some-ups-and-downs-with-drones
Aerial photo from a drone of forested lowlands leading up to snowcapped mountains. The unique, aerial perspective of a drone. © Ryan Trenkamp
The unique, aerial perspective of a drone. © Ryan Trenkamp

An interview with Ryan Trenkamp

Drones can provide some unique and wonderful images for nature photographers, and they can be a lot of fun to fly! With drone cameras getting ever better, and drones becoming increasingly popular, more photographers are finding value in these small flying objects. There’s even a special category for drones and other non-traditional captures in NANPA’s Showcase photography competition. Ryan Trenkamp has been using drones in his work for the past couple of years and shared his thoughts on these nifty little tools, how and why he uses them, and what their strengths and weaknesses are.

Trenkamp started his career as a photographer, but went into video eight years. Based in Cleveland, Tennessee, he’s a full-time freelancer who currently does a fairly broad range of work, from documentaries to music videos to weddings with his company, Skysail Productions.

He began using drones to augment work he was already doing. Some of his clients had started asking about drones but he was also interested in them for his own enjoyment. It quickly became apparent that drone footage was going to be standard in almost any video project he had. “They bring a visually pleasing contrast to and a nice change up from traditional, ground-based photography,” he said. Trenkamp uses a little bit of drone footage in most of his projects, often blending multiple drone sequences to tell a story.

Drone photo of a tractor trailer on a concrete lot casting a long shadow to its left.  The shadow cast by the truck becomes the subject. © Ryan Trenkamp
The shadow cast by the truck becomes the subject. © Ryan Trenkamp

Some pros of drones

Because they can fly relatively fast, a drone’s speed can bring a lot of dynamism to video that you just don’t get from a camera on a slider. That’s especially important for a sweeping overview introduction, but also useful for adding energy to scenes.

Drones can sometimes go where people can’t and they have a unique vantage point. “A drone shot can also be useful for seeing how different objects, habitats, and topographical features relate to one another on a larger scale. Wide shots afforded by drones can help establish the spatial context for where something is and what’s happening around it,” Trenkamp said.

“Some of my favorite drone shots have been that bird’s-eye perspective when the sun is low and casting long shadows off a subject, so the shadows become the subject. You can’t get that from a ground-based perspective.” He’s fascinated by having to think about what something will look like from the air before he launches his drone. “I have to consciously visualize the aerial viewpoint before it goes in the air. It’s a unique perspective, radically different from other ways of thinking and seeing. I have to project what the drone will see,” he said. Trenkamp also noted that, because a drone’s battery is limited to 30 minutes or so of flying, he has to figure out what he wants to do in the air before leaving the ground.

When everything works, the results can be stunning. He recalls one time flying over the Oregon Coast, when he noticed that the drone’s aerial perspective showed an interesting, haphazard pattern of seals on a beach. He was able to fly the drone closer without disturbing the seals and get a unique view that he’d never have been able to get on foot with a camera.

Aerial photo of two curving roads through a vibrant green landscape of fields and trees. Visualizing in advance what the drone will see can lead to images like the sinuous curves of the roads and fields in this image. © Ryan Trenkamp
Visualizing in advance what the drone will see can lead to images like the sinuous curves of the roads and fields in this image. © Ryan Trenkamp

And some cons

Flying a drone isn’t necessarily easy. “Prepare for it to crash. It will happen,” says Trenkamp. Flying takes practice.

Drones can also cause problems so, like most elements of nature photography, an informed and ethical approach is important. There have been numerous stories of birds attacking drones and knocking them out of the sky. A Google video search for “bird attacks drone” returns 215,000 results, ranging from pigeons and magpies to hawks and eagles. Last year a bald eagle attacked a drone operated by Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy that was documenting high water levels along the Lake Michigan shoreline sending it into the water where it was lost.

Trenkamp can relate. Once, when flying at tree-top level above a remote, gravel, forest road in eastern Tennessee, a red-shouldered hawk came out of nowhere and buzzed his drone. “My drone had the approximate descent speed of molasses, so it got buzzed three or four times before I was able to clear the area,” he said. “I guess there was a nest nearby because he was acting territorial, but there was no way to know, in advance, that hawks had nested in the area.”

