What do you call this kind of aerial photography?
People respond pretty negatively to the word drone. I imagine it’s changing, like with Amazon and their drone delivery stunt. I’m less negative on it than I was before, but it’s only because there’s no other word. You don’t have to explain anything when you say drone photography.
How did you get into it?
My roots are in underwater photography, so I was out on the ocean six months a year. There were always situations in which I wished I had been able to get a different perspective. I would climb masts of boats and try to get as high as I could. I started tracking these quadcopters and hexacopters, but in 2006 you had to be very technical to build one. When RC helicopters that were relatively easy to fly began to come out, I started flying them because I knew that someone would soon make one that could hold a camera. In January 2013, DJI came out with the Phantom, the first ready-to-fly quadcopter that could hold a camera. I immediately got one.
Was it difficult using the Phantom at first?
Many times when I’m flying, I’m on a moving boat and there’s a lot of wind and current, so it’s challenging to control the aircraft. The first week I started showing my aerial stuff, I had 10 friends buy Phantoms; eight dumped them into the ocean [laughs]. It’s about being able to project yourself into the aircraft, as if you’re sitting in it. I compose with a live-view feed from the camera; when I need line of sight and also to be able to see what the camera’s seeing, I use an 8-inch LCD on a tripod. In other situations, I wear goggles, which are fully immersive.
What gear do you use?
I shoot primarily with the GoPro Hero3 right now. The Phantom can carry it on a gimbal, so you can get really great results as long as you’re not asking it to do too much in terms of dynamic range. I have a Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera that I’m working to put in the air; I’m excited about that because it shoots CinemaDNG RAW video. I also have a gimbal for an iPhone.
What challenges does drone photography face?
It’s still very early; reliability and safety aren’t quite ironed out yet. When these fail, they fail catastrophically. Right now there’s debate over whether you can use them commercially. The FAA says no, but lots of people are.
Is there a drone photography community?
The people who are doing it are forming bonds. We’re all learning from each other and trying to demystify what it means to put a camera in the air, because it seems really daunting. There’s no reason to be intimidated—anyone can do it.
Eric Cheng is based in San Francisco, and made underwater work (echengphoto.com) before taking to the skies. He was formerly the director of photography at Lytro.