How to Turn Drone Photography Into Breathtaking Art

By Gizmodo on at

Photographer Eric Cheng has captured some of the most dramatic natural phenomena on Earth with drones. And now he has a new book, Aerial Photography and Videography Using Drones, about learning the the art of drone photography.

In this gallery from the book, he gives us the backstory on some of his most memorable shots.


Location: Holuhraun volcano eruption, Iceland (above)

Equipment: Two DJI Inspire 1 quadcopters w/integrated Zenmuse X3 cameras

Credit: Photo courtesy Eric Cheng / DJI and Ferdinand Wolf / Skynamic

The Story:

At the end of January 2015, ABC’s Good Morning America called me with an ambitious proposal. They had seen the drone footage I had captured a few months earlier of the Holuhraun volcano eruption in Iceland, and wanted to go back to the volcano to do a live broadcast to their 6 million viewers. I decided that instead of flying one drone, we should fly two in order to capture footage of a drone flying at low altitude over the large lava lake. I called Skynamic’s Ferdinand Wolf, one of the world’s best commercial drone pilots, and the two of us headed out to Iceland with ABC’s live-broadcast crew. We used two DJI Inspire 1 quadcopters because they were designed to be able to output live HD video from their remote controllers, a signal we passed to the engineers, who routed it to New York via a satellite that had to be called over our region at the right time. Ferdinand and I piloted the two drones together out about a mile to the eruption. We had to be 100% focused during each mission because it’s extremely difficult to stay together in formation while flying with only a single camera (per drone) to use while piloting. To make things worse, it was about -10º C (14º F) with snowfall and wind, and we had a director from New York talking to us live via “IFB” intercom headsets. After 3 days of technical setup, we were ready, and the live broadcast was successful. During test flights, we captured some of the most amazing low-altitude volcano eruption footage ever recorded. All of the drones came back melted to some degree, but kept flying!

How to Turn Drone Photography into Breathtaking Art

Location: Facebook Headquarters

Equipment: DJI Phantom (original), GoPro HERO3 Black, 5.8Ghz FPV video transmitter, receiver and monitor

Shot details: 1/1900 sec at F/2.8, ISO 103

Credit: Eric Cheng

The Story:

The first practical camera drone I ever used was the original DJI Phantom, which came with a GoPro mount on the bottom. The DJI Phantom worked out of the box, and because it used GPS to hold position in the absense of RC stick inputs, it was easy to fly. One of the first things I did was take the Phantom to Facebook’s Menlo Park headquarters and put it up in the air to take a picture of Hacker Square (with permission). Hacker Square features a large “HACK” written across the ground, but it’s not easy to see when you’re on the ground. The perfect view of the text is about 100 feet up—easy for a consumer camera drone to get to!

How to Turn Drone Photography into Breathtaking Art

Location: Isla Mujeres, Mexico

Equipment: DJI Phantom 2, Zenmuse H3-2D gimbal, GoPro HERO3 Black, Boscam TS-353 5.8G video transmitter, 5.8G video receiver and monitor

Shot details: 1/300 sec, f/2.8, ISO 100

Credit: Eric Cheng

The Story:

Each summer, hundreds of whale sharks aggregate in the Gulf of Mexico near Isla Mujeres to feed on huge clouds of fish eggs generated by the massive spawning events of little tunny. The whale sharks, which are the world’s biggest fish, swim along the surface of the water with their mouths open, filtering out large amounts of fish eggs for food. It’s common to see hundreds of whale sharks on the surface at once.

I had been going to Isla Mujeres for years to photograph the summer whale shark aggregation as well as sailfish feeding on sardines in the winter, and what was always difficult to capture was the scale of the aggregation. I went up in a helicopter to shoot, but time was limited because the aggregation happens offshore, and helicopter time is expensive to rent. In 2013, I brought a DJI Phantom 2 with me and was finally able to capture the scale of the aggregation; in some of the footage I captured, you can literally count hundreds of sharks on the surface. What I hadn’t anticipated was how interesting closer shots were. Because the Phantom was so stable in the air and gimbals made for such stable video footage, I was able to hover right above individual whale sharks as they fed on the surface, capturing low-altitude perspectives that had never been possible, before.

