The art of aerial cinematography has become a lot more accessible throughout the years with the democratization of drones. Getting started in aerial cinematography might seem as simple as just flying a drone and pressing record while you do it, but there’s a lot more to it than that.
Although there is no one recipe for getting the perfect shot every time (just as with any form of art), there are a few basic principles to remember to really take you from simply capturing a drone video to purposefully creating an aerial scene.
The most important components of drone cinematography are flight planning, camera settings, composition, and motion. If you get a handle on these, you’re well on your way to becoming an expert in drone cinematography.
As a professional drone pilot who works in the film industry framing big-budget productions, I will walk you through the very basics of these components, so that you can get started in the mesmerizing world of drone filmmaking!
Just as with any other drone flight, flying a drone for filmmaking purposes requires – you guessed it – a lot of planning!
If we disregard the legal and safety benefits of creating a flight plan (just for the purposes of proving this point – legality and safety should never otherwise be disregarded), there is still so much use for a flight plan in terms of knowing, understanding and being well prepared for your shots. This will maximize flight time also, which is precious.
Flight planning from a cinematography perspective includes:
- plotting a location for your flight (scouting it in person prior to the shoot is even better)
- researching and choosing the best time for the desired look of the video (taking into consideration things like weather, sun position, etc.)
- listing and ordering the exact shots you are looking to capture and how much time each will take, and what is the flight path for each of these shots
- emergency procedures, locating the nearest airports, heliports, etc.
The more you plan, the more you are able to relax and do your best work, and the less time you spend hovering or searching, figuring out what you want to capture next, what looks good, and what type of shot you want on the spot.
If you have time and battery left after all your planned shots, then, by all means, improvise and explore with the drone. But you as the drone pilot and anyone you are working with will feel more comfortable with a plan.
If you are shooting scenes with events taking place or actors, I would even recommend storyboarding, so you can visualize your shots within the narrative. In this storyboard, you can draw out your movements (with arrows and graphics within the scene) as the action is taking place.
On certain productions, this may already be done for you. Storyboarding is not really necessary if you’re just taking landscape shots, but if you’re the creative mind behind the narrative of the film, it may be a good idea to do as part of your planning.
Let’s go over the basics of video and the most important features you’ll need to control or choose on your drone.
You have your video codec, resolution, color profile, white balance, frames per second, shutter speed, ISO, and aperture. The amount of manual control you have over these settings depends on what drone you have. The more expensive drones generally will perform better due to the larger sensor and will offer you more control over camera settings.
Like I said in the introduction, there is no one recipe or combination of settings that will get you the perfect shot every time. Because cinematography is an art, certain settings come down to creative choice, but let’s go over the general basics, starting with codec.
Now, the most decompressed format and the one that will give you the most control in post is RAW footage, or in other words, uncompressed footage. Very few drones will give you the option to shoot in RAW. The Inspire 2 is one of them.
There are drawbacks to shooting this way, mainly the file size and the difficulty of working with this file in post-production editing software. Most of us don’t need to shoot in RAW and are perfectly happy with compressed footage.
Our main choice of codec will be H.264 or H.265, but I expect ProRes to become far more common and easier to work with. In any case, you want to consider what your video will be used for. H.264 and H.265 are both very high-quality formats that will be perfect for web use.
If you’re shooting something for the big screen, they will oftentimes ask to shoot in ProRes or even RAW formats. When I shoot with the Mavic 2 Pro, I always shoot in H.265 as this is newer and more efficient than H.264, but H.264 is still more commonly used in the industry, so it is up to you or the production what you choose.
The resolution you choose depends on what the final output of your video will be. As a rule of thumb, I always shoot in higher resolutions as it will give me more room in post-production to crop in if I need. But keep in mind the file size will be larger the higher the resolution.
If you know your final video is going to be 1920 x 1080 p, you can still shoot in 4K and this will give you room to play around with your footage in editing software and not lose quality. Whereas if you shoot in 1920 x 1080 p and crop in on your editing software with a project that needs to be exported in 1920 x 1080 p, you will lose quality.
Newer drones are coming out with higher resolutions, such as the new Mavic 3 being able to shoot in 5.1K, whereas the maximum for the Mavic 2 is 4K.
