Imagine your favorite vacation photo: that perfect sunset shot with waves gently crashing and an amber crescent reflecting off the ocean's glassy surface.
Now imagine it from above.
Drone sales in the United States doubled in the year that ended in February, according to consumer trackers at the NPD Group. Researchers at Gartner project that the category will draw $6 billion in global market revenue in 2017, partially thanks to the popularity of personal drones. Photos and videos taken from drones' unique perspective have begun invading our social media feeds.
"The cue for me was when consumer drones started offering features and verbiage like 'takes selfies' or 'captures sound,' " said Dirk Dallas, founder of the website FromWhereIDrone.com.
"You can now be the star of your own picture or video clips, and there are selfie or automated modes that make capturing yourself easier. . . . Y ou don't have to bring a crew with you anymore."
Dallas started his site after he purchased his first toy drone in 2013. He hoped to meet other hobbyists and professionals, and create an outlet for inspiration and advice. The name is a play on the popular shoe selfie hashtag #FromWhereIStand because. he said, "I look down as well, but from a few hundred feet up in the air."
He flies a DJI Mavic Pro because its compact design makes it easy to take on planes. ("It fits in the small pocket of my backpack," he says.) And his followers have grown beyond professionals and commercial drone pilots to include amateurs looking for that "epic vacation photo."
He noted that the price of drones has come down and manufacturers have added user-friendly features. "Before that, to create imagery was cumbersome; you had to connect different parts and Jerry-rig parts," he said. "The [DJI] Phantom 3 was when things came together as seamlessly as it comes together now."
DJI dominates the consumer drone market; its most popular models sell for between $900 and $1,200. Pricey — but let's remember: A 1.3-megapixel digital camera cost $20,000 in 1995. And loyal owners are quick to remind you that the price tag comes with lots of bells and whistles.
"Those smaller $100-to-$200 ones aren't good enough for travel," said Elena Buenrostro, a San Francisco-based videographer who has taken her Mavic Pro through Europe, Asia, and North America. "It has a feature where you can tap on a person [from the console] and it follows you. I had my drone follow me as I was riding my bike."
Thanks to a tool called a Katana, which acts as a mount and a tripod for on-the-ground use, Buenrostro has also replaced her regular digital single-lens reflex camera with a drone.
"It shoots in 4K 1080 already — it's an excellent camera," she explained. "My Mavic or my cellphone, those are the only cameras I use now."
The experience of shooting with a drone offers the rush of a new perspective to even the most accomplished travel photographers.
"It's a whole new world," said Emily Kaszton, a photographer from Newport Beach, Calif., who uses her drone for jobs around the world. "It's similar [to shooting on the ground] — in terms of looking for composition and focus — but it's a new way to frame it all."
Also new to the travel photographer: Federal Aviation Administration rules that restrict drone flight in certain locations, times and conditions.
"I've seen people flying in national parks a lot and it's a huge no-no," Kaszton said. "I always try to review no-fly zones before I go out. For myself, especially as a professional, I can't be seen in a light where I'm doing risky things."
Websites such as Airmap.com can help, as can formal training to learn the rules of the sky.
"Drone companies are marketing drones as these easy-to-use intuitive devices, and they're certainly sophisticated. But that being said, if they were easy to use, you wouldn't see so many YouTubes of drones crashing into streets," said Lana Axelrod, chief strategy officer at UAV Coach, which has certified more than 7,000 drone students through the FAA since last year. "People see these sexy ads where they can do all these exciting things, and it's true, but you need to have a sense of operation and the rules."
Other common mistakes? Don't fly at night, except during the 30 minutes after sunset and before sunrise. Flying over people is another violation. And don't stray too far.
"You must maintain a line of sight," Axelrod said. "If the drone flies behind a building or behind trees, you are not complying with the rules."
But the inventive traveler will find a way.
"We went to Namibia earlier this year for a trip for fun," Axelrod said. "You're not allowed to fly over the national parks there, but we were able to fly through the desert and the beach. We stitched it together for a 90-second video of our trip to send to our family and friends. It's a memory we can now share."
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