Meet the photographers who have captured Portsmouth from the sky

For the past five years, drones have been quite literally flying off the shelves into people’s shopping baskets. Many photographers enjoy shooting in the sky with their own flying tripods, enabling them to capture views which were previously only possible by plane.

By Annie Lewis
Saturday, 9th May 2020, 12:00 am
Sea mist swirling around around Portsmouth harbour and Spinnaker Tower. Picture: Brian Bracher, Compass Aerial Photography.

Today, there are several drone photographers across the region who have either diversified their businesses or indulged in their passion for photography and taken to the skies.

A drone, put simply, is an unmanned flying camera which has a price range from £100 to hundreds of thousands.

Founder of Solent Sky Services, Mike Woods, from Southsea, runs his business with wife Sara.

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Portsmouth Guildhall. Picture: Solent Sky Services

Now a commercial drone pilot and digital content creator, Mike, 34, smiles and says: ‘Drone photography started as a hobby. Surprisingly drones are very similar to remote control cars or planes.

‘It’s been a bit of a journey. I am a surveyor by trade and I founded the business in 2017.

‘We now use drones to survey roofs. About 50 per cent of our business still comes from surveying and the other half from photography.’

Drones have other benefits too.

Fort Purbrook by Brandon Passingham, Magpie Drone Services.

Brian Bracher, the company director of Compass Aerial Photography, explains: ‘I used to work as a police superintendent at Gatwick Airport and in 2012 I was responsible for buying one of their first drones.

‘We were using it to test for counter terrorism alerts around the base. Drones would cover the area more effectively than cars driving around.

‘There are lots of benefits to drones for observation, emergencies, search and rescue. They are also a lot cheaper and easier than a helicopter, and sometimes more effective.’

‘I know drones have been used for building inspections after fire damage when it’s still not safe for humans to go in,’ adds Brandon Passingham, who runs Magpie Drone Services in Portsmouth.

Royal Navy Aircraft Carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, entering her home port of HMNB Portsmouth. Picture: Shaun Roster, Shaun Roster Photography.

‘Although drones have a commercial value, they haven’t got a life value so there are all sorts of opportunities for it.’

In spite of their great potential, drones have sometimes landed in the wrong hands. After the Gatwick Airport drone incident in December 2018, which grounded flights for three days, the general public have been understandably sceptical of those flying machines.

Shaun Roster, who runs his own photography company and also works as a helicopter pilot for Standardaero, in Fareham, says: ‘My specialist area is maritime photography. I go out into the Solent and do a lot of imagery at regattas and sailing events. Since 2015/2016 I’ve found that my customers want more bang for their buck. They don’t just want photographs now, they also want video and aerial drone footage.

‘The general public don’t understand the difference between commercial drone pilots and hobbyists. There are those of us who are very official and have had to jump through a lot of hoops to do the job professionally.

Mike and Sara Woods from Solent Sky Services. Picture: Jan Pavelka, Solent Sky Services.

‘I fly up and down the Solent in a helicopter for my day job and the biggest danger to my life is hitting a drone in flight. Drones are being used for good things but it doesn’t take much to turn the tide,’ adds Shaun, 52, who is ex-Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm crew.

‘Many people worry if they can be seen (in an aerial shot), but realistically you won’t even show up in the image,’ adds Brian, 58.

Today, all drone pilots have to be registered with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). Shaun, from Southsea, says: ‘It involves ground training, flying training, a certain number of flying hours, tests and insurance. I pay more for my drone insurance than car insurance. After that you’re awarded your commercial commission from the CAA.’

Brian, Mike and Brandon all had to undergo the same tests to fly their drones. But it was only in October 2019 that hobbyists also had to register their drones, themselves and pass similar exams.

Mark Cox, from Cosham, has always loved photography. ‘I was inspired by Brian,’ explains the 47-year-old, who works for Portsmouth Water.

‘I did a two-year photography course at Highbury College. ‘And then I saw an image on Brian’s Instagram account and I wanted to try the dreamy look he captured with his drone .’

DJI Phantom 4 Pro Drone. Picture: Shaun Roster, Shaun Roster Photography

Brian, who taught Mark, is expanding in his business to teach others about drone photography. He says: ‘I didn’t find flying a drone hard because, right at the start, I invested in a two-hour lesson with a professional drone pilot. That made such a difference to me. I can help others gain the confidence in using the drone. Safety is the number one priority.’

Brandon, 45, adds: ‘It can be very nerve-wracking flying a bit of kit which costs £2,500.’

He laughs and says: ‘I experimented and flew my drone towards me at 57mph to see if the sensors worked. It didn’t make contact. I feel absolutely safe when I’m using it. Once you’ve given it a go a couple of times, it seems natural.’

Like all photographers, these drone pilots are always trying to find a different perspective while getting the timing, weather and composition just right. Brian says: ‘But it can be cruel when you think the weather is going to be great the night before and you get out there and the wind’s too high or there’s too much cloud.’

But that doesn’t deter their love for drone photography.

Contact Mike at; Brian at; Brandon at; Mark on Instagram, @markcox_sonya7iii; Shaun at and the Civil Aviation Authority at for more information.

A different perspective

While we’re all staying at home, Solent Sky Services is planning on bringing the great outdoors to us through a short film called A Different Perspective of Portsmouth.

Founder Mike Woods says: ‘You have seen the rainbows in the windows, taken part in the appreciation claps, been moved by the actions of our key workers and seen the empty streets.

‘We believe the current situation needs to be documented on film, the Portsmouth story needs to be told, and I started filming at the beginning lockdown.

‘It’s expanding stage by stage. I want to highlight all of the positivity coming out of this.’

But to do this, they need to raise £5,000. With more than £3,000 in the bag, you can help by going to Solent Sky Services crowdfunding page by clicking here.

British Americas Cup Sailing Team, INEOS Team UK based in Portsmouth, sailing their Test Boat ‘Britannia’ skippered by Sir Ben Ainslie, on the Solent in October 2019. Picture: Shaun Roster, Shaun Roster Photography
Mark Cox, left, learning how to fly a drone with Brian Bracher.
Southsea seafront, looking out west from 400ft. Picture: Mark Cox
Costa del Portsmouth during Covid-19 lockdown. Picture: Solent Sky Services
Here come the bananas entering Portsmouth Harbour. Picture: Brandon Passingham, Magpie Drone Services