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April 1, 2023

‘Horseshoe Bend’ Photo Goes Viral

Drone shot of Russian River surrounding local landmark is an instant classic

Amid the many news and social media photos of swollen creeks, fallen trees and general mayhem from the rainstorms earlier this month, one picture stood out: an aerial shot of Fitch Mountain surrounded by a ribbon of brown water, the Russian River.

The photograph shows clearly the geographical quirk that is Fitch Mountain: a solitary wooded hill embraced by the course of the river, a wooded nub in a landscape of greenery. It looks like a green version of the celebrated Horseshoe Bend of the Colorado River near Page, AZ.

The image appeared on Tom Rennie’s Facebook feed the morning of Jan. 8—when the deluge had already been soaking Sonoma County for a week—and as it was tagged and shared, even mentioned on Brent Farris’ morning KZST radio program, it became an iconic image of Healdsburg virtually overnight.

Vice Mayor David Hagele took notice, and asked the photographer if the City of Healdsburg could use the image on its site, where it immediately appeared as the background for storm weather updates

“There’s a lot with that photo with the river wrapping around the mountain,” said Hagele admiringly. “You see Fitch Mountain, how pretty it is. It was perfect timing too cause the river was full, the weather cleared and he got it. I mean, it was just an incredible photo.”

“This is a photo I’ve been thinking about getting for the last eight years from a friend’s property on the east side of Fitch Mountain,” said Rennie, a drone pilot and photographer, by email last week. “I’ve done drone work in this area before and noticed the entire Russian River is not visible from this vantage point because of lower (not flooded) river levels.”

But on a hunch, realizing the river was high from recent heavy rains, on the morning of Jan. 8 he launched his DJI Mavic 2 Pro drone to see if the image in his mind’s eye could be captured by the drone’s camera.

It worked, but the image is more than a snapshot. Said Rennie, “This photo is actually six RAW drone images merged together using Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop,” the sort of technical work that an experienced photographer and drone pilot knows how to do.

He posted the image on Facebook before noon, where it was shared 36 times. 

“It is important to note that Fitch Mountain is 991 feet in elevation and that my drone took off from an elevation of about 600 feet,” Rennie told the Tribune. “Drones are to stay below 400 feet in elevation from the point of takeoff per FAA regulations.” That would place the drone at about the summit elevation of Fitch Mountain when the photo was taken.

FAA rules govern drone operators, who become licensed after taking courses, passing background checks and other conditions, and are referred to as drone “pilots.” Rennie started working with drones about eight years ago, before the FAA rules were in place, but he’s fully supportive and conscious of the FAA regulations in his work. These include strict controls over flights near airports—appropriately, as he now works at the Airport Health Club less than a mile from Sonoma County Airport.

The former UPS delivery driver has done drone photography for clients from all over the state. His website, tomsaerials.com, has a portfolio of such images, from Ukiah to Palm Springs and points in between. Other local images include overhead views of Wohler Bridge over the Russian River, the Windsor Town Green, Alexander Valley vineyards and many more. 

EYE IN THE SKY Windsor’s Tom Rennie with the gear he needs to make his dramatic aerial drone shots. (Tom Rennie)

It’s not the first time one of his Healdsburg drone photographs has drawn attention. A couple years ago, Rennie sent the city an image he captured of the two solar arrays floating on top of ponds at the wastewater treatment plant south of town. At the time, Hagele was the chair of the Northern California Power Agency, and used the image as the Zoom background in his online meetings with state and federal officials. 

“When we finally were able to go back to Washington, DC last year, I repeatedly heard, ‘Healdsburg? Yeah, you have that cool floating solar project!,’” said Hagele.

Though Rennie and the City of Healdsburg have come to a financial arrangement to license his shots, the 56-year-old pilot is remarkably casual about it. “I guess there may have been a contract in there,” he said.

He has photographed controlled burns, colored night lights on the Healdsburg Bridge and the roundabout by night, among other projects. 

“I take lots of pictures on my own,” said Rennie. “And people find them on social media, then I end up getting paid jobs through that. For me, it’s free advertising.”


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