An interview with Cameron Davidson by Debra Hershkowitz
You are a prolific photographer who shoots everything from daily life around the world, to corporate boardrooms, to your personal project on watersheds. While you shoot from terra firma, you're especially known for your powerful aerial photographs; whether flat landscape or rising cityscape, your capture is always crisp and revealing. With the advent of unmanned aircraft systems (UASs), also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, you can now photograph from above while remaining planted on the ground. Please share with us your experience and expertise—the basics about this kind of shooting, the pros and cons of this new technology, and any tips for those considering “taking flight.”
Q. What percent of your shooting is aerial, drone, and on-ground?
A. About half of my work is aerial, mostly from turbine helicopters with pilots who fly for the film industry. My work on the ground is divided between annual reports, industrial images, and editorial portraits. Because of the FAA-suggested restrictions, I have not used a UAV on assignment yet. While I’ve taken them with me to test, I haven’t billed any client for the images.
Q. How often do you shoot from drones as opposed to helicopters or planes? Do you think this will increase or decrease?
A. Right now, rarely. I expect to use them more for long-term personal projects and for clients in remote locations. Shooting from a helicopter is my preferred platform. You work as a team with the client and pilot, and you can zoom and plan out shots a bit differently than with a UAV. For me, UAVs occupy the sweet spot of deadman’s curve—that low and slow altitude where you would be in the danger zone if you had to perform an autorotation in a helicopter. I like using UAVs from 60 to 200 feet, or even up to 400 feet. It gives you that low and slow perspective of intimacy with the land.
Q. Which came first... your love of flying or your love of photographing?
A. I started shooting when I was fourteen. I shot my first aerials when I was twenty-three and working on a long-term assignment in southern Maryland.
Q. How many years have you been doing aerial photography; what drew you to it?
A. I’ve shot aerials since 1979. For me, the draw was being able to show a unique viewpoint (at that time) of how mankind interacts with nature. I enjoy showing the interaction between humans, the land, and water—its impact both good and bad. In 2013 I bought a Phantom 1 and strapped a GoPro to it. It has been a long hard slog for me with UAVs. At first I thought great—another platform to shoot from. However, within a few months I lost my first DJI Phantom due to pilot error, high winds, and running the battery down as I attempted to fly against a 20-knot headwind. The UAV was lost in the mountains of Virginia near mile marker 96 on Skyline Drive. (This was before the National Park ban on them.) I’ve searched for the Phantom twice, while hiking up and down the mountain in the summer and fall. I saw a ten-point white-tailed buck from thirty feet away, but never recovered the drone or the GoPro attached to it. If someone finds it, it’s yours; please send me the SD card in the GoPro.
UAVs are much harder to fly and shoot from than people understand. DJI has made it much easier with their Phantom 2 Vision+ and the Inspire 1. However, the learning curve is tough and shooting aerials from a UAV/drone is not the same as traditional aerial photography. In my opinion, they are worlds apart.
Q. Are drones a perfect fit for you?
A. No, I have found them to be frustrating and difficult to use. I just crashed a brand-new DSLRPros Sundance Phantom rig by throwing a prop on take-off. It trashed the machine and GoPro—damage worth $1,250 the second day I owned it. But I keep trying. I own two Phantoms—an original that hosts a Sony RX 100 or GoPro and a Phantom 2. I owned a Vision 2+ that flew perfectly; I never had a hard landing with it. I flew it in GPS mode only and in early mornings with no wind.
Q. What product or style drone do you use?
Right now I use two Phantoms, which are my training wheels. The goal is to jump up to a DJI 900 and fly a GH4 camera on it, or to a future-generation DJI Inspire with decent camera and megapixel count—if that becomes available. Also, GoPro may bring a drone to the market, which could be incredible.
Q. How much training is needed to operate one safely and responsibly?
That’s the key—training and flight practice, and using a checklist, just like a traditional pilot. Go slow, take lessons, fly hours and hours. Then slowly introduce shooting with a camera attached to the quad. As a licensed pilot I speak and understand the same language that helicopter and fixed-wing pilots use. Getting my pilot’s license made me a much better aerial photographer.
