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Getting Started In Drone Photography

Getting Started In Drone Photography

By Peter Essick

Since the first photographic images were recorded, photography has been continuously influenced by technological change. As the technology evolves, the tools available for a photographer improve and expand. Drone technology is a recent example of how such advancements have opened up the field of aerial photography to the everyday photographer.

As a photographer working for National Geographic Magazine, I often took aerial photographs from a fixed-wing plane or a helicopter. These aerials were often critically important to the story, and provided an overview that wasn’t possible any other way. But it’s very expensive to hire a pilot and make all the arrangements to pull off a successful aerial photograph. Now, the availability of drones with an integrated camera has created an alternative.

In 2017, I was working on a commission from Fernbank Museum of Natural History to photograph the Fernbank Forest. This is an urban old-growth forest in downtown Atlanta. After doing photography from inside the forest for several weeks, I realized I needed an aerial perspective to show the proximity of the 65-acre forest to the downtown skyline. At that point I decided I needed to learn how to fly a drone, and it turned out to be the best solution for the job. Not only could I get an aerial view of the forest and the skyscrapers, but I could also fly at a lower level to get more detail of the forest in the foreground.

Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio. Photo by Peter Essick.

Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio. Photo by Peter Essick.

Since then, I have used my drone for a series on construction sites in Atlanta, for a story about restoration in the Great Lakes and for composites of signs of well-known brands. Drone photography has become a major part of my photographic output in the last five years.

If you want to get started in drone photography, there are a number of considerations. The first question is which drone to buy. There are several different models to choose from, but all of the drones that I am familiar with are made by DJI. Here are three drones you may want to consider:

DJI Mini 3 Pro
This drone has just been released and getting good reviews. It’s a great choice for getting started in aerial photography, and may be the only one that many photographers will need. It weighs less than 249 grams, so you aren’t required to register it with the F.A.A. and it is legal to fly anywhere. This updated mini drone can shoot 4K video and the small sensor can take a 48-megapixels still image using the Quad Bayer technology used on smart phones. It has a fixed 24mm equivalent F 1.7 lens. It costs less than $1,000.

DJI Mavic 3
This is an excellent drone overall, with 20-megapixel still images from a Hasselblad camera with an adjustable aperture. The Mavic 3 includes 360-degree obstacle avoidance, so you’re less likely to collide with something. It’s also easy to fly and folds up into a backpack. It’s about $3,000 with extra batteries.

DJI Inspire 2
This is the drone I use. It is bigger and heavier, but the primary advantage is a larger sensor that produces 24-megapixel still images. There are also four interchangeable lenses available. This is a much more professional-level drone that costs from $6,000- $10,000 with accessories.

Learning to fly is much easier these days, now that the drones feature obstacle avoidance and can hover in place with satellite GPS. The best way to start is in an open field, where you can practice taking off, flying to a low altitude and returning home. At first, most people have a fear of crashing, so it’s best to take baby steps and learn the controls. There doesn’t seem to be any school for learning to fly a drone, but you can do so with practice. If you once flew model airplanes you have an advantage, because the remote control is similar.

Before I fly, I generally scout a location using Google Earth and then find a safe place to launch. I use the AirMap app, which tells me if it’s legal to fly in the location where I am (more on this later). I find it best to always fly with the nose forward, as the controls always remain the same whether you are coming or going.

Abandoned tennis court in Snellville, Georgia. Photo by Peter Essick.

Abandoned tennis court in Snellville, Georgia. Photo by Peter Essick.

As a still photographer, I approach drone photography by entering into either pilot mode or photographer mode. In pilot mode, I launch and fly to a spot that looks promising and hover in place. I can then start to think as a photographer, beginning to look for a pleasing composition. When I am ready to move on, I switch back into pilot mode and either navigate to another nearby location or return home to land.

Battery maintenance is a key element of drone photography. In general, a battery can last for 20-30 minutes of flight. If you want to do a fair amount of photography before recharging, you’ll need a minimum of about three batteries. You’ll need to find an electrical outlet, and it can take up to three hours to charge a set of batteries. If you are working locally, this isn’t a big issue because you can do your flying and come home to charge the batteries overnight. But if you are traveling, finding the time and place to keep your batteries charged can require some planning.

