Wedding photographers in Texas use drones for unique images

In this photo taken Saturday, April 2, 2016, drone videographer and photographer Coleman Jennings flies his drone for video footage before Taylor Jolly and Amy Stark's wedding at the Ranch House Chapel & Lodge in Montgomery, Texas. As weddings become ever more elaborate and staged, couples increasingly are demanding Hollywood-style special effects for that one-of-a-kind, jaw-dropping video. (Edward A. Ornelas/The San Antonio Express-News via AP)

SAN ANTONIO (AP) — As weddings become ever more elaborate and staged, couples increasingly are demanding Hollywood-style special effects for that one-of-a-kind, jaw-dropping video.

The San Antonio Express-News reports to accommodate them, wedding photographers are launching squadrons of remote-controlled drones equipped with eye-in-the-sky cameras to fly over ceremonies. Because of a combination of technological advances, lower prices and Texas’ wide open spaces, the Lone Star State and wedding drones go together like cowboy boots and tuxedos — a natural fit.

Amy Stark, originally from Round Rock, said that when she and fiance Taylor Jolly were planning their wedding, they watched numerous online videos and fell in love with the sweeping, swooping, soaring drone footage they saw.

“It was so cinematic, like in a movie,” she explained several days prior to the nuptials earlier this month. “We thought it would be a special way to capture our special day.”

Technically known as unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs, drones originally were developed by the military. But advances in both hardware and software have made them smaller, lighter, easier to control and, more importantly, cheaper. They’ve now been adopted for uses as varied as aerial oil and gas surveillance, filmmaking, even wildlife management.

Amazon and Google are promising speedy-quick deliveries via drone. And drones may someday serve as high-flying construction workers, building structures beyond what traditional methods can reach.

Add interest from the hobby market, and drone sales have exploded.

In this photo taken Saturday, April 2, 2016, from left, Lauren Elander, Morgan Mobley, Shannon Smith, Amy Stark, Ellie Herring, and Nicole Enas pose for drone footage by drone videographer and photographer Coleman Jennings before Taylor Jolly and Amy Stark's wedding at the Ranch House Chapel & Lodge in Montgomery, Texas. As weddings become ever more elaborate and staged, couples increasingly are demanding Hollywood-style special effects for that one-of-a-kind, jaw-dropping video. (Edward A. Ornelas/The San Antonio Express-News via AP) RUMBO DE SAN ANTONIO OUT; NO SALES; MANDATORY CREDIT
In this photo taken Saturday, April 2, 2016, from left, Lauren Elander, Morgan Mobley, Shannon Smith, Amy Stark, Ellie Herring, and Nicole Enas pose for drone footage by drone videographer and photographer Coleman Jennings before Taylor Jolly and Amy Stark’s wedding at the Ranch House Chapel & Lodge in Montgomery, Texas. As weddings become ever more elaborate and staged, couples increasingly are demanding Hollywood-style special effects for that one-of-a-kind, jaw-dropping video. (Edward A. Ornelas/The San Antonio Express-News via AP)

Market consultant Juniper Research expects worldwide drone sales to reach $481 million in 2016, up 84 percent from 2015. Today, high performance drone models sell for less than $3,000, and units capable of shooting wedding videos can be had for less than $1,300, including a 4K video camera.

“Over the past decade, wedding videos have become increasingly popular, so it’s not surprising that drone footage is now being incorporated into those videos,” said Michela Hattabaugh, associate wedding style editor at Brides magazine. “Drones help you get a really cool take on the day.”

Back on the ground, wedding photographer Mark Thomas has been flying his DJI Inspire 1 quadcopter for about a year.

“It’s added another element to my videos, another perspective,” he explained.

Thomas, whose Mark Thomas Pro Photo and Video is based in Seguin, said learning to fly the drone was pretty easy.

“I consider myself a gamer, so I’m comfortable working with the controller that comes with the drone,” he said.

Modern units operate via an app on a smartphone or tablet that attaches to the controller and allows the operator to see what the camera is seeing onscreen and in real time. But there are limits to where wedding drones should be used.

“They’re best when used for expansive shots of the venue, the surrounding countryside and maybe over the cocktail party,” Hattabaugh said. “I think you’ll regret it if it flew over the ceremony itself. They’re noisy and guests will be looking up at the drone and not the bride and groom.”

With news stories of far-away drone bombings commonplace, many people also have a visceral dislike about having a mechanical something buzzing overhead.

When singer Tina Turner married German music producer Erwin Bach in Switzerland in 2013, the celebrity couple kept land-based paparazzi away by holding the ceremony behind the high walls of her villa in Küsnacht. So one resourceful shooter took to the sky with a remote-controlled drone.

