An Interview with Alan Nyiri, quadcopter expert and Santa Fe Photographic Workshops instructor for Quadcopter Photography: A Bird's-Eye View
So, Alan, how did you get started in photography? What first interested you about it?
I've been drawn to photography for as long as I can remember. In grade school in the 1950's, the Walt Disney nature programs captivated me, and I dreamed about becoming a naturalist cinematographer. I bought my first Kodak Hawkeye camera with my paper route money in the sixth grade, and immediately started photographing everything around me. I discovered that the printed image could be my personal time machine: When I looked at a print, I immediately recalled almost everything that had happened on that day. In high school, I basically taught myself black-and-white developing and printing in the school darkroom, and of course became president of the camera club. I was quite the geek!
By the time I left college, I knew that I would make my life about discovery through photography. Photography had become the lens through which I discovered the world, and the tool for remembering it later. Photography became not only the tool which help me really attune, focus, SEE and relate to the world around me; it helped me recognize the minutia and the patterns of life which most people let slip by, unnoticed. It also became a form of meditation, BE-ING in the landscape, a being in the moment, waiting, watching for ... that ...perfect ... moment! Click
How did you get into drone photography?
I've been making aerial images professionally since 1981. I wish I'd logged all the hours spent in Cessna 172s and Robinson R-22 helicopters. In 2002, I received the assignment from the UC President Dick Atkinson to document all 9 of the UC campuses, as a follow up to the documentary project done 40 years earlier by Ansel Adams.
I aspired to create some beautiful campus landscapes, in the tradition of William Garnett. But I rarely got my R-22 for the sweet light or the best light, and I started dreaming of other options: tethered balloons, ultra lights, powered parachutes, you know... vehicles which could put me exactly when and where I wanted to be.
In 2011-12 I was creating images for a coffee table book for Cornell University, and we wanted to create some fabulous aerials. That's when multi-rotor vehicles (MRVs) first came across my radar. They were big, heavy and many said hard to fly, so I put the idea aside and rented my helicopters... but I didn't put that idea away. So in April 2013, when I saw an ad in the B&H newsletter announcing the release of the DJI Phantom with GoPro3, I knew that I had to jump on this technology. I mean, I was ready; I'd been waiting my whole life for this.
What interests or fascinates you about drone photography in particular?
Man has always yearned to fly with the birds, to see what they see. We're drawn to high places instinctively, whether to look out for approaching danger, or to just dream and plan and ... look ahead. Artists like Grant Wood and Jamie Wythe have experimented with an aerial perspective, a birds-eye perspective, to great effect. Photographers are always looking for a unique viewpoint: well, HERE IT IS!!! People now have the opportunity to see what the birds see, to enjoy that unique perspective, and make art from what they see.
Personally, I've never been a pioneer or a groundbreaker—it took me years before I fully embraced digital capture around 2004. But this was an opportunity for me to do all those things, and finally be a pioneer. On the first wave, or at least the second wave. And let me tell you, the view from up here is FANTASTIC!!!
There’s been a lot of talk in the news lately about drone photography: safety concerns, rules, proposed legislation, and the like. Can you share your perspective on some of these issues? What are a drone owner’s responsibilities?
This industry is unfortunately going through some uncomfortable growing pains during these early days, and there is a lot of misinformation out there. I'm afraid the media has glommed onto this issue of intrusion of privacy and public safety and blown it WAY out of proportion. It's pretty laughable, really - with a small telescope in a high-rise apartment building someone can invade your privacy, over there in the next building, far more easily than with a camera-mounted multirotor. But, this is the sexy issue of the day for the media.
The FAA seems to have been caught with their pants down, or has some pressure being exerted on them. They've claimed to have regulations and laws in place about the commercial operation of multirotor vehicles when in fact all that existed were policy guidelines regarding radio controlled model aircraft. These guidelines go back to 1986, and don’t prohibit it, they are just guidelines. There are currently no Federal laws prohibiting the use of MRV cameras for real estate work, crop surveillance, power line inspection, bridge inspection, roof inspection, etc. Regulations are inevitable, and welcome. I personally will be among the first to go to school and apply for a license when the procedure becomes set, but it's all speculation now.
The National Park service has overreacted badly, in my estimation, by placing a moratorium on MRV flights in the National Parks. Yosemite was the lynch pin case, I believe, when the Park Manager banned their use citing noise and safety issues. Have you ever heard 30 Harleys drive through Yosemite Valley? Now that’s noise. You're at far greater risk trying to cross the road there than getting hit by an errant MRV. Again, I think it’s all being blown out of proportion, and I’m not sure why.
