Behind the Scenes: Professional Photographer, Ross Downard, Discusses His RC Heli Cam

Behind the Scenes: Professional Photographer, Ross Downard, Discusses His RC Heli Cam

In the age of 8-megapixel camera phones and Instagram filters, real professional photographers continue to distinguish their talents through innovative composition, spectacular lighting, and a tireless pursuit of the perfect shot. When you’re flipping though a magazine, or scrolling on a website, it is their photographs that stop you dead in your tracks.

Professional photographer, Ross Downard, is responsible for a majority of the stunning pictures that you see on this site. Always an artist, Ross found his love for photography while attending Miami University in Ohio. Now 14 years removed from that first photography class, the art form has become his livelihood and an all-encompassing passion.

No longer qualifying as an “aspiring photographer,” Ross’ work has been published in every major outdoor magazine, from Powder and Skiing to Outside. He is also an entrepreneur with his own mountain-lifestyle clothing brand, MtnRanks. A staple of the Park City downhill scene, MtnRanks offers a full line of men’s mountain bike t-shirts with a unique style directly influenced by Ross’ photography.

Three years ago, in an effort to stay ahead of the curve and keep innovating when it came to his photography, Ross dove headfirst into the new scene of unmanned aerial photography and camera-mounted Remote Control (RC) helicopters.

RC Helicopter with Gimbal Mount GoPro Camera
Ross’ RC heli with GoPro gimbal camera mount and custom landing skids.

While his RC helicopter is just one of the many tools that Ross employs to get his eye-catching shots, it is the newest and most exciting addition to his photo kit’s repertoire. Curious about what it was that inspired Ross to start taking his photography airborne, I caught up with him on one of the few days cold and rainy enough to make him put down his camera and come back to the office.

Q&A With Professional Photographer, Ross Downard

 

Q: First of all, what shoot are you just getting back from?

“I’m just getting back from Dutch John. I was up there with one of our fly fishing Experts, Dan Bell, floating the Green River through Flaming Gorge. We spent a few days camping, fishing, shooting a video and getting some photos for the website.”

Campsite photographed from above with RC helicopter camera
Getting the heli dialed with a test flight above the campsite.

Q: What made you want to start using an RC helicopter for photography?

“I was doing a shoot for Volkl at Alpine Meadows, and the ‘Copter Kids’ were there filming with an RC helicopter, and it was the coolest damn thing I’d ever seen. Growing up I was always into RC stuff and had been flying planes for a while, so combining that with my career in photography was just a natural progression.”

 

Q: What was the learning curve like?

“Brutal. And expensive. I went through lots of parts from lots of crashes. At first, I was just flying small helis trying to get the hang of it, and slowly worked my way up to bigger and bigger ones as I got more consistent with the flying. My first one was a micro-nano heli, and now I’m flying a pretty legit 450 [size in millimeters of the helicopter blades].

Working on an RC helicopter camera

Flying an RC helicopter camera
“The heli takes constant maintenance and a ton of test flights.”

I’ve spent hours and hours learning how to tune the helis and balance the blades trying to improve the stability. Once I get one small problem smoothed out, it always seems like another one pops up. It’s a constant work-in-progress.”

 

Q: What is it that makes RC helicopters so valuable to your job?

“It provides a perspective that isn’t normally seen, and usually requires a massive budget for a real helicopter. You can also fly an RC helicopter places that you could never get with a real helicopter – slot canyons, tight trees, up close and personal rock climbing shots.

RC helicopter flying in a slot canyon
Capturing fly fishing in a slot canyon.
Rock climber photographed with RC helicopter camera
Getting up close and personal with a climber.

As for video, it works really well for establishing shots. I can start really close to the subject and then pull back and up to provide the landscape-perspective. It’s a great way to set the scene for a video and definitely raises the production value a lot.

And then for sports like skiing and mountain biking, being able to follow or chase the subject adds a really unique dimension to a video. I’m always looking for ways to make my videos dynamic, as opposed to traditional stagnant filming from a tripod, and chasing-shots help me immerse the viewer in the action.”

 

Q: What is it about the perspective offered by the RC heli that works so well with the wide-open landscape of the West?

“Well first, it’s nice not having to worry about flying into anything with all the room.

But also, with such wide open expanses out here, and such a vast scale that you’re working with, being able to get your camera elevated and increase the angle that you’re shooting from really helps do justice to just how big the western landscape really is. There’s no other way to get shots of huge vistas without using a real helicopter or hiking to a peak. But when there aren’t any high points of land to perch on, an RC heli is like having a virtual peak to shoot from, and that helps bring the vastness into perspective.

And for the sunsets out here, it’s perfect.”

Sunset photographed with RC helicopter camera
The massive scale of the western landscape captured at sundown.

Q: What is your favorite sport to shoot with the RC heli?

“Even though I first started using the heli for skiing shots, that’s turned out to be really difficult. Utah winters and flying don’t mix well. LiPo (lithium polymer) batteries don’t last long in the cold, and with the lightness and depth of the powder out here it’s hard to find spots to take off and land.

Mountain biking and fishing have definitely become my favorite sports to shoot with the heli. The big thing is flight-lanes – a river is pretty much always open to fly above. The same is true for a lot of the mountain bike trails out here. Open flight paths make for easy shooting, and let me focus on the camera and not worry as much about crashing.”

Fly fishing photographed with RC helicopter
Wide-open flight lanes above rivers are ideal for the heli cam.

Q: Which sport’s photographs have benefited the most from the addition of your RC heli?

“I would have to say fishing. Being able to get my camera above the river and get shots looking down into it has really changed the way I’m able to present the varied colors and depths of the water. Also, the unstable footing in our rivers really limits your ability to move around and get the shots you want, so being able to get my camera up above the river and look down on the subject is pretty awesome. It’s not a view of the river that many fishermen get.

Aerial fly fishing photograph
Capturing the varied depths and colors of the river.

I’ve also just started to do more photography of rock climbing as we move into summer. Before the heli, I had to climb up the actual rock face and rig anchors in order to get set up for a photo shoot. It’s a time consuming and labor intensive way to get shots. Now, rather than the standard from-above view, or from-below butt-shot, I’m able to provide some perspective on what the climber has done, what they’re currently dealing with, and what’s to come.”

Photographer anchored on rock wall
Ross anchored on the wall.
RC helicopter camera used to photographer rock climber
Ross anchored on a rock wall and the heli getting in close for a shot.

Q: What’s next for the RC heli cam?

“The goal is to start flying a 700 soon, which will be able to carry my Pro DSLR camera. At that point it will be a two-man operation, with one person flying and the other controlling the camera. That way the flying will be more stable, and the panning and images more precise. The imagery that we’ll be able to produce in the future will blow any of my current stuff away.

RC helicopters are still such a new advancement in the world of action sports photography, so it’s a really exciting time to be a part of it. All of us photographers who are using this technology are constantly learning what’s possible from each other, and that’s making for some pretty rapid progression. Ultimately, it’s all about staying competitive while appreciating the other guy’s work.”

 

Q: Last couple of questions. How close could the RC heli get to a bedroom window?

“That depends on the person operating the remote. Why?”

 

Q: Can I borrow it?

“Absolutely not.”

Aerial photograph of campsite shot with RC helicopter camera
Getting the heli ready for the following day of shooting.

For more of Ross Downard’s photography visit his website: www.rossdownard.com.

Nate Tomlinson, Senior Content Writer


Related Links:
MtnRanks Men’s Mountain Bike T-Shirts
Copter Kids
Ross Downard Photo

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