Droning on…

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Why are we as photographers…on the whole…such a bunch of stick-in-the-mud whining Luddites? We’re never happy unless we’re moaning about the way someone else has made an image that was different to the way we make ours, and if their image was made using technology we don’t use then all the more reason to complain about it and discredit its validity. And I think to do so is pitiful, pointless and most of all highly pretentious.

If you shoot using film then digital isn’t real photography, if you use a DSLR then mirrorless is cheating because you have a histogram in your viewfinder, if you shoot ‘full frame’ then a crop factor camera is just inadequate, if you use an iPhone then you’re just an instagramming millennial, if you use Nikon then all Canon photographers are just wrong…and if you shoot 8×10 using a wooden box in the middle of the desert miles from anywhere like Ben Horne, then…then….well OK you win and can rightfully sit atop the ramparts of Smug Castle with a Jeremy Clarkson like smug grin on your face….but as for the rest of you….if you have ever dismissed someone else’s work based purely on the fact they use different gear or technology to the gear you use, or claimed the images that were facilitated in some way by that technology aren’t real images then you should go to your bathroom look in the mirror and take a long hard look at yourself….because you’re being a churlish, whiny, Luddite photographer.

Every bit of gear we use in pursuit of making images represents a technological advance over and above something that wasn’t available before. Did the transition from glass plate to film mean that Cartier-Bresson’s work was less ‘real’ than Daguerre’s? Of course not, just as the introduction of the 35mm Leica and its portability doesn’t mean that Capa’s work is less authentic than that of Herbert Ponting and his glass negatives. It’s a nonsensical argument. Technology has marched forward relentlessly for the last 150 years and will continue to do so way beyond the time when any of us are left on this ball of rock we call home. Rallying against it and decrying that advance is as likely to be as successful as King Cnut’s attempts to thwart an oncoming tide…so why bother?  Why not embrace it instead?

Humans…we are weird things indeed….we don’t really like change on the whole, we like order, predictability, certainty…we like things to stay as they are and all too easily we use difference as a reason to snuggle down under the warm comfort blanket of I’m right and you’re wrong…nah-nah-nah-nah-nah to you with knobs on.

Now, the primary reason for this blog is as the title suggests….drones…or quadcopters if you prefer.  At the moment, nothing can enrage the average landscape photographer more than a good old drone discussion. For some, the merest suggestion of them being a valid means of taking ‘real’ images is enough to send them searching for quill and parchment to vent their spleens to the first magazine that will publish their fury….thankfully they almost certainly won’t be reading this because the the internet makes things far too easy and blogging isn’t real writing as it wasn’t produced on one of Caxton’s original printing presses.

Yes I’m being facetious here, but the arguments to me are just as feeble and irrational when you look at them. Drones have managed to split the landscape photography fraternity in two, with the most vocal protagonists declaring them as ‘fake photography’ and claiming that images captured by drones shouldn’t be allowed in the usual photography competitions. Claims generally levied at ‘Droneographers’ include, amongst others, that they could just get their images sitting on the sofa in their living room, that there is no connection with the camera and being behind the lens is what makes for a real photograph.

In my humble opinion that is balderdash and piffle. All a drone allows is a different perspective on the landscape than one we’re used to seeing. It’s just a digital sensor, with a viewfinder that allows you to see a representation of the light that’s falling on it through a highly engineered piece or pieces of glass via a lens. The only difference between composing an image on the viewfinder in a Sony A7rII and the iPad you’re using to control the camera on your drone is that the electrons have a bit further to travel between sensor and screen in the drone’s case than they do in the Sony’s. The craft we have to learn in order to operate a large format view camera, or a DSLR, or a mirrorless Fuji or a Phantom drone is just that…craft….and you still have to learn it in order to produce a technically good image.  And you still need to have artistic ability to produce imaginative and creative images using any of those tools.

The only difference between a drone and a tripod with a geared head as a camera support is a few hundred years of engineering…they’re both simply adjustable support systems for a light sensitive medium aligned along a plane. Should images taken on tripods be dismissed simply because they weren’t taken handheld? No of course not, even though a tripod affords us all sorts of advantages in terms of image making that our highly evolved arms can’t.  They can place the camera in positions high above our heads, or over perilous ravines where we can only see what they’re pointing at by tilting the screen on the back of the camera…perspectives that are different to those we could achieve without one. Using a drone is no different, it simply affords the opportunity to put a camera in a different place to capture a different perspective. And if you don’t like different perspectives, put away your Big Stoppers, your strobes, your wide angled lenses, your telephoto lenses in fact all your lenses….because unless you’re using a camera obscura you are in some way altering the perspective through which you see the world.

