The Infographic Guide to Drone Photography:
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Most Important Considerations:
The most important considerations are: picking the right drone, selecting the right settings, launching your drone at the right time in the right place, knowing all the variety of shooting options available to you and knowing which is best for which situation from practicing and experimenting, and knowing how to best edit your photos in post.
Get a Drone with GPS, FPV Screen, and a Gimbaled Camera
The most important part of drone photography is choosing your drone. To get decent shots you need a drone with at least a gimbal-stabilized camera and an FPV screen attached to the controller. A drone like the DJI Phantom 3 Standard should be the minimum you consider for photography, as anything priced lower will not give you decent photos, just headaches. The gimbal-stabilized camera will take out the motion-blur from flying. An FPV screen will give you more precise camera control; allowing you to see exactly what your camera sees.
Going a price level above that will get you into the DJI Inspire 1 Pro territory. This will provide you with a much larger Micro 4/3 sensor, allowing you to collect much more light and detail in your shots. The great Zenmuse X5 camera on the Inspire 1 pro also allows for swapping in different camera lenses and manual focus. You also get auto-retracting landing gear that moves out of the way of the camera.
Another price leap above the Inspire 1 Pro lands you in the DJI Matrice 600 territory with Hollywood-level camera options like the RED Epic or Arri Alexa mini. You also get more hardware redundancy, guaranteeing that nothing will stop you from getting your shots.
Check out a more detailed comparison of good photography drones and their cameras in my Best Drones for Photographers Guide.
Shoot Closer to Sunrise and Sunset
Some of the best drone photography photos with the best lighting are available during the golden hour after sunrise and before sunset. Along the same line, photos have less helpful lighting at high noon, when the sun is at its highest point and shadows are minimized. So ideally try planning your shots closer to the golden hour and further away from high noon if possible.
Learn Local Piloting & Privacy Laws
Be sure to learn the various drone piloting and privacy laws specific to your country and make sure you stay within them, especially when choosing a target area.
Get Spare Batteries and Launch Close to Your Target
To get the most flight time, and thus shot opportunities, try to launch your drone from as close to your target as you can. Also if you plan on doing a lot of shooting, then have some spare batteries on hand.
Practice & Experimenting Makes Perfect
The better you can pilot your drone, the better you are able to get the shots you desire. That’s why practicing piloting is one of the key ways to improve your drone photography. If you are a beginner pilot, you can check out my infographic training guide to quickly get you up to speed. Perfect practice makes perfect shots. The more you practice and experiment with your drone, the more shot opportunities open up to you, and with them comes the judgment of which way will get you the best possible shot.
Should you capture your target with a great still photo or is the scene so dynamic that a video would be better to isolate the best moment? How high should you shoot from? Where should you safely fly to get the best lighting? Should you use software waypoints to give you finer camera control for a sweeping video? Etc. The more you practice and experiment, the better able you’ll be to answer questions like these.
Settings Before Launch
Set Image Aspect-Ratio to 4:3
Before you fly your drone, ensure your camera’s image aspect-ratio is set to 4:3. Using a 16:9 aspect-ratio will crop the image automatically, taking away detail. If you really want 16:9, then take a photo at 4:3 and then crop it yourself to get the best customized result.
Set Picture Mode to AEB (Bracketing)
HDR (High-Dynamic-Range) mode is good for high-contrast scenes, but AEB mode (bracketing) is much more powerful. On the DJI Phantom series, it provides you with a range of up to 5 different exposures of each shot, allowing you to create customized HDR photos in post-production. You can add more detail to shadows or highlights this way, whatever your choice.
Manual Mode > Auto Mode
Always try to shoot in Manual mode if you can, as it allows you to manually select the optimal shutter speed and ISO for each scene.
Use Lowest ISO Possible
While in Manual shooting mode, it becomes a battle to set the ISO as low as possible to minimize grain and noise while at the same time getting enough light to capture the detail you’re after. For example, the Phantom 3’s lowest ISO setting is 100, so try to keep it there while the light levels are sufficient.
Keep Shutter Speed Under 2 Seconds
Shutter speed is the amount of time the shutter is open while capturing an image. Using it properly will give you control over how movement is shown in your images, as well as controlling how much light is captured over time. Using a faster shutter speed will freeze movement, while slowing down the shutter speed will add a slight motion blur to moving subjects. Experimenting and experience will help you decide how to set it.
While shooting drone photography photos in low-light, you’ll want to increase your shutter speed to capture more light over time for each photo. Though the longer the shutter speed on a drone, the blurrier the photos you’ll get. This is because a hovering drone’s camera can never be perfectly still; it is constantly making small movements to reposition itself and is being bombarded with varying wind levels. To minimize the blurring effects of these movements and wind vibrations, try to keep the camera’s shutter speed under 2 seconds.
