Flight of the Drones: Camera Drones Are Changing the Photography Landscape, but despite the Ease-of-Use and Stunning Possibilities, Their Use Does Not Come without Some Elements of Risk

By Wilson, Keith | Geographical, January 2017 | Go to article overview

Flight of the Drones: Camera Drones Are Changing the Photography Landscape, but despite the Ease-of-Use and Stunning Possibilities, Their Use Does Not Come without Some Elements of Risk


Wilson, Keith, Geographical


Aerial photography has come a long way since the French artist Felix Tournachon (better known as Nadar), made the first aerial photograph in 1858, from a tethered balloon around 80 metres above the village of Petit-Becetre in the Bievre Valley. Nadar's balloon was also the world's first aerial darkroom as the wet plate process of the day required him to sensitise, expose and develop the plate within 20 minutes, all from the confines of a light-tight tent In the basket of his hydrogen-filled balloon.

Fast forward nearly 160 years, and today photographers and film makers are sending cameras into the air attached to unmanned aerial vehicles, better known as drones, piloting them remotely from the ground and using a live view feed to a handheld monitor or smartphone.

Given how quickly the military has adopted drones for a deadly purpose, using the in-flight cameras to pinpoint a designated target for rocket and missile strikes, it should not surprise to learn that some of the earliest and most enthusiastic users of aerial photography in the 19th century were the military of Europe and America. During the American Civil War, the Union Army of President Lincoln used cameras in hot air balloons to make photographs of Confederate positions--these were the first attempts at aerial reconnaissance, which by the time of the First World War became a vital part of intelligence gathering on both sides of the Front.

JUNGLE PERSPECTIVE

Military involvement led to many innovative applications, such as the use of infrared film to spot enemy positions through heavy natural cover, and the development of ever-longer lenses and finer grained films to record greater detail from higher vantage points. These developments found more peaceful use in the fields of exploration and archaeology, and by the 1920s Cambridge University began using aerial photographs to analyse archaeological sites.

But probably the most inspiring and dramatic examples of aerial photography yet witnessed is the footage obtained by the BBC Natural History Unit for the broadcasting of its popular TV programmes. In the ten years between the screening of Planet Earth and the recently completed sequel Planet Earth II, the emergence of the camera drone has added a whole new perspective to the filming repertoire of cameramen. In particular, viewers who watched 'Jungles', the third episode of the six-part series, were treated to close-up footage of life at the top of the rainforest canopy.

Around 90 per cent of jungle animals live in the treetops, typically more than 100 feet above ground. In previous years, production teams had to construct scaffolds and hides--and cameramen deploy the climbing and abseiling skills of an experienced mountaineer--to get to shooting height. Even then, working from these fixed positions placed severe limitations on the scope of coverage attainable, particularly with subjects that were adept at moving fast and wide from branch to branch.

To fulfil Planet Earth's stated aim of immersing audiences in the most spectacular habitats on the planet 'and bring them eye-to-eye with the animals that live there' the producers used camera drones to provide a new aerial perspective to wildlife film-making. In addition, the latest camera-stabilisation technology adapted for use on the drones meant cameras could be completely freed from any means of fixed support to follow animals on the move, without risk of lens or camera vibration.

However, piloting a drone remotely through the jungle is not an easy task --this is a wet, dense and tangled environment full of hazards to the expensive, cinema-quality cameras. The drones could easily have crashed if they were entangled by a vine or short-circuited by falling water drops. As a result, Planet Earth II used a special custom-made, water resistant camera drone and meticulously checked every flight path with binoculars to avoid stray twigs, vines, leaves and other possible obstructions. …

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