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Unmanned Flight in the Geographic

Feb 19

In Jobs at 6:17am

The latest issue of the National Geographic is out now, migrating through the mail and on the newsstand, and in it is my long suffering story on UAVs, or, unmanned flight. I say long suffering in that it kicked around the publishing schedule a bit, as sometimes happens, finally finding a resting spot in the month of March.

It was an interesting and difficult story to shoot, as they all are in their own way, but this one had the extra fillip of balky technology and temperamental flying machines. We shot a range of these contraptions, from winged drones the military flings into the sky by hand (think of a quarterback slinging a sixty yard Hail Mary as the game clock winds down) to tiny, bug-like flyers with wings based on the anatomy of a bee. It was also the first story I think I ever shot where I couldn’t, because of technical difficulties, shoot the central premise of the coverage, which was the notion of a UAV photographing another UAV in flight. More on that later.

The prompt for the story was the sudden newsworthiness of drones in general, and not so much the highly sophisticated types flying over theaters of war, but the off the shelf, over the counter, basic kit flyers that just about anybody can buy. You need training to pilot these things, but they are compact, relatively easy to maintain, and they are popping up in all sorts of endeavors, from movie making to agriculture to real estate. Which in turn has prompted the FAA to blow some loud whistles about regulating these whirligigs flooding our already crowded skies. Further, the embrace of this new technology by law enforcement, and the fact that they can easily maneuver around bearing high res digital cameras, has pushed some buttons on the whole privacy front.

What I’m going to do over the next week or so is pick apart this story–what went right, and what went wrong. I’ll do a BTS on both the technique and the wherefores of the coverage. I’ll show what ran and what didn’t, and try to offer up a rationale for what the editors do with a story and why. I’ll try to walk through the various locations and ideas and techniques that lead to a picture that hopefully pertained to the story line.

We’ll see where it leads. More tk….









Dennis Pike says:

on February 19, 2013 at 7:04 am

I’m already trying to pick apart the lighting. I love the one with the Mesa County Sheriff piloting the drone. I can’t wait for the breakdown on that one to see how close I am.

Alisha McGraw says:

on February 19, 2013 at 7:15 am

Did they give you the full article ahead of time? From what I have experienced with editorials they give a general overview and that doesn’t always lead me in the right direction…I personally believe that I can’t blame myself when I don’t correctly solve the mystery message that they hand me. :) Topic aside, the photos are fantastic in my opinion – even without a UAV’s in air photo of another UAV. It looked like each type of drone came with its own special challenges as far as being photographed is concerned. I think this is such a hot topic right now that editors have to be abnormally sensitive; I’m sure they selected based on the perception they want others to have. Which is unfortunate for the effort a photographer like yourself provides to make the images that you did. Hope you are ultimately satisfied in the end with the work you created :) you should be. —

Simone says:

on February 19, 2013 at 7:22 am

Can’t wait to read the full article and watch the results of your job :)

Tim Skipper says:

on February 19, 2013 at 7:57 am

I saw your lecture recently where you showed some of these images. I will have to check out the article in Geographic. You may have heard of the boy being held hostage in Alabama about a week or so ago. I was volunteering there and got to see law enforcement use drones to photograph the area where the bunker was. It is both exciting and scary.

DQ says:

on February 19, 2013 at 8:19 am

Wondering what the technical challenges were beyond constantly adjusting your lighting to balance with the rapidly shifting ambient in a few of the outside shots… wondering if you were nervous standing so close to that last device with your wide angle lens.. .but wondering, most of all, if NG called you in on a story they had in the hopper, or if you pitched this one?

LOOKING FORWARD to the follows up, oh man-of-light-and-words.


Carl Schaefer says:

on February 19, 2013 at 8:24 am

Joe, looking forward to your BTS discussion. It was a pleasure working with you and your team on the Skate shoot. I’ve enjoyed your seminars but watching you on location was the ultimate classroom experience.

Marco P. Garavaglia says:

on February 19, 2013 at 8:48 am

Dear Mr. McNally,
Thank you for your body of work. I saw on an article somewhere, that some photographers are using these drones for taking photographs from new perspectives. Have you considered this? This may be an emerging field of photography. Perhaps you could approach Nikon on this project. You may end up with some fascinating results.

I have signed up for your four day workshop in June. I hope to bring an open enthusiasm where my photographic failures become temporary setbacks.

Give my best to Lynn.

Once again, many thanks

Jay Mann says:

on February 19, 2013 at 9:27 am

I have been waiting for something in Nat Geo. You have spent a lot of time in the land of yellow border recently. Maybe I can pick a Spanish version in the next time I am in Quito. At least I will understand the pics.:)
Looking forward to the breakdowns, haven’t seen Numnuts for a while.

Don Koehler says:

on February 19, 2013 at 9:36 am

We got to see a few “behind the scenes” shots from this article at PSW in September. As usual, Joe is the master. Great article as well.

Matt Doebler says:

on February 19, 2013 at 9:53 am

Joe, the photo of the mini-drone hovering above the extended finger makes speaks volumes about how much modern society is integrated with and becoming dependent upon technology. I feel the image almost suggests a satirical contrast to Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam.” The drone is a being “after our own image.” Great work!

