Traveling with a drone can get a bit tricky, but the unexpected photos of your journey can be totally worth it. We've asked aerial photography professional Gabriel Rovick for his top tips on taking his drone on all his adventures.
Gabriel is a Denver-based director, producer and founder of the boutique production house, F4D Studio. Together with his crew, he specializes in capturing high-end HD video and photography for film, television, digital and commercial outlets. He's also an extreme-sport enthusiast and avid traveler.
What drew you to aerial photography?
I discovered early on that using the drones adds an element of play and fun to photography. I’m into extreme and adventure sports and this feels like the extreme sport of photography to me. There are different elements to deal with on every shoot and I love that process. You have to find the best spot to take off, somewhere you can see the drone as much as possible through the entire flight. It's exciting because you’re thinking of a lot of things at once, wind and natural elements, but also lighting and composition and how to get the exact shot that you’re looking for. Also, you just don’t know what may fail, so it's exciting to chase down the shot and then get the drone back safely. Once the drone is back home you feel super accomplished. It's rewarding and exciting.
How did you get started?
Well, I had been working with a guy that I would hire to do aerial work for me and after going on a number of shoots with him, I decided I needed to do it for myself. I bought a starter kit, joined Meetup groups and Facebook groups and just tried to educate myself as much as possible. At the time governments were still trying to find the best way to regulate this new thing, so laws were changing every second of every day. I was constantly trying to get information just to stay on top of everything. Eventually, they made a rule that if you wanted to do aerial video and photography you had to register your drone and get a pilot’s license so I became a certified sport pilot to fly a powered parachute. Now, if you want to do aerial video and photography you don’t need a pilot’s license but you do need a UAS cinematography license which requires some heavy reading and passing a written test.
What kinds of places do you love to shoot with your drone?
I always have a drone with me. They make them so small now, you can carry it around in your pocket. But I really enjoyed photographing with the drone at Big Sur. Aside from it being a really breathtaking place, it's massive so you can fly really far and you’re just getting incredible photos all the time. It was also a really challenging day with the wind and other elements, and I like having to do a bit of work to get the right shots.
I also really love shooting in cities. They have so many other challenges. You have to be really strategic about where you’re going to stand and what you’re going to do and paying attention to rules and laws. You really have to be involved with what you’re doing when you’re shooting in a city.
What do you do when you’re scouting a trip?
When I get booked for a trip or I know I’m going to be traveling somewhere, first I buy my plane ticket and then I immediately get online and start looking up rules and regulations for drone use in that particular place. Almost every place has a local aviation website with a page dedicated to aerial photography. If I don’t understand the rules, or there isn’t good information there are Reddit groups and Facebook groups where people who have a lot of knowledge are happy to share tips.
Are there any places you know of that are particularly strict and how do you get around this?
Most cities are pretty strict. You can’t fly a drone at all in Washington DC or New York City. I flew in Tokyo and I remember it also having some pretty strict regulations. LA is strict because of the film production studios and if you don’t have proper permissions and permits, they will stop you. San Francisco is one of the most drone friendly places. National Parks are no drone zones, but that doesn't stop a lot of people. There are places that sell day permits like in the Canyonlands in Utah. A few state parks there will sell you a permit certain times of the year to shoot from specific places. It's strict, but you can get some pretty incredible footage.
In a lot of instances when I’ve been traveling in foreign places where I’m just not sure if it's okay, I just ask a security guard. Sometimes they say no, but sometimes they don't mind.
How do you determine where and when flying is appropriate?
You shouldn’t fly over crowds. It's just not allowed. I also think respecting people’s zones of silence and peace is really important. Temples, cathedrals, churches etc. Even if there is heavy tourist traffic, these places are still places of worship and should be treated with respect. I find I try to respect these zones in natural settings as well. On popular hiking trails at particularly beautiful viewpoints or campgrounds. These are also sacred to people and the buzzing noise of a drone really takes away from that experience. It can also be distubing to wildlife, which is important to remember.
I can’t say I’m always great at following my own rules, but I do try to respect these spaces for people.
What features do you use the most in a drone? And what functions should beginner drone photographers look for?
As a professional, I love having slow motion capabilities, and low-light features are a bonus as well. Stable camera is key. Most units come with a gimbal at this point, but I would not purchase a drone that does not have a camera stabilizer.
As far as a drone for beginners, I would recommend purchasing a smaller drone to start, and having a camera with both photo and video capabilities is key – 4K video is a plus. Also, as a beginner, having obstacle avoidance is a drone saver.
How do you pack your drone?
I always buy the case that is recommended for whatever drone I’m purchasing, so each of my drones has a case. You have to carry-on your batteries and I prefer to carry-on my drone as well. I like having it with me vs. under the plane. I always have four or five extra batteries and a variety of extra parts for the drone such as propellers and whatnot because things always break. I also always bring a portable charger for my phone. A lot of people also really like shooting with neutral density filters, they make it easier to balance exposures and use different apertures and shutter speeds. Especially if you’re new to drone photography, I recommend getting a pack of those.
So now you’re in a perfect shooting location what are you thinking about?
The best times of day to shoot any photography is sunrise and sunset, but one thing I’ve noticed with aerial photography is that the shadows aren’t always so bad at other times of the day. Also, the varying perspectives at different times of the day can be very cool. I also think a lot about composition, which I think gets lost in a lot of aerial photography. Don’t just shoot looking straight out or straight down. I like to play with the angle of the camera and look for interesting shots. I also still think about the rule of thirds and make sure there is something in the foreground, whether its a tree or a boat or anything. Making sure to pay attention to composition makes a huge difference in the quality of images I get back.