Photographer Justin Reznick and content producer Matt Fishbach discuss the changing face of aerial photography in the quadcopter era.
- Hi, I'm Justin Reznick, and I've been fortunate to do a course for lynda.com on aerial photography in New Zealand. You know, for the past three years I've been really focused on getting up in the air as much as possible. Just this past year, I've had the chance to be in a helicopter, Lake Powell in the southwest, Iceland and Namibia. It's just been incredible. Now, throughout this whole process I've never, ever lost sight of an incredible movement that's going on, and ever since the very first DGI Phantom, I've been wanting a quad, but I've been waiting, patiently.
Now, without my personal experience to really share, share with you guys about what that's all about, we've got, very fortunate to have, a lynda.com producer. We have Matt Fishbach here with us to share his thoughts on quadcopter photography. And, I'd like to start off just by asking you, how did you get into this movement, and where do you see the marketplace going? - Absolutely. I would say I probably got into it, because, like a lot of people, I think I have a little bit of that Icarus Syndrome in me, just that desire to fly like a bird and see things from above.
So when one of the more affordable quadcopters first came out, it was the Phantom 1 from DJI. Yeah, I picked one up. My wife went crazy 'cause of the cost, but it was worth it. But anyway, I picked one up and found it's amazingly easy to fly, very fast to learn, and you can get some really impressive results just using a GoPro kind of camera. You can bring it back and process it. It's just a lot of fun. What's interesting to me has been, in the last three years, the pace of the evolution of quads has been just unbelievable.
I now have the Phantom 3, which is easier to control. It's pretty much better in every way. It also sends live video back to you as it's flying. So not only can you record the results of what you're doing, getting video or still images, but you can actually see from its perspective while you're flying. And, to me, in some ways, that vicarious experience is the even more appealing part of it. Something I'd love to know is, I've been fooling around the last couple years with quads, as we kinda call them for short, but I would love to hear more about like what does it take to do the fine art photography that you've been doing up to now.
Because I kind of imagine is, you've gotta have a $1 million camera and incredibly expensive planes or helicopters to get around. So I'm wondering like what does it actually take to do what you do? - Oh yeah, I'd love to talk about how I got involved. It started with Cessnas. Now Cessnas are small aircraft that are everywhere. You can find them on all corners of the planet, and they're actually pretty affordable to charter. And so I've been pretty fortunate, being able to take groups and going up in Cessnas in a reasonable price. And once you get up there, you're able to use your very own camera.
And what's so great about that is, if I'm on the ground shooting a standard landscape scene with, for example, my Canon 6D, and 24-70 lens, when I go up in the air, it's the same thing. So you don't have to learn a new system. I've got the same tools with me. I can switch lenses in the air and can go from a 24-70 to a 70-200. I can even have two bodies at the same time and switch as I'm going. So, really creating fine art up there, it's so advantageous to have your own gear. Now, part of it, though, Cessnas are difficult.
You have requirements on how low you're able to be to the ground, depending on what country you're in. They often have to stick to a very specific flight plan. So, the past year I've been really focused on helicopters. And it's really changed the game for me. Being in a helicopter, early this year in Lake Powell, we went out to this place called Reflection Canyon, which is just stunning. And I told the pilot, "You know, I wanna shoot it, you know, at this height," and he would just circle at that height. And then I'd say, "Stop here," and he'd stop and hover.
I'd say, "Go lower." And we spent just 45 minutes just focused on this. The year before I was in a Cessna, and it was just (imitates plane whooshing) I mean, it was like one shot, gone! (chuckles) So the helicopter's been amazing. So, since then, we did, clients and I, we did some in Namibia, and then recently I was in Iceland for a five hour aerial flight. The helicopter, up, down, backwards, forwards, I mean, just, just phenomenal. So that's really helped me to focus on creating that imagery by having the ability to really pinpoint where I'm shooting from, and then have the ability to choose the camera and lenses that I want to use.
