Interview: Roelof de Vries – Panoramic photographer, Drone Pilot

Roelof de Vries is a talented panoramic photographer and a really nice guy, who I have met online many times, and who I finally met in person in 2014, at the annual VR Photographers’ conference in Las Vegas. He has done a lot of interesting work, and is continuing to do so as he starts to combine 360º photography and UAV operation in interesting ways. I managed to catch up with Roelof over Skype and we talked for quite a long time.

Roelof is currently working as UAV designer, photographer, and optics expert at Skycap.

I asked Roelof if he would share some of his experience in photography, piloting of UAV’s, and his anti-poaching efforts (you might even call it “poacher hunting” in South Africa.

Tell me about what it is like in the world of poaching rare and endangered animals.

What i found out in South Africa is that there is a war going on. It is a money-driven war between poachers and anti-poachers about the prevention of extinction. When

A lot of money is involved, the market of poaching, poaching teams are small teams, military trained, tough guys. the only way to prevent it is to outsmart them with military force and intelligence. that’s why it became a war in the last two years. 90% of contact with them is fire contact.

What is the economics of poaching?

Selling rhino horns to vietnamese mafia who sell it for traditional medicines. In Vietnam, they believe it cures cancer, it’s an aphrodisiac, and magical powers.

A rhino horn is the same material as your fingernails. it’s not ivory.

One rhino horn is worth half a million dollars.

Last year, more than 1000 rhinos got poached in South Africa. The total population is ten thousand… That’s 10% of the whole population dead in one year.

How did you get started getting involved in anti-poaching efforts?

I made this virtual tour above the rescue center of the wildlife friends foundation in Thailand.

This is a fully donated product i shot 1.5 years ago. It’s an aerial tour entirely shot with my multirotor. This is just a very nice product. it visualizes the biggest wildlife rescue center in Southeast Asia. Bears, monkeys, tigers, elephants are there. I went there with my multirotor to shoot this tour for the wfft because visualizing it this way helps him get more volunteers and donations.

In addition to this project we went to Laos, home to one of the biggest wildlife traffickers, and we proved that they were capable of holding live tigers for the international trade.

How are tigers sold on the black market?

The market for tigers is lucrative: skin of course, also bones for traditional medicines, and also live tigers for mafia or dictators who want private zoos. Here is a page with some prices for tigers:

How did you do this without getting murdered?

We were there for 3 days, we did location scouting. when we drove along the compound there was a guy with a rifle. probably with tranquilizer darts, but if you get shot with that you won’t run 10 meters without falling down. A little bit of risk but we came up with several scenario to get the UAV airborne and get the photos, and then get from laos into thailand again.

Where do these tigers come form? 

Everywhere in se asia. Here is a map:

Thailand is the biggest hub for wildlife trafficking int ehworld. because it’s quite central in se asia. also everything with wildlife trafficking can be brought to Thailand.

So these guys in laos have a holding area next to thailand. they smuggle it across the mekong river into laos as the main route. also bear, monkey, slow lorises, and so on.

All of them are used for illegal zoos, pets, props for tourist photography, and a lot of pets.

What did you do with these photos?

I handed them over to the Wildlife Friends Foundation. They used the photos in the Bangkok Post. And got it onto the national agenda in Thailand.

So you had some concrete success from taking those Laos photos….

Yes we did have some success. Now you see in thailand with the change of government that they are more keen on preventing things like this.

Why do you like shooting aerial panoramas rather than normal photos?

Panoramic photography is a great medium for this. it is quite fast to shoot since you don’t have to bother make a proper composition; you just put the UAV above a location and rotate the camera to capture everything. Especially for the illegal tiger thing in Laos, we flew up 3 minutes, and i shot 4 differen high resolution aerial panoramas, within 5 minutes we were back in the car.

Every second counts in that case.

Yes exactly. With the use of UAV’s and drones, preparation is EVERYTHING always, when it’s shooting an aerial panorama for a construction site or of a building or whatever. especially when you look at rules and laws, what you see is that they need trust that you work in a safe way. that’s everything. you have to have your mission planned: exactly what you’re going to do, path you’re going to fly, you have to have a crew of a couple of people so the pilot can do the flying only, someone else shoots the pictures, someone else is paying attention to incoming aircraft, and to people coming in the area.

Or in your case flying in Laos, someone coming at you with a tranquilizer rifle…

Yes in that case, you just run away!

Did they notice you flying there?

We don’t know. i think they didn’t notice and if they did they had absolutely no idea what was going on.

But that was a couple years ago… what if you did it today?

Yes they might now. A lot of things have changed. These people know what a drone is.

At what point will hunters/poachers of animals be using drones themselves?

They already are. in the usa, a couple of states put a ban on the use of drones for hunting. i think it’s jsut a matter of time but of course it’s a matter of money. The question is, does the guy who does the hunting, does he earn enough to do that?

