[Interview with a Drone Pilot] Simon Wicht and the New Dimension of Top-Down Drone Photography

Top-down drone photography

TDW talk with the Swiss drone pilot Simon Wicht about the drone industry in Switzerland and his work, including top-down drone photography.

  • When Simon bought his first drone on a whim, he had no idea his life will be changed forever. Read more about his beginnings…

  • From urban photography to eye-catching top-down photos, mountain shots, and everything in between, get an inside scoop on his illustrious work so far.

  • Drones and Switzerland have a unique relationship. And Simon tells us all about the drone situation in his country.

  • Check out some super helpful tips and tricks by this experienced drone pilot and photographer.

Featuring breath-taking landmarks and a booming drone industry, Switzerland is home to many drone pilots who often take up drone photography and present the world the beauty of their country. What’s more, one such drone pilot who we found on Instagram thanks to his amazing top-down drone photography is Simon Wicht.

He is 31 years old and lives in Switzerland. He told us that he started playing with drones about two and a half years ago, not fully aware of how this would change his life. Find out more about his beginnings, his work as well as his opinion on the drone ecosystem in Switzerland and how drones are perceived there. Also, make sure you read some of the tips and lessons he’s learned over the years!

Simon’s Drone Journey and Love for Top-Down Drone Photography

TDW: Tell us more about yourself!

S.W.: Before I bought my first drone, I was a semi-professional musician in the electronic music industry with nearly ten years of experience. What’s interesting is that I bought my first drone – a DJI Spark – on a whim, the day before going on vacation to Sicily. So, I was hooked within a day. I discovered how unbelievable it was to express my creativity with this new toy.

Check out DJI – Spark and capture every moment of your journey!

TDW: Very cool. How did your drone journey look like after that? Are you still doing photography and music?

S.W.: Three to four months after I bought the Spark, I was still doing techno, but with aerial photography. Today, I like to say that I left the music world, but I’m still doing some sort of techno.

For me, the whole process is like a video game. When I see something awesome on Instagram, or directly on Google Maps, I plan a trip to that location and spend hours commuting if needed. Then it’s time for shooting, post-production, writing descriptions, and uploading. I force myself to have the discipline to create something great and upload new stuff every weekday. This is how I manage to post about 200 photos a year. Then, I repeat the entire process of searching and photographing every weekend and some weekdays, and try to level up more and more.

TDW: That’s a great work ethic. You have a great approach toward drone photography. Can you tell us a bit more about it?

S.W.: Yeah, thanks. When you go to my Instagram, you’ll surely notice how real my love for top-down drone photography is. I mean… anyone can take a beautiful landscape shot during the golden hour and stuff. Certainly, landscapes are beautiful; that’s not the point. What I mean here is that when I take a picture, I know exactly what I want as a final product. For example, a specific angle of a specific building. This is where the top-down approach arrives. With this style of photography, when the camera is 90 degrees down, I’m showing you one scene, and only one. It’s like what I’d say in music – be minimal, remove everything that’s distracting and stands in the way. This why I find top-down drone photography so effective.

TDW: While we’re talking of top-down photos… What was your first drone photo and which one is your most recent? Do you have a favorite one?

S.W.: One of the very first ones is a photo I took of a lighthouse. As a matter of fact, it was taken back in 2018 in Sicily.

It’s very difficult to choose a favorite. I like and do too many styles to be able to figure this out easily. Particularly, I love architecture. This is definitely my thing. I really enjoy the process and it looks so nice from a top-down angle. The photo you’ll see next is my retouching for architecture photos. I saved the preset on Adobe Lightroom and use it often.

Also, I like to catch movements in my photos. I bought an ND1000 from Polar Pro, enabling me to have night camera settings at noon.

In the “daytime long exposure category”, there’s also this photo that I’m really fond of. By the way, it’s also my most-liked photo on Instagram so far.

Moreover, last summer I got addicted to boat photography. I love the minimalism and the power of those kinds of frames.

I recently got in touch with the brand Lume Cube. Those guys are providing light solutions you can mount on your drone. Further, what I can do with those cubes is called light painting and it became my new go-to style.

The next photo would be my definition of discipline. I remember I drove about three hours back and forth to get the shot. Moreover, it’s one of the most recent ones, which I took less than a month ago. I find the simplicity of this mountain pass awesome.