And one of the things that's really, I've been kinda waiting to get into the quad market, is I wanna use cameras that can produce fine art images. And I know if you spend 10 or $20,000, I could attach a DSLR. But, I'll tell you, honestly, I'm really scared about spending all that money and having an accident happen, you know? The last thing I wanna do is spend $15,000 and crash a drone. But, I feel comfortable. I think one to two, maybe 3,000, in that range, I might be interested. But can you kinda tell me where we're at in terms of producing quality images with a drone that comes in between one to $3,000? - Well, you bring up an excellent point, which is cost is one of the central factors to what you can do with, quads or in drone technology.
Interesting, quads, that term itself means, here's a flying device with four propellers. There's definitely quads from DJI and from other companies that have five, six, eight, propellers. They can fly higher and faster. They can carry bigger payloads. They tend to be more expensive. You can go up into the five, $10,000 range to get something that not only flies well, but has a gimbal to get rid of vibration that you could put a custom, the camera or videocamera you want that weighs five pounds.
There are devices that can do this. But you gotta spend a lot more money. And the integration is a lot more difficult. Like you have to be much more of a tech kind of person to get all those components working together. But you get down into the 1,000 to $2,000 range, you can get quads nowadays like the DJI Phantom 3, which comes with a custom camera built in, just nice. It's actually not like a GoPro, which is a super-wide angle lens, about 120 degrees, which I don't really like. I mean, everything's fish-eye. The Phantom 3 uses about a 90 degree lens, so it has a much tighter kinda perspective.
I'm not sure what that would translate to in terms of focal length, but... The video quality is pretty good. It's right on the edge of almost professional. You can shoot at 1080p, at 60 frames a second. They have higher-end, and they do have one that does a 4K model. Their Inspire is even a little bit better in the camera quality. The still photography, so-so. It's kinda 12 megapixel. And you generally don't have nearly as much control as with, I used to do a fair amount of still photography on the ground and you can't control a lot of settings of the camera.
Current Phantom 3 camera, you can't actually zoom in. It's a fixed focal length. So if you want to get closer, you need to literally fly closer. Which is fine, unless you happen to be flying over people. You don't really wanna bump into them. So, to me, I think part of it, it's cost is a big issue, but it's also the rate of change is pretty astonishing. I mean, for 1,400 bucks now you can get something that takes, certainly video that you do want to put on YouTube. Would it make it in a National Geographic documentary? Probably not. But I suspect, in the not-too-distant future, that professional-level quality is gonna be available even for a grand.
So, something I actually wanted to ask you about is, I've noticed that in doing just sort of amateur videos and stills with the quad, you end up often with footage, some of it's gorgeous, but often you have a lot of problems you wanna deal with. You can get this thing called jello, where the whole effect kinda gets this weird, jello shaky effect. You can get a lot of problems with lighting and the control of the camera. I was wondering, like how do you deal with that stuff? And a lot of that you can deal with in post, if you wanna spend a lot of time fooling around with your video.
But I'm wondering, like how do you deal with those sorts of issues for the fine art photography you do in the air? - Well, because I'm able to control the parameters of the camera I'm using and the lens I'm using, it's very similar to what I'm doing on the ground. Now, I have to achieve much faster shutter speeds. And I talk in great detail about that in my course on aerial photography. And once I've achieved those fast shutter speeds, I'm able to create sharp images. A common thing you find is that, especially when you have kinda sunlight coming in, is you do get quite a bit of haze.
So in the new Lightroom CC they have a de-haze tool, which is very effective. So, I wanna show you kind of a side-by-side image of an image without the de-haze and added. And you can kinda see how a simple adjustment in Lightroom makes a huge difference in bringing out the contrast of an image. But overall, I'd have to say, because you're using the same tools you're used to, that's the huge advantage of being in a helicopter or Cessna, is I get those tools with me. Now, something I really...
Another thing that's been bugging me, that I really want to hear your opinion on is that, I feel like the more I wanna get into using quads, and I feel like I'm doing a good job being patient, I normally jump on the latest, greatest gear, but, like you said, just wait a little bit longer and it just keeps getting better. But I also worry that increasingly, it's being banned from national parks and state parks and the places that I would tend to go use them. So, where are we at? I mean, are we gonna be able to fly these a couple years from now? - That is an excellent question and I wish I knew the answer.
