Photographer Christopher Seufert of Chatham says he considers the drone he uses to photograph the beautiful landscapes of Cape Cod to function like a very tall ladder or flexible tripod.
Seufert has just released his seventh book of photographs, “Cape Cod and the Islands: A Drone’s Eye View” (Schiffer Publishing, 2018). Thumb through the book and what will strike you immediately are the gorgeous greens and blues of seawater, tempered by the color of sand. The book includes two years of drone photographs taken from Provincetown to Nantucket.
Drones are allowed to fly up to 400 feet which keeps them beneath national airspace. But Seufert discovered that his best shots come at a height of 80 to 200 feet, more of a bird’s eye view. “That’s the sweet spot for photos,” he said during an interview last week. “At the lower altitudes there’s not as much reflection.”
Because the drone photographs were shot much closer to the ground than traditional aerial photographs, the detail in Seufert’s photos is striking. For example, the vantage point in a photo of Coast Guard crews hoisting the Christmas wreath onto Chatham Light is about 30 feet above the lighthouse. It is a crisp, clear day in December, and the men make long shadows on the grass. One man appears to be saluting. Another stands with what seems to be an open screen device—could that be the photographer himself?
In a photograph of the necropsy of a baby right whale in Chatham you can make out the yellow jackets of official personnel. A bulldozer has left a series of circular tracks in the sand that draw the eye. They are between the ocean and the dead whale which, if you look closely, has been partially dissected. If this particular photo were taken from ground level it might be gory. But at the remove of 100 or so feet in the air, it takes on a curious remoteness that nevertheless draws us in for a closer look.
The use of drones, including for photography, is a craft that is still in its infancy, Seufert says. Before he began his drone photography, Seufert took an online class followed by a challenging exam given at the Plymouth Airport to earn his Pilot In Command (PIC) license. This is a license granted by the FAA, which oversees drone regulations that include where and how high they can fly. Drones have already proven controversial on the Cape where three towns, including Harwich, have tried to ban them from flying over town beaches; many people with outdoor showers have expressed privacy concerns.
Giving heed to the controversy surrounding drones, Seufert avoids crowded places such as town landings. In the winter he did several “staycations” when he checked into hotels in Provincetown and Nantucket during periods when the towns were largely devoid of visitors.
Seufert sends the drone up and then, while keeping the drone within eyesight, he looks at the screen of his iPhone or iPad and can see what the drone sees. Click, click, click—and so he creates the photographs. If he chooses to make a video, each frame is exportable, he says.
While commercial drones may cost up to $5,000, the drones Seufert uses cost about $1,500. While we may hear about drone crashes, Seufert says “that’s not much of an issue. I’ve never damaged a drone through a crash.”
In fact, Seufert says, if he were to have a heart attack while the drone was flying, the drone would return to its launching port when its battery began to fade. Drones are connected to 17 satellites and have two of everything—compasses, GPS systems, engines. Each drone is registered with a unique number.
Seufert says he generally heads out to take his drone photographs at midday, a practice he began with aerial photography. He does not often want dramatic lighting. (In contrast, the light of the early morning and late afternoon is beloved by painters.) One exception is the photographs of Bass Hole which Seufert shot early in the morning. These photos emphasize the texture of the marshes that, from a drone’s eye view, resemble jigsaw pieces.
In 2008 Seufert published “Chatham By Air,” and he contrasts drone photography favorably against aerial photography. For example, aerial photography came at a cost of at least $250 an hour for the plane and the pilot. Drone photography costs nothing beyond the equipment. “I can pick and choose lighting,” he says. “It’s more customized.”
Another advantage of the drone over aerial photography is that “you can send the drone up when the runway is too iced up,” Seufert says. He has done drone photography during light rain and even a blizzard.
Whatever the photographic technology, for Seufert the bottom line is that “we live in such an amazing place,” and he is always looking to capture it in photographs.
Seufert will sign copies of “Cape Cod and the Islands” at Titcomb’s Bookshop, 432 Route 6A, East Sandwich, on Thursday, July 12 at 7 p.m. and at the Brewster Book Store, 2648 Main St., (Route 6A), Brewster, on Wednesday, July 25 at 10 a.m.