Shooting Top-Down: Aerial Photography

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Before I undertake any aerial shoot – I starkly remind myself to ‘not’ get carried away by taking the aircraft up to ridiculous heights.

Once I’ve been piloted the drone to a reasonable altitude, I’ll focus on controlling my adrenaline and not get overwhelmed by the overall sense of dizziness and height. If I fail, it would often lead to aimlessly capturing images that have no impact or interest.

Remember, shooting from extreme heights doesn’t necessarily mean you will end up with visually pleasing results.

A common issue I’ve observed with amateur photographers is that once they’ve made their drone airborne, they often get stuck and think to themselves – where and how do I even start to shoot something interesting from here??

 

The Top-Down Approach

When I first started taking top-down aerial photos I soon realised that learning the art didn’t just improve my confidence and all round ability in photographic composition – it also provided me with some aerial photos that genuinely intrigued and mesmerized viewers in ways I’d never imagined.

When one views a typical aerial photo (not top-down) that looks into the horizon, it typically consists of ‘two elements’ – the land and the sky. This naturally allows the viewer to mentally decipher the image and make sense of its perspective. It’s usually after that they judge the image for its content or artistic merit.

However, when shooting top-down we don’t have that luxury as we generally have only ‘one element’ (or flat plane) to work with – the land, or the sea. Therefore in order to allow the viewer to make sense and appreciate our photos – the thought we put into the detail becomes imperative.

A powerful way to start is to simplify your thinking and take a more minimalist approach.

Keep an eye out for aspects in the landscape that contain strong geometric shapes when looking top-down. An example of this could be found in farms and plantations where there are usually rectangular-shaped fields of crops that have strong colours and repetitious detail.

Once you’ve found this, think about ways you could compose this within a frame from a top-down perspective. This is where you need to challenge yourself to think outside the square and express these bold elements in an interesting way to the viewer.

In order to explain myself more clearly – this feature showcases a variety of images that I have taken with a drone. It also provides a step-by-step breakdown of the thought processes I went through in composing them.

 

The Equipment

All images were taken with the DJI Phantom 4 drone in fully automatic mode. They were shot in RAW format and post-produced into jpeg files.

I also used the products below, available at these websites:

 

Safety

I cannot stress enough the importance of public safety when flying. Therefore please fly safely and ensure you follow ALL your civil aviation rules and regulations.

 

Vaucluse – New South Wales, Australia

f2.8 – 1/50s – ISO 194

I was on a cliff’s edge that was already around 60 to 70 metres above sea level. Therefore to get the desired elevation, I only needed to take the drone up to about 20 to 30 metres above the timber boardwalk from where I stood.

To provide depth, I layered this image by dividing it into two elements – land and sea. Hence, I adjusted the yaw in order to turn the drone in a manner that the cliff face runs through the frame as a diagonal from bottom left – to top right corner.

Finally, I walked forward to position myself into the frame. This allowed me to provide the viewer with an overall sense of height and scale.

 

Port Kembla – New South Wales, Australia

f2.8 – 1/25s – ISO 106

I chose this location not just because it was a meeting point of two elements – (land and water); there were also interesting layers within each of these elements.

Taking the drone up to a height of around 60 metres enabled me to catch the striking contrast between the coal, road, stones, sand and the sea. I also tilted the scene so that the (linear elements) – the rocks and road run into the top left corner of the frame to add more drama.

Keeping a 50:50 split of water versus land helped achieve its overall balance. Incorporating the vehicle into the frame also enhanced the viewer’s sense of scale.

 

Coalcliff – New South Wales, Australia

f2.8 – 1/183s – ISO 100

Positioning the drone in the right position here required only two general steps.

Firstly it was taken to a height where the viewer would be able to see and identify the vehicle. This not only created a secondary point of interest – it was also crucial in enhancing the sense of scale.

Secondly, with both elements of land and water being divided by the bridge, I realised that this would be the primary point of interest in this image – hence the reason I chose to frame these particular bends of the bridge. The curvature and positioning of the bends within the frame was what helped me achieve a strong composition with a 50:50 ratio of land versus sea.

Note: As a safety precaution – never fly or position the drone directly over traffic. I always ensured the drone was offset and a safe distance away from the bridge.

 

Port Kembla – New South Wales, Australia

f2.8 – 1/25s – ISO 228

The first key aspect to capturing this rusty old wreck was to get around one-third of it to fill up the frame.

After achieving my desired height, I tilted the subject about 45 degrees so that it ‘pays respect’ to all corners of the frame. This also tightened the overall focal point in the centre of frame by placing more focus on to the subject itself.

Note: If I flew the drone up higher and framed the subject from a further height – (any less than a third), I would’ve risked the subject being too far and ‘lost’ within the composition. To the contrary, if I flew the drone closer – I would’ve risked having the drone too close and have to crop out interesting parts of the subject.

 

Abbotsford – New South Wales, Australia

f2.8 – 1/109s – ISO 100

I wanted to portray a minimalistic and contemporary composition in this capture. Therefore I only lifted the drone to about 20 metres above the ground in order to get all the vessels into the frame.

Due to the unstructured and busy looking layout of the vessels on the ground – I framed this by placing the horizontal stone wall only about one-quarter up from the bottom of frame. The other three-quarters being occupied by sea water helped me achieve its overall balance.

 

Lilyfield – New South Wales, Australia

f2.8 – 1/50s – ISO 179

There wasn’t a need to get the drone to any great height in order to get this image. In fact it was all about capturing the detail within its colours and textures – therefore the drone was only a short distance above this old dinghy.

To incorporate a sort of bold and minimalist statement into this image, I composed the boat so that approximately no less than one-third of it slid into frame. And to eliminate any awkwardness -I also tilted it so that no sides are parallel to the frame.

Note: I wasn’t afraid in cropping a certain parts of the boat in order to capture its colour and details more precisely.

 

Top 5 Tips:  Shooting Top-Down

Keep it simple

Practice minimal thinking then try taking this approach to simplify your compositions.

Patterns in landscape

From above – identify geometrical patterns in the landscape and seek to utilise them in bold and simple ways.

Don’t get obsessed with height

Higher isn’t always better. Think about what you want to compose and express before deciding on height.

Sense of scale

Always look for ways you can provide the viewer with a sense of scale to relate too.

Online map research

Before hiking out there – scout your location using online maps and pre-conceive your compositions whenever possible.

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