Changing Perspective - Using Drones for Landscape Photography

January 24, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

Long Lake SunsetLong Lake SunsetA favorite swimming hole near Crested Butte, Colorado, Long Lake is captured by drone on a colorful summer evening.

About 5 years ago I purchased my first quadcopter with the idea of offering a new perspective of homes and properties for my real estate clients. I quickly learned that this was not a great idea. First of all, I had to use my GoPro camera for the pictures. While GoPro cameras are great for home-video use, they produce pretty lousy still images and making decent prints proved to be nearly impossible. If that wasn't enough of a problem, the early drones were a challenge to fly and hated even a mild breeze. Composing images was also difficult since viewing the scene through the camera required a lot more equipment that seldom worked well. To add insult to potential injury, the early drones operated on the same frequencies used by other devices and had a bad habit of flying away if you got a phone call. I sold my first Phantom quadcopter within 6 months and put the aerial photography idea on the back-burner for a year or so. Lunch BreakLunch BreakRanchers cutting hay take a break in a Colorado field near Gunnison.

Eventually, DJI came out with the Phantom 3 which seemed to solve a lot of the early issues so I bought one. The still image quality had improved a lot since the camera was built-in and was attached to a gimble to keep the camera level while flying. This Phantom was a lot easier to fly and much more stable. I got some great images. I discovered how much fun it would be if I were 200' tall! A few months after I purchased the Phantom 3, DJI came out with the Phantom 4 which had even better features and a much better camera. They got me again!

Lazy F Bar Ranch Under SnowLazy F Bar Ranch Under SnowThe Lazy F Bar Ranch near Crested Butte, Colorado is literally buried under deep, fresh snow with Whetstone Mountain in the distance

 

This new drone was extremely easy to fly and captured nice, high quality still images. It offered much better flight times as well. Using my iPod mini, I was easily able to compose my photos and operate the drone controls via the touch-screen. I could also use my smart phone but found the screen too small to use efficiently. Most of my early images were created well under the 400' maximum allowed and I seldom did much moving once I was in the air. Since I have always worked out locations in my mind before grabbing a camera, the drone usually just went straight up and then straight down. With practice, this approach was quickly modified beginning with the image below. I have always had this shot in my mind but it required the drone and some flying that really messed with my mind. Besides operating a flying camera over half a mile away, the drone was also nearly 300' below me. I think it was worth the terror of having to climb down there to retrieve my camera if things went horribly wrong.

East River GreenEast River GreenThe East River meanders toward Crested Butte Mountain in western Colorado on a perfect spring morning.

So, now I've been actively using a DJI Phantom 4 Pro quadcopter for about a year. I'm making some images that are good enough to make decent prints and offer for sale. I don't use the video features at all. There are plenty of other local photographers who offer video services and most of them don't offer still images. I like not having a lot of competition. The real estate market never really materialized since most of the realtors just bought their own quadcopters. They are fun to fly!

Here are a few things I have learned in the past year.

1. The camera can always be better.

2. Balance your props for sharper photos.

3. Pay attention to your composition.

4. Plan your images in advance. The landscape looks a lot different from 200' - 400' above.

5. Keep your ears open for planes and helicopters.

6. If you get an audience gathered around you, it's best to just land and come back later.

7. Just because an image looks cool doesn't mean people will give you money for it.

8. It may take some time for low altitude aerial images to be considered as art.

9. Wide angle lenses make it really easy to fly into trees.

10. Keep flying and looking for new ideas.

11. Animals can act pretty strange with a drone overhead. Plan accordingly.

12. Pay attention to your battery power.

13. Check your firmware/software for updates before leaving the office.

Over the AspensOver the AspensOverhead view of an aspen grove on a snowy winter day in Colorado.

While selling fine art photo prints of my aerial images has been a little disappointing so far, the sales of these photos as stock has done pretty well. By the way, the green color of John Deere equipment is considered intellectual property and the licensing of images that include that equipment is a copyright violation. (I'm learning new stuff with this drone.) The drone is still fun to fly and any work we can do while having fun is a bonus.

As an experiment last summer, I tried using the drone platform to shoot a panorama. With the 20 - 24mm lens equivalents of drone camera lenses, this proved to be a challenge for my stitching software. I generally overlapped images about 50% but learned that this approach would not make a great panorama from the air. I found I had to overlap images about 75% if there are details like roads and buildings to blend. If I don't do this, I end up with some really weird and unpleasant stitching failures of lines that should be straight. That said, some of these aerial panoramas are great! Give it a try. The panoramas have been my best-sellers as stock photography.

Alone in the WoodsAlone in the WoodsAn isolated rustic cabin below the Anthracite Range in Gunnison County, Colorado.

Thanks for reading. Feel free to share a link to this page if you found the information useful.

To see more of my aerial images follow this link: http://www.imagescolorado.com/dronephotos

 


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