Guide to Aerial Photography
For the hobby enthusiast and gadget lover, the evolution of drones has been a blessing. In a short span of time, remote controlled aircraft have evolved from aerial toys flown for purely recreational enjoyment, to vehicles that not only enhance the pilot experience, but have become a professional utility for multiple industries. Two huge developments in the craft contributed to this: autonomous technology and camera capabilities.
The modern consumer drone (depending on the class) can achieve feats well beyond the classic RC aircraft. Many popular drones are now nearly autonomous, offering the first-person-view of the camera (which creates a completely immersive experience), and capturing industry standard footage. Any average Joe can purchase a drone and create aerial footage comparable to the professional film we see in the entertainment medium. Professional photographers have an entirely new outlet in the visual medium. This was nearly impossible only decade ago, particularly in terms of expense – as drones, for what they are and can accomplish, are wildly affordable.
If you’ve seen drones around, maybe flown one, and want to start with aerial photography, you might be a bit overwhelmed starting at ‘point A.’ That’s due in part to the disruption in the industry, resulting in the market being littered with so many different models and types of technology. It doesn’t help that the jargon used takes a while to learn. Once drones became a reality, manufacturers ramped up to become leaders and without a standard in the marketplace, created competing terminology as well as products. Where before there were only a select few companies that produced notable, reliable products, now there are hundreds.
So where do you begin? There’s no wrong way to start with aerial photography, and everyone has his own method, but there are definitely some routes easier than others. In this quick and concise beginner’s guide to aerial photography, we aim to start you on a path with the least resistance, and hopefully provide you with some tips to help you along the way. You need to create a strong foundation and then build from there. Aerial photography is no exception to this rule, since the dynamic with aerial photography is more complex and requires higher dexterity than pointing a handheld camera and clicking a button. Your skills as a pilot need to equal your skills as a photographer.
- Learn to fly and learn the terminology! You’d be surprised at how many eager photographers skip this step. A huge part of quality photography is the setup. The only way you’re going to be able to angle and position the perfect shot is if you can steer your drone in the right direction. Now, the professionally engineered higher quality machines (DJI, Yuneec, etc.) are built to do a lot of the work for you. Their autonomous capabilities can send them on their own flight paths, track certain subjects without your having to do a thing, hover in air, stabilize, auto-focus, and so many more autonomous features that it would take pages to cover. But it’s important for you as an aerial photographer to understand the fundamental physics of the quadcopter or the fixed wing drone, depending on which you are flying. Experts recommend that you first purchase a midgrade drone that offers the full drone experience without the expense of a high grade machine. Purchase a midgrade quadcopter that has autonomous components, can livestream the first-person-view or FPV (so you’re not flying the thing by only your own field of vision, i.e. FOV), can take pictures and video, and contains a manual mode that allows you to fly without any intelligent assistance. Fly for hours. Develop your skills as a pilot to the extent that you can fly your machine safely if all systems, other than rotors, failed (without the motors and airfoils, your drone will fall helplessly from the sky). Use the FPV. Learn to set up shots. Work to stabilize your flight path. Once you have a strong pilot-base and feel confident that you’re well=versed in the dynamic flying of drones, then we move to step two. During this process, you’ll learn all about the terminology that comes with drones. For a very elementary summary, see below for our glossary.
- Accelerometer: An electrical device that measures acceleration for a specific direction of flight
- Almost Ready to Fly (RTF): Usually comes with everything you need but will require some minor assembly.
- Gimbal: The device that holds the camera on most drones. These will have small motors that shift and tilt with the drone’s direction of flying to help increase video stability.
- Drone: A slang term for an unmanned aircraft vehicle (UAV) and our favorite word for these machines
- FPV: A mountable camera on the drone that allows the pilot to see in real time what the drone is seeing. (First-Person-View).
- Gyroscope: A device most high-level drones have that measures angular velocity and helps to stabilize the drone during flight.
- Hexacopter: A multirotor vehicle with six rotors for flight.
- Multirotor: A vehicle with multiple rotors used in flight.
- Payload: How much your vehicle can lift on top of its own weight and batteries?
- Quadcopter: A multirotor vehicle with four rotors for flight – the most common type of drone available on the market today.
- RC: Radio-controlled. Used to describe unmanned vehicles.
- RTF: Ready to fly. Take it out of the box and get going, requires no assembly and can basically be flown straight away.
- UAV: Unmanned aerial vehicle, AKA drone.
- Decide what sort of machine you want (this means do your research). We said drones are affordable for what they are, but by no means does that mean they’re cheap. Some of the industrial machines can exceed well over $15k, depending on what they’re built for. This is sort of an obvious step, but we need to mention it, because with the plethora of drones out there just because a machine comes highly recommended, doesn’t mean it’s the drone for you. Ask yourself what sort of photography you’re after. Is it just to dink around on your own and take some personal footage? Do you just want a drone that’s capable enough of capturing some quality footage for your own personal album and some nice posts on social media? Or do you want to use your machine professionally? Do you want to capture professional aerial footage that you could provide as a product? Use it to get wide-screen shots or tracking shots in a film? If you’re not sure, then when you are ready you can make a light upgrade from the drone you began with. If you’re going to dive in and take this seriously, then find a professional machine that fits your specifications. Do the proper research. A quick Google and YouTube search will present you with hundreds of reviews on different products.
- Buy the right equipment. So now you know what you’re in for. You’ve learned your way around piloting and you know what you want to achieve as an aerial photographer. Now it’s time to buy that drone to be your partner in crime. What does that look like? Note here that each drone serves a specific purpose. If you want huge landscape shots and to map out terrain, you’re going to want a professional fixed-wing drone. If you want the cream of the crop aerial photography machine, you’re probably looking at drones the Inspire 2 caliber that have dual-channel cameras and can shoot in 5.2k CinemaDNG RAW. If you’re looking for a solid, professional drone that fits that ‘standard’ price point for its quality, the DJI Phantom 4 Pro is probably on your wish list. Note that drones have progressed to a point where most of these machines are all-in-one packages. If you go online right now and research ‘tips for aerial photography,’ or ‘how do I get started with aerial photography’ you’ll see a lot of tips pointing you to: buy extra equipment, buy a better camera, buy a gimbal to stabilize your footage! A 3-axis gimbal is the name of the game right now, so any serious aerial photography drone is going to come with one. Understanding your own photographic aspirations is key. Most of the professional grade drones can shoot in 4k with above average FPS. But if you do happen to buy a less expensive drone that will not have a camera already attached, or an industrial platform that is made for industry-standard, high- end cameras such as Red Epics or DSLRs, make sure you know the add-on expenses, so you don’t blow your budget. Other things to think about: where is the FPV going to stream? What is the full range of the preset camera? Is the camera interchangeable? How does this drone fare in various conditions you?
- Rules & Regulations. Before you start flying, you need to understand all the rules and regulations that have now been instituted for drones. As a drone community member, it is your responsibility to adhere to the rules and regulations of the Federal Aviation Administration. As of now, the FAA has released Part 107 which details specifically the rules which you must follow as a drone pilot. There are a vast amount of ‘no fly’ zones and restrictions. If your drone is a bigger than a micro drone (generally), you’re going to need to register it. We encourage you to not only take these rules seriously, but to go out of your way to ensure the safety of your flight experience. Part of the reason drones have become so popular, is the lack of major issues with irresponsible pilots. One look into Part 107 and you’ll realize just how to flexible and relaxed the FAA is handling drones. Let’s respect that and keep it that way so that we can keep doing what we love.
- Learn the hardware & software of your equipment. So now you know how to pilot a drone, you know what you want, and you’ve purchased an aerial photography machine that is capable of achieving what you set out to accomplish. Great! It’s time to learn the ins and outs of your equipment. Especially when it comes to programming and calibrating, battery life (this especially – as what manufacturers promise is rarely accurate when all systems are go and in all conditions), and sustainability. Internet tutorials are big here. Find videos made by those who own your drone and pay attention to the pros and cons of their lessons. However, experience is the big winner. Aerial photography is so much more than pilot your drone, point and click. It’s about synchronization and fluidity. These upper-end drones usually have an assortment of different flight settings. Autonomous features can often affect the dynamics and vulnerability of the camera. So test, test, and test again. Capture footage at certain speeds to see where the gimbal begins to lose its stability. Capture footage while the systems are live to see how they affect the shot. Test the shutter and aperture speeds of your camera and see how they check out. Use every combination of system and speed you can think of, testing and recording how well the camera performed d with the preset conditions. There is nothing worse than exploiting a window of opportunity, only to have a shaky or low-quality shot because of a certain calibration you never tested for.
- Be prepared! Treat the experience like a little mission. Make a flight checklist. Scout the location you’re going to shoot. Are you allowed to shoot there? Make sure you have extra batteries on hand and chargers, if necessary. Are all your systems up and functioning properly? What sort of traffic are you going to experience in this shot? Will there be people around? Trees? Have you decided on a route? Don’t just rely on the FPV from an autonomous feature of your machine to guide you along = make sure you know your plan of attack well before you put that baby up in the air. Not just for safety either –having a grander scope of what you’re trying to accomplish with your shot and the environment you’re doing it in will only enhance the quality of your product and optimize your flight experience. So you’ve we’ve brought you through the initial steps of aerial photography. To summarize:
- Master your piloting on a lower grade machine that offers the full flight-dynamic
- Assess your aerial photography aspirations
- Purchase a drone that can support those aspirations
- Learn the ins and outs of the drone: test, test, test (both hardware and software)
- Understand the rules & regulations (Part 107 for commercial pilots)
- Learn how to prepare for every flight
Now, we’ll transition into the real camera work required to become a better aerial photographer: the logistics of setting up the shot up and calibrating the camera to improve the quality of your shot or footage.
- Learn how to pan. –Obviously a huge dynamic of aerial photography is the wide pan. Since your camera is in air, it has the capability of capturing those moving wide shots that are HUGE in the visual medium. The four most common types of pans are these:
- Birds Eye
- Strafe (Side-Slide)
BIRDS EYE: This is pretty self-explanatory. You’ve probably heard the phrase ‘bird’s eye view’ before. It’s the same thing when it comes to aerial photography. Your camera is positioned so that it’s looking directly at the ground. There are lots of ways to do this: from hovering in one place, slowly increasing altitude to establish terrain and perspective, turning the drone to produce a spin effect, and more.
STRAFE: Have you ever watched a movie that had some sort of aerial combat scene? The plane pulls right or left but stays in the same line, sort of gliding across the screen. That’s what strafing is, also known as the side-slide. It’s like using a push-cam or a dolly while in air. Your subject is in front of you. You’re at a consistent unfluctuating altitude and you pull your drone to the side – allowing the subject to take the left or right side of the frame, or to exit completely.
FOLLOW THROUGH: This type of pan is completely immersive. Think of a film where there’s some sort of race or vehicle propelling forward, and all of sudden you are that vehicle. Stick to your first-person-view, and fly in of the subject’s trajectory to establish the shot. This type of pan is particularly useful when creating a narrative and putting us in the ‘place’ of the subject.
ORBIT: Another one that’s rather self-explanatory yet takes a fair amount of skill to accomplish efficiently. This goes back to our point about synchronization, as all systems must be fluid for this to look good. To drive the film perspective home here, ever watched a movie where the camera seems to circle the subject? Giving us a 360 degree field of a view one piece at a time? It’s that type of pan.
Practice makes perfect. Learn what best works in terms of calibration and flight angles by trial and error. Panning is fantastic for establishing perspective, creating a narrative, and then just simply showcasing a location. Especially when it’s an aerial pan.
- Learn to keep your drone stable in air. Aside from panning, one of the essential components to quality aerial footage is keeping the image stable. Even the best of machines with the sturdiest of gimbals will produce shaky images if not flown correctly (especially in high wind/storm environments). A dominant aspect of shot stability comes from camera calibration, but it can also be due to the piloting. Make sure to take full advantage of the autonomous features of your drone when stabilizing your shot (position lock, hovering, tracking, etc). Most of the drones in the professional-grade are going to come with full-on stabilization systems (speaking of the integrated camera and gimbal here). However, note that the higher you fly the more wind you’ll encounter. Also note the position of your landing gear, since there’s nothing worse than setting up and capturing the perfect shot only for the landing gear to be in the picture
Learn how to calibrate your camera. Setting up your perfect shot is something that’s going to come with flight experience and your own creative eye. There’s no right way to do it. You can read online and watch numerous tutorials that show different ways to fly, but at the end of the day you’re going to be the one behind the sticks (or tapping on a tablet). However, camera settings are equally important when capturing that perfect shot. These next few steps/tips focus on those directly.
- The integral brilliance of RAW: if you can shoot in RAW, do it. Most professionals will always advocate shooting in RAW. This technology vastly affects your ability to adjust the footage after the shoot. Aerial photography is no exception to this rule. When shooting in RAW rather than JPEG conversion-format you’re basically capturing the ‘real’ footage. Of course, without RAW the picture isn’t any less real, it’s just that there’s more data in RAW, making it a lot more versatile on the backend of things. You are less likely to experience any sort of destructive editing issues in fixing exposure or tightness before printing. When you take that perfect picture and want a grand ole print of it, it’s going to be best if you took it in RAW.
- Bracketing: if you have this feature, use it. You’ll see this feature in a lot of professional drones, but specifically in the DJI Phantom Series (one of the most renowned in the industry.) What is bracketing? It’s basically like a dynamic burst mode that takes the same pictures but in a multiple of ways. If your camera has this feature, you can shoot a litter of different shots that will ‘basically’ eliminate the potential of your using the incorrect exposure (for all you experienced photographers out there – how crappy is it to shoot that perfect shot but blow the exposure?). Bracketing allows the photographer to create a high-dynamic-range, which captures more detail in both the shadows and highlights. As a general rule of thumb, having more than a single shot to work with is a lot better than only one. If your drone has this feature, you’ll love using it.
- Shutter Speed. This is in fact the single most integral setting for quality aerial photography (aside from the influence of the pilot’s skills and the gimbal, of course). To explain in simple terminology, the shutter controls how much light is allowed into the camera. The light reaches the CCD (charge-circuit device), which is where the digital pixels are birthed. Because depth of field isn’t really a thing for aerial photography, you want to make sure your camera is calibrated for shutter priority. Then you’ll want to select a shutter setting between 1/500th and 1/1000th of a second. If this is all jargon to you, you’re going to want to do some extra research on shutter-speed and the way in which it affects the quality of your aerial photography.
- The ISO setting (indication of how sensitive a film is to light) of your drone is directly responsible for how you’re going to capture your subject in the respective range of lighting conditions. As a general rule of thumb, the lower the ISO, the better. Often it’s better to use the manual settings on your drone so you can drop your ISO to the lowest setting possible, rather than what the auto-setting of your drone calibrate. But note that you should never drop your ISO lower than what your camera can sustain. If your camera specifications state that you never drop below 150, then don’t. However, here’s a break down on ISO recommendations.
- ISO (100-200)
- Outdoor shooting directly beneath clear sunlight
- Landscape shots or static indoor (as stable as possible)
- Often best served when maximum image quality is desired
- ISO (250-400)
- When the weather is dull
- Lots of movement in high-lighting conditions
- Position locked hovering shots
- ISO (500-800)
- Low lit environments
- Night photography
- Lots of movement in low-lit conditions
- This is basically the third integral component of your camera’s settings (along with ISO and shutter speed). It affects focus and dimension – it basically holds the entire picture together (blurs the background to extract the subject, or creates clarity throughout the entire frame). Each camera has its own aperture capacity and it’s important that you research and become well-versed in the f-stop (aperture) capabilities of your camera. You’ll want to set it to the maximum sharpness possible, which is usually two steps down from its widest setting. Again, if this is jargon to you, we recommend you do the proper research on the three pillars of specs (ISO, shutter, and aperture) so that despite the recommended and auto-calibrated settings, you’ll be able to optimize the performance of your camera by manually adjusting it to the given environment.
Due to the dynamic process of capturing aerial photography, the learning curve is not only huge, but immensely rewarding. The mixture between piloting, flight-angles, and camera calibration creates a vast array of possibilities when capturing footage. As a general rule of thumb, make sure to fly in good conditions. No matter what sort of machine you have, heavy winds are going to affect your shots (remember the higher you fly, the more wind). Shoot in RAW whenever you can. You’ll thank yourself later. Learn your field of vision and where your landing gear interferes with the shot (if not retractable). Use the fastest shutter speed you can with the lowest ISO and the maximum sharpness set in your aperture. Trial and error is the name of the game –so test, test, and test.
We hope this quick guide to aerial photography has helped you and started turning your gears. However when you pick up your own drone, you’ll find that the learning process never ends –as told by the experts in the field themselves.