I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately, about various approaches to photography. In the end, photography is art, and there are no rules, no right or wrong. There are, however, classifications that cater to our human nature to categorize, and our desire to belong.

One thing on my mind lately has been drone photos. I flew drones for several years, and may again in the future. However, around the middle of 2021, I lost interest. There were several reasons. Most importantly, I just wasn’t connecting to many of my images. Viewers loved them, but I just couldn’t get into them.

But why? The drone helped me produce fresh perspectives on areas I previously thought I had exhausted. It granted access to locations that were otherwise off-limits. It could see things that I couldn’t.

And that… was the problem.

Drones go places we aren’t, and see things we can’t. They have experiences that we aren’t really part of.

Take this spectacular sunrise over the San Francisco skyline. As the clouds lit up in every shade of pink and orange, while the first beam of light struck the city — I was stoked to be capturing the moment. I did a double fist-pump in the car, and thanked my lucky stars!

But, to be honest… I saw none of that sunrise. I was sitting in my car, parked on a street surrounded by three-story buildings, eyes darting back and forth between the drone and the video feed on my phone screen. I couldn’t feel the warmth of the first light on my face. I couldn’t hear the birds chirping above and the traffic flowing beneath. I couldn’t smell the fresh air above the city.

I felt like I was taking screenshots from a webcam.

And that, for me, is the fundamental problem with droning for art.

These days, we have access to webcam feeds all over the world. The webcams rotate, pan, and zoom for us. Some even allow us to remotely control them. From a creativity standpoint, what’s the difference between screenshotting a user-controlled webcam, and taking a photo from a drone? Is there any meaningful difference?

Of course, there are exceptions. For every experience like the San Francisco sunrise, there is another when I’m standing by the side of a road, fully experiencing a beautiful moment, creativity flowing, with a specific vision in my mind — but just need a little extra height or perspective change to capture it. So I’d launch the drone. It’s no coincidence that most of my personal favorite aerial photos are in this category. They feel like they’re mine.

However, as artists, the danger of drones is they allow us to bypass the most important part of the image-making process: having an experience.

Ansel Adams famously said, “There are two people in every photograph: the photographer and the viewer.” Are we truly the photographers of certain drone images? Or are we merely viewers with a vision?

If we didn't have the experience... are the photos really ours?