Tech Shortcuts for Life

How to Take Drone Photos Without a Drone

Method #3: A 30-foot-tall selfie stick

“TECH SHORTCUTS FOR LIFE” in blue at the top left and a black and white photo of a person with an elongating selfie stick.
“TECH SHORTCUTS FOR LIFE” in blue at the top left and a black and white photo of a person with an elongating selfie stick.
Photo Illustration: Save As/ Medium Photo Source: Getty Images

Tech Shortcuts for Life is a weekly column from Thomas Smith on Debugger exploring the apps, automations, gadgets, and other tech tricks that can make your life more efficient.

I love flying drones that are so cheap that I don’t have to care if I crash them. But if you want to fly a drone for any commercial purpose — like taking nature photos, news reporting, real estate photography, or event photos — things get much more complex and expensive. Professional drones can cost upwards of $2,000, and if you don’t obtain the proper license, registration, and insurance, you could end up with a $250,000 fine — or even land in jail. There are also tons of places where drone use is banned, and some people think they’re creepy.

If you need aerial photos but don’t want to deal with the hassle and expense of a drone, what can you do? I’m a professional photographer, and I’ve developed something of a reputation for taking drone-like aerial photos without using drones. I do it with some tech-enabled location scouting, creative use of airplanes, and a 30-foot-tall selfie stick with a GoPro at the top.

Here are my techniques.

Tall buildings or parking garages

The easiest way to get an aerial photo is to go up a tall building. But not just any building will do. Ideally, you want a building with unobstructed views, where you can get roof access. It’s possible to shoot great photos through a window, but it’s much better if you can find a building with an exposed roof or balcony from which to shoot, so you don’t have to deal with distortions from glass (or worry that window washers haven’t visited recently).

Buildings with formal observation decks can be great for amateur photographers. But the challenge for pros is that at most well-known observation decks, the good photos have been taken already. There are tens of thousands of photos taken from the top of the Empire State Building or the Eiffel Tower. If a pro takes one more from the same vantage point, it’s unlikely to sell.

Instead, I like to find buildings with exposed roofs where I can easily get access but where other photographers haven’t been yet. In this quest, rooftop bars and restaurants are your friend. Search Yelp for restaurants with rooftop dining, and then browse through visitor photos to find one with an exposed seating area or observation deck. Pay a visit, and shoot away (you might get a great meal out of the experience as a bonus). I’ve taken some popular photos of Los Angeles — a city that can’t get enough of rooftop dining — with this method. Here’s one that the U.S. News and World Report featured in a story about air pollution.

Photos courtesy of the author

My favorite approach to aerial photos from buildings is to use parking garages. Parking garages can be massive, and their roofs are almost always exposed — the better to fit more cars. Access usually only costs a few bucks (the cost of parking), no one questions why you’re there, and you can bring a ton of gear in your car and pull it out one piece at a time to shoot to your heart’s content.

To find good parking garages, I use Google maps. Open maps in a browser, and search for “parking.” Switch to a satellite view, and then enable 3D mode. Zoom in, and pan around the area you want to photograph, looking for tall parking garages. In 3D mode, you can often tell the height of the garage relative to other nearby buildings and get a sense of whether it has an exposed roof. Sometimes you can even count the number of floors it has. Visit the most promising ones with your gear in tow, and shoot away.

Airplanes and helicopters

Piloted aircraft aren’t subject to the same airspace restrictions as drones. In many cases, you can charter a helicopter to fly you around an area in a doors-off flight to facilitate photography. In the Bay Area, such a flight will cost you a few hundred dollars. I don’t personally do this for safety reasons, but I know photographers who charter helicopters all the time. Pros like Daniel Sullivan, one of Maui’s best photographers, often charter helicopters to capture spectacular photos of the island’s waterfalls.

If you don’t want to charter a private aircraft, though, there are still ways to get great aerial photos on a traditional flight. There’s an art to taking great photos out the windows of a commercial airliner. The first thing you want to avoid is having the plane’s wing block your shot. That means you either want to be in the very front of the plane or the very back, so the wing is fully out of your frame.

The absolute best place to take photos is in first class. You’re at the very front of the plane, and you have plenty of room to position yourself and your gear in your seat. I only occasionally fly first class, though, so usually I’m trying to optimize my position in coach. I’ve got some good and bad news there. If you’re flying coach, the best seat for photos is the last window seat at the back of the plane.

It’s far from the wing and also far enough back that the stream of superheated air from the plane’s engines won’t cause as much distortion in your shot, which can happen if you’re seated just behind the engines. These seats rarely recline and are right next to the bathrooms, so they’re not the most pleasant place to sit. But their drawbacks also mean you’ll rarely have competition for the seats, even on a seat-yourself airline like Southwest.

