Michael Allen: Capturing glimpses of majestic SA through drones
South Australia with its undulating land and spectacular beaches is a nature lover's paradise, and one man is on the quest to capture that majestic beauty through drone photography. Michael Allen, the brain behind the niche but hugely successful blog Little Eye In The Sky, tries to capture beautiful images of SA's countryside and through them creates awareness about drones. His blog is one of the few online public forums in SA that aims to initiate conversations between drone enthusiasts, showcase the pictures taken by them, and serve as a platform for drone information and research.
TAL caught up with the 36-year-old to learn more about his love for drone photography, his inspirations, and the challenges he faced as a drone photographer.
Before we start talking about your drone fascination, please tell us something yourself. Were you born and raised here in Adelaide?
I am 36-years-old, and though I was born here in Adelaide, I have spent most of my life in Port Augusta, 300 kilometres north of the city. My hobbies focus on gadgetry and include drones, Lego and photography, and I try to combine these three wherever possible.
I am a qualified social worker and work with young people who are at a risk of or are experiencing homelessness. I love my work; it is thoroughly rewarding.
When did drones catch your attention? Or is this a childhood fascination?
In my younger days, I was an avid fan of Lego. After leaving school my first job was as a trainee IT technician in a government agency. There, I enjoyed delving into computers, seeing how they worked and attempted to repair the ones that were faulty.
In my late 20s, I attended University to study social work, and turned my focus from gadgets to eople.
I bought my first drone last year and my interest in it has grown exponentially in the last six months.
Coming to Little Eye In The Sky, please tell us what is it about and what prompted you to start such a blog?
Little Eye In The Sky is about showcasing a unique perspective of South Australia’s natural beauty. Also, it offers other drone enthusiasts a social media platform to collaborate and have their work seen. I think the blog and the Facebook page has enabled people to come and share their stories revolving around drones and similar technology – childhood memories or stories about their grandparents sharing the same hobby. It becomes a collaboration!
When I see other drone enthusiasts share some fantastic pictures they have taken, it motivates me to explore and learn more. I feel the blog also provides people who have been less mobile an opportunity to indulge in drone photography by admiring photos they probably wouldn't have seen otherwise.
I bought my first drone in October 2017, and it has since then become an integral part of my self-care routine. I finish work for the week, hop in my car and drive through the country roads until I find a nice spot for lunch and drone. Initially, I shared my work on my social media sites, and, given their popularity, started a dedicated public page this January.
What kind of drone do you use? And please take us through your process of capturing the photos.
My drone is a DJI Mavic Pro priced at around $1500. There are better drones in the market, but I find this suits my needs well.
It has many technical components from camera gimbals to GPS and inertial measurement units (IMUs). They all assist the drone and camera to be stable and accurate when flying, and the drone is also capable of avoiding obstacles while in flight.
Certain things have to be remembered before operating the drone. It must be GPS calibrated before take take off or - as I once found - it could end up crash landing in a random place some six kilometres away. To fly the drone, you use small joysticks to change altitude and direction, and the law dictates that the drone should always be in the line of sight.
This is the first drone I ever bought. I have gotten to know it well – almost like a best friend! I am pleased with its ease of use now that I know it so well. I will eventually upgrade, but there’s still time for that.
Are you a professional photographer, and what type of camera do you use on your drone?
I am an amateur photographer and have never completed any photography related courses to date. I admire amateur ‘artists’ and the rawness of their work. I believe everyone is an artist in their own right.
I’ve always loved taking photos! I remember years ago spending every day of my two week vacation to UK on the London Underground. I’d pop up all over town for the chance of a photo opportunity, and there were plenty! London is so vibrant and multicultural; it’s literally like having the world at your fingertips. I’d love to take a drone there one day soon!
My drone has a high-quality camera at 12.71 megapixels and is capable of shooting 4K video. People are often surprised by the clarity of the still and video images.
How do you ensure that your drone doesn’t crash? What are the precautions involved?
There are pre-flight checks to be completed, and these include ensuring the wind is below 35 km/h and that the battery is fully charged.