If you fly a drone larger than the DJI mini, you will need to register it with the F.A.A. at a cost of $5. If you fly commercially, you are required to get a Remote Pilot License from the F.A.A. This written test costs $150 and covers the various airspaces when you can and cannot fly. This is good information to have, and as a drone pilot myself, I would recommend that you get the license if you are serious about flying drones. However, as a practical matter, the AirMap drone app gives you all the information that you need to safely and legally fly.

Here is a short list of the rules that you need to follow:

  1. Maintain a visual line of sight with your drone, usually no greater than a distance of 2,500 feet.
  2. Fly to a maximum of 400 feet above ground level.
  3. Don’t fly over people.
  4. Fly between a half-hour before sunrise and a half-hour after sunset.
  5. Obey all restricted areas, such as airports, military installations, national parks and areas with temporary flight restrictions.
Construction site at Stone Mountain, Georgia. Photo by Peter Essick.

Construction site at Stone Mountain, Georgia. Photo by Peter Essick.

It is important to realize that there are certain areas where you cannot fly a drone. But I have found it best to focus on the many places where I can fly and not worry about where I can’t. As a nature photographer, the most obvious place where drones are off limits are all national park properties.

I’ve found drone photography to be a very creative way to see the world, and it can also be a lot of fun. No doubt you will experience some anxious moments at first, but you should eventually get over your fear of crashing. And if you do crash, Thunder Drones is a good repair company here in the Atlanta area. No worry — just get your drone repaired so you can keep learning, flying and taking great photos.

The history of photography can be seen as a series of technological advancements that allowed photographers to see the world in new ways. A drone with an integrated camera gives the photographer of today a range of views that photographers of the past could only imagine. I’m confident there will be many more advances in 3D and other methods of image capture in the years ahead. It will be up to artists in the future to learn to use those tools to expand the frontiers of photography even further. For now, I am happy using my drone to see the world in a new way.


Peter Essick is a photographer, teacher, editor and drone pilot with 30 years of experience working with National Geographic Magazine. Named one of the forty most influential nature photographers in the world by Outdoor Photography Magazine UK, Essick is the author of three books of his photographs: The Ansel Adams Wilderness, Our Beautiful, Fragile World and Fernbank Forest. After many years of traveling the world as an editorial photographer, Essick decided to focus his work on a more personal documentation of the environmental and cultural changes in his hometown of Atlanta



Building a Backyard Bird Studio

Building a Backyard Bird Studio

By Emil Powella

Have you ever told yourself that if you could travel to exotic destinations, you’d be able to shoot the kind of amazing photographs that you see on social media? Well, for most of us, the opportunity to visit exotic places is seldom possible. But we can all photograph somewhere close to home, and we can all find great photographs.

Like many of you, I live in a conventional subdivision. I do enjoy the luxury of having trees behind my house, but most everything else is pretty normal. As a photographer, my challenge was to utilize what I had in order to set up a fun bird studio.

My backyard photography is mostly songbirds with the occasional hawk or owl venturing in. My wife, Nancy, has been a lifelong birder, and she has feeders filled with good seed strategically placed to attract different kinds of birds. We also maintain several birdhouses that attract a lot of bluebird activity, as well as hummingbird feeders during the hummer season.

Some of the ideas I used for this studio came from a YouTube video posted by David Akoubian.

My deck is at second-story level, which puts me looking into the trees at about 25 feet up. That’s where I’ve created my bird studio. I’ve salvaged several tree limbs I found in the woods and attached them to my deck, creating staging areas for the birds as they wait their turn at the feeders.

There are trees about 25 feet behind the deck, which is far enough away to add a soft-focus background to my images. I don’t have as sophisticated a setup as David, but I still am able to create quality photographs that I enjoy sharing with others. In fact, my photos have been used by conservation organizations such as the Keep Georgia Beautiful Foundation, a group for which I serve as the point of contact as part of my responsibilities as a GNPA Conservation Committee member.

These photos will show how I’ve fixed some of the limbs in place and provided multiple natural-looking places for the birds to land.

Deck, looking into the woods.

Deck, looking into the woods.


Closeup of limbs attached to the deck.

Closeup of limbs attached to the deck.


Closeup of limbs attached to the deck.

Closeup of limbs attached to the deck.

