While it’s relatively easy to get a camera drone and start snapping some aerial photos, it’s much harder and takes a good deal of effort and experience to capture images worthy of the title “photography” in any artistic sense. There’s the learning curve of figuring out how to fly the drone of course, but that’s really the easy part, as most camera drones worth their salt are going to have a lot of easy-to-fly features. The hard part is learning the art of photographic composition from an aerial perspective.
In order to improve your drone photography, you need to start thinking like an experienced photographer.
- Plan your photo shoots ahead of time.
- Master techniques for composing artistic photos.
- Learn how your camera works and how to use it to best effect.
- Process your photos for a finished result.
For the serious drone photographer, nothing will take the place of lots of flight time, lots of shots, and a little bit of luck. But with a little bit of guidance and practice in each of these areas, your drone photos can go from run-of-the-mill to something worth showing off. Keep working at it, and you may even be able to build yourself a drone photography business.
Plan Ahead For Your Drone Photo Shoots
Getting really good at drone photography has less to do with just flying around at random and hoping for the best, and more to do with good planning and doing your homework. The time in the air is important for sure, but equally important is the behind the scenes work of planning your flights and your shots. As a photographer, you are an artistic creator, not just a button pusher.
Check the Forecast
As with any drone flight for any purpose, it’s important to check the weather report before heading out to make sure it’s suitable weather for flying. But above and beyond that, when you’re looking to create a certain photographic outcome, you need to have the right weather conditions. Rain or drizzle, aside from being bad news for your drone, will not be conducive to great photos, but on the other hand, gathering clouds could produce dramatic effect in your photos. Know what you’re in for before taking off, and if it doesn’t look like the right conditions, plan again for another time.
In addition to the weather forecast, you need to check the UAV forecast. This is an app or website that will tell you other information related to the suitability of the conditions for drone flight. It will tell you the wind speed and direction, temperature, precipitation, visibility, solar flare activity, number of GPS satellites visible, and other active aircraft in your area, and will give a recommendation of whether or not to fly.
Research the Location
Instead of just picking random places to fly and hoping that something interesting turns up, spend time researching interesting locations that will yield unique or spectacular aerial perspectives. Google Earth is a great tool to help find locations with good potential as it shows the landscape from directly above. You can use it to identify interesting rock formations, islands, bridges, winding roads, forests, etc. that look interesting, and spend some time planning how you will work out a good shot, even before you get to the location so you don’t spend all your flight time just looking for a decent shot once you’re there.
In your location research, you should also find out if the places you identified to fly need any special permissions. If you spot a promising farm field, call the farmer before showing up. If it’s in a national park, that’s a no go. If you see something that you absolutely need to check out that happens to be near an airport or other restricted airspace, you can go through the process of getting clearance to fly through the FAA. If you’re traveling internationally and plan to fly your drone while abroad, check into the local drone laws of your destination to make sure you don’t run into any trouble.
It’s just good sense, but be prepared for your drone flight before you head out the door. Make sure your drone and controller firmware is up to date, make sure your batteries are charged and your SD card is formatted. Have a preflight checklist, and use it dogmatically – it can help you avoid so much frustration!
It’s also highly recommended to have spare batteries, preferably at least two extras. When you get to the location, you can use the entire first battery scouting out the area looking for potential shots, good angles, and interesting features you want to come back to. Then with your second battery, you can really take the time to perfect your shots on those particular spots with plenty of time to explore the best possible angles and aspects for a killer composition. Use your third battery to work on shooting some great video footage.
Photography is so much about the right light, and obviously with drone photography there’s only so much you can control about the lighting of the natural outdoor environment. But you can control when you get your drone out there and how the time of day, season, or weather will impact your compositions. Planning ahead will help you get the best possible light. Aim for the “golden hour” when the light is soft and yellow at the beginning or end of the day. The low angle of the sun at these times of day will also yield up interesting shadows that can make for really fascinating aerial images as well. Or try the “blue hour” just before sunrise or just after sunset when the sky is vibrant and silhouettes are prominent.
Good photography is not so much about being in the right place at the right time (although that can be a part of the mix for sure!), but about having an eye for the unusual, and planning your shots with good design elements in mind. The importance of planning is especially key for drone photography where you are limited by battery life. You don’t have hours and hours to tinker with the angle, the height, the light, etc. Planning ahead on how you want to compose your shot really helps you to get more mileage from each flight. More about composition coming up.
Play With Aerial Composition
Composition is the art of making a photograph into, well, a piece of art. The fun thing about drone photography is that it offers some new and interesting possibilities to the standard composition menu, but even so, most of the basic principles for good photography still apply. One of the keys to good composition is having elements in the frame that will draw the eye to a certain point or points. Too much clutter or no definitive focal point make for a weak photo, with the viewer having to work too hard to decide what to look at.
Here are some factors to consider when planning the composition of your drone photos.
Geometry and Patterns
Our eyes are drawn to geometrical shapes, so when you can find them in a natural setting, accentuate them for great effect. Curvilinear lines add movement, repeating shapes draw the eye through the picture. The great thing about the aerial perspective is that it often allows you to see patterns and shapes not visible from ground level. Finding geometry and patterns all over nature to include in your compositions can be like a treasure hunt.
Symmetrical composition can be incredibly powerful in an aerial landscape photo, where the eye is drawn back and forth across the view. It’s especially captivating in a top-down view. You can try incorporating symmetry in composition of things such as bridges, buildings and the like – things with a man-made aspect.
Texture and Contrast
The aerial perspective, especially the top-down view, gives a whole new realm to explore the textures of landscape. Textures can be especially fascinating when they are put in contrast to each other. A rolling hillscape that suddenly gives way to a smooth flat road is a striking image. You can also achieve visual contrast with color. Try contrasting warm colors with cool colors for greatest effect.
Using shadows to create texture and patterns can be very visually striking. Keep in mind that shadows will be the most extreme in early morning and late afternoon. The challenge may be to not let the shadows obscure your focal point, while enhancing the overall effect.
Leading Lines and Framing
Try this: incorporate leading lines in the foreground of your photo to draw the eye toward the background. Directing the eye of the viewer into the center of the picture, leading lines create visual movement and interest. Framing can accomplish the same thing, as well as creating symmetry, or accentuating the focal point.
Rule of Thirds
The rule of thirds is a classic art composition guideline. If it’s new to you, basically it means that the focal point should not be in the direct center of the image. If you divide the space into a 3×3 grid, the focal point or points will be much more effective and pleasing if it is aligned with one of the grid lines. Leading lines or framing elements can also be more or less lined up with these grid lines as well. For help with getting the elements of your photo into the best position, try using the grid lines on your camera view when composing your shots.
The angle at which you approach your subject is the key to unlocking all of the secrets of good composition. A slight movement in one direction or the other can make all the difference between a weak composition and a strong one. If you have a great composition in mind and it’s just not coming together, play with the angle of approach, whether it’s to the right or left, backwards or forwards, or up or down. With practice you’ll get more experienced at knowing how to adjust the angle just right to get the effect you’re looking for.
With ground-based photography, the height of the camera can play a huge role in the angle, and thus the composition of a photo. A camera held at ground level, and then held at standing height will achieve a vastly different result. This effect is immensely magnified with drone photography, since you have the option to cover such a range of different heights. As you’re learning to compose good photos, play around with the height at which you shoot one subject to see the different results it can give. The ideal height to photograph any particular subject of course will depend on what it is and the effect you are trying to achieve. But in general, the best results will come somewhere in the 10-150 foot range. Just because you can go all the way up to 400 feet, doesn’t mean that’s where you’ll get the best pictures.
Include a Human Element
The majority of drone photography by default is landscape or cityscape. When shooting landscapes, a common mistake is to only include natural features or focal points. In order to show scale, and also to have a visually interesting focal point, it can be incredibly effective to have a single human element in a natural setting.
Master These Techniques
It can be tempting when you’re starting out with learning drone photography to want to tackle all of these compositional elements at once. Aside from being overwhelming, it can water down your efforts. Instead try setting yourself a goal of mastering one technique at a time.
Obviously some of them will interact and overlap with each other, but you can still try to focus on emphasizing and mastering one skill at a time before moving on to another. For example, you could take this list of compositional elements and use it as a checklist. Work on composing aerial photos that emphasize geometric shapes and patterns for a while. Then work on composing images that make use of symmetry. By the time you’ve gone through the whole list, you should have a few photos in your portfolio to really be proud of. On top of that, you will probably be at the point of having developed an eye for most of these elements more or less intuitively.
As you’re getting started, you may find the biggest rewards will come from working on direct overhead shots. They are the trademark drone photo angle as it is a perspective you can’t get any other way. If you start out with the top-down view, you’re almost guaranteed to come up with some striking photos. As you get more experienced, move on to working more with angles, playing with height, etc.
Learn Drone Camera Settings & Shooting Techniques
The next important thing you need to do to improve as a drone photographer is learn about your camera settings, and how to use them to best advantage. There are also some important shooting techniques you should know about and test out for yourself that will take your drone photography to the next level.
Save your files in RAW
Shooting your images in RAW format is absolutely essential to get the best out of your photography. Every professional shoots in RAW, as it saves uncompressed lossless images, for much more precise information of what the camera “saw”, including detail, resolution and brightness, than when you save in a compressed .jpg format.
RAW image files require post processing to get a great result, but if you’re really interested in getting the best out of your drone camera and your foray into drone photography, you should plan to learn how to process your photos anyway. More about post processing your photos in a bit.
Which Aspect Ratio is Best?
In basic terms, aspect ratio means the size of the image, or the ratio of the width to the height. The aspect ratio that you choose will impact how much of the background or foreground fits into your photo. The pre-set (also called native) aspect ratio of your drone is determined by the height and width measurements of the camera sensor. You can override this by selecting a different aspect ratio if you so desire.
The standard native aspect ratio in most camera drones is 4:3, or possibly 3:2, which is the standard for most DSLR cameras. The most common override aspect ratio setting is 16:9. So how do you know which one to use? The easiest answer is that the 16:9 aspect ratio is primarily offered as a setting since that is the size that fits best on most television screens, meaning that if you are filming with your drone, you get video images that fit nicely on a big screen.
If you’re shooting mostly still photography, it’s generally best to shoot in the native aspect ratio which is probably 4:3. The main reason for this is that if you choose the 16:9 override, essentially the camera is cropping the image, which leaves you with fewer overall pixels to work with when you are post processing. If you shoot in 4:3 and then decide to crop that image to the 16:9 size on your own during processing to fit your images to a tv screen size, or to achieve a more panoramic feel to your photo, you still have the option, whereas if you shoot in 16:9, you can’t add back in the pixels that the camera cropped out for you. Leave yourself more options to work with by shooting in 4:3.
When to Use Auto (P) and Manual (M) Mode
When you’re just starting out, it’s probably a good idea to stick with auto mode, as the camera will automatically select the settings that will give you satisfactory results. As you get more experienced you can venture into manual mode, where you get to select the camera settings such as aperture and shutter speed. In manual mode you have more control, but for beginners it can be challenging to get the settings just right for the lighting conditions. With experience, you will begin to get a feel for which settings will get you the effect you want in a given situation.
Bottom line? Start out with auto camera mode to gain a little confidence, then venture into manual mode when you’re ready to experiment.
One way to start getting a feel for what settings are best in any given situation is by first looking at P mode to see what the camera’s automatic mode is offering for settings. Then you can switch to M mode and try raising or lowering ISO, shutter speed and aperture to see what effect it creates.
Use ND and PL Filters
One way to get the best out of your drone photography, once you start playing with manual settings, is to use Neutral Density or Polarizing filters. These are add-on items that you can purchase to fit onto your drone’s camera lens. Basically, they help to control the light and glare that is coming into your camera’s sensor. Especially as you want to let in as much light as possible to reduce noise (more on that in a minute), filters can make a huge difference in not overexposing your images. Filters will allow you have have more flexibility and control when it comes to choosing your shutter speed and aperture.
Use ISO 100
When you do start to venture into manual mode, it’s a good idea to keep your ISO setting as low as possible, which on most camera drones means ISO 100. The main reason for this, practically speaking, is that it reduces noise, which in layman’s terms means areas of the photo that have visual distortions or pixelated looking patches. ISO 100 is a good rule of thumb for daytime shooting, but may not be your best option for low-light or night time shooting.
When setting your ISO at 100, you will probably need to play with shutter speed and aperture a bit to get a clear image. The right shutter speed and aperture will of course depend on the lighting conditions, and also on wind conditions, as wind can increase camera shake.
Now that we’ve covered a few of the basic camera settings to be aware of, let’s talk about some techniques that you can use to improve the overall quality of your drone photos.
Stack Images to Reduce Noise
While we’re on the subject of reducing noise, here’s a technique you can try to get your final product as noise free as possible, especially if you’re shooting in lower light or windy conditions. Shoot in burst mode, which will snap five practically identical frames. Even though you may not initially see any difference at all in the five images, upon closer inspection they will reveal a different noise pattern.
In post processing you can stack these five nearly identical images, and your processing software will average out the noise in the images, resulting in a less “noisy” final image.
Auto Bracketing For More Dynamic Images
Bracketing is a similar concept to image stacking. Unlike shooting in burst mode however, when using Automatic Exposure Bracketing (AEB) with High Dynamic Range (HDR), your drone camera can take one image with your selected settings, two over exposed images, and two under exposed images. With the variation in lighting and exposure on these images, you can either just select the one you like the best, or stack them in post processing to bring out the best features of each of the images.
Three Reasons to Use Panoramas
Panoramas can achieve more than just a longer image size. There are three main effects you can achieve with the panorama function of your drone’s camera (or in post processing). The first is what you may typically think of as a panorama – you want to capture a wider perspective than your camera can accommodate. Take several shots in a row, and stitch them together for a longer image.
The second effect you can achieve with a panorama is the ability to create higher megapixel images than you can with a single image capture. If you stitch together two images, you essentially double the megapixel count, allowing you to have a much more sizable image to work with. If you take a series of coordinated shots (try four shots in a square), you can stitch them for a significantly higher megapixel image than your drone’s sensor would otherwise allow for. Why would you want to do this? For bigger prints, or a clearer image on a large screen.
The third effect you can get with the panorama function is increasing focal length. This is usually done with a wide angle lens, but drones don’t have a wide angle lens. To create the drama that comes from increasing focal length (making things close to you larger, and the background smaller), try taking a series of shots moving forward over a focal point, and then using them to create a panorama.
Post Process Your Photos
Throughout these suggestions, I keep referring to post processing, so it deserves a little spotlight here. Post processing means putting the images you capture with your drone’s camera into a software program such as Lightroom or Photoshop to make adjustments to color, light, size, etc. of the image.
Think of post processing as putting on the finishing touches to your painting. Post processing is where you can crop images to the desired size or aspect ratio. It’s also where you can stitch together images for panoramas, stack images to reduce noise, or to build HDR. The goal is to bring out the best color and light for your pictures that will make it stand out in the crowd.
Don’t shy away from learning how to do the post-processing, as it really makes the difference between mediocre and outstanding drone photography.