The Democratization of Aerial Photography

From earliest times, humans have held a fascination with the “bird’s eye” view from above. Therefore it’s not surprising that, not long after the invention of photography, pioneers began to turn their attention to the aerial view.

The first to successfully accomplish this feat was Gaspar Felix Tournachon or “Nadar” in 1858 when he photographed the houses of the French village of Petit-Becetre from a balloon tethered at a height of 80 meters. In the years that followed, that craft benefited from advancements in aircraft, rocket, camera, and film technology. But even as image resolution and coverage improved, the craft of aerial photography remained specialized and only in the hands of those who knew how to aggregate expensive technology – if you will an oligarchy.

Fast forward to 2014, and here we are in a time when just about anybody can do it. All you need is $1,200 US, and you can buy a small ready-to-fly remote control (RC) drone like this one with a high-quality digital camera affixed to it. Turn it on, put it into the air and, viola!, you’re an aerial photographer.

This radical development came from the convergence of two technological advancements:

  1. smaller lightweight higher resolution consumer cameras, and
  2. more reliable and durable multirotor RC helicopters.

I call this convergence the democratization of aerial photography, and in this post I discuss the advancements and implications.

Consumerization of professional cameras.  For years people associated certain types of cameras with professional photographers. For the most part professional cameras were something outside the reach of consumers, and too complex for them to want to use anyway. For example, the Nikon F4 35mm single-lens reflex film camera apparently looked butch enough to other people that they assumed its users were being paid to use it professionally. I know, I had one. And in the digital age the same is true. Most DSLR cameras look exactly like their older film counterparts – even though they don’t always need to from a technical standpoint. Notwithstanding, lens and camera specifications do matter. A better image sensor and a better lens means a better picture.

Still, despite form factor differences between professional cameras and consumer cameras, they have become homogenized in many ways. Consumer cameras are lightweight and compact. You get a camera and lens in one unit that allows you to “point-and-shoot”.  Problem is these cameras now produce the same great images as larger ones do – as does this one. And for professionals not only has the price of DSLRs come down into consumer range, but the addition of automatic scene modes and programming capability has effectively transformed the DSLR into a high-quality point-and-shoot device (with more advanced modes still available if you want to use them).

Enter the GoPro and the culture of ‘Good-Enough’.  While professional-grade cameras are without question exceptional, some point-and-shoot cameras now produce images suitable for professionals. Take for example the GoPro HERO camera. It started out as a consumer camera. But in only a matter of five years it has become the staple of professional camera crews around the world. From NASCAR racing to Felix Baumgartner’s incredible space jump, the wide-angle, first-person view offered by a GoPro has become a popular filming technique. Consumers love the camera too. They are lightweight and easy to use. You simply turn it on, press record, and out comes great high-definition imagery.

At first, professional photographers bristled at GoPro images. Who wants to see a video or a still shot with a lot of wide-angle distortion?  After all, the profession’s most cherished value-added service is to remove those anomalies so the customer gets clean, realistic looking imagery. But who cares anymore? It seems consumers don’t. Apparently, we are all anesthetized by the distortion defect (our eyes don’t see real life that way) as witnessed by the 15.4 million GoPro videos on YouTube. So, it is in once sense odd, but it must be acceptable.

Apply this same sensibility to photographs, and you can see where we have another problem. With the huge growth in smartphone-captured photos, we have adjusted to seeing (mostly) lower quality pictures rather than studio-quality images. Have we gotten so used to these images and their flaws that we now cannot see beyond that? And if my new phone comes with a near professional grade camera, why do I need a professional to take photographs – especially if all I do is upload them to Instagram and share them with the world? (Heck – even professionals do that.)

It may be that we are now the culture of ‘Good Enough’ and have numbed ourselves such that we no longer recognize or appreciate the value of a good-quality image. I suspect this regression applies to aerials shots as well, as witnessed by the growth in popularity of  Dronestragram.

Democratization of drones. A few years ago, remote-control multirotor helicopters were only the purview of hobbyists and makers – another oligarchy. Almost all drones come from a model aircraft background (for that matter ALL of aviation did) – and, because they were model aircraft, newbie’s wanting to join the drone revolution were required to climb a steep learning curve. Back then (only four years ago!) you had to become an expert on multiple topics – like electronics, hardware, assembly, remote control radio, flight control programming – to build and fly a drone. As the revolution began to take hold, specialized on-line global forums like RC Groups and DIY Drones flourished and droning went viral as the community cross-breed innovations.

In some ways droning was – and still may be – the Wild West.  Here’s what Bart, founder of MultiRotorForums, says in his welcome to the forum post:

“I’m writing to tell you, for all the great success you may see going on around you, multi-rotor helicopters don’t assemble themselves and there are a lot of challenges that come up well after you click the first two parts together. Before you buy, before you send [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][sic] a dime, keep in mind that these things don’t assemble themselves. Even an RTF (Ready to Fly) will become a do-it-yourself project the second you crash…”

You can read for yourself the crash and fly-away war stories on any of these forums and appreciate his words. Still, if you spend a lot of money for a drone or drone kit, it shouldn’t be money lost. The manufacturers get this. In the past four years there have been significant advancements made by companies like  DJI and 3DRobotics to improve product reliability and lower the overall learning curve such that savvy consumers can now use them. As I write here, RTFs with automated flight planning software are becoming commonplace. Nonetheless, as Bart goes on to say “…there is still a fair amount of good decision making to be done in the process of making any of them fly.”

When camera meets drone. Take a look at this latest promotional video from DJI to see what I mean when I say we are now in the age of the democratization of aerial photography. As the video alludes, taking to the sky and doing aerial photography is as simple as a motorcycle ride down a country road, It’s “fly-and-shoot” (it isn’t, but you get the point). Ready-to-fly drones like the Phantom 2 Vision and 3DR IRIS have made it possible for consumers to conduct low-altitude aerial photography at low cost. And the quality is so good that professionals like Philip Bloom use them. Even Adobe has gotten into the act. They have a Creative Cloud instructional workflow specifically for drone / GoPro users. Notwithstanding local governance on commercial use, what more do you need? The drone is cheap. The camera is cheap. The correction software is cheap.

Now I am not recommending these products, but I share all this to make a point. Advances in drones – especially multirotors – have made them the platform of choice for aerial photography. Their ubiquity has lowered the barrier-to-entry for aerial work like real-estate advertising, where a bird’s-eye view of commercial or residential properties is valued.  And so, the question now becomes: why do you need a professional when you can do it yourself?

Feel free to comment with your answer and thoughts.

Image Credit:  Wikimedia Commons – Brooklyn Museum[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]

6 thoughts on “The Democratization of Aerial Photography”

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Colin Snow

6 thoughts on “The Democratization of Aerial Photography”

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