The next thing you need to choose in your settings is your color profile. Although it may seem dull and boring, shooting in D-LOG gives you the most flexibility in terms of color information.
This color profile requires more work in post-production, but hey, we’re talking about filmmaking here and if we want to get serious about cinematography, we need to have the absolute most control over how our final image is going to look.
If you need to shoot footage that is ready to go off the bat, then do not choose to shoot in D-LOG. In that case, you may want to use the normal color profile, but most of the time, if you’re working in filmmaking, D-LOG is the way to go.
It is such a useful skill to learn how to color correct your drone footage in post-production, but that’s a whole other science in itself and a whole other article.
The tendency for beginners to choose auto white balance usually works out when you’re just getting started and shooting a static shot in a controlled environment. But because your drone can travel distances where the light source may change or the color temperature of the light may change (i.e you’re shooting in the morning light and your drone travels behind a rock into shadows), it actually may ruin your shot to run on auto white balance.
Why? Your drone may correct or change the white balance level mid-shot as you move through the landscape and this will look like an obvious auto function. To avoid this, you should shoot in manual white balance.
Just like coloring your footage in post, there is a whole science behind white balance and color temperatures and jargon that goes along with it, but I’ll go over it very quickly, so you can get a basic understanding.
In its most simplistic form, the function of white balance on your camera is to adjust the colors of your footage to match the light source. This means that white objects actually appear white and this adjustment is listed as a temperature measured in Kelvin.
For instance, in daylight on a sunny day, I will manually set the white balance on my drone to 5600K. See the diagram below for suggested white balance settings for different light environments.
Frames Per Second
The rate at which you choose to shoot is highly dependent on if you want your video to look slow motion, where the video will be displayed, etc.
For web use, most people will choose to shoot in either 30 or 24 frames per second. Social media runs everything at 30 frames per second, so if that’s where you’re planning to showcase your work, it might be a good idea to shoot in 30.
Or, if you’re shooting a film for the big screen, 24 frames per second is considered the most cinematic and what we’re used to when watching movies. If you want to shoot slow motion, shooting in 60 or 120 frames per second and then viewing it in 24 or 30 frames per second will give your footage that slow-motion look.
With every other camera setting coming down to an artistic choice, this one may come as a relief because there actually is a golden rule to shutter speed when shooting video.
Generally, you want your shutter speed to be 1 over double your frame rate.
So if I’m shooting in 30 frames per second, I will set my shutter speed to 1 over 60. This allows me to get the most visually pleasing motion blurs with regard to my frames per second.
If I’m shooting in 24 frames per second, I’ll want to set my shutter speed to 1 over 48 or 1 over 50 if that is not available (round up). This is called the 180-degree shutter rule.
Your ISO is how sensitive to light your camera sensor is. Higher ISO levels will increase the sensitivity and, in turn, make your image brighter, but not without a cost. The higher your ISO, the more grain you will get in your footage.
There are not many drones with very large sensors, so generally, most drones do not perform well in low light and will give you a ton of grain as soon as you raise your ISO to compensate. You will want to keep your ISO as low as possible to avoid this grain and keep the quality of your footage.
Of course, when shooting in dark settings, you may have to bump up your ISO, but this is always something you need to keep in mind when doing so.
You can control how much light gets into your camera by setting your aperture. A higher f-stop number means less light and a lower number means more light comes in.
You should consider aperture when trying to get a desired depth of field, but because most drones have very wide lenses and you are not very close to subjects, it’s very hard to get a noticeable depth of field.
But, to get that effect in whatever capacity your drone is able to capture it, you would need to keep your aperture low. There are certain aperture levels you don’t want to go past for certain drones to keep your image as sharp as it can be.
You’ll need to just do a quick google search for what that is based on the drone you have, but for instance, when I use my Mavic 2 Pro, I usually don’t want to go past an aperture of f5.6 because that is when you start losing sharpness. I tend to keep my aperture between 2.8 and 4 and use filters if I need to.
Keeping these settings in mind, in order to ensure you can keep the ideal settings for what you’re shooting, you will probably need ND filters. It can be hard to keep your aperture between f2.8 and 4, for example, on a bright sunny day, and keep your image properly exposed.