You can also create resting places for birds at ground level, just by mounting a few vertical logs or limbs to metal posts that can’t be seen by the camera.. Strategic placement of the limbs will help deliver excellent photo opportunities.

Regardless of your setting, these concepts can be adapted pretty easily. Give the birds comfortable places to land and stage as they wait to get to the feeders. Observing and learning their habits will make you much more prepared to get the shots you want.

I’m able to photograph birds in the trees behind the deck, as well as those that pose on the limbs I’ve positioned. I can also photograph birds on the deck from inside the house in my kitchen as well. Sometimes that feels a little like cheating, but in rough weather it can sure be nice.

So don’t give up planning and hoping to go to exotic bird photo locations. But while you’re waiting, have fun with the challenge of adapting your deck or yard into a working studio and hone your bird skills right there at home.

As you do, please consider donating photos to our GNPA conservation partners such as Keep Georgia Beautiful and the Wildlife Resources Division of the DNR. These organizations need good photos of local wildlife, and GNPA members can be a valuable resource for them. Plus, members receive credit whenever those photos are used.


Emil Powella is a GNPA member who lives in Lilburn. He serves as the co-coordinator of the Decatur Chapter.



Photographing Wildlife In Action

Photographing Wildlife In Action

All Photos by Mark Buckler

By Mark Buckler

I’ve spent nearly 40 years (I started at a young age) working with wildlife in one professional capacity or another, either by performing field research studies or through photography. When it comes to photographing animals, my preference is to capture their behavior in some type of action. I’d much rather photograph a flying bird than one perched on a branch, because it’s a much more dynamic image. This doesn’t mean that I won’t shoot wildlife portraits – just that my priority has always been to capture action.

But to get those compelling action photos, I’ve learned that you need to be properly prepared. Here are a few suggestions that can help:

Pre-set Your Camera

Contrary to what you see in many documentary films, wildlife action can happen without much warning and is often very fleeting. If you’re not prepared, you will likely miss it. That’s why you need to preset your camera in order to capture these wild moments whenever they occur, because you won’t have time to adjust your camera each time. This means presetting your camera to faster shutter speeds, larger apertures and higher ISO settings. Larger apertures will allow more light to reach the camera’s sensor, which in turn allows you to shoot at faster shutter speeds. Those wider apertures have the added benefit of reducing your depth of field, allowing the background and foreground to fall out of focus and therefore draw more attention to your subject.

Faster shutter speeds, of course, will allow you to “freeze” the action in front of you. Determining the necessary shutter speed depends on how quickly your subject can move. For instance, for most birds in flight, I like to shoot at a minimum of 1/2500 second, because this will freeze the flapping wings of most birds. However, much of the time (if the light allows) I will be shooting at speeds even faster than that. It’s important to realize that, in many situations, sharper images are the direct result of faster shutter speeds.

Consider Your ISO

If you’re going to photograph wildlife, you will need to get over any fear of shooting at higher ISO settings. Wildlife is often the most active early and late in the day, when there is little available light, so you will need to shoot at higher ISOs in order to achieve the faster shutter speeds you need to freeze the action.

Many photographers are overly concerned with the increased noise levels associated with shooting at higher ISOs. I don’t worry much about my ISO level; I simply shoot at whatever ISO is going to give me the proper exposure at my desired shutter speed and aperture. It is critical, however, to get proper exposure at high ISO settings so that you don’t end up revealing excessive noise and artifacts in the shadow areas. Modern cameras have sensors that are much better at handling noise at higher ISOs. Noise reduction software can also be used during image processing to help alleviate that pesky digital noise.

Autofocus and Frame Rate

You will want to rely on the power of autofocus to capture sharp images of moving animals.  Specifically, you will need to use continuous autofocus when photographing a moving subject, which will help keep the focus locked on your subject. Continuous AF, coupled with a high frame rate (number of frames per second), will help you capture stunning images of wildlife behavior and action. If you are using a mirrorless camera, however, you need to make sure that you are shooting within a frame rate that is compatible with your continuous AF. Just because your camera is capable of shooting at 60 frames per second doesn’t mean that continuous AF will function at that level.

