It’s hard to believe it’s been nearly a year since my first (and still only) project with National Geographic. When I reflect back on the experience, it still seems surreal. One day, I was emailing clients that I’d just received my Special Flight Operations Certificate (SFOC), the coveted license that allowed me to fly UAVs for commercial projects. The very next day, I was speaking with an National Geographic Adventure editor about an upcoming project.

The project was exciting. Keith Ladzinski and his assistant, Ian Glass, filmed a project focused on Explorer Mike Libecki’s journey through the Alberta Rockies.

Ultimately, I filled two roles: fixer and UAV pilot. I also have a short northern lights timelapse in the film and several short cameo appearances. Before I dive further into my two roles, take a moment to enjoy the resulting film that Keith edited:

Working as a UAV Pilot for National Geographic Adventure

I’ve always been a believer that it’s best to do things the right way. I don’t fly my drone illegally, even if I know I won’t get caught. It just isn’t professional. Last year, I applied for an SFOC for Canada’s prairie region, which gives permission to fly in class G airspace. I was still required to follow local restrictions, apply for permits, and register my flight with Transport Canada.

This project came up at the last minute, so I knew the likelihood of securing a permit from Parks Canada was unlikely. Instead, I leveraged strong relationships with both Travel Alberta and Alberta Parks to land a permit for nearby Kananaskis Country.

With permission for several flights around Upper Kananaskis Lake, we headed out to film Mike snowshoeing in the area. Although we captured several sequences, only a single clip made it into the short video. You can check it out at the 1:25 mark. The night sky timelapse kicked off the limited footage I have in the film, at the 1:17 mark.

The timelapse of these northern lights was used in a National Geographic film


Location Expert and Fixer for National Geographic

While flying my UAV and capturing video for the final edit was the highlight of the project, my larger role was as the location scout and fixer.

Video productions often hire a local expert to help with logistics, select filming locations and organize the shoot. The brief for this project was simple: capture a multi-sport adventure in the Alberta Rockies during winter. In the few days prior to the shoot, I selected a handful of potential locations and sent in sample photographs from the majority of them. It only took a few days to piece together a rough itinerary, but we decided to keep things flexible and follow the weather during the shoot.

As the location expert and fixer, I was ultimately responsible for mapping out the itinerary on a day-to-day basis. I didn’t just select the locations we used to film, but I also organized departure times, so that we’d arrive in time for the best light. I made arrangements with local businesses, including Deer Lodge in Lake Louise and the Banff Avenue Brew Co, when we needed to film on their property.

Essentially, it was my job to make things run smoothly and let Keith, Ian and Mike focus on their work.

What does all this mean for aspiring photographers?

Ever since I picked up a camera, I’ve dreamed of working for National Geographic. While I always dreamed of an epic 6-week assignment in Antarctica, this project was an excellent introduction.

It’s also an accessible way for new photographers to gain experience in larger roles.

I landed this job thanks to a recommendation from Travel Alberta, who’ve been a regular client since my freelance career began, but it goes beyond that, too. It wasn’t the simple fact I had an SFOC but I had let my regular clients (and Travel Alberta) know about it. I was hired as the location expert, too, not just because I know the Canadian Rockies intimately, but also because my clients know that about me.

Opportunities to gain a  foothold in the industry are everywhere. It isn’t just a matter of creating great content and sharing it on social media. It’s critical to work equally hard on your craft as it is to foster relationships within the industry. Attend a conference and meet potential new clients. Build a mailing list and send a regular newsletter with exciting news about your career. Offer to buy somebody coffee and pick their brain. Work your ass off to get your name out there.

You never know when National Geographic might call.