That’s why filters are an absolute must to have in your kit to be able to block out some light reaching your sensor.
» MORE: Best ND Filters
Composition and motion
Now that we’ve been through the basics of camera settings for your drone, here comes the most important part that will set you apart from all the rest in my opinion. It all comes down to composition and motion.
This is the part where you discover if you have an eye for cinematography and where the art of drone filmmaking really shines. This is your ability to frame a shot. I will go through what each is and why each is important and then explain why I’ve grouped them together.
Composition is how you choose to frame the image or video you’re going to capture. Yes, there are actually pleasing ways to present a scene and it affects the overall quality and watchability of your final piece (yes, that’s a word).
There are many different “rules” to composition, although again, this is a very artistic choice, but I’ll go through some here that I use when I frame a shot with a drone.
Probably the most widely known and the one I use most is the rule of thirds. You should enable the grid marker in your settings on your drone if you want to make this easier for yourself, as this will show you horizontal and vertical lines (even diagonal ones if you want) of where you should position your subjects on screen.
For example, I like to use the upper horizontal line as my indicator for where my horizon should be, so I don’t have too much sky in my frame, and then I’ll use the vertical lines to place subjects I’m tracking with my drone.
If you are tracking a subject, you always want to be aware of the direction they are heading, as this will serve as your indicator of where to leave the most space. You want to leave the most space on the side of the screen your subject is heading towards. This is a more pleasing frame than having the subject nearly at the edge of the screen in the other third of the frame, where the viewer can’t really see where they’re heading.
Another great thing to keep in mind with framing is you want to utilize shapes, patterns, symmetry, foreground. Anything that will be naturally pleasing to the human eye. Using natural frames within your shot, for example, flying your drone through a canopy of trees towards a subject, is a lot more interesting than just flying towards your subject.
One of my favorites when it comes to drone shots though is the sudden appearance of a foreground. Let’s say you’re orbiting a house and suddenly a tree shows up in the foreground as you move around it, creating sort of like a mask within your shot. That, for some reason, is very pleasing to my eye.
There are also basics when shooting characters. Like, don’t cut off limbs, know the right amount of headspace, etc. These elements of composition are all something you should almost intuitively grasp as you practice and feel what looks right. Eventually, it will become something you don’t even think about consciously, you just get in the zone.
The special thing about drones is that they fly – I know, shocking, right? And with so much capability to move around, of course, the most mesmerizing drone shots are the most dynamic (don’t even get me started on FPV drones, that’s a whole other level of dynamic).
There’s definitely room for a static drone shot, usually from a top-down perspective as those can be extremely graphic, but most of the time, the reason why you need a drone to shoot a scene in the first place is that you need a moving camera up high.
Being smooth with your motion is the most cinematically pleasing. The last thing you want is jerky movements to bring the viewer out of the story and make them think about the tool used to capture the story. Smooth and slow is the way to go in most cases.
Of course, when you’re tracking high-speed motion, you don’t want to go slow, but you still want to be smooth. In general, your fingers should move gradually. If you are finishing a motion, you never want to just let go of the joystick, but rather gradually come back to the middle or gradually move forward.
The worst move for a cinematic drone operation is to be trigger-happy with the joysticks. Jerky movements are also not very aerodynamic and will make your drone flying less efficient, either wasting battery or unnecessarily causing strain on your hardware.
That being said, a lot of being smooth with your drone comes with practice, but you can actually change the sensitivity and the speed with which the drone will react to your joystick inputs, making it easier to be smooth. These settings may change depending on what you’re shooting.
For example, if you know you will have to very quickly raise the pitch of the gimbal to follow a moving car down a road, you will not want to set your gimbal pitch speed to something slow. My advice is to get to know what you’re shooting and adjust your settings accordingly.
More sensitive = more precise, but can also be jerkier.
I also set the speed at which my drone brakes to something low as the drone will stop more gradually and it will look more cinematic. But you need to keep in mind that slower reaction times can be dangerous if you need to stop or change directions quickly. You can find these settings in the advanced settings of the main menu and also in the gimbal section.
Composition and motion go together
The reason why I grouped composition and motion together is that they go hand in hand. The way you move a drone can play into the composition of your shot. If you lower the altitude of the drone, you now need to adjust the gimbal and tilt up to keep the scene in the frame, etc.
