So, you want to be a drone photographer, huh? You’ve come to the right place.
With thousands making full-time careers out of this job and thousands more earning generous side income, drone photography is a great way to put cash in your pocket.
You can also use your photos to tell stories, capture important memories, and–overall–make working safer, as drones can go places humans no longer have to.
This ultimate guide will dive deeper into drone photography than you’d ever imagine, peeling back the curtain and revealing everything you need to begin a lucrative career in this field.
To help, we’ve identified and reviewed the best drone courses for beginners and professionals.
What is drone photography?
At its most basic, drone photography is using a camera drone to take images of a person, place, or thing.
However, it goes a lot further than that.
Sometimes, drone photography is just for fun. You might bust out your drone at a picnic or birthday party, using selfie modes to take shots of the whole group together.
Much more frequently, drone photography is a commercial venture. There are so many areas where aerial photos are required, including:
- Wedding photography
- Construction sites
- Real estate properties
- 3D modeling
- Insurance claims
These fields using drones instead of humans are safer, as people don’t have to scale great heights or enter dangerous scenarios when a drone can do it instead.
How to choose a drone photography location
Just as important as what and when you shoot is where. A drone photograph is only as good as its location, so how do you choose the best one?
The ideal environment for drone photography is vast and open. Think beaches, parks, and farmland. However, just because you want to fly in these locales doesn’t always mean you’re legally permitted to.
Here are some other pointers for selecting the right spot to fly a drone.
- Use Google Maps: The satellite view in Google Maps is an excellent way to scope out potential locations without the need to get in the car and drive there yourself, potentially wasting time and gas.
- Check with the drone community: However you like to chat with your drone pals, be it on social media or in person, pick their brains and ask where they like to take their drones for a spin. This is especially a good idea when traveling somewhere new.
- Review in your drone app: You should always have a drone app handy, whether it’s the app your drone manufacturer recommends, like DJI Fly or Ophelia GO, or a third-party app like Litchi. Confirm whether the area you want to fly is in restricted airspace.
- Scope out the place yourself: By now, you have a reasonable idea if the location is worth your while. Drive out there and take a look-see. Consider going back earlier versus later in the day to plan the mood for your next photography session.
How to plan drone photos
You’ve decided where your drone photoshoot will unfold, but how do you take the perfect photo? Here are some pointers to get you in the mood to shoot.
Know who you’re photographing
I know, this sounds like a no-brainer, but in all the excitement of planning your first drone photoshoot, you can kind of forget to obtain these details.
Sometimes, you won’t take photos of anyone at all, such as if you’re doing land surveying, real estate photography, wildlife photography, or construction photos.
For other gigs, the people might be the focus, like during a wedding or special event. They may also just be there incidentally, such as if you’re taking news footage.
Depending on who’s supposed to be the focal point, you’ll need to know how to set your camera, including the aperture (if you can adjust it).
Find your spot
You have a general idea where you will take photos with your drone, but where specifically will you go?
That depends on what type of drone shoot you’re doing. For example, on a real estate shoot, you should stay near the property you’re photographing, just as you should stay near the building site for a construction project.
However, for generalized drone projects, you have the freedom to be choosy here about where you go.
Consider factors like what’s in the background, how the lighting is at various times of day, and what backdrop is most magnificent but won’t detract from the subjects.
Smart mode or manual flight – It’s time to choose
Another consideration is how you will fly your drone. All drones have smart features these days, allowing them to fly on a pre-projected route, capturing cinematics along the way.
You may rely almost exclusively on these features, or you might decide to fly manually instead.
More than likely, you’ll use a mix of both.
Consider a storyboard
Certain types of drone photography shoots benefit from a storyboard, especially artistic projects. A storyboard maps out what will happen in each frame.
Creating one keeps your projects neat and concise, ensuring you don’t waste any time or hard drive space.
Check the weather
The last thing you want is inclement weather ruining your photo shoot. You can’t compete against Mother Nature, and attempting to do so will usually result in a waterlogged or broken drone.
Since you’ll be airborne, you have to consider the wind as well as precipitation. You could have a clear, sunny day available, but if the wind is too strong, you should not take your drone out.
Of course, this tip only applies if flying a drone outdoors. You have more freedom with indoor operations.
Bring plenty of spares (SD cards, batteries, etc.)
And when it does? You better have another, and then another, just in case you didn’t get to finish what you were doing.
