We’ve all seen those incredible photos from seemingly impossible perspectives. And if you’ve ever wondered ‘how on earth do I do that?’, well the answer is simple – drones. Drones have been able to surpass what seemed possible in the world of photography and take the art to the next level – literally. So, what even is drone photography?
Drone photography is the art of using a remotely piloted aircraft fitted with a camera to capture aerial stills and images.
My first introduction to photography was through drones and, I know I may be a little biased, but I still think it’s the most rewarding way to capture images. Lots of other people think so too with drone photography quickly becoming a popular trend on Instagram and social media in general.
What makes drone photography so appealing?
Why do people love drone photography so much and why is it becoming so popular? Aerial photos are so resonating with people because it’s a perspective we cannot usually see and we are attracted to the new and unknown.
There is such a curiosity about things beyond our capabilities. We can visit beautiful places, but how often can we see these places from a bird’s eye view, unless we get into a helicopter or an airplane?
This perspective gives that wow factor to images, which is what makes them so enticing. With drones becoming so affordable and user-friendly, this perspective is becoming more and more common, but it’s still a new technology, so there is so much more to see and experiment with.
The history of drone photography
Aerial photography has been around for a lot longer than you think, with the first aerial photo being taken in 1858 by hot air balloon (source).
Now, compared to the technology we use to take aerial images today, a lot has happened in between. But to save you from a long history class on aerial photography, I want to focus more on the history of the drones that we know. Because let’s face it, it’s these consumer drones that have carved the way for regular photographers, like me and you, to establish the art in this modern day.
Drones have their root mostly in the military, being used as weapons and for surveillance, but in 2006, organizations and governments were frequently using drones for other non-military reasons and therefore changed the way people perceived the use of drones.
That was the same year (2006) the FAA began its commercial drone permit issuance. These drones were used for things like pipeline inspections, security, and crop evaluation in the agriculture industry. Drones were limited and not easy to manage and required a lot more effort than the drones we fly today.
In 2010, the company Parrot released their first ready-to-fly drone, which could be controlled via a smartphone with a WiFi connection.
Still, it wasn’t until 2013 that drones began to gain mainstream popularity and why is that? Amazon announced its future vision for a drone-based delivery system.
It was also in 2013 that DJI (who is the leading manufacturer of consumer drones today) released their first consumer drone: The Phantom 1, which came equipped with a camera. You can see where this is going, right?
Then in 2014, the FAA granted permission for film and TV productions to begin using drones on set. This is also the year the Inspire 1 was launched by DJI.
Governments started putting regulations with respect to drones into place in 2016, creating things like no-fly zones. 2016 was a big year for drones, as this was also the year the Mavic Pro came out, which was considered a game-changing drone in that it was compact and boasted a longer flight time and a more intelligent system (source).
Every year since then, drones have become smarter, more user-friendly, better quality, and just all-around more advanced. Many more companies have entered the market seeing the opportunities involved and this has left us drone pilots spoiled for choice. But with this much choice, it can get overwhelming to know which drone is the best for you.
How to know which (photography) drone is best for you?
There are so many drones that are made for specific uses, it can get overwhelming to know which drone is for what. The first thing you need to make sure of if you’re planning to get a drone for photography is that you buy a drone with a camera on it.
I know that seems obvious, but this is the first criteria that will narrow down your search and you have to start somewhere, right?
Okay, so you’re looking at drones with cameras, but what should you look for in terms of this camera’s ability that’s best suited to your needs? There are a lot of things you need to consider about the camera when buying a drone for photography: sensor size, megapixels, can it shoot RAW, zoom or no zoom, variable aperture, and manual camera controls, not to mention all of the other features you might want in the drone, like range of transmission, ease of use, intelligent flight modes, etc.
Based on what kind of photos you want to take, some of these factors might be more important than others, so let’s go through the most important considerations when buying a drone for photography:
1. Sensor size:
The bigger a camera’s sensor, the more light it can capture, often resulting in clearer, sharper images all around. You can fit more megapixels in a bigger sensor, which means your images will be higher resolution. A big sensor is very important if you’re planning to shoot often in low light.
Because they capture more light, they offer a more dynamic range, allowing you to keep information that would otherwise be lost in the shadows. There are a ton of drones out there ranging from half-inch, one-inch, or even a 4/3 inch sensor on the new Mavic 3.
This is the number of pixels that combine to make up an image. A higher megapixel count means more detail in the image with the ability to crop in without the image becoming pixelated. The more megapixels equals higher resolution. You can print your images larger with more megapixels.
It doesn’t necessarily mean better image quality though, as we saw with the sensor size. Your sensor needs to be large enough to handle more megapixels, or in other words, have room for them. If your sensor is too small with a high megapixel count, it can create noise in your image, especially in low-light situations where you need to bump up the ISO.
