Drone-enabled CEO portrait session becomes a disaster. What went horribly wrong?

I can't chalk it up to anything but hubris. I love to live my professional life on the cutting edge and I was blinded, for a moment, by the siren call of technology and progress; the promise that my creative life was about to be launched with the acceleration of a rail gun. Instead my prospects started heading down quicker than the gas gauge on my old GTO...

Here's the sad tale:  As you probably know I've spent most of my career making portraits of corporate executives, scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs. My crew and I would spent hours getting the lighting just right and we'd select incredibly relevant props and I worked with my acting coach for months at a time to get my rapport, my camera side manner, just right. But lately everything we photographed just seemed boring. It felt like we'd already "been there, done that." I was ready for reinvention and ready to take the whole business to the next level and that made me vulnerable.

We were in the process of setting up a shoot for the CEO of Zancotar. The company is not a household name but they lead the world in two things, the creation of artificial intelligence weaponry and the harvesting of a certain very ugly and dangerous fish species, the oil of which is used to polish upscale stripper poles. The fish business is a side line, Zancotar's real money maker is their line of killer robots which, in peace time, can be configured to work in car washes and beauty salons.

At any rate their ad agency wanted to "take it up a notch or two" and do something new and different for the CEO portrait. They were aiming for insertions in Wired Magazine and Russian Weapon Quarterly and they knew the visual competition would be stiff.

I met with the creative director of WebFlushMonsterNumbers.com (the agency) and we brain stormed over drinks at our favorite bar, The Truncated Troll.  I was on my seventh or eighth Sloshy Selfie (a mix of diet Coke, absinthe, pomegranate juice, tequila and Vick's cough syrup) when inspiration struck: We's do a two-for-one slam. We'd jump into the current drone craze and we'd add a video layer on top of that!!!! The creative director was way ahead of me and just before he became unconscious he gave me the thumbs up and I helped guide his limp hand to sign the contract and purchase order I had wisely prepared before our meeting.

Here's the general idea. We put the CEO of Zancotar up on a pillar about thirty feet in the air. The pillar was standing in front of their world headquarters building right here in Austin. It's up on a hill, with a view of the city skyline way off in the background. While the CEO stood on the pillar looking like a triumphant Caesar we launched our series of high powered, remote controlled drones.

The main drone carried the latest Nikon D810 (because no real  pro would shoot with anything less). We had a Blue Rock Macro rig on the camera that allowed us to change focal lengths on the lens and a trigger that would allow me to fire the camera from the ground. We also had radio triggers that would fire a bank of flashes at every firing of the camera's shutter.

The five other identical drones each carried a Profoto, battery powered mono-light configured with a 3x4 foot soft box. These lights would each be triggered by the radio trigger on the camera. A seventh drone was equipped with the new Sony A7s so that we could have behind the scenes videos of everything (which turned out to be a bonanza for the other side's attorneys....).

Now, we never do anything by half measures around our studio so these weren't your conventional, off the shelf, electric motor, battery powered, sissy drones. Yes, it's okay for entry level pros or amateurs to strap a Go Pro to one of those tiny self powered kites but that's not the way the big boys do it. We were able to source our magnificent drones from a military surplus supplier in Kharzakystan.

We bought out their supply of Dreadnought class, Russian battle drones. They are similar in layout to the tiny plastic-y drones kids use, with little propellers on all four corners---like four helicopters bunched together around a central core. But ours were made with internal combustion engines. Big internal combustion engines. And the supplier was very adamant about one point (and I think my first assistant should have paid more careful attention on this point......) he insisted that we must use premium unleaded gasoline for the motors. Nothing less than 93 octane!

Each drone weighs in (with a full tank of premium) at around 300 pounds and they had been designed without mufflers to save on weight. When we cranked even one of these babies up it was enough to raise the recently dead. When all seven were roaring at full, operational RPM it was like the scene in  Apocalypse Now were the whole squadron of helicopters comes in to attack a beach front. Quite seriously, you could stand in Pflugerville, some twenty miles away from the launch site just off Highway 360, in Austin, and still hear the motors.

