[Featured Image: Photo by Jason Smith Aerial Imagery Media – Vetter Stone Amphitheater in Riverfront Park during Ribfest]

When Jason Smith originally attended MSU-Mankato, his goal was to become a pilot. He ended up switching majors and has now worked as a train engineer at Union Pacific Railroad for the past 17 years. Interestingly, the career has nothing to do with what he ended up studying: ecology.

But Smith has found another way to soar through the air: via drone.

As the owner of Aerial Imagery Media, Smith has been offering drone-based photography services around the southern Minnesota area for the past eight years. He takes pictures of everything from weddings to real estate properties up for sale, mostly working to supplement what a traditional on-the-ground photographer can offer.

“I’ve always been the type of person who’s fascinated by different aspects in life, and I’ve got a lot of different interests,” Smith explained. “Drones kind of happened to be one of those.”

A Different Perspective

In the early 2000s, Smith began working as a guide at Bent River Outfitter in Mankato, which inspired him to look into purchasing a GoPro camera. He wanted something that could take interesting pictures during his kayaking trips. Along the way, he found another option: drones.

“I realized you can put a GoPro on a drone and get some really cool footage,” Smith said. “I thought that’d be awesome for Bent River Outfitter and showcasing rivers around this area. I just bought a drone and a GoPro. And that’s kind of how I got started in it—just like, ‘Hey, let’s do something cool and unique. Not a lot of people see this vantage point of what is here in Mankato.’”

I’ve always been the type of person who’s fascinated by different aspects in life, and I’ve got a lot of different interests. Drones kind of happened to be one of those. Jason Smith

As Smith started posting his pictures online, friends began to ask if he could use his drone at different events. He also began doing video work for production companies in Mankato.

Photo by Jason Smith - Aerial Imagery Media - Tiger at the Big Cat Sanctuary in Sandstone, MN
Photo by Jason Smith – Aerial Imagery Media – Tiger at the Big Cat Sanctuary in Sandstone, MN

Smith said he became a “real business” in 2006, adding that it was around that time that new federal and state regulations came out regarding drones. In order to fly drones commercially, Smith had to obtain a specific license much like an airplane pilot. This included being certified by the Federal Aviation Administration, which requires a renewal every two years. In Minnesota, Smith also needed to be licensed with the Minnesota Department of Transportation. He is fully licensed in all 50 states.

“Everything before that [point in time] was just helping people out,” Smith said. “[But then], you had to be licensed with federal government. Finally, I was like, ‘All right, let’s turn this into an official business. It’s time to get a little bit more serious about this.’”

Smith admitted that up to this point, he hadn’t really had much experience with photography. Most of his skills were learned by simply experimenting and trying new things.

“Flying the drones helped me understand [photography] a lot more,” he said. “Before that, you just use your cell phone or camera, and you set it on manual and let the camera do the work for you. I really had no idea what [the settings] meant. It was a big learning process for me on that end of it.”

Photo by Jason Smith - Aerial Imagery Media - Kiwanis Holiday Lights in Sibley Park, Mankato
Photo by Jason Smith – Aerial Imagery Media – Kiwanis Holiday Lights in Sibley Park, Mankato

A One-Man Operation

According to Smith, most of his business comes from real estate photography, when realtors approach him about taking photos of properties from a more expansive angle. He also works with local news outlets, such as KEYC, when they need certain camera shots, as well as the city of Mankato when it needs promotional content.

Smith calls himself a “one-man operation,” adding that he mostly stays around the southern Minnesota area but will happily travel for other gigs. One time, he was invited to Sandstone, Minnesota to film and photograph big cats at the Wildcat Sanctuary. He has also worked with the Discovery Channel and the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation, besides several other local businesses.

“I do all kinds of stuff,” he said. “Anytime anybody calls, I jump at the chance to help them out.”

I just enjoy capturing that unique photograph. I enjoy figuring out how I can capture what my client wants me to capture.

Smith is sometimes hired to cover weddings, family events and even a baby reveal one time. He added that people don’t always think of using drones for these events because they assume drone photography only focuses on grand, expansive pictures—which isn’t always the case.

