We took a little trip in the South-West. That’s the reason why I’ve been silent. Nothing crazy, just the usual eighteen-hundred miles trip touching Las Vegas, St George UT, Page AZ, Monument Valley, Bluff UT, Sedona AZ, Scottsdale and back home to LA.
I took only three recording devices with me. My beloved Fujifilm X100V fixed lens camera (I will make a post about it, soon), my DJI Pocket 2 (think of a less sturdy, but stabilized GoPro) and my Mavic 2 Pro drone.
I love flying my drone in the wide open spaces of the South Western states. I know that drones are highly reliable and since taking my Part 107 and becoming a commercial drone pilots I am pretty comfortable about dos and don’ts of the trade, but around Los Angeles, even where you are perfectly allowed to fly, it’s always so busy with people and traffic (and birds) that you can’t help sighing with relief every time you land your aircraft after a flight. Flying in the desert (as in any sparsely populated area) is so liberating. Not because you would do anything crazy, but because the worst that can happen if your drone crashed is that it crashes, period. Granted the economic loss would be bitter to swallow, but that would be all. Crashing the drone on someone or someone’s car would be several levels of magnitude worse.
I learnt some interesting lessons about flying a drone in the South West, some apply to the summer, some work in general, some don’t apply only to the South West.
1. Mind the heat!
You don’t just unpack your drone and fly: check the temperature first. It doesn’t matter how much you like the heat, your little quadcopter likes it less than you do. The Mavic 2 Pro has a maximum operating temperature of 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius). Temperatures in the low 100s, or high 90s, summed with the thin air of the South Western plateaus will put more strain on the engines and hence demand more to an already hot battery (just to make the picture more idillic, a hot battery might deform and dislodge from its slot just enough to make the drone lose power and crash).
The solution is to be goal oriented when you’re flying in the heat: see, think, fly, shoot, land. Keep the flights brief and don’t stray too far in case you had to land earlier than expected because the battery is depleting too fast.
That’s what I did in the Escalante – Great Staircase National Monument. It was too gorgeous not to try a shot, but it was nearly a hundred degrees so I did not have much time to fly around – not excited about the idea to go retrieve the little guy in one of those canyons.
2. Use the constraints to your artistic advantage
Rules are not there to be broken, especially FAA rules. All the more if you have a part 107 license and flying a drone is part of your livelihood. Many Western points of interest, like National Parks, preserves and human-made landmarks (e.g. dams) are No Fly Zones. If you use an app like Aloft or B4UFLY, you will see those areas clearly marked. Most drones have some geofencing systems that won’t let you fly there anywhere.
This is no reason to despair, though! Think like an airplane! You can stay out of the NFZ, and position yourself at such an altitude and angle that grants you a spectacular view without breaking any rule. Think of the constraints as of guides, and work your storytelling around them.
I find these images of the Glen Canyon Dam area and the Colorado River in Page, AZ pretty interesting, and no law was broken to produce them.
3. Higher is not necessarily better
The whole point about flying a drone is to go high, right? Plus, in the desert, far from airfields or any other controlling agencies it might be tempting to fly higher than the allowed 400 feet. And yet, sometimes the interest of flying a drone does not lie in how high you can get, but in the unique perspectives you can achieve. Consider this shot of the Navajo Twins, in Bluff, UT.
If you fly lower, and closer, to the formation you can get some far more interesting results.
Drone photography is aerial photography, but also different from what you would capture from an actual airplane or a helicopter. Sometimes it’s about how close you can get to something to unlock a unique visual, and not how high you can get above it.
4. Recollect in tranquillity
I’ve often said that digital photography is much akin to Impressionist painting. Impressionists did not paint their masterpieces al fresco. They were indeed fans of the open air, but they would sketch and mark their impressions about the light on paper, then return to their studios and paint based on their sketches, their notes and their recollections.
Digital photography is the same. It’s where editing comes to play. To me, editing is what lets your eyes see now what my heart saw then.
I flew my drone quite a bit in Sedona, AZ. Then I sat down in the patio of the beautiful home we rented and, looking at the very same rocks I had shot a few minutes ago, I tried to edit my photos. I was disheartened. I was having a very hard time making the photos look as beautiful as what I was looking at. I almost discarded everything.
Little did I know that, recollecting in tranquillity a few days later in my studio, recalling the vistas of Sedona with my inward eye – as the poet Wordsworth would say, I got a totally different impression from those shots. I am able to tell you know what Sedona looked to me, or better, what Sedona made me feel like then. The the beauty that surrounds you in a stunning embrace everywhere you look, the purity of the rocks and the threes in the blinding light of the early afternoon, and those sunsets that seem to be reflecting the energy vortex rising from the ground.
This brief guide was not meant as a how-to, but more as a source of inspiration. As always, my images can be purchased as prints of any size and format. In a few days, I will update my Visions of the American West with more visions from this past trip.
Happy Trails, and enjoy the endless skyway!