You witness the sun set over the Great Pyramid of Giza and rise over the rugged Tien Shan in Kyrgyzstan – but from a higher vantage point. With Japanese explorers, you discover the abandoned Tulou of Fujian, China. With an Argentinian drone community, you float-perambulate a lighthouse in Mar del Plata. ‘Dronestagram’ on Instagram is your passport to see the world in ways you’ve perhaps never seen before.
There are 8 million posts filed under the hashtag – along with over a million under #droneshots, almost 5 million under #drones and 2.7 million under #fpv (‘first person’ view drones). No matter how frequently you fly, #dronestagram hits different. Here, it’s like you, the audience, are also the pilot. You see what beings in the sky see – like Martin Scorsese’s God shot, minus his amoral characters and the auteur’s judgement. With that bird’s eye perspective, drones have undeniably changed how we see the world. But how are drones changing the travel photography landscape?
A new perspective
“Drones are able to provide a perspective which you cannot get with a normal camera; not even if you climb a mountain,” says Kerala-origin photographer Navaneeth Unnikrishnan (@navaneeth_unnikrishnan). “You’re able to shoot places that you can’t visit on foot.” Among the highlights of his decade-long career has been capturing the volcanic eruption on Iceland’s Reykjanes Peninsula earlier this July.
“I had been keeping track of it, as there had been similar eruptions during COVID,” says Unnikrishnan, who is often in Iceland to hold photography workshops. “Fissure eruptions, like the one south west of Iceland, are not as dangerous as actual volcanoes. It’s like a split in the Earth, lava spewing around, it gets very hot.” Photographers from around the world flew in and assembled at a nearby base, and Unnikrishnan flew in his DJI Mavic. “It was the first time I’d seen a volcano erupting from such proximity. It left me speechless.”
Ask any drone evangelist, and they’ll tell you that that precious access to remote places and that inimitable perspective is why drones don’t get old. Part of that has to do with how the UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) technology has evolved – from surveillance and military tools to DJI’s mid-2010s bulky Phantom choppers, to more compact conventional drones to, now, the FPV which it is possible to assemble at home.
Over the last five years, drones have just been becoming more affordable, accessible, safer and smarter. Which is to say, they come with stronger geo-fencing software, and are less likely to fly off the grid.
“If the conventional drone is a helicopter, the FPV is a fighter jet,” says Nilmani Parth (@nilmaniparth), a Gurgaon-based filmmaker. Parth owns both kinds of drones, which he deploys largely in service of his clients – for short videos and documentaries for travel agencies to location-scouting for production houses. “Because the technology is so accessible now, everyone in the industry demands a drone – it’s a necessary investment for a filmmaker.”
This, in turn, has meant two things, at least when it comes to drones and travel: Destination promotion has become a buzzword, and personalised content has become the norm. “If you show an audience a bird’s-eye perspective of a beautiful landscape, that content and the destination will gain more traction with an audience,” Parth explains. Drone footage is able to generate curiosity for places that we didn’t know about; or, even those we think we know too well.
But curiosity is half the story; the other is being able to own those places in some way – imprint them on your memory, brag about your discovery on social media. “Now drones come with automation, and there’s a lot of AI involved. You don’t need to be a professional; you just need to pilot it, mark your shelf, and the drone will fly around you and create beautiful videos for you. Anyone can do it.”
“What touchscreens were to mobile phones, drones are to photography,” claims Mumbai-based photographer Rahul Tuli (@udta_firta_photographer). “It has simply re-written the rulebooks of capturing landscapes at their finest.”
Tuli’s journey with photography began nearly 15 years ago, armed with a Canon 400D. He acquired his first DJI Mavic Air, with a good APAS system, after seeing drone footage on Facebook, at a time when it was still difficult to score one. Now, in an arsenal of four drones, a DJI Mavic 3 Cine Prime Pro is Tuli’s prized possession, with which he is able to capture jaw-dropping footage of local off-the-beaten-path wonders like the waterfalls at Maharashtra’s Kondhaval Hills and his adventures around Asia.
“That feeling of living in the moment, transcending great distances where the horizon is the absolute limit – drones have brought to life landscapes that were earlier privy only to a select few,” says Tuli, adding that he is now also curator on the Instagram channel ‘Drones of India’, and the commercial viability of this content spreads into automotive and real estate, along with tourism.
Tuli, as well as Parth and Unnikrishnan are all unanimous in saying that there is more to drones than tools in service of marketing gimmickry. “Drones inspire,” says Tuli. “They give you short glimpses of experiences that you may otherwise miss. This technology opens up newer avenues for off-beat travel destinations, which may be at times equal or better than their more famous cousins.”
Parth, who treks often in Uttarakhand, says he has been able to discover hitherto unknown waterfalls, find camping grounds, and unearth new trails for the Dehradun-based travel company with whom he goes on these journeys. Unnikrishnan remembers thermal-enabled drones being used by the Iceland Met department’s geological survey team to better understand the volcanic phenomenon taking shape in the Litli-Hrutur Hill – as well as to initiate search and rescue operations.
drones have brought to life landscapes that were earlier privy only to a select few
Ruling social media
Arguably, drone photographers have carved their own niche on social media platforms where street photography ruled the roost. If photojournalists and flaneurs like Steve McCurry, Raghu Rai and Mayank Austen Soofi take you deeper into civilisations, human encounters and history; drone pilots are bringing the spotlight back to all that is spectacular and spell-binding on this planet of ours, manmade or not.
“Everything is digital now,” observes Unnikrishnan. “Even with the photos you capture on your phone – be it of food or the nightscape – what you see is not what you get exactly. The colours are entirely dependent on the software that is processing it.” At least when it comes to nature, there is a lot the naked eye might miss, but a powerful camera may not. “With drones, you are not seeing a vision with your own eyes; but you are able to still see and capture it,” says Unnikrishnan.
“In Ladakh, there is a turn called 21 Gata Road,” adds Parth, referring to what is known as one of the most dangerous roads in India, with 21 hairpin bends, on the Manali-Leh highway. “Those 21 turns cannot be captured by any camera other than a drone. The same is true of the Nubra valley – you need a drone to be able to capture, to see, the majesty of this river system that snakes through this brown, arid landscape.”
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