Amid pandemic induced shutdowns, Lawrence, Kansas-based Earl Richardson was hit hard as a substantial portion of his photography work quickly dissipated in March 2020. Most of Earl’s commissions were from collegiate institutions — which switched to remote learning during the pandemic — giving him more time to explore self-assigned projects. Fortunately, he had recently bought a drone and began to experiment flying his new piece of equipment. While the drone provided Earl with a new method of creating, it also helped him gain perspective on how he can build his portfolio when in between projects.
Even though the drone is an aircraft, I came to view it as a low-altitude aerial platform that would allow me to put a camera in places that I could only dream of before.
In late 2019, a few months before the pandemic started, Earl and a friend went to a DJI drone seminar, which as he calls it was a “drone-for-dummies” type of event. Earl had resisted experimenting with drone photography for a long time, but after seeing what current models could do he decided to take the FAA Part 107 test. Within just a few short weeks, Earl studied, passed the test, and purchased a drone, as he was eager to take his photography to the sky and play with this new perspective.
Having the low-altitude aerial platform is exciting because you have another tool in your tool box that allows you to see the world in a drastically different way.
Initially, Earl was mostly drawn to landscapes or places that normally would have been populated with people. However, as time progressed he began photographing family members in their environments from an altitude of 20-30 feet above ground. Oftentimes, he simply let the drone hover and photographed whatever happened.
There’s a slight shutter lag, so while shooting you had to capture what was going on below you if subjects were moving.
Earl’s photography style already gravitated towards shooting from unusual viewpoints, which made working with a drone at relatively low altitude a perfect extension of how he normally works and sees. While he initially had the temptation to fly his drone as high as possible (up to 400 ft), he found the vantage point from that elevation tends to be uninteresting. After experimenting with various heights and angles, Earl realized the drone is perfect for times when you’d like to get a bit higher than you could on a ladder and to shoot directly above the subjects.
I think the sweet spot for me was in the 35-70 feet above ground level range.
The locations Earl visited were all within a few miles of his home in Lawrence, Kansas. He flew a fair amount in his own yard – where there are a lot of trees, making it difficult to navigate the drone.
I’ve lived here a long time and it was a fun challenge to revisit things I see everyday from a completely different angle.
Most of the challenges Earl faced were technical and related to flying a drone. You always need to ensure you’re operating within FAA parameters and with FAA permissions. Sometimes, he needed an unlocking code from DJI to enter into geofencing areas and be able to fly. Earl had to plan where he would fly in advance and then once he got there, make safety assessments, and have a pretty clear objective before even getting into the air. The wind is also a constant challenge because it reduces the drone’s battery life to keep it steady and afloat.
I was constantly surprised by what things look like from 50 feet above and how that changes simply by turning the camera 90 degrees (or even less).
All things considered, Earl learned to fly his drone both playfully and proficiently. More importantly, his new tool made him rethink how he approaches assignments. With an aerial platform, Earl is now capable of offering clients a slightly different perspective that compliments images made on the ground. This expansion of his skillset has already warranted new projects for Earl, like a recent assignment to shoot drone video and stills of commercial real estate properties.
My favorite part of this project was photographing familiar scenes from a slightly different perspective and being outdoors.
Photographer: Earl Richardson