Drone Photography : 10 practical tips to take pictures with your drone
As curious as it may seem, one often has the impression that all it takes is a high-tech multi-rotor and a brand new 4K camera to make magnificent aerial shots in a Drone.
Thanks to the latest technology embedded in some recent quadricopters such as the Parrot Anafi, the Mavic Pro 2, the DJI Phantom 4 or the DJI Inspire 2, everything seems to be thought out and programmed so that you only have to press a button to immortalize your panoramas and videos.
Of course, these technical advances have made aerial photography accessible to a wide audience, but they will never replace the experience and mastery that an experienced photographer acquires over time.
The most experienced will tell you that Drone photography is an art in itself, which requires a knowledge of certain basic rules in terms of photographic techniques and good notions of piloting.
You have just bought a new four-color camera and you are probably wondering how to film or photograph with a Drone? Or you are no longer a beginner and you are wondering how to improve your aerial photography?
To assist you, I propose you today 10 advices for beginners, but which can also help some professionals, to achieve high quality shots in the air!
1 – Know the regulations in force
Before launching your quadri in the air, it is necessary to know that in France, it is necessary to have the ULM pilot’s license and to homologate your quadricopter if you wish to make professional videos and photos (that is to say, in case you are going to sell the photos or videos you wish to make).
You just have to go on the website of the French ultralight federation to obtain the certificate which is generally easy to obtain.
Then, you will have to ask for the prefectoral authorizations, or to obtain the approval for the authorization of flight from the town halls, or even from the organizations responsible for the sites which you will fly over.
There are other regulations to be respected that I invite you to discover in my previous article which deals in detail with the legislation of Drone for civilian use.
Zone forbidden to multi-rotors flights
2- Know the basic notions of drone photography (aperture, shutter speed, ISO settings, etc.).
If these values do not tell you anything (ex: 17-85 mm, 17-40 mm, f/2, ISO 600), you will need to read some tutorials to understand the basics of aperture, shutter speed, ISO sensitivity, depth of field and especially focal length.
It is precisely this last value, combined with the others, which is responsible for the angle of vision and allows you to take panoramic pictures.
Here you will need to master the basics and getting a good understanding of how the exposure triangle works will be a good start!
These rules apply to all types of cameras/videos, to cameras integrated in drones and even to the camera on your Smartphone or GoPro.
Thus, the choice of your settings and the composition of your photos/videos will depend on these notions, the fundamentals of which you can easily master in less than half a day.
Find my tips to improve your aerial shots!
3- Test the settings before takeoff
While some drones, such as the DJI or Parrot range of drones, allow remote camera adjustments, most other quadricopters do not always have this kind of option.
In view of the relatively short flight time of these machines, it is not always advisable to waste 3 or 4 precious minutes changing the settings in mid-flight.
To do this, make your settings according to the type of photo/video you wish to take before you take off your multi-rotor.
Here are 6 tips to get the best out of your camera:
Position your camera at a low tilt angle during flight
about 15° maximum will allow you to make smooth movements, especially in tracking mode and avoid having the propellers in the frame.
If possible shoot in 4K at 50/60 frames per second (fps)
The 4K will give you more leeway in post-production (especially when cropping or cropping) and will allow you to downshift easily to 2.7K or 1080p.
A high ips setting (50/60 fps) will allow you to use slow motion if you wish to use it in post, while you will not be able to use it if you choose a more “kinematic” ips setting.
If you don’t have access to 4K or if you don’t have a screen to work on your 4K plans at home, use a resolution of 2.7K at 50/60 fps (50/60 frames per second).
This setting will allow you to make excellent cinematic shots if you wish and take up less space on your SD card and hard drive than when shooting in 4K.
Even if most new cameras offer 4K shooting, this resolution usually only offers 24 or 30 fps (except on the latest models that reach 50/60 or even 120 fps), which is not enough to make nice slow motion shots (this is not valid for the latest generation cameras, like the HERO 6, which allows you to make super slow motion shots and fully uses 4K).
