Changing Planet

So You Want to Shoot Aerial Photography Using Drones?

This post is the latest in the series Dreams of the World, which profiles interesting people Kike meets during his travels. Drones and Small Unmanned Aerial Systems Special Series

Photographer and National Geographic Expert flying one of his small unmanned aerial vehicles in Madrid (Spain). Pictured: Upgraded DJI Phantom 1. Photo © Nano Calvo

If there is a question that gets asked over and over in the many emails I get in response to my Drones and Small Unmanned Aerial Systems Special Series, it is ¨What gear and components do you use in your on-going process of becoming a proficient aerial photographer and filmmaker?¨  I will devote today’s column to discuss one of my basic rigs.

One of my unmanned vehicles of choice is the DJI Phantom, both Phantom 1 and Phantom 2.  My decision is based on size, portability and reliability. With the knowledge that the experts from DSLRpros bring to the table, I have upgraded my system to include the following:

Photo © Nano Calvo

Futaba Control Radio

¨The Futaba remote control gives the Phantom nearly twice the range of the standard RC remote,¨said DSLRpros Associate Josh Hohendorf. ¨In addition to increasing range, the connection with the craft is much stronger and reduces interferences from foreign frequencies that would otherwise disrupt the flight of the craft. Its offers a variety of programmable controls that photographers and cinematographers alike can customize their remote to suit their specific shooting needs.¨

¨The Futaba can save an unlimited number of settings for any unlimited number of crafts. Controlling the camera is also superior to the standard RC system. There are two range selectors. One knob for large-scale range selection and another wheel for smooth, fine tuning within that range.¨

Photo © Nano Calvo

Carbon Fiber Propellers

For a while I debated whether I should be adding these or not. I finally went with them. ¨Carbon Fiber props are a must have for anyone using the phantom to capture visual content,¨ said Hohendorf. ¨The props are far superior to the standard plastic propellers in every way. Their rigidity prevents them from bending and warping like the plastic propellers. In addition the rigid design translates into overall handling performance of the craft. It can achieve faster speeds harder maneuvers and greater altitudes. The propellers are also precision balanced. This results in far grater efficiency over the standard plastic propellers. The craft will fly several minutes longer with the lighter and more balanced propeller. A standard propeller will produce a great deal of vibration into the frame of the craft. This means that the video being recorded will display these vibrations in the form of “jello” on the screen.  The balanced carbon propeller will eliminate any vibration into the craft and result in clean and clear visual content.¨ Warning: I suggest not installing carbon fiber propellers until you have become a proficient pilot, with a thorough understanding of the dynamics and operations of your craft, as this propellers can be more dangerous than the plastic ones due to their superior strength.

Anti Gravity Motors

¨The anti gravity motors provide advanced performance over the stock motors,¨ explains Hohendorf.  Stock motors display less efficiency in the areas of power and performance and will require disassembly and maintenance after a short while. The antigravity motors are more efficient. The motors will never require maintenance. The bearings will hold their lubrication for the life of the motor. In addition the motor will fly longer and consume less power doing so. Anti gravity motors turns at a higher revolution than the standard motors giving the craft greater speeds and longer flight times.¨

Photo © Nano Calvo

First Person View System

For those not familiar with this concept, First Person View (FPV) refers to a method used to pilot a radio-controlled vehicle from the driver or pilot’s view point. The vehicle is either driven or piloted remotely from a first-person perspective via an onboard camera, fed wirelessly to video goggles or a video monitor.¨FPV generally means RC pilots can install small cameras onto the nose of RC planes or helicopters to give the pilot a virtual sense of flying the craft onboard,¨ said Hohendorf . ¨With the advancement of technology, the cameras available to consumers have become smaller and higher in quality. Now the ability of FPV and these high quality cameras has made it possible to film large scale productions from unmanned aircrafts and see what you are recording real time on multiple receivers from the ground. Before this technology, achieving this kind of aerial production would require a large budget and real helicopters with expensive cameras attached to their nose.¨

Photo © Nano Calvo

There are a vast number of applications for civilian unmanned aerial vehicles, one of them being the field of science research. ¨One group of marine scientists used our kit to monitor migration of endangered whales,¨said Hohendorf.  ¨With the drone they were able to stay at a safe distance from the whales and monitor them undetected. This resulted in some of the most natural video ever captured of whales in the wild. Observation, before drones of this size and power, always resulted in some level of encroachment on the whale. This caused alteration in the whale’s natural behavior. The use of drones is allowing raw capture of the environment, leaving virtually no footprint and resulting in the most valuable visual content for scientists today.¨