Q. In general, are drones difficult to control?
A. Yes. They are flying lawnmowers with four, six or eight propellers.
The new DJI Phantom and Inspire, when kept in GPS mode and flown slowly, are easy to control as long as you set them up right and establish your GPS position before flying.
Q. Do you think most people present a public hazard when trying to use them?
No, I don’t. However, the FAA agreement with Radio Controlled aircraft groups is a good standard to abide by: Don’t fly within five miles of an airport or above 400 feet.
Many drone users chafe at the idea of restrictions but these rules make sense if you understand how they came about, and see airspace from a pilot’s perspective. The basic premise for US, Canadian, and any other airspace that uses VFR (visual flight rules) is: see and avoid. An example: Fixed-wing aircraft generally do not go below 500 feet except during take-off or landing. Helicopters do fly lower, but often slower and with greater visibility forward and to the sides. A DJI Phantom is capable of quickly attaining altitude of over 1,000 feet. It’s damn hard for an airplane pilot to see and avoid. So, if you limit quadcopters to 400 feet and require them to stay away from airports, in theory, aircraft paths should not cross. Knowing how airspaces work is essential. I recently heard about a person who was arrested for flying a quadcopter in a prohibited air zone around an important national monument, and feigned ignorance about the airspace restrictions. The key to all of this is understanding the different types of airspaces around airports, respecting those restrictions and prohibitions, and using common sense.
Q. Do you find that having a pilot's license is necessary, helpful, etc.?
A. For me, I don’t think it is needed to fly a drone. However, I do believe that a ground school of sorts would be helpful. Drone pilots should understand the complexities of airspace and how fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters operate within that airspace.
The FAA has suggested that a pilot’s license may be required, but that may be because they would then have jurisdiction. Right now, it is the Wild West, which is why I am not flying a UAV for commercial assignments.
Q. Can you share an example of a situation in which you opted for the drone instead of the helicopter, or, where the shot couldn't be captured from a plane or helicopter, making the drone the perfect solution?
A. Recently I was shooting a solar farm in the Midwest for an annual report. The assignment was ground-based. The facility was quite large and I kept thinking, wishing, I had brought my Phantom with me to shoot overviews. But I would have needed to clear it with the client beforehand and make sure there were no people underneath me when I was flying. Instead, I called the FBO (fleet based operator) at a nearby airport and spoke with them about local pilots who understood how to fly for photographers. I found a great pilot, met him at the airport, and we took off in his Cessna 172. I shot strong overviews and detailed abstracts of the solar panels. The advantages were that I could shoot from 500 to 1500 feet and use a high megapixel camera with extreme wide-angle to tight telephoto lenses. Shooting high-megapixel cameras with zoom is not an option with the smaller UAVs, which are great for wide views with a GoPro or small camera.
I did shoot a remote watershed project for a client to show them what was possible with the DJI Phantom Vision 2+. They liked the images but the image quality was not up to either of our standards.
Q. What are the advantages and disadvantages, pleasures and frustrations?
A. Advantages: quick set-up; low cost; easy to use (after you learn); ability to fly low and slow
Disadvantages: legal quagmire until the FAA finalizes rules and standards; easy to crash and destroy your equipment
Pleasures: fun to fly
Frustrations: many, among them erratic flight behavior and fly-aways (contributed to either pilot error or Wi-Fi being left on in a GoPro camera)
Q. What's been the most surprising thing, or the most unexpected result?
A. Most surprising to me was the learning curve. I’ve been around aviation for a good part of my life and I am still learning. The most important thing I’ve created for myself is a checklist for each aircraft. Also, it’s crucial to find a good dealer for a Phantom. I suggest Intelligent UAS in Maryland. They offer classes, have a great repair department, and are on top of changes in the industry.
I had spent over $3,100 for a custom rig and got squat for customer support. It is a bit of a circus out there with dealers and hobbyists. DJI is making strides by bringing everything together in an easy-to-use ship (Phantom 2 Vision+ and the Inspire.) However, their cameras are the weak link for stills shooters. Rumor is that GoPro will introduce a UAV. I expect, if they do, that it will be a well-designed unit.
