Drones have enhanced viewer experiences in a wide range of media, from documentaries to sports coverage. That they have had a massive impact on the film and photography world is undeniable, but have they revolutionized photography?
If you’ve followed photography news sites for any length of time, you’ll have been promised the next revolution. Most times, these are incremental changes that bring a subtle evolution rather than revolution. When I think of revolution, I think of something that changes the way we do things. In fact, the dictionary defines revolution as a dramatic and wide-reaching change in conditions. Film to digital was a revolution as it removed the darkroom from the photographic process. Video functionality in full frame cameras was a revolution as it removed the need for high end video cameras. Mirrorless cameras have been labeled as revolutionary. I’m not sure I agree - the photography process is essentially the same. I'm starting to believe that drones have revolutionized photography.
I bought a drone about three years ago to supplement my photography. I considered it a “cool” toy to get unusual angles. In no way did I envision a situation where drones would replace traditional cameras.
Today I work as an architectural photographer for a property technology company. Part of the role includes drone work - both stills and video. In the United Kingdom, drones are highly controlled and regulated. Working in London is so restrictive that it is impractical to do so. This has kept me from experiencing the true potential of a drone. However, I recently did a three day architectural shoot in the United States, a country which has far more sensible and less restrictive drone laws in place. For the shoot, I brought my primary camera system - a full frame mirrorless camera, tilt shift lenses, a tripod with a geared head and a Ronin S gimbal. To supplement this, I used a Mavic Pro 2.
On evaluating the shoot, the statistics shocked me. 98% of the video clips and photographs that I used came from the drone. My primary camera got so little use, I went home with full batteries, without ever having charged the batteries during the shoot. By contrast, I was logging 6 hours of flying a day with the Mavic, going through 12 batteries a day. Of the few images that I made from my primary camera, every one could have been replicated with the drone.
Could it be that a cheap drone can replace a professional architectural photography system? If so, and if it applies to other genres too, then drones have most certainly revolutionized photography.
Let me deal with the most critical objection that architectural photographers will point out - you cannot possibly compare the quality of a drone image to that of a professional architectural system.
This is what I want to believe. I love architectural photography and ground based, traditional architectural photography is my specialty, my comfort zone. Yet when I compare a drone shot to a shot from my professional system, the differences between the two are not as stark as I expect. Tilt shift lenses are a crucial part of the architectural photography system to correct perspective - something that a drone can achieve by flying to the mid-way height of the building. With a bit of polish in post production, a drone image holds up as well as a regular camera for almost every output. It is only for extra large prints that the traditional system has a clear advantage. And this is for stills. For video, any quality advantage a traditional system may have is offset by the unbelievably smooth motion a drone is able to produce. In addition, a drone is able to get shots that a traditional system can not easily replicate.
So for architectural photography, a drone could be considered as a legitimate replacement for a regular camera. Quite obviously, a drone is not going to replace a regular camera for genres like studio work, portraiture and so on. But what about genres like travel and landscape photography? Could a drone replace your primary system for those genres? If so, a drone is not just a cool, supplementary tool to use in addition to regular cameras. Drones have quietly revolutionized photography.