I think a lot of it comes down to how people behave with drones and with quads, and all these flying cameras, as I tend to call them, just a flying camera. What are people gonna do in the next five years? Because, I've actually spoken to a couple police officers. I was at a music event where a drone flew overhead and afterwards I asked them like "What are the laws right now if there's a drone "that feels like it's invading your space? "Could you knock it out of the air with a frisbee?" And their answer was, for the most part, that all this technology is way ahead of the law at the moment.
So I think, I'm hoping that there's going to be a concerted effort sort of in the community for people to come up with good behavior. Some of it being, like, don't fly below a certain height when you're over crowds of people, for instance. And don't abuse the fact that if you're in a lot of natural settings, many people are there for the nature and the wildness. They don't necessarily want some piece of technology roaring overhead. So, respecting some of the rules that are currently there, and even just being aware of other people, I think, is gonna help them find their place.
But where it's gonna go right now, I don't know. You may be right that five years from now, you can't use drones in a lot of these places and you'll have to rent a helicopter. In some ways I think that would be a shame because there are so many aspects of using aerial cameras that, I think, is really liberating. You can just go to a lot of just beautiful places and really just enjoy it from on high, from a different perspective. I mean, half the time when I take the Phantom 3 out, I don't actually hit the record button. A lot of times I'll send it up to a nice height and see some beautiful spot, turn off some of the GPS controls, and let it drift in the wind, and I just watch the imagery in real-time.
And it's really beautiful, and that's enough. Other times, you wanna record what you're doing or you've got friends doing some cool event and you wanna get some great footage of that. But, I think for some people, some of these flying cameras, it's more than just the next step, the next age of selfieness, and wanting to have some awesome image. One thing, I do think it helps is, some of the courses in the library, in the training library we have here actually talk about a lot of different aspects of drones. Not only the technical aspects of how to fly them, how to get good image results, but a little bit about the parameters of, like, where it's appropriate and legal to use them.
But, I mean, the short answer to your question is, who knows where this technology is gonna go. So one interesting thing I've noticed in, I think, a difference between these two realms, is that for a lot of quad technology, you've basically have a single pilot. You've got, you're sitting there trying to fly this thing, but also, trying to actually pay attention to the imagery and get good shots at the same time, which can be really problematic. You were talking about worrying about your $20,000 camera. When I had the first Phantom 1, I crashed the thing, like, 30 times.
It's really hard to do both of those things at once. And some of the manufacturers are aware of this. They're starting to build it so that you can split apart the roles. That one person can kinda become cinematographer and control the camera and see what's going on, and the other person concentrates on flying. But I was wondering, do you think that that's an advantage to more traditional, like, fine arts photography, is the fact that you've got a professional pilot who's worrying about the flying and you can concentrate on the imagery that you're trying to get? - Absolutely. I mean, being in the jump seat of a helicopter with no door, and literally just hanging out-- - There's no door? - [Justin] And no door.
And you're just hanging out, and the wind's hitting you-- - No seat belt either? - Seat belt. Although, the last flight I was on, instead of putting a harness on us, they just put a little tape around the seat belt. (laughs) - Nice. - It was pretty scary. So, there's a piece of tape keeping me alive. Okay. So, but just focusing, and yeah, the flight is just, you don't even think about it, and you feel perfectly safe. These pilots are just, I've had such luck with great pilots. Typically, if you have somebody who flies a helicopter every day for decades, they tend to be just amazing, and being able to yell.
You're mic-ed up, of course, and just be like, "Hey, you know, do that again," or, "Go lower," that ability to communicate, so. Yeah, I think knowing that your only goal is to focus on making the image, that's it. I think that definitely is an advantage for being in that helicopter, or being in a Cessna. You know, and one of the advantages, I think, that I have is the ability to, well, there's two advantages I wanted to bring up and see what you thought about them from your perspective with quads, is that I can go great distances.
