They wrote the book on drone photography in Baltimore (and beyond)
Elevated Element, Baltimore’s pioneering drone photography duo, is flying high. Terry and Belinda Kilby — the husband and wife team behind some of the most breathtaking and unique aerial images of Baltimore and the surrounding region — have released their first book (Drone Art: Baltimore) just as an art exhibit showcasing their work opened high above the Inner Harbor, at the World Trade Center’s Top of the World observation level.
The Kilbys, who actually design and build the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) they use in their photography, shared some of their images with The Darkroom and recently took part in a wide-ranging Q&A on their techniques, equipment, what it’s like to be contacted by the FBI and much more.
What follows is a partial transcript of a phone interview this week with Terry and Belinda Kilby. Check back next week for the full transcript. Elevated Element’s Drone Art Exhibit at the Top of the World gallery runs through Nov. 30. A free opening will be held 5:30 p.m. – 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 25. For more information about the exhibit and Elevated Element’s new book, visit elevatedelement.com.
THE DARKROOM: FOR PEOPLE WHO AREN’T FAMILIAR WITH ELEVATED ELEMENT, CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT HOW YOU GOT STARTED IN 2010 AND HOW YOUR WORK, TECHNIQUES AND EQUIPMENT HAVE EVOLVED SINCE?
TERRY: Sure. That was just around the time that we were getting married, and we were kind of combining our lives in a lot of different ways. I’ve grown up as a tinkerer. I’ve always been involved in playing with different types of RC vehicles, planes and things of that nature. I got started on that at an early age. And Belinda has always been a visual artist as well as an art teacher for the last 10 years in Baltimore City Public Schools. So it just happened that we had one of those standard toy helicopters that are probably in 20 percent of the homes across Baltimore. And I happened to find something that they call a gum-stick camera, which is a small HD camera — it weighs just a few grams, it’s literally about the size of a stick of gum. We had a house in Bolton Hill with these big, tall ceilings so we would actually attach the camera to the little helicopter and, I hate admit it, but we used it to chase the cat around … to get goofy photos of the cat.
Belinda, being an art teacher, saw that even though the photos were horrible and the composition was severely lacking, there was some potential there if we could grasp the concept of what actually needed to be done. And once she had a few first words of encouragement, it started me down this research path to find a better platform, and that’s when we started in on the drones or multi-rotor coptors or UAVs. We started building our own at that point.
I IMAGINE EVERY SHOOT IS A LITTLE BIT DIFFERENT, BUT CAN YOU TELL ME WHAT’S CONSISTENT BETWEEN EACH PROJECT? ALSO, IT CAME THROUGH IN THE BOOK HOW THIS ENDEAVOR IS REALLY A PARTNERSHIP. HOW DO YOU BREAK UP THE WORK ON THESE PROJECTS?
TERRY: It’s really gotten to the point now where we do have a pretty good workflow down. At least the last 10 shoots we’ve gone out on have gone exactly the same way. … So we are getting pretty close to finalizing our workflow, but it typically involves a lot of pre-planning. With advancements in technology today, we’re able to use things like Apple Maps, [which is] native on the iPad, things like that. And go in and not only predict what time of day is going to be right for the light and things along those lines, but also through 3-D mapping now, we can almost get a similar perspective to what we would shoot. So, for example, one of our most recent shoots we went out on was for MICA, they needed an aerial shot of their new building in back of the quad … but we were able to show them, without ever going on site, something very similar to what they could expect. And we delivered something very close to that once it was all said and done. All through using GPS maps on the iPad and taking strategic screenshots. … We work together as a partnership though. I’m actually the pilot and Belinda is the director of photography so she actually operates the camera. …
BELINDA: Right … So once we’ve decided on our subject matter and we’ve gone ahead of time and staked the site out to think about what the right angles and perspectives and time of day and lighting is going to look like, and we’ve gone on Google Maps, then the last step is execution — going out there with our equipment and trying to reproduce what we have in mind. Because, as I like to say, we go In, Up, Down and Out. I don’t want to spend too much time. We have limited battery life so it’s really important to have it all planned out.
