The Emergence of Drone Portraits
For many creative explorers, the quest for the perfect aerial shot has been ongoing for quite a while — 159 years, to be exact. The year was 1858 when Felix “Nadar” Tournachon strapped a camera to a tethered balloon and floated the contraption over the Bievre Valley in France. Since then, innovators have used everything from kites and homing pigeons to aircrafts as mediums for capturing this elusive perspective.
With new drone innovations, achieving the aerial shot is now more simple than ever and offers a twist on classic landscape photography. Recently, however, drone photography has extended past pure landscape and into the portrait realm. Here, we explore this journey into portrait photography and demonstrate the alternative perspectives it provides to our human world.
A New Perspective
The appeal of drone photography lies in the technology’s ability to add a new twist to the potentially overdone portrait. Naturally, with a new medium comes new techniques for shooting and posing. While drones are capable of capturing up-close shots similar to those taken by your average DSLR, the uniqueness of the technology comes from its long-range capabilities.
Alex Cooke, a Cleveland-based portrait and landscape photographer, found the following while experimenting with his drone: “Whereas normal portrait encourages engagement with the camera, I specifically told the subjects not to engage with the camera.” In doing so, Cooke eliminated potential frustration that could come from the viewer attempting to connect with the subject from such a far distance. Additionally, subject disengagement gives the resulting photos a more organic, “found” element, allowing the viewer to feel as though he were watching the subject in an environment rather than in front of one.
One field in which drone photography has altered portrait scenes and classic tradition is in wedding photography, with an increasing amount of couples dropping additional funds towards drone pilots to capture their big day from above. Drone technology adds a beautiful cinematic touch to the media it produces, which may be especially important to those couples with expensive or scenic venues who wish to fully convey the beauty of the day.
“Wedding drones” first gained popularity in 2014 when an Iowa-based company, Picture Perfect Portrait and Design,” added the unique service to their menu at a $400 charge. Though the technique is new and innovative, drawbacks lie in the limited time frame for shooting and the potential for noise and distraction. Additionally, drone wedding photography requires an entire team communicating via radio, complete with a director and a licensed expert pilot.
Fashion + Entertainment
In a similar vein, fashion photography via drones has been on the rise as artists seek new perspectives on tried-and-true processes. Aerial shots can change the entire meaning of a project. In one of the pioneering drone fashion shoots, London designer Craig Green shot a campaign with a drone in order to capture a “dreamy, painterly feel.” The idea was to convey the models in a scientific, National Geographic-esque manner rather than in posed situations to simulate a romantic-era feel.
Since Green’s early 2016 campaign, drones have made further appearances in the fashion industry, even making their runway debut in Fendi and Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week shows, offering viewers the opportunity to view the show classically or aerially. In what may be the largest scale project of its kind to date, Dior utilizes a drone to capture the face of the brand, Rihanna, exploring the grounds of Versailles. With panning aerial shots, producer Steven Klein projects the glamour and magnitude of the subject’s environment onto the subject herself. As a result, Rihanna is painted as an authoritative and queen-like figure, thus selling Dior as a brand fit for royalty.
Photographs have a long history as a medium for conveying political messages to an audience, whether from war, elections, or social situations (consider the famous Migrant Mother or Hiroshima photographs). Rather than offer up-close and personal images, however, drone photography provides views of much larger scale political occurrences, thus delivering a more communal message.
To illustrate this medium, Henrike Schmidt of Humboldt-Universitat Berlin utilizes aerial drone footage to document the Bulgarian protest of 2013 in an effort to demonstrate protester self-perception, rather than to relay information. These images put an artistic touch on a societal movement by bringing the element of size to the photo, showing a universal feeling among people rather than those of an individual.
Ultimately, drone technology better captures the immensity of large social movements better than ground-level photography could. In Los Manes del Drone’s collection of striking images of the 2016 migration between Venezuela and Colombia after an 11-month closure, viewers are exposed to the scale of such an event, which is simply void from other photographs of the event.
My Creative Work
My interest in topics surrounding drone photography stems from the technology’s happy medium between bulky flying vehicles and traditional DSLRs — images can be safely captured both aerially and at ground level, providing wide range of creative possibilities.
I experimented with a drone myself and was able to see this range at play. To demonstrate the technology’s strengths and weaknesses, I compare images captured with a DJI Phantom drone to similarly-posed Canon Rebel T6 EOS shots. Find the final product below:
In accordance with my research, I found that ground-level, close-up shots offer a more intrusive, yet personal perspective into the subjects’ lives and environments. These photos allow the viewer to feel as if they are in close range with the subject. On the other hand, the drone photographs are less intimate, adding a “stumbled-upon” feel and leading the viewer to pay more attention to the surrounding environment in conjunction with subjects.
In terms of shooting logistics, I certainly found traditional photography to be more straightforward in modeling my desired outcome, as the camera’s perspective is identical to mine as the photographer. My drone shots were more difficult to direct, as the lense was far from my own naked eye and playback was a task. While I was able to produce some images that I am proud of, the process required more trial-and-error as I became accustomed to a new perspective.
Future of Drone Portraits
As drone ownership evolves from strictly professional to personal, an increasing number of “Average Joes” are able to capture their own portraits with this fun tool. Even Martha Stewart has advocated for its innovative use in capturing more ordinary situations, praising its ability to “see so much more” than a traditional DSLR. Statistics show that consumers share Martha’s drone love — retailer Drones Direct estimates that UK drone sales total over £400 million to date, with last year’s sales increasing by 120%. The US saw sales of over $200 million in 2016, a value that has tripled from the previous year.
Clearly, market demand exists for this technology, but growing safety concerns accompany the growing popularity. The FAA’s strict regulations on flight could hinder the forward movement of drone artistry, as licensed pilots are currently restricted to aircrafts weighing no more than half a pound and flown only directly over vacant areas. Additionally, drones must remain in view of the operating crew and may not fly at night, presenting potential obstacles for photographic creativity.
These laws have the potential to change as drone photography becomes more prominent, unless extreme issues occur, as they have in the past — for example, model Jesse Adams was injured last year by a drone flying close to her face, requiring an ER visit. Additionally, new lawsuits arise each year that demonstrate the potential danger of these machines and a need for regulation. The FAA keeps up with rising drone popularity with an average of 4 new regulations per year, but currently, hobbyist pilots are far less restricted than their licensed counterparts — anyone can purchase a drone and fly it at their own leisure. Inevitable regulations on these amateur aviators will likely change the way this technology operates in future years.
If consumer craze serves any indication, drones are the future of aerial photography and are quickly shaking up the portrait realm. With a wide range of camera angles available at the toggle of a switch, amateurs and professionals alike can completely alter the message of their creative work. For the wedding photographer, drones offer a perspective craved by clients who wish to forever capture their extravagant, and usually expensive, venues. The fashion and entertainment industry, always on the hunt for the next new thing, has made use of drone footage to sell glamour in a unique, never-before-seen way. Political photographers have found the bird’s eye view more useful in conveying large-scale movements to visual consumers. And even amateur creatives consider drones the perfect tool in adding alternative, organic perspectives to potentially overdone shots. Ultimately, drones serve as a multi-purpose tool, one whose full range of aesthetic possibilities have yet to be discovered.