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Drones, Whales, and Volcanoes: An Interview with Photographer Eric Cheng

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In this interview with Eric Cheng, author of Aerial Photography and Videography Using Drones, Eric talks about the most interesting thing he’s photographed with a drone, safety considerations for new drone users, and some drone gift giving tips.
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Peachpit: What’s the most interesting thing you’ve photographed with an aerial drone?

Eric Cheng: The most interesting thing I’ve photographed with a drone is the Holuhraun volcano eruption in Iceland. Amazingly, I flew drones over the volcano twice in just a few months. The first time was an exploratory trip to see if I could do it—I thought about doing it on a whim one day, and circumstance had me in Iceland in front of the volcano less than a week later. The second time, I went with Good Morning America to do a live broadcast from the remote location, which was much more involved a process. One of the resulting images became the cover of Aerial Photography and Videography Using Drones.

Peachpit: Why did you decide to write your book, Aerial Photography and Videography Using Drones?

Eric: So many people I know are interested in putting a camera in the air, but don’t necessarily know how to get started. Camera drone technology has come a long way in the last few years, but fast moving technology can also be hard to track. I was being asked about camera drones more than once a day and finally decided to do something about it by putting the book together.

Peachpit: What are your recommendations for people who want to explore getting into aerial imaging as a hobby? If you could give new drone operators one piece of advice for getting the best images from their drone photography, what would it be?

Eric: The detailed recommendations, of course, are all in the book, but by far, the most important thing is to become a competent pilot. If you can’t fly a drone without crashing it, your aerial imaging pursuits are going to be short lived! Learning how to pilot a drone is best done with a small trainer drone. They are inexpensive and are actually harder to fly than proper camera drones are, which means that if you master a small one, the big ones will be no problem.

Peachpit: You’re also an accomplished underwater photographer.  What was your most mind-blowing underwater photography experience?

Eric: That is a really difficult question because I’ve had so many underwater experiences that I can remember viscerally. One highlight was being the first person (along with a couple friends) to photograph a sperm whale eating a giant squid. I was in Ogasawara, a remote Japanese island, which is where scientists had been going for years in search of the giant squid. We happened to be there to capture the images just a year or two before scientists finally managed to film a live giant squid for the first time. The photo isn’t that interesting from an esthetic perspective, but it’s an extremely unusual capture.

Peachpit: What are some safety considerations for new drone users?

Eric: Although some drones are small and toy-like, most camera drones are not toys. Treat drones with respect, and don’t forget that they can hurt people and damage property if misused!

Peachpit: What current rules and restrictions should operators be aware of, and where can they go for the latest laws governing drones?

Eric: The official rules for drone use as a hobby are on the FAA’s Know Before You Fly website, but I think that it’s equally as important to be respectful, in general. If you are asking yourself whether you should fly somewhere, you probably shouldn’t fly, and if someone else in the area is uncomfortable with your flight, you’re not doing the drone industry any good by ending up in a potential conflict.

Peachpit: We've seen all kinds of great photography and videos from drone cameras. What would you say are some of the best, most practical uses for drone images outside of the field of photography today? What do you predict for the future?

Eric: The vast majority of current commercial drone use is in photogrammetry, which is extracting data from photography. I briefly discuss photogrammetry in the book, but it doesn’t go into detail about how to do it. The basic idea is that by taking a lot of overlapping pictures from the air, one ends up capturing the same point from many different perspectives. This is enough information to generate 3D models of the imaged environments. Photogrammetry is used in agriculture, construction, mining, inspection, and more.

In the future, we’ll see more and more sensors on drones that allow them to collect a lot more information about the environment. We’ll also see drones carrying non-imaging payload. Some people can’t see a day when drone delivery will be standard, but it already makes sense for certain kinds of payloads in specific areas.

Peachpit: The holidays are coming up, and I’m sure that some people are thinking of buying a drone or drone/camera combination as a gift. Can you offer any advice for gift givers?

Eric: Absolutely! The first bit of advice is that people should do plenty of research before buying a drone—they are not made equally. There are many guides right now about the best drone to buy for the holidays. Wirecutter’s new drone guide, has been updated to be current for Black Friday. I’ve also written a Getting Started Guide with product recommendations over at my blog, Skypixel.org.

Second, be sure to buy extra batteries and propellers. Propellers break if you crash your drone (which is common when you first start flying), and you’ll want extra batteries so you can keep flying when you’re having fun.

Third, don’t go crazy when you fly your drone for the first time. You will want a long relationship with your new drone, so start easy!

Peachpit: Will you share your favorite photograph that was taken with a drone?

Eric: Yes—it’s a shot from the same flight that created the image on the book cover. Ferdinand Wolf, one of the best commercial pilots around, and I flew the Holuhraun volcano eruption in Iceland using two DJI Inspire 1 drones. We flew two drones at the same time so we could keep one in the frame at all times—we mostly shot video, and the results are pretty incredible. You see this futuristic-looking drone flying over a giant, bubbling lava lake. It was totally surreal to be looking at a monitor only a mile away, knowing that we were putting the drones through a horrible stress test combining freezing and melting conditions! Luckily, everything worked, and we came back with great footage and an incredible story.

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