A drone can look like a meal to some birds of prey and appear to be a threat if flown too close to a nest. The bigger danger, however, is to the bird which can be injured by the propellers, or by other operator errors, like when a drone crashed into a nesting site in California and caused the birds to abandon their eggs.

Drones can also occasionally lose their connection with the controller. Flying over a road in Kansas, Trenkamp’s drone lost its connection and shot straight up in the air. Fortunately, his has a “return home” function which uses GPS to return to its launch site, allowing him to recover the errant drone.

As good as drone cameras have gotten, and some can do 4K video, the sensors are relatively small. While you can get perfectly useable stills from drone footage, the images don’t fare well with significant cropping or enlarging. Given the choice between a very good but imperfect image and no image at all, the drone wins almost every time.

Aerial photo of a small motorboat moving left to right through brownish water. The bubbles from its propellers and the waves in its wake are clearly visible. You can't get this perspective of the patterns formed by the boat's propellers and wake without a drone. © Ryan Trenkamp
You can’t get this perspective of the patterns formed by the boat’s propellers and wake without a drone. © Ryan Trenkamp

And a few laws and regulations

The FAA has certain requirements for flying drones. As a beginner, you have to be at least 16 years old, register your drone, fly it no higher than 400 feet, and keep it in your line of sight. There are also many places and situations in which you cannot fly, including near airports and in national parks. To use a drone commercially, fly at night, and other uses, a Part 107 license is required

Trenkamp has been flying drones for two years and has an FAA Part 107 license. It’s not that hard to get but the process is time consuming. Online courses ranging from tens to hundreds of dollars are available as are the two- and three-hour YouTube courses he used. An FAA study guide is available, as well. Trenkamp  said that, after two days of studying, the test took less than an hour and was not that difficult. The initial test has to be in person, but subsequent renewals can be done online.

Trenkamp also noted that a lot of the laws regulating flying were passed decades before drones started becoming available to ordinary people and need to be reevaluated with drones in mind. Some prohibitions make no sense when applied to drones and some of the concerns addressed by existing legislation don’t even apply to drones.

If you’re traveling overseas, look into what the laws are in the countries you’ll visit. Some places have very strict regulations; others have no laws. Case in point: on a recent assignment in Liberia, a country with no laws on drones, he was able to use his with no problem. Well, except for when several black kites buzzed it out of curiosity.

You can build your own drone, and there are whole communities devoted to that. Trenkamp, however, flies an older DJI Mavic Pro (but plans to upgrade soon). The camera in his drone is better than the original drone cameras but not great. It shoots 4K video, and you can pull stills from the video, but it has a very small sensor. The Mavic Pro 2 has a one-inch sensor and much better quality images. He doesn’t expect feature film quality, but it’ll be more than good enough. Better drones can deliver magazine quality still images pulled from video or from photo mode.

“If you’ve flown for more than a week, you’ll run into permission problems,” Trenkamp says. You can get permission at national parks, but it’s not easy. “National forests are pretty accommodating, though. As for state and local parklands, well, that depends on the state and the park rules. Just ask ahead of time.” Wilderness areas seem to be off limits, especially when they prohibit motorized vehicles.

Traveling with a drone and taking it into the field “is a nothing burger.” The total package fits in a 6 x 18 inches case that easily fits in a carry-on bag or in a backpack. He’s taken drones on hikes up mountains and through forests. It only weighs as much as a medium telephoto lens but it can yield images and video footage that are unique, fascinating and impossible to capture otherwise.

If you’re using a drone, camera traps, action cameras or mobile phones in your nature photography, get ready to enter your images into NANPA’s annual Showcase photography competition, opening August 1, 2021. Keep an eye on your inbox for more details in the weeks ahead.

About Ryan Trenkamp

“Since starting as a full-time freelancer, I’ve been blessed with opportunities to be Director of Photography and camera operator for many short documentaries, music videos, promotional pieces, and Christian films, among others. Several of these projects have led to my work being published internationally and winning awards in multiple film festivals and photography contests across the country. Over the years this has taken me from the streets of New York City to the Oregon coast, to the swamps of Florida and the heat of Africa, and back home again alongside the beautiful Appalachians in East Tennessee.

See more of Ryan Trenkamp’s work on Vimeo.

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