Drone Photography - Here's Everything You Need To Know
Have you ever wondered how the land looks like from the skies?
This question has fascinated us as kids and made us imitate the birds soaring high. I believe the Wright Brothers had the same fascination while they were inventing the first aircraft. Still, many will find the view from the top incredible and enchanting!
Drones have given the opportunity to witness Earth’s magnificent terrain from God eye to everyone. They have expanded the boundaries of the photographers’ creative expression, and they are slowly becoming a stable gear as the classic DSLRs.
Like any tool, UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) have advantages and disadvantages, and a moderate to difficult learning curve. Furthermore, UAVs have some legal guidelines and regulations that you’ll need to follow.
So, let’s dive into a comprehensive guide to drones, in which we will be covering everything from A to Z!
(Note: Each section is a standalone read; you may skip to the required one.)
What are Drones/UAVs?
A Drone or UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle), is controlled or automated by a software-controlled flight plans in combination with the GPS and multiple sensors. They have burst into popularity in the past few years because of various applications. Drones are used by the US government for spying, monitoring, offensive and defensive purposes.
Apart from military uses, they well loved by children, tech-enthusiasts and of course, photographers. Consumer and professional grade drones are manufactured with or can be equipped with a camera, respectively, to take pictures and record videos. To ensure stable and clear pictures, most drones come with a gimbal installed.
This incredible piece of tech can be easily misused for criminal activities, so most governments have sanctioned various rules and regulations to control the mal-practices. We will discuss the rules and regulations in the next section comprehensively.
To begin with, you already know not to stalk, spy, and harass anyone. Keep in mind the simple dignity and boundaries that you should not cross. If a monument or estate specifically states “Taking pictures is prohibited” then you should oblige. Now, different countries and states have different rules and regulations about the usage of drones.
In the USA, there are separate list of laws for hobbyist and commercial users. They are regulated by the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) which is an agency of the United States Department of Transportation in charge of civil aviation, operation and development of Nation Airspace System.
Now, let’s list the important laws for Hobbyist and Commercial users separately as established by FAA –
1. For hobbyist/ recreational purpose
As an enthusiast or recreational user you must register your drone with FAADroneZone portal/website. According to the rules you must:
- Use your drone for recreational purposes only.*
- Follow community-based safety guidelines.*
- Fly the drone within the CBO (Nationwide Community-based Organisation).*
- Fly a drone weighing under 55 lbs, unless certified by the CBO.
- Never fly near other aircraft.*
- Fly in G class airspace. You need to register with Airspace Authorization to fly in B, C, D or E controlled air space
2. For commercial use
As a commercial user you must obtain a certificate from FAA, and you must:
- Have a remote pilot certificate.*
- Fly a drone weighing less than 55 lbs, plus payload at take off.
- Keep your drone in your visual line of sight.*
- Fly during daylight and civil twilight.*
- Keep the speed under 100 mph.*
- Fly under 400 ft.*
- Yield right of way to manned craft.*
- Not fly your drone directly over people.*
- Not fly your drone from a moving vehicle, unless you are in sparsely populated areas.*
- Fly in G airspace.
submitting and obtaining Part 107 waiver from FAA waives off the (*) marked rules. Also, you can receive approval for special space authorization from FAA to bypass the G airspace requirement.
TSA (Transportation Security Administration) allows you to carry your drone while travelling in U.S. domestically with a drone, but in carry-on luggage only.
Please contact FAA for more clarity and queries via their contact information given below.
Phone Number: + 1866 835-5322
We like to possess the best luxury, tools and services, if not chained by the financial boundaries. If you are not a millionaire, then you should consider these factors before purchasing a drone. Anyway, even the millionaires will know their requirements before they do so!
1. Type of drone:
There are two types of drones: in-built camera drones and attachable camera drones which can carry your DSLRs! At first it would seem like attachable camera drones would be better but, the in-built camera drones are a good option to start with. When it comes to camera quality, consumer grade drones are respectable.
2. What’s your Budget for the drone:
Obviously, budget will decide the features and overall quality of your drone. If you are on a tight budget, then look for the best value for money photography drone.
3. Size and weight:
Your drones size and weight will determine its portability to a large extent. Having said that, if your are travel photographer you are better off purchasing a drone with a delicate blend of portability, image quality and features.
