The inside story of NatGeo’s Notre Dame drone cover shot

notre dame drone

National Geographic’s February cover features one of Europe’s most well-known structures – the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. Captured beautifully by a drone, the cover shows the cathedral’s iconic buttresses undergoing reconstruction after being damaged by fire in 2019 (see image below). But did you know, it took photographer Tomas van Houtryve six months to get the aerial shot!? Here’s why…

Although millions of people around the world were privy to the horror that was the cathedral going up in flames on April 15, 2019, media access to the rebuild process has been painfully limited. In fact, National Geographic is the only foreign media outlet that has been allowed to capture the seismic reconstruction effort with high-level photographs and drone footage.

However, getting the drone up in the air to capture the iconic monument was no easy feat. Just getting the paperwork done took about six months.

First, the photoshoot had to be approved by the public institution in charge of the restoration. And then came the process to get the licenses, insurance, police permit, and drone flight authorizations. Regulations also mandated that van Houtryve put up flyers outside nearby buildings to warn residents about the upcoming drone flight.

And yet, a delay on the morning of the shoot – police wanting to double-check the paperwork – caused the photographer to miss a rainbow.

NatGeo’s drone cover shot of Notre Dame cathedral

Not that this shot is any less perfect without the rainbow. The sun was kind enough to bathe the iconic buttresses in a warm glow on an arguably dull December day. And that was exactly the kind of inspiration van Houtryve says he wants to spark in the viewers through this image.

As the Belgian-American photographer, artist, and filmmaker puts it:

What’s cool about Notre Dame is it’s this piece of heritage that’s just sailed through time like a ship. Sometimes we ignore Notre Dame, but it’s this place [that] so many people have poured so much into over so much time.

Van Houtryve will now continue to chronicle the restoration of Notre Dame until it is finished, hopefully before the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris.

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