Before There Was Drone Photography,
There Was Pigeon Photography
Pigeons with cameras (Wikipedia)
James Bond is in Turkey, in hot pursuit of a villain. When a car chase dead-ends with a crash in a crowded bazaar, the bad guy commissions a stranger's motorcycle, so Bond does too. His passage blocked by a truck, the bad guy rides his bike up a dark stone staircase and then off a balcony. Bond follows and they're suddenly both careening on motorcycles over and across the narrow walkways of uneven adobe rooftops.
The perspective switches between close shots of Bond and the bad guy, 'ground' shots from rooftop-level, some of them apace with the cyclists, and sweeping aerial panoramas of Istanbul and the drama playing out below.
Part of the opening sequence to Skyfall, 2012
Imagine you're a filmmaker. How on earth do you get these shots?
Do you run through the parts of the sequence a different billion times, shooting from several different rigs, including several on tripods of different heights to catch the different stunts, one on a motorcycle closely tailing the actors, and one on a helicopter above the action -- far enough away to be safe and to avoid making the scene look like a helicopter is about to land on top of them with wind and shadow?
If this was 2002, you might do all that. But nowadays, you're going to have an easier shoot, get better footage, and save more money by sticking your camera on helidrone.
Aerial photography is a hybrid of three major technologies that debuted in the 19th century: aviation, remote control vehicles, and photography. Over the last 150 years each of these technologies have improved by leaps and bounds to make the genre of aerial photography better, more accessible, and more popular than ever before. But it's been a long road to affordable aerial cinema, with a lot of detours.
Kites & Pigeons
Early aerial photograph of San Francisco after the Great Earthquake of 1906, taken from a kite
The earliest surviving photograph was taken in 1827. By the 1850s, the state-of-the-art in photography was the wet plate process, which involved developing photographs within 15 minutes of taking them.
The first aerial photograph was taken in 1858 by the French photographer, Nadar, who hauled all the equipment for a portable dark room up into a hot air balloon to capture a bird's eye view of Paris. Unfortunately, no copies of Nadar's photo survive. The earliest existing aerial photograph is of Boston.
In the 1880s the dry plate process was developed, and people could take photos without having to develop them on-the-spot. From that point on, aerial photography became considerably easier.
The first kite photos were taken in the late 1880s. A small explosive charge was detonated to release the shutter. In 1906, right after San Francisco's Great Earthquake and subsequent fire, George R. Lawrence sent a curved, large-format camera up 1,000 feet over the San Francisco Bay at the tail of 17 kites. The images are still some of the largest aerial exposures ever taken.
At around the same time, pigeon photography came into existence. Julius Neubronner, a pigeon fancier and apothecary, received one of his prescription-carrying pigeons four weeks late, but well-fed. This gave him the idea to mount little automatic cameras to the pigeons to trace their paths. He patented his method in 1907. Pigeon photography was soon adopted (as happened with many aerial photography technology) for military applications.
Photos taken from pigeons (Wikipedia)
Bring in the Drones
Later, aerial photography became mostly a job for manned aircraft and satellites. But there are certain things that a helicopter or a satellite just can't do. Though primitive, pigeons and kites were unmanned, capable of close, low flight, while maintaining subtlety. And, compared to a manned aircraft, these methods were relatively inexpensive.
Drone-enabled shot from OK Go's one-take music video to "I Won't Let You Down”
The first remote-controlled boat was patented by Nikola Tesla in 1898. In 1917, the first remote-controlled aircraft was invented. But the first widely-produced unmanned aircraft weren't developed until the 1930s. World War I veteran and Hollywood actor, Reginald Denny, started the Radioplane Company to manufacture targets for anti-aircraft gunnery training. The preceding practice of hauling simpler targets out with a plane was both expensive and poorly simulated battle conditions, so Denny's drones became very popular.
Norma Jean Dougherty, soon to become known as Marilyn Monroe, working at the Radioplane factory where she was 'discovered' by Hollywood, 1945
It took a while to start using these new targets for reconnaissance missions, but once begun, drones became indispensable to national defense. Much of the Cold War was played out by reconnaissance drones gathering intelligence on the other side.
Military applications continued to drive the development of drone technology well into the 21st Century. Over the past hundred or so years, aerial photography and cinematography has gotten much easier, much better, and much cheaper.
The current era, of civilian drone cinematography, is relatively new. Camera-carrying drones are used to achieve artistic shots that would otherwise be impossible. Helicopters are great but they're also loud, windy, and expensive. Drones are tiny, subtle, and relatively cheap. As drone technology becomes less and less expensive, aerial filmography is becoming the kind of thing an indie filmmaker can include on a project, or that a small advertising firm can write into an ad. In fact, there are enough projects like this that there are now film festivals exclusively for drone-captured movies.
The Modern Drone Photographer
Udemy courses on drone photography and filmography point out that it takes a lot to make a good drone film. According to Drones: The Aerial Cinematography Flight School, a good drone operator needs: "the ability to compose aerial video and the ability to execute aerial video as a skilled pilot." They need a technical grasp of their equipment but also an eye for what makes a good shot, when to hold on a subject, how fast the camera should move.
If you look at the educational backgrounds of Udemy students taking drone photography courses, people who studied or are studying film are 3.6 times more likely to be found in a drone photography course than in Udemy's 10 most popular courses.
Relative probability of a student having studied film, for drone photography courses versus Udemy's 10 most popular courses
This makes sense because much of coursework is geared towards producing beautiful video, from a drone-mounted camera. The courses also seem to appeal to people who studied computer science, who are generally well-represented in the Udemy student-body. Nonetheless it is significant that they top the list of drone photography students, as well.
The most common degrees among users taking drone-photography courses on Udemy
This also makes sense because of the technical challenges that come up in drone photography. Like many hybrid technologies, it has many, breakable, optimizable components. When Neubronner invented pigeon photography, he merged two of his hobbies -- pigeon fancy and amateur photography -- into a "double sport." The same could be said of drone photography, it lets people who love gadgets and love to shoot video combine their interests to make some unique and sometimes breathtaking film.