I like to challenge myself now and then. The following photo is from what I like to call “my most dangerous session ever”. Flying my Mavic 2 Pro at 4,100+ meters (around 13,451+ feet), in -20°C (28.4°F), and a huge wind was so risky. The chances of it dropping down were very high. But Junior (that’s what I call my drone) handled it. And the result is beautiful.

About His Work…

TDW: Where is your favorite place to take aerial photos and practice your top-down photography skills?

S.W.: Urban areas, definitely. Also, I like taking photos of isolated landmarks. For instance, the city that has everything I’m looking for is Lisbon, Portugal. Just a quick look on Google Earth will be enough for you to understand why. I’ve wanted to go there for a very long time. But with the whole pandemic situation, traveling is difficult.

TDW: Yeah, that’s why many people enjoy drone tourism nowadays. Of course, you need a drone to take aerial photos. So, which drone did you start with and which one are you using now?

S.W.: I started with a DJI Spark. The idea was to buy the most affordable yet quality drone from what I believe is the best brand for drones. However, I’ve upgraded since then. Now I have the Mavic 2 Pro. Speaking of the Mavic drones, I can’t wait for DJI to release the Mavic 3 or something new entirely. I’m looking forward to seeing what they can improve. But from what we’ve seen, it looks like they have other plans now.

TDW: And what do you love most about the Mavic 2 Pro? Which features and accessories are your favorites?

S.W.: The feature I love the most about drones, in general, is this ability to “add another dimension”, so you can view objects from above. With a regular camera, you’re on the ground and you’re pretty limited. With a drone, I’m higher above.

As for the features in my drone, I like that the camera is ninety degrees down and, of course, I’m a fan of the tripod mode. It’s especially useful for long exposure photos and fine adjustments in architecture photography.

TDW: Undeniably those are some great features. For many, it’s a long road from actually taking the shot to sharing it with the public. Is photo editing an important part of the presentation of your work?

S.W.: Yes, absolutely. Editing my photos is a key part of the process. For me, it’s like giving them a soul.

I usually touch up my photos in Adobe Lightroom. There’s also AEB. This mode is very handy when it comes to “difficult situations” like when you’re positioned against the sun or if the light is bad. AEB allows me to take the same photo five times with different exposures. And then, in Lightroom, I will merge them together. I believe HDR would do the same process automatically. However, I prefer doing it this way. It gives me more flexibility in post-production.

I have to say that my workflow is kind of basic. I have my own presets, which are categorized by styles, Archi, night, and so on.

TDW: Interesting… And once you’re done with editing, the photos are ready to be posted, right? Can you explain the process of running an Instagram profile dedicated to photography, including drone photography a bit more? What are the pros and cons?

S.W.: It’s an everyday activity (laughs)! The entire process of posting a photo on Instagram – from opening Lightroom to clicking ‘share’ can sometimes last up to one hour. Writing the description and finding the right hashtags and hub profiles are definitively a large part of it, for sure. 

I like to make my grid match vertically. Having multiple styles simultaneously is tricky. Additionally, it’s not always easy to understand how the photo I’m about to share will fit in my pre-planned vision for the grid.

TDW: Do you have some photographers that you admire and look up to?

S.W.: Of course. Some ‘big accounts’ that I’m a fan of are Abstract Aerial ArtsixcentdouzeReuben WuSky Bangerz, and others. A couple of good friends that I really admire are Marc Le Cornu (Bam Perspectives), Alexander MuellerSimon LéchotMatéo BrocardDrone ArtpicChase GensheimerAndrej BarnesSachaPhil MalyToni Oberlin, and others.

Drones and Switzerland

TDW: Awesome! You live and work in Switzerland and so do some of the photographers you mentioned previously. What’s your opinion regarding the current drone industry in the country?

S.W.: Some people are calling Switzerland “the drone valley“. We’re building many drones here. And we’re talking about different types of drones for many purposes. But, I’m not really familiar with the specifics of it. I count myself as just a satisfied DJI user.

TDW: What about the Swiss drone laws and regulations? Do you think something can be improved?

S.W.: We still have the liberty to do many things and fly in many areas and cities here. So, honestly, there’s not much to complain about. The laws are still pretty flexible here. 

There are some no-fly zones which I’d like to fly in, though. But it’s always possible to get permission.

