This photo was taken October 24, 2016, in Temecula, California.
Yes, I was one of those. I’ve been a photographer for decades, and the moment I saw those really cool shots coming out my “need” to buy a camera drone hit me like a freight train. I simply had to have one. I came up with all kinds of reasons I needed another $1,200 camera.
I came up with this idea that I would work with real estate agents and charge them to take aerial photos. Then I had an idea of how I would bring the contraption with me on my photo adventures and use it to get beautiful landscapes. As usual, I “justified” my gear lust.
So I forked out the 1,200 bucks and bought a DJI Phantom 3 Advanced. I got it, learned to fly it and took it to Norway, Finland, Sweden. I had to get a special backpack, big enough to carry the drone, controller, all the batteries, and my regular camera gear plus lenses. It was heavy.
I flew it a total of 8 times. Was it worth it? Sure, it was. Maybe. Well, no.
I’m not a video guy. Sure, I have a YouTube channel, and I record some videos and post them when I am at some cool places or have some new gear, but I’m not a video guy. My life, my passion, is still photography.
I love the image, capturing that moment in time that can never be repeated. Don’t get me wrong, there are some pretty impressive video guys out there, but it’s just not for me.
Dozens of articles, most of them titled something like, “Why You Need to Start Doing Video” and “If You Don’t Get a Drone” told me that I would be a failure at my craft if I didn’t evolve with the times. Yes, evolving and upgrading for better image quality is essential, but I got pulled into the drone thing with the promise that it would make my photography improve. It didn’t.
The biggest problem with drones is that they are cumbersome to carry. Recently DJI half-solved this problem with their folding Mavic and then the Spark. The second problem is that they quite frequently just don’t come back, and industry came up with the term “fly away” to explain when the thing just loses contact and doesn’t respond.
On my trip to Norway, I was visiting Bergen and took the tram up to the top of the highest peak and wanted to get an aerial shot of the city. You can see the picture below.
It was cold, like Norway is usually cold, and I thought nothing of it. I got the bird in the air, positioned it for a few good shots, then my phone, the controller, went dead. The battery died early because of the cold and now I had no way to fly the drone back. The drone was however-many-thousand-feet up above the city and it was gone. I totally freaked out. Luckily I had remembered that the drone can be controlled without the phone, and there was also a “return to home” button. I pressed the button and the quadcopter started to return to me. These things relied on GPS, which isn’t too accurate, and so the $1,200 Phantom started its descent onto the SIDE OF THE MOUNTAIN, and not my exact location, maybe 5 meters away from me.
All I could think of was my $1,200 investment is gone and I would witness it. Frantic, stressed, and with tunnel vision, I managed to remember that I could cancel the return-to-home function and control it manually. Eventually I got it down, packed it away, and calmed down.
After reviewing the photos later back at home base, thousands of miles away from Norway, I noticed red spots all over the underexposed areas. I contacted DJI and they said that they would fix it under warranty, and they did. Meanwhile all my shots from the 3-country photo expedition taken on the drone needed 30–45 minutes extra processing time each to remove spots on the sensor. And even then the image quality was at best sufficient.
Then on subsequent flights I had more problems, software problems, GPS problems, upgrade the battery, calibrate the IMU, upgrade the controller, copy the files to the root directory of the micro SD card, press green button until it flashes red. I was no longer part of the creative process. I got sucked into the technology, and had virtually nothing to show for it.
When I was planning another expedition into the Colombian forests for birding, I evaluated my options and chose not to bring the drone. It didn’t fit my creative process. I felt it would distract me from the getting the shots. So the Phantom stayed home.
I felt like a huge weight was lifted off my back, and I was right. I no longer needed to carry all the batteries, chargers, cables, controllers, and drone throughout all my travels. I didn’t worry about leaving an expensive piece of equipment back at the hotel while I went out at night for street photography. I didn’t miss it at all. I didn’t miss the 15 minute ordeal to start it up, get it calibrated, plan the flight, and all that nonsense.
When I got back, I was already frustrated with the limitations of my Canon 70D, because capturing birds needed me to either get close or crop the image and the sensor wasn’t giving me the ISO I needed or the resolution. I got lots of great shots, but lost many because of the low available light or distance from the camera. I sold everything and upgraded to the Pentax K-1, giving me the high ISO capability, high resolution, and in-camera stabilization I needed plus other goodies like weather sealing and GPS.
Then I saw my Phantom 3 sitting there, the 6mm by 4mm sensor, at 12 megapixels, with horrible low light action. I asked myself why am I keeping this camera if it’s the weak link in my still photography?
Will I ever use any of these photos for anything important? Maybe. I’m sure I could get some good shots out of it. But what’s the cost, real cost, in time, energy, and creative juices. It took about 5 minutes of thought until I grabbed all the gear, accessories, and drone and posted it on eBay.
Sure, I only sold it for about $500, but it’s gone. It no longer interrupts my creativity by forcing me to live with the limitations of a low quality camera attached to a pretty decent, but still cumbersome method of moving the camera to a higher location.
Until the cameras get better, and the drones get smaller, and the technology becomes easier to use, I’m not investing the money, again, in something that is lower quality than what I can carry in my hand.