A World Reimagined: The Art of Drone Visuals

By Lauren A O’Hagan

In recent years, the expansion of drones with embedded cameras has significantly increased the production, consumption and sharing of new visual perspectives. Through social media and online platforms like Dronestagram and Skypixel, drone visuals are rapidly becoming part of our everyday visual experiences, generating images that differ from traditional visual conventions and produce unexpected perspectives of the world that reveal secrets of our geographical surroundings. Yet to date, little attention has been paid to the compositional structure of drone visuals and the ways in which their rich semiotic resources are changing the way we see and think about the world.

Our research project Drones in Visual Culture is the first to explore these new perspectives. We observed the online photo-sharing practices of drone hobbyists over a two-month period to gain an understanding of the main characteristics of drone visuals and how they have the potential to transform sense-making processes and reshape our visual culture. Using social semiotic analysis, we identified three types of images that are frequently produced by users: (1) top-down views; (2) panoramic views; and (3) ‘classic’ landscape perspectives.

Top-down views serve two important functions: to defamiliarise familiar scenes and/or
provide access to inaccessible places. The top-down view that drones afford can reveal
patterns and shapes that the human eye is not able to perceive or grant access to places that are out of bounds or difficult to access. This perspective can generate feelings of physical intimacy and proximity, placing viewers into the position of sight that the camera occupies and, thus, creating the sense that they are participating in an actual flight, as can be seen in Figure 1. These types of images allow us to inscribe previously unseen spaces with personal meaning, thereby challenging persisting negative associations with the vertical perspective and reframing the relationship between the ground and the sky.

Fig. 1 Top-Down View, Maloja Pass (Switzerland), taken by RD

Panoramic views offer enhanced visual experiences of nature, weather and landscapes. In doing so, they shake up our existing relationship with the world around us and encourage new understandings of its geography because of their interactive 3D rather than flat 2D perspective. By disrupting traditional spatial composition and accentuating colour and texture, these images move beyond the visual and promote a tactile and sensory engagement with our surroundings, often imbuing them with a sense of drama and turning still photos into moving images, as Figure 2 shows. This brings focus to the power of nature and creates alternative interpretations of familiar landscapes, turning seemingly mundane views into spectacular sights.

Fig. 2 Panoramic View, Ladby (Denmark), taken by MR

‘Classic’ landscape perspectives show bird’s eye views, as we can see from Figure 3, that
draw upon the norms of traditional aerial photography and pre-established compositional rules in terms of their angle and area of coverage. These types of shots seem to be favoured by new drone users, suggesting that as their confidence builds, they move onto more advanced forms of visualisation. Another important consideration is official guidelines that constrain the movement, range and autonomy of drones, meaning that users tend to fly their drones in rural and remote areas within rules of height. Despite their less creative structure, these types of images are not to be regarded as simplistic; the high-quality optical lens of the drone camera is still able to produce emotionally charged images by bringing together natural and crafted features of the landscape, creating a sense of depth through their rich colours, texture and patterns. Therefore, like top-down views and panoramic views, they encourage viewers to critically assess their relationship with their surroundings.

‘Classic’ Landscape, Salton Sea (California, USA), taken by EH

Overall, our study demonstrates that drones are playing a transformative role in our
understanding of the world, offering a new form of seeing from above with capabilities not offered by previous technologies. Colours, shapes and compositional structures of drone visuals are revealing new functions, roles, meanings and relations between objects, individuals and our everyday surroundings. Furthermore, they are challenging negative associations of drones with warfare and surveillance and fostering a broader appreciation of the ways in which they have created new forms of visualising and embodying our world, acting as intermediaries between humans and nature. Finally, their widespread dissemination across social media and established online drone platforms means that they are becoming integrated into our daily lives and, thus, starting to form part of our visual imaginary.

Through our participant observation, we have found that, as drones become democratised, their potential for good increases, with drone hobbyists using them for a range of innovative purposes. For a surprising number of participants, drone photography was used to survey and document environmental and geographical changes, such as volcanic eruptions, erosion or receding tides, with the hope that the images would be used by future scientists for research purposes. Drone photography was also used to conduct roof inspections, in one case saving monks in Thailand from the unsafe practice of climbing onto roofs with a long, bamboo ladder. Literature also shows numerous examples of drones being used for sousveillance by activists and protestors to hold authority figures accountable or by indigenous groups to challenge dispossession.

Thus, we believe that more attention should be paid to these positive aspects of drones
because they demonstrate their “new visibility” and potential to diversify traditional
meanings of verticality and undermine the singular notion of the panoptic gaze. The
exhibition we held as part of our research dissemination has gone some way in challenging the general public to think about drones in new ways, with many visitors expressing surprise at the multifunctionality of drones and their ability to make us think differently about the space around us. Through our recuperative stance towards drones, we have opened up a space for further debate and study into the semiotics of drone visuals and laid the groundwork for future research into the broader relationship between semiotics, technological affordances and sociocultural effects. However, more media attention on these artistic and creative uses is needed to bring about a greater change in public perceptions.

To find out more about our research, please visit our digital exhibition Views from the Blue: A Glimpse into Drone Photography, which showcases the rich aesthetic, textual and semiotic characteristics of drone visuals.