Storytelling with Drones; Tips From Journalists

Aerial perspectives from a drone camera. Photo by Eric Seals/Detroit Free Press

By Tom Burton

  Eric Seals wanted to use a quadcopter in September of 2013 for a long-term project he was working on about shipwrecks in the Great Lakes. He felt that a flying drone would help him get cinematic-quality video of the dive boats out on the open water.

  He got two quadcopters and practiced flying for more than a month before he used them to make photographs. He used the drones for a real estate feature and some other stories for his employer, the Detroit Free Press. But by the end of the year, the newspaper’s lawyers found the hidden truth that many others would soon know: it was almost impossible to fly drones legally for commercial use, including for news gathering.


Eric Seals at the Atlanta Photojournalism Seminar.

Seals, an NPPA member, was grounded. He flew as a hobbyist for a while, which was legal under the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules, but he has since sold his quadcopters. He will buy newer and more advanced models soon now that the FAA has announced a set of rules that clear a path for a flight certification to use drones for commercial purposes.


Related: How to prepare for drone certification.


  The small aircraft, commonly called drones or quadcopters and more officially referred to as UAS (Unmanned Aircraft Systems) have exploded in popularity. In February of 2016, the FAA said more than 325,000 people had registered with the FAA as drone hobbyists. That is more than the number of piloted aircraft registered with the FAA.

Under the new rules known as Part 107, news organizations or individual journalists wanting to add drones to their storytelling tools will have to go through training and learn the regulations. As importantly, they should have a strategy on how and why they will use the mini aerial platforms.

  As the FAA studied how to change their rules to allow for commercial drone pilots, they created the Pathfinder project and partnered with three U.S. companies to research best safety practices. CNN was tapped to study line-of-sight flying in urban areas for news gathering.



CNN files drones over the Edmond Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. See the resulting video here.

Greg Agvent, senior director for news operations at CNN, has been overseeing the testing. They have flown more than 40 projects and are still exploring new approaches. Their big goal, he said, is to find a safe way to fly above people, something that the FAA will approve at a later date. Agvent feels low-altitude flights of perhaps 20 feet off the ground along with using the smallest drones might be a solution.

  After the technical restrictions and equipment decisions, both Agvent and Seals agree the most important questions for drone operations are when, where, and why to use them.

  Agvent said that CNN has the approach of “three buckets” that could call for drones.

  1: Production Value

  With its elevated perspective, a drone can help get some of the best and most intriguing images. They use it when “we think we can make a cinematic-quality image,” said Agvent.

  In these cases, the drone footage is impactful, but for only a small portion of the overall story. The footage is often used during introductions, transitions or in ending sequences in short cuts. Even at a few seconds, a dramatic fly-over can add significant “wow” factor to a piece. Drones can also be used to easily replicate feature film effects such as boom and jib shots.

  2: Enhanced Storytelling

  Can an elevated position show something a viewer couldn’t see otherwise?  For instance, CNN had a story that involved rock climbing. The drone allowed for angles and a flexibility that a manned camera could never deliver.

  Most of the drone footage CNN shoots is flying under 100 feet off the ground and at a very slow speed, almost at a walking pace. Agvent said in these cases it’s the ability to show the story in a way you couldn’t before that makes a drone useful, rather than simply an elevated angle.

  “It’s not the motion,” said Agvent. “It’s the emotion.”

  3: Breaking News

  For a breaking news situations, you can add context with a drone perspective. It won’t replace traditional aerials shot from helicopters, but can show important information from a slightly elevated position.

  For instance, a train wreck from the ground might not be able to show what happened, but a drone at only 50 to 60 feet above ground could show the wreck in relation to a curve in the track that might have contributed to the accident.

  Once a news organization decides why it would use drones and when, it will need to choose who will fly the aircraft. With the time and work needed for flight certification, most organizations will have only one or two people ready to fly. Seals feels news managers need to select people who are very interested and excited about flying the drones

  “First thing you want to do is get a lot of practice,” Seals said.

  It will take time to master the controls if you’re not experienced. Seals advices to start with tiny, palm-sized drones that can cost less than $50. He feels you can learn concepts like pitch and yaw without worrying about crashing a larger, more expensive drone.

  Agvent, however, feels you should start with something like the DJI Phantom 4 quadcopter which costs about $1,400. It is the type of craft you will be working with for news gathering, he said, and the newest quadcopters are so much more sophisticated in their operating systems that it can’t compare to the tiny drones.

  Either way, the operator is going to be a combination of pilot and photographer. Seals emphasizes that a photographer’s eye is essential for drone flying, calling it an artistry.

  The CNN plan will often have two people in the operating crew. An experienced pilot for operations and a photographer for directing the shoot. Agvent also acknowledges that if pushed to choose, he would prefer to train a photographer with a strong eye to fly a drone than to train a pilot how to imagine and capture an image.

  Once a photojournalist is flying, they will encounter many of the same issues they face when working with traditional cameras. Invasion of privacy is one of the key issues in question with drone use.

  The National Telecommunications and Information Administration issued a best practices guideline for commercial done use. Journalists will be allowed to work under the same First Amendment protections as before, applying the ethics and professional standards of their news organizations.

  The paper does include guidelines for “neighborly” drone use. Some of the suggestions include:

  •   If you can, tell other people you’ll be taking pictures or video of them before you do.
  •   If you think someone has a reasonable expectation of privacy, don’t violate that privacy by taking pictures, video, or otherwise gathering sensitive data, unless you’ve got a very good reason.
  •   If anyone raises privacy, security, or safety concerns with you, try and listen to what they have to say, as long as they’re polite and reasonable about it.
  •   Don’t harass people with your drone.


A version of this story appears in the July/August edition of News Photographer magazine.