If your Drone allows you to change the rotation speed (the yaw), set it so that it is relatively low preferably 50°/sec.
A low rotation speed will allow you to rotate your camera in a fluid way and thus to realize stable shots and avoid the parasitic movements of the yaw that video lovers hate so much.
Set your camera to a minimum of 1/120th to get sharp shots in Drone photography.
Try not to go below 1/120 to reduce the vibration level.
In video it is a good idea to set the shutter speed to about twice your frame rate.
Ex if you shoot at 30 IPS, a shutter speed of 60 will be perfect to avoid jerky effects.
If you can play with aperture
(like on the new Phantom 4 Pro or the Mavic Pro 2 for example), try to shoot with your aperture at 4-5 at best or up to 9 to maximize the sharpness of your images especially in landscape mode.
The optimal setting is usually around 2 stops from your maximum value (ex. on the P4 Pro 9, the maximum value being 11) but this can vary depending on your Drone.
For the Mavic Pro 2, the balance point for optimal results is between 4 and 5.5 according to my tests.
Prefer the Digital Negative photo mode (DNG or RAW).
This format will allow you to edit and retouch your photos with great freedom, and even better, to correct them when the contrasts are very pronounced (due to the weather).
4- Disable the autofocus and use the histogram
If you want to photograph landscapes and wide open spaces, it is advisable to disable autofocus and switch to manual focus, with a focal length close to infinity.
The Phantom 4 Pro now has an autofocus function that allows you to automatically adjust the focus during your transitions between different shots (not quite in focus yet in my opinion… but it should help the more novice).
On the new DJI drone models like the Mavic range of drones, remember to tap the screen for the “tap to focus” if you don’t want to have any surprises in post!
If you can, play on your aperture which also influences the sharpness!
Set the aperture to F4/F5 to get a homogeneous and above all sharp composition.
Note that the more the aperture increases, the more light and stability the camera will need.
It’s up to you to control your exposure triangle to adjust accordingly according to the light.
You can also use the DJI Go assistance to check that your image is sharp in flight.
The famous red dots will be present on your screen once this option is activated!
Use the histogram for exposure!
When using an FPV video feedback system, especially if you’re shooting in bright places, it can be really difficult to choose the right exposure level.
We’ve all shot in a beautiful place and found when we got home that our shots were (mostly) overexposed and not really usable afterwards!
Many builders like DJI have integrated a histogram in their flight software to follow the level of exposure in real time so that you can avoid this kind of disappointment once you are back in front of your computer!
5- Preparing the flight plan
Many quadricopter models now offer the possibility to set up your flight plan and different waypoints via GPS!
As the flight time of drones is relatively low, unless you have enough spare batteries, it is preferable to develop a flight plan upstream to save time.
Some Drones have GPS and allow you to program circuits and fly in automatic mode.
This mode is therefore perfect for those who want to concentrate on framing and shooting without worrying about stabilisation and piloting.
As a general rule, tracking will save you precious time!
Tips and Tricks :
- To take advantage of the best light conditions, take your photos/videos early in the morning or late in the afternoon. These are the times when the light is most interesting. The famous “Golden Hours”
- Choose a spacious location with no or few birds and obstacles to avoid collisions.
- Pay attention to the wind (especially gusty) for the survival of your craft but especially the quality of your photos/videos.
- Try to visualize the desired final rendering and the type of shots you are looking for for your montage! This will greatly help you in post production.
To know everything about multi-rotor batteries, go here!
6 – Take into account the weather conditions
The quality of your photographs and videos may deteriorate if weather conditions are not optimal.
The weather can significantly affect driving and shooting.
To avoid this, it is best to avoid flying when :
- The wind is too strong or Temperatures are very high or very low;
- The luminosity is very low, for example in case of: Fog, nightfall, very overcast sky, risk of precipitation, etc.