The same goes for SD cards. When you run out of storage space, you can’t save photos or videos to your drone. That negates the purpose of working.
What type of drones do you need for photography?
With thousands of drones available at varying price points, the question of which to select for photography is hard, right? Well, not anymore!
You can count on the advice of Droneblog when seeking a drone because we always put extensive testing into the products we suggest.
I’m sure you’re waiting with bated breath, so let’s look at the top five photography drones.
1. DJI Mavic 3 Pro
Of course, I couldn’t possibly start off this drone photography ultimate guide without discussing the DJI Mavic 3 Pro. I just couldn’t.
This is by far the best camera system DJI has produced in its series of consumer drones. I know that’s a big statement to make, but I feel good about saying it.
After all, the Mavic 3 Pro has three cameras in one drone. Let me repeat that: three cameras in one, and one is a Hasselblad! The other two are tele cameras.
Once you really get into drone photography and start taking on more clients, you’ll find yourself purchasing an entire fleet of drones. Some will have ultra-togglable apertures, and others less so. You’ll switch between one and another to get a specific mood.
The Mavic 3 Pro reduces the need for all that. Its Hasselblad camera with a 4/3 CMOS shoots in 20 MP resolution with a 24-millimeter equivalent and aperture range between f/2.8 and f/11.
One of two tele cameras has a half-inch CMOS with a 166-millimeter equivalent, 12 MP image range, and f/3.4 aperture. You can tap into two exciting zoom modes: Hybrid Zoom with 28x the zooming power and 7x Optical Zoom.
The third camera is a medium tele camera with a 1/13-inch CMOS, a 70-millimeter equivalent, 48 MP image quality, f/2.8 aperture, and 3x Optical Zoom.
As you can see, there’s a camera for every type of scenario, whether you’re filming for social media, capturing a vivid savannah while on safari, in the middle of the woods, on a beach, or standing atop the peak of a mountain.
I’m not even finished yet. HLG brings in all the detail and color you could ever want, and color supplementation through 10-bit D-Log M ensures you barely have to touch color saturation when in post.
I mean, these triple cameras are simply unreal. And as if all that wasn’t wonderful enough, the Mavic 3 Classic also promises about 40 minutes of flight time and some of the best obstacle sensing and avoidance in town.
The drone has DJI’s APAS 5.0 and sensors every which way for determining what might be in its way and making a backup plan ASAP.
You can also use Intelligent Flight Modes from Cruise Control to Waypoints and FocusTrack to find your subject and stay locked on.
- Hasselblad Main Camera 4/3 inch CMOS 24mm equivalent
- Medium Tele Camera 1/1.3 inch CMOS 70mm equivalent
- Tele Camera 166mm equivalent up to 28x hybrid zoom
- 43 minutes flight time, DJI O3+
- DJI RC Pro
2. DJI Mavic 3 Classic
Okay, listen. I got the triple-camera drone out of the way early. All the other drones on this list have only one camera system, but that’s okay!
The Mavic 3 Classic, an earlier iteration than the Pro, is a DJI masterpiece.
You don’t get medium tele cameras, but an incredible L2D-20c Hasselblad camera with a 4/3 CMOS, an equivalent focal length of 24 millimeters, 20 MP images, and 12.8 stops for a natural (but still jaw-dropping) dynamic range.
You want to set the aperture? But of course! You can, with the lowest setting f/2.8 and the highest f/11. Vision Detection Auto Focus Technology, or VDAF, keeps your drone camera watching like a hawk.
You can even save in 12-bit RAW to retain the fullest extent of those rich details you captured during your latest photography session.
HNCS is a standout in this drone. I love how the colors come through subtly yet powerfully. This is one of the best pieces of technology DJI has released, and it will help you elevate your photography game.
The Mavic 3 Classic flies for more than 40 minutes when I tested it (its advertised flight time is an incredible 46 minutes). It’s also equipped with the ultra-powerful APAS 5.0 visual assistance with varying sensor groups, and hovering precision.
- DJI RC remote controller
3. Autel EVO II Pro V3
The cost-effective accessories bundle aside, the Autel EVO II Pro V3 is an exceptionally powerful drone to add to your photography fleet.
As Autel Robotics has upgraded this drone over the years, the latest edition is equipped with a one-inch CMOS sensor from Sony.
The camera shoots in 20 MP resolution, which I recognize is not as great as what the above DJI drones offer, but hear me out. The Moonlight Algorithm 2.0 is one of the coolest features you can experience as a drone pilot.
