.

My favorite type of job though will always be the music video.  Aerial video and music videos go together like cheese and pizza.  If you happen to have a brushless gimbal, I would encourage you to reach out to local artists and offer up your services because it is a blast and the finished product will look amazing.  Even if you are not an experienced pilot, you can always offer them the shot where you point it down and go straight up. Even a shot like that can add significant production value to a low budget music video.

What should I keep an eye out for?  Technology is changing so fast.  When the Zenmuse gimbal came out, it was the first brushless gimbal on the market.  Within a year, you can now get a brushless gimbal for the GoPro for less than $200.  The skill set required to actually fly an unmanned system shooting aerial photography is also coming down fast with GPS controlled and stabilized copters.  Waypoint controlled flight is here already and will likely be accessible to people outside of the hobby within a year or two.  As cameras and drones advance, they will likely get smaller and this cuts down on the safety issues.  We’re only just beginning to see the benefits of more automation. These flying robots are getting smarter, reducing the burden on the pilot/operator. As this technology continues to get more accessible, expect to see it continue to explode in popularity.

[If you found this post interesting and would like to learn more, we suggest attending the Aerial Photography Working Group at DARC. Check out the schedule and register. See you at the event!]

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