4. Mega Pixel:
Drones have megapixel size ranging from 2 MP upto 30 MP. When considering the MP size you should think about the purpose. If you want to share your pictures on social media then you should pick 12 MP camera drone. If you want to print your images for exhibition, then consider a 20 MP camera drone. Most 20 MP drones are manufactured with 1” cmos sensor which should give you a decent image quality.
Range will play a crucial role in photography. Now, DJI’s drones range from 100m to 8000m! It is naturally understood that highest range is for professionals. Enthusiast can settle for DJI Mavic Air which has a range of 4000m. Beginners can start with DJI Phantom 3 standard which has 1000m range.
6. RAW support:
The DNG format is crucial for editing, and you should consider a drone with RAW+JPEG format if you are serious about your craft. You will have a serious disadvantage as a photographer, if you overlook this feature and end up with JPEG format only.
On a side note, beginners should settle for the cheapest alternative to learn operating a drone, and then go for more expensive models. This is because novices will inevitably crash and damage their drones because of lack of experience and practice.
Take these precautions while driving a Drone?
Now, let’s discuss some precautions that you should practice while you flying a drone. Some of these precautions are the same as rules established by FAA. Let’s dive in!
- Be mindful of weather conditions: No drone is designed to fly in harsh weather conditions such as a blizzard or heavy rain. You can lose your drone or damage it severely in those weather conditions.
- Keep your drone in your line of sight: People usually only look at the navigation screen while flying a drone. I understand that it is very immersive, but not checking your drone with your own eyes is calling for trouble. You will not be able to assess the distance, or able to know if there is some other objects in which a drone might crash. Also, you stand the risk of going out of range.
- Never fly above 400 feet altitude: above 400 ft the speed of winds increases. These winds can disturb the flight or fly your drone away from you.
- Check and Keep Extra Battery: Always make sure your battery is fully charged. Also, carry an extra battery just in case. Most drones have a maximum flight time of 25 minutes, be mindful of the charge percentage.
- Check for damage: Every machine is susceptible to wear and tear so, frequent inspections are necessary. Replace or repair any damaged parts if needed.
- Prioritize the drone over taking pictures: Like I mentioned before, flying a drone can be very immersive. Also, photographers tend to pay a lot of attention to their pictures and not to their drone and sometimes they end up losing it!
- Return to home button: if you lose the signal mid-flight, don’t panic. Most drones are manufactured with a return to home button — just press it. The function will override the signal lost and return the drone back to you.
A drone gives you the option to take pictures from the bird’s perspective, and that’s the biggest difference! As described by Boyan and Mike&JP, It allows you to take three kinds of shots each with their distinctive appeal:
- Top Down Shots: This is a classic in drone photogragraphy, taking shots of top down view from a drone. The resulting picture is very interesting and appealing with the beautiful geographical features, patterns and shapes.
- 45° down shots: The blend of height, perspective and depth of 45° down shots results in a majestic picture, if the photographer knows what he is doing. Otherwise, these kinds of shots are only possible if you could stand on a very high vantage point.
- Horizontal shots: Just shooting horizontally is enchanting in its own way! Which was only possible if you could buy a helicopter earlier, but with a drone it is a piece of cake and cost-effective!
There are some accessories you will need to make the most out of your drone. I have compiled a list of useful accessories you can consider purchasing.
1. Monitor Hood:
shooting in the sun can be difficult because of screen glare and comparatively dim brightness of your smartphone screen, a monitor hood is an effective solution for that! They are lightweight, easy to carry and use. Investing a few dollars will save you from a lot of troubles.
2. Antenna Signal Booster:
An antenna signal booster reduces the angle of signal and increases range. This is especially useful for drones with short range, if you don’t feel like upgrading soon then adding this tool would be a great option.
3. Controller Lanyard:
Your controller might fall out of your hands due to some unpredictable accident. You are better off attaching a lanyard to your controller, and wear it around your neck for the controller’s safety. Your mind will be at ease, and you’ll be able to focus on the task at hand.
4. Launch Pad:
Launching your quad-copter from the dusty ground can scratch, or even damage your expensive device. A launch pad not only protects your drone from dirt, scratches and potential damage, it will also give your drone a safe and convenient landing spot.
