What's this article about?
I’ve owned DJI drones for about 2 years. I’ve used them pretty intensely in various countries, in different conditions and for a multitude of subjects. I think it's time that I share some of my experiences with drones as travel photographer who's always on the road and tries to carry as little gear as possible.
Note: I don’t work for nor am I sponsored by any drone maker. Despite the title of this post, it makes no difference to me if you get a drone or not. Just sharing some of my own thoughts and realisations.
In this article I'll talk about: What's beneficial about drones for travel photography? How practical are they to take on the road? By the end, as the title suggests, you may very well end up wanting to get one.
LET'S TALK! I'd love to get your thoughts on drones: What do you think about them? How do you use them? Got any stories to share? Leave a comment at the bottom!
What’s so great about drones for travel photography?
The advertisements from DJI would have us believe that if you don’t have a drone, you’re missing out on something amazing. I don’t want to sound like a fanboy, but I actually agree. Here are some reasons that make drones amazing for me.
The world from above is fascinating
The first reason why I think drones are amazing doesn’t even have anything to do with making photos or videos. It starts before you even travel. A drone is an incredible gadget to satisfy the curious child in us. Seeing the world from above is fascinating. Even hovering above your house or a local park is exciting, in a childlike kind of way.
When you do start exploring with a drone, things get even more awesome. For me the drone has provided a new way to experience the places I travel to. It’s one thing to see the smaller picture from a normal human point of view. It’s something else to look down on it all. Sometimes, as with this image of fish sellers at a market in Diu, India (above) getting just a little bit off the ground gives you a totally different, unique view.
Other times, as you get up high, what you see changes completely. I can’t remember how many times I’ve found myself saying “Wow, I never imagined THIS!” Definitely the case with the image from Turkey – a herd of sheep and Mount Ararat as a backdrop (above). I knew there were many sheep, but having a bird's eye view really put things in perspective.
The impossible becomes possible
As photographers I think we all have times when we dream of being able to get a different angle at a potential photo subject.
“If only I could get a different view!” This thought has entered my mind too many times. With a drone, when it comes to choosing an angle, you’re usually only limited by your imagination.
There was absolutely no way to get this view of the fortress in Bulgaria (above) from anywhere. I'm sure there are some sorts of flights; but who needs that when you have a drone? The above photo is one of my early images with a drone. I remember how excited I was to have the ability to be so precise with where I could take my photo from.
As I already said regarding the scene at the fish market, it's sometimes only a matter of getting up 3–4 metres meters above the action to get an interesting, unique view.
When I photographed the salt workers in Gujarat, India, I felt that it would be really great to get just a little above – to show the dynamics of what was happening. There was absolutely nothing I could stand on to get high enough. In came the drone.
I realised something while shooting in the industrial area called Rustavi, in Georgia. Even if I could somehow get above certain subjects, it would be too hazardous for my health to be there physically. Wouldn't want to be inhaling those fumes, but for my Phantom drone – not an issue.
Surprisingly easy to use
Before I bought my first Phantom I bought a cheap SYMA X drone to practice with (search on eBay for SYMA drone if you want one). That little thing wasn't so easy to fly. While a good toy to practice on, it didn't just hover in one spot, it needed constant attention. Look away and it's moved off into a tree.
For some reason I thought that the Phantom might be even more difficult to fly, but to my surprise, it wasn't. Flying it is actually ridiculously easy. If you've played video games you can fly a drone.
An incredible record of the places you travel to
Over the years I’ve seen so many stunning places. I can only imagine what some of them would have looked like from above. How I wish I had a drone when I traveled through the Sahara in Mauritania. And that camel race from above... would have been so epic!
Unfortunately I didn’t have a drone back in those days. I’ve got no idea whether I’ll ever go back and if I do, things might be very different. Places change. Rules change. In parts of the world it’s already illegal to fly a drone in certain public areas without a whole lot of paperwork. Part of the reason why I got a drone is not to miss out on the opportunities to record as many of the amazing places that I visit as possible from above, while I still can!
I saw a TED video (pretty amazing video) with drones playing ping-pong and doing all sorts of other crazy stuff. What companies like DJI have given us seems to have just scratched the surface of what’s possible. Even so, there’s already quite a lot of sophisticated features available to consumers.