Manual Mode

This is a topic for a more detailed article, but I am a firm believer that shooting in full manual mode is the best way to photograph wildlife, especially action. If the light is consistent and you have the right manual settings, you will get the right exposure in manual mode regardless of the tonal composition of the image and the background. With wildlife photography, the tonal composition is often changing because the animals are in constant motion, with backgrounds that change from shadows to sunlight and back again. In essence, manual mode allows you to set-it-and-forget-it and not worry about changing shutter speeds, apertures and ISO; you can simply concentrate your effort on the animal’s behavior.

Know Your Subject

As with any genre of photography, the more you know about your subject the better you will be able to portray that subject in an image. This is particularly true with photographing wildlife action. Many animals provide clues that can indicate a particular behavior is about to happen.  This can be something as simple as reading the body language of an animal or maintaining an awareness of certain types of actions that will allow you to anticipate specific behaviors.

For instance, a bathing duck is likely going to sit up on the water and flap its wings to expel water from its feathers. And of course, a photo of a wing-flapping duck is much more compelling that one of a duck simply sitting on the water. If you are hoping to photograph a bird taking flight, it’s important to know the wind direction, because birds are almost always going to take off (as well as land) into the wind. The more you learn about your subjects, and watch for cues, the better you will be able to anticipate their actions and capture them in motion.


Mark Buckler is a professional photographer who leads photo tours around the world, including near his home base on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. His background in wildlife biology and teaching promotes immersive and engaging photographic learning adventures. You can follow him on Facebook and Instagram (@markbucklerphotography) and



Here Come The Birds!

Here Come The Birds!

Scarlet Tanager. Photograph by David Akoubian.

By David Akoubian

Each spring, as daytime lengthens and the nights grow shorter, migrating birds return to Georgia. Those that headed south last fall to their winter grounds – some as far away as South America – will begin reappearing in our landscapes, full of color and songs. As nature photographers, many of us strive to capture images of these the birds as they pause on their northward migration, or settle in to take up summer residence.

If you want to make the most of this annual opportunity, here are some ideas to help you attract those birds and bring them closer to your camera…

Black and White Warbler. Photo by David Akoubian.

Black and White Warbler. Photo by David Akoubian.

Whether the birds are returning to their summer breeding grounds or just passing through, how do you get them to stop so you can photograph them? Well, it’s fairly easy – you invite them! Birds prefer environments where they feel are safe from predation, and they will seek out areas that have a safe “feeling.” What do I mean by that? They search for areas where other birds are frequenting, like feeders in yards. Migratory birds as a whole (or at least the Warblers, Vireos and Tanagers) are primarily insect eaters and don’t really land at feeders. Some other birds, like Grosbeaks, will feed alongside your regular birds. But the insect eaters will often fly into a feeder area to see what all the fuss is about. Getting them to stay there long enough for photos is the tricky part.

A few years ago we had our yard certified by the Audubon Society as a Wildlife Sanctuary. To do so, we had to meet certain requirements, like having a food and water source, providing cover, and providing nesting options when possible. Out of all of those requirements, the most important to me is providing cover. We leave brush piles, and have created sections of small trees and shrubs where a bird can hide and feel safe. Once they feel safe, they will explore an area and search for food.

Eastern Bluebird. Photo by David Akoubian.

Eastern Bluebird. Photo by David Akoubian.

This is where it pays off for a nature photographer to create an outdoor “studio.” I usually set up only a few feeders, such as a sunflower seed feeder, a suet feeder and another feeder where I place mealworms and suet nuggets inside. Around those feeders, I place “T” bars driven into the ground, each with a stick, branch or small tree trunk attached to them with wire. The birds will land on these strategically placed posts and wait for their turn at the feeder, or in the case of the migratory birds, will pause to check things out. The reason the posts are important is that birds follow a social tier, with the most dominant birds feeding first, thus the term “pecking order.” It’s when birds land on these posts that I capture most of my images. I also have small trees near the feeder that serve the same purpose. Either place is perfect for creating photos of the birds.

I don’t use a blind when photographing birds; I simply sit on my porch drinking coffee and eating breakfast. Birds get accustomed to you sitting there, and they are unaffected by your presence unless you make any sudden movement. My posts are set up from 8-12 feet away from my seating location (I chose that distance because it’s roughly the minimum focusing distance of my Tamron 150-600mm G2 lens).