The benefit of four turbo-charged motors per drone unit is a lot of power transfer. Those things would rise up as fast as a rocket----and that's with a full pay load.

Just to prove to all the young kids on our team how cool and tech savvy I am I was running all of this stuff off the latest Android phone. I had to wear two pairs of reading glasses because I had a screen open for each of the drones and the on screen controls were-----tiny.

So, it's a hundred and five degrees, mid-afternoon, and the sun is in just the right position. I give the crew the signal to hoist the CEO (who is having second thoughts about the whole thing...). The cherry picker goes up and we align the edge of the basket with the edge of the pillar when the CEO gets cold feet. But the crew and I have come too far to let a little transient human frailty sideline us this time. Melvin, my assistant in the cherry picker, sucker punches the CEO in the gut (just a little tap we all agreed later) and hoists him out of the basket and onto the four foot square platform swaying thirty feet in the air. The CEO is groggy but he holds on tight to the edges of the platform. I encourage him to stand. Proudly.

We're working against the sun at this point so I get on the walkie-talkies and command the assistants to launch the drones. The roar is tremendous. From this point on none of us will be able to hear commands, pleas or screams (or police sirens) while the drones are aloft. I'm getting good visual feed from all of them. I am delighted with the footage I am getting from our BTS cameras. I'm zooming in to get the dramatic screams and wild arm waving of the CEO. He's certainly playing this one to the hilt....

A crowd of Zancotar employees has gathered around the front of the building to watch. They are cheering their leader on and marveling at our tech savvy use of the latest professional tools. I am positioning the camera drones and then moving the squad of soft box drones so that they will provide a level of fill light that overwhelms the sun, which is back lighting the screaming CEO.  I really want to get the drones in closer but there is a concern about the drone's copter blades accidentally impacting the CEO's soft flesh. We all agree that it would be a major fail to lose the principal subject of the shoot----especially before we got some good portfolio stuff.

Now, pay attention because this is where things start to go downhill. Fast. I should never have put the phone in my pocket so I could grab a cup of coffee. But I admit it. I did. And the drones went into their autopilot mode. I don't speak or read Russian but an expert at the later legal deposition let everyone know that the auto command translated roughly into "search and destroy all hostiles!!!" When I turned around after putting some stevia and almond milk in my coffee and pulled the phone back out the first wave of two drones was already heading toward the crowd in front of the building and their attack acceleration created a wind shear that just shredded our expensive soft boxes. We even lost one of the expensive, brand name speed rings!

While the crowd dispersed (and not in an orderly fashion) I noticed that the Nikon 810 drone was closing in on the CEO in a menacing way and that he was down on his knees, hands clasped in prayer, begging the heartless machine for his very life. He needn't have feared violence from the drone because its rotor wash was powerful enough to dislodge him from the pillar and he fell like a sack of potatoes from the column. He landed on the creative director from the agency which, experts subsequently tell me, cushioned the fall enough to save his life. The creative director didn't make it.

The camera drone kept on advancing until it impacted with the pillar and ripped away two or three feet of solid granite before shutting down and falling to the ground. Sadly, we were not able to salvage the D810. But we were heartened when a later forensic investigation revealed that even though the camera had been subjected to high G forces and impact damage no oil or dust patterns were found on the imaging sensor. Score a win for team Nikon.

At this point the remaining three lighting drones were circling me and the crew in a manner I was finding uncomfortable and I finally realized that this particular shoot was not going to turn out well. Not well at all. To paraphrase: "There's no Addy Award at the end of this tunnel!!!" With a heavy heart, and the cold realization that our liability insurance had been cancelled months before, I decided that we should limit further damage so I hit what I thought was the self destruct button for the drones.