For the photographer the most amazing feature is probably the gimbal, which keeps the camera steady even in windy conditions. The photo of the fortress in Southern Turkey is a good example of this. It was pretty windy, but I wanted those waves a little blurred. I set the shutter speed to 1/2s and managed to blur the waves, but not the fortress.
Some say a DJI drone is like a tripod in the sky. Apparently, in good conditions a Phantom can shoot 8-second-long exposures without blur. I can attest to doing 6 seconds with decent results.
If you shoot video, there more features that you’ll find really useful – like the ability to follow moving subjects, circling around them automatically, or even just programming a smooth flight from point A to point B (that's what I did in the above video). And, who doesn’t shoot video these days? Even if you don’t want to end up spending hours editing something, you can make short fun videos to post to your Instagram or Facebook.
DJI Phantoms – great Drones, but great for travel?
I already mentioned that I own DJI drones. I figured early that they were the main player for what I wanted. Seems that I was right. DJI have the most dedication and the most money to pump into bringing innovative features to consumers. You've got to appreciate that they're actually doing this.
My first two drones were the Phantom 3 Pro and the Phantom 4. Very happy with both. However, there’s a reason why my almost new Phantom 4 stayed in my car in Georgia when I left. Yes, it's relatively compact for what it is, but these drones are still too large to transport around the world without hassles. I used to do this by putting the drone into the protective shell backpack and I’d pack that into my regular, large backpack – my checkin luggage. The problem is that I’d have to leave out quite many other things to fit the protective shell backpack in there. Before I flew to South America I gave up on the idea of transporting the Phantom this way.
Here’s another very first world, but very relevant drone problem. It takes a few minutes to get the Phantoms up into the air. This is mostly because you need to screw on the propellers before every flight. Unless you have someone holding the drone for you, you’ll also need to unscrew the propellers and to pack the machine away for even a short car trip. It’s a little risky to drive around with the drone in its’ ready-to-fly state on an empty car seat for example. A sudden stop and a fall can result in gimbal and propeller damage.
I’m not saying that it’s impossible to travel with the Phantoms. It’s very possible. I even took my Phantom 3 while I was riding around India on a motorbike. However, it takes a bit more planning, there's hassle and it’s a lot easier if someone is with you to help.
The game changing Mavic
Everyone online initially raved about how amazing the Mavic was. Then people started bashing on it for inferior camera quality and stability. From my observations, it is a little less stable, which makes sense, since it’s smaller, but it's nothing too dramatic. The image quality on the other hand seems just as good to my eyes. There’s also a less wide field of view on the Mavic, but I much prefer this, since there’s less distortion. In all honesty, if you really need to get a wider shot – just fly up or away from your subject.
Above anything else the Mavic is an absolute game changer. During my India motorbike trip with the Phantom, I thought – Won’t it be great when drones become as ubiquitous, as easy to use and to travel with as regular cameras? Seems that with the Mavic we’re almost there.
As many already know, the main selling point of the Mavic is its' size and the ease of setup. Ever since I got mine in Colombia I can’t emphasise enough the convenience of having a powerful, little machine that fits into a normal camera backpack, along with my other gear. And to set it up? No more screwing on of propellers. Unfold, stick the phone (or iPad) into the remote and off you go. I still pack it up when I drive around, but this is so quick that I really don’t dread doing it much.
So, Why do you need a drone?
By now, the benefits of bringing a drone with you when you travel should be pretty obvious. Of course, you would have realised that I’m ultimately referring to the Mavic as the ideal travel companion in the drone world. I’ll reiterate, I’m not trying to sell you a drone. If you’re one of the folks who’s anti drone for whatever reason, you’re most welcome to continue being anti-drone.
We’re living in an incredibly exciting time technologically. It’s true that soon, with more people using drones there will be more boring drone images than ever. However, that’s not the point.
The point is that we have these amazing tools in our hands now. Out of every 1,000 shitty, uninspiring drone photographs that are posted online there will more than likely be at least one which is absolutely mind-blowingly amazing. That’s what excites me – the possibility of seeing the world in a different way, of pushing the boundaries and the fact that virtually any one of us has the power to do it.
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