The motion of a shot can be just as pleasing and just as intentional as the composition of the frame. Let’s say you want to convey to the viewer a sense of a long voyage. You might keep the drone low to the ground or body of water and travel fast over it to get a sense of speed and distance traveled.
Composition and motion also go hand in hand when it comes to some of the bigger drones as well. Often there are dual operators, as now you have the gimbal to move around in connection with how the pilot is moving the drone.
Moving multiple axes at once creates a very visually pleasing and dynamic shot that, a lot of the time, only drones have the ability to do. My personal favorite is orbit while lowering altitude and tilting up.
How to get projects in Drone Filmmaking
Now that you’re getting more creative with your drone and filming things that are aesthetically pleasing, you’re ready to actually get paying jobs in this field. Well, like with a lot of creative industries, it may seem difficult to break into. There are a lot of people who want to do the work and not very clear avenues on how to get the jobs.
There is not a guaranteed way to be successful in the filmmaking industry. If there were, we’d have a lot more successful filmmakers. The best I can do is explain what I’ve learned throughout my process in the hopes that it may help you with yours.
In reality, it’s a “right place, right time, right expertise” kind of situation, but there are certain things you can do to increase your chances that you’re in that place and you have the right experience when the time comes.
1. Build up a solid portfolio
When working with a visual medium and providing a service, you need to back up your capabilities with past work. It’s just an unavoidable part of the creative industry. No one will want to work with you if they cannot see what you can do.
Unlike certain other jobs where you can jump right into it after getting a degree, with this type of job, you need to work your butt off to then, well, work your butt off. This may mean a lot of free work at the beginning, but as soon as you’re established enough, you will likely never have to do free work again.
You can join filmmaking groups in your area on Facebook and volunteer on projects that seem of interest to you. You can even write your own film and shoot that. Reach out to other creative people, such as musicians, because they might possibly need aerial work for a music video, etc.
Whatever you do, just get out there and shoot. Once you’ve compiled enough footage you’re happy with, create a showreel of no more than 3 minutes, so that potential clients can use that as an example of your work.
Better yet, create a website describing you and everything that you offer and can specialize in. The more user-friendly you make it for others, the simpler it will be for them to reach out to you, and the more jobs you will get.
2. Network, network, network
It’s about who you know. This is true for almost any industry. Once you develop a personal relationship with someone, they will always be more willing to help. The right contact can land you your dream job.
This is probably what I can attribute the successes in my career to the most. I met the right people and made sure to keep in contact and force my way onto the sets they were working on so that they saw how eager I was (I really wanted to work with them).
Obviously don’t be annoying about it, but showing someone you want something from how willing you are to work for it is not usually a bad thing. Remember too that relationships take time. Don’t expect something from someone right off the bat.
3. Create your own opportunities
This can apply to networking opportunities as well, but you should also be self-sufficient and not rely only on others to get work. The more you show you can do it on your own, the more others will want to work with you. For example, start your own company, cold call potential clients, write your own film and shoot it, give yourself your own opportunities.
When I first started, the people that I met didn’t hire me right off the bat. Yes, I forced my way onto sets with them to watch them work, but that was always volunteer work. They never reached out to actually hire me until I started my own company, was getting jobs by myself, was sharing my work on social media, etc.
This showed them how serious I was. And, even if they hadn’t reached out to give me the opportunities I have now, I know I’d have enough work to keep me going because I did all this work by myself and made a name for myself.
4. Become good at a niche
With drone filmmaking, this can be specializing in extreme sports, FPV, flying a very specific type of drone, etc. Most likely if you become an expert at a niche, you’ll be one of the only ones offering that service in your area and the competition will be slim. This will also increase your chances of getting hired in other places and being able to travel for work.
So whether you’re filming establishing shots for a movie or filming main scenes for a narrative, you can now use these tips to get started in the world of drone filmmaking! It’s a highly lucrative industry if you can master the art of aerial cinematography.
You just need to practice, practice, practice. Like starting any new art, you need to discover that passion, and I promise you will see returns if you put in the work. So welcome to the world of drone filmmaking! It’s an absolute blast.
Understanding White Balance in Digital Photography (link)