So, I'm not limited by a road or an access point, and say, "Oh, we need to go do something 30 miles out," we just go. So, I guess one of my questions is, quads, what kinda range there are and what kinda range are we getting to with them? And then the second thing is, I tend to shoot in pretty extreme environments at times. And, when I was just photographing in Iceland, we were in 60 mile-per-hour winds. And in a helicopter, you can fly in 60 mile-per-hour winds, no problem, as long as you don't have a mountain kind of, pushing the winds in different directions.
As long as you're out, over. And, it's completely steady. And what we do, is funny, is you land the helicopter and you get out to switch seats so that people have turn, you know. - Different angles, different perspectives. - [Justin] Exactly, yeah. And you get out of the helicopter and you get blown over. And you're going, "How on earth is this pilot flying this?" But you can. That's one of the luxuries. So, yeah, so I want to hear about range and how is that going to improve, and then, what are the conditions? Can you fly in wind? Can you fly in rain? Can you do things like that? - You know, it's interesting, I have a feeling, over time, we're gonna end up using all these different tools in specialized areas where they work best.
But some of what I've experienced with quads is, again, it depends on the strength of it. But most of them can handle winds of maybe 20, 30 miles-an-hour. The DJI, the Phantom 3 can handle maybe a 25 mile-an-hour wind. More than that. It has trouble even keeping position in the sky. And I've had times where you can fly downwind in a stiff wind and it really has trouble getting back to you. So far, I've never had to like, land it and go get it. So let's just go through some of the things you talked about. In terms of long-distance range, currently, the reason we call these things quads, they're not drones.
Drones, not only do drones have sort of the negative connotation of, these are things that militaries use to spy and to kill people. But drones are actually, like, autonomous flying devices that generally talk to satellites. So they can fly for 100s of miles. These things we're talking about are basically line-of-sight remote-control devices. They're a few steps more advanced versions of remote-control helicopters that people had 10 years ago. So, if you wanna make it go 30 miles away, it's not gonna happen. At most, a lot of these have a mile, mile-and-1/2 range right now, which is kind of remarkable, 'cause if you're talking about a quad that's about this big, when it gets 800 feet away, you can't even see it visually anymore.
It just becomes invisible in the sky. At 1,000 feet, I mean, 800 feet, you don't see it, you can't hear it, it's totally invisible. And they can go to 6,000 feet. But if you want to get it deep inside some gorgeous canyon, you gotta go there. So, a lot of it is. And to me, I kinda like that, because it makes me get some exercise. I can strap this thing in a backpack. And all these companies now have great ways to put it in some padded armor, and take it on a 20-mile hike, and when you're in some spot, you can send up the drone and get amazing imagery.
We talked about other situations where drones might have an advantage over things like helicopters would be unsafe conditions. People are doing imagery now of literally flying 30-feet above active volcanoes. People have flown them through fireworks shows, which was some amazing footage, but you gotta balance that against what we're talking about the social factor is, this past July 4th, here in Ventura, California, we saw not one, not two, four drones were in the air watching the fireworks that we were all watching.
And it wasn't so nice as an experience for all of us on the ground watching these little red dots flying around up there. So I think that that's something that people have to start becoming aware of, and, that when I talk about social protocols of the future, one of them may be, like, "Don't fly your drone into fireworks shows "'cause it ruins it for everybody else." And, I know they're already passing laws for don't fly a quad over active major sporting events. It's now illegal to fly it over like an NFL football game, as it should be. Let me think of some other situations.
You asked about distance, range... - I want to follow up on something you said. You talked about if you want to go into the canyon, you're gonna take it with you. Now, flying... Fortunately, I get to do workshops all over the world, and I'm on all sorts of different planes. And the carry-on restrictions and the weight restrictions have changed drastically and it's becoming very difficult to even bring camera gear, you know? And you desperately just want to shoot mirrorless. Bringing a DSLR, bringing two bodies and cameras, you go to fly and they say, "Oh, you know, seven kilograms, that's your limit." And you can't check your camera gear.
