So You Want to Shoot Aerial Photography Using Drones?

Photographer and National Geographic Expert Kike Calvo Photographer and National Geographic Expert flying one of his small unmanned aerial vehicles in Madrid (Spain). Pictured: Upgraded DJI Phantom 1. Photo © Nano Calvo

This post is the latest in the Drones and Small Unmanned Aerial Systems Special Series,  which profiles interesting information, thoughts and research into using  drones, UAVs or remotely piloted vehicles for journalism and photography, that I learn about during my travels. 

If there is a question that gets asked over and over in the many emails I get in response to my Drones and Small Unmanned Aerial Systems Special Series, it is ¨What gear and components do you use in your on-going process of becoming a proficient aerial photographer and filmmaker?¨  I will devote today’s column to discuss one of my basic rigs.

One of my unmanned vehicles of choice is the DJI Phantom, both Phantom 1 and Phantom 2.  My decision is based on size, portability and reliability. With the knowledge that the experts from DSLRpros bring to the table, I have upgraded my system to include the following:

Photo © Nano Calvo

Futaba Control Radio

¨The Futaba remote control gives the Phantom nearly twice the range of the standard RC remote,¨said DSLRpros Associate Josh Hohendorf. ¨In addition to increasing range, the connection with the craft is much stronger and reduces interferences from foreign frequencies that would otherwise disrupt the flight of the craft. Its offers a variety of programmable controls that photographers and cinematographers alike can customize their remote to suit their specific shooting needs.¨

¨The Futaba can save an unlimited number of settings for any unlimited number of crafts. Controlling the camera is also superior to the standard RC system. There are two range selectors. One knob for large-scale range selection and another wheel for smooth, fine tuning within that range.¨

Photo © Nano Calvo

Carbon Fiber Propellers

For a while I debated whether I should be adding these or not. I finally went with them. ¨Carbon Fiber props are a must have for anyone using the phantom to capture visual content,¨ said Hohendorf. ¨The props are far superior to the standard plastic propellers in every way. Their rigidity prevents them from bending and warping like the plastic propellers. In addition the rigid design translates into overall handling performance of the craft. It can achieve faster speeds harder maneuvers and greater altitudes. The propellers are also precision balanced. This results in far grater efficiency over the standard plastic propellers. The craft will fly several minutes longer with the lighter and more balanced propeller. A standard propeller will produce a great deal of vibration into the frame of the craft. This means that the video being recorded will display these vibrations in the form of “jello” on the screen.  The balanced carbon propeller will eliminate any vibration into the craft and result in clean and clear visual content.¨ Warning: I suggest not installing carbon fiber propellers until you have become a proficient pilot, with a thorough understanding of the dynamics and operations of your craft, as this propellers can be more dangerous than the plastic ones due to their superior strength.

Anti Gravity Motors

¨The anti gravity motors provide advanced performance over the stock motors,¨ explains Hohendorf.  Stock motors display less efficiency in the areas of power and performance and will require disassembly and maintenance after a short while. The antigravity motors are more efficient. The motors will never require maintenance. The bearings will hold their lubrication for the life of the motor. In addition the motor will fly longer and consume less power doing so. Anti gravity motors turns at a higher revolution than the standard motors giving the craft greater speeds and longer flight times.¨

Photo © Nano Calvo

First Person View System

For those not familiar with this concept, First Person View (FPV) refers to a method used to pilot a radio-controlled vehicle from the driver or pilot’s view point. The vehicle is either driven or piloted remotely from a first-person perspective via an onboard camera, fed wirelessly to video goggles or a video monitor.¨FPV generally means RC pilots can install small cameras onto the nose of RC planes or helicopters to give the pilot a virtual sense of flying the craft onboard,¨ said Hohendorf . ¨With the advancement of technology, the cameras available to consumers have become smaller and higher in quality. Now the ability of FPV and these high quality cameras has made it possible to film large scale productions from unmanned aircrafts and see what you are recording real time on multiple receivers from the ground. Before this technology, achieving this kind of aerial production would require a large budget and real helicopters with expensive cameras attached to their nose.¨

Photo © Nano Calvo

There are a vast number of applications for civilian unmanned aerial vehicles, one of them being the field of science research. ¨One group of marine scientists used our kit to monitor migration of endangered whales,¨said Hohendorf.  ¨With the drone they were able to stay at a safe distance from the whales and monitor them undetected. This resulted in some of the most natural video ever captured of whales in the wild. Observation, before drones of this size and power, always resulted in some level of encroachment on the whale. This caused alteration in the whale’s natural behavior. The use of drones is allowing raw capture of the environment, leaving virtually no footprint and resulting in the most valuable visual content for scientists today.¨

¨I see the future of drone technology following the same business plan as the smart phone industry did, ¨ said Hohendorf.  We think that in the near future “drone” will be a household name. The technology will become so affordable most people will be able own one. As well as personal drones, we believe most companies will find that using a drone will increase efficiency and lower costs. From Amazon´s plan to use drones for delivery service, farmers using drones to monitor crops, and  local law enforcement and fire departments using them to monitor high risk situations, you will most likely not be able to walk outside without encountering a drone.¨

Photo © Nano Calvo

Flying Unmanned Vehicles is a work in progress. As pilots, we are permanently learning from our achievements and mistakes. For this reason, it is important to be informed about new technologies coming up and the new tendencies in the market. And remember, even though access to many of these machines will become increasingly easy, do not forget to have a humble approach to this technology. As scuba divers and sailors say, you should not fear the ocean, but you should never forget to profess respect to it.

Photos courtesy

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Learn More:

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Drone / UAV Dictionary: Includes 300 Commercial UAV Applications

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UAV Fundamentals Executive Course

How to Start an Unmanned Aircraft Vehicle (UAV) Business Course on DVD

Small UAV Construction

Getting Started with Hobby Quadcopters and Drones: Learn about, buy and fly these amazing aerial vehicles

Military Robots and Drones: A Reference Handbook (Contemporary World Issues)

The Media Source Presents Drones: Are They Watching You? Magazine

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Fly by Wire Aircraft: Fighters, Drones, and Airliners

Introduction to Remote Sensing, Fifth Edition