Boosted by the increasing popularity of video on Instagram, drone footage is delivering the wow factor in an online world where its easy to think youve seen it all
I bet youve looked at drone footage and just thought wow, says Guardian photographer and licensed drone operator Graeme Robertson. Thats because you are seeing something you have never seen before.
Robertson is explaining the appeal of drone photography, which has had a surge in popularity in recent years. This is due to the availability of affordable drones,including the DJI phantom series, which costs from 350 giving amateur film-makers the chance to shoot helicopter-style footage. There is also the matter of social medias appetite for wow-factor images, particularly when it comes to showcasing travel destinations and travelling itself. Cool location + drone = viral.
Drones entered the mainstream imagination in an unlikely way. The unmanned aerial vehicles first became household names in the early noughties when they were being used, controversially, by the US military; drone strikes became a buzzword in the press. A decade later drones were being mooted for a far more benign purpose: as a means of delivering Amazon orders straight to your porch. Now, in 2016, drones are giving social media users access to mesmerising, swooping shots from the sky that provide new perspectives at a time of an obsession with photographing, and documenting, the world.
Instagram the often strange but flourishing photo app is a key platform for drone footage. According to the company, there are currently 1,627,557 posts tagged with #drone and 295,406 posts using #dronestagram. This is fuelled by the rise of video on Instagram in general: video views have increased by 40% in the last six months.
A search of the site reveals dozens of drone photography accounts, many with huge followings; these include @dronelife_ (144,000 followers), @3drobotics (132,ooo followers), @dronenerds (92,400 followers), @dronesdaily (40,600 followers) and @experienceabove (14,400 followers).
The kind of footage to expect is classic drone shots of a single spot while the camera rises; birds-eye views of coastlines, skylines, canyons, bridges; abstract photos of human impact on the ground, such as beach umbrellas from above, or the lines drawn in soil by farm vehicles; and amped-up shots of any, already rather visually dramatic, location found on Earth.
One of the most popular accounts is @droneheroes, which has gained almost 60,000 followers since launching a year ago, when founder Ronny Brouwers bought a drone for his summer holiday to the Philippines. When he set up the account there were few pages where high-quality drone photo and video content were being shared. Now it is one of the fastest-growing drone pages on Instagram.
It is going like a rocket, says Brouwers, who has spent much of the last year travelling the world to produce drone content for the travel industry. News pages are interested in drone images and each clip of an existing popular place goes viral on the internet. So, its a perfect way for the travel industry to promote its business, surroundings, or even the country, since the exposure is massive.
In many ways, drone photography follows in the shadow of the GoPro: tough, compact cameras designed to be attached to an individual to capture high-definition point-of-view footage. GoPro cameras were quickly adopted by the action sports world and YouTube was flooded with exciting first-person footage putting the viewer in the shoes of everyone from surfers to base jumpers.
This is the view of the team behind @droneoftheday, Manuel Lopez and Nicolas Soro. They explain how their first films actually came from attaching GoPros to drones and posting the footage online this was before many drones came with built-in cameras.
We thought to ourselves, Everyone is going to want one of these, they say. A few years back, you would need to set up a helicopter charter or plane rental to capture unique aerial shots now you can carry a drone in a backpack with you and shoot at your own pace and convenience.
Its no surprise that drones have been adopted by those documenting extreme outdoor pursuits activities that have always been difficult and expensive to film with conventional equipment. These filmmakers include professional rock climber Dave MacLeod, whose first drone film, Miles Away, follows mountain runner Alicia Hudelson as she makes her way through the Swiss Alps and the hills of Catalonia. It won the top award at this years DroneFest film and photography festival.
Drones are fantastic for capturing the sense of being in the wider landscape, says MacLeod. There is a sense of moving; it also has a kind of dreamy quality that is like the memories your mind creates of your travels through the outdoors. The sense of movement and space is important.
For Amy Silverman, photography editor for adventure travel magazine Outside, drone photography is now a normalised part of advertising, as well as storytelling, but there are limitations. GoPros mounted on helmets and surfboards broke down similar barriers but drone footage is ultimately more watchable, she says. You still need elements of good narrative to hold a viewers attention.
The boom in drone footage is not just driven by the professionals: millions of drones are sold to amateur photographers, hobbyists and gadget fans, stocked everywhere from Argos to Amazon. Major UK retailer Drones Direct estimates that, to date, UK consumers have spent close to 400m on drones. The retailer says that in the last year sales have increased by 120%.
Of course, there are problems with the idea of millions of people flying remote-controlled devices. It is not difficult to find reports of crashes, near misses and serious injuries being caused by them. In fact, in a large number of cases, flying a drone is illegal without getting permission and all the professionals the Guardian spoke to were keen to point this out.
Laws vary from country to country, but in the UK there are a lot of limitations regarding where you can fly a drone made clear in the Civil Aviation Authoritys Dronecode. Drones with cameras cannot be flown within 50 metres of people, vehicles, buildings or structures; essentially making London a no-fly zone for drones. In the US, as of December 2015, all drones weighing more than 250g need to be registered with the Federal Aviation Administration.
To be honest, it makes me a little worried, says Brouwers. Its waiting for something terrible to happen. Anyone can go to the store today and buy a drone without any registration. The software isnt ready (yet) to avoid people flying in no-fly zones. People need to be aware of the rules and regulations that each country has put in place for flying drones. It is the task of the drone manufacturers and the government to tackle this problem.
The Guardians Robertson, who spent three years training to use drones safely, feels strongly about the dangers of people using them without following proper procedures, but understands why drones are so desirable.
The world is full of photos and weve seen things from almost every angle, he says. Now were seeing shots that are something new to look at for the first time again. And thats something to get excited about.