In a particularly Russian way the button was really called, "self preservation" and activating it immediately put the engines on the drones into overdrive and launched them straight up to get them out of any imminent danger. "Wow. Working with drones is slightly harder than I thought!!" I said to myself. As the drones accelerated skyward and beyond my control my nervous Nelly first assistant started pointing at something in the sky. I could just make it out. Yep. A jumbo cargo jet. Inbound to the Austin Bergstrom airport with three lighting drones, trailing the tattered remains of Chimera soft boxes like kite tails behind them, in hot pursuit.

I started to think that this particular photo assignment had taken a profound wrong turn. If things didn't look up we'd have to move to another city and re-launch the business under another business name. Maybe try aerial wedding photography this time...

The one drone that behaved well through the entire ordeal was the BTS video drone. The footage looked great. It looked (from the drone's point of view) as though I had mastered this thing with amazing skill. If we cut the video just so we could probably make it look like everything worked a charm.

Long story summed up. The CEO recovered (physically) and the funeral service for the creative director was very nice. His family was a bit upset that we brought along one of the drones to get some sentimental shots from directly over the gravesite but I'm sure they'll thank me as the years go by and they have this unique point of view with which to remember him by.  On the down side, looking back at the shoot, we really didn't get any images for the portfolio where the lights were positioned just right and the CEO wasn't screaming like a baby. Then there's the police and FBI involvement, and the FAA sticking their over reaching noses in where they don't belong. After all, the prop drones mostly didn't catch up with the cargo jet and the one that did barely grazed one wing and an engine. How expensive could that be to fix?

Two good things did come out of all this work.  The first is that my attorneys have put together a nice list of countries that don't have something called "an extradition treaty" with our "nanny state" nation so I'll have somewhere fun to live if this all goes down wrong in trial. The second is that another major corporation was so impressed at the sheer amount of press coverage we were able to get Zancotar that they'd like us to take a shot at their CEO. Something about killing two birds with one stone. I don't get their point but I'm sure my crew is game.

The lesson I learned from all of this? Well, technology and photography are always a good mix but you really can't control multiple drones from one small screen on an Android phone. Maybe on an iPhone but definitely not on an Android phone. Maybe you need more screen space. Next time around we'll try it on an iPad. That should help.

It's good to be on the cutting edge. Maybe not literally, but you've got to do something like drone-o-graphy to get contemporary bragging rights on the web. It's critical for a photographer's marketing and for their social media profile. I've got to run, Melvin and I are breaking in the newest drones. It's a new day...  We call it, "Photo Adventure 2.0."

One final thought: Perhaps the drones were overloaded. Next time we'll dump the heavy, full frame stuff and try some mirror less cameras like Zack A. talks about.  And some smaller Yongnuo flashes. That'll probably fix things right up.


  1. Sucks you lost the 810 like that.
    I think the real problem was you forgot the cowbell. You really needed more cowbell.

  2. Gosh Dave, That's a bit harsh. Sounds like a case of "Monday Morning Quarterbacking" to me.

    Next time we use drones you need to come along as a technical advisor....

    Can you mix drinks?

  3. Tuck. I'm suing you. I laughed my ass off. No, really, I have no gluteus maximii left. Lost during a fit of uncontrolled laughter.

  4. I'd be happy to advise on the next drone shoot as long as the cowbell budget is sufficient.

    I don't mix drinks. I stick to Jose Cuervo. If I have that and Jack Daniels and beer or wine, it just gets ugly. Don't ask how I know.

  5. Surely you must have gotten some usable footage which could be put into a Vimeo slo-mo feature with New Agey music as background.

