Photographers take their work to greater heights, literally
Drones are taking photographers to new heights. Photographers, professionals and hobbyists are using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) to capture fascinating images of our world from new angles. We speak to five drone photographers about their experiences with aerial photography using drones.
Elaine Li from Hong Kong is a social media star with her lush aerial photographs. The photographer and art director at Ogilvy and Mather has over 170,000 followers on her Instagram account, attracted to her gorgeous shots of Hong Kong city and landscapes.
Li has always been interested in photography and started with ground-level urban shots before venturing up to rooftops for aerial shots of the city; the drone was a natural progression. Her go-to drone is the DJI Mavic but she switches to a DJI Phantom 4 Pro+ for night shots.
“Drone photography provides me with fresh perspective of a city that I grew up in and am familiar with,” said Li. She recalled her excitement at piloting the drone over the Whampoa area and seeing the shopping mall's boat-like shape for the first time.
Her favourite places to photograph in Hong Kong are the lively areas of Jordan, Mongkok and Sham Shui Po. “There's always something going on there and I love the flashing neon lights at night.”
Singaporean Joel Chia has similarly achieved drone celebrity status on social media using the moniker ‘idroneman’. The young Occupational Therapy graduate has attracted 36,000 followers on Instagram since he started drone photography a year ago and was lauded by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong for his spectacular aerial photographs of Singapore.
“The biggest appeal of aerial photography for me is the endless possibilities of a whole new perspective and framing that comes with it. Everything just looks so much more amazing from above,” he enthused. He is currently using the DJI Mavic Pro but is in the process of upgrading to the latest DJI Phantom 4 Pro.
Chia's stunning shots of Singapore and his globe-trotting adventures do not come easy. Chia would research destinations using Google maps for interesting spots and recce the area before even sending his drone up. As he travels frequently, he would read up on the latest regulations on drones for every country he is visiting.
On the day of flight, he would check on the weather, targeting the golden hour. As the drone's battery life is limited, he would have a rough shot in his head and a clear idea of the flight plan so he doesn't waste precious power while the drone in the air. For backup, Chia carries five extra batteries and spare drone wings with him on every excursion.
“One key challenge is always having to be prepared for the unexpected. You never really know what to expect when you go on a drone flight shoot,” he advised.
Singaporean photographer Caleb Ming started flying drones after a client requested aerial shots, thus kindling an interest in the technology. “It’s exhilarating to see the images from a very grand point of view. The flying itself is thrilling, perhaps it fulfils my childhood dream of being a pilot,” he said.
Drone photography is changing the face of real estate. Ming, who does a lot of architectural work, is well-placed to take advantage of the increasing demand for aerial footage. Based in Singapore and Bali, Ming now uses the drone for commercial projects and for personal work.
“The challenge really is to make it not look like the thousands of drone shots already out there. I use it like how I would with any tools of the trade, that is to create images that I care about and not to make it look gimmicky,” he said.
As drones become more affordable, the reasons for buying one are varied. Siddiq Rafee, Amir Hamzah and Abdullah Azzam were early adopters of consumer drones, eventually forming DroneCult to offer professional aerial media services in Malaysia.
“When one of the first consumer drones came out, we were blown away by the technology and bought it straight away. We have been experimenting with it ever since,” said Siddiq. Between them, they operate a DJI Phantom 3 Professional and DJI Phantom 4 Professional.
Passionate visual makers and drone enthusiasts, they got their first big break with a drone aerial video of Bukit Tabur, which went viral on social media. DroneCult has since worked with a host of developers and corporations, including Uber Malaysia.
“Our aim is to give the viewer a surreal feeling of flying. We like to play with perspectives and depth of field in order to make our imagery look alive instead of flat,” explained Siddiq.
Besides commercial pursuits, the three friends use the drone to pursue personal projects; their latest release, DroneCult: Burning Mountains, was shot in Indonesia. On their aerial wish-list are Iceland, New Zealand and Santorini.
Freelance photographer Patrick Teow started on his drone photography journey two months ago when a drone enthusiast encouraged him to get one, saying it would bring his photography skills to the next level.
“It has given my work a fresh, new twist. There are a lot of stories that can be told from bringing your camera up in the air. You see the same things but from a different angle,” said Teow, who flies the DJI Mavic Pro. “It gives me a new level of freedom to explore the city.”
Teow plays with natural and manmade geometry to create vibrant scenes of city life. He is attracted to visual signs of human activity, such as rows of colourful umbrellas at the Pudu wet market in Kuala Lumpur, and aims to craft urban stories with his aerial photography. “The drone is now a part of my photographic practice and a must-have in my packing list. My eyes have wings now,” he said.
With having wings comes responsibility, whether it is for public safety or regarding the law. Regulations governing the use of drones can be complex, varying from country to country. Photographers advocate common sense and an awareness of drone regulations when flying but still exercise caution. “I always question if what I'm doing is legal,” said Teow. “I'm torn between taking that golden shot or doing something that will attract too much attention and land me in trouble. I think a lot of pilots have the same concerns.”