Getting Started With Aerial Photography
Up until just recently, it was not legal to use a remote control aircraft in the United States for commercial use. This has all just changed as of Feb 2014. With the commercial restrictions now gone, inexpensive and easy to fly aircraft can now take your photography, literally, to a whole new level.
This is part one of a series on how to get started with aerial photography, how to choose an aircraft, and what you can expect to achieve with these tools.
Helicopter vs Quadcopter
In the olden times, we had to use heavy, bulky, hard to fly, expensive, and fragile helicopters to loft our camera gear. You needed many many hours of simulation time and then needed to work up to larger and larger helicopters before you would dare put up a camera. Helicopters are easier to fly with modern electronics but still require extensive training and skill before risking even cheap camera gear. A bad landing with a large helicopter can easily cause several hundred dollars in damage to rotors and gears.
A multi-rotor (usually 3, 4, 6 or 7 rotors) aircraft is much easier to fly with many people getting the hang of it on their first flight. if you can fly one of those cheap $30 toy helicopters around your house, then you can fly a quadcopter. The more rotors a multi-rotor copter has, the more lifting capacity it will have and generally the more stable it will be but also, the more expensive it will be.
The great thing about modern quadcopters is that they have built-in stability control and some even have GPS functions for altitude, position, and compass hold making them fantastic platforms for photography and videography. For a quadcopter that can lift a GoPro, prices will start at a few hundred dollars and get up to around $1,000. For a quadcopter that can lift a DSLR, expect to start at around $2,000 and go up significantly from there.
The Downside of Aerial Photography
I am going to start with the negatives and get them out of the way. First off, getting good video from a lower-cost airframe is going to be challenging at best and is generally not even worth the trouble. Without a really good auto-stablizing gimble your video is going to be wobbly and certainly not have a cinematic feel to it. Windy conditions can seriously affect this situation as well as your aircraft will bounce around in the wind.
The following video was taken on a basic quadcopter right out of the box on a day with winds about 10 mph. Notice how shakey the video is and there is an odd artifacting called Jelloing which makes the video look very odd at some points.
The jello effect was fixed by carefully balancing the motors and propellers but there wasn’t anything I could do (on this quad) to improve the wobble from the wind and basic movements.
The point here is that if you are only wanting to spend a few hundred dollars, you can pretty much forget about getting really useful video out of it.
What can a cheap quadcopter be used for?
While the previous section talked about the downside of shooting video with an inexpensive quadcopter, they can be used quite well for still photography. My neighbor is selling his house so I thought I would try to get him a more interesting shot of his house than the typical ground level shot.
Here is another photo taken at a local park.
What does money get you?
We looked at what you can expect for a few hundred dollars, but what can you expect to get if you drop $900 on a DJI Phantom 2 with a stabilizing gimble (plus the cost of a GoPro Hero 3)? The following video gives you a good example of the quality you can expect:
Until you are ready to drop closer to $900-$1000, the best thing you can really get is the ability to get some good still photos. While that may be disappointing to hear, it still can open up a world of possibilities and opportunities. If you plan on flying an aircraft like this, you should look into joining the AMA as their membership gets you a nice chunk of liability insurance. In upcoming articles we will look at other options for photography and video as well as how to make the most out of these aircraft.