How to use Drones for Aerial Photography - The Ultimate Guide

Amrish Mudgal
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Photography, especially aerial photography, has an exciting new aspect - Drone Photography. Using drones to capture stunning aerial photography images is not only much more straightforward and accessible now, but its also lots of fun. With the costs of getting equipment for drone photography dropping fast, professionals and hobbyists are increasingly using drones for aerial photography. 

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Let's get started with how you can master the art of aerial photography using drones:

Finding the right equipment:

There is a vast range of drones (also known as quadcopters or UAVs - unmanned aerial vehicles) available now on the market. Consider these two factors when choosing the right drone for your aerial photography:

  • The flying capabilities of the drone.
  • The camera that the drone can support

How much does a drone cost?

As will all of modern technology, there are a lot of options available, and it mostly boils down to how much you are willing to invest. The advanced drone models that come with lots of controls and are powerful enough to lift your DSLR cost anywhere near $6500 and upwards.

However, for most purposes even including professional aerial photography, you would not have to spend that much. You can find good quality drones fitted with cameras under $1500. Some drone models also support attaching a GoPro camera.

In this money, you will be able to get a drone with 15-20 minutes of flight time and also have inbuilt technologies such as collision avoidance and return-to-home feature wherein a drone can automatically return to home if the battery is running low or if you simply lost sight of the drone. Typically, the inbuilt cameras will have the ability to shoot 4K videos and take photographers of up to 16 MP.

You need to do a lot of research when selecting the drone you want to buy. The Phantom range of drones by DJI is the first choice for many, and the Phantom 3 series model is one of the top-selling drones and is very popular for aerial photography.

Most drones these days are quite easy to operate and can pretty much “fly straight out of the box.” The learning curve is minimal - get the drone’s battery charged, install the controller app on your mobile device, sync your domain with your mobile app and start flying. You can control the drone easily with their joystick type controllers that use your mobile device as a viewfinder. It's almost like playing a video game, only its real and much more fun.

Getting started with aerial photography:

While the drones themselves are easy to fly, it does take some getting used to, to start getting good shots. Start out slow in a vast open space - a park or even the countryside. Making sense of and getting your bearings on what your camera is seeing through the smartphone app can get a little getting used to. You can set limitations in your mobile app regarding how high or far the drone can fly and always keep the drone in the line of your sight. Experiment with angles and zooms and click away. You would have to review your results and keep experimenting to develop your skills to achieve the best aerial photography results with drones.

Follow the rules and regulations of your area:

Most cities, states and even countries have now drafted rules that govern how you can use your drone, the height to which you can fly and what you can / or cannot click from the sky. In the US, the FAA has laid out the rules for flying drones; You can check out the rules here.

However, many of these rules only applying if you are flying drones for commercial purposes (if you are doing an aerial photography assignment and getting paid for it, the rules will apply). 

However, for recreational use of drones, the rules are much simpler. You don’t need a permit, and there are no pilot requirements for recreational use of drones. You do however have to register with the FAA. Visit this page and register your drone with the FAA before you start flying. It's a pretty simple process and costs just $5.

  • Make sure that you study the rules and check up with local authorities before you start out. Usually, the rules are along these lines:
  • Make sure you can always see your drone which means that you should fly the drone to be in your Line of Sight (LOS)
  • Typically the maximum permissible height is around 400 feet.
  • Respect the privacy of other people. Do not click images of private properties.
  • Do not fly your drones overcrowded areas.
  • Do not fly your drone near airports or any other no-fly zones specified by the authorities.


Getting better at Aerial Photography

Mastering drone photography is a unique aspect that you can add your photography. Shooting from 400 feet up in the sky creates stunning and intriguing images that show our world from an entirely different perspective.

As you start exploring aerial photography, you will find that it follows the same principals of other forms of photography – getting the light right, finding that unique frame and creating visuals that are expressive and tell a story.

Here are some tips you can follow to get better at aerial photography:

Learn how to work with the limitations of your drone camera

Drone cameras are typically designed for shooting great videos, and most of them can shoot 4K videos. However, when it comes to taking still shots, they are no match to the DSLRs that you are using as a photographer.

Most drone cameras have very small sensors just like compact cameras or camera on most high-end phones these days. These make their dynamic range limited, and low light performance is not excellent. The resolution is also typically not more than 16-20 MP.