Set Your Image Format to RAW
(Ideally Both RAW & JPEG if Your Drone Supports It)
If you want to shoot in the best way possible, then every professional photographer will recommend shooting in RAW for maximum flexibility in post-processing. The advantages of RAW are no data loss with compression, you get maximum quality with zero loss. You also get maximum bit depth. JPEG files are encoded in 8 bits per color, while RAW files from DSLR cameras are usually encoded in 10 or 12 bits per color, giving you a huge boost in potential color detail. Lastly, you won’t really have to worry about white balance when you shoot, as you will have full control over it in
Lastly, you won’t really have to worry about white balance when you shoot, as you will have full control over it in post.
Still, the ideal mode to shoot in is RAW and JPEG simultaneously. This will allow you to choose which one to use later. Sometimes the JPEG of your shot will be up to your standards, and if you need to submit it quickly then it’s hard to go wrong with having both options.
Calibrate Compass in Every New Location
Before flying in a new location, you should calibrate your compass to minimize abnormal sensor data that could potentially lead to erratic behavior or failure. To calibrate, just go to the Aircraft Status Bar in the DJI app and select “Calibrate” then follow the instructions.
Neutral Density and Polarizing Filters
In bright and sunny shooting conditions with excessive amounts of light, you’re often required to increase your shutter speed to reduce the amount of light your camera sensor takes in. Being forced to increase your shutter speed can make your videos look less cinematic and more video-camera-like, and can make take the beautiful movement blur out of a still photo of a moving stream.
A neutral density filter solves this by lowering the amount of light the camera sensor takes in without affecting color saturation. This helps you to use a get an equivalent exposure while lowering the shutter speed. If you want the most cinematic video, an industry guideline is to shoot at a shutter speed that is one divided by twice that of your video framerate. So if you’re shooting at 30fps, then set your shutter speed to 1/(2×30)s, which equals 1/60s. For 60fps that would equal 1/120s.
Polarizing filters help reduce the glare and reflections from bright surfaces, and also help make the sky a richer blue with increase color saturation. They are most effective when used at an angle of 90 degrees from the sun, and less effective when the sun is directly in or behind your shot.
Tips While Flying Your Drone
Rule of Thirds (Times 4)
The Rule of Thirds is a simple drone photography guideline that helps you frame your image as best as you can. It involves dividing your frame with two horizontal and two vertical lines, all equally-spaced. For the best-framed photo, your subject should fall under any one of the four points where the lines intersect. If you’re having a hard time selecting a point on your target, try to find something it intersects with in the background, like the horizon or an object, and choose that as your target point.
Go into your camera setting menu on your drone and enable the grid option to make this easier to see. If you’re unsure of which of the four points to use, then a good practice is to take four photos with the target under each of the four points. This gives you four different options, allowing you to choose the best.
Hover In Place For Still Photos
To take the least blurry shots, make sure the drone is just hovering in place and not moving. This is why a GPS-stabilized drone is essential for good drone photography. If your drone has to be moving, like if it’s following something, then try to move as slowly and smoothly as possible to minimize motion-blur.
For video, movement is less of a problem, and sometimes it helps if you want a fast-moving shot or are following a fast-moving target. Though it’s more problematic at lower framerates like when you’re shooting 4K video. Otherwise, it’s a good idea to try and keep the camera as still as possible when filming. Also try to move it as slowly and smoothly as possible when panning it around.
Advanced Software Features
If you are planning on shooting a dynamic changing scene in video, consider using the various software waypoint options your drone supports. Some drones allow you to automatically circle around a point or fly through a series of preselected waypoints while you control the camera.
Post-processing allows your photos to be resized, cropped, straightened if not level, color-corrected, change white balance on RAW photos, combine bracketed multiple exposure photos into custom HDR photos, applying filters.
For basic editing, you can use mobile apps such as Snapseed or VSCO on your mobile device.
If you want more powerful editing options, especially for RAW photos, then Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop on your computer are hard to beat. If you don’t want to pay for the excellent Photoshop Lightroom to edit your RAW photos, then RawTherapee is a solid free alternative.
Take your drone photography to the next level by following just a few simple points:
• Pick the right drone
• Select the right settings
• Launch at the right time & place
• Try the Rule of Thirds (x4)
• Practice and experiment to see the best options
• Edit your photos in post
After you’ve turned these tips into habits with practice, then you can consider upgrading to one of the best photography drones to take your drone photography even further. If you’re just getting started with drones, check out my quick guide on How to Fly A Drone.