Behind the Image: Mastering Drone Photography with Ryan Longnecker
Travel and documentary photographer Ryan Longnecker uses drones to capture one-of-a-kind perspectives along the California coastline and destinations around the world. Ryan is one of the newest contributors to the Adobe Stock Premium collection. Ryan’s passion for the outdoors and landscape photography led him to experiment with different techniques, including drone technology. We sat down with Ryan to learn more about his passion for travel, how to get started with drone photography, and insider tips for correcting the color of aerial images during post-processing.
Adobe: How do you use drones in your work?
Longnecker: When I was switching into landscape photography, I saw beautiful aerial photography by photographers like Dirk Dallas and Kyle Kuiper. It was always such an interesting thing to try and capture the same spot that thousands of other people are taking images of all the time, asking, “How do you tell a unique story from that same spot?” Having new technology has awakened this sleeping part of my artist soul; the same kind of feeling I had when I first held a camera. It was not really a tool at the time, it was more like an avenue to explore and try things out. It was almost a toy that I was just having a fun time with. After you start to make money, it becomes a tool that you use for your career. When I started drone photography, that’s the feeling it evoked.
Adobe: What technology recommendations do you have for people interested in drones?
Longnecker: I spent a couple months asking people I respected their opinions, and narrowed it to the Phantom 3 Professional. It has a dedicated 4K camera on it, which has its positive and negatives. For me, it’s helpful because I don’t have to have this super expensive piece of equipment I’m mounting my six-pound camera on. Most people don’t need the Porsche of drones, because they don’t even know how to drive yet. There’s also one called a 3DR, which you can actually mount a Go Pro camera on. The positive is that as Go Pro comes out with new cameras, you can just put any new camera on it, and it’s helpful if you want to upgrade.
Adobe: What inspired you to take the photo of the pier over the coastline?
Longnecker: I recalled a picture taken out of a helicopter of two people who were walking on the sand. A wave was coming in and their shadows were being cast super far, but that was really the only indication of where the light was coming from. That picture always stuck with me as fascinating. When you pull up that high and you shoot straight down, you get this two-dimensional aspect of photography that often people don’t want. But for me, there was something that felt very “painterly” to the fact that it was shot straight down and everything got lost in the scale of it. When I took the drone to shoot that image, I had only flown it three times prior. I just hoped that the sun was low enough that it would cast the shadows from the pier and from the people. I didn’t feel the need to scout that out, as that’s an area where I am all the time. I hoped that everything would work out.
Adobe: From looking at your photography, the images are deeply saturated with rich and vivid colors. What does your post-processing look like?
Longnecker: Images shot with a drone tend to come out very flat, and they often look washed out in comparison to images shot with other equipment. I shoot everything in the raw file format option, which is called DNG on the Phantom 3 and stands for Digital Negative. That file format allows for the most color information to be absorbed by the sensor. That gives me the most flexibility to take it over into Lightroom, which is where I process probably 90% of my photos. Often, I use a technique called the J-key trick, which is when you press the J-key on your keyboard and it will highlight for you where you’ve started to lose color information in the shadows and highlights. Then you can change the tone. From there, it’s mostly fine tuning the blues and yellows. I make any fine tuning to color or tone with adjustment brushes also. It’s a never-ending cycle of trying to find that tweaking balance, I think.
Adobe: What advice would you have for other photographers interested in drone photography?
Longnecker: With any technology, software or editing techniques, there’s a pull to want to do it because it’s popular. But I think with any kind of artistic tool, it has to be grounded in a purpose. For me, that purpose has always been: “What angle can I shoot this image at that would be unique to me or that I could make my own?” Specifically for drones – find someone who has one. If they’re brave enough to let you try it out, then just go fly it. And if it’s something that appeals to you, the reality is that you can have access to the equipment at affordable prices. Don’t let criticism of its popularity or commonality dissuade you, no one gets to decide when you try things out creatively. Dive in and make mistakes.