Tools or toys?

August 28, 2014

For some months now I have been watching more and more videos online made with quadcopters and various cameras. Video and photography, like all creative pursuits have their trends, and there is no doubting that right now we are immersed in a sea (or sky) of aerial visuals. 

Just last night I posted on my personal Facebook page: "Technology never ceases to amaze me"

And after a series of coincidences this week I have decided to blog about aerial filming and photography…

It started on Monday this week, where I went to my local electrical store; a big store chain with all sorts of electronics from PCs through to TVs, white goods and camera. I went in to buy a cable, and as always decided to browse the camera section. There I saw a whole section dedicated to drones, but notably the DJI Phantom quadcopters. What surprised me was to find these products in a main stream chain electrical store. 

 

This isn't my first encounter with these machines. Back in May I was seriously considering buying one. I already have a couple of GoPro's which can be used with the Phantom's. I bought the Hero 3 back in January with the intention of using it on a future quadcopter purchase. But I have not yet taken the plunge and bought one (yet). Back in May, these quadcopters and gimbals used to stabilise the cameras could only be bought from specialist online stores, or specialist pro camera stores. The fact they have now made the "High Street" is going to have ramifications I am sure. 

In April, Philip Bloom did 3 blogs on aerial filming and it was post 2 that interested me the most: http://philipbloom.net/2014/04/23/multirotor2/

After reading this post it became very clear to me that there are significant legal considerations to using and flying one of these quadcopters. But the advancement of technology, including the reduction in prices for these quadcopters has meant they are more accessible to many more people. And for me, when I see them offered to sale to consumers through high street chains, I know the clock is ticking before more legal enforcement will be introduced to restrict usage. The question then becomes are the serious filmmaking and photographic tools, or toys? 

They are not toys. But offering them for sale on the High Street alongside a full section of radio controlled toy helicopters is irresponsible. And this is exactly what I witnessed on Monday. 

On Tuesday I bought "Outdoor Photography" Magazine and another coincidence I saw this: 

 

 

US National Parks taking firm action to ban these quadcopters for use in their parks. What was I saying about restricted usage? 

This decision from the US National Parks is significant. One of the reasons I was considering purchasing a DJI was for use in wildlife photography and filmmaking. I have been following the work of Will Burrard-Lucas who had been working on developing copters specifically for wildlife filmmaking and photography http://www.burrard-lucas.com/camtraptions/copters However with the growth of the DJI products and compatibility with GoPro cameras shooting 2.7K HD, it would appear that further development for a would-be aerial photographer is no longer needed. But if you take a look at Will's film from the Serengeti (posted on the page link above) there is no doubting the potential for use in Wildlife work (I am not for one minute neglecting the potential impact on the animals). How long will it be before other national parks take the same decision as the US?

In South Africa in June this year there was a blanket wide bad on drone usage for film and photography: http://www.channel24.co.za/TV/News/Flying-camera-drones-in-South-Africa-banned-with-immediate-effect-20140530 

Once I had read that article I put all my plans on hold. 

Last night, Wednesday, I was reading my twitter feed and saw this:

This tweet from Adobe gained quiet a reaction. I have left out the responses as I think it is important to actual reflect on the question and the statement presented. 

Lets step back from drones for a minute...

Photography for me is about using the right tool to capture the image. But this is only one part of the overall process. Any photographer has to first scout the location, understand lighting, weather conditions, and composition before clicking the shutter. Those are just the basics - there is also the level of creativity you want to bring to your imagery; motion, blur, exposure time, filters, and so on. 

  • The issue with drones, isn't about the skill required or whether it is a tool or not.
  • The issue with drones is one of safety, respect and due diligence before flight and putting it to use.
  • The issue with drones is the "democratisation" of a technology that was previously used by skilled, regulated and trained professionals.
  • The issue with drones is about responsibility and responsible usage.
  • The issue with drones is that the clock is ticking…and soon enough, there will be plenty of restrictions in place that will make users take more risks to get "the shot" than they are already taking today through the "democratisation" of such tools. 

Those beautiful films you are watching right now on Vimeo of aerials are all well and good. My advice is don't let them lure you into a technology and tool without understanding the risks and implications first. The technology advancement continues to amaze me. But this is not like buying a Canon 70D at your local store. This is one technology advance that requires us as photographers to ask some serious questions about our role as responsible users. 

 

 


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