You don't want to check. You want to carry it on. So, there's this huge problem, just being a still photographer traveling. Now you're talking about adding a drone to the mix. So what are we looking at in terms of... Is this something you feel safe checking? Is this another carry-on we're talking about? How much luggage space is this gonna take? - That's a great question. I think one thing, the advantage that drones have is because they need to keep the hardware as light as possible to maximize flight times. And by the way, a lot of the drones nowadays are like, 20 to 25 minutes of flight time, per battery.
And then you might have four batteries, so you bring it back and put it up again, you got another 20 minutes. But, as it is right now, the Phantom 3 only weighs about a pound and 1/2. And if you put it in a nice little pad, and then all kinds of third-party manufacturers make these padded cases. You can put everything in there. It's actually very padded and secure. And then the batteries, you would probably, I'd wrap those up in bubble wrap and put them in my checked luggage, 'cause there are restrictions against, like, lithium coming through in different situations.
But, in general, they're not that heavy, so you really can take them traveling. And, even when you talk about backpacking. I used to have about a six-pound monster, my old dad's old Nikkormat, all glass, took these beautiful shots, and I never wanted to take it into the wilderness in a long hike 'cause it weighed so much. And this stuff is getting so light that it's not that big a deal to hike with it. - So, being a landscape photographer, I've been part of a great community and I've made a lot of friends. And I'm kind of curious, in the world of quads, is it like that as well? I mean, do you have people that you've met through this wonderful expression of aerial photography? Because, when I do my Cessnas and helicopters, it's, you don't have a bunch of people that get to do it.
Very few people are lucky enough to do it. But with drone, or with quads being kind of an entry-level thing, do you find that there's a community around it? - Absolutely. It's interesting, is I kinda feel like this whole trend, it's like a great democratization of the air. We're a terrestrial species, but I think a lot of us have wanted to want to see the world from above, to have that kind of a different perspective on things. And I've been amazed. Just last weekend I was in Santa Barbara, doing a little footage of some colleagues here at lynda.com who were in a paddling race.
And what surprised me the most was the fact that when I asked some of the people around me, I kinda went into the shade in the beach and I said, "Do you mind if I put this aerial camera in the air "to get some footage of my friends?" And not only were they enthusiastic, but their kids like mobbed me. Like, I'm sitting here trying to fly this expensive thing and there's like four-year-olds sitting in my shoulders watching the image on it and they want to take over the controls. And, I mean, it was amazing the level of enthusiasm for what they were seeing, of a kind of just a whole different perspective on life. And I think that's a really great thing. The negative side if you talk about democracy of the air is that democracy is kinda messy and it's based on conflict and resolving conflict.
And right now, there's, I think people are figuring out what are ways to be responsible with these kinds of devices. Now that I think about it, I know that coming up in our training library, we have a documentary that's specifically about aerial photography and videography, and sort of the evolution of it. So, people who've been leaders in that field and where it's going as sort of a cultural phenomena. And I think people should definitely watch that course 'cause it'll give them a good sense of some of the dos and don'ts, what are ways to be responsible with aerial photography and how to avoid doing the things that are gonna make other people angry.
I think there's fantastic potential in this kind of technology, but I think people, there's a lot of potential for it to be abused. So I think that there's really gonna have to be a lot of community dialogue to figure out the right balance. - So it sounds like, really it's about educating the public on being responsible, and then hopefully we will have this technology going forward. I really want to thank you for sharing your time with us, and it's great to talk to an enthusiast who's so passionate about quads.
It's something, I think, one day I'll get into. I just don't think I can avoid it, you know? In the meantime, I've been really lucky to be able to go up in a helicopter and a Cessna, and, let's see, five years from now. Maybe those things get merged even more. So, yeah, thank you for being here. - Well, thank you so much for having me here, and when you're ready, I will teach you everything I know about quads, if you will take me on a helicopter ride in Iceland. - Sounds like a good deal. (chuckles) And thank you so much for joining our conversation.
I hope you enjoyed it. If you're interested at all in aerial photography, please check out my course, Aerial Photography from New Zealand. And if you're interested in learning more about quads, we have some courses in our online library, as well as a documentary that we're incredibly excited to share with you. So, thanks again.