You started out as a freelance pano photographer.  What kind of work were you doing?

I started in 2005. When I was a student, my thesis project was called rotterdam rooftop; I made 60 panoramas from the top of the tallest buildings in rotterdam.

I grew up in north holland in a small village with no traffic lights, and i moved to Rotterdam in 2001. It’s the only dutch city with a real skyline! I was quite interested in the skyline. Most importantly to see what the view is from all these tall buildings. I asked a couple owners of these tall buidlings and the answer was always “no”. I had to find a reason to visit the roof! So , being a panoramic photographer was the answer, to be able to capture this view for every resident of rotterdam who can’t enjoy the view form all these tall buildings.

Right after this project, i started my company Little Planet. I have a background in web development, my education is in web development.

When i started the Rotterdam Rooftops project, it was about creating a concept and a web portal, and learning how to create this kind fo photography. Before starting this project i never did any more complex photography than pressing the button on the camera. this was in 2004.

So you hit the ground running 🙂

When you enter this market as a web developer rather than a photographer, you see this as a web product that you can transform and manipulate yourself. it’s about creating visual products with communication value rather than creating just a pretty panoramic picture. The value of a visual communication product is much higher than the value of a nice photo.

After graduation i started my company and soon after, I wanted to leave the ground perpsecitve. the tripod gives you a maximum altitude of 3m. U wanted to shoot between 20-100m altitude! I did research and found a captive balloon aerostat skydock – an american company called floatograph and they produce the captive helium balloon capable of flying stable in hurrican speeds with one line. It’s an aerodynamic shaped balloon called an aerostat. These things are used by the military to get antennas airborne so they can send signals further away. so the usa uses them in Afghanistan for instance and the navy uses them to get antennas above the horizon and get signals further away. with a small one, they are pretty good for aerial photography.

Helium is very expensive?

In 2007 it was still quite chaep. And now at the moment yes. I pay 300 Euro for 50 liters (what i need to get my camera up) that’s about 5 cubic meters. That wll give you enough lift to get a sony nex-5 airborne.

How do you control it when it’s up there?

With regular RC (radio control) components, i built my own rig with servo engines and a standard 35Mhz RC from model airplanes, and also with a wireless video stream from the camera to what we now call a ground control station. You can rotate the camera on 2 axes, and look through the camera.

So you were shooting high resolution aerial panoramas in 2007?



Yes. remember the website big eye in the sky?

Yes, that was when I first found the whole VR – 360 photography community online.

That was the first guy to shoot aerial panos.

His name is Ed Fink, right?

Yes here it is. this was one of the first guys to shoot aerial panos. they used a full size helicopter to shoot their panos. At that moment i said, well, I want to do that as well. After a lot of research I bought the balloon. We were shooting aerial panos for the Rotterdam government to visualize the new railway station.

That was the first assignment. The balloon was 10,000 euro when i bought it, I was still a small guy in doing business, and I had to go to the bank to get 10,000 euro, they said to me, ‘we’ll give you 10,000 euro but you have to get your first assignment’.

The first assignment I got, [the job with the Rotterdam government] was the most difficult I ever did. I got a contract from the local government to visualize the new station via aerial panos but I had no balloon, I hadn’t tested anything, I didn’t know if the balloon could do it, but I went to the bank, got the money, got the balloon, when we were shooting the first assignment, it was quite a success.

Yes, this was a great technical achievement, congratulations.

Thank you! In the next few months we will take the final image….

You mean you’re still working on that first project!

Yes! Summer 2008 to now. So I’m still working on the project and then it’s finished. This project was the first one I did with the combination of aerial photography and 3d rendering in order to visualize photographic environments. Here is the link:

When you hit the last arrow, you see the combination of aerial panos and a 3d environment.

In 2010 i bought my first multirotor. it was combination of everything – there was no dji phantom. It was a droidworks xl frame, (one of the first companies in the world to build carbon fiber frames for multirotors) ;  mikrocopter electroncis, and a gimbal from photoship one.  The nice thing about a multirotor is that it is easy to set up and fun to fly. It saves a lot of time compared to a balloon – it takes a lot of time to deploy a balloon, and also to get the spherical panorama. The platform is less stable compared to a multirotor since it’s depending on wind and wind direction. The balloon is always drifting a bit from one side to another with a difference of 3-4 meters.

With a balloon, when we shoot aerial panos of views from non-existing skyscarapers, I use a crew of 5 people: a pilot in charge of the balloon, someone with a steering line on the north-south axis, another on the east-west axis, and then we can position the balloon on a specific spot in the air. And me as photographer and then sometimes another person with a single line straight under the balloon.

You can find a few of Roelof’s Panoramas on his 360cities Profile Page.

And you can find his personal website at

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