Top Tricks for Aerial Photography Magic
You bought a drone for taking pictures, now what? Why don’t your photos and videos look as good as those produced by the professionals? What sort of drone camera sorcery are they using? We have scoured the internet, asked the experts, and interjected a bit of our own experience to bring you the best compilation of drone camera tips on the internet.
To get the most out of your drone you will need the right equipment, the right settings, the right techniques, and the right subject. Follow our tricks and create aerial photography magic. At the end of the article we even provide a pre-flight checklist because, if you are like us, you are forgetful from time-to-time. We want to make sure you fly safely and get the perfect pictures.
Special thanks to Chinavasion for providing some of the tips as well as photos for the article. Chinavasion has some great deals on drones, accessories, and other gadgets. Check them out here. We’ve searched the web for other great how-to fly articles. Check this one out from Jen’s Reviews.
Equipment – Every Magician Needs a Good Wand
To get the best aerial shots you will need some decent tools. Here is what we recommend.
Three-Axis Gimbal: With few exceptions, every great drone photograph since the beginning of drones has been taken with a camera mounted on a 3-axis gimbal. Since the release of the DJI Spark, that paradigm has changed a little, but the best stuff still comes from a 3-Axis gimbal. Prosumer drones with 3-axis gimbals include the DJI Phantom 3 and 4 series, the DJI Mavic, the Yuneec Typhoon, and the Autel X-Star Premium.
A Great Camera: This is obvious, of course. A great camera is the first step in taking great pictures. What makes a camera great? Well-designed lenses, a large high-quality sensor, and customizable camera settings are a good start. A mechanical shutter also doesn’t hurt. One of the most capable cameras on the market right now is also one of the most popular – it is the camera available on the Phantom 4 Pro and Phantom 4 Advanced. This camera has all of the features mentioned above as well as an adjustable aperture. If you want a better camera than the Phantom 4 Pro then you will need to upgrade to an Inspire.
ND Filters: Neutral Density Filters are basically sunglasses for your camera. They allow the camera to take longer exposures by reducing the light that gets into the camera. This isn’t as important for drone photography as it is for drone videography. The general rule-of-thumb for video capture is that you want your shutter exposure to be half as long as the frame rate. So, if you are recording video at 30 fps (frames per second) then you will want an exposure time of 1/60 of a second.
In bright conditions, a longer exposure time can only be achieved with an ND filter in front of your camera (unless you have the P4 Pro, in which case you can slow down the camera by shrinking the aperture). Failure to slow down the exposure will produce a choppier and less cinematic video. Even worse, too high of a frame rate can introduce artifacts like “jello effect,” or rolling shutter, in your video. “Jello” is a pretty common issue. Not sure what that is? Take a look below.
Polarizing Filter: The polarizing filter is less important than an ND filter, but it can help reduce glare and improve saturation in many situations. Make sure you can line up the orientation of the polarizer appropriately. Mark the correct orientation on the filter. If the filter is threaded onto the drone’s camera then you may not be able to completely tighten the filter in place in order to get the correct orientation. Bring some tape to keep the filter oriented correctly and to keep it from shaking off the camera.
Balanced Propellers: An unbalanced propeller is a propeller where the center of mass is not on the rotational axis of the propeller. When you fly with even one unbalanced propeller the drone will vibrate much more than it otherwise would. The extra vibration can decrease the sharpness of photographs and add jello effect to your videos. Unfortunately, even OEM propellers may not come properly balanced. To check the balance of a propeller you will need a prop balancer, we like this one.
The best way to adjust the balance is to use some medium-fine sandpaper to remove some weight from the heavier side of your propeller. Folding propellers, like those on the DJI Mavic and DJI Spark, are not as easy to balance.
Fast Memory: If you want the best content you will be recording RAW (more on that later). Recording uncompressed photos is memory intensive. We recommend only the fastest SD cards. Fast cards, like the Sandisk Extreme Pro, will also perform the most reliably when recording high-speed video (faster than 30 fps) or 4K video.
Support Equipment: Getting your drone setup properly is the first step, but you probably want some backup.
- Extra props: Maybe your Phantom tips over on landing and you dent a prop. Time for a new one. Make sure you don’t leave your spares at home.
- Extra batteries: A 20-minute flight is frequently not enough. You should have at least 3 batteries for your drone.
- Multiple memory cards: Some people recommend changing your card every time you change the battery. If you follow this advice then you won’t lose a whole day’s work if your card malfunctions.
- Backup memory: Pros backup their content early and often. Bring along some portable memory for saving your valuable content. We recommend the Seagate Seven 500GB drive. It is thin for easy transport and it has a proven track record of reliability.
- Accessible storage: A great carrying case will protect your valuable aircraft and get you airborne quickly and efficiently. Features you may want to consider are ease of carrying on an airplane (the kind you fly in), water proofing, and storage for accessories.
