Earlier this year, I was contacted by a representative of Leica to test a top secret new prototype, a drone co-engineered with Yuneec and Leica.
I started shooting with analogue Leica cameras in 1998, at the very start of my career. For my projects that require the reportage shooting style, my preferred gear has always been a Leica M fitted with a 35mm prime lens.
In 2013, I started a project about Cerro de Pasco, an open-pit mining town high in the Andes mountains of Peru. In order to get a clear overview of the mine, I needed to take an aerial photo. The city is situated at over 4330 m (14,210 ft) altitude, and I couldn’t find a helicopter operator in Peru willing to fly that high. To try to solve the problem, National Geographic sent an engineer from Washington with a hand-build drone. This marked the start of my photography with drones. Unfortunately, this machine was also highly unstable at altitude, and eventually used a hot air balloon to get the photo that I needed.
When I returned home from Peru, I began to experiment with other drones. At the time, there were no commercially available models with the still photo quality that I required, so I started to build and modify my own. I figured out ways to attach high-resolution still cameras and analogue video transmitters to makeshift quadcopters. After a few months of tinkering, I developed a workable model, and I started my Blue Sky Days project. The first versions of my flying still camera were very limited: the flight time was only three minutes per battery and high wind and altitude had to be avoided. Over time however, I made hundreds of flights and devised ways to improve performance. In 2014, TIME selected one of my drone images as one of the Top 10 Photos of the Year. In 2015, Blue Sky Days was selected for several major photography prizes, including the ICP Infinity Award and a World Press Photo Award. Meanwhile, the consumer market expanded rapidly, and improved new models were introduced every few months. Unfortunately, the new models only offered improved video quality and increased portability. None of them were able to beat the still image quality of my makeshift drone. Since I make large format prints of my drone work for museums and private collectors, image quality is the one variable that I can not compromise on.
When I finally received my prototype drone from Yuneec and Leica, the first thing I did was test the image quality against my homemade setup. When I compared the images, I was pleased to discover that the image quality of the prototype was slightly better than my own setup. Despite having a smaller sensor, I can get more fine details out of each file and shoot at a lower ISO. Also noticeable, is how the image quality extends all the way to the far corners of the frame, without any signs of vignetting or blurring.
Next, I tested the prototype (which has now officially been named the Yuneec Typhoon H3), at high altitude in the Alps. Flying at over 3000 m altitude in strong wind, the hexacopter proved extremely stable. After years of needing to rely on my own modified drones for still photography, I’d finally found a machine that meets all my requirements.
Below is an un-cropped example image, followed by a 100% crop of a detail in the image.
After testing the Typhoon H3 prototype in the Alps, I was invited to Leica’s headquarters in Wetzlar, Germany for the official launch on 26 September 2019. I was able to fly a production version of the H3, and use it to take an aerial photo of Leitz Park. At the event, Yuneec and Leica represenatives also announced a long-term five-year partnership to further develop aerial photography. After using Leicas and drones separately for so many years, it’s promising to see the two finally come together with an emphasis on high quality stills.