The clarity absolutely shines. You won’t feel like you’re shooting at night, as there will be so much detail, color, and richness in every environment you explore.
The 12-bit DNG files have incredible color rendering, enough so that you might not decide to mess with saturation much when in post.
Worried about obstacle avoidance? There’s no need to be. The full-scope obstacle avoidance system the EVO Lite II Pro boasts is some of the best in the industry, and there are many drone pilots who can personally attest to that.
This drone also has a 40-minute projected flight time, which, in real life, is closer to around 35 minutes.
4. DJI Mini 3 Pro
And now, for a different type of DJI drone. If you’ve read my work, you’ll probably recall how much I love the Mini 3 Pro. It might be my favorite drone.
Unlike the other photography drones I’ve recommended, this one weighs under 250 grams without any payload. If you like to travel here, there, and everywhere for your job as a pro drone photographer, you don’t need a drone that breaks your back.
Aside from that, this drone has a fabulous battery life if you upgrade to the Intelligent Flight Battery Plus. I know it sucks to spend more money than you already shelled out for a DJI drone, but the 40+ minute flight time is so worth it, if you ask me!
How about this drone’s dazzling camera? Its 1/1.3-inch CMOS shoots in HDR and has dual native ISO. Although the aperture is set at f/1.7, the lighting is sufficient in scenarios with average and lower light.
As for image quality? The Mini 3 Pro shoots in 48 MP, so you won’t be left wanting for much there! The scope of color imbued through the D-Cinelike Color is nothing short of impressive.
The Mini 3 Pro is safer to fly than other Mini drones, as it has three-way obstacle detection and APAS 4.0. These are some top-of-the-line safety features, considering newer Mini drones like the Mini 2 SE have none.
Plus, you can take vertical and horizontal photos and videos with a moving gimbal, uploading straight to your social media platform of choice. FocusTrack and Digital Zoom are other great tools to have in your back pocket!
5. Autel EVO Lite
If you only choose one DJI and one Autel drone, let it be the Mavic 3 Pro and the EVO Lite.
The EVO Lite, despite not being the newest in the series anymore, impresses in so many remarkable ways. It has a four-axis gimbal rather than the standard three-axis design, which is purely exceptional.
Its 1/2.8-inch CMOS sensor shoots in…wait for it…50 MP image quality. That outshines even what DJI offers in flagship models like the Mavic 3 Pro.
The camera is also fully loaded with two autofocus systems and Dynamic Track 2.1.
The battery life of about 40 minutes is excellent for this drone’s larger size, and its Autel obstacle avoidance will put your mind at ease every time you launch this colorful drone (oh yeah, it comes in orange).
1'' CMOS Sensor with 6K HDR Camera, No Geo-Fencing, 3-Axis Gimbal, 3-Way Obstacle Avoidance, 40Min Flight Time, 7.4 Miles Transmission, Lite Plus More Combo.
What are the best image settings for drone photography?
As a disclaimer, the top image settings for your drone vary depending on the model you select. That said, I’m going to try to keep the information here as general as possible so it applies to most drones.
Image formats run the gamut from RAW to TIFF, JPG, PNG, and BMP.
The lowest-quality image format of the above is JPG or JPEG. It compresses your photo and removes some image data. You lose image sharpness and clarity, so some of the colors can bleed together and look pixel-y.
I’m sure you’ve accidentally saved a photo on your computer as a JPG, so you know exactly what I mean.
RAW files carry the most unfiltered image detail, minus the noise. They’re the best if you can swing it, but since they have so much image data, they’re huge. For comparison, they’re up to six times bigger than an average JPG.
You will need a heavy-duty hard drive or SD cards galore to save all RAW image files. Either that, or you have to shoot selectively, but that’s no fun.
Drone photography resolution
Drones come in many photography resolutions, beginning as low as 12 MP through 51 MP.
I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that the higher the resolution, the crisper, more detailed, richer, and more amazing your photos are with less time in post.
However, it’s not like you can change a drone camera’s resolution once you buy it, so ensure you’re happy with it before checking out.
Drones like the DJI Mavic 3 Pro are excellent because you can use several resolutions, from 12 to 48 MP.
Drone photography aspect ratio
All images have aspect ratios, referring to the height-to-width ratio or x:y.