  6. I detect Chapter 3 of the new novel...

  7. I don't want to come off like too much of a photo-geek but can you tell us which lens you were using in the 810?

  8. Following on up anonymous 3:44, if you had had a good UV filter on the camera it would have saved it.

  9. This is most amusing verbal slap-stick that I've read in a long time. Thanks.

  10. Kinda sad about the lens. It was a Zeiss Cinema 24-450mm f2.0 Aspheric, IF, LD, FX, WRX, ED-IF, Sansabelt 7, gigablaster that I just had modified. The tragic thing is that the lens was totally destroyed but the protective UV filter came out of it all without a scratch. I'm current using it with my sharpest lens, the Nikon 43-86 zoom.

  11. Wheeww -- you almost had me there Kirk. First couple paragraphs I thought you were writing fiction. It does show how soft we've become as a war-loving nation not to have similar drones that can be controlled in English.

    A possible alternative is employing one of the ladies nude cycle-drone clubs that are so popular in the larger cities. I don't know if Austin has one but surely there must be one in Dallas or Houston.

    No charge for creative problem solving.

  12. If you fly me down from Calgary I will provide anti-aircraft shotgun expertise. Will use full choke so I don't blast the talent. Well that's the theory anyway.

  13. Austin is so technologically "forward' that the first thing I do every morning nowadays is go out and pick up all the video and photo drones lying around in my front yard. We've got trash cans full of them. Nice thing is that there's very little porn on the aerial footage....

  14. Let me know when the new book is released Kirk. I want to be the first on my block.

    Regards, JR

  15. Could've avoided all this if the CEO had enough brains to use his fish oil on the pillar - he coulda slid right down the pillar and hid behind the creative director. Come to think of it, the drone then might've gotten the creative director anyways - but, hey, you win some, you lose some…


  16. you had a GTO .... I don't believe it ... was it a 4/3's ?

  17. 105 degrees you say... that's why I don't go to Texas in the summer time :-)

  18. >Nice thing is that there's very little porn on the aerial footage....<

    No fly-bys over Hippie Hollow?

  19. You never told us what f stop you were using.

  20. And I thought Hunter Thompson was gone.

  21. It was the lighting drones. Too complicated, too 20th Century.

    Next time just shoot HDR stacks and get the effect you want in post.

  22. That's what happens when military chips are deployed for civilian use. Eventually the military programming kicks in and everything is a target.

  23. So... wow, umm, crazy thing. Obviously you're gushing satire a la The Onion here, but the kind of "ambitious cutting edge" you're describing is a little too real on my end. Not sure what prompted your snark, but it certainly resonates with my own snark borne of experiences with someone who really, REALLY wants me to be his business partner.

    To elaborate at least a tad, there is a gentleman I've done graphics and web design work for (yet oddly no photo work), and he's 110% gung ho about implementing drones in some insane next-gen real estate "photography" business. It's less real estate photography/videography and more automated topographical mapping, not at all unlike gathering intel on a target for a future artillery strike. He's all about it, and keeps bringing me in as a consultant on what appeals to people interested in real estate photography in attempt to cater to that market. He's already dumped tens of thousands (possibly hundreds of thousands by now) on Canon camera gear, GoPros, stabilizing video rigs, sliders, kit drones and last I spoke with him a couple months back he was going to trade shows in the interest of picking up one of the costs-more-than-a-BMW programmable flight path drones that are built like tanks for commercial uses (ie. military).

    To a degree it makes sense that he would make such enormous investments without any real plan for his business. He's worked the last 20+ years as a Program Manager in the defense industry, so he's never really had to worry about budgeting or, you know, business planning, before. He's operating completely on the premise of this big idea with no coherent method of reaching it. And the money's already spent on all this stuff he isn't even using yet.

    The part that makes this business relationship particularly stressful is that he's married to my mom...

  24. In Western Australia an idiot with more technology than he could handle was hired to take photos of a large running event. He crashed the drone into one of the competitors. His defence in the ensuing investigation was that it was the runnersfault and that his drone hadbeen hacked by persons unknown.

  25. i can see that the work on the Austin (ipad) Portfolio is coming along well :)


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