How to Turn Drone Photography into Breathtaking Art

Location: Vava’u, Tonga

Equipment: DJI Phantom 2, Zenmuse H3-2D gimbal, GoPro HERO3 Black, Boscam TS-353 5.8G video transmitter, 5.8G video receiver and monitor

Shot details: 1/950 sec, f/2.8, ISO 177

Credit: Eric Cheng

The Story:

Tonga is an extremely remote archipelago in the South Pacific comprised of 177 islands. During a trip there to photograph humpback whales, which are there to have calves and mate in the late summer, I grew obsessed with aerial imagery of some of the small islands, which are completely undeveloped. Again, it was low altitude aerial perspectives that were most interesting. From higher up, shots start to look like they were taken from manned aicraft, and become familiar looking (we’re used to seeing out the window at high altitudes from the airplanes). Flying from boats can be challenging. In addition to the challenges involved in launching and recovering drones, distance limits need to be disabled as well as automatic return to home (returning to current position works, but not returning to launch position).

How to Turn Drone Photography into Breathtaking Art

Location: Treasure Island, San Francisco

Equipment: DJI Phantom 2, Zenmuse H3-2D gimbal, GoPro HERO3 Black, Boscam TS-353 5.8G video transmitter, 5.8G video receiver and monitor

Shot details: 1/340 sec, f/2.8, ISO 100

Credit: Eric Cheng

The Story:

Bliss Dance is a 40’-high sculpture created for Burning Man 2010 by Marco Cochrane. In 2011, she was moved to Treasure Island, where she stood for 5 years until she was taken down in May 2015 for possible restoration (from rust).

It’s hard to look at a 40’ sculpture from the ground and see it properly represented in its environment. I loved being able to get a camera just 40’ up in the air to capture shots of Bliss Dance where she stood in the context of Treasure Island and San Francisco.

How to Turn Drone Photography into Breathtaking Art

Location: Bali, Indonesia

Equipment: DJI Phantom 2, Ricoh GR camera, homemade 3D-printed camera mount, Boscam TS-353 5.8G video transmitter, 5.8G video receiver and monitor

Shot details: 1/250 sec, f/6.3, ISO 200

Credit: Eric Cheng

The Story:

The pilgrimage temple Pura Tanah Lot is one of the seven sea temples in Bali. The temple is completely surrounded by water, and is accessible only to the Balinese.

After shooting with GoPro cameras from the air for a long time, I started to crave better image quality, so I rigged together a setup that would allow a DJI Phantom 2 to carry a Ricoh GR camera, the lightest camera that uses an APS-C sensor (the sensor size used most commonly in digital SLRs). I 3D-printed a camera mount that I designed in OpenSCAD and used a custom release cable that allowed me to trigger autofocus and shutter release using the 7th channel in a DJI Phantom 2’s radio setup, which is normally used to control gimbal tilt. Using the Ricoh GR’s relatively long lens (when compared to other cameras used on drones) allowed me to keep my distance from the temple while still capturing a compelling image.

Unfortunately, DJI started to close off various expansion possibilties still based in the traditional RC world (like supporting extra radio channels), so I’ve frozen this particular Phantom 2 in time; any firmware update will make it stop working. Even more than 18 months later, this Ricoh-carrying Phantom 2 is still by far the highest-quality aerial camera for its weight.

How to Turn Drone Photography into Breathtaking Art

Location: Harbour Island, Eleuthera, Bahamas

Equipment: DJI Phantom 2 Vision+

Shot Details: 1/6400 sec, f/2.8, ISO 100

Credit: Eric Cheng

The Story:

The Glass Window Bridge is located on an extremely narrow strip of Harbour Island and features the incredible contrast of dark blue water on one side and bright turquoise water on the other. The difference in color comes from a difference in depth: the deep side is exposed to the Atlantic Ocean, while the protected side is shallow and is covered by sand. Tourists like to pose on or near the bridge, which can be dangerous because large waves can hit the island from the Atlantic side, which doesn’t have a protective barrier reef.


Learn more about Eric Cheng, and buy his book, Aerial Photography and Videography Using Drones.