I have just bought a drone! But before I explain further, I want to go back and reflect on how on earth I came to be even thinking of buying one.
I have always had a weakness for gadgets and machines. I suppose if I am honest this goes back to my teens, when I bought an elderly Lambretta 150cc scooter from the gym mistress and became the first sixth former to drive on two wheels to school.
The two wheelers became more efficient over the years: first a replacement Lambretta when at university, then better performing Hondas in Nigeria, then back a step in France, with a series of mobylettes with more character than efficiency, before Chris and I returned to Italian scooters, this time Piaggios.
In the meantime, of course, I acquired a succession of four wheelers. I have always loved driving, from my first car, a spanking new Mini when I was a reporter, a Peugeot in Nigeria (underpowered), a rusty old Renault 4 van in Scotland (I was particularly attached to this, holes in the floor, doors that fell off, and all), a sturdy Lada and then a boring family Renault 12, then a VW hippy campervan which walked rather than ran up the French hills, then a later one, which drove faster but did not have the same charm (but was equally unreliable), on to Citroens (much more reliable), and now, of course, my quirky two-seater Smart car (still capable of generating speeding tickets, I’m afraid).
Cameras have had the same chequered and varied journey. My childhood Kodak Brownie 127 produced a small number of dark, monochrome snapshots. It was replaced by a hand-me-down from my mother whose photos were equally dull and only marginally more in focus. It finally fell from favour when my friend, Wenol, and I were making our epic voyage through Africa, and I realised that not a single shot of the Victoria Falls had worked – the shutter had finally stuck on open. In the Zambia we hitched a lift with a crop sprayer who showed us his Pentax single lens reflex camera, and when we reached Nairobi, we both bought the same model (and as a result were so short of cash we nearly did not make it back to Europe).
When the children were young I graduated through a number of other SLR cameras, from black and white to colour, and as time progressed, moved into the world of digital photography – perhaps the biggest transition of all.
The biggest camera purchase of all was done on impulse. In 2003 I said goodbye to Chris and set off for my first trip to India. En route, in Montpellier, I bought a Canon DSLR, but it was several days before I dared to write to Chris to confess. My excuse? It would perhaps be the only time in my life when I would see the Taj Mahal, which deserved a better camera than I had. (Indeed I was very pleased with my photos of India and mounted an exhibition in our local village on my return). Ultimately it cost too much buying lenses for this first Canon and its successor, and they were too heavy. So I downgraded to what are known as mirrorless cameras and currently have a Sony a6500.
Meanwhile there was another strand to my techie journey: my progress through many (too many) computers and phones. It all started in the mid-eighties when I progressed from a BBC microcomputer to the purchase of my first Mac, which I was also using at work. I progressed through various generations of Mac till 2013, when I bought my most recent one, a laptop called a MacBook Air (with a giant monitor when at my desk).
But that is not enough. Oh no. Just as my camera journey has sort of moved back to something less powerful but more portable, so too in the world of computers and the gadgets that have followed. In the 1990s I briefly possessed an Newton – perhaps the first machine to have a go at handwriting recognition – before Steve Jobs killed off the Newtons. So, naturally, I was an early adoptee of the Apple iPhone and, later, iPad. Both tools which as a techy addict I regard as essential to enjoyment of life.
So there I was, ten years ago, adjusting to life after Chris’s death, relatively stable in my car ownership life. After Chris died I sold our scooters and replaced our Citroen van with the splendid Berlingo, which I only gave up last year because I needed to adjust to life after shoulder operations. But my world of cameras and electronic gadgets has not been so stable or, one might say, mature….
Over the last five years, I have been hospitalised over seven times, accounting for an average of over two months a year. Each hospital stay has one upside: I save the normal daily expenses (food, petrol, heating and so on). As I explained to one of my VSL (ambulance taxi) drivers, Sonia, I felt I had some justification in spending these ‘savings’ on consumer durables, compensating for the reduction in my mobility, bringing me another sort of enjoyment: mastering technology.
The other day Sonia reminded me of this, how when driving me back and forth from hospitals she witnessed my ‘excuse’ for upgrading my iPhone (I have the iPhone x which takes splendid photos), splashing out on an Apple Watch (I was egged on by Sonia, who already had an earlier model) and – again, encouraged by Sonia, this year’s reward for three hospital stays for my innards: a drone.
Now one of the failings of many amateur photographers like me is thinking that somehow the kit will help you take better photos. Alas, this is not the case, but I still enjoy trying to improve. At present I am trying to take better photos using my combination of iPhone (the camera that is always in your pocket) and Sony. That ought to be enough of a challenge to keep me fully occupied (and indeed this winter I want to find a teacher to help me improve with the Sony).
But I have been seduced by the appeal of taking photos from above or, compensating for reduced mobility, just a little off the track I am on. I have dithered and researched and finally, last week, gave in. I bought the DJI Spark drone. DJI is the Chinese market leader in consumer drones, and the Spark is their cheapest model.
For those who have no idea what I am talking about, a consumer drone such as the Spark is like a small helicopter with a camera on board, capable of taking both photos and video. Here is mine, sitting beside my phone.
Just at present I am at stage one: learning how to fly the drone, petrified of losing it caught in trees, sinking into my pool or simply crashing to the ground.
I have spent ages watching ‘how to’ videos on YouTube (invariably by nerdy young men) and am just about mastering how to keep the drone above me and not inadvertently muddle forward with backward or up with down on my two joysticks.
Yesterday I dared take my first photo with it.
Not great, but the triumph was taking it and then transferring it successfully to my computer. I think it will be a little while before I progress significantly to stage two: taking decent photos.
Meanwhile I also have to take in all the rules about flying drones in France (not over towns or villages, not near airports or military zones, not above big crowd events, not over the Parc des Cévennes). All of these are completely understandable and defensible and, given the potential for privacy invasion or causing danger to others, my position as a drone owner is not easy to defend. So I won’t attempt to. Well, not for now, as I want to go out in the sunshine and master today’s self imposed task: how to make the gimbal move up and down, so the camera can look down, not just straight ahead.