Interestingly, in all of the states where drone prohibition laws are being enacted, it’s all being focused on police. They’re trying to head off the use (and misuse) by police. So there are reasons to be concerned, but not about the type of work we do with aerial photography.
I'm confident that it will all work out in time - it has to!
It sounds like a drone photographer’s responsibilities are very much the same as the responsibilities of any photographer: Be considerate, be competent, be respectful. Have permission to photograph what you’re photographing. Know the rules, and so on.
Exactly. I live in the beautiful Texas countryside, and I can go up and find a spot to photograph a beautiful panorama But I also recognize that everybody’s got a fence around their property, and their access roads are gated. I don’t know what they’re trying to keep in or what they’re trying to keep out. The law says I can fly over their property, but if I do fly over, will I be invading their privacy, or be perceived to be invading their privacy? Planes fly over private property all the time, and no one worries about that. Again, it’s just a matter of perception.
I try to drive responsibly, operate my lawn mower responsibly - LIVE responsibly. And I also endeavor to fly responsibly, in good weather, away from crowds or traffic, in a safe and controlled manner and place. But of course there are knuckleheads out there who are going to pull dumb stunts, and fly irresponsibly. If the media wants to focus on citizen safety issues, I'd suggest that they keep this "drone safety issue" in proper perspective.
On the flip side of that, how can drone users protect themselves and their drones from being damaged, sued, or otherwise hassled? How can someone keep up with the changing laws?
Everyone loves to see these, everyone kind of turns into a five-year-old when they see them flying around. Police, park rangers, 80-year-old grandmothers all come by and say “That is just so cool!”
For times when reactions are not positive, the best way a pilot can protect themself is to operate safely and in complete control and to know the laws, their rights and their responsibilities. Fortunately, when it comes to keeping up with the laws, there are some attorneys out there like Peter Sachs in Connecticut who is both a helicopter pilot and an avid MRV hobbyist. He, and others like him, have gone a long way to dispel the myths and rumors which have surrounded this hobby and fledgling business; I think there are as many rumors about MRVs as there are MRVs out there! Which is to say, a lot. His Facebook group, UAV Legal News & Discussion, is a great place to stay up to date with the emerging legal issues as they evolve.
The best thing we pilots can do is to fly responsibly and anticipate troublesome situations, then head them off. I once had a pilot approach me as I was the filming the Christmas lights of a Florida beachfront estate. I had the owner's permission, and was operating my quadcopter with complete control. This guy came over to me, demanded that I land immediately, informed me that I was breaking numerous laws. He was acting like a jackass. I calmly finished my video pass, rose to 100 feet, explained to him that I was breaking no laws, invited him to cite even one, flew back over the road and brought my craft down for a hand-catch landing (that shows your flying skill and control). Then I inquired why he was trying to intimidate me. Turns out that he was a disgruntled MRV pilot who had crashed several and was also concerned that his business flying commercial photographers around was going to suffer. I was able to turn an opponent into an ally that evening. The best way to disarm someone who’s getting bothered is to remain calm and collected and to fly responsibly.
What can a participant expect from this workshop?
We anticipate that we'll see both beginners who have never piloted an MRV before, and moderately experienced pilots who want to make more successful images. So we will train everyone with the basics of both safe and effective piloting and the techniques of creating strong, successful images.
While the basic elements of good photographic technique still apply, certain choices will affect the success of these aerial images: subject choice, camera angle and altitude, time of day, the use of color or black and white—we'll explore all of these issues. Preparation of your craft is also important so you're ready to drop everything and respond when the light and subject become optimal. We'll focus on preparation as well as photography.
In short, we're gonna show our participants how to do this RIGHT! This will be the workshop I would have taken two years ago if it had been offered. Within that first month of flying, I realized that by teaching myself how to do this effectively, I was designing a future workshop for others. Well, that future is here.
Evaluating images will be important, because the images you’re dissatisfied with are the ones we’ll learn the most from. We’ll be doing that in the field, so we can look at what we’ve got, and go back up and try them again. That’s the advantage of the hands-on workshop.
I’ve always tried to create an atmosphere in my workshops of being the best friend you wish you had (who knows all about this stuff.) So you can ask all your questions, without fear, without worrying you’re not knowledgeable enough, and feel comfortable learning.
I also try to send people as much information in advance of the workshop as possible, so participants can mentally practice the movements and the technique of flying. That really helps ease the anxiety of flying a drone for the first time.
