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“You wouldn’t buy a brand new camera that you’ve never used before and shoot Tom Cruise for The New York Times,” says Graeme Robertson, a licensed drone pilot and staff photographer at The Guardian. “You need pilot skills so that you can be creative.”
Practising is key to becoming a successful drone photographer. The more you practise, the more confident you become. Drone manufacturer DJI, however, makes operating a drone easy. Its Phantom 4 Pro drone is flown using a simple controller that features a small screen (either an app-linked smartphone or a specialist monitor), which allows its user to live-stream footage as it is captured. A forward-facing camera offers the pilot an in-flight view, and integrated GPS technology ensures an accurate and precise flight, even for relative newcomers.
“In my experience, once you have got to grips with certain things,” says Robertson, “the DJI is a easy machine to use.” While beginner drone photographers often worry about crashing, DJI drones come with automated obstacle avoidance making such occurrences a rarity. Using integrated cameras, ultrasonic sensors, and advanced computer vision algorithms, the Phantom 4 Pro scans the nearby environment and detects obstacles in real time, automatically flying to avoid them.
Mastering the art of using a drone creatively, however, takes both practise and a sharp artistic eye. As the deadline for the DJI Drone Photography Award approaches, British Journal of Photography asked four drone photographers to share their advice. Each practitioner employs a different approach. While JP and Mike Andrews, founders of Abstract Aerial Art, use a drone to capture abstract landforms across the world, Johnny Miller’s Unequal Scenes comprises a series of photographs that expose inequality in South Africa and further afield. Both would be impossible to capture without the use of a drone.
Photographer Natalie Amrossi, known on social media as @misshattan, specialises in capturing aerial cityscapes from a helicopter, however often uses a drone when greater photographic freedom and manoeuvrability is required. Similarly, Guardian photographer Graeme Robertson uses his DJI drone when the alternative perspective afforded by the device elevates the broader narrative of a photographic series. Robertson aims to show viewers a new perspective of the world, only possible to photograph using a drone.
Robertson sits on the judging panel of the DJI Drone Photography Award, a competition that is calling for photographers to submit ideas for creative, drone-shot projects. Two winners will receive a DJI Phantom 4 Pro and their resulting series will be exhibited in a major London gallery, as well as receiving coverage on the British Journal of Photography.
Below, Graeme Robertson, Abstract Aerial Art, Natalie Amrossi and Johnny Miller share their advice for mastering the art of drone photography.
As with all photography, research and preparation are key to successful drone-shot projects. Drone photographers employ a range of research methods to make sure the images they are capturing are as creative as possible.
“Thoroughly researching potential locations is essential and something we dedicate a lot of our time to,“ says JP and Mike Andrews of Abstract Aerial Art. “We used satellite imagery as a research tool to find potential areas of interest. This massively sped up our workflow. We still use this technique religiously. The amount of time that can be saved is invaluable. Although not foolproof, it certainly helps to have an idea of what you may be able to capture from a nearby location.”
Similarly Johnny Miller uses a “variety of research tools” to decide where to fly his drone. “This is a combination of census data, maps, news reports, as well as talking to people.” Once he identifies the areas he wants to photograph, Miller then visualises them on Google Earth and maps out a flight plan.
A drone can also be used as a method of research. Natalie Amrossi often uses a drone as “a way of just checking out what the area looks like from the sky.”
Research is not just invaluable when it comes to plotting suitable locations. “As in all photography, light plays a key role in how the end product looks,” says Abstract Aerial Art. “This is no different with drone photography. Choosing the right times of day to shoot is very important.”
Finding a voice
The recent affordability of drones has opened up the medium to a new breed of creatives. Once you’ve learnt the basics of flying a drone, it is crucial to find a distinct approach.
“I would advise someone to find a voice, and a style, early on,” says Miller. “Drone photography can be very one-dimensional, and unless you have a strong voice, you will be lost in the crowd.”
Abstract Aerial Art echoes this sentiment. “Perhaps most importantly, think outside the box and never be afraid to try something different.”
The importance of practise
Dedicating time to learning how to confidently operate a drone is crucial to becoming a successful drone photographer. “Flying was the biggest skill that I had to learn,” says Graeme Robertson. “Once you have learnt the skill of flying, to a point where you have a complete trust in, and understanding of, the technology, then it can take a back seat.”
Robertson’s advice is echoed by Johnny Miller. “Investing time in learning to fly, and then perfecting your technique, is paramount to becoming a successful drone pilot,” he says. “Learn to fly safely and effectively far away from other people, for many hours, until you feel totally confident.”
The best drone photographers only use a drone when the new perspective afforded by a device adds value and creativity to a project. It is for this reason that Robertson often accompanies his drone-shot footage with imagery taken from the ground.
“It is not something that I am thinking about all the time,” he says. “If a drone will add to the photographs that I am taking, then I will use it. But if I am using a drone just for the sake of using a drone then I don’t use it. I don’t use it as a trick, as a lot of people are doing these days. Over the last three years it has been a process of understanding what I can actually get out of a drone. It is about producing something different and creative; not just using a drone because you can.”
Aerial photography is not always shot using a drone. Photographer Natalie Amrossi specialises in capturing aerial cityscapes from a helicopter, but there are occasions when the capabilities of a drone makes shooting from her DJI device preferable.
“When DJI first came out with its drone, I thought it was absolutely amazing,” says Amrossi. “I started using drones shortly after and now carry around my DJI Mavic everywhere I go.”
“There are a lot of shots that you simply cannot get without a drone. The benefit of using a drone is getting clean, symmetrical shots of whatever it is you are shooting. Since you have full control of the drone and its camera, its very realistic to get the perfect shot. In a helicopter, I find it extremely difficult as it depends on the weather and communicating with the pilot. You are relying on the pilot to help you get the shot you are looking for.”
Elevate your photography with a new perspective! The DJI Drone Photography Award gives two photographers the opportunity to realise their drone-shot projects. Submit your proposal today.
The DJI Drone Photography Award is a DJI competition supported by British Journal of Photography. DJI is the world’s leading manufacturer in high-end drones. Please click here for more information on sponsored content funding at British Journal of Photography.