Aerial Photography: The Essential How-To Guide

Aerial Photography: The Essential How-To Guide by Greg McNair

Aerial Photography: The Essential How-To Guide by Greg McNair

The Bird’s Eye View

Have you ever wondered what the world looks like from a bird’s perspective?  Have you wondered how you might get a small, or maybe not so small, camera airborn to find out?     The book Aerial Photography: The Essential How-To Guide by Greg McNair shows you how to get started with remote controlled (unmanned) aircraft capable of carrying cameras.    I recently bought a copy, which I ordered from his website for $49.95.  This post is a brief review of McNair’s book.

The Dreaded AP Mosquito

There’s a rare mosquito that carries the AP virus.  Anyone bitten by such a mosquito finds himself (or herself) obsessed with Aerial Photography.  The symptoms include pouring over books and websites to gather every last bit of information on AP, spending hours on a flight simulator, and hastily buying helicopter kits and parts to assemble a cameraship.  I appear to have the AP virus, since I read Greg McNair’s book in one sitting.  Actually, I was standing.  I tore open the package and read it (it’s only 82 pages) right where I stood.  Fortunately, it was a quick, entertaining and highly informative read.   As you can see from an earlier post, I’ve been exploring remote controlled helicopters as vehicles for photography.   Though I’ve been learning a lot, McNair’s book provided a new flood of information.  It is particularly valuable because it includes so many (web) resources for every aspect of AP.

McNair’s book is meant to be a guide to starting an aerial photography business.  About half the book is devoted to the tools you’ll need to get your camera in the air.  The other half of the book is about building, marketing and maintaining an aerial photography business.

Tools of the Aerial Photography Trade

In the first half of the book he discusses tools that can be used to accomplish the task of getting an aerial view.  These include airplanes, helicopters, weather balloons/blimps, and telescoping masts.  He doesn’t discuss kites, which are another popular means of getting cameras aloft.  This is probably because kites are more dependent on the weather and harder to control than other vehicles. Thus they are less suitable for a business.

For what he does discuss, McNair’s approach is very similar to the approach I’ve taken in previous posts.  He discusses the pros and cons of each type of aircraft and lists numerous resources on the web where you can get more information.  He does not describe how to build anything.  However, he does tell you what  you’ll need to build your cameraship, and where you can get the various modules.  While this is similar in spirit to my posts, his book contains many more resources and more detailed discussions.  It is a treasure of information.  In addition to covering vehicle type (e.g. airplane vs. helicopter), he also discusses the modules or components that are needed to make up a working cameraship.  These include flight assist hardware (GPS and gyro stabilizers), camera mounts, remote camera triggers, downlinks for real-time video monitoring, and cameras. There’s quite a variety of choices for each of these modules.  For example, he discusses 8 different camera triggering devices from as many manufacturers.   Some have mechanical fingers to press the shutter, others use infrared to control the camera, while still others connect to the camera’s USB port, and yet others use the cameras existing electrical shutter release.  Similarly, for camera mounts (harnesses) he discusses about 6 different sources of mounts accommodating everything from point and shoots and palm-size video cameras to DSLR’s and professional video.   Whatever your budget or project goals, he covers something that will do the job.

The Business of Aerial Photography

The second half of the book covers a variety of topics that are important for your business, including how to start your business, marketing secrets, pricing your services, liability insurance, FAA flight restrictions, mitigating risks, and population and ground activity.   These sectoins contain information necessary to run your business profitably and safely.  Everything is based on his first-hand experience.   For example, liability insurance is harder to get for aerial photography because there are so few people doing it.  McNair’s suggestions can save you a lot of time hunting down an underwriter.  Of particular interest is his discussion about potential customers of aerial photography.  His customer list is a lot bigger and more varied than you might guess.  This too is worth the price of the book.  It may surprise you that any FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) flight restrictions apply to remote controlled, unmanned aircraft as well as manned aircraft.  You need to know about any temporary or permanent flight restrictions in the areas you plan to photograph.  For example, events that draw large crowds, such as the Superbowl, are likely to be declared no-fly-zones.  The penalties for violating a flight restriction include jail, 4 or 5 figure fines, and loss of your pilot’s license (if applicable).

Most importantly, the topic of safety is addressed many times throughout the book.  This is of greatest concern with helicopters.   A 600 series RC helicopter has a rotor diameter of 4 feet.  The rotor is a carbon fiber blade spinning at 2000 rpm.  It can kill or maim.   It should be obvious that you must not fly over or near crowds with one of these.  McNair also reminds us that helicopters tend to attract crowds.   It is vital to avoid situations where a crowd might gather.   Otherwise, you need someone on hand, other than the pilot,  who can keep people and pets out of danger.   Dogs and sometimes children may run toward the heli as it is landing or taking off, putting them in extreme danger.  If this should happen, your only choice may be to “ditch” the helicopter, rather than risk injuring someone.

The Right Tool Is Whatever Gets the Shot

At the beginning of the book McNair introduces the mantra, “The remote controlled aircraft is merely a tool for getting the shot.”  He is telling us not to be attached to any one vehicle for getting the shot.  Indeed, the risks and costs of using a helicopter motivated him to get a 55 foot telescoping mast (pole) for “aerial” real estate shots.   This makes perfect sense when you don’t need a high altitude shot, and you’ve got too many trees, telephone poles and people around for an airplane or heli.  Tethered  balloons are another safe and easy alternative.  Whatever method you choose, Aerial Photography: The Essential How-To Guide will provide information and resources to get your camera in the air.

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