by Emma Thomson
on May 24, 2018
7 min read

Drone photography has become increasingly popular of late and as such an incredible tool to capture previously-unattainable shots, why wouldn’t it be? However, we heard that it’s not quite as simple as buying yourself a drone and flying around capturing beautiful photos. So, with that in mind, we asked our local drone pilot, Tiaan van Aardt, to explain some of the nitty-gritty details around this tool.

Dust lifting off the land capturing the light in the background

Creating circles of dust
Photo Credit: Simon Watson

So, Tiaan, how do flight permits work in Africa? Where and how could you get one?

Drone flying in Africa can be a bit of an uncertain topic due to a lack of documentation and active enforcement of aviation laws in some African countries. It’s not generally something known to the masses and causes a lot of confusion for people wanting to film drone footage.

Most African countries require, or recommend, you possess a Remote Pilot’s License (RPL) before you can even apply for a permit but it does vary. To find out if you can get a permit and what is required, contact the country’s National Aviation Authority as they’re responsible for the issue of drone permits. Some countries may require you even provide your clear intentions and that you create a flight operations manual; this is a detailed document containing information about your flight operations to show you’re aware of the regulations of the area you’re flying in.

An aerial shot of the scenery surrounding nearby Mombo Camp in Botswana

A drone shot taken near Mombo Camp in Botswana
Photo Credit: Simon Watson

Tell us more about the legal aspect, are there any particular issues to keep in mind?

Again, it’s tricky as it will vary from place to place and be enforced in different ways. In South Africa, flying any drone or remotely controlled aircraft that has a camera legally requires a valid RPL license – even with an RPL, there are still some strict rules and regulations. South Africa is currently one of the countries with the most strict, but also best-documented drone laws in the world. A lot of other African countries seem to have adopted a lot of these regulations so it’s best to do some research into the local laws of the area you’re hoping to fly in.

When you do fly, it’s recommended you stay in uncontrolled airspace under Restricted Visual Line of Sight (R-VLOS) restrictions, which means:

  • You fly the remote aircraft within 500m of yourself maintaining a clear line of sight
  • You do not fly above the highest obstacle/building/object within a 300m radius of yourself, and no higher than 120m

Other general restrictions:

  • You may not fly within a 50m lateral radius of any person, building or public road
  • You may only fly over a property when you have full permission from the owner

Always fly responsibly and find out whether you’re allowed to fly somewhere before taking to the skies!

An aerial view of Jao Camp in Botswana

Jao Camp from above
Photo Credit: Simon Watson

Do you have any tips on getting the perfect drone photo?

There are several things that can help you get a good photo from your drone, but lighting can really make or break your photo – if it isn’t right, you can have the most amazing subject matter but it will just lack that wow factor.

Some helpful lighting tips:

  • You usually want light coming in from the side and wrapping around your subject matter to add a certain depth to the photo
  • If there is light behind the camera, the subject may look too flat with a lack of three-dimensional definition
  • If the sun is directly behind the subject, the lens flare may blow out the photo – it’s important to note that correctly positioned lens flare can also produce wonderful photos
  • Try not to shoot in overcast weather as it can lead to dull, flat looking photos
  • A good habit is to explore different camera angles around your subject to find an angle where both light and composition look their best
An aerial view taken around Jacks Camp in Botswana

Jacks Camp, Botswana
Photo Credit: Simon Watson

What happens if the weather is bad, can you still fly?

This depends on how bad the weather really is. From a legal sense, you’re only allowed to operate under Visual Meteorological Conditions (VMC). In a general sense, it’s considered a bad idea to fly when there are visual obstructions such as clouds, fog, mist, rain, snow etc.

  • You should never fly when the wind speed is greater than two-thirds of your drone’s maximum thrust or you risk it being blown away out of sight and transmission range – so make sure you know your drone’s abilities!
  • Remember drones aren’t waterproof so flying in rain or even fog can short-circuit the drone resulting in a crash
  • When in doubt, check wind/gust reports against the technical performance specifications of your drone before flying

Can you tell us how you got started in drone filmmaking? Why was it appealing to you?

It sort of just happened; I lived with a friend who worked in a production company specialising in drones and he would often bring one home over weekends. He gave me my very first crash course on flying (no pun intended) and it kind of just felt natural to me, I really enjoyed it. Coincidentally, the company I worked for at the time also purchased a drone and, as the videographer, I was tasked with mastering it, which I did. I love being able to extend my filmmaking capabilities to the sky.

Sun shining through mist on a cool morning at Chitwa Chitwa

A misty morning at Chitwa Chitwa
Photo Credit: Simpn Watson

Which type of drone do you use most?

I generally use several of DJI’s drones but most frequently the Phantom 4Pro and Inspire models.

Is it quite easy to go from more “classic” filming to drone filming? What type of skills do you think are required?

Yes and no. If you’re familiar with traditional filmmaking, you have a good sense of camera movement – which work and which don’t. The rules of camera movement remain the same for both, but the scale of movement varies a lot. So, if you’re used to classic filmmaking, it is easy to understand what will look good and what won’t, however, you now need to learn how those same movements feel across a much bigger scene which takes some getting used to.

When it comes to skills, the only real ones required to get amazing footage are operational skills. Anyone can move a drone in the air, but precise movements take a lot of practice as the controls are very sensitive. It’s also important to note that the control sensitivity depends on the weather, the direction the drone is moving in and the speed of it.

A mokoro ride along the Delta, near Vumbura Plains in Botswana

A mokoro ride near Vumbura Plains, Botswana
Photo Credit: Simon Watson

What would you say are the possibilities offered by drones in comparison to the more “classic” filmmaking?

Well, the biggest possibility with a drone is obviously being able to shoot aerial footage without having to rent a helicopter and an experienced aerial cinematographer which is incredibly expensive! By shooting from higher up, you get a unique perspective that you would not normally have access to – this can really help you establish a scene or environment more than any camera on the ground would be able to.

What are the subjects that inspire you the most?

Epic mountainous landscapes are my favourite subject matter to shoot, especially when you’re able to fly through them.

Elephants huddle around, and drink from, a small amount of water

Elephants drinking from a small amount of remaining water
Photo Credit: Simon Watson

What is your best memory as a drone photographer/cinematographer?

I would say it would have to be on a trip I did to Namib Desert I did in 2016 and of me soaring through, and over, massive sand dunes during an epic sunset with low-hanging fog covering some parts of the desert floor. Everything during that flight just made for the most spectacular footage.

An aerial shot of a boat gliding along the water at sunset

An aerial shot of a beautiful sunset
Photo Credit: Simon Watson

For more information on our incredible Africa’s Photographer of the Year competition, visit our website and learn about amazing prizes to be won! We hope to see some amazing drone shots coming in soon!