3. Manual Exposure:
Plain and simple. If you want to be serious about your drone photography, you need to pick a drone that gives you the most control over your exposure. You should be able to control your ISO, shutter speed, and aperture.
4. Ability to shoot in RAW:
Make sure the drone you select has the ability to shoot images in RAW. This will give you the freedom to work with your image in post-production, as this is the least processed and compressed format. RAW files are larger files, but you have more information to tweak in the editing process, which is essential in photography.
5. Drone features:
This factor is personal to everyone, as some people may favor certain features over others, but you also want to consider the actual drone and its abilities and not just the camera, because after all, you’ll be flying it.
Certain things you want to look for are compactness, intelligent flight modes for autonomous flying, flight sensors (AKA its ability to avoid obstacles), the popularity of the drone in the market (to make it easy to find answers to troubleshooting questions), battery life/ flight time, remote controller and app system, etc.
Make a list of what’s most important to you. If you’ll be traveling a lot to take your pictures, maybe compactness would be high on your list.
Cost of getting into drone photography
So you might be thinking to yourself: “Okay, perfect! I’ll just get the drone with the biggest sensor, highest megapixel count, most manual control, and also the most intelligent flight modes. Easy.”
Easy enough if money ain’t a thing, but for most of us, it is. The very best features come with a price tag. Such is life. Budget is a huge consideration when purchasing a drone. In fact, I would say it’s the first consideration for most when they make the decision to buy a drone. What can you afford? This is another basic criteria that will filter through all the options out there.
Set your budget and find what’s best for you within that. Sure, the Mavic 3 has a four-thirds sensor, but it is also very expensive, so compromise may be your answer. You have to determine, based on your needs, what you care about the most and what you can do without.
Buying the drone may seem like all you have to do to become a pro drone photographer, but there are all these hidden costs, including for things like accessories such as filters, courses (see our recommended training courses on DroneSchool.com), and licensing to even be able to fly your drone where you live.
This cost can range dramatically depending on what drone you buy, where you are, and what conditions you’re shooting in.
All of that aside, you can buy a very good drone with a camera with an investment of $500-$1000. If you want to go pro right away, you should be looking at spending over $1800.
And, if you want to go even cheaper than $500, there are definitely options out there, but you probably will lose out on image quality.
What drones are the best for drone photography?
To make your life even easier, I’ve compiled a list of the best overall photography drones based on the general criteria above. It takes into account overall performance and affordability.
This is a list that fits what most people could want when looking for a drone for photography, but not all. So if you have a niche style of photography that you need a specific drone for, don’t use this list as your guide, but do what’s best for you based on the information above.
Here are my top picks:
1. DJI Air 2S:
This one tops the list based on its price, performance, and compactness. Although not as small as the DJI Mini 2, it is super portable and smaller than the Mavic 2 Pro or the Mavic 3.
It boasts a one-inch sensor, 20 megapixels, and 5.4K video. It has many intelligent flight modes for your needs, including hyperlapse, and a new advanced obstacle avoidance system APAS 4.0.
It shoots in RAW and most of its camera settings are variable, except the Air 2S has a fixed aperture of 2.8. The fact that it does not have variable aperture is a drawback, but you can always get ND filters to help you further control exposure where you lack that control in aperture.
This drone comes in just under $1,000 USD for the standard model (check price on Amazon).
2. DJI Mavic 3:
This drone misses out on the number one spot simply because of its price. All other factors considered, it packs the most high-performance features of any drone on this list. It even has 2 cameras, although let’s face it, the zoom camera on this drone is not even worth discussing.
The Mavic 3 has a 4/3 inch sensor (½ inch on the tele camera), 20 megapixels, and can shoot 5.1K video. This is the biggest sensor we’ve seen from DJI on a consumer drone, which means it is able to capture the most dynamic range and is therefore great in low light.
The price tag of this drone is its drawback, starting at just over $2,000 USD for the standard model (check price on Amazon). If you’re looking to go all-in on your drone photography investment, this is the drone for you.
3. DJI Mavic 2 Pro:
I may be a bit biased because this is my personal favorite and has been the main tool in my arsenal for a number of years now. Known to be a powerful little beast, the Mavic 2 Pro was a game-changer offering incredible camera quality in compact form.
It has a 1-inch sensor, 20 megapixels, and can shoot 4K video. It is not as new as the Air 2S or the Mavic 3, so its features are a bit outdated and obstacle avoidance not as advanced, but the Mavic 2 Pro still makes the list at a price tag of around $1,300 USD for the standard model, it’s definitely more affordable than the Mavic 3 (check price on Amazon).
4. Autel Evo II Pro:
Coming in at number 4, this drone features a ton of cool specs. With a 1 inch sensor at 20 megapixels and the ability to shoot 6K video, it’s no wonder this drone has made the list. It also has an incredible flight time of 40 minutes!
