Using A Drone For Landscape Photography

A Real-World Experience

Drone Photography 101

Let me begin by saying I really do like the concept and option of using drones for landscape photography. I purchased one to experiment with and it has been quite an experience.

New Toys Are Fun to Buy

I had experimented using my son-in-law’s DJI drone in my backyard and down by a nearby river. It didn’t seem that complicated, but I was worried about losing it in the river. Fortunately, we got it back safe and now I just had to have one of my own. I was hooked. This was cool.

First, I had to decide which drone to buy. This was February of 2021. At the time, it appeared to be a choice between the DJI Mavic drones and the Autel Robotics drones. For on-the-ground photography, I use the 46 MP Nikon Z7 II mirrorless cameras so I wanted the best sensor I could get on a drone.

The Autel Robotics EVO II Pro had a 20-megapixel 1-inch sensor that just seemed like the best choice at the time so I ordered one with all bells and whistles, extra batteries, and a carrying case. I was going to be ready for my March trip to the Utah deserts! I was filled with excitement for its delivery.

The Drone Arrives

It was quite a large box that it arrived in, but well packed and protected. I opened the hard case that the drone was in, reached in, and held up the drone in my hands. I guess I had not translated the weight in grams to pounds, or even thought much about it. I guess I didn’t care. I wanted one. This puppy was heavy.

I began to wonder how it was going to be able to fly. I began to wonder “What was I thinking?” I now began to realize how much I had to learn. I got my amateur drone license and was ready to see what I could do.

photo of drone on lauch pad ready to fly
Autel II Pro ready to fly. That was the easy part.

First Practice

I was not looking to do anything dramatic. I didn’t want to crash and burn the first time I used it. My daughter and I went to an open field at a nearby park. I calibrated the drone’s GPS and set its “Home” location by doing the required turning around in all directions while in the calibrate mode. I set it on its launch pad.

I just wanted to go up 15 feet and fly it about 100 yards away and then bring it “Home”. I started it up, rose up to 15 feet, flew it out about 100 yards, and took some photos. I next pressed the “Home” button. It shot straight up in the air to about 100 feet up. They do this to get above other objects before making the trip back. I knew this, but it was still a little unnerving. It came back to where I was and came down and landed softly.

The Autel drones do not have a controller with their own screen. You have to use a phone for the screen and I have an extra one I clip on to the controller. Autel is going to soon release their own controller with a screen, which has been an advantage of the DJI drones.

The Self-Portrait Lesson

I was going to Utah with my good friend, Jess Lee, and he had also purchased the same drone. The first order of business was to take some photos of us while we were photographing a canyon near Canyonlands National Park. As soon as we finished the sunrise shot with our big camera, it was time to break out the drone.

Photo of Utah desert from a drone
The drone photo of me standing on the edge of a canyon where we had just photographed the sunrise. My first drone photo!

I took the drone up and back about 25 feet. I couldn’t see us at all. The drone uses a wide-angle camera, equivalent to 23mm. I had to bring it in far closer and lower before we could see ourselves. Real-world lesson learned.

Using the Drone To Scout

We wanted to photograph the spire known as “Long Dong Silver” near Factory Butte in Southern Utah. The only problem was you are not permitted to drive to where you can see it and had to stop about a mile and a half away. There are no signs, but based on the information we could gather, we thought we knew where to go.

We calibrated the drone for “Home” and flew it ahead from where we had to park to try to have the drone see the spire on the other side of a large butte that was blocking our vision. It got past the butte, and Eureka!, we could see the spire to the right. We knew we were in the right place.

Spire in Utah Desert
We used the drone to locate this spire that was hidded by the butte on the left before making the hike to it from around the far side of the canyon.

Losing Contact With The Drone

I then made the mistake of trying to fly the drone closer to the spire, which was behind the butte. The drone no longer had a line of sight with my controller and automatically went into “return to home” mode. If you do anything to cancel the “return to home” mode, the drone could hover in that location until it runs out of battery and automatically lands. This might not be bad if you can hike to it, but if you can’t as in it being over a canyon, water or somewhere else you can’t go, it can be a terminal experience. When this happens, I set the controller down and don’t touch it until the drone is safely home.

Having A Plan For Factory Butte

Now it was time for the main attraction. Factory Butte is an amazing lone formation in the Utah desert. From a distance, the ridges leading up to the butte do not appear that large, but they are massive. It is not possible due to the deep crevasses to get close to it. The rough dirt road maybe gets within a mile. The plan was to fly the drone out to the south side, turn and face north, get as low as a line of sight would allow, and take a series of photographs.

Factory Butte up close with a drone
Photo of Factory Butte taken down low with the drone about a mile from the car

I had learned that having a plan was critical. With a realistic battery life of 20-25 minutes, you have to get airborne and take off where you want to go immediately. There is no time to sit hovering and using up the battery. There did not appear to be line-of-sight issues, so I felt it was going to be fairly simple.

I got out there, moved around amongst the ridges, and got the nice low shot I was after. Unexpectedly, the drone began to have connection issues as I tried to get low to the ground. I raised it up quickly and it helped, but then it happened again. I may have just been hitting a distance limit. At any rate, it went into “return to home” mode and I let it come back.

The result was a very nice photograph as shown above. Drone Photography was the only way I was going to get this image. There was no way I could have hiked to this location.

The Future Of My Drone Photography

One of the issues with drone photography is the limit on where you can fly one. National Parks, Monuments, and other federal areas are off-limits. The same applies to State Parks. Carrying it on aircraft in my camera bag is another challenge. There are some wonderful images I have seen from drones looking straight down at trees, canyons, and rock formations that I would like to do.

I also have to get over the fear of doing something stupid and dropping it into the water, losing it down a canyon, or flying it into a wall. I'm confident I will eventually get past this.

So, I’ve learned a lot and want to do much more with it. It’s just a matter of finding those locations where it would be allowed and where great images are possible. Stay tuned.