Anyone who’s seen a drone buzzing around a park or public event has probably felt a bit violated—what is this robot doing taking photos of me? But as I look at the winners the 2016 Dronestagram contest, I’m feeling more patient with our new photographic overlords.
The images range from a lone snowboarder carving his way down the Chugah Mountain Range in Alaska to a flyby of Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi in Umbria, Italy. But the pieces I find most striking are those that don’t just mimic the aerial photography we’ve seen before, but exploit the small, low-flying, low-risk, highly maneuverable drone to capture shots we haven’t seen before.
For instance, Summer camp, Gran Canaria, by Karolis Janulis, puts us just above a grid of sunbathers on a beach. Compared to most satellite or aerial photography, it's a startlingly close, omniscient view. The people aren’t just ants. We can make out the details down to the style of bikini, and even some of the artifacts that people carry with them. It’s as if we’re a benevolent god peering down on our subjects. This sort of intimate overhead image has been produced before, but it requires a photographer like George Steinmetz flying across the world in a single motor glider, snapping shots as he goes—the sort of artistic investment that only an elite few would make for their craft.
Similarly, Moab by Max Seigal puts the viewer just off a fissure being traversed in the Utah mountains. The slight overhead view produces a suitable sense of vertigo from 400 feet in the sky. But as I consider the logistics involved in this photo, Seigal simply brought his drone along on a day of rock climbing with his friends. In another era, I imagine you’d have to set up a precarious wire track, or hire a helicopter, to catch the shot. Such would require meticulous preplanning, some level of danger to the climber, and a significant budget. Meanwhile, Seigal snagged this shot when his friends climbed this particular line on a whim.
If you’ve read this far, maybe you’re interested in getting your own drone gear to take some photos yourself. Reading over the field notes, it looks like most of the winners were piloting the DJI Phantom 3 Professional—which runs a bit shy of $1,000 at the moment. Considering a high-end DSLR can easily be several times that, the bar of entry into the world of drone photography is really quite low. Just do us all a favor and don’t buzz too close.