Drones: Potentially, next big thing in news photography

Drones: Potentially, next big thing in news photography

Curiosity was palpable at the Wan-Ifra (World Association of Newspapers and Publishers) conference in New Delhi recently as Thailand news photographer Sithikorn Wongwudtianun was to make a presentation on “Drone Journalism” (DJ).

Not many in India have heard of DJ, on which the photo producer of Bangkok Post spoke. An interesting audio-visual followed in which the young photojournalist showed how drones have changed news photography in Thailand, especially during the riots which took place two years ago when DJ made a beginning, or when natural disasters happen.

Sithikorn not just showed the drone-shot photographs but gave a demonstration of how his own drone operates. The remote-anchored unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) was made to fly briefly in the conference hall – it flew over the heads of scores of amused delegates – and returned to its handler. As rotary-operated UAV hovered above our heads, the light-weight machine promptly shot the pictures in the process.

DJ has been a matter of debate, especially in the USA, where a couple of universities had started the course. But they had to stop because the government has not given permission to start the course or licence to take up DJ - clearance is available only for police and military. However, CNN, BBC, News Corporation etc do use drones for news photography. As for Thailand, no rules for DJ have been framed there either.

There are several ethical questions in the use of drones for news photography. Should people be photographed without their knowledge? Will not an aerial camera become a Peeping Tom and invade privacy? Will not celebrities or heads of nations, hounded across the world by paparazzies, become easy prey?

However, the contrary view is that no one can expect privacy when a picture is being taken from miles above the ground. As for safety, yes, it can be a hazard. Right now, without any policy decisions anywhere, there are no clear answers. In India, neither the Directorate General of Civil Aviation nor the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has framed any rules regarding drones so far. E-tailer Amazon has decided to launch drones in India and is said to be awaiting permission from the government.
Sithikorn spoke to B S Arun of Deccan Herald on his experiences in DJ. Excerpts:

Why drones should be used by a press photographer?
Because drones can capture the angles that we, as humans, cannot. By shooting the high-angle shot, drones give the overall view of the event and the place and once you combine it with photos from the ground, the readers will know the difference. From helicopters, you cannot do this job - they cannot fly low - and choppers are too expensive.

When did you start using drone for photography?

We started using drones about two years ago. We - photo editor and myself - saw a video footage on the Thai King’s birthday from the helicopter shown on TV and came up with the idea. “Wouldn’t it be nice to have it (still photo) for our newspaper?” So we looked into the drone technology and half a year later, we got one.

From where do you get your drones? Which is the company (and of which country) which manufacture them?

We found a shop specialise in drone called “hobbythai.com”. We then contacted the owner and discussed the idea and let him help us with the prototype. The shop buys parts from various sources and assembles it for us. My drone has a length of one foot, weighs less than a kg, has a range 1 km height and 100 m width and battery life of 10 minutes.  

Can the regular camera be attached to it? Does drone come along with camera and
remote?

You can choose from GoPro to DSLR camera depending on what type of photo or video you want depending on the cost and portability. Usually, the drones don’t come with the camera except in the DJI phantom vision.

Has the journalists’ associations in your country framed any ethical guidelines for use of drones? If so, what are they?

The journalists’ association is aware of the use of drone since I got the award from them for my drone photo. However, there is no official discussion regarding the ethical guideline.


What is the crash rate of your drones?

In two years, it may have crashed about 10 times. We have a bi-monthly check-up when repairs, if any, are done.

Describe your joy when you shot your first drone photo?

When I first shot the drone photo, it was more of a relief that it did not crash anywhere! I was taking photo of all our office staff in front of our office building. For us, it is safety first. With more experience, one can shoot a better drone photo.

What is the legal backing the DJ has in Thailand?

I am not aware of any laws which claim restrictions on drone use. As long as we - the media - do not cause any trouble like smuggling items into prisons, take sneak peek at the military or use it as a weapon, it is fine. As for licence, there is none.
 
By when do you think it will become a common media tool in different countries?

It depends on the understanding of both user and the one who frames the rules. My wish is that more and more countries should start using drones for journalism. Drones will prove themselves in different situations like floods, earthquake, forest fire, riots etc or any historic event.

I know it can be used for wrong reasons also. But a complete ban is not the answer. The governments in different countries should understand the need for drone journalism and accordingly frame laws.

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