Which aspect ratio you like will come down to a matter of personal preference. Many photographers prefer the 4:3 ratio for most work, but it’s not uncommon to switch to 16:9 for certain drone cameras when shooting landscapes or other wide-open areas.
My recommendation? Explore and experiment. Even once you find an aspect ratio you like, know that it won’t necessarily be the one you stick to forever. You will want to change it depending on the scenario.
Color and exposure
Here’s the fun thing about setting the colors of your drone camera: most of the time, you don’t have to manually finetune anything.
DJI drones with 10-bit D-Log or Hasselblad Natural Colour Solution will grade your images automatically, infusing them with lifelike color.
You could always edit the colors in post afterward if you wish. If so, then it will be straight to the saturation settings, where you can finetune the degree of color brightness. Too much saturation will dilute the quality of your images, so use a light hand here.
You can sometimes also set color temperature, making the shot warmer (more yellow) or cooler (more blue). I don’t tinker much with color temperature settings, but subtle adjustments can come in handy.
Let’s talk about image exposures.
You know how you can set the aperture of some drone cameras, right? This determines the degree of exposure. The more light the done camera lens lets in, the greater the exposure.
Besides the aperture, a drone camera’s exposure is also dictated by its lens number and shutter speed.
While you can always adjust exposure settings in post, this is time-consuming, arduous work. You might have better luck setting the exposure closer to where you want it by adjusting your drone camera settings and then taking your photo.
This way, you can still edit the exposure in post, but you won’t have to make such big, sweeping changes, saving you time.
Framing a drone photo
If your shots are balanced, the laws of composition will come into play very naturally with drone photography. However, if you have no idea what I’m talking about when I mention composition, that’s okay. You’ll learn.
The primary rule in framing a photo is the rule of thirds. If you dissect the view in front of you into nine cubes, you’ll realize that subjects don’t have to be dead-center to take a good photograph.
If anything, you want them between two of the vertical and horizontal lines at intersection points. That’s good framing.
Now, there’s a difference between setting up the perfect framing when you’re holding a camera in your hand or have it stationary on a tripod versus a drone camera, which consistently hovers in the air.
It’s harder to navigate a drone camera, at least at first, but through practice and using stable hovering, you can keep your drone camera stiller and frame your shot just the way you want.
Take advantage of tracking features in your drone. They may not perfectly frame your subject, but they will keep them within view, even if they’re on the go.
White balance of your drone photos
Color casts with an unnatural degree of color often appear white when rendering photos. That’s as true in traditional photography as it is in drone photography.
White balance is setting the color temperature, as I talked about above, to make the white light look cooler or warmer.
Which color temperature you want will depend on the type of scene you’re shooting. For example, a warmer tone fits a beach at sunset, while a cool tone is ideal for an overhead view of a mountain surrounded by water.
Manual vs. auto mode when capturing photos with your drone
The next question is whether to shoot drone photos in automatic or manual mode.
As the names imply, manual mode requires you to adjust the aperture and other settings for the optimal amount of light.
If you’d rather not do that yourself, automatic mode uses AI to do it for you. Essentially, the technology gauges the conditions and automatically adjusts the lighting.
Both have their pros and cons.
Auto mode is great when you’re just starting out and unsure how to get the right amount of lighting out of your drone photos. It’s also faster and easier, saving you time if you’re crunched to get a photoshoot done.
However, you won’t truly understand how your drone camera works if you don’t shoot in manual. It’s more time-consuming and can require lots of finetuning the settings depending on the environment, but it’s worth it, as you have those skills.
Normal vs. HDR photographs with your drone
The last consideration as you plan your drone photos is whether you’ll use high dynamic range, or HDR, or take normal photos.
Dynamic range is the contrast of dark and light tones. HDR photos successfully replicate the amount of light and detail you see when you gaze out on the incredible scene.
In other words, your photos will be more lifelike and realistic when shooting in HDR.
When taking normal photos, bright areas can look like a washed-out white mess. HDR will retain more details in the brightness, adding dynamism to your photos. Shadows that typically look like black blotches in normal photos have crispness and clarity when using HDR.
Can you capture long-exposure images with your drone?
Long-exposure photography entails opening the camera shutter and leaving it that way when shooting. The result is a light trail left from a nearby object in motion, such as cars on a busy highway at night.
It’s an excellent photography strategy, but how applicable is it in drones? After all, most photographers achieve long-exposure images by using a tripod.
Drones can take long-exposure images! However, your drone requires ND filters, between ND16 and ND2000 in gray.
