Aerial photography and video via drones are awesome—and consumers can now get in on the fun. Here are a few tips to help you get off to a good start with drone photography.
Drones and quadcopters continue to grow in popularity and become more affordable for consumers. This has provided a level playing field for aspiring photographers and videographers to get shots and angles previously unattainable without a helicopter or access to restricted areas with elevation.
To help get you started with drone photography, I'll share a few tips. Granted, photography fundamentals are still at play. But a few nuances of aerial photography and videography must be accounted for.
First, let's look at the drone you're going to use for your photography. I'm not going to advise on buying the "biggest and baddest" drone available, but I will say that not all drones are created equal. There are drones with cameras attached for as little as $40 and as much as $3,000.
The less expensive toy drones available may have cameras, but they're not the best in quality. For example, one toy drone has an "HD camera," supposedly. Unfortunately, the video clearly comes out as 640x320 resolution. NO, you don't have to spend three grand to get quality aerial photos and videos from a drone.
We previously discussed great options to build your own drone, but I don't recommend these for photography and cinematic video. The popular DJI Mavic Pro is chewing up the marketplace with its portable, compact design and superb image quality. Still, as popular as this device may be, I purchased an Autel Robotics X-Star Premium drone. The X-Star may not be as popular, but it offers specs that are comparable to the DJI Phantom line of drones.
The deciding factors for me included the aircraft color for sky visibility (orange), pricing, superb customer support, and the modular camera option. As drone cameras update, there will be no need to buy a new drone with the Autel X-Star Premium. Just buy a new camera and connect it.
Regardless of the drone you purchase, make sure it has a three-axis gimbal, a camera that can shoot HD resolution or higher, first person/live-view camera software, and altitude hold. Having the altitude hold allows for your drone to hover without any user input. This makes it easy for you to frame your shot and click the shutter.
When to shoot
Now that you have your drone, it's important to know when to go out and get your awesome shots. Like with standard hand-held photography, there's nothing like the golden hour of the day. Beautiful sunrise or sunset scenes look awesome at 100-foot altitude. Shooting on sunny days versus cloudy days offers different challenges and rewards.
On a sunny day, you get optimal lighting into the drone's camera, allowing it to really "shine" as it grabs images. The only drawback is obstructed viewing of your controller's live-view while framing your shot. These drones usually use a mobile phone or tablet to offer a live view of what the drone's camera sees. In bright sunshine, the mobile device is hard to see due to a glare on the screen. Sun shades can sometimes help with this.
Conversely, shooting on a cloudy day will allow for moody photography and video. The only drawback is the potential of high image grain and noise. This can happen because the small sensor on the drone's camera can't gather enough light for your shot.
Whether it's a vibrant blue sky with puffy clouds flowing in the wind or a gray sky with rolling storm clouds approaching, these are two dramatic scenes worth capturing.
Don't take your drone out on windy days. Small breezes are okay, but use caution. Having lots of wind will shake your drone and make it difficult to capture steady photos and videos. Beyond the creative concerns, it's a matter of safety. Wind can make your drone unpredictable regarding controls, which could lead to crashes or worse, serious accidents. Be sure to follow all the FAA regulations regarding drone flight.
Where to shoot
Where to shoot depends on what you're looking to capture. Mountain scenes, rivers, lakes, and suburbia can be interesting options. You still have to abide by the FAA regulations for safety, as well as take into consideration the privacy of others. For example, if you want to capture images around your neighborhood, be considerate of your neighbors' privacy. Ask for permission to shoot if you're near their property. I've been fortunate to have the support of my neighbors, but I won't take advantage of this by recording closeups of their windows, vehicles, or gatherings without expressed written consent.
Master your camera controls
Before flying, take time to understand the camera options available to your drone. DJI and Autel Robotics both offer comprehensive camera controls. 4K recording is an easy option to pick, but shooting in 1080p at 60 frames per second could be ideal for a particular scene. The Autel Starlink app also lets you shoot in HDR mode, allowing the image to really pop with color and detail.
Fire up your drone indoors without the propellers attached so you can safely connect to the camera controls within the app without an accidental takeoff. Getting acclimated with the app will make it easier for your flight.
I hope these quick tips will help get you going with your aerial photography endeavors. Take your photography and video to a new heights with aerial photography. (Okay, maybe that was a bad pun.)
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Are you investigating the possibilities of drone photography? Share your experiences and advice with fellow TechRepublic members.