I recently had my first encounter with a drone. I was traipsing across a snowy field looking for where to plant my tripod when I noticed a car pull up behind mine. Minutes later I heard a strange buzzing sound overhead; it didn’t take long to realize what it was. It was not a pleasant experience. Aside from the obvious intrusive noise was the fact that I couldn’t help but feel as if I was being watched, even though I knew the person was there to photograph the same scene and certainly had no interest in me. Regardless, the entire experience was disquieting. The presence of a drone buzzing overhead was a distraction I could not overcome.
My position on drones and photography has been evolving over the past year. Initial indignation has given way to a tempered acceptance. That they are intrusive due to their noise is an obvious and significant problem and one that I believe is beyond debate. It is clearly noise pollution. Noise notwithstanding, I can see the allure, and yet I know I will never own one.
A recent magazine article on drones and nature photography offered much food for thought. A photographer interviewed for the article stated that one of the reasons he purchased a drone was that it was the future and he feared he would be left behind had he not. Okay, fair enough, I understand his fear, even though I don’t agree with his supposition of being left behind. However, another reason was that he became “frustrated with the paucity of perspectives on the ground.” The quote floored me. Mind you, he always photographs in extremely beautiful places, how in the world could he feel limited? I can’t help but liken his view to that of the photographer who, having grown tired of easy and obvious compositions in a given place, goes somewhere else to find new and obvious compositions rather than explore more deeply and creatively where he already is. When the low-hanging fruit has been picked from one tree you go on to the next one. Drones, like any new gadget or technology, can be the easy yet ultimately misguided answer to the question of how to advance one’s photography.
It would be easy and unfair to dismiss drones based on the perspective of one photographer. My decision to never own a drone is based more on the types of images that inspire me than the noise factor, though that alone is damning enough. Ultimately it comes down to the art produced. That beautiful photographs can be made with drones is without question. But can images be made with drones that go beyond pretty and are subjective, creative expressions of the photographer rather than objective representations of a place? Is there more to drone photography than the cool factor? This is the question with which I struggle. Ansel Adams once stated that means and methods often hold an unbalanced dominance over creativity. Could drones be an example of the means and methods of which he spoke?