He didn’t get the photos he wanted; police ordered him to land the drone and turn over the camera’s memory card. But that hasn’t stopped other paparazzi from utilizing drones.

“The battle for pictures is increasingly moving into the airspace,” noted Spiegel Online at the time.

More recently, during a National Public Radio interview to promote her recent drone warfare film “Eye in the Sky,” actress Helen Mirren recalled a wedding she attended where a UAV hovered above the guests.

“All of the people in the wedding hated this drone, even though it was there for a super benign reason. We all loathed the drone. … And then the drone accidentally crashed and fell, and everybody at the wedding put up a huge cheer. Everyone was so thrilled that the drone was out of the sky.”

For several hours before guests arrived for the Stark/Jolly wedding at the Ranch House Chapel and Lodge in Montgomery, videographer Coleman Jennings used his DJI Phantom 3 to shoot establishing shots of the church, the reception building and the surrounding fields.

“It’s B-roll,” said Jennings, who is based in Austin, using the TV news term for supplemental footage later intercut with scenes of the ceremony and reception. “I won’t use too much drone footage in the final video. Probably only 1 to 2 percent of it. More than that becomes too much. I prefer a less is more approach.”

He also used the drone to shoot (separately) the bride and her bridesmaids and the groom and his groomsmen as they prepared for the wedding ceremony.

In this photo taken Saturday, April 2, 2016, drone videographer and photographer Coleman Jennings works with his drone before Taylor Jolly and Amy Stark's wedding at the Ranch House Chapel & Lodge in Montgomery, Texas. As weddings become ever more elaborate and staged, couples increasingly are demanding Hollywood-style special effects for that one-of-a-kind, jaw-dropping video. (Edward A. Ornelas/The San Antonio Express-News via AP)
In this photo taken Saturday, April 2, 2016, drone videographer and photographer Coleman Jennings works with his drone before Taylor Jolly and Amy Stark’s wedding at the Ranch House Chapel & Lodge in Montgomery, Texas. As weddings become ever more elaborate and staged, couples increasingly are demanding Hollywood-style special effects for that one-of-a-kind, jaw-dropping video. (Edward A. Ornelas/The San Antonio Express-News via AP)

“Wave to the drone,” he commanded as the UAV did an overhead flyby.

The drone zipped smartly through the air, hovered steadily in place and both climbed and dived on cue, seemingly on its own, like the Jedi training remote in the original “Star Wars” movie.

Many of today’s newer models are surprisingly capable. Jennings’ drone has software that prevents it from flying more than a quarter of a mile away from him. The controller has a home button that, when pressed, causes the drone to automatically return to him should he lose sight of it. And if the battery gets too low, the drone will land gently before it runs out of juice.

Some even have software to prevent them from straying into no-fly zones around airports, military bases and other sensitive areas.

That doesn’t mean drones are perfect, or even accident proof. Search “drone wedding accident” on YouTube and you’ll find plenty of wedding crash videos showing drones flying into trees, hitting power lines, even clocking one unfortunate groom in the head.

It’s illegal to use drones for commercial purposes, so professional videographers who use them as part of their repertoire must obtain what’s known as a Section 333 Exemption from the Federal Aviation Administration.

“When shopping for a videographer, be sure to ask if they have this exemption,” said Hattabaugh. “It’s unlikely, but you don’t want the police shutting them down in the middle of your wedding.”

No one knows exactly how many wedding photographers use drones in their work. In response to a request, the Wedding & Event videographers Association sent an email stating that the group hopes to have stats available soon.

What is known is that as drones become more popular, laws are having a difficult time keeping up. Texas law, for example, prohibits photography by drones of people or private property without permission.

That usually doesn’t affects wedding photographers.

“I’ll get permission from the bride and groom or the wedding planner,” said Jennings. “So if there’s enough wide-open space and the weather’s good, I can usually fly the drone as part of my services.”

While some videographers charge extra for drone footage — a January San Francisco Chronicle story quoted premiums of $600 to $700 over the cost of standard photography — the handful of videographers the Express-News talked to all said they include the drone as part of their package price.

With so many videographers offering drone services, simple church flybys no longer carry as big a wallop as they used to. Richard Jemal, owner/operator of Pretty Sweet Weddings in San Antonio says he likes to wow his clients by flying a complete 360-degree orbit around the wedding chapel, church steeple or some other landmark, such as the cupola where an outdoor wedding will take place.

“I like to do what I call a ‘reveal,’ too,” he said. “I’ll fly the drone from behind a wall, a tree or another building to reveal the church or the reception hall. Very dramatic.”

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