Camera and Drone Settings – Polish Your Wand
The best camera drones have plenty of customization available. If you want the best photos and videos then you will need to learn some of these settings.
Slow Down the Drone: Specifically, you want to change the settings related to drone yaw rate and the gimbal pitch rate. To experience why you need to do this just try to capture a 1-minute video while adjusting the camera angle as slowly as you can. You will be disappointed with the default settings. High-end drones like the Phantom 4 Pro allow you to customize these settings. On consumer drones, like the DJI Spark, you may need to go into “tripod mode” to slow down these controls, but that also slows down your flight speeds.
Capture RAW Photographs: RAW images contain all the original information from the photograph, they are not compressed like a JPEG. Because none of the information is missing, these images are far superior for editing, particularly for color and dynamic range correction. RAW images are much larger in size and they take longer to save to memory (that’s why fast memory helps). Stock up on memory and go RAW!
AEB (Auto Exposure Bracketing): Setting the correct exposure in a picture is not always easy, especially when you are using a smartphone screen drenched in sunlight as your gauge for what the picture is going to look like. When you use AEB the drone will take several photos at different exposure levels. One of them is likely to be what you were hoping for. Another reason to use AEB is so that you can create HDR (high dynamic range) images in post processing by combining 2 or more images taken with different exposures. The human eye has a larger dynamic range than even the best image sensors, so use HDR to better capture details in the dark parts of your pictures.
Manual Camera Settings: The best pictures are taken at the lowest ISO speeds. Manually lower the sensitivity to ISO 100 whenever possible. With a 3-axis gimbal, you can safely go to shutter speeds as low as ⅙ of a second pretty safely. In some low-wind situations with a well-calibrated drone, you can even take exposures as long as 3 seconds without adding much blur. Take a few pictures and you can pick the one that happened to have the least camera motion during the exposure.
Check your Video Shutter Speed: As discussed above, use ND filters to achieve a shutter speed that is half of your frame rate when recording video.
Hone Your Skills – It’s the Magician, not the Wand!
A well-polished setup never hurts, but ultimately the pilot’s skill is what sets them apart from the crowd. The most interesting shots follow this one simple rule: Capture with a drone what you can’t capture from the ground. Your images will stand out more if you are able to create a unique perspective.
Birdseye View: Looking straight down is a view historically limited to birds and helicopters. You can’t get this view from a tripod and it’s even difficult from a plane. The birdseye view seems to show up in more award-winning drone photos than any other angle. For video, you can move along in a line for a reveal or spiral as you ascend for a unique effect.
We have already covered several tips in the equipment and setup discussions, but we have one more tip to the uninitiated…
The rule of thirds: This simple rule is followed by artists and photographers everywhere. The principle is simple, just position the focal point of the picture and a point in the image that is ⅓ of the way from both edges of the frame. There are other times when you will want to center your subject, but the rule of thirds is a tried and true strategy to create intriguing images.
Turn on the Grid: We suggest turning the ⅓ grid on if your drone provides this option. This allows you to better align shots and position subjects in accordance with the rule of thirds.
There are a few general videography tips that apply to all shots.
Fly through your shots: This means maintaining a course with your drone that starts before and after the section of the video that you want to keep. This allows for easier editing and the possibility of adding effects like fading between shots in post-production.
Plan for Short Video Clips: A well-edited video typically stays with a single scene for no longer than 5-10 seconds in order to maintain visual interest. Adjust your scenes accordingly. Watch the clip by DJI below as they transition from scene to scene rather quickly.
Slow Down: Make small adjustments on the controls, particularly with yaw and camera pitch. As we mentioned above, you will want to dial these setting down as well if your drone offers that as an option.
Now Speed Up: Even the best and most stable drones shift around a bit due to the wind and GPS accuracy. If you fly very slowly and then speed up video in post production then your video can look very jittery. The video below is an excellent example. The Spark was flying slow. Solve this by flying fast! The drift of your camera will be far less noticeable when moving at fast speeds. Record at 60 frames per second and slow down the video in post production. The video of the Spark below was done in tripod mode, meaning the Spark was moving very slowly. You can see when the video is sped up (at 0:30) it looks a little jittery.
Video Wizardry – Learn Some Expert Videography Moves
Once you know the basics it is time to practice some expert shots. Dollys, orbits, fly-throughs, and corkscrews. Active track, helixes, rockets, and reveals. There are a lot of moves and advanced functions you can use – practice makes perfect.
Make Your Drone A Dolly
A dolly is a standard tool used in making professional videos. Basically, it is just a camera on wheels, riding on a track. Dollys are used to get closer or further from a subject or to slide sideways. This is actually a really trivial thing to do with a drone. The newest drones from DJI (Mavic, Phantom 4 Pro, Spark, and Inspire 2) are the most stable drones on the market and will be the best at simulating a dolly.
