Picked up a drone and not sure where to start? Here are my 12 tips for improving your drone photography.
Love them or hate them, there is no denying that drones have made an impact on photography around the world in the recent years introducing a whole new genre of photography in capturing angles that previously would have required a helicopter/plane to capture.
Use Google Maps to plan your shoots
The hardest thing for me when buying a drone was finding locations to shoot which would look good from above. I didn’t really know what I was looking for or how to find them. It’s pretty easy these days when planning a shoot with your regular camera to open up Instagram and quickly find some locations to photograph. The best way to find locations to photograph with a drone is by using Google Maps Satellite view.
But what are you looking for when you have Google Maps open? Here are some things which I’ll look for when scouring my local areas:
Unique patterns – Try to find things which wouldn’t normally be interesting if captured using a regular camera. Take the image to the right as an example of the unique patterns of a fish farm in Tasmania.
- Contrasting colours – Try not to let one colour dominate your shot. Instead look for other colours which allow you to create a colour harmony (i.e. one colour being the opposite of another colour to provide a greater visual experience). This guide on TigerColor has an introduction to the different colour harmonies to get you started.
- Objects which can look interesting from above – Basketball, tennis courts and garden mazes are just some to get you started. Bonus points if you manage to find one in a pretty location such as by the ocean or in a nice forest area.
Use shadows to your advantage – Found a lone tree? Why not fire up the Photographers Ephemeris and plan for when the light will be falling behind the tree to create some harsh shadows.
- Dividing lines which separate your shot – Look for elements which help frame and seperate your shot. Often when shooting a seascape location, I will use the road to separate the sea and foliage area.
- Keep it simple – And finally, like regular photography, it pays to keep things simple by looking for a strong composition element in your shot and reducing clutter.
Fly where there’s no point
One thing I love about drone photography is that you can arrive at a location, feel a bit uninspired on what you are seeing as you set the drone up and then manage to find something when you get it up in the air and are viewing the area from the above.
With most drones now coming with a panoramic mode built in, the panoramic mode on your drone is a great way to expand your image size when one image won’t quite cut it.
I’ll occasionally use both the panoramic and AEB modes of my camera to both maximise the size and dynamic range of my shot. It’s a bit of mucking around but the results are great when used for the right image.
Shoot at a low ISO
As drone technology continues to evolve, we have seen image quality drastically improve over the last few years. While there is no denying the image quality in the latest Mavic and Phantom drones are superb, there is still room for improvement particularly around the low light capabilities of current generation drones. When shooting at the lowest ISO possible (generally ISO 100), image quality is fantastic. It is when you start dialling the ISO up which is when you see degredation to your image quality through unwanted noise in your image.
For this reason, always shoot with the lowest ISO possible with your done to maximise the image quality output. At times especially in low light conditions, it will be unavoidable that you will need to shoot with a higher ISO in low light conditions. But when you can… Try keep the iso down to the lowest level possible to retain image quality.
Shoot in raw
Like shooting with your regular camera, it’s recommended to always shoot in RAW mode on your drone. By doing so, this maximises the shadow and highlight recovery when you post process your images.
Finding the camera on your drone isn’t quite getting the dynamic range you’re used to on your DSLR camera? Often I’ll shoot in AEB mode (a technique I’ve written about previously) which allows you to capture different exposures of a scene to maximise the dynamic range.
Depending which AEB mode you choose, the camera will generally capture an under exposed, neutral exposed and over exposed image of the scene. Bracketing your images is especially useful when shooting in sunrise or sunset where the light is often uneven and harsher in parts. By bracketing your images this allows you to retain the detail in your highlights and shadows which would have otherwise been lost due to the constraints of the drone sensor.
Don’t limit yourself to a certain type of angle
Most drones now will come with the ability to shoot in 16:9, 4:3 and 3:2 formats. The first two more favour video shooting with the later being more commonly seen in digital cameras. It’s worth noting that on the DJI Phantom 4, the 3:2 aspect ratio provides the highest resolution/megapixel:
- 3:2 Aspect Ratio: 5472 × 3648 = 20 MP
- 4:3 Aspect Ratio: 4864 × 3648 = 17.7 MP
- 16:9 Aspect Ratio: 5472 × 3078 = 16.8 MP?
I personally use the 3:2 aspect ratio as I prefer to crop the image in post processing however my best advice would be to have a play and see which works best for your shooting style.
Tripod mode is best applied when shooting video as it slows the speed of your drone down for those silky smooth shots. For those shooting with a DJI Mavic, tripod mode will slow the movement of your Mavic down to 3.5 kph (or 2.2 mph) or for people like me with the DJI Phantom, tripod mode will slow the movement of your drone down to 9 kph (or 5.6 mph).
Tripod mode is also helpful for when shooting photography to minimise any sharp movements if you were to accidentally touch the controls in between shots. Often I will use tripod mode when shooting multiple images to stitch later as a panoramic image.
Use neutral density filters (at the right time) for long exposure shots
If you’ve read my blog before, you will know that I’m a sucker for neutral density filters and playing around with long exposures.
The benefits of using a neutral density filters on a drone are similar to when used on a normal camera where it allows you to reduce the amount of light hitting the camera sensor. By doing so, this allows you to capture long exposures with the camera during the day (see photo below) or shoot video at different frame rates which provides smoother footage.
One of the tricky things about using neutral density filters on a drone is the lack of tripod support to stabilise your camera for getting those sharp images. For this reason, I generally shoot my drone long exposures around the 1-2 second mark in calm conditions. Longer exposure times are still possible in calm conditions but you may notice a loss of sharpness when viewed zoomed in.
When planning a long exposure photo with your drone, don’t forget that the higher the altitude you fly your drone the stronger the wind conditions will be. For this reason, you may need to photograph at a faster shutter speed to counter the wind. Often, I will shoot at a lower altitude for long exposure shots as this allows me to shoot at a longer shutter speed due to the reduced wind conditions.
Rule of thirds overlay
While you’re getting started with drone photography, a good way to help with the framing of your shots is by using the rule of thirds overlay. Through having this enabled, this will ensure that your shots will be framed accurately which reduces the need to crop your images during post processing.
Shoot in the right light
The mistake most photographers make when starting out is that they rarely photograph in the right light and will often go out and hope to get nice images in harsh daylight sun. Drone photography is no different and is best in low light and golden hour settings.
My favourite times to shoot with my drone is either sunrise or sunset and the golden hour periods around this time. By shooting during this time, you will get a nice soft and warm light on your images. Alternatively, I also enjoy shooting on overcast days as the light will often be diffused with no harsh light hitting your object. Generally overcast conditions work best for when photographing waterfalls.
The above list is far from complete but forms some of my essential drone photography tips. If I’m missing anything, free free to let me know in the comments and I’ll include in a future revision. Thanks for reading!