Dean M. Chriss

Nature Photography Using Drones

January 26, 2019

The Elemental Desert #2

Photos and videos captured by drones can seem great until you imagine the actual situation in which they were captured. The obnoxious hornets nest buZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZzz prevents everyone in the area from having any sort of nature experience, including the drone pilot. Drones can also be harmful to wildlife and the environment. Fortunately, drones are banned in U.S. national parks and monuments, wilderness areas, countless state and local parks, areas within five miles of an airport, and many other FAA drone exclusion zones. Most other countries have similar laws and 15 countries prohibit drone use completely.

Natural sounds like bird song, and quiet, are elemental parts of nature. The sound and sight of drones scares birds and wildlife that may be trying to feed or care for young, and it ruins the experience for others who might be watching, photographing them, or just enjoying the peace and quiet of the area. I once had a large flock of birds I was photographing scared away by a drone flying along the waterline at sunrise on a Florida beach. I suspect this was done deliberately so the drone pilot could then get photos or video of the birds in flight. Of course his photos were much more important than those of several other photographers and bird watchers on the beach. I'm also sure he had immense concern for the birds during their nesting season. They must feed where food is located during the relatively short time the tide is low, or go hungry and fail to feed their young. The pilot may know how to fly a drone and maybe how to get good photos, but is otherwise an ignorant and inconsiderate jackass.

Last fall I was photographing a landscape in great light from the top of an 8 or 10 foot mound beside a road in a national park. Someone who undoubtedly saw me and liked the same scene quickly stopped on the opposite side of the road, in front of me. I didn't care since I was up high enough to avoid him and his vehicle. Then with lightning speed he released his giant, noisy drone and flew it right into the middle of my picture, moving it high and low, near and far, all within my scene. He stayed so long I gave up rather than wait for the light to go bad. I suppose I could have endured the noise and cloned the blurred drone out of my long exposure, but I was too irritated. I reported the pilot's description, that of his vehicle, and his license plate number to a ranger who wrote down and then radioed it out to patrol cars. I don't know if anything happened to the law breaking drone-ographer, but I always report illegal drone use every time I witness it, whether or not it impacts me directly, as should everyone. This helps authorities realize the extent of the problem and apprehend offenders.

I have many other encounters and stories, including a time I had to endure a drone flying low among formations in the most remote wilderness area I have ever visited. When a normal ground based photographer and a photographer using a drone are photographing the same thing, the drone is nearly always in the pictures made by the ground based photographer. Think about drone hovering where no one can stand in front of a rock formation or waterfall. No one standing on the ground can avoid having the drone in their photos. This is no different than setting up a camera in front of someone else who is taking a picture. It may be legal, but only because there are no laws against being an inconsiderate jerk.

All of these stories revolve around a drone pilot's lack of regard for the law and/or lack of regard for the wildlife and places being photographed, and always lack of courtesy and respect for others sharing the area. Drone use diminishes the experience of anyone who is nearby, disturbs birds and wildlife thereby causing them harm, and if a drone crashes in an inaccessible place it pollutes the area with debris and highly toxic battery chemicals. Since so many photographers with drones will do anything to "get the picture", strict laws regarding drone use in natural areas are an absolute necessity. Flying a drone in a U.S. national park has a maximum penalty of six months in jail and a $5,000 fine. That seems reasonable to me and countless others who have been negatively impacted countless times by inconsiderate and careless drone users in places where they have long been illegal.

There are numerous appropriate uses for drones, but nature and wildlife photography is not among them. You will notice that in nearly every online video of wildlife captured using a drone, the animals get uneasy, stop feeding, and move away. Then they are usually chased by the drone. Most still photos of birds captured with a drone show the birds nearest the drone starting to take off, fleeing from the drone. Even in places where flying drones is legal, there are always laws prohibiting wildlife harassment by any means. As with normal wildlife photography, you are too close when the animal changes its behavior due to your presence. The same applies to drones, and it happens at a far greater distance because they are so noisy. There are many nature and wildlife photographers who use drones, and they will dispute what I have said here, but only because they feel their photos are more important than the welfare of their subjects and consideration for other people in the area who may also want photographs.

I appreciate that it can be fun to fly a drone (aka. UAV or UAS) like the DJI Mavic 2 Zoom, Parrot Anafi, DJI Spark, DJI Mavic Air, DJI Phantom 4 Pro V2.0, DJI Inspire 2, Ryze Tello, Skydio R1, PowerVision PowerEye, Yuneec Typhoon H Plus, GoPro Karma, or Yuneec Typhoon H920 Plus, but do it somewhere that you will not impact wildlife, wild places, and the experiences others seek in those areas. There is no shortage of places that are already noisy and visually polluted. We don't need to turn the last remaining vestiges of nature into more of them. Your photos and videos are never more important than the place, its wildlife, or the other people who came to experience them. Believe it or not, it is alright, even good, to have respect and concern for things beyond yourself and your pictures, regardless of what the laws may permit.


P.S.:  Here are a couple of articles that are worth reading: