In the past, aerial photography was a highly exclusive field. Few professional photographers had access to the possibilities it offered. The only major exceptions were those affiliated with the movie industry, news agencies of the highest caliber, and the independently wealthy.
In the 21st century, not much of that applies anymore. Nowadays, anyone (well, almost anyone) can dip their toes into the world of taking incredible shots from above. That’s all thanks to drone photography.
There’s just one problem. Especially to beginners, drone photography can seem mighty intimidating.
From complex technical specs to various legal requirements necessary for becoming a drone pilot, there is a lot to unpack, even for experienced photographers.
That is what this guide aims to resolve. In the following, I will walk you through every essential bit of knowledge that you need to get a head start in drone-powered aerial photography. Let’s get started!
Prerequisites for Drone Photography
One of the reasons why drone photography can seem so overwhelming to newcomers is that it comes with a laundry list of requirements and prerequisites. As fun as it would be to just jump right in and start taking pictures, it’s not that easy.
Still, there is a way we can make this introductory phase a lot less painful. How, you ask? By methodically assessing everything you need to know to get started and creating a step-by-step pre-flight checklist!
Most consumer-grade drones these days are monolithic designs. That is to say, they feature a built-in camera with its own stabilization hardware, gimbal system, and all other necessary items included in the box.
It used to be true that even these all-in-one drones were prohibitively expensive for the majority of photographers. However, that is no longer the case.
Budget-friendly options today include the DJI Mini 3, which starts at $559. That’s little more than an entry-level digital camera system from any of the major brands. Really thrifty photographers may even find certain discounted or second-hand models for a lower price.
Higher-end choices will generally add more weather and impact-resistant construction, pack larger batteries, and greatly improve the optical specs and image quality of the internal camera system.
Of course, expect prices to move up accordingly.
Training and Licensing for the Budding Drone Photographer
As soon as you have got your hands on a working drone, the next step is to become confident in piloting it.
To fly safely using a drone is not just a skill to be learned like any other. It is also a regulated privilege, just like traditional piloting licenses for larger aircraft.
To acquire that privilege, you need to attend a course that is accredited by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Note that in your place of residence, there may be a different legal body that is responsible for local drone regulations.
Thankfully, licensing is not too complicated. You mostly need to prove that you have sound motor skills and pass an exam challenging you on all rudimentary aspects of flying maneuvers, safety procedures, and handling.
Preparatory courses for these exams are widely available. Hence, I would strongly recommend any beginner to attend them prior to attempting any licensing exams.
In the United States, the minimum age to attend is 16 years. Again, this might differ where you live.
Also, remember to research and abide by all the restrictions that may apply on flying drones in your area. These might include when, where, and for how long you may fly your drone. Other regulations and restrictions also apply in certain contexts.
Anatomy of a Drone
Knowing how to keep your drone steady in the air is a great skill, but it’s not everything. In order to capture expressive images with your UAV and avoid disappointing results, it’s also crucial for you to understand how your machine works.
The common type epitomized by DJI drones consists of two basic parts. There is the drone itself and the included camera.
Characteristics of a UAV
Let’s start with the former.
A drone flies in much of the same way as an RC helicopter, by rotating its wings (or blades) to generate lift upwards. The blades are then angled in subtle ways to induce side-to-side motion and to tilt the body of the drone, allowing thrust in nearly any direction.
However, unlike traditional RC aircraft, the drone is also capable of ‘smart’ maneuvering that does not rely on the pilot to do all the work to keep the UAV in the air.
Powered by radio, GPS, gyroscopes, and various sensors, modern drone technology allows the vehicle to detect its own position, the angle relative to the ground, wind speed, and other factors and adjust for them automatically.
This makes the drone capable of performing aerobatic tricks, navigating to a series of destinations, and taking multiple images along the way, all without the need for direct human input.
That, if nothing else, is what makes drones so extremely useful for a variety of aerial photography techniques.
Because the pilot need not pay excessive attention to both flying and shooting at the same time and drones can be programmed to perform as needed, highly technical compositions are possible without much risk or danger.
Drone Cameras and Their Properties
In the earlier days of drone photography, it used to be common for an entry-level or mid-range drone to come with nothing but a small GoPro camera mount on the base of the UAV’s body.
Those days are over. While many drones have kept the provision for installing small action cams, all the reputable models come with their own high quality cameras built in nowadays.
This camera will most often feature some kind of moderately fast superzoom lens, optical image stabilization, and mechanical image stabilization by means of a gimbal linked to the body.
In terms of resolution, shutter speed, burst shooting capability, and other metrics, the kinds of optics nowadays built into consumer drones no longer have to shy away from comparisons with DSLRs or mirrorless cameras.
However, where drone cameras do lag behind a bit is in their physically limited image sensors. Generally, these range from one to two inches in size. Smaller drones may even feature sub-one inch sensors, creeping into phone camera territory!
Types of Drones Used in Photography
Most drones popular for photography today are quadcopters. This means they carry four rotors, each packed with at least two blades. That makes them both faster and much more nimble than any RC helicopter.
There are also fixed-wing drones. These fly more akin to a traditional airplane, with large, rigid wings that steer the drone by means of small flaps and control surfaces.
The advantage of these drones is that they can stay in the air for much longer – up to a few hours at a time in some cases. They also may be faster, larger, and carry higher-end camera equipment on board at a lower price compared to rotary-wing drones.
However, they are far less nimble than quadcopters and cannot hover in mid-air, making them a lot less attractive for creative photography.
This is why quadcopters are chiefly popular among photographers, whereas fixed-wing drones are much more common in military and law enforcement contexts as well as in certain commercial projects.
Choosing a Shooting Mode for Maximum Image Quality
Just like your existing camera, your drone camera’s shutter and electronics operate in numerous modes, each tailored to a specific use case. However, how these modes work and how they are used is not exactly the same as what you might be used to.
Let’s cover the basic modes that are most essential to day-to-day drone photography.
Manual Mode and Its Benefits
Most beginner drone pilots are very unlikely to make much use of mode M.
Understandably, it sounds like quite a challenge. Controlling your UAV in the air while trying to compose? All the while capturing images that are pleasing to the eye without any help from automatic settings? Obviously, not an easy feat.
However, there is a distinct advantage to going manual. Especially in high contrast scenes, manual exposure settings can make it much easier for you to selectively expose for a certain aspect of your frame.
For rendering landscapes and architecture at high dynamic range, this can make or break the shot!
Shooting Bracketed Exposures
Auto exposure bracketing, or AEB, is a term that many landscape photographers and some commercial real estate and architectural photographers among you will surely recognize.
For the uninitiated, bracketing is a technique whereby you take a series of pictures in quick succession with the exact same framing, only altering the exposure settings between them.
This allows you to later produce a composite in post processing that combines elements of all of the ‘bracketed’ exposures. By using brackets, you can, for example, shoot against the sun and end up with both a perfectly exposed sky as well as a clear foreground.
Armed with AEB, you can overcome nearly any lack of dynamic range.
In drone photography, automatic bracketing can very effectively provide stunning HDR results.
Remember that your drone needs to be perfectly stable for bracketed exposure to work. Use a high shutter speed to minimize movement while your UAV is hovering in place.
The Best Uses for Tripod Mode
Modern drones come jam-packed not only with the same exposure modes that you will recognize from your existing camera gear but also some additional ones that can be a great complement to the unique characteristics of a UAV.
One of these, and the one that I would recommend the most to those just starting out, is Tripod Mode. In this mode, the drone engages a speed limiter that reduces acceleration in all directions.
You will feel a noticeable reduction in sensitivity on both the left stick and the right stick of your remote controller. This allows for more precise movements when setting up a shot from a (more or less) fixed position.
The drone will also more actively try to maintain its position and attitude in this mode. For all sorts of landscape work, long exposure photography, and other uses, Tripod Mode can make your life a whole lot easier.
I also suggest turning it on when shooting drone footage indoors. That way, you can minimize the risk of accidents.
Compositional Techniques for Punchy Aerial Photos
Many cite composition as the hardest aspect to train when coming to grips with their new drone. Not only because of their limited battery life and resulting narrow flight time but also their sheer speed and agility, drones put a lot of constraints on composing aerial shots.
On the other hand, the sheer freedom afforded by the extra dimension of flight creates possibilities for drone shots that could never be replicated with other kinds of photo equipment.
For this chapter, let me address some basic compositional concerns that distinguish drone images from those captured ‘with boots on the ground’.
Appreciate the Change in Perspective
First off, take a second to marvel at the sight before you. Most drones will, at the press of a button, stream a live feed from a frontally-mounted webcam to a screen embedded in your remote controller, allowing you to see your surroundings from the drone’s perspective.
On more advanced drones, you may be offered additional camera positions to the sides and rear, as well as the option of a video feed from the main camera – the one that is actually responsible for picture-taking.
Using these tools, you can immerse yourself in the strange and wonderful perspective offered by flight. What looks different to you here compared to how things seem on the ground?
Because your time is limited (even if you do pack spare batteries, as I would suggest), carefully scan your environment for elements that particularly stick out in the air.
These tend to be larger, more dramatic features, such as rivers, mountain ranges, valleys, and others. The magical look that such subjects can have when shot from above explains the drone’s dominance in the field of landscape photography today.
Watch out for Interesting Geometry
Because the natural shooting position for a drone hovering level to the horizon is with the camera’s lens pointed straight at the ground, you might notice that landscapes appear sort of two-dimensional in drone footage.
You can use this to your advantage and scout for intriguing geometric patterns in your surroundings. For example, the colorful ‘patchwork’ patterns caused by grain fields can be really impressive if captured by the right drone and the right pilot!
Utilize Leading Lines and Contextual Framing
Your drone’s camera may be special in construction and solidly pampered with gimbals and high-end mounting hardware to keep itself steady.
But in the end, glass is glass, and composition is composition. The same innate rules apply up in the sky as they do down below!
This includes working with contextual framing devices. In short, try to make your composition more attractive by consciously guiding your viewer’s eye across the frame.
Use natural lines, such as bodies of water or light hitting scenery from a certain angle, to grab the viewer’s attention and lead them through your composition. This way, you can instantly capture attention and make your drone photography look that much more interesting.
Post-Processing Drone Photography
After a day of shooting, your drone photography heads to the same place that your usual RAW files and JPEGs (hopefully) end up in as well, the digital darkroom.
Editing your drone photos in post production can give you more control over the aesthetic feel of your still images. At the same time, it allows you to iron out potential flaws and polish raw photos into something more presentable.
Especially in drone photography, where shooting generally happens quite fast, mistakes can easily pile up.
That’s why smart editing can really go a long way toward improving the look of your portfolio!
Applying Masks to Aerial Images
By and large, post production for drone photography works just like what you’re already familiar with. However, one particular area that I wanted to shine some light on is the use of masks in drone photos.
Masks are useful for ironing out defects and small mistakes across the whole frame.
For example, the unsharp mask is incredibly popular with drone photographers for its ability to cure blurry photos that often emerge when photographing faraway subjects from high altitudes and at high focal lengths.
Other popular masks include noise reduction algorithms that you might also be already familiar with. Again, this help compensate for drone cameras and their small sensor size and resulting poor low-light performance.
Finally, remember to crop diligently to get your composition just right. You probably had no time in the air to fine-tune every last inch!
Incorporating Drone Photography into Your Creative Vision
Drone photography is not just a great tool. It can be an art form and a discipline all of its own!
In the end, it is all up to you how you want to utilize drones in your photography. Maybe you shoot landscapes and wish to elevate your work (pun intended) by complementing eye-level views with aerial footage.
Or maybe you are looking into the power of UAV photography for purely commercial purposes – such as architectural or agricultural use, for which drones have been gaining in popularity lately.
Whichever may be the case, I hope that with the help of this guide, you managed to get one step closer to realizing your photographic goals.
Always keep in mind what brought you here and what your goals are with regard to aerial photography. As long as you can manage that, I am sure you will have a great time. Good luck!