Democratizing the Sky: Drones in Visual Journalism

 In Lifestyle, National News

The New York Times staff photographer Josh Haner was an early adopter of drone photography. His earliest forays were with a $60 gadget that he maneuvered around his living room. Since then, he has aimed ever higher, making videos and stills high above the Gobi Desert and the Marshall Islands. He has embraced the technology in ways that add a stunning dimension to his storytelling, while at the same time presenting unforeseen challenges. His conversation with James Estrin has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. How does flying a drone add to your visual storytelling ability?
A. One of the first things that attracted me to drone photography and videography was the ability to easily photograph scenes that in the past would have cost us thousands of dollars. It democratized the skies.
That’s not to say that every assignment demands aerial photography, but it’s nice to be able to have it as a tool.

Q. Not only is it less expensive, it also gives a different view.
A. Movement becomes really key with drone video, and that’s very difficult to do with a helicopter at some altitudes. It’s a unique experience to be able to navigate like a bird.
I try not to use automated flight patterns because I feel that the rigidity of the curves that automation gives you isn’t very pleasing to the viewer. More organic movement that shows there’s a human behind this helps to bring people into these somewhat complex stories we’re trying to tell.

Q. As a child did you want to fly planes?
A. When I was in fifth grade, we did a project on how to spend a million dollars. I figured out how much it would cost to buy a plane so that I could fly to Scottsdale, Ariz., to see spring training games with the San Francisco Giants. I found out how to get my pilot’s license so that I could commute from San Francisco to spring training games in Arizona.

Q. That’s funny. The New York Times never said to you, “Can you figure out how to spend a million dollars?”
A. No, but in 2012, when inexpensive drones first came out, I expensed a little $60 hobby quadcopter to figure out how to use it. I spent a few months in my tiny apartment trying not to hit the walls and ceiling while I flew it around, trying to get a sense of how to control movement. If you can control one of these tiny hobby quadcopters that don’t have GPS and don’t have obstacle avoidance, you can pick up the finesse that’s needed to manually control the bigger, more steady ones.

Q. What have you learned about composition, both in stills and in video, using a drone?
A. One of my initial projects with a drone was in the Marshall Islands. Before I went, I loaded up Google Earth to look at the islets that I could possibly travel to. I actually picked Ejit Islet to go to based on the Google satellite imagery. It allowed me to pre-envision where I was going to fly, so that I didn’t waste time on a location that wouldn’t work.
Since then, I’ve become a lot more confident in knowing what the situation can yield when I see it for the first time in person. Most of the time I am looking at the screen and making my compositional choices, which takes some of my attention away from actually being able to fly the craft.


Photo: Josh Haner/The New York Times