Dawn Norris says:

on February 19, 2013 at 9:53 am

Can’t wait for more on this one – fascinating! The images are incredible! I love to be able to hear the story behind the story/images too…

Stuart Patterson says:

on February 19, 2013 at 9:57 am

Love the first shot of the drone. Very futuristic. Appears to be tungsten WB with flash off axis below camera right. However, that is an uneducated guess of a newbie.

Mike Willett says:

on February 19, 2013 at 11:19 am

Great suject, and you’ve done some marvelous shots. As an ad photographer for over 40 years, this is recognized as a very hot topic to those of us that see uses for this “toy”. For those that are afraid of everything new it will cause some unusual complaints.

As a real estate photographer, I have long thought these wonderful little craft would be a fantastic solution to the full sized plane of helicopter, easily transportable, cheap to fly, and can get in a position no full sized vehicle could accomplish, but there are always nay sayers and negative people. This would require those of us that wish to put these wonderful machines to commercial use a real common sense to the issues, and great care in how all of this is applied.

Remember, we all will be dealing with government, now that they are beginning to stake out a position on the subject, and if not handled right, they will regulate everything you can think of, and then some, relgating the technology to only those that fly full sized machines with complete licensing and insurance. In other words, those that are turning in this direction, tread lightly and carefully and don’t ruin it for any of us with cavalier attitudes and pure, outright carelessness.

Rick Joy says:

on February 19, 2013 at 2:11 pm

I remember seeing a preview of these photos in Lansing back in October. I’ll have to go out to the newsstand and get a copy now that it’s out.

Mike Procanik says:

on February 19, 2013 at 3:23 pm

Gee wiz. And I always thought a UAV was a Chevy Suburban or a Ford Explorer (Urban Assault Vehicle). This is gonna be a nice read.

William Chinn says:

on February 19, 2013 at 10:55 pm

Your shot of the X-47B triggered my imagination and other thoughts of flights of fancy. Thank you.

Jerome Yeats says:

on February 20, 2013 at 8:12 am

Very good images, Mr McNally!
Jerome Yeats UK

Darragh Casey says:

on February 20, 2013 at 2:40 pm

Great shots Joe, looking forward to the follow up article. Been learning a lot from your posts, thanks again for sharing your amazing work. Darragh

Darren Elias says:

on February 20, 2013 at 6:50 pm

Good stuff, Joe! (I enjoyed the article too)

Mitch says:

on February 20, 2013 at 7:55 pm


Part of this shoot, way back in 2011, was with one of my colleagues up at the Air Force Research Lab at Wright-Patt. I’m really looking forward to the rest of your posts on this one.


Jason says:

on February 21, 2013 at 8:29 am

Be interested to hear your thoughts on these things and what they might mean for the photography industry….

Did you use any drones to get your shots?

Bearing in mind 15-20 years ago a lot of photographers probably saw little use for computers other than book keeping and digital was sort of really exotic and cost as much as a small house and assuming regulation does not rear it’s very ugly head too hard.

Do you think that drones will become a part of photographer’s kits?

E.g. do you see a day where 6 out of 10 wedding shooters will have drone hovering around above the altar or general purpose photojournalists such as your self will keep a drone in the van for that (at least for a while) relatively unique perspective?
I.e. will more photographers have some of these things than not have them, or will they be more niche than common?

Or do you think that photographers won’t have them and drone aficionados/professionals will learn photography as part of their profession or rent out their skills and drones to photographers, sort of like heli charters/pilots do now.

Mike the real estate shooter up there is already thinking about this – I assume you saw a lot that was close to the state of the art so what do you think

Marian Majik says:

on February 23, 2013 at 3:31 pm

I can’t wait for next part. Each picture is so different that is hard to believe that one man did them all but as I’ve read in your books you know well how and why. Thank you for educating us!

Shamus says:

on February 23, 2013 at 6:13 pm

Insane proposition. Of course the drones create yet another military industrial complex profiteering scheme…again, to scare American citizens, permeate our skies, our private lives (what’s left of them), and destroy any sense of real security with these ridiculous ‘killing’ and surveillance machines.

I see no good in these things, except, to assist in rescue missions, or for purely national security purposes. However, to use as common place in the USA skies intermixed with civilians, used in business, police and local security surveillance, is a big step in the wrong direction.

People might scream at the top of their lungs about this! Say No. Before we are all completely held hostage to their domestic use.

Ben says:

on February 26, 2013 at 1:53 pm

Hi Joe!

Ben here. Are you going to do one of those wonderful behind the scenes videos? I love them and we had a lot of fun!!

Christi says:

on February 27, 2013 at 11:22 pm

As a wife of an Air Force pilot, I know the training that goes behind the skilled pilots that get assigned to fly these drones. I am also amazed that with security you could get the cool access to take these photos! Kudos! I know in Vegas, I wasn’t even allowed to point my camera in the direction of certain planes on the runway at the time. Its very cool to see these images! I look forward to more of your work!

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