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Drones: The next big thing in wedding photography, or a tacky intrusion?

(Above Summit)
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Inez Edwards had no clue what a drone was, but when the bride-to-be’s wedding photographer suggested it as a way to get some stunning aerial photos, Edwards was sold.

So in October, at a hotel in Washington, a drone buzzed overhead as she walked down the aisle.

“The drone captured every single person walking into the ceremony without them knowing. That was pretty cool,” Edwards said of being able to get candid shots.

The couple and their photographer first experimented with the drone at their rehearsal and found an altitude for it to hover at so the noise wouldn’t be a distraction. Edwards said she never heard the drone during the ceremony. Some guests told her afterward that the drone made them feel as if they were at a celebrity’s wedding.

Edwards is part of a budding trend. Drones outfitted with a camera are increasingly being used to document weddings as couples are drawn to the unique aerial perspective.

“Drones are definitely the hot topic in wedding photography and cinematography,” said cinematographer Justin Fone, who added that 50 percent of his potential customers ask about aerial footage.

Fone began filming weddings 14 years ago, and he started using a drone last year. He has witnessed a technology arms race to record weddings.

“When we first started, it was just a camera and a tripod,” Fone said. “But now it’s a camera and tripod, a slider, a jib, a crane, aerial shots.”

Photographer Chris Geiger actually had a couple ask him to use a drone to capture their entire ceremony, which was held inside a church. But the ceremony was 30 minutes long, and Geiger knew his battery wouldn’t last long enough, plus he was worried about the safety of it. So he turned them down.

“If there’s not an established area where I can crash, I’m kinda concerned with that,” Geiger told me. He’s careful to note that he’s just experimenting with drone footage at weddings. He says there’s no charge for the use of the drone.

Although commercial drone operations are illegal without an FAA exemption, that hasn’t stopped many businesses from using them, including wedding photographers across the country. Many I talked to claim to be in a legal gray area.

They take precautions to fly safely, such as not flying over wedding guests. No one wants something like this to happen:

So far the FAA hasn’t levied much in the way of penalties for skirting its rules.

The fact that drones are already emerging despite the lack of full legal clearance hints at just how big the wedding drone industry will become once commercial drone flight is legal.

“I see it as really taking off,” said Geiger, who once delivered a ring on a drone as part of a marriage proposal. “I think this is going to be something that in maybe the next year or two it’s going to be something that virtually every wedding video booker will offer or will know someone they can bring in to offer the service.”

He considers drones fantastic for getting establishing shots. He’ll arrive before a ceremony and shoot the facility before anyone arrives.

Some drone operators I spoke to said they use the devices only while music is playing, so attendees aren’t distracted by the sound of a drone, generally reminiscent of a swarm of bees. Others use the drone during the cocktail hour, or position the drone behind the ceremony and rely on a zoom lens.

But not everyone is convinced that drones belong at weddings.

Illinois photographer Bruce Solko, who has shot weddings for 30 years, has a drone that he uses for real estate photography. But he refuses to fly it at weddings. He thinks a drone would be too distracting. Plus there are liability concerns, and he would need more manpower.

“It’s gonna be one of these things that will happen quick and will die quickly,” Solko said of the drones-at-wedding trend. “Brides are a different beast. Because when you screw up their wedding, you take away from their day, they’re going to be pissed.”

Michelle Pattee, a photographer based in Northern California, won’t be taking part in the trend. Pattee rejects tools such as drones that she feels separates her from her subjects.

“Using a machine to capture an overhead view, to enhance the ‘performance’ aspect of a wedding day, is the opposite of my goal,” Pattee said. “I want to be seven feet away from two people who are making a lifetime commitment. I want to be close, to understand the feeling.”

She says that great, authentic photos result from connecting with the couple, so they show their true selves, and that those aren’t photos she thinks you can ever get with a drone.

Nevertheless, Pattee expects drones to become common at many weddings. As technology keeps advancing, there will always be someone wanting to push the envelope and make their special day stand out.

“In 10 years, I might just be shooting remotely from home with three drones hovering and shooting stationary and getting aerial shots as well. I can see that happening,” Fone said.

Related: Why Americans should give drones a chance