Once we get [to the site], we’ll take some test shots with the camera and just make sure that we have our settings set that will produce the best image possible given the type of light and so forth, and then we’ll send it up and maybe do one trial run to see how it goes. Terry lifts up with the multicoptor — and he’s using one on-board camera with his first-person display — and then once we get into the general position, he’ll switch over to a different feed that supplies my image. And I have a monitor that’s down on the ground, a ground station. I have a controller that’s just for the gimbal (the camera mount). Sometimes we’ll have it on an automatic shutter, that will go off every five seconds or so. Sometimes we have it [on manual], and I have a button where I press the shutter. So it really depends on where we’re shooting and what kind of obstacles there may be and that type of thing. Basically, for the most part though, I’m just manipulating the gimbal, and I’m looking up and looking down and it tilts side to side, but I can also communicate with Terry and tell him … typically I’m telling him to fly higher, higher, higher! (laughs). But I may say, “turn left,” “turn right,” “fly left,” “fly right,” and just give him an additional stream of communication and direction so we can really compose.
Once we get that shot that we know we want, if we have a sufficient amount of battery life left, then I’ll have him do a few more perspective turn left, turn right, look up and down and turn around – just a rotation … and then we’ll come down. And then, right there on the spot, we’ll take the memory card and load it up into the laptop or the iPad and see what we have. If we like it, fantastic, and if we don’t, then we’ll try again.
ARE YOU GUYS STANDING CLOSE TO EACH OTHER WHEN THIS IS HAPPENING? DO YOU ROPE OFF THE AREA FOR YOUR SHOOTS?
TERRY: We’re typically side by side, and depending on the shoot we have roped off certain areas, particularly when there are groups of people around. Safety is the number one concern for us. We really try to make sure this is as safe as possible, because let’s be honest, with anything that’s flying through the air that’s electronic like this, you’re really only one bad connection away from having some type of incident. So we always keep safety in mind. For example, we did some work with the Park School where for their centennial celebration, they had 1,100 students spell out the word PARK out on their soccer field and we flew over top of it and got an aerial shot. We had communication set up with several different counselors at the school. We had people who were maintaining line of site of the copter in addition to us, who could keep an eye on it, and could make sure that no one was directly underneath of it. And there was communication as far as whistles and walkie-talkies.
So there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes to make sure it’s safe. The number one thing that we do is try to go places that aren’t occupied. Even though we may shoot subject matter that’s in the middle of the city, we’ll show up at 6 in the morning at first light … on a Sunday (adds Belinda).
TERRY: Yeah, on Sunday, when no one’s out. That’s another part of our strategic planning to get the shot, and to get it safely. Sometimes people don’t think about safety. I know recently we got a visitor down from New Jersey that was some company I think one of the tourist agencies in town hired to do some shots. They were literally flying all over town, right in the middle of the day. … Believe it or not, we were actually called by the FBI because of their activity.
TERRY: Yeah, just last Tuesday. I walked back in from lunch right after Belinda finished setting up the show, and I got a call from the local FBI office.
BELINDA: Because somebody did place a phone call, complaining that the multicopter was outside their hotel room. Now, we don’t do that. That’s something that we’re actually big advocates against. Not only irresponsible flights but flights that are just not ethical. … If you look at our body of work, we really have very few people in our images. Of course we’re usually focusing on landscapes and architecture. Bu it is a matter of communicating with whatever individuals that happen to be around. We want to make sure everybody is fully aware of what we’re doing, and if need be, then definitely partition off an area that is a safe zone for landing and taking off. Even with what Terry mentioned with the Park School, we actually went there in advance and did a whole assembly on safety, and everybody knew exactly what to expect and exactly where to stay and just how important being aware of your surroundings and safety is. Because it’s not a toy.
It’s really strange, it’s kind of got these two extremes. Sometimes we’re lumped in with these really large military-equipped weaponized drones. On the other hand, people don’t understand how serious they can be, and they think they’re like a little toy. We’re definitely neither one of those things. Again, it always boils down to education.
WHAT ARE THE RULES AND LIMITATIONS THAT COME WITH DRONE PHOTOGRAPHY? HOW LONG CAN YOU BE AIRBORNE?