This short video shows us demonstrating some pretty simple flight patterns as well as a couple slightly more complex movements including changing altitude while adjusting the gimbal angle.
Of course, your drone dolly can go much higher than a standard dolly. From up high, the positional instability of your drone will not be as noticeable, especially when flying at high speed. Linear motions are not only the easiest with a drone, they are also one of the most commonly and successfully used flight paths.
Learn More Moves by Watching the Pros
We like learning about the interesting camera and drone motions by learning from experts who show us how to do it. We love the series by Alina and Stewart Carroll from Drone Film Guide brought to you by Scottish film production company Captain Cornelius. With his wonderful accent, this Scotsman provides great pointers, showing you how to get the most out of your camera drone. You can check out their website or see more of their YouTube channel.
Time and Place for Aerial Magic – Know When and Where to Fly Your Camera
The subject of your aerial footage is critical. Scout out interesting locations ahead of time. If you are like us, and you are stuck in corn country, then you may be a little disappointed. You may think you don’t have access to the best locations. Fear not, some award-winning photographs have come from nothing more than a corn field viewed from a unique perspective. So when life gives you lemons, go fly your drone.
Map It: Google Maps is your friend for scoping out locations. Its satellite images can see most of the things your drone can. You will still need to scout for obstructions like power lines and towers later when you are on-location.
The Golden Hour: One hour after sunrise and one hour before sunset is a great time to capture aerial images. The sky is lit up with warm yellow hues.
The Blue Hour: One hour before sunrise and one hour after sunset is known as the blue hour. Like the golden hour, this is a good time for colorful shots. Don’t fly more than an hour outside of daylight, the FAA doesn’t like that. Check your local regulations.
Weather: This is pretty simple, rain, wind, and snow are not your friends. The wind will affect the quality of your images and video and high winds can make it difficult or (gulp) impossible to bring your drone home. Water and melted snow will damage your drone unless you have a waterproof drone.
Temperature: In the cold, your drone’s battery life will be dramatically diminished. Some advanced drones have heaters to help mitigate this. Some smartphones (iPhone 6) have a propensity to shut off in sub-freezing weather as well, so be careful if your smartphone is your FPV screen. Extreme heat can also be hard on drones and smart devices. Some smart devices (iPad) will overheat and shut down in the hottest climates.
Solar “Weather”: It turns out that mother nature isn’t the only thing you need to track. When the sun gets excited your drone’s ability to lock on the GPS signals may diminish. The Kp index is a measure of geomagnetic disturbance. A Kp of 5 or more can spell trouble for your drone. Track Kp as well as wind and weather conditions at our new favorite website, UAVforcast.
Fly Legally: You don’t want to be hit with a large fine or have your thousand-dollar drone confiscated. Know the law where you are flying. Most importantly, stay out of restricted airspace. You don’t want to endanger air travel or end up on the 5 o’clock news. If you are flying commercially in the United States (getting paid for your photos or videos) then you’ll need to pass the remote pilot exam and get your self a part 107 license. We have an extensive guide on how to get that done here.
The Drone Wizard’s 18-Point Preflight Checklist
Safety is one concern, not losing your footage is another. Read on for a complete list of things to check before you fly.
- Before you Power on the Drone:
- Follow the manufacturer’s preflight checklist
- Check the wind, temperature, precipitation and solar radiation conditions. Your one-stop-shop for information is UAVforcast.
- If you are flying near water make sure you are prepared. Most drones and water do not mix. High-tech waterproof drones are coming, but there are only a handful on the market right now.
- Make sure you are flying legally. DO NOT fly in restricted airspace. Watch the time of day, flying at night is illegal.
- Scope out the location. Look on Google Maps. Plan your flight paths and look for obstructions. This is extremely important. Check out these tips from our favorite Scotsman and his lovely wife.
- Do you have the right lens filter on your camera for your situation? ND filters are recommended for videography in brightly lit conditions.
- Is your memory card installed? Is it a fast enough card for what you are recording? Faster and larger capacity cards are recommended for RAW photography and 4K or 60 fps videography.
- Are your gimbal and lens protector removed?
- Are batteries for the remote and drone charged adequately?
- After Powering the Drone
- Calibrate the compass.
- Check gimbal settings to make sure they are tuned down for videography
- Check camera settings before the flight to reduce wasted battery life while you fiddle with settings in flight.
- Check that your RTH (return to home) altitude is sufficient for nearby obstructions.
- Don’t forget to hit “Record.” There is nothing worse than completing the world’s greatest camera motion only to discover you didn’t hit record.
- After Flight
- Stop any ongoing video recordings
- Power down the drone and remove the battery from the drone
- Backup your footage on an external hard drive
- Put a fresh card and battery in the drone.
Sure, this is a lot of information. You don’t have to master all of these tips in one read. Throw a bookmark on this page and come back again. If you want some help picking out the perfect drone for all of this work then check out this article. Good luck and happy flying.
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