The GPS must be calibrated to help ensure a safe and steady flight, and there must not be magnetic interference close by such as power lines or large metal objects.
How did you deal with the legal aspects of drone photography?
I always follow and promote safe and ethical drone use. The Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) has clear guidelines and requirements for people flying drones for recreational purposes. When flying, in addition to being vigilant, I use the Civil Aviation Safety Authority app ‘Can I Fly There?’ & the ‘Flight Radar 24’ app to help avoid risk to aircraft and people.
Did you have to apply for clearances while using drones over places in SA and Adelaide?
My focus is on country areas in South Australia, and am yet to complete work in city areas - but this is not a short-term goal for me at this stage. I ensure that I stay away from national parks where drone use is prohibited. I have been fortunate to date to fly in areas that do not impede on the public or private property.
What kind of sights does your drone photography throw up?
Mostly the natural beauty of country South Australia. I have a particular interest in aerial photos showing the different textures of the land - the rock hard white salty surfaces of lakes near Port Augusta; the dunes and arid plants of the Australian Arid Land Botanic Garden; the green oasis of the local golf course, the golden sun-bleached farming paddocks.
What kind of challenges did you face when you initially started using drones?
I am hopeless at reading instructions, I mean I just don’t read them, I try to wing it!
In the beginning this proved to be quite a handicap, and I started to realise how technically complicated these devices were. It took a very patient friend to make me see sense and prepare the drone for its ‘maiden voyage’. From there it was smooth sailing.
What kind of space do you think SA provides for drone enthusiasts? Is there enough knowledge and acceptance?
I feel that SA needs to create ‘drone friendly’ areas and better promote spaces that are safe and won’t interfere with public or private property. At first I was a little sceptical about the use of drones, especially in regards to people’s privacy. Then I started to focus on nature, those beautiful places away from people. I have been asked why my work doesn’t feature people, and I tell them about the privacy factor.
Of course, this is also in alignment with the CASA guidelines. One person once commented on social media that they would “shoot down” my drone if it flew over their home; I know I would not do such a thing.
The knowledge is spreading with the media depicting both good and bad drone use. And, I think that social media pages such as Little Eye In The Sky place drones in a positive light. I have had a lot of good feedback from the public, asking for more; and this has kept up my drone enthusiasm.
Do you think, given the rise in awareness, the number of drone enthusiasts in SA is growing?
Numbers of drone enthusiasts in Adelaide and SA are on the rise as more people realise the immense power of this hobby.
It is turning into a full-time vocation for some people, including using it at events such as weddings, or for tourism, and real estate.
Drones aside, what other photography do you indulge in?
I adore landscape photography, and this shows in my work showcasing the beauty of country SA. The drone allows a quick and easy method for adding elevation to my landscape pieces.
As I age, I am drawn to the land that we are fortunate to call home. As aforementioned, I also once had a great relationship with cityscape photography, mainly when bright primary colours were on show.
Who has been your Inspiration/role model and why?
When it comes to drone photography, a Port Augusta local by the name of Peter Burk first inspired me. About three years ago I stumbled upon one of his drone videos on a social media site. It was a short flight above Port Augusta, and I found the clarity of the video taken at an impressive height without helicopter jaw-dropping.
Peter was there very early in the ‘hobby’ drone sphere. I have been in contact with Peter recently and hope to collaborate with him soon.
When it comes to cityscapes, even though he isn’t known for photography, I was very much inspired by the highly mysterious British graffiti artist Bansky. His work is ‘different’, he has ‘spunk’, and he is a leader, not a follower. I first saw his art in the flesh on a trip to his hometown of Bristol back in 2010.
How can one go about being a drone enthusiast? What are the precautions or research would you suggest to an aspiring enthusiast?
Do plenty of research! Speak with friends or colleagues who are drone enthusiasts. There’s plenty of good literature on the Internet including forums where drone enthusiasts support each other and share their growing knowledge.
And, as for precautions, a visit to the drone section of the Civil Aviation Safety Authority website is a must!
Follow Little Eye In The Sky on Facebook.
Follow Michael Allen on Instagram.
Head over to his webiste.