TERRY: The basic rules for hobbyists … and they’re really, to put it out there, there’s no hard laws against this. But there is an organization called the AMA (Academy of Model Aeronautics), and they’ve been around for well over 100 years. They are the group of retired men that you see out at the flying fields that have spent the last two years working on their model airplanes they built, and they fly in very small, close quarters. A lot of the [AMA] rules we still apply to what we do. It’s basically less than 400 feet in altitude. We have to stay a minimum of three miles away from an airport. We personally try to stay five miles or further away. And you’re suppose to stay away from large groups of people, and that’s really about it … It’s still kind of a grey area right now. According to the FAA, we’re allowed to do this but the second that we start charging people money for this, then there’s an issue with it. … The law is really more of a set of guidelines at this point. …
Oh yeah, limitations … that’s actually one of the biggest things. As soon as we start to educate people about what the limitations of this technology truly are, that’s when we start to see light bulbs going off. We always get questions from people, “Could terrorists use this?” or “What type of bad things could happen if we put this technology in the wrong person’s hands?,” but I think what most people assume is that this is the type of aircraft that can take off and fly 15 miles to the next town over at an elevation of 2,500 feet and land and take off, do whatever it’s got to do … but in reality, it’s nowhere near that. We say that we have a cap of 400 feet, but to be quite honest with you, I have never even gone past 350 feet. They only have about 10 to 15 minutes worth of flight time, depending on what kind of battery and type of payload you have. Obviously the bigger camera you put on there, the heavier your payload, the less flight time you get. And it’s all operated inside of line of sight. Even though it might technically have a range of mile down the road, you’re not going more than 100 to 200 meters at most with these things straight out. And that would be in a big open field line of sight. Yeah, typically 10 to 15 minutes of flight time, and that’s your number one concern, because when you think about it, you’ve only got 5 to 10 minutes in one direction before you have to turn around and come back.
FOR THE GEARHEADS OUT THERE, CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT YOUR EQUIPMENT — ON THE CAMERA SIDE AND THE UAV SIDE?
TERRY: Sure. So on the camera side, we’ve gone through quite an evolution over the years. We kind of got serious when we got our first GoPro camera. GoPro’s great because it has a lot of features we like and it’s also very lightweight, so we could put it on a smaller [UAV] … we started out with a tricopter and then moved up to a quad. We went through a couple generations of the GoPro. We also have an analog video transmitter and receiver. The transmitter sits on board with the UAV and the receiver sits on the ground with us. So we get to see a real-live feed of what the camera sees at the exact time that it sees it. So we actually have a small monitor down on the ground. And the camera will fit inside the camera mount, which is remotely controlled by Belinda. She has a secondary controller in addition to my flight controller that I use to fly the aircraft. So while we’re up there, we can actually position the camera however we like and then trigger the camera. We can’t style and focus or anything like that, but that’s all usually set up ahead of time before we take off.
On the UAV side, we’ve gone through many different versions. We stick to two different things now. We have a hexacopter, that has six propellers — six twelve-inch props — that we fly. That’s been kind of our go-to for the last year, but more recently we started working with a larger quadcopter, which we actually designed and built. It’ll be at our show on display this Friday at the [exhibit] opening. It spins four 15-inch props. So it’s fewer motors and propellers, but they’re doing more work. We hope to get it out for about a half-hour flight time. So we’re stepping up the performance with that.
BELINDA: As far as the different cameras [we’ve used], after the GoPros, we went to the Cannon S90 and we’re now using the Sony NEX 5N. … And (talking about their quadcopter), we’ve actually built all of our multicopters ourselves.
TERRY: Yeah. With this one, we went as far as buying our own CNC machine, designing everything on the computer, cutting every single part of it out from scratch and assembling it that way. It’s been prototype after prototype to get to this point, and it’s actually going to be a releasable product this year – hopefully before Christmas.
WOW, THAT’S INCREDIBLE. SO YOU MENTIONED THE DRONE ART EXHIBIT AND YOU OBVIOUSLY HAVE THE NEW BOOK OUT. HOW DID THOSE COME ABOUT?
TERRY: You know, we started capturing these images and there was a lot of interest around it from our immediate friends and family. And it kind of serves as inspiration to continue building a body of work but then after a little while we started asking ourselves, “What’s the purpose of this?” At that time, we started doing a couple of shows. We worked with a company called Raw, which does Raw Artists, that does shows once a month here in Baltimore. We did one of those last year. We did a show at 13.5% Wine Gallery in Hampden. We did a few local shows like that, and we both talked about it one evening and came up with a desire to release this as a book (and that was at the end of last year). Of course we get very little done in the winter because it’s so windy and it’s unfavorable conditions to fly, so we waited until the spring again to start back up, and we collected the rest of the images we were waiting for and then assembled the book. It’s all self-published. We did it ourselves. We designed everything from top to bottom. And we worked together on that the same way we work together on [the shoots]. Belinda handled a lot of the copywriting and we worked together on some of that and we hashed out the initial ideas together. She focused on the copy and I focused on the design, and we checked each others work.