Q. Can you envision any other uses?
A. I see a world of uses from crop inspection, to checking brakes on rail cars, to finding people lost in the woods, to environmental-damage observation, to border patrol.
• THE LAW: FAA REGULATIONS
Q. Can you speak about—perhaps simplify—the FAA regulations as they try to catch up with this new technology?
A. That’s tough because it keeps moving. The FAA has taken a hard-line approach but is behind the curve on understanding an industry that is rapidly changing. Right now, there are no new regulations other than the mindset of prohibiting most commercial usage. Non-commercial usage is pretty much the same as RC (radio controlled) usage guidelines, which leaves everyone in a sort of legal never-never land. Right now, you cannot shoot a commercial assignment with a UAV, although there are thousands of people doing it. The FAA has shut down a few studios and tried to prosecute others. Because I have a pilot’s license, I decided not to shoot any assignment work with a UAV until the rulings are clearer. I have shot a few client projects as tests, to see if I was happy with the results. I wasn’t. The DJI Phantom 2 Vision+ is fine for web use and the real estate market, but I can’t see it being used for advertising, editorial or annual reports.
Q. Is the FAA requiring a pilot's license?
A. Not now, but the suggested ruling includes having a pilot’s license as a requirement to fly a UAV.
Q. There’s been a lot in the news lately about drones posing a danger around airports. As a licensed pilot, can you share your thoughts on this?
A. I think the majority of these reports are false. John Goglia, a contributor to Forbes, recently wrote a worthy piece for the magazine that dissected a list of FAA drone “incidents” compiled by the New York Times. The majority of the “incidents” were just sightings of quadcopters in legal airspace. There is a quite a bit of politics surrounding this new type of flying. The FAA must, understandably, ensure the safety of the airspace.
Q. Have requests from clients changed recently, in which you’re being asked for images from drones? If so, do you think it's a budgetary consideration?
A. I have had two clients ask about it. One was a television network for which we did shoot a few views of a building with quadcopter. The other was interested in seeing if I could get closer to the subject than from a helicopter.
In aviation, safety comes first—something my clients value. Budget is always a consideration, but since most of my work involves shooting several locations in one flight, by the time you factor in travel time and set-up, the savings become moot—especially when you’re chasing perfect light.
Q. Will you now have more competition?
A. Of course, the bottom feeders will try to undercut anyone and will compromise quality and safety to make a buck.
A pilot I occasionally use in Richmond, Virginia, was surprised that I shot a project from a helicopter rather than use a quadcopter. I thought that was a bit strange, since the locations were spread across thirty miles and some were within a five-mile radius of an airport.
Q. Where do you think the technology is going?
A. DJI is showing how to bring it all together in one package. I think we will see more all-in-one options in the future.
Q. How might it change your work or projects?
A. The all-in-one option, when coupled with a great camera, will be helpful to me for the ease of use.
Q. Any thoughts about people’s privacy—their personal space—being breached?
A. I think it will happen—occasionally. Never from me. But you know, certain TV networks will drum up a “threat” to privacy and get people riled up.
Q. What are your thoughts on the use of drones for commercial photography, in general?
A. They are tools—just like cranes, ladders, helicopters, blimps, masts, and tossing a camera up in the air.
Q. Can you help us understand the various distinctions now being discussed—e.g. "commercial" vs. private use?
A. As I understand it—and this a very broad interpretation—the FAA considers commercial use when there is the “possibility” of gain, and that includes stock photography. So, if you shoot a personal picture for yourself of waves breaking on a beach and you show it as a print in your living room, it’s personal use. When you place that image into a stock library, it then becomes commercial. Go figure.
Q. Do you have any tips to share with photographers interested in using drones?
A. Take lessons. Go to a ground school at your local airport to understand airspace regulations and the language. Practice hours and hours before you fly your camera. Buy a DroneX logbook and start logging your flights. It may be needed if a UAV license becomes required.
Looking into drones for yourself? Cameron offers five things you should know or use.