When I position my posts, I try to create some separation between the post and the background, which in my case is a row of trees and shrubs. I do this to allow the lens to drop off focus fairly quickly, even at my preferred aperture of f8. To accomplish this, I aim to allow a minimum of 4 feet between the objects. Behind the row of trees and shrubs I have a buffer of 20-40 feet, which will give the background a smooth, out-of-focus pallet of color to create the visual separation needed to make the birds stand out.

Cerulean Warbler. Photo by David Akoubian.

Cerulean Warbler. Photo by David Akoubian.

I prefer longer lenses, like my 150-600mm at 600mm or my 150-500mm at 500mm, when I am creating images in the “studio” area. This approach provides a sharp subject, then drops off to a smooth color background, creating an almost 3D effect. I shoot in manual mode, at f8, and I begin with a shutter speed of 1/125 of a second, with Auto ISO selected. I use the Auto ISO feature simply because the birds are constantly flitting back and forth between light and dark areas, and the variable ISO will help compensate for this. My subjects are mostly front-lit, so this works really well. But if I am shooting in the evening, the subjects can be backlit, so I will step my exposure compensation up +1 to compensate for backlighting. And while shooting I will use either a monopod or a tripod, because the weight of the lens can cause fatigue and shorten your shooting time dramatically.

As the morning goes on I will increase my shutter speed to an eventual 1/1000 of a second if needed. Usually, though, by the time the light warrants even a speed of 1/500, the light is pretty harsh and I am finished for the day.

To help enrich the studio site, I plant flowers around the yard that will attract insects. That’s because attracting insects means attracting things that feed on insects, which includes birds! I let the flowers die and decay in place as well. Why? Decaying plants attract insects, which attracts the birds. Do you see a pattern? I also don’t use any insecticides or pesticides in my yard because – you got it – I want the insects to be there. Each year I get good number of Scarlet Tanagers feeding on Japanese Beetles in the trees and shrubs in the yard, and that is the direct result of inviting the birds into the landscape.

This process will continue until the birds are ready to fly south for their fall migration. Often I see a greater variety of bird species in the fall than in the spring as numbers increase each year. You can pretty much count on the birds that come through one year to return again the next year, as they recognize a safe place where it’s easy to feed. This past summer alone we saw 27 varieties of Warblers, 5 different Vireos, plus Tanagers and Grosbeaks, all from the back porch.

This same setup can be adapted to smaller areas, such as a porch or even a common area in an apartment complex. The payoff can be many hours of photographing a variety of birds, which I find extremely rewarding. And most of what needs to be done actually requires less work than maintaining a pristine garden. So consider “letting things go” a little, and in return you’ll find more birds in your area than ever before.



David Akoubian is a professional nature photographer and a longtime resident of Georgia. He has been photographing professionally since 1992, and conducts workshops around the U.S. and Iceland. For more details on David and his workshops, check out his website at He is also active on social media sites like Facebook and Instagram.



By Lee Friedman.

This year, aside from all the wonderful speakers each chapter brings to our members, we are augmenting them with a new set of speakers we recruited. These speakers are nationally known and award winning nature photographer. They come by special invitation for the benefit of our members. We have established a schedule for the entire year, bringing our members at least one of these speakers each month. Here is the schedule:

Name Title Date
Michael Birnbaum Lightroom New Masking and Selection Tools 1/19/22
Mary McDonald Photographing Wildlife Both Near and Far 2/16/22
Kathleen Clemons The Art of Flower Portraiture 3/9/22
Ray Hennessy Creative Bird Photography 3/16/22
Clay Bolt Macro Photography 101: How Macro Photography Can Change Your Perception of the World Around You 4/20/22
Dawn Wilson Churchill wildlife 5/11/22
David Desrochers Painting with Cameras 6/15/22
Tom Wilson Nature Photography along the Chattahoochee River 7/27/22
Kathy Clark Photographing Butterflies 8/17/22
Jamie Davidson Getting Creative with Motion and Multiples 9/21/22
Alyce Bender Black Oystercatchers (a Pacific coast shorebird and species of special concern) 10/19/22
Mike Moats Is Your Flower Photography Boring, Let Me Help You 11/16/22

Watch for these speaker announcements each month on Meetup and on the Members page for registration. They are for members only as an added benefit of GNPA membership.

Not a member? Click here to learn more about joining GNPA!