Eyes In The Sky!

Drone technology is changing the world of photography and video production, bringing to life images never before accessible by the recreational shooter

 By Joel Hersch

Photos by Levy Media Works


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For the committed photographer, attaining an elevated perspective can be the key to producing a jaw-dropping image—whether it’s an expansive landscape, vibrant sunset, or surfers riding powerful swell, a little altitude is a major game-changer.

Getting those spectator shots is more feasible than ever thanks to aerial drone photography. The increasingly popular and accessible tool has allowed local professional photographers such as David Levy to expand their frames and artistic scope in exciting ways. “It’s always been about trying to get a higher vantage point, whether that was climbing a hill, or driving up a mountain, or any way to get a better look over the scene,” Levy says. “[Here in Santa Cruz] I was limited by landscape features or buildings surrounding me, and the camera was stuck with me—grounded.”

A Santa Cruz native, Levy specializes in aerial cinematography, shooting music videos, corporate commercials, and surf events, including the annual Santa Cruz Waves Sandbar Shootout Surf Contest. His passion for taking pictures blossomed when he took a nature photography course while attending Soquel High School, where he learned about famous photographers such as Ansel Adams and various professional photo techniques.

As a teenage skateboarder, Levy would borrow his dad’s video camera to create skate videos around town, bridging his fascination with motion. He discovered drone videography in 2013 and has since fully immersed himself in the craft. “I’ve always been fascinated by flight, and doesn’t everyone wish they could fly?” he says.

He started with the DJI Phantom II Vision Quadcopter, but the technology has developed significantly and rapidly since then. Today, Levy says DJI’s Phantom series dominates the drone market and now includes the DJI Phantom 4 Pro—his tool of choice—which features major improvements in camera capturing capabilities, stability and overall flight control. “The camera is mounted on a three-axis gimbal for stabilization and video footage is extremely smooth,” he says. It is also equipped with advanced obstacle avoidance system, flight tracking, and has a transmission range of 4.3 miles.

With all of these technological advancements over just a few years, Levy says it is much easier to be confident in the technology working properly and being able to focus on the creative and practical side of aerial imagery.

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But with great technology comes responsibility. Glen McDowell is a Salinas-based drone pilot, specializing in aerial marketing and advertising videography and photography. He’s flown drones for two years—also the DJI Phantom 4 Pro—and says that he loves anything with a camera on it. One of the reasons he admires the new DJI drone is how portable it is: it weighs less than three pounds and fits in a backpack.

McDowell says that anyone interested in using drones should start by doing some homework. All non-hobbyist pilots—professional drone pilots who are compensated for work, like McDowell—are required by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to take the Federal Aviation Regulations Part 107 test, which costs $150. It provides the first national, uniform regulations for commercial operation of unmanned aircraft systems under 55 pounds.

A few key rules to consider before launching a new drone for both recreational and business uses include registering and labeling the device with the FAA, which can be done online and takes less than 10 minutes, according to McDowell. This applies to all drones weighing between 0.55 and 55 pounds. Registration cost is just $5 and is valid for three years.

Flying a drone without taking these steps can result in civil or criminal penalties, according to the FAA.

Other important rules include refraining from flying more than 400 feet in the air, and not going within 5 miles of an airport, though under some circumstances it makes sense to petition for exceptions. In Salinas, for example, being limited by airport proximity covers almost the entire city, explains McDowell, who has been granted airspace waivers that allow him to fly within 1 mile of local airports.

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Not everyone feels so positively about an increasing number of drones buzzing through the sky—especially while surfing. “When you’re out in nature, hearing the sounds of birds and the ocean is very relaxing, and then when someone shows up with a drone, it introduces a distinctly unnatural sound,” says Santa Cruz native Tizoc Velasco, who surfs and works as an outdoor educator. “Part of surfing is sitting and reflecting—it’s a form of meditation. So at times, it’s like if someone brought a drone to a yoga class … plus the fact that you know you’re being recorded is also a little bit weird and creepy.”

McDowell says it’s important for drone owners to use common sense when it comes to respecting other people’s privacy. “You want to avoid situations in which people might think you’re spying on them, or anything that might make someone feel violated,” he says.

“I think a lot of people are concerned about privacy and we want to be respectful of that. You could fly over someone’s backyard pretty easily,” McDowell goes on. “I would say the majority of commercial pilots don’t want to do that—we’re not in it for that kind of spying stuff. We can’t see your pot farm or what color your underwear is. It’s a wide-angle lens and it’s far away.”

McDowell advises people who want to capture images around their neighborhood to ask for permission to shoot if the airspace is near someone else’s property. “Don’t fly right over people, give them some space,” he says. “We don’t want to give any of this a bad reputation. There’s a lot of common sense that has to go with all of it. … You definitely don’t want to weed whack someone’s face.”

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As drone flight has changed the potential for photography and videography, it has also lent itself to various other applications in exciting and surprising ways. Online videos have featured skim boarders and snowboarders being towed by powerful UAS, and multi-billion dollar companies like FedEx, UPS and Amazon are conducting safety research on the potential of drone delivery systems.

In March of this year, fire departments in New York City and Toledo, Ohio utilized drones to assess fires, and lifeguard agencies are using UAS to identify dangerous conditions, people in need of rescue, and even sharks entering swim zones.

In Africa, a new initiative with support from the World Wildlife Fund and a $5 million grant from Google is under way to use drones to record elephant poachers, though to date no arrests have been made.

An April research report indicated that of the drone industry’s total $127 billion market value, more than $45 billion comes from the commercial real estate, construction and infrastructure sectors, and the overall industry is projected to soar over the next few years. Last year, the FAA released a report predicting that drone sales will grow from 2.5 million in 2016 to 7 million in 2020. In that same timeframe, they also predicted that hobbyist sales will increase from 1.9 million to 4.3 million.

Levy is expanding into more technical uses of drone imagery for industries such as construction, survey and inspections that require 2D and 3D mapping and modeling. His company, Levy Media Works, was recently hired by the City of Santa Cruz to help document changes in the San Lorenzo River after the winter storms brought down large quantities of silt, logs and debris into the riverbed.

However, Levy says the artistic side of drone use is closer to his heart. “I love the pursuit of chasing light for both sunrise and sunset landscape photography,” Levy says. “I truly enjoy being able to share the unique perspective from a drone—we’re seeing things from vantage points rarely seen before this technology was available.”

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