Photographers of all skill levels can use drones to capture pictures from unique perspectives. Whether it’s taking video of your friends surfing, or capturing a scenic mountain panorama, having a camera in the sky can bring new life to your photos and movies.
What is a Drone?
Drones are small, unmanned aerial or ground-based vehicles that are operated for fun, hobby, and even commercial use (with special permission from the Federal Aviation Authority). Many are equipped for photography and allow you to capture images from angles you cannot normally reach. Flying drones, also called UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), are remote controlled multirotors. Quadcopters are a type of multirotor aircraft with four rotors. Most drones are operated with radio remote controllers, but can also be programmed and controlled via tablet or smartphone.
Which Photography Drone is Right for Me?
If you already own an action camera, you may want to check out models that are equipped with a camera mount rather than a built-in camera. Some models come with a built-in camera and a stabilizing gimbal. Most photography drone systems provide mobile apps for iOS and Android devices that let you watch the video live via Wi-Fi. Photography drones can be classified into three categories based on the operator’s experience level and intended use: Casual Enthusiast, Hobbyist, and Pro.
For easy setup, choose a drone that is ready-to-fly (RTF) right out of the box. Many entry-level drones require minimal setup and come with everything you need to take off, including, battery, charger, controller, and manual. All that is needed is to charge the battery, attach any accessories (like prop guards), and connect the controller to your smartphone. To start your filming adventure, you’ll need to mount an action camera to your drone or purchase a drone with a built-in camera. Before you takeoff, read the drone’s instruction manual and check out the “Know Before You Fly” campaign at http://knowbeforeyoufly.org/.
Recommended Ready-to-Fly Drones
Drone Control Systems
Effortless drone flight starts with an intelligent and intuitive remote control transmitter. Transmitters can range anywhere from two-joystick models that control flight path and speed, to highly sophisticated devices with advanced programming that control all functions of the drone and camera. Many remote controllers can be connected to a mobile phone or tablet to view a live camera feed via Wi-Fi or a digital video downlink. Some drones use a smartphone or tablet as the controller through a mobile app and Wi-Fi.
DJI Inspire 1 Remote Controller
Drone Flight Time
Depending on flight speed, weather conditions, payload, and battery life, flight times typically range from 15 – 25 minutes. The average speed of drone is about 20 mph and some can reach over 55 mph. Most drones can withstand light rainfall and mild wind. When a gimbal and action camera are mounted to the drone the flight speed and time can decrease.
Drone Flight Modes
Most photography drones include three flight modes: auto, hover, and manual. Auto-flight modes are preprogrammed computer-assisted course settings that allow for autonomous flying via GPS. There is no standard set of auto-flight mode terms, but among the most popular are orbit, cable cam, follow me, and return home. GPS also enables fixed hover mode (also called loiter mode) which allows the drone to hover in place when the user releases the controller joy-sticks. Drones can be flown completely manually without GPS assistance using the remote controller. Manual flight mode can be very dangerous and should only be used by experienced drone pilots.
Recommended Drones with Auto-Flight Modes
Action Cameras for Drones
For serious photography, avoid most of the lower-end toy drone models. While fun, you may soon outgrow the low resolution and limited creative control. Instead, look for models designed for photography and video, with features like a stabilized gimbal and a high-quality built-in camera or an action camera mount.
Drones Must-Have Accessories
Drone Extra Batteries
A single drone battery offers on average 15-25 minutes of flying time and requires about an hour to fully recharge. Have extra battery packs on-hand to continue flying.
Drone Extra Propellers
Propellers often break or or are damaged due to their fragile nature. They are also the least expensive and easiest part to replace. Have extra propellers as back-ups.
Drone Propeller Guards
Prop guards are a lightweight, durable and inexpensive solution for protecting propellers and bystanders. They prevent injury and help deflect the drone after a collision.
Drone Carrying Case
A durable, water-resistant case or backpack is essential for protection when transporting and storing your drone. Choose a foam fitted case that can hold your complete system, including accessories.
Drone Remote Controller Monitor Hood
Install a monitor hood on your remote controller to shade your connected mobile device from direct sunlight. This will give you a better view of your display when shooting outside. Many hoods are collapsible and easy to carry.
Micro SD Cards
When flying drones for photography and videography have extra Micro SD Cards with you to capture every minute and image of your adventure. Lower-GB cards are sufficient for still images, but higher-GB cards provide the space required for both photo and video footage.
Tips for Flying Drones
- Before taking flight, check the rules that apply to your use of a drone to make sure that you are flying appropriately and respecting those rules.
- If you’re learning to pilot a drone for the first time, practice flying with a toy drone in an open field far away from people, cars and buildings. Never fly above crowds or airports.
- For added protection of your drone, always use propeller guards and be sure to land with plenty of battery life left.
- Plan your shots before take-off and consider purchasing multiple backup batteries. Drone batteries last about 15 minutes.
- When you land, remember to turn off the interval shooting or power down the camera so that you don’t run down your battery or fill up your memory card.
Tips for Drone Photography
- Capture a lot of scenes from a variety of angles and distances. This will give you plenty of material to work with later as you edit and compile your best shots.
- The normal principles of color and composition still apply: shoot during the “golden hours” after sunrise and before sunset to get the best light, think about the “rule of thirds” to place your subject, and try to avoid large areas of over-exposed highlights or under-exposed shadows.
- Seek out vibrant colors or your photos will be dominated by greens, grays, and browns (earth tones) or, when you’re over water, blues.
- Focal points and depth of field are much more difficult to control since you’re using a small sensor and lens without manual aperture controls. Try to keep everything in focus and use adjustment layers in post-processing to recreate out-of-focus areas when necessary.