Delving Into Drones

November 13, 2019

Photojournalist Peter Essick in a practice drone-flying session. The veteran photographer, who used drones in a major project on Great Lakes restoration, says learning to fly one has never been easier. Photo: Courtesy Peter Essick. Click to enlarge.
Plus, click to view drone and other images in Essick's Great Lakes photo essay.

EJ InSight: Delving Into Drones

By Peter Essick

Learning to fly a drone should not be a task taken lightly, but it isn’t all that difficult either. In the end, the total time and cost involved depends on the type of aerial photos you would like to produce. More complex assignments require a higher quality drone.

However, learning to fly a drone — or unmanned aircraft system, as defined by the Federal Aviation Administration — has never been easier. 

The current entry-level drones are very user friendly. The Chinese company, DJI, has about 95% of the market and has been quite innovative in its product development. 

A good drone to start with is the DJI Mavic. It folds up into a small backpack and uses a phone as a screen for the controller.

The integrated camera produces outstanding 4K video utilizing a fixed wide-angle lens of high quality, and the latest model has a still image sensor of 20 mp. This drone costs about $1,500 new with accessories. 

I wouldn’t recommend a less expensive drone unless you just want to try a “training” drone to learn the movements on the remote controller.


Learning to fly a drone

Most people are quite fearful at first that they will crash their drone and lose their investment. 


The best way to learn is to take a drone outside 

into a large, open field. Slowly practice

 lifting off and hovering in place about 

10 feet in the air and then landing.


The best way to learn is to take a drone such as the Mavic outside into a large, open field. Slowly practice lifting off and hovering in place about 10 feet in the air and then landing. 

The Mavic uses GPS to steady the drone and also has 360-degree obstacle avoidance. This technology makes it quite easy to learn to fly the drone and it can even fly very well indoors. 

The most difficult aspect of being a drone pilot and photographer is to figure out when to do each task during the normal 20-minute flight. 

I usually prepare for a flight by finding a good location on Google Earth. I then check the AirMap app to determine if it is legal to fly in this area. 

Proximity to airports is the biggest issue, but there are several other factors that may restrict flying. Large sports stadiums always have temporary flight restrictions during events. National Parks are all off-limits.

If all is ok, I then launch the drone and start flying to a spot that looks promising for a photograph. When I get there I can hover, and then switch into my photographer mode and concentrate on my photographic composition.

It is important to keep checking your battery charge during the flight and start returning to your home point when you reach about 25%. When the drone is far away and your battery level is dropping, this can be the most stressful time of the flight. 

It is also important to learn how to check the orientation of your drone on your controls in order to quickly fly back to your home base and safely land your drone.


Is an FAA license required?

I am an FAA-licensed remote drone pilot. Many people have asked me if this is necessary in order to fly. 

From a legal perspective, if you use the drone for commercial purposes (which includes journalism under the FAA’s definition), you must get a license. 

I have found that the knowledge gained from taking the test is worthwhile if you are serious about flying drones. The license only requires a written test of 60 questions with a score of 70 percent to pass. 

But if you are just using the drone for recreation, the license is not required.

I now have a DJI Inspire 2 drone. Its main advantage is a camera with four interchangeable lenses. It’s also possible to use different gimbals and cameras with this drone. High-quality 6K raw video is also possible with an onboard SSD drive. 

With the case, batteries and accessories, this setup weighs about 50 pounds. That is something to think about if you have to carry the case up and down stairs. There are rollers on the case, so it is not too hard to bring it into the field.

The Inspire 2 is still a mid-level drone, or a quadcopter with four blades. The larger six and eight blade drones are used to carry medium format or high-end cinema cameras.

[Editor's Note: In his related EJ InSight column, Essick shares insights and photos from his most recent drone project, capturing the restoration of the Great Lakes.

Peter Essick is a photographer, author, speaker, instructor and drone pilot who specializes in nature and environmental themes. Named one of the 40 most influential nature photographers in the world by Outdoor Photography Magazine UK, Essick is the author of two books of his photographs, “The Ansel Adams Wilderness” and “Our Beautiful, Fragile World.” His Great Lakes story appeared in March 2019 in the online science journal Undark, a publication of the Knight Science Journalism Fellowship Program at MIT.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 4, No. 41. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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