I would say this drone is the most comparable to the DJI Air 2S, but has a higher price tag at around $2,000 USD (check price on Amazon). So if the flight time is important to you, and you don’t want the DJI Mavic 3, this drone is for you.
5. DJI Mini 2:
I just had to put this one on the list because it is the drone I recommend everyone buy as their first introduction to drones with a decent enough camera to take really great pictures and videos.
The fact that it’s below 250g means that most people don’t need to register it, which makes it a super easy choice to get going with. It has a half-inch sensor, 12 megapixels, and can shoot 4K video.
I know it seems to not even compare to the other drones on this list, but that’s actually pretty impressive for a drone this size. It does not have a variable aperture, but again, you can buy ND filters to have more control over exposure if you need.
It also does not have obstacle avoidance, but what it lacks in terms of features, it makes up for in compactness and convenience. If you travel or are on the move a lot, this drone is very easy to bring along with you.
It is also the most affordable on the list at around $500 USD (check price on Amazon).
Tips for taking drone photos
So you bought your drone, but the pictures you’re taking don’t quite look like you want them to or you’re not quite sure how to adjust what to get what you want. The ideal settings for taking pictures vary greatly based on personal preference and what kind of photo you’re taking.
For instance, if you’re taking long exposure night photographs, you will not have the same settings as someone who is taking sports photography. It’s important to learn your camera settings and how specifically to take the kind of photos you want to take as there is no general rule of thumb on how to take a photo.
But, if you’re just starting out and don’t even know what kind of photos you want to take with your drone or where you should even start, here are some basic tips that have helped me make my photos better.
1. Shoot in AEB
Some people like to shoot in HDR straight out of the drone, but you can do this manually, and therefore have more control by shooting AEB (automatic exposure bracketing). What this does is basically when you click to capture a photo, your drone will take 3 or 5 photos in a kind of burst depending on how many you set it to.
These photos will all be taken at different exposure values, so you will end up with separate files of the same photo under-exposed, properly exposed, and over-exposed. What this enables you to do is to merge these photos in your post-editing software to create an HDR image.
Now, why on earth would you do such a thing? Oftentimes, in real-world situations where you have no control over the lighting, you can have a frame with a very bright sky, but also very dark shadows, for example. So, exposing for the subject in the frame might blow out your sky or render the shadows completely black.
By taking 3 different exposure values, you can now have a photo with the exposure adjusted for each part of your frame, like the sky. You can then merge these photos and not lose any information you might have otherwise lost.
So, why not just do an HDR image through the drone? Well, like anything, you just have more control manually. You have more options to adjust and play with your image if you have access to all your exposure values and this way, you can make it look exactly how you want.
2. Keep your ISO low or at native value
You want to adjust your ISO to your lighting situation, but when you push it too far, you will start to see graininess in your image, which can affect the quality. This is especially apparent in drones with small camera sensors.
On my Mavic 2 Pro, I generally never want to go past an ISO of 400 if I can help it. Anything above that results in nasty grain. Try to adjust your other settings to allow more light into the sensor before you push your ISO to its limit.
If you don’t have another choice, then, by all means, bump up your ISO, but just know your image may suffer for it.
3. Take manual vertical panoramas
This one is interesting because it gives an even more out-of-this-world perspective to a drone photo. You can often trick the eye with this method by making it seem like you are much higher than you actually are or your lens is much wider than it is.
There is an option for automatic vertical panoramas in many drones, but again, manually doing this offers more control over your final image.
Once you’ve found a frame, you want to take at least 3 angles of it: pointing more towards the sky, pointing the camera directly at your subject, and tilting the camera down to see what’s beneath. Keep in mind, you may have to take 3 photos at each angle (compensating for side views) to avoid the hourglass effect in post.
Later, in your editing software, you want to align these photos in a vertical panorama. You can auto-align them in photoshop.
Once you do that, you can crop the image however you want, but now you see much more of the entire landscape than you would have been able to by shooting just one picture. You can crop it to the same size as any other picture you’d take on your drone and still keep the larger perspective.
4. Use ND filters
You should purchase a set of ND filters in order to filter out the light on your drone. This will allow you to keep your settings fixed at what you want to get the best result without having to adjust them for exposure. This is especially important if you have a drone with a fixed aperture.
Let’s say you’re shooting long exposure photography on a bright day. Well, then a filter will really come in handy and will allow you to keep your shutter speed at your ideal level.
For more tips and advice on how to get started in drone photography, read our post over here »
Some well-known drone photographers to get inspiration from
No art was ever made without inspiration. Just to inspire you to get off the ground flying into drone photography, here are some very talented drone photographers that have inspired me:
Hopefully, you can share your work someday and inspire others with your aerial photography!