5. Bluetooth tracker:
If your drone doesn’t have a tracker installed, you can install a bluetooth tracker. They have a range of 100 to 300 meters. They are lightweight, compact, versatile and fairly accurate.
6. Camera Filters:
Camera filter can help you take better pictures, and adjust to different conditions. Any photographer would carry, especially for their drones —
- ND filters: it decreases the amount of light entering the lens.
- Polarizing filters: they are used to manage reflections and neglect glares.
- UV filters: They are used to protect the lenses from UV rays, dust and scratches.
Every camera has the standard modes including drones — auto, manual, aperture priority and shutter priority mode.
1. Auto mode:
Like the name suggests, it adjust the best possible settings automatically for taking pictures in different conditions.
2. Manual Mode:
Professions prefer this mode because it gives them complete control of all the camera, allowing them to take the best pictures.
3. Aperture priority:
It allows you to select a desired aperture and the camera will select an appropriate ISO for the same. In a drone aperture ranges from 2.8 to 11 f/stops, in which 5.6 aperture is considered to be the sharpest, as tested in DJI modals.
4. Shutter priority:
Here you choose the desired shutter speed and the camera automatically adjusts aperture for the same. Since drone cameras only go upto 11 f/stops, you need a faster shutter speed. In most cases, shutter speed of 1/50, 1/100 and 1/200 is enough. If you want to know the appropriate shutter speed of your camera, multiply your drone camera’s focal by 2 and then consider other factors.
5. Tripod Mode:
It is similar to ‘P’ mode, and it increases the stability of the camera to take better pictures. However, the DJI drones fly at a much slower speed (1 m/s) in this mode for more stability, which can be used for cinematic shots as well.
Now, let’s discuss some professional tips to improve your drone photography, make sure that you know you drone inside-out to follow along.
1. Be mindful of ISO:
Professional drone photographers will not go above 200 ISO. In drones 400 ISO will increase grains and spoil the image quality. They will always try to minimize the use of ISO as much as possible to retain the quality (100 ISO for maximum).
2. Use filters:
using properly filters will enhance your image quality. ND (Neutral Density) filters reduce the amount of light entering the lens, allowing you to decrease the shutter speed and take great long exposure shots. Polarizing Filters will neglect any unwanted reflection and glare, giving you a clearer picture.
3. Add a personal touch:
Everyone is taking pictures from drones out there, and you need to stand out. You can use a distinct color palette, different object or composition. Understanding the rules of photography will help you to develop your own unique style.
4. Use AEB with RAW:
You should combine AEB (Auto exposure bracketing) with RAW format for two reasons:
- AEB takes multiple shots with different exposures (3 to 5 shots) and combine them for better dynamic range and contrast. You usually take landscapes with drones, and it is common for certain parts to be under or overexposed. It helps you correct it by merging them in an editing software.
- RAW in drones is not as flexible as compared to their DSLR and mirrorless counter parts, but are still significant in post processing. AEB compensates for its comparative inflexibility.
5. Use Histogram and grids:
Histogram presents information of different tones of blacks and whites. However, histogram need not be balance but you still need it sometimes for proper exposure. Grids as you might know helps you to compose your pictures.
6. Research before shoots:
Drone batteries don’t last more than 12 minutes on an average. It better to research the location on foot or by using google maps (satellite images) to be efficient, and not lose your drone!
- Make corrections before shots: correct exposure, white balance and color temperature before taking the image. Level tilting, if any, to take a straightened image.
- Post processing: here are a few things you need to keep in mind during post processing:
- Increase sharpness to bring out little details.
- Reduce noise by using selective noise reduction tool.
- Crop and straighten your image if required.
- Heal or clone and stamp out unwanted objects.
A word before you go
I hope you like the blog post, and now you know all the important bits about drones. Considering all the factors you should be able to purchase a suitable drone for yourself. I think you might be intimidated to learn so much, but take it slow; one step at a time. Eventually, you will become a master drone photographer! I will see you soon with a new post.
Nandan is a blogger/content writer, striving towards exploring new concepts and presenting them with a simple and digestible format. He specializes in tech and videogame nichés, and also writes on various different topics he finds worth sharing.