¨I see the future of drone technology following the same business plan as the smart phone industry did, ¨ said Hohendorf.  We think that in the near future “drone” will be a household name. The technology will become so affordable most people will be able own one. As well as personal drones, we believe most companies will find that using a drone will increase efficiency and lower costs. From Amazon´s plan to use drones for delivery service, farmers using drones to monitor crops, and  local law enforcement and fire departments using them to monitor high risk situations, you will most likely not be able to walk outside without encountering a drone.¨

Photo © Nano Calvo

Flying Unmanned Vehicles is a work in progress. As pilots, we are permanently learning from our achievements and mistakes. For this reason, it is important to be informed about new technologies coming up and the new tendencies in the market. And remember, even though access to many of these machines will become increasingly easy, do not forget to have a humble approach to this technology. As scuba divers and sailors say, you should not fear the ocean, but you should never forget to profess respect to it.

Photos courtesy

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Learn More:


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Award-winning photographer, journalist, and author Kike Calvo (pronounced key-keh) specializes in culture and environment. He has been on assignment in more than 90 countries, working on stories ranging from belugas in the Arctic to traditional Hmong costumes in Laos. Kike is pioneering in using small unmanned aerial systems to produce aerial photography as art, and as a tool for research and conservation. He is also known for his iconic photographic project, World of Dances, on the intersection of dance, nature, and architecture. His work has been published in National Geographic, New York Times, Time, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New York Magazine, Rolling Stone, and Vanity Fair, among others. Kike teaches photography workshops and has been a guest lecturer at leading institutions like the School of Visual Arts and Yale University. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic blog Voices. He has authored nine books, including Drones for Conservation; So You Want to Create Maps Using Drones?; Staten Island: A Visual Journey to the Lighthouse at the End of the World; and Habitats, with forewords by David Doubilet and Jean-Michel Cousteau. Kike’s images have been exhibited around the world, and are represented by the National Geographic Image Collection. Kike was born in Spain and is based in New York. When he is not on assignment, he is making gazpacho following his grandmother’s Andalusian recipe. You can travel to Colombia with Kike:
  • Ed

    Maybe a mention of the need to be responsible and check local civil aviation regulations. For example, in Australia to shoot for anything other than personal you need a CASA certificate of approval, operators licence and must carry public liability insurance.

  • Andrew Boyd

    Are we in a temporary ‘legal window’ for drones in the U.S.?

  • David

    Interesting article. Though it sounds like you did an extensive rebuild of the original system — replaced the remote, the propellers and the motor. And does FPV come with it???

    Are there any photography-drones that can be purchased with all the upgrades already installed?

  • Trent wideman

    What underneath mount are you using? And what camera? And is it hard to change out the remote?

  • Capt. Jeff Caprine

    Has anyone out there used the DSLR over water or water sports photography. I’m a fishing guide and I’m planning on using my future DSLR Expedition Model to shoot film in salt water & fresh water & also high altitude conditions for my customers? Is there any thing I should know and advice of doing so ?

  • Ryan Peel

    The easiest way to get a drone fully customized to how you want it is to make one your self, go to and look up a group called flight test, they have many videos on how to do this. if you dont want to build one and you want a drone consider the DJI phantom 2 v 3.0

  • Dave Powell

    Great article.

    My advice is get qualified and be safe. It’s only a matter of time before someone gets seriously hurt with a UAV and when that happens the people with the qualifications will be the only ones allowed to fly.

  • Jon Favreau

    One major area that I would like to remind our drone loves to pay attention to is on the rules. State or government rules concerning the flight of drones is very important. Failure to adhere to the set standards could lead to maximum criminal sentences. Take your time and make sure you learn the rules. Some of the most common rules include, do not film any sensitive infrastructure including government facilities, do not fly where there is fire, don’t fly where there are crowds, always keep your eyes on your drone among others. I have done aerial drone photography for over six years now.

  • Jerry

    For those looking to get their sUAS certs., there is a good Googleplay app call sUAS107. Over 104 prep test questions and it includes some study resources as well. Here’s the download link for anyone interested.

  • Larry Thompson

    A crew and I were the first video drone service for NBC/Universal. We used a helo gasser that carried 32 pounds of payload. That was 2009… The newer lighter units with a GoPro are just as effective as our unit only easier to operate, make certain to get the proper FPV and use Satellite Technilogy. Great piece and thanks for posting….


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Researchers, conservationists, and others share stories, insights and ideas about Our Changing Planet, Wildlife & Wild Spaces, and The Human Journey. More than 50,000 comments have been added to 10,000 posts. Explore the list alongside to dive deeper into some of the most popular categories of the National Geographic Society’s conversation platform Voices.

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