Grab the window seat in the last row and get your gear out in advance. The best times to take photos on a commercial flight are at takeoff and landing. Photos taken at cruising altitude seem cool in the moment but are rarely engaging after the fact. During takeoff at many domestic airports, the plane banks sharply and climbs quickly to avoid restricted airspace and reduce noise. This means you can get some great angles looking almost straight down, but you have to act fast. Here’s an aerial photo of San Francisco that I took from a commercial jet window while it was banking sharply during takeoff.

Aerial photo of San Francisco
Aerial photo of San Francisco

Landings are more level, leisurely affairs which give more time for photography, but yield relatively flat angles for your shots. Make sure to comply with FAA regulations if your camera counts as an electronic device, the use of which may be restricted below 10,000 feet. I sometimes bring an analog film camera along on flights so I can keep taking pictures even during takeoff and landing. Photos taken on the tarmac can come out great, too.

To get great shots, first pray that your window will be relatively clean and unobstructed. If you have a polarizing filter, this can help cut down on glare when you’re shooting through a window. Frame your shot, trying to get as little of the plane’s wing and the window’s frame in your composition as possible. A wider lens lets you include more into your shot, but one with a longer focal length can be useful, too, because you can zoom in to avoid the plane’s fuselage.

I sometimes like to put a sweatshirt over my head and camera, like an old-timey photographer, to eliminate reflections from within the cabin.

If the plane has an electronic location map on the seatback display, take photos of this periodically with your camera or phone. You can match up the time stamps later with the photos you take out the window to help retrace your flight path and figure out exactly what you photographed. I also like to find a reference landmark in my photos (airport runways work great), find that landmark in Google maps later, and use that to help determine the exact location of the things I photographed.

To cut down on reflections, press your lens as close to the window as possible and shut off the overhead light at your seat. I sometimes like to put a sweatshirt over my head and camera, like an old-timey photographer, to eliminate reflections from within the cabin. If you’re going to do that, tell your fellow passengers and the flight attendants what you’re up to so they don’t freak out.

After the fact, use software like Adobe Lightroom to crop into your photos in case you captured a bit of wing or window frame. You should also adjust your photo’s white balance to compensate for any color casts introduced by the plane’s window. Lightroom’s Dehaze filter can work wonders for removing haze added by the plane’s glass, but don’t go overboard.

If you set everything up correctly and get lucky in terms of your flight path, you can get some great photos out of an airplane’s window.

Pole aerial photography

In some cases, you need an aerial photo, but there’s no plane or building in sight. In that case, your best bet is to bring the building (or a structure equivalent in height, at least) with you. Some people loft their cameras into the air with balloons or kites, which are less restricted and often cheaper than drones. This can yield great photos but requires wind, helium, and skill. An easier option is to use a photography pole in a technique called pole aerial photography.

Pole aerial photography couldn’t be simpler. You take a super long pole and mount a camera on the top. You then raise the pole into the air and trigger the camera remotely to take aerial photos and videos. Some people call the poles “masts” or “monopods,” but really, they’re giant selfie sticks. They can be up to 100 feet tall.

I use a 30-foot DocaPole with a GoPro Hero7 Black camera mounted at the top for my own pole aerial photography rig. The DocaPole is seven feet long when it’s retracted, which means it fits in a standard car with the back seats folded down. When you arrive at the site of your photoshoot, you mount the GoPro at the top of the pole and extend it in segments, laying the pole out on the ground to start. You then begin at the pole’s top, grab on, and walk along the length of the pole, raising it skyward until it’s fully upright.

You can then use the GoPro app on your phone to trigger the camera remotely and see a live preview of the view from atop your pole. Rotating the pole pans the camera from side to side. Note that it takes significant upper body strength to balance a 30-foot pole one-handed while operating your phone. Consider bringing an assistant to hold the pole. If you’re solo, you can also set the GoPro to burst mode, and it will continually take photos on its own, even without input from your phone.

The GoPro is a great option because it’s easy to control remotely, is relatively inexpensive, and has a wide-angle lens that captures a lot of the scene around you. It’s also lightweight, which makes it easier to raise up on a pole, and it’s relatively durable, which is great for those times when you inevitably smack it on the ground while lowering your rig.

If you’re feeling brave, you can always loft a traditional DSLR on a pole. Most modern DSLRs and mirrorless cameras include remote control options, and many will send a live preview image to your phone.

I don’t know of any specific restrictions on using photo poles, but if you use one, make sure there are no people standing within a pole’s length of you. That way, if you drop your pole by mistake, you won’t hurt innocent bystanders. Pole aerial photography is great for any kind of aerial photography, but lots of people use it for real estate photos, sports coverage, and documenting natural disasters. You can also use the technique for event photography. Even a relatively short pole six to 12 feet in length provides a unique aerial angle on a wedding, birthday party, or charity gathering.

If you want to put in the time, energy, and money to obtain a drone license and fly drones commercially, more power to you — you’ve braver than I am! But if you’re looking to take aerial photos without resorting to a drone (or you need to take aerial photos in a place where drones are restricted), try out my techniques. And don’t drop that pole!

Co-Founder & CEO of Gado Images. I write, speak and consult about tech, privacy, AI and photography.

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