BELINDA: Yeah, it was a good balance … We had an article in The Baltimore Sun about a year ago in the Arts section, and Betsy, with the Baltimore Office of Promotions and Arts, saw [it]. She’s the one who selects artists for the gallery space at the observation deck, the Top of the World at the World Trade Center, and immediately the light bulb went off in her mind that this would be the perfect perspective to showcase at the Top of the World. The view you see from that level is the same kind of view you see in our work. So it really was a perfect match and she reached out to us. And when we had a general timeline [for the show], that’s when we also decided to set a goal for ourselves to also have the book ready at that time.
TERRY: So basically we’ve been working on the show for close to a year.
I WAS HOPING YOU COULD WALK US THROUGH HOW SOME OF THE PHOTOS FEATURED IN THE BOOK CAME TOGETHER – EVERYTHING FROM THE INSPIRATION AND PLANNING TO THE EQUIPMENT USED AND HOW THE SHOOT UNFOLDED. ONE OF MY FAVORITES IS “PIGEON FLIGHT AT CITY HALL.” I WAS CURIOUS IF THE ORIGINAL IDEA WAS TO PHOTOGRAPH THE PIGEONS OR IS THAT SOMETHING THAT YOU JUST HAPPENED TO CAPTURE?
TERRY: To be a hundred percent honest with you, in the early days we employed a method that we called “spray and pray.” (both laugh). That’s where we’d set the GoPro up to take an image every second or two seconds and just sort through the couple hundred [photos] that you come back down with. And that one just happened to be captured. We were there shooting images of City Hall, which is directly behind from the perspective of that shot, and that was actually on a takeoff or landing. We were coming in … and birds are always attracted to the sound in particular of this type of multi-craft.
BELINDA: They’re curious.
TERRY: Yeah, in fact, it happens quite often. It’s one of the dangers. I’m always worried about striking a bird. Sparrows are very territorial – they actually attack it. A couple times, I’ve had sparrows come flying after me. I have some interesting footage of close, face-to-face encounters with sparrows.
BELINDA: But we never hurt any birds. (Terry: Yeah). No birds have ever fallen out of the sky …
TERRY: But pigeons are the same way. They heard it and they kind of flocked in. They usually fly right up to it, then they realize it’s something bad and they turn right around. So that was [an example of that].
BELINDA: It was a total accident.
I ALSO LOVE THE PICTURE OF PENN STATION WITH THE STATUE IN THE FOREGROUND. IT’S ALMOST LIKE YOU’RE SEEING THE STATION FROM THE STATUE’S PERSPECTIVE. CAN YOU DESCRIBE THAT SHOOT?
BELINDA: When did we do that … a couple months ago? That was in August sometime. And I had been wanting a new perspective of Penn Station. We had gotten one before, but I wanted a different one. That [photo] featured the sculpture in the front more predominantly. So it really was a matter of waiting and waiting and waiting for a Sunday when there were [fewer people around] and we didn’t have something else going on, and waiting for good weather. … Just waiting for all the stars to align so we had the right weather and right wind conditions, because we always try to fly under [wind conditions of less than] 10 miles per hour, ideally 5 miles per hour, but that’s hard to achieve sometimes.
So we just had the right weather conditions and were driving around, and, I just knew that was the day. We went into the station and spoke to the police and informed them of what we were trying to do and what our goal was, and they were really nice about it. They said, “go right ahead, no problem.” … So then we went on out there and did it. We took off from a little triangular median area — it’s like a walk space — but it’s an intersection between where people cross the roads. So there were [no people] in this median area, and we just … went up and got it! [laughs] That’s pretty much it. There were a few people sitting at the picnic tables and seeing that the umbrellas were up and out, we just knew that it was the time, that no matter what, we had to make it happen. We did talk to a few people before we took off, to let them know what it was that we were doing, so if they didn’t want to be in the shot, you’re welcome to move just temporarily and it’s only going to take us a few minutes. But everybody had no problem with it. Especially when they end up being a speck in the final image.
