Interview: Rural Photographer & Drone Pilot, Rob Power

3DR Solo with Nikon J5

Rob has been involved in photography since picking up his first camera in 1977.  Rob got serious about photography in 1981, starting with a full manual SLR camera, learning darkroom techniques and has since moved through to digital photography. After turning professional in 2001, he has covered a variety of subjects including from traditional ground-level setups, an 8-meter tripod and from various aircraft including Learjets. In 2016 Rob decided to add a drone to his photography kit. Rob now has 4 of them – 2 fitted with mirrorless cameras, one with a GoPro, and one is a backup. 

DroneAdvice: How did you get into flying drones and what drone (or drones) do you fly for client work? Do you use any custom drone hardware setups?

Rob: I have been involved in photography for over 35 years and have seen a lot of changes in equipment and photographic platforms. I work for a defence training company (18+ years experience) and we build and operate drones for training. The logical next step was to introduce a drone into my photography kit.

After a lot of research and talking with a fellow photographer in 2016 I chose a 3DR Solo drone with a gimbal and GoPro camera. Living on 40 acres allowed me to learn to fly in a safe environment. After I while I started to think about a better camera on my drone for still photography. The 3DR Solo is no longer made but had potential for modification, I wanted a camera with a 1-inch sensor, 20 megapixel and a fixed fast lens, all to be operated from the standard 3DR controller.

Rob Power
Rob Power flying a 3DR Solo, fitted with a Nikon J5 mirrorless camera

I went through different stages of developing my idea, different mounts, servos (among other things) until I was happy. I made a mount (3D printed) that could hold a bigger camera and installed a Nikon J5 Mirrorless camera with a 10mm f2.8 lens. The mount has a servo mounted to control the tilt of the camera. I had to wire this servo into the existing system and change some programming. A second servo is used to activate the autofocus and shutter. This set up weighs less than 2kg and flight time is around 15 minutes.

I have completed work for a couple of clients, creating high-res images on a stable platform. I shoot RAW files and process in Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop.

DroneAdvice: What are a couple of highlights of drone work that you’ve completed to date?

Rob: A lot of my work to date has been “commercial in confidence” work and working in with defence – I understand a lot about security. One of the highlights of my work has been covering the 2018 National Tractor Trek, held in Young NSW. I spent 3 days covering this event, using DSLR cameras and drones for video and stills, producing a DVD for the participants. Some of the aerial images over canola crops, the train museum and Iandra Castle were great, especially with 160 tractors parked up.

Canola and wheat crop (2018 Tractor Trek)
Wind row canola crop, Cootamundra NSW
Iandra Castle, Weddin Shire NSW (2018 Tractor Trek)
DroneAdvice: Operating in rural Australia brings its own set of challenges – the heat, network coverage issues and occasionally dangerous wild-life to name a few. What have been a couple of the main challenges in using drones in your line of work and how have you overcome or mitigated against them?

Rob: Temperature is a big challenge, especially in cold weather because flight times are affected. To overcome this, I plan my flight, visit the site, work out exactly what image from what heights and angles I need so I can get in the air and complete the task without wasting flight time.

Dust is also an issue. Keeping your gear clean and well-maintained addresses this to an extent. A take-off/landing mat is also a great idea, as this can help to reduce the amount of dust that gets drawn into motors on take-off and landing.

It is very important to practise and maintain situational awareness when flying a drone out in rural areas. Not all small aircraft follow the rules and use radios, so you need to keep your ear open for other aircraft.  Keeping clear of bird life can be hard but it’s something that you need to be aware of, as some of the bird species in rural areas are large.

DroneAdvice: Do you have any advice for drone pilots (or drone pilots to be) who may be operating or looking to operate in rural Australian areas?

Rob: Flying a drone is enjoyable but is also challenging. The degree of challenge depends on a lot of things including weather conditions and the surrounding area. I have a pre-flight checklist that I always use when flying the drone – this helps to make sure I haven’t forgotten any simple things like “whether the memory card is installed” or “whether the battery is fully charged”. These pre-flight procedures take time but need to be done.

Planning is very important. Have a plan and more importantly, have a plan for a system failure, weather change, different landing area, clear area to get your damaged drone to if possible.

Learn to use your equipment properly. In photography people always comment “you have the best gear, that’s why your photos are good”. It’s not the gear, it is knowing how to use it properly and thinking about your shots. I do have an advantage from my years of experience, but that should not stop a photographer/drone operating from getting good shots and learning. We are always learning. I am 50 years old and still learning.

Rob & Linda Power’s property in Cootamundra NSW, where Rob practices his flying and photo techniques.
DroneAdvice: What are your thoughts on the importance of certification, and do you have any other advice or tips for budding professional and recreational drone pilots?

Rob: As pilots, we all need to keep drone flying safe. Safety has to be a priority at all levels otherwise we may find ourselves in a position of not being able to fly drones at all in this country.

I think it is very important that all drone pilots are familiar with airspace – in particular: safety, regulations and weather. I am lucky to be involved in aviation and understand rules and regulations. However, we need to make all levels of drone operators aware of them. Different levels of licensing and registration will help but at the end of the day, we need to do the right thing otherwise the joy of flying drones in this country may be short-lived.

* You can get in touch with Rob at his website or on Instagram.