“I try to help people realize, when I fly a drone, it doesn’t necessarily mean this huge, expansive, overall photograph or video,” he said. “I like to fly my drone down low and get cool and unique perspectives close up. I can move that camera wherever I want it to be. Even 20 feet off the ground, it’s a great shot and a unique perspective.”

Photo by Jason Smith - Aerial Imagery Media - Fireworks
Photo by Jason Smith – Aerial Imagery Media – Fireworks

Smith said he’s not sure how popular his brand of photography is for more intimate affairs. This is partly because people tend to assume drones are noisy and obtrusive, though he emphasized that he does his best to stay out of the way at important moments.

“I respect that part of it… the annoying loud part,” he said. “In those weddings when it’s very intimate, and very focused on the couple, I don’t fly. That’s a time for them and only them. That even goes toward capturing things like fireworks. No one wants to see a drone flying around in fireworks. There are times when I’ve captured fireworks, but I stay far away and try not to get in the way of other people. I try to respect other people and just go and do my thing and get out of there.”

The time involved in Smith’s jobs can vary wildly. For real estate jobs, the work is usually pretty quick—an hour or two for the necessary shots. For video production projects, Smith might be onsite for the whole day. He rarely works alone, but instead is usually hired to add to the photos that a company already has of something.

“Most of the time, I’m just an extra camera on a shoot,” he said. “For a product shoot or for shooting equipment, they just want an extra shot on top of what they have to set the stage and show where things are in relation to the world. Most of what I do, it’s for somebody else. It’s nice because I can let them edit everything.”

Never a Slow Moment

While Smith’s real estate work slowed down earlier this year because of COVID-19 concerns, he said he still stayed busy with other work—and is still busy now. Part of this is because of how he can easily stay a safe distance from others since his drone can travel so easily.

“When I fly my drone, I try to stay incognito and not be around people and just go and do my job, so [COVID-19] didn’t really affect the drone business at all,” he said. “I can go stand outside and do my job.”

Photo by Jason Smith - Aerial Imagery Media - Experimenting with exposure time and light - Blue Earth County Courthouse
Photo by Jason Smith – Aerial Imagery Media – Experimenting with exposure time and light – Blue Earth County Courthouse

Smith added that his schedule varies week-to-week, though it’s generally true that winter slows down a bit. Sometimes, he gets a call in the morning for a job in the afternoon.

“Most agents book last minute, so I couldn’t tell you what I’m doing next week,” he said.

If you know of something cool and interesting and want to capture it with a drone, let me know, because I want to know.

Smith’s favorite part of his job is—perhaps not surprisingly—simply capturing that one fantastic shot. Some shots require a little more effort than others, since there are so many regulations that he must follow, but Smith enjoys figuring out a way that leaves everyone satisfied.

“I just enjoy capturing that unique photograph,” he said. “I enjoy figuring out how I can capture what my client wants me to capture. There’s a lot of regulations involved around that. For me, the fun part is working the back end of it to ensure that I’m flying safe and flying by regulations. It’s interesting to me to figure out, ‘Okay, I know I can do this. What can I do to get it done?’ and going out and capturing a good shot.”

Photo by Jason Smith - Aerial Imagery Media - Blue Earth County Courthouse
Photo by Jason Smith – Aerial Imagery Media – Blue Earth County Courthouse

He added that he’s always looking for new and interesting things to photograph, and he relies on people across the area to point him in the right direction.

“If you know of something cool and interesting and want to capture it with a drone, let me know, because I want to know,” he said. “I only learn and know so much, and if someone has other ideas about what I should do, I’m all about it. I’m all about going out there and capturing and showcasing all the unique things in southern Minnesota and sharing that with other people.”

Additional Links

Bent River Outfitter in the MankatoLIFE Attractions Directory

Author

  • Grace Brandt

    is the managing editor of MankatoLIFE. Throughout her 13-year career, she has written for more than two dozen publications. She lives in Mankato with her husband and two cats.

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