In the late 1800s a group of itinerant artists, aided by new advances in color printing, popularized large, perspective illustrations of cities and towns all over America. Artists like C. Drie, who created a popular aerial rendering of Columbia, climbed up on high vantage points or just used their imaginations to stitch together an image they called the bird’s-eye view.
More than 100 years later, the fascination with aerial perspective endures, but now, artists, photographers, and everyday hobbyists don’t have to rely on their imaginations or climb to the top of a hill. They can fly a camera into the clouds.
Drones have democratized the aerial perspective. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, there were 1.1 million small, hobbyist drones in 2016, and the numbers are expected to triple to 3.5 million by 2021. The popularity of aerial photography is a main driver of the big growth.
After I happened upon Drie’s iconic rendering of Columbia in a Main Street restaurant, I decided I wanted to capture my own bird’s-eye view of the city. So, I set out to earn my commercial drone pilot’s license and started exploring Columbia from ground level to 400 feet, the maximum legal height a drone can fly in most circumstances. That’s about 50 feet higher than the Capital Center building across from the State House.
A flying camera offers unique challenges to the photographer. The same issues apply that go into taking a good photograph — lighting, composition, and technical camera settings — but with the added dimension of flying and positioning the camera using a small controller with two joysticks. It takes hand-eye coordination and a good sense of situational awareness about hazards in the air. Most drones now come with collision avoidance sensors, but they aren’t fail-proof. I once spent the better part of an afternoon tossing lemons at my drone to dislodge it after the propellers got stuck on a power line.
Most photographers and filmmakers have in their mind’s eye the image they want to take before they press the shutter button. That’s because they can usually preview the subject at ground level. With a drone, you can never really be sure what the shot will look like until you take off.
Also, an adrenaline rush comes with flying a drone. The propellers rev up, sounding like a swarm of bees, and the drone takes off in a gravity defying dance, and you watch as the scene unfolds cinematically on the controller’s small screen. As soon as you take off, the clock starts ticking, and you only have about 15 to 25 minutes of flight time before you get a warning that you’re running out of battery life and must return to home base or fall from the sky.
When shooting video, modern filmmakers often call this view the “God’s-eye view,” and that’s a good description of what one sees through the lens of a drone-based camera. It’s an omniscient perspective where one sees boundaries, revealing patterns and the interconnectedness of things grand and things obscure.
I know many churches are constructed in the shape of a cross, but I never knew just how literal that shape would appear until I looked down on Trinity Cathedral from above. High traffic roads feel like a constricted artery on the ground, but the logic and meaning of their paths shows up as an interwoven tapestry from the vantage point of a drone.
Or consider the view of something so recognizable that we take it for granted, such as the fountain in front of The University of South Carolina’s Thomas Cooper Library. Shot from directly above, the familiar three-dimensional rectangle of water bordered by green trees becomes a two-dimensional geometric abstraction. I love the puzzled look on someone’s face when they encounter an aerial image of something they’ve seen for years at ground level. They’ll often say, “What is this?” with a “Don’t I know you from somewhere?” look on their face. And then the “aha!” moment of recognition comes.
The images that defined Columbia in my mind’s eye had always been the familiar, iconic spaces — the Horseshoe, the State House grounds, the Gervais Street Bridge — all suggestive of a bucolic, Southern charm. But bolder, more varied personalities emerged after looking down at the city from my drone. The panorama of the city on a spring day from above the Saluda River near Riverbanks Zoo makes it look like an ecotropolis, a shining city on a hill surrounded by verdant forests with a river running through it. On a hazy winter morning, a black and white image of the Vista shows a brooding city with urban grit and drive on the verge of waking up and getting to work.
Not all the shots that surprise and reveal a new perspective are taken looking down. While flying up to an eye level view of some structures, I was surprised to find intricate details, such as the scalloped iron work on the rim of an abandoned water tower, or the name AME Bethel Church on the cross atop the steeple of the former church building on the corner of Sumter and Taylor streets. Holes inside the letters of the word “Bethel” show where light bulbs once illuminated the name at night. Who would ever see these intricate details up in the air out of sight?
I’m reminded of a scene from the film adaptation of The Agony and the Ecstasy with Charlton Heston as Michelangelo, perched high on a scaffold painstakingly painting details of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. A priest urged him to hurry and finish, saying, “Who will know?” “I’ll know and God will know,” answered Michelangelo.
Whether you call it a God’s-eye view or a bird’s-eye view, the scene from on high is a tantalizing window on life below that invites the viewer to reconsider the world they thought they knew so well. It’s a view where iconic buildings, landscapes, and familiar scenes reveal hidden patterns, assume abstract forms, and display subtle charms normally hidden from an earthbound view.