Pie in the sky? …….. Part 1

Stenhouse Reservoir. Image courtesy of Ian Muir Photography
Stenhouse Reservoir. Image courtesy of Ian Muir Photography

With rapidly falling prices, easy availability and diminishing size putting drones firmly on many Christmas wish-lists, the big question remains: can they be used in photography both safely and without causing harm or annoyance to others? In this two-part article Fiona Wallace takes a look at these gadgets to see what the situation is.

Using drones commercially for taking photographs is far from new. They are widely used in several industries including construction, real estate and offshore exploration, and drone videography is an established feature of documentaries, travel and natural history programmes, having taken over from expensive manned aircraft-based aerial photography.

Forth bridges from Carlingnose Point. Image courtesy of Ian Muir Photography
Forth bridges from Carlingnose Point. Image courtesy of Ian Muir Photography

So does sending a camera skywards bring benefits?   Watch any film or documentary where the camera soars over mountain tops revealing stunning views of sweeping landscapes, and the answer is clear. Drones open up previously inaccessible locations and let photographers capture previously impossible angles on their subject, be it coastlines, wildlife, buildings and so on. They are also reasonably inexpensive and if used correctly won’t put anyone’s life at risk.

Anna Henly of Going Digital Scotland says enthusiastically: “Owning a drone is simply awesome, and I don’t use this word very often. They give you an extra viewpoint and add variety to your shots, just like having extra focal length.”

Safety First

Choose a wide open area for your early flight practice (after checking you are not in an airport flight restriction zone) and take someone with you to act as lookout

Anna quickly points out that when flying a remotely controlled device, safety is paramount. With only commercial operators currently required to hold certification, there are a lot of untrained, inexperienced and simply downright irresponsible drone flyers out there.  Says Anna – herself a certificated drone pilot who runs drone pilot workshops through Going Digital Scotland: “One of the reasons the public hate drones is there are too many amateurs who are completely oblivious to the rules of safe responsible flying.”  So before we even consider how to take images with a drone, looking at how to do so safely and legally is essential.   Top of the list are:

  1. Know the law:  increased drone use means regulations and laws are constantly being reviewed. You must know what you can and can’t do, and specifically where you can and cannot fly.  The best reference in the UK is https://dronesafe.uk/   where you the Drone Code, developed by the CAA and NATS, is available to download free of charge. Key information includes that an amateur drone operator cannot fly above 400ft / 120m, or within 50 metres of people and buildings, or within 150metres of crowds and built up areas. There are also strict regulations governing proximity to airports.  The exact distance varies at different airports, so you must establish your local airport’s flight restriction zone.
  2. Know how to operate your device: Make sure you know precisely how your device works. Specifically, you must establish if your drone is GPS enabled as certain aspects of functionality are only available with GPS models.  The Drone Code makes it clear that every time you use your drone, you must follow the manufacturer’s instructions. The Code also stresses that each and every flight is your responsibility.  Failure to fly responsibly could result in a criminal conviction. Ignorance is not a defence.
  3. Know how to fly before you shoot: Flying a drone requires a high degree of skill. Concentrate on mastering the flying aspects before you even try to shoot images.  Anna comments: “My advice is to get a proper lesson, such as the workshops we run at Going Digital Scotland. Learn the rules and develop safe flying practices. Drones are not toys and you can seriously injure yourself and others if you don’t fly with proper procedures.’ Anna even advocates that there are major advantages to obtaining a PfCO (Permit for Commercial Operation) even if you are not operating commercially – i.e. do not make money from your drone photography.

Is flying a drone easy?

Bill’s drone-captured image of a familiar landmark
Bill’s drone-captured image of a familiar landmark

Flying a drone is reasonably straightforward – but it still requires skills, knowledge and experience to do it well and safely. My own experience with clubmate Bill Smith’s drone showed me that even with my RC model flyer’s knowledge of basic concepts and safety, drone flying was far from a cakewalk despite its safety features.

These included that if I let go of the controls, a GPS enabled drone just hovers in the air. Also a feature of GPS enabled drones is that your battery will not run out mid-flight because most GPS enabled drones will return to their  take-off point when the battery gets down to a certain level. This return to home (RTH) feature can also be activated by pressing a button if you find yourself in difficulties.  Such safety features are great, but only feature on GPS enabled drones and NOT on some of the low-end ones.

Bill gives the following advice for novices who have bought a drone:

  • Check there are no restrictions on flying in the area you plan to learn in
  • Start somewhere wide open so that you don’t disturb or endanger others when you are learning to fly.
  • Take someone with you to be your lookout in case you lose sight of the device
  • Be aware of your location in relation to what’s around you. It’s easy to misjudge your position when near objects like trees and buildings.
Barnweil Monument taken from Kenny Girvan’s drone. Image courtesy of Kenny Girvan Photography
Barnweil Monument taken from Kenny Girvan’s drone. Image courtesy of Kenny Girvan Photography

Bill’s final piece of advice endorses fully Anna’s comments: “Spend time getting a feel for the controls so that you become a competent flyer before you even think about taking photos.”

 In Part 2 we will look at how to get the best out of taking stills photos with a drone. Thanks to Bill Smith of Kilmaurs PC, Anna Henly of Going Digital, Scotland, Ian Muir at https://www.ianmuirphotography.co.uk/ and Kenny Girvan at http://www.kennygirvan.co.uk/ for assistance given in these articles. Courses and workshops in how to fly drones safely are available at several locations, including Going Digital Scotland (https://www.goingdigital.co.uk/) who will let you try a drone before you commit to purchasing.