Rebecca Wilks

Rebecca Wilks; Photographer, Teacher, Yarnellian, Do-Gooder

Thursday, October 5, 2023

Hurling Your Camera Into the Air

This article was originally published in the October 2023 issue of Focal Points, the magazine of the Sierra Club Camera Committee.

Top-down composition of Granite Dells in Watson Lake, Prescott Arizona

How it Started

I know.  I hated the sound, too.  I’m still not so crazy about it if I’m honest. I didn’t think I’d ever want to fly a drone.  My husband bought this one with the holiday check that my mom sends.  Apparently, he knew better than I did.

The aircraft is a DJI Mavic 3.  It’s easy to fly out of the box, with features including GPS-enabled return-to-home and obstacle sensing. It sports a Hasselblad 20MP 4/3 CMOS camera with 12+ stops of dynamic range and a 24mm equivalent focal length.  There’s also a camera with 162mm equivalent focal length which I rarely use because of its lower resolution, though it can be useful for scouting.

Gold Butte National Monument, Nevada

I was thrilled to find that I felt comfortable flying the first time.  We were camping at Gold Butte National Monument.  The dramatic change in perspective (the “tall tripod”) blew me away.  At that point I was hooked.  Here’s my first image.  I certainly had a lot to learn. I still do, but looking at it brings back the thrill. 

Getting Started

It might be tempting to buy and fly, but there are important things to learn.  Many of them involve safety and government regulations. 

There are two ways to qualify with the FAA to fly a small (less than 55 pound) unmanned aircraft.  Recreational flying, under USC section 44809 will cover you if you’re just flying for fun. There’s a simple exam called “trust,” which will set you up with the basics of rules and regulations.

Commercial flight is covered by Part 107 (of Title 14, Code of Federal Regulations) and is required not only for paid work, but also work for barter or donated to or nonprofits, anything that’s not just for fun.  There is a loophole; you can get paid for drone work without having your part 107 if your original intent was recreational.  For example, you stumble on an important event while flying for fun and sell it to a local news station. However, that’s not going to work more than once or twice.

I work for Arizona Highways Magazine whenever they’ll have me and I do some work for nonprofits, so I did the Part 107 certification.  Even if you’ll only fly recreationally, more knowledge is almost always a good thing. Taking the test is worth the trouble.

The Part 107 exam is taken in a proctored location, and certification also requires a background check.  If you’re not already a pilot of a manned aircraft, you’ll likely benefit from a prep course to learn things like reading sectional charts, understanding airspace, and decoding aeronautical weather reports and forecasts.  I was glad to have chosen Pilot Institute’s ( preparation course, but there are several other courses also available.  

Nonprofit Work: Aerial Group image of a hometown fundraiser, Yarnell Arizona

In addition to certification of pilots, registration is required for most unmanned aircraft, and there’s a separate registration for drones belonging to recreational vs commercial pilots.  The rules here are simple; any drone weighing more than 250 grams (just over half a pound) must be registered with the FAA. Under 44809 (one registration for each pilot, regardless of the number of aircraft) and a separate registration for each small, unmanned aircraft regardless of weight for part 107.

As of mid-September 2023, all drones are required to broadcast “remote ID,” which lets law enforcement (and unfortunately the public through a phone app) know who is flying the drone and from where.  Aircraft purchased after approximately September 2022 come with this capability, and older ones need a retrofit. Due to an outpouring of concerns, The FAA says that the deadline has not been changed, but they will not take enforcement action until March 16, 2024.

Top-down image of a Sahuaro Cactus, Maricopa County, Arizona

There are, as you might imagine, quite a few regulations regarding flight.  Here are the highlights. 

  • ·        The altitude limit is 400 ft above ground level (not above the pilot).
  • ·        The pilot or visual observer must be able to see the aircraft throughout the flight.
  • ·        Night flights are allowed under part 107 with proper anti-collision lights.
  • ·        There are places one can’t fly (National Parks and wilderness areas, for example), and places where permission is required (like within an airport’s airspace).
  • ·        Pilots are also responsible to be aware of Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs) – no-fly zones for things like the Super Bowl and Presidential travel. 
  • ·        Flying directly over people and moving vehicles is complicated in a regulatory sense.  The bottom line is usually to simply not do it.

Here’s another loophole: in most National Parks and wilderness areas, it’s legal to take off outside the boundaries and fly in.  I was advised to do just that by a ranger in one of the Mojave Desert federal properties.  However, just because you can doesn’t mean you should.  These restrictions exist for good reasons, and we should not be weenies.  Incidentally, Grand Canyon National Park is not included in this loophole.  They have a different kind of restricted airspace.

My van in a top-down campsite view, Along a tributary of the Salmon River, Idaho

Then there’s etiquette.  For example, don’t fly near enough to others to be annoying, and don’t even give the appearance of spying on people.  If folks ask you not to do something, comply if possible.

This video is a good place to start if you’re interested in more information:

There is an inordinate amount of anger out there about drones.  People sometimes feel that the aircraft threaten their privacy. We also hear the phrase “drone attack” on the news, leaving a less than positive feeling, even for the non-violent buzzers. It can be helpful to know something about the neighborhood you’re flying in.  There are more than a few cases of unmanned aircraft being shot down by the angry, and it’s a small consolation that that shooter, who is very unlikely to be caught, has committed a federal offense.

Sunflowers top-down

A word to the wise

I have a dorky dayglow yellow vest from Amazon.  On the back is printed “FAA Licensed drone pilot; do not disturb.” It gives me credibility, makes folks less likely to distract me with conversation while I’m flying, and makes me look like I’m supposed to be there. Recently, while photographing a sunflower field, a TV news drone pilot saw my vest and let me know he would be flying a drone nearby.  We were able to avoid each other. Communication makes this stuff safer for everyone.

Tributary in the Black River Watershed, White Mountains, Arizona

Taking good drone images

I’ve pondered and learned quite a bit about the ingredients of a good drone image.  The usual compositional principles apply, of course, but visualizing what you’ll see from the higher perspective takes experience.  Strong graphic content like rivers and other lines work well. 

Spring Cottonwood Trees in the Hassayampa River Valley, Arizona

Man-made structures in a mostly natural setting can be striking, especially when shooting straight down.  Shadows become especially compelling, as does color. All these things are helpful since creating image depth using prominent foregrounds is difficult from the air.

Spring Poppies and Sahuaro, Maricopa County Arizona

A common criticism is that many drone images are shot from too high a vantage point.  Like many questions of photography, I’d respond that “it depends.”  Sometimes we just want to get separation between our subject and the horizon, for example.  In these cases, we might need just a few feet of elevation, and the images might not look like it was taken from a drone.

Moki Dugway, Utah

For top-down compositions, though, I find that I often get close to that 400 foot above ground level limit before I like the image.  Here’s an example, shot of the Moki Dugway in Utah right at that elevation. I would have flown higher if I could.

Marco casting on the East Fork of Clear Creek, Arizona

People sometimes make compelling subjects as well.  Since my husband is an avid fly fisherman, I’m compiling an angler’s portfolio.  I appreciate the unique perspective from the aircraft.

What’s Next

My next impatiently anticipated project is shooting fall color from the air.  Wish me luck?

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