Blazing An Aerial Imagery Trail
By K. Daniel Glover
This “Pilot Spotlight” is part of an ongoing series. We’re always looking for ideas. If you have a story to tell or an aerial specialty to share, please email your suggestions to the publisher.
Keith Muratori has made a career out of fighting fires – and photographing them. Now he is taking his joint passions for extinguishing and chronicling flames to the air.
When he’s not on duty, Muratori listens to an old-fashioned scanner and monitors modern tools like Twitter, fire-paging text services and fire photographer groups on the walkie-talkie app Zello to identify blazes. Then he records the tragic moments with either the camera around his neck or the drone in the air above them.
“The action, operations and vivid colors captured in firefighting imagery are amazing,” said Muratori, a veteran of the Bridgeport Fire Department in Connecticut. “It’s also about capturing the history of the fire service or a fire department, as well as the opportunity for firefighters to learn from this imagery.”
A native of Shelton, Conn., Muratori earned a bachelor’s degree in exercise physiology but developed an interest in firefighting while working on a wellness program for the department that he now calls home. His wife’s admiration for her grandfather, a retired Bridgeport firefighter, also inspired Muratori to make a career change. He initially worked as a volunteer firefighter in Shelton and has been on the paid force in Bridgeport for 17 years.
Muratori’s passion for photography took root at an earlier age, and he naturally gravitated toward documenting fires on film. Fire photographers like John Cetrino and Bill Noonan in Boston and Bob Pressler in the Bronx served as role models. Muratori is one of two official photographers for the Bridgeport department.
Watching fires develop while he was behind the lens gave Muratori a new perspective on their behavior, and fighting them inside gave him insights into how to photograph them. “Fire photography became a perfect fit both as a hobby and profession,” he said. “Photographing fires was making me a better fireman, and firefighting made me a better fire photographer.”
Muratori turned his best images from 2006 to 2010 into a photo book that bears his company name, Fireground Images, as a title. His work also has been published in local newspapers and fire service publications, including national magazines, training manuals, advertisements and marketing materials. One of his drone shots is on the August cover of Fire Rescue.
Although Muratori has no background in aviation, he immediately recognized the potential to enhance his business when the first aerial fire videos appeared on YouTube in 2013. He passed the Part 107 airman’s knowledge test a day after the FAA started offering it a year ago this month.
An early adopter of unmanned aircraft systems, Muratori bought the first iteration of DJI’s Phantom and a GoPro 3 camera. Since then he has upgraded three times to other UAS in the DJI line – the Phantom 2 with a DSLRPros Sundance Cinema Edition Kit and GoPro 4, the Phantom 3 Professional, and the Mavic Pro.
“The portability and rapid deployment of this craft lends itself perfectly to fire photography,” he said. “I carry it in a tactical sling pack with four extra batteries. I also feel much more at ease flying a 1.6-pound drone around a scene and for drone journalism [rather] than the heavier Inspire series crafts.” He carries a second Mavic Pro as a backup aircraft.
Aerial and ground-based shoots of fires are different in more ways than vantage point. While on the ground, for instance, Muratori tries to blend into the scene and stay out of the way. But before he sends his drone into the air, he makes himself available to the command post. The relationships he has built over years as a firefighter and photographer have helped.
“Many welcome having the drone on scene and have repeatedly utilized it to help in getting that aerial reconnaissance of a large scene,” Muratori said.
His creative emphasis is different, too. “When I shoot from the ground, I focus on still photography and complement that with video footage. When I shoot aerial, I focus on video and complement that with stills.”
And aerial imagery requires different skills and knowledge than traditional photography. That includes knowing when and where it is legal to fly. Muratori always checks the airspace classification at fire scenes before unpacking his quadcopter.
“After that is checked and it is OK to fly, you have to consider the weather, as well as all of your usual flight data,” he said. “Constantly be aware of your surroundings and the percentage of battery left on the craft, remote and smart device.”
Although he only films building fires in the Northeast, Muratori echoed a concern that federal, state and local officials emphasize every summer. To avoid interfering with aerial water drops, drone pilots should never fly over wildfires unless working with a fire department.
Muratori said the transition to drone work wasn’t difficult for him, in part because he enjoys it so much that it doesn’t feel like work. He trains by testing automated flight patterns around buildings that aren’t burning. “In the fire service, that is called pre-fire planning,” he said. “It works just as well for aerial fire photography.”
Muratori also does aerial work for real estate and construction projects. He edits his own photos and footage, using Adobe Photoshop and Premiere on either his 27-inch iMac with a 5K retina display or his 15-inch MacBook Pro.
As his portfolio from the air grows, Muratori is thinking anew about his book. “The art of printing images is dying fast with all of our digital devices,” he said, “and I would love to create a second edition with my drone imagery.”
Photos reprinted with permission of Fireground Images.