Flight of the Microcopters

A few weeks ago, we posted a video of the microcopter that NGM photographer Nick Nichols is learning how to use for his assignment on lions in Africa. Nick’s photographs are scheduled to be published next year — in 2013.

Nick’s microcopter (thousands of dollars) is beyond the budget of most photographers. But the one in this video (hundreds of dollars) isn’t, which makes it all the more amazing:

Seeing such technology — cheap, accessible, and easy to use — makes us wonder: Is National Geographic playing a losing game here? Will the novelty of microcopter photography — or, perhaps more accurately, the deployment of microcopters by journalists — be old news by 2013?

We ask because the gaps between pro and amateur photographers keep closing… and fast. Consider the winning photos from the National Geographic Photography Contest; none of those shots came from what NGM photographer Michael Yamashita calls “the tribe.”

 And consider this: One competitive advantage National Geographic magazine enjoyed for decades — the big story budgets that allowed photographers to shoot 1,000 rolls of Kodachrome film (36,000 images) on a single assignment — has vanished. In a digital world, there is no film, there is no expensive processing, and most people have cameras on their phones (“f8 and be there“). No wonder, then, that Kodak is heading for bankruptcy, and that CNN just fired nearly a dozen of its staff photographers.

There is no shortage of lion pictures. On Google Images, we found more than 25 million of them.

Which brings us back to Nick Nichols and his microcopter project in Africa. Maybe Nick will use this camera drone to reveal something new about lions. Maybe Nick’s images will transform the way we think about these top predators. Maybe another set of lion pictures will finally persuade people to “cause an uproar” and save big cats.

But we can’t shake the feeling this isn’t really about inspiring people to care about lions. After all, we’ve seen lions… plenty of lions… more lions than we can count… for decades. Lions hunting… lions eating… lions dozing… lions mating… lions looking proud and majestic. From the ground, from the air; in color and in black-and-white; in print, on TV, and on the web. Animated lions and lions on Broadway. Documentaries… coffee table books… and on… and on….

But those micro-copters! With the remote control! Whizzing over the land with a camera on board! Now that’s new! That’s amazing! … From the comments section of National Geographic‘s web coverage of Nick’s project:

 Coming soon:

Is Nick shooting for only educational “impact”?

Or does he imagine a Big Cats policy initiative in Africa
like the one he helped National Geographic broker in Gabon?

≡ image of mating lions via Martha Stewart’s blog 

NO NEW POSTS will be published here after February 6, 2014. THIS IS WHY.