The following is an excerpt from the interview Rob Gurwitt did with William Daugherty in July of 2019.
A Daybreak Q&A
If you hang out in the Upper Valley VT/NH group on Facebook, every so often you’ll notice a post by William Daugherty. Usually it’s a link to a video he’s taken with his drone. You should click through.
Because what you get is the Upper Valley as you never see it. River courses, spreads of frozen meadows, the texture of icy ponds, a waterside parade of people fishing, the Windsor-Cornish bridge from above, ice swirling down the Connecticut, Prouty rowers in the early-morning mist, panoramas from high above of rivers and mountains and forests and towns…
There’s this place where tech meets art, where command over the technical fine points produces work that expands your world. Daugherty inhabits that point — he’s only been doing these for about a year and a half, ever since he and his son got a pair of DJI Spark drones (affectionately called Sparky). I got curious about who Daugherty is and why he does this, so figured what the heck: I’d just ask. Daugherty lives in Plainfield, and he’s an IT guy. Which helps explain part of his answer to my first question. In between are some of his favorite videos.
William Daugherty: a drone’s-eye view.
Is aerial photography how you spend all your free time? Or do you have other hobbies?
I have far more interests than I have time, chief among them competitive shooting, fishing, kayaking, hiking, and a whole host of nerdy stuff like home automation, home theater, connected life, cybersecurity, and other deep digital pursuits. I think blending IRL (that’s “In Real Life”) and digital life is very interesting. They can and should enhance each other.
You started out with remote-control aircraft. What did you like about that, and what got you into drone photography?
Actually, I started with radio-controlled (r/c) cars about thirty years ago with my brother. That eventually led to planes, helicopters, and eventually the modern camera drones we have today. In the early days it was just about boys driving toys, but given my existing interest in photography/videography, it was inevitable the two pursuits would merge.
So why did you start posting your videos for the public?
This is a great question. After my son and I got our first DJI drones at the end of 2017, we spent a lot of time taking footage of the surrounding area. Initially this was just to develop flight skills but we quickly discovered that aerial videos from the Upper Valley can be really striking. Having the different perspectives of the geography, especially during the very cold months, was an unexpected consequence of using these new aircraft. I enjoyed looking at these videos so much I felt it was only reasonable to share them with other people. Who doesn’t like to look at beautiful things, especially when those things are being seen in a new light?
What do you mean by “different perspectives on the geography, especially during the very cold months”? What’s different about winter vs. summer?
The summers here are lovely but a lot of the aerial view is simply an unending carpet of trees. Take a look at Google Maps in satellite mode and you quickly realize the Upper Valley is a vast forest dotted by towns. Winter reveals the terrain, exposed rock, buildings, waterways, etc. Once there is snow and ice, the crystalline nature of the landscape becomes dazzling, especially under clear sunny conditions. I thought the fall foliage would be my favorite time to fly but I have to say winter beats it hands down.
Your image quality is great — I assume these are high-end camera drones. How expensive is this hobby?
Having a stabilizing camera gimbal, high-resolution GPS, and lots of motion and object sensors does make a big difference, as well as simply having a good camera. Previously this meant a $1,000 investment or more. DJI’s introduction of the Spark drone in 2017 was a watershed moment. Never before had a drone with these capabilities been offered anywhere near its $500 price tag. I expect the $400 price point will be the industry standard for stabilized camera drones for the next several years.
Can you make a good video out of anything aerial? Or are there specific things you look for?
Another great question. I find that even things I see every day become more interesting when viewed in a broader context and/or from a higher-angle perspective. That said, I am always looking for interesting subjects like the Queechee Gorge Bridge, ice on the Connecticut River, mountain summits, beautiful homes/architecture, etc.
So was there a particular moment when you realized, Wow, I’m filming things I never expected to see?
Absolutely. From the first flight with the Spark until now, I continuously see all sorts of things that I didn’t expect. It happens essentially every time I fly at a new location. Last year I flew at a park in Cincinnati that I’ve been visiting since childhood. It was as if I was seeing it for the first time. Sometimes I realize as the shot unfolds that I’m capturing something very interesting but other times it’s only later upon reviewing the footage that it jumps out at me. The Trues Brook Gorge shoot was one such experience. I was very focused on not crashing into the cliffs or trees, and I wasn’t as focused on the video as it was captured. Later that day at home I was stunned at the footage.
How hard is it to learn how to pilot a camera drone? And then to take the kinds of shots you want to capture?
It’s funny. I’ve let many people fly my drones. Some people take to it easily while others struggle. Spatial awareness and manual dexterity are key when it comes to controlling the aircraft. Shooting a subject while flying backwards, sideways, etc., and/or near obstacles is a real challenge. As for getting the shots I want, there’s an art to being in the right place at the right time. Again, some folks are better at this than others but everyone can improve with practice.
Could anyone do this?
With the current crop of stabilized camera drones virtually anyone can launch and fly a drone in an open space. The technology has truly opened it up to almost everyone. Does that mean that you can make Nat Geo videos for $500.00 and no experience? Of course not. How far a given person advances is really up to them. One thing I would like to point out: There are very specific FAA rules concerning drones. If you do join the ranks of drone pilots please read, understand, and follow all the regulations that apply. The FAA has lots of great information here.
I would like to thank everyone for the continued encouragement. It is a wonderful motivation when I know the photos and videos I share will bring joy to another person’s day.