However, the thing that could be improved, could be a permit or a small license in a way. This would be to distinguish the tourists who use drones in a selfie-stick kind of way from the guys like me, as I’m doing almost full professional flights.

TDW: Understood… Which locations would you recommend other drone operators to visit in Switzerland and show off their top-down drone photography skills?

S.W.: It depends on what you’re looking for. For instance, Zurich and Basel are great cities for urban vibes and top-down drone photography. Instead, the cantons Grisons (Graubunden) and Valais (Wallis) are perfect for mountain shots.

My recommendation for getting inspiration where to take photos is to spend some time on Google Earth and Google Maps. So, if something piques your interest, save the spot. You can follow some relevant hashtags or social media profiles of guys like me, where we post about many locations in my country. Also, you can check out the official Swiss tourist platform – MySwizerland.

TDW: Great tips. The country definitely has lots of beautiful places. And when you’re flying your drone there, what’s the people’s reaction when they see a drone? How well do the Swiss accept drones?

S.W.: Basically, it varies. I’d say people can be more acceptive when they know a drone is about to take off. But the paranoia is still a big thing here. Everyone can turn into an air-traffic lawyer within two seconds (laughs).

In general, I’d say it’s still okay. Kids are fascinated with drones and anyone will turn into your friend when you show them what you know and what you are doing, and tell them you’re allowed to do that. 

For one thing, this is a useful tip on “how to make friends as a drone pilot”. I like to go to random places and catch the rising sun. For instance, if I meet some people on the top of the mountain that I’ve just hiked, I will ask the people around if they’re interested to see what my drone sees, and if they would like me to send them some photos. In this case, it’s a win for everyone and we’re all happy. The drone is making noise in the sky, but no one cares because they will get the photos.

TDW: What’s the situation like for tourists who want to take their drone with them when traveling to Switzerland? Is it easy to travel to Switzerland when carrying a drone with you? Do you recommend some equipment for traveling with a drone?

S.W.: The only mandatory thing for drones is special insurance if your drone weighs 500 grams (around 17.6 ounces) or more. In addition, here it’s called “civil responsibility”.

Moreover, I recommend tourists to find out more about the Swiss drone laws and know them. They aren’t that hard to understand. Plus, they’re almost like everywhere else. 

You can check out very useful information on the Federal Office of Civil Aviation (FOCA) website. It’s important to know where you can and are allowed to fly your drone and where it’s prohibited. Subsequently, this map can help with that.

By the way, each canton is allowed to add no-fly zones or other regulations. So, the best thing to do about it is to spend ten to fifteen minutes on Google and research the particular place and canton where you are and check out the relevant information.

Very important: fly smart, please.

Tips and Tricks

TDW: What advice would you give to our readers based on the lessons you’ve learned yourself?

S.W.: Always know where your drone is. Because “suddenly” – ouch – your drone hits a tree. This has happened to me, so this is why I’m sharing it first.

It’s vital to know your drone – what it can do, what it can’t. Also, give your drone a nickname (laughs). Mine’s called Junior.

Practice learning by doing, because nothing is achieved if you don’t practice. This leads me to the next tip – hard work beats talent, always.

Also, there’s no need to use a whole battery to climb really high for just two photos. Make a panorama shot and stack them together in post. 

Finally, don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone (artistically speaking). Discipline and devotion are key. Yes, I grew up with Dragon Ball (laughs).

TDW: Amazing tips, Simon. And what’s next for you professionally? Do you see aerial photography continuing in your future?

S.W.: Oh yes, of course! I like to continue my creative process with this photo book I’m making and maybe even publish it. I produced the first two. Additionally, I’d like to work with the tourist authorities and build something like a “grand tour” of Switzerland for drone photographers. I want to keep working with filmmakers and be their go-to drone guy.

What’s more, I’d like to sell more photos. Maybe having a deal with somebody that sells art for meeting rooms in companies, hospitals, offices, and more.

It’s nice to hear the opinions and experiences of drone pilots and advocates of using drones for good. Whether it’s about the true value of drones, a new perspective of aerial photography, top-down drone photography, or another aspect of drone usage, there is always room to learn something new.

The entire team from The Drones World thanks Simon for his very informative answers and for the time he devoted to answering all of our questions. If you want to find out more about him and his photos, check out Simon’s website as well as his Instagram profile.