Also, most drone cameras have wide-angle lenses with a fixed focal length. While all of this may sound limiting, in theory, you can take surprisingly good aerial photographs within these limitations. You wouldn’t need low light performance as you would only shoot in the daytime (rules restrict the use of drones only in daylight) and since you are shooting from afar, depth of field isn’t going to be a problem. Having said that, drone cameras are getting better and better by the day.

Fly low to take the best pictures

While your drone can fly as high as 400 ft, to take the best shots fly at a much lower height of 100-150 ft. This will give a nice perspective and also establish a clear horizon for your images. If you want to take true top shots, then you do need to go as high as you can to cover the most area.

Start by shooting in automatic mode

As a professional photographer, you would mostly be shooting in manual mode with full control over all the factors. However, with a drone-mounted camera, it's better to shoot in automatic mode and to rely on camera’s inbuilt auto-mode functions as the view mode you get in your mobile phone app is not a true picture of what the shot will be like. As you get more conversant with how the camera performs under various conditions, you can start using the manual mode as well.

Use bracketing

Most drone cameras support 3-step bracketing. This is a great feature that you can use to get three options for every shot you take (an underexposed and overexposed variation along with the standard image). This allows you to choose the best image later and you can also blend exposures using post-processing software

Use filters

Since most drone cameras have only one aperture setting, you have limited controls over shutter speeds as well. You can control this somewhat by using neutral density filters that reduce the amount of light that gets into the camera lens, hence making the camera slower shutter speed. You can also use polarising filters to cut out the reflections or the harshness of the sun rays and get deeper, more vibrant blue skies.

Avoid your drone’s blades appearing in your pictures

Make sure you keep your drone’s blades out of your picture frame. If you are now careful, you can end up with your drones blades intruding in your photo frames. To avoid drone blades, keep your drone camera tilted slightly downwards.


Commercial Applications for Drone Photography:

Be it a wedding photographer, a landscape photographer or any other commercial photographer, drones add more value to your photography services and can increase your pay manifold. While creating stunning images of earth from the sky is its own high and can be pursued purely as a creative art, here are some of the other exciting applications of drone photography:

1. Real Estate Drone Photography

Using drones to undertake aerial real estate photography can make you stand out from the crowd. Real estate drone photography is flourishing as the images captured through drones add a unique perspective to the real estate property being sold. Aerial real estate photography imparts a more clear understanding of the property and its neighborhood and increases the chances of the property getting sold quickly, manifold. 

2. Sports / Motion Photography

It won’t be long before drones would be used full-fledged in sports photography after already making a great show at the Sochi Olympics. Drones in sports photography mean not only accessible pictures of aerial sports like ski and snowboarding but also a distant and clear view of all sports. Now, there isn't a need to fix multiple cameras on different location during a racing/sports event. A remotely operated drone can capture the moves of the sportsman at different periods. A great example would be Airdog. It has created the auto-follow action sports quadcopter for this very purpose.

4. Filmmaking

Given the relatively low cost of drones (much cheaper than the costs of hiring a helicopter or airplane), drones are already changing the face of cinematography. The idea of drones is opening alternative avenues to crane/helicopter shots. Many filmmakers are excited about the future of drone technology which would enable better cinematography.

2. Aquatic photography

How does the seabed look like? How could one capture the moments spent underwater with family? Many such questions have been answered by Ziphius, the aquatic drone. Ziphius is the first smartphone-controlled aquatic drone which comes with multiferous utility. And guess what? It not only enables you to click pictures and videos but also plays with you!

5. Studio lighting for photo shoots!

Lighting up a photo shoot involves an array of tasks such as setting up reflector discs, flashlights, convertible photo umbrellas, and a lot of power cables. This can not only be cumbersome but also limiting because of the fixed position of the lights. The researchers at MIT recently discovered the portable and automated alternative to drones. A drone equipped with light could be used by the photographers and shifted according to light needs, merely with a remote. This has proven to be a boon to the photographer fraternity and ensured unbounded creativity.

Conclusion:

Drones are revolutionizing the very face of photography in every way. Though issues of legality and privacy plague the advent of drones, it’ll be interesting to discover what new use-cases of the drones the future lays bare. So, expect to see lots of amazing images shot from the sky as photographers experiment more-and-more with techniques and grow their aerial photography business.

Do share your experiences about drones for aerial photography in the comments. Don’t forget to add links to the images that you have shot from the sky! 

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