- In case the sunlight conditions are not optimal, you can use a polarized filter on your camera to add more contrast to the colors or simply play with your exposure settings;
- Watch the weather conditions in the area on the eve of each outing.
7 – Piloting the Drone in shooting mode (FPV)
In order to obtain high quality photos, it is advisable to respect a few rules of piloting :
- Try to test the Drone balance before flying it: propeller positions, camera and aircraft positions, etc.
- Avoid abrupt speed changes, preferably stay on a slow speed to gain stability; you can increase the speed in post!
- Make slow and fluid movements;
- Avoid abrupt movements;
- Be gentle on the Yaw, the rotating movements of the drone to turn the camera often create a really unpleasant rolling shutter effect.
- The FPV is developing at high speed, driven by the appearance of numerous models of VR glasses and integrated displays on the market!
8 – Gaining altitude to increase the angle of view
The higher you go, the more interesting the composition of the photo will be.
This gives you a wider field of view and thus exceptional images.
When shooting at high altitudes, avoid framing your photos in front of the sun, as the propellers can create shadows on the image.
To avoid fines, the Drone must fly at an altitude below 150 m and must always remain in your field of vision (except when flying FPV).
9 – Fitting the FPV system
The FPV (First Person View) control system has over time become extremely useful, even indispensable for remote framing and real-time control.
Choose a high-performance video feedback system with good WIFI transmission to avoid image lag, the famous latency that racing drivers hate so much.
There are a wide variety of brands on the market that offer FPV control systems with a return screen that will help you with the compositing aspect.
As an example, the 3DR Solo allows you to get live images from the GoPro which increases the range of possibilities in video.
DJI has since developed and offers a Crystalsky screen for live video return on these drones!
Be careful to raise the nose of your return screen at times to keep your drone in sight! Believe me, you will thank me afterwards when you have narrowly avoided a crash.
10 – Choosing the right camera for your drone
Of course most of us choose drone models with integrated cameras, as the manufacturers have made real efforts in this field in recent years.
Nevertheless, the most sophisticated cameras and housings offer more possibilities in terms of focal length, quality and sensitivity, and influence the choice of the Drone and the gondola that you will have to attach to your quadricopter if you choose this option.
I advise you to visit this page to help you target your needs and choose the camera best suited to your needs!
Generally speaking, the most commonly used cameras are the Sony A7, the integrated (DJI 4K) GH4, Canon 5D/6D/7D, or the GoPro (which is less and less used on the market).
Practical advice :
- Preferably choose the cameras offering the highest resolutions;
- If the lens is integrated in the camera, choose the one that offers a short focal length: a wide angle.
- If you wish to film with your camera, choose a model offering the highest IPS values.
- If this has no impact on the image quality, it is advisable to choose the most compact/light camera of the range for better performance of your Drone in flight.
- But beware, you will very often have to make a compromise between weight and image quality:
- Weight: A 5D mark III with a 35mm lens for example is much more bulky for your drone than a GoPro.
- The whole thing weighs more than 1 kg which affects the speed, balance, safety and autonomy of your drone.
- The image quality: Nevertheless, if you want to obtain videos of optimal quality, the 5D mark III is obviously the device that you will have to mount on your drone.
- The DJI drones of the Inspire range also carry quality cameras such as the famous X5.
Bonus 11 – Hold your sticks with your thumbs and forefingers
radio control with thumbs
Traditional handling – managing sticks with thumbs
radio control with thumb and index finger
Recommended handling – thumb and forefinger stick management
This point divides the community, with some drivers preferring the traditional thumb grip to the thumb and index finger grip.
I personally find that the thumb and forefinger grip gives better control over the drone for video especially.
This grip allows me to control more easily the Yaw and the altitude grip for my video shots and offers above all a greater precision in the dosage I find.
Test these two shots and don’t hesitate to give me your opinion in comments !