YOU SAY IN YOUR BOOK THAT IT TOOK A YEAR OF PREPARATION TO PULL OFF THE SHOOT FROM THE TOP OF THE WASHINGTON MONUMENT. HOW MANY HOURS OF PREPARATION WOULD YOU ESTIMATE WENT INTO THAT ONE?
TERRY: A large part of the preparation for that one was actually waiting for the technology to catch up. When we first set that goal, most of the flight controller systems [weren't ready] – all of these aircrafts have a “brain” called the flight controller. These days, they’re almost all GPS controlled. You basically wait a couple minutes for it to warm up to find a certain number of satellites, and once it does, it can basically pilot itself. You put it in position and flip and switch and it engages what they call “position hold,” so it will stay at that exact latitude and longitude, you can just give it throttle and “send it up the elevator,” as I like to say. So that technology really did not exist at the time. It was only in the really high-end systems that cost thousands and thousands of dollars, just for the flight controller.
We knew that technology was right around the corner, so we just practiced our flights and tried to become better photographers while we were waiting for the technology to catch up. Once the technology was there and we were confident in its ability to perform in the manner we expected, it was actually fairly simple. We basically took off from across the street, and we took it up about 30 feet line of site, flew out to directly underneath of where we’d expect to get the shot from. At that point we engaged position hold, and I have video goggles that I use to pilot with first-person view. I pulled my goggles down at that point, and just “road the elevator straight up.” And Belinda’s able to see on a secondary monitor what’s going on in the shot. Usually the first things out of her mouth are “keep going higher” and “get closer.” It’s just a standard thing. She likes to get a little closer in there and I’m more of a fan of just cropping the shot (probably because I spend all this time building these things, I’m always afraid of crashing them). …
HOW CAN SOMEONE WHO’S INTERESTED IN DRONE PHOTOGRAPHY TEST THE WATERS? I KNOW YOU ADVISE AGAINST THIS, BUT IF YOU HAD THE RIGHT EQUIPMENT AND TRAINING, COULD THIS BE DONE SOLO?
TERRY: It could be done solo, it’s a lot more of a juggle at that point. But there certainly are others out there who do this as a one-person team. Honestly, the best way for someone to get involved — not to sound like a shameless plug — is to join up with the rest of us that are doing this. We actually have a meetup group here in Baltimore called Baltimore Drones. We do meetups semi-regularly. Our schedule’s been a little hectic lately so we haven’t had as many over the last few weeks, but we give air photography workshops. We have what we call fly-ins, where we’ll get together at different fields, usually somewhere in the suburbs, and do some flying. We have group builds, where people can learn how to build their own drone or watch others in the process of building theirs. And right now, I’m actually able to talk about this now because it’s set in stone, but we’re partnering with Adobe to present not only another aerial photography workshop, but also a flight training seminar, where we’re going to have a certain number of quadcopters on hand, that people can learn to fly and test this out for the first time themselves. We’ll be giving brief demonstrations on how to obtain certain types of shots. How to use the gear to get a panoramic shot, for example, and then how to use Creative Cloud to assemble those images that you captured into that panoramic that you’re looking for – things like that.
COOL. WILL THOSE SESSIONS BE IN BALTIMORE?
TERRY: Yes. Right now we’re looking to tentatively schedule them at the Digital Harbor Foundation.
BELINDA: We definitely recommend using the [flight] simulator software because then you aren’t putting your equipment at risk and you can crash as many times as you want. Terry actually spent a full winter with the [Phoenix Professional Flight Simulator] software, just getting comfortable with his operations skills. I would also start small. Start with a small, out-of-the-box drone. They even have some that are just $50 that are called Ladybirds. I consider that a toy but it’s the same type of controller and you can fly that in the house or wherever, and it gives you a real feel at getting better at flying. … I always highly recommend that people build their own, so they get really familiar with how all the components work, because eventually, most likely, you are going to have a crash, so it’s best that you know how to repair it, just to be able to get back in the air again.
Check back next week for a full transcript of the interview.
Drone art exhibit at the Top Of The World gallery (Oct. 18 – Nov. 30)