You also can’t likely plan a long-exposure shoot at night. In the United States and many other parts of the world, the respective drone agencies that govern the skies prohibit night operations unless the pilot has permission and the appropriate warning lights.
Another consideration when taking long-exposure photos is battery life. You must let the camera lens stay open for a while to get photos in the true spirit of this technique.
If your drone battery has a lifespan of under 30 minutes, you limit the efficiency of long-exposure photos, making them less worthwhile.
Do you need filters for your drone photography?
Whether you need neutral-density, or ND, filters comes down to the types of photos you like to take. You can’t master long-exposure images by daylight without ND filters, as you’ll recall, but they’re beneficial for more than that.
First, here’s an explanation. ND filters determine how much light the drone’s camera lens receives.
All ND filters reduce overexposure risks and grant you more control over shutter speed and aperture, even if your drone camera doesn’t have options to adjust either.
ND filters are numbered starting at ND4 through ND128 and up. Most come in a set, so you can select the type of filter that suits your photography ventures.
The lower the ND filter number, the less light reduction. For instance, an ND4 filter has two stops of light reduced, lessening the amount by ¼. The shutter speed goes to 1/25s from 1/100s.
If you go all the way up to an ND64 filter, it reduces stops of light by four or by 1/64. A good in-between option is ND16, which can cut six stops of light or produce light reduction at a rate of 1/16.
The shutter speed goes to 1/25s from 1/400s.
» MORE: A Simple Guide to ND Filters
What are the best apps to edit drone photographs?
As exceptional as today’s drone cameras are for reducing your time in post, you’ll still spend some time editing.
When you do, you want a fast-loading, efficient, intuitive, and effortless tool on your side, ideally one that lets you edit from your phone to your computer and back again.
Here are my personal picks!
I know Photoshop is the leading image-editing program from Adobe, but once I began using Lightroom, I was quickly hooked. I have the mobile app on my phone, and I’m always editing photos when I get a few minutes.
The editing suite is like having the full-blown Lightroom software on your phone. You can adjust the lighting, color, blur, and detail. You can even heal and remove parts of the image you no longer want in there.
If you’d rather not put in all that heavy lifting yourself, Lightroom has automatic modes that will apply the right degree of editing depending on the current state of your photo.
You get several versions to choose from, so if some are too extreme for your taste (and they usually are for mine), you can pick what you like and edit from there if you want.
Yes, okay, you had to expect this one. Photoshop is the premier image editor, as I said, and it’s a classic for a reason.
This is another editor I love to take with me on the go. The PS Express app lets you search for whatever effect you want to apply, from image saturating to cropping.
You can slap some stickers on your photos, choose from preset Looks (my favorite is HDR, but there are so many others), adjust all the fine details with sliders, reshape your image, heal it, smooth details, and edit facial features.
The app has a degree of facial recognition, which makes it easier to work with when you toggle with settings like smile and face width.
Simple touchups are another great feature I like. You can even add borders, overlays, and text.
How about a free image editor? In that case, GIMP is king.
I won’t say it can do as much as an Adobe product, but you can’t beat the price. You can add layers like you can in Photoshop, and select any part of the image to create masks. You can also apply filters and text, and GIMP works with third-party plug-ins.
It’s not available on mobile devices, so you’ll need a stationary computer to work, but it’s a good one to have on hand if you’re just starting out and on a tight budget.
Corel PaintShop Pro was my image editor of choice for years. It’s intuitive and easier to use than Photoshop, if you ask me, which I like.
Plus, you can set up photo composition according to the rule of thirds, so if you’re still mastering it, the program will crop your photo just so.
The adjustment tools you can use are as specific and fine-tuned as you need, and the program has HDR and RAW support.
If you edit your photos as much as I do, here’s the top feature of PaintShop Pro that will make you consider it. You can use Scripts to record your edits, then save and automate them for later.
So helpful and time-saving!
Do you need a license to capture photographs with a drone?
Yes, you must have a drone license whether you fly recreationally or professionally. The hobbyist license is known as a TRUST certificate, named for the TRUST exam, aka The Recreational UAS Safety Test.
You can take as many photos as you want recreationally, but you cannot sell them or otherwise make money from them.
If you want to do that, you need a commercial drone license, called a Remote Pilot Certificate, popularly known as Part 107.
You have to pass a much more advanced FAA-issued aeronautic knowledge exam to earn your commercial drone license.