As for the argument that it’s a turkey shoot, and it’s not real because you can shoot from your sofa…for me an epic struggle across remote mountain ranges or getting up at 2am to make sunrise having climbed up a mountain and broken trail through thick woodland to get an image doesn’t impress me one bit if the image is bland, unimaginative or doesn’t engage me in any way. Write about the story, show me the image, but don’t expect the struggle to automatically improve that image or make it any more worthy. If an image is good it makes no difference if it was shot on your sofa, from the drivers seat of your car or from half way up Everest after a 5 day hike…it’s still a good image.

I think instead that drones are the latest HDR, in that the images typically taken currently are so obviously different to our trained eyes that they immediately stand out, making the technique the first thing we see rather than the content of the image.  I’m sure this will change in time and more and more we will see highly creative and beautiful imagery emerging where people have learned to harness and leverage the potential of the technology and we will appreciate those images for their creative merit alone. But to dismiss all drone images simply on the basis that they weren’t taken using equipment that we use, or in a way that we work, or because they don’t align to how we think images should be taken…..come on people…we’re better than that aren’t we?

Before I sign off, for the record, I don’t own a drone, I don’t see myself owning one anytime soon because as a piece of technology it doesn’t allow me to achieve what I want to achieve with my own image making process, and I can’t bear the ruddy noise they make if I’m out in the landscape enjoying a bit of peace and quiet.  However if I suddenly find myself wanting to make images that could only be made using a drone I wouldn’t hesitate to use one, it’s the right tool for the right job.

And finally, I’ll admit the majority of ‘drone images’ currently being produced don’t do it for me, mostly because the technique of capture is the dominant thing visible in the image as I eluded to earlier, however some photographers, such as David Hopley, are using drones to capture and produce intriguing imagery where the drone truly is the enabler for their vision.

Let’s embrace technological advances not seek to use them as a reason to reinforce the walls of our own work and creative processes…


  1. Andrew Atkinson  —  April 15, 2017 at 6:58 am

    Well said Karl and well written as always. I do have a feeling that some antidrone comments on SM are just to cause a reaction and a little bit attention seeking.

  2. Simon Lowe  —  April 15, 2017 at 7:47 am

    Well argued Karl. I get a lot of this because I use an iPhone and, heaven forbid, a ‘crop’ sensor. Those arguing about the lack of ‘effort’ involved in drone shots don’t seem to have a problem with the results of setting up a 5 min exposure on tripod with a big stopper or similar. How are they ‘engaged’ with that process when the viewfinder is pitch-black? 🙂

  3. Richard Hurst  —  April 15, 2017 at 8:04 am

    Totally agree. I’ve been flying and using mine for 2-3 years now and thoroughly enjoy it and I remember right at the very beginning getting all the snarky comments.

  4. Arjun Nambiar  —  April 15, 2017 at 8:38 am

    Well said Karl, to each their own. But I do wish they didn’t sound like an oversized hornet on steroids!

  5. Julian Barkway  —  April 15, 2017 at 7:41 pm

    Heigh-ho. Another pointless debate to add to all the other ones in photography. I have to say, now that I no longer hang out in the sort of places where these discussions rattle on endlessly, it has thankfully passed me by.

    Honestly, it’s the results that count. Just because it’s been taken in a novel, modish or even gimmicky way, doesn’t necessarily make it a great shot. It’s a great shot because the photographer knew just what they wanted, used the right tool for the job and then had the skill and ability to use that tool to help frame an amazing image. Whichever tool you use is a means to end, not an end in itself. You’d think people might get that by now…

  6. Lisa Elwen  —  April 16, 2017 at 9:43 am

    Great blog Karl. Incidently I love drones and in the right hands like mentioned above with David or Verify they can produce stunning imagery, just from a different perspective, I don’t see or u understand what the fuss is all about.

  7. David Gibbeson  —  April 16, 2017 at 9:59 am

    I totally agree. And like HDR, just because it is HDR/Black and White/a drone shot will not make it good. When used properly a drone can be an amazing tool to get a different point of view or perspective. Do we say that Planet Earth is not good because they use drones? It is the results that matter.

    I don’t own a drone yet, but do want one. It will be no different to my camera though, I will still use my skills as a photographer to make (or break) a shot.

    A lot of photographers seem to love something to whinge about, and need to Just get on with it. If people are taking such “bad” shots with them, those photographers have nothing to worry about surely? 🙂

    Great post Karl.


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