For those who have never flown an MRV before, there will be quadcopters available to borrow and try out! DJI is partnering with Santa Fe Workshops on this program, and they are going to provide the 8 quadcopters and accessories, technical assistance, and training to support this workshop and all participants.
Will you be creating video as well as still images?
We will be focusing on still photography, but the opportunity to make videos with this technology is so strong, so compelling, we are absolutely going to cover it in an introductory way. If you really get interested in video after the introduction, in the future, we plan to offer dedicated drone video workshops.
How long does it take to learn to fly a drone? Is it difficult?
The first morning I owned a DJI Phantom, I successfully flew it all around my back field without difficulty or issue. I had never flown any kind of radio controlled aircraft before, but I had mentally practiced flying one for several weeks after watching instructional videos explaining the transmitter controls. That afternoon I put the camera on and flew up to 400 ft in altitude and 1,000 feet away. I tried the "Return to Home" feature which automatically flies the craft home if radio connection is broken, and lands it. This GPS feature is fantastic, and the electronic gyro sensors in the MRV make it easy to keep the craft level, in position, and ready to become your 100 foot tall tripod. By evening, I was making images of the historic church on our town green which no one had ever made before - ever! I can't explain that feeling of being the first to ever have this vantage point.
So long story short: yes, they're easy to fly. I'd say that anyone with normal hand-eye coordination who is willing to put in some practice will enjoy an exhilarating experience.
Is drone photography a flash in the pan, or is it here to stay?
A flash in the pan? No way! Until humans learn to levitate, this will be around. This is in its infancy now. There are so many commercial applications in development now that it is certain that this will grow exponentially over just the next few years. You ain't seen nuthin', yet!
Is digital a flash in the pan? Is color a flash in the pan? People said so when these developments first came along, and then look where they are today.
You’re not going to believe—I’M not going to believe—where this is going to be in ten years.
What are some of the applications of drone photography? What’s a compelling reason to invest in this technology? Are there commercial or other opportunities for this type of work?
There’s an amazing range of new applications that this is bringing about. These machines are safer and less expensive than small aircraft and can easily provide access to remote areas. The commercial applications are actually MUCH larger than what the FAA has been focusing on. Real estate is the first thing that comes to people’s minds, but there is so much more.
I just spent 2 1/2 months consulting for the Florida State Parks Service, to name just one. We found MRVs to be an efficient tool for pinpointing wild fires when they first break out, for monitoring a prescribed burn in progress and for using the videos for follow-up training, for exploring inaccessible backcountry looking for invasive plant species, and for documenting areas undergoing habitat restoration. The big surprise was the potential for making virtual park tours, for those folks physically unable to hike or kayak the parks themselves. The Florida Parks Service is currently evaluating how they want to implement these new tools.
At least one company has designed software to autonomously fly a Phantom to a designated height, fly a grid pattern while taking pictures and then return to home - all at the touch of one button. Their software then compiles these images into a grid map for biological or geological land surveys. Another use is 3D aerial mapping, useful for archeological mapping or construction work.
And have you heard about Amazon's plans...?
For fine art and landscape photographers, it's endless. People are creating images that have never been done before. These images are not possible with a helicopter, not possible with a boom. But they are possible with MRVs.
What’s the most fun and exciting thing about drone photography?
Are you kidding? This is a BLAST, man! We're going places and getting perspectives you can't get from a helicopter or plane, or a balloon, kite or cherry-picker truck! We're flying in places and creating images NO PERSON HAS EVER MADE BEFORE!!! We're the Wright Brothers of MRV photography - I haven't met a serious photographer yet who, after watching me for five minutes and looking at my ground monitor over my shoulder, didn't want to try this for himself. Grandmas, firemen, farmers, policemen - everybody who sees me flying becomes a five-year-old child again and comes over to investigate.
Anything else you’d like to share?
Yes, I'd like to share my workshop instructor philosophy: Ever since I started teaching, I've made it my goal to be that knowledgeable best friend we all wish we had, to show us just what we needed to know, and what to ignore for now, who knew the ins and outs of the subject, who had hands-on, professional experience, and who could explain a technical point clearly and concisely. For me, that's what being an effective instructor is all about. Thanks for asking.
Thanks Alan, we're looking forward to seeing you here in July!
Alan Nyiri will teach Quadcopter Photography: Photography with a Bird's-Eye View at Santa Fe Workshops July 19-24. For more information and workshop details, visit santafeworkshops.com.