When a Drone Is Better than a DSLR: An Interview with Chris Burkard

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Chris Burkard wears many hats. He’s an award-winning photographer, filmmaker, author, and public speaker. He’s the founder and creative director of his own studio and art gallery, a world-renowned traveler and adventurer, and, at the young age of 32, has already established himself as a prominent global influencer. We were lucky to talk with Chris about one of his many award-winning passions, aerial photography, and discuss the ever-developing role of drones in that arena.

Brett Smith: Chris, first of all, thanks for taking the time to speak with me. One of the things I know you wanted to talk about is how a drone is a better option than an actual airplane for aerial photography, which is something I never even really thought about. Is that a choice you have to think about a lot?

Chris Burkard: Oh, absolutely. Any time I’m working on a project that involves aerial photography, I have a checklist I go through before I begin. And very quickly that checklist becomes whether or not I’m going to use a drone. You know, the first two steps are, “What am I attempting to shoot?” and then, “What is the easiest way to shoot it and still get the best results?” That’s usually when I have to decide whether or not to use a drone.

Right. And just so we’re clear: Talking about whether or not to use a drone, are you referring to a specific drone or just in general?

Oh, the Mavic 2. Yeah, whenever I use a drone for aerial photography, it’s primarily the Mavic 2.

DJI Mavic 2 Pro

So, your choice then, typically, is whether you’ll use the Mavic 2 or an airplane for a shoot?

Absolutely. The Mavic 2 has such a specific set of features and characteristics that make it a viable alternative to shooting from an airplane.

And what would you say are those features? Or, I guess, a better question is: How do those specific features influence your decision?

A lot of them are just kind of practical things. Once I know what I’m going to shoot, I start with some basic questions. How close is my target to the road, for example, or how accessible is it? If what I’m shooting isn’t close to a road or it’s not easy to get to, then using a drone can be a problem. The Mavic 2 is light enough and easy enough to pack that even if I have to hike somewhere, it’s not a major obstacle, but if my target is too inaccessible, that pretty much rules out a drone. Same with sensitive areas, like national parks. Areas that have restrictions on drones.

Yeah, I would think drone regulations are a big hurdle for aerial photographers.

They’re definitely a consideration. But there are ways to navigate around them lawfully, including using a plane or helicopter.

Right. So, if we were making a pros versus cons list about using drones for aerial photography, what would that look like?

Well, for the Mavic 2, there are a lot of pros, I think. Despite the accessibility requirement, I do believe the Mavic is easy to travel with. It’s lighter, it packs up easy, so the accessibility restriction isn’t as prohibitive. That portability also makes it a really great scouting tool. The image quality of the Mavic 2, and drones in general, is also continually getting better. I’ve successfully printed some really big files that I shot with the Mavic 2 and they look great. They look exactly how I imagined. Another thing is cost. The Mavic 2 is cheaper than a lot of professional and prosumer DSLRs, so it’s an easier entry point for someone who wants to get into aerial photography. One of the biggest factors, too, is that drones let you achieve a level of intimacy that you can’t with a plane.

DJI Mavic 2 Pro

Explain that for me. What do you mean by intimacy?

Well a big part about aerial photography is making it seem like you’re not a million miles away. You want to feel close. In my work, I want for it to feel like it’s just me. That’s what I mean by intimacy. One of the special things about the Mavic 2 is that you can achieve that intimacy because it’s so small, and it can hover in place and get you that closeness, that intimacy.

That’s a really cool philosophy. I never thought of that. And speaking of things I haven’t thought about: You mentioned using the Mavic 2 as a scouting tool. Is that something you do often?

Absolutely. I would say that one of the best and lesser-known tips I could give you about drones and specifically the Mavic 2 is using it as a scouting tool. You know, if I am shooting from an airplane—because I need a certain lens or for whatever reason—and I want to plan how the shot is going to look, I’ll use the Mavic 2 to scout it out. It can really give you a sense of what to expect and what you’re looking for.

DJI Mavic 2 Pro

That’s such a great tip. I’ve been flying for a couple of years now and I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone talk about that. You did mention lens choice. That seems like one of the obvious cons or hurdles to using the Mavic 2, or any compact drone really.

Right. If you’re talking about reasons to not use a drone, then lens consideration is going to be one. Sometimes you’re going to need a specific lens that isn’t available on a drone. Same with image quality, right? The Mavic 2’s image quality is really, really good, but it’s still not up to the level of a DSLR.

Yeah, no question. But even so, I take it you’ve been pretty pleased with the Mavic 2?

I’ve been extremely impressed. Honestly, some of my favorite aerial photographs have come from the Mavic.

DJI Mavic 2 Pro

Wow, alright. That’s an endorsement. So, let me ask you one more thing, and this is kind of a broader question about drones in general, more so than just about the Mavic 2. In your bio, you talk about the philosophy behind your work. In it, you say that you want your work to capture stories that, among other things, inspire humans to consider their relationship with nature. Considering that drones like the Mavic 2 represent a kind of advanced technology, and technology, true or not, is sometimes viewed as a kind of antithesis to nature, do you think drones can live up to your mission statement?

Oh absolutely. One hundred percent. You know, technology plays a funny role with our ability to connect with nature. It really does. Yet it absolutely can provide opportunities that otherwise wouldn’t exist. People love to look at the masters, at Ansel Adams or whomever, and say things like, “Oh, he would never do that or use drones,” but he absolutely would. I work with Ansel Adams’ estate and I can tell you for a fact that he loved technology. He loved anything that allowed people to connect and see a different perspective. Drones give us a perspective we’ve never seen before. I have people who come up to me and say, “But what if I can’t go to Iceland and fly my drone or travel the world?” Let me tell you, some of the most beautiful aerial photographs I’ve ever seen have come from the Midwest. You know, a gorgeous aerial shot of a cornfield or a farm with the perfect light. That’s what’s so special about drones. They allow for someone to be able to see either backyard in a new and unique way and to connect with nature like never before.

DJI Mavic 2 Pro

To learn more about Chris Burkard, be sure to check out his website. There, you can see samples of his amazing work, purchase prints, and sign up for future workshops and events. And, if you’re looking for some good, ol’ fashioned creative inspiration, we recommend watching his TED Talk.

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4 Comments

Like to know what he's tried? I use Full size  helis and CINEFLEX® FOR "REAL" work and  drones of  every other size for every different show. No matter what, your pilot is the key to getting the best shots.  Unless your just connecting with nature...huh?

BTW, ...M.Brett you have something on your chin...

Sorry, I was looking for content on when a drone is better than a DSLR.  Since that was not articulated, I guess its not.

Robert B. wrote:

Sorry, I was looking for content on when a drone is better than a DSLR.  Since that was not articulated, I guess its not. 

Maybe this is more about maned aircraft aerial imagery vs. drone aerial imagery. I've been flying a DSLR in a drone for many years.

Hi, Robert—

Chris provided several examples of when it might be more advantageous to use a drone (in this case, the DJI Mavic 2 Pro) over a handheld DLSR camera. Two of those examples are 1) The Mavic 2 Pro is cheaper than many standalone DSLRs (and definitely cheaper than a DSLR mounted to the type of professional drone that could support such a payload), so for beginning aerial photographers, they represent a better entry point and 2) The Mavic 2 Pro can achieve a level of intimacy that a DSLR operated from an airplane or helicopter cannot. Chris is a world-renowned aerial photographer, who shoots both with drones and from aerial vehicles, so we wanted to focus on how he decides which tool is “better” for a particular aerial shot.  

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