There's something undeniably special about seeing the world from the sky. I've been on many a plane ride where a passenger in the aisle seat leans across the entire row just to take a photo of the scene below. It's not a view that we often have access to, which is a large part of that allure.
But with the rising popularity of drones, we're now being given a chance to experience a new way of looking at our planet. And the cameras on drones are only getting better with time, allowing photographers to capture scenes that were relatively unattainable before.
A beautiful place can be completely transformed when seen from a new perspective.
Online communities for drone photographers have sprung up in recent years, giving them a place to share their work and gain inspiration. One of the most popular, Dronestagr.am, holds a year-end competition to award the top shots.
In 2016, the winning photographs were stunning. They were also all taken by men. While there's no question as to the winners' talent, it made me wonder about the possibility of a gender gap in drone photography. Where were all of the women? With this question in mind, I began to seek out some of the most talented women in the industry.
Photo courtesy of Michelle Chu
"The majority of the drone photographers that I meet or talk to are male, but I have come across some amazing female drone photographers as well," said Michelle Chu.
Chu's Instagram documents her travels, from a resort in the Maldives to the icebergs of Greenland. While travelers may be accustomed to seeing these locations from the ground level, Chu takes us soaring above natural landmarks and tropical beaches. Her shots are carefully composed: "It helps to brainstorm what kind of images you're trying to create before flying."
"I wanted to see things from a different perspective," said Chu of what initially drew her to drone photography. "I always wondered what the birds were looking at."
Chu has high hopes for the future of drones and the involvement of women, saying that it will "only get better and better."
One of her desires is for the equipment to become more compact. "It's kind of a hassle for a female to travel with camera gear and a suitcase [full] of drones and equipment," she explained.
Photo courtesy of Veronique Yang
Veronique Yang told me that she didn't see much of a gender gap in the industry: "I have many female friends who use drones."
Like Chu, Yang emphasized the draw of being able to see the world from new perspectives, saying that drones allowed the user to see "something that you couldn't imagine before." Yang is also a frequent traveler, taking a drone with her across the globe to document these unimaginable views.
She serves as a brand ambassador for the popular drone company DJI, committed to helping grow the drone community.
Photo courtesy of Sally French
Sally French runs a website called The Drone Girl. "When I got into drones, I didn't realize all the subtle sexism occurring in the industry. I only chose the name "Drone Girl" because it sounded like a superhero," French said.
But after several years in the industry, French acknowledges that women who fly drones (or want to get involved) face challenges related to their gender. Though the sexist attitude isn't always overt, French described "multiple situations" where she was made to feel like she didn't belong based on her gender.
Recently, French went to an RC field and told the check-in desk attendant that she was there to fly drones. "The man at the table said, 'You don't look like you're here to fly drones.' Why? Is it because I have a drone in each hand? Or because I'm the only woman?" she said.
According to French, the drone industry in general also faces many misconceptions.
"The biggest one I hear about is safety," she said, explaining that some people have called for an outright ban of drones, due to their lack of knowledge and their fear of the unknown.
Photo courtesy of Sylvia Matzkowiak
"I'm afraid of heights," Sylvia Matzkowiak told me. "[Drones] help me to easily reach points that I could never climb up to." Matzkowiak was inspired to use a drone while traveling, not wanting to miss any of the views. She sees tourism as one of the driving forces of aerial photography.
As for the existence of a gender gap, Matzkowiak believes that it started with photography in general. "Photography was always dominated by guys," she said. "I don't really understand why. Girls have much more emotional expression in everything they do."
"Photos by girls I know are always very colorful and powerful," she said.
Photo courtesy of 2Drone Gals
While my mom has mastered Snapchat, I can't see her flying a drone anytime soon. So when I found a mother-daughter drone team, I was thoroughly impressed. 2Drone Gals is made up of Kim and Makalya Wheeler, both accomplished photographers. They began flying drones together in 2013 at the forefront of the consumer market.
"There's no disputing that men outnumber women in the drone industry. However, there's a place for everyone... It’s the passion for epic aerial shots that motivates us to keep flying," explained Kim Wheeler.
The technology is way ahead of the policy.
As for the challenges facing the drone industry going forward?
Wheeler cited some of the same ones mentioned by French: "The drone industry continues to grow exponentially, but the technology is way ahead of the policy, regulation and public perception. We have a lot of work to do in the drone community to promote safe and beneficial drone use, through the media, for this industry to move forward."
Photo courtesy of Christian Schaffer
Christian Schaffer was struck by the power of aerial perspectives at a film festival two years ago. "The incredible potential for story-telling and the creation of dynamic narratives is ultimately what inspired me to invest in a drone," she said. To her, aerial imagery enables viewers to become fully immersed in an experience.
Schaffer focuses on natural environments in her work, capturing dense vegetation and winding rivers. "Light is my first consideration, so I generally only fly during sunrise or the golden hour just before sunset," she explained.
Initially, Schaffer was on the fence about getting a drone. But she was eventually motivated by another female photographer, Alexandra Taylor.
"Photography, and the outdoor adventure segment in particular, seems largely dominated by male photographers, but I believe that is beginning to change as more women step out into the field," she said.
Schaffer isn't sure if drones will become a staple for the average person but thinks "unique perspectives and bird's-eye views are here to stay."
Photo courtesy of Meagan Bourne
They always remind me of how small we truly are in this huge world.
When you look at one of Meagan Bourne's photographs, she wants you to think, "How was that taken?" To her, the most unique aerial photographs showcase a perspective that can only be seen by a drone.
"What I love most about drone photos is that they always remind me of how small we truly are in this huge world," she told me.
While Bourne admitted that she never really thought about the possibility of a gender gap before, she said that most of her friends who are into drone photography are, in fact, guys. "I think more girls should definitely take up drone photography," Bourne said. "There's nothing quite like it."
Bourne is excited for the future, seeing the potential for advancements in the technology to happen quickly, from a longer battery life to higher quality cameras. "Drones were just starting to get more popular about a year ago, and now look where we are," she said.
Photo courtesy of Rhianna Lakin
Rhianna Lakin is the founder of the Amelia Dronehart RC Copter Group on Facebook, described as "the official 'girls' club for women who fly RC Copters."
In an interview with The Drone Girl, Lakin spoke to the importance of having a dedicated group for women. She mentioned that there is often a "cavemen mentality" on other drone forums that intimidates women and sometimes pushes them away entirely.
"Our women’s group, we don’t have bashing over questions, we don’t have that intimidation factor," she said.
After years in the industry, Lakin still finds herself moved by aerial perspectives.