Our second round of Dan’s Papers Photo Contests has come to a close, and that means the winning photographer of each month’s contest had a shot at winning the grand prize: a Dan’s Papers cover of their very own.
After careful consideration of the potential cover photos received, our panel of judges saw a clear winner in “Valentine,” a gorgeous aerial view of the Elizabeth A. Morton National Wildlife Refuge taken by Hamptons drone photographer Joanna L. Steidle.
Here, Steidle discusses her winning shot, drone photography career and accomplishments in the genre.
A Conversation with Joanna L. Steidle
This week’s cover photo is a stunning, rare perspective of the Elizabeth A. Morton National Wildlife Refuge — what inspired you to seek out this unique shot?
In my early years of flying drones, I frequented this location quite often. The Morton Wildlife Refuge, Noyac Golf Club and the Jessup’s Neck area is filled with unique aerial perspectives that offer a plethora of abstract possibilities.
Being that this is a wildlife refuge, I always fly as high as possible with low noise props to ensure the least disturbance to the native birds.
I noticed this pond in the middle of the refuge and how it was almost shaped like a heart, the hope was that one day I would get the perfect conditions which would make for a perfect heart.
After many stops and flights, one early spring day, the lily pads and grass filled the top right section perfectly. It appeared that the water level went low enough to expose these in the formation I had dreamed about. This has become a common thread in my drone career, revisiting locations until I find the perfect conditions.
What are some of your favorite places or things to photograph on the East End?
The marine life, ocean and action photography must top my list. After all, we do have some the most beautiful beaches in the nation. Whales, sharks, rays, dolphins, schools of fish, surfers and boating subjects, which are in constant motion, create flying challenges and eye candy at the same time. This is where I have found my happy place.
Top-down captures have also become a thing for me, and anywhere I can find unique, interesting patterns I get excited. There are tons of backwoods waterways that most people have only seen on a map. These, too, I find quite fascinating.
When did you begin exploring drone photography?
I started flying drones back in 2015. I picked up a small non-automated drone and first learned how to fly manually. Once I graduated to a camera drone in 2016, my life took a drastic turn; a passion was ignited like no other in my life. In 2017, I became the first female to be FAA Certified with a Remote Pilot License on Long Island. This license is required to commercially sell drone photos and videos.
Having grown up in Southampton, I know the local roads and basic sites, but in the air, I was so intrigued by what I found and never knew existed, often right in my own backyard. Some days I feel like a pioneer explorer!
What does your typical process of planning, taking and editing a drone photo look like?
First, every day I check NOTAM, anytime a VIP or national event is scheduled for our area the FAA induces Temporary Flight Restrictions in their Notice to Airmen. TFR’s make specific local vicinities temporarily no drone fly zones.
I make sure to keep up to date on federal, state, county and town drone regulations. I double check my drones and controllers to ensure I have the most up-to-date firmware.
I check the weather, sky coverage, visibility and wind, all of which dictate where I will fly for the day. Next, I check the tides and position of the sun, wave heights and swell direction. Big waves are beautiful, but when there is a northerly wind, you know you’re going to get a great spray on the wave tops.
Once on site, I have a strict ground/air safety protocol which includes a drone inspection, aircraft monitoring and an assessment of wildlife and people in the vicinity that must be avoided during flight. Respecting people’s privacy is essential in the Drones for Good movement.
If I am flying in a new area, I always take a 360-degree video so I can carefully inspect it at home. This is often when I find hidden little gems in the landscape that I return to capture.
While flying, I look for unusual angles to find just the right composition that fuels emotion. At the same time, I am listening to air traffic and being mindful of possible people, dogs and cars approaching me on the ground.
My editing process is extensive, raw images straight from the drone are often not pretty, so I must have a vision. Each image is treated uniquely, and I often spend weeks or even months editing one piece. It’s a process that cannot be rushed.
What’s one lesson you’ve learned about drone photography that you’d like to share with readers interested in getting into it?
There is a considerable learning curve, be patient with yourself. Drone photography has many facets: photography, videography, mapping and FPV (first-person view) flying are just a few. Find what you enjoy the most and focus your energy there, I’ve seen many local drone startups fail because they tried to “do it all.”
The international drone community is very supportive. Find mentors, take tutorials from experts in the field that you admire, and you will be on the right course from the start. I offer private lessons that will cut a beginner’s learning curve by six months to a year in just one hour.
What accomplishment as a drone photographer are you most proud of?
It’s too hard for me to pick just one, as this past year things severely exploded for me career-wise.
This past January, I received the honor of making the “Global Women to Watch List 2022” by Women and Drones in the visual arts category. I received the award at the CES Convention in Las Vegas.
I had the privilege of meeting and standing next to the most innovate women in the drone industry from around the globe! It was tremendously emotional for me knowing I have touched the lives of so many people on an international level.
Every passionate aspiring photographer dreams of being noticed by National Geographic. They reached out to me twice last year for video usage and photos which I am super excited about! Stay tuned.
I was also interviewed live on Fox & Friends for my viral shark videos — last summer I had 14 viral shark/whale/ray videos, reaching over 65 million viewers across platforms. That was a wild wave to ride!
In 2022, I was a winner at the Southern California Drone Film Festival, Thunderbird Drone Film Festival, International Photography Awards and placed in the top 40 for the American Photography Award.
What do you find most fulfilling or exciting about being a drone photographer?
The love of my fans and supporters. I am always very touched when people comment or reach out to me expressing how they just can’t stop staring at my work, or every morning they get a thrill, hoping I’ve posted something new.
I finally found my true gift in life, and it is an honor and a privilege to make the world a happier place little by little. I often hear from people who have moved out of the area, their correspondence and personal notes of how my work rekindles good memories always touches my heart.
The drone industry is a constantly evolving with much to keep up on including laws, technology, software, et cetera. This keeps me in a never-ending state of learning, which I very much enjoy.
Would you like to share any closing thoughts or additional information?
I most recently have entered the world of FPV drone flights which is super exciting and invigorating. I had the honor of doing indoor/outdoor fly-throughs of the Techspressionism exhibit at the Southampton Arts Center, Hildreth’s at Christmas, Hank’s Pumpkin Town, real estate for Simon Harrison and even a music video!
FPV flights give a very different look and feel, almost like you are sitting in a fighter jet. I am vigorously practicing next level maneuvers to bring and even heighten display of our landscape and community.
In the end, I am just a work in progress trying my best to improve, help others and bring the world a never-before-seen view of the beauty of the Hamptons!
To see more of Joanna L. Steidle’s drone photography, visit joannasteidle.com.