The complete beginner's guide to drone photography

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Never has it been so easy to capture aerial images of some of the world’s most stunning (and sometimes hard to reach) places. The drone—a sky-high flying, unmanned camera—is undoubtedly the wildest photography development in recent memory. Almost like a remote-controlled toy for the photo obsessed, drones are as much fun as they are revolutionary.

Photo from Pexels

As the desire for drones has risen, the price has dropped, making it easier than ever to get a camera in the air. But with so many factors to consider—whether you’re just planning to get into drone photography or have already gotten one—getting started can be a challenge.

From choosing a set-up to post-processing photos, take these nine tips with you on your journey to drone photography:

01. Choose a drone based on your needs and skills

One search of “drone” in Google will shock you with the mind-boggling number of drones available out there. But what are the things you actually need to consider in getting one for yourself?

The two most common types of drones you can choose from are those with a built-in or on-board camera and those of which you can attach your own. Drones with a built-in camera are often larger, and their cameras might not have a very high resolution—which can compromise the quality of your photos. Smaller drones which allow you to attach your own camera, such as a GoPro, on the other hand, could be easier to manage since you already have the hang of your camera and really only need to learn how to fly.

Photo by David Henrichs

One of the most important things to consider is how well you can fly a drone. For beginning drone photographers, sturdier, lighter, and cheaper drones are available. They aren’t as expensive as heavier and more advanced drones either because they have less features. Look for a drone that matches your skill.

You also need to know what your drone can do. For instance, some drones can only be flown indoors. Some drones are also equipped with lighting that can be used for shooting at night. Some fly farther than others. Decide what you want to achieve with your drone, check out the features of the drones you are choosing from, then choose one that best satisfies your needs.

Photo by Victor Larracuente

Channels like That Drone Show and Drone Camps RC on YouTube test, review, and compare different drones and accessories. You might consider watching the videos before purchasing your drone.

02. Study the instruction manual carefully

Reading the instruction manual is nowhere near as exciting as soaring your camera over the ocean, but if you want to give yourself the best chance of nailing drone photography, get to studying.

Photo by Curate Labs & Magazine

Your instruction manual holds everything you need to know about your new drone. It will give you the answers to a bunch of questions you might not have even known you had. Knowing what your drone can and cannot do, you’ll be spending less time tinkering with it and more time improving your shots.

03. Understand the features of your drone

Drones offer various features that help optimize your flying time. Learning these will ensure you shoot efficiently with your drone.

While they vary for each brand and type of drone, these are the typical features you will encounter:

Smartphone Feed

Photo by Samuel Schwendener

This tool is great for beginners as it allows you to see exactly what your drone is capturing, increasing your chances of a great shot.

Smart Mode

Smart mode essentially translates to “beginner mode.” This innovation is put in place to essentially help newbies get the most out of their shots.

For example, if you’re inexperienced and it’s a windy day, chances are you won’t have the chops to fly your device without it looking like your photos were caught up in an earthquake. Smart mode will have some form of stabilisation feature that will help to counter this.

Tracking

Drones sometimes also have a “follow-me” option. This combines futuristic visual recognition with your smartphone’s GPS to help you take the perfect photo.

Photo by Shane Smith

If you want yourself in the shot, this technology will allow it: put your phone in your pocket, turn on the “follow-me” option, and the drone will make sure that you’re always in the frame.

Geofence

A geofence will restrict how far and how high your drone flies. Essentially, it locks your drone in an invisible jail, and the minute you try to escape, you’ll run into trouble.

Drone photographers have varying opinions on these features—some find them useful, and others don’t. Find out which features you can use to maximize your drone’s potential.

04. Learn the federal, state, and local drone regulations

Because of how many people have gotten into these little unmanned aircrafts, there’s been a lot of developments into the legality of where, how, and who can pilot one.

Photo by Thomas Ehrhardt

For instance, in the USA, UAVs weighing between 0.55 and 55 lbs. require a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) registration. This means that before you take to the sky, you must make your aircraft known—much like registering a car. It’s a simple process: just hand over a small fee and your name, address, and email.

Photo by Martin Sanchez

There are also regulations on where you can fly your drone. For example, you (fairly obviously) can’t go flying your drone around another aircraft, so airports are a no-no.

Whilst most laws and regulations are quite obvious and easy to understand, a lot are still quite messy—especially surrounding fines. The laws surrounding registration also vary for every country. The best thing to do is to take the time to check the legality of drones (which you can do online) before you launch your camera.

05. Prepare a pre-flight checklist

Knowing what your drone can do and where you can fly it, you’d think it’s time to finally get it in the air, but before you do that, it’s advisable to first devise a pre-flight checklist. A pre-flight checklist will not only ensure that you have everything you need before you fly but also that everyone around you, including your drone, will be safe.

Photo by Neon Brand

Before you fly, check these things off the list:

  • Fly Zone: Where are you going to fly? Is it private or public domain?
  • Weather: Are flying conditions good? Will you need to utilize anti-stabilization because of the wind?
  • Surroundings: Will there be people around at this time of day? Will it be safe to fly low/high? Will they mind a drone hovering around them?
  • Battery: Have you charged up all your batteries? How long can you stay in the air?
  • Settings: What resolution do you need? How bright do you need to set your camera? What frame rate, shutter speed, and ISO are best for what you want to achieve in your photo?
  • Propellers: How are your propellers looking? Are they nice and straight, or do they need replacing?
  • Motor: is the motor and mounts in tact? Are the motors rotating freely? Is it making any unrecognisable sounds? Are the screws tight?
  • Controls: If you’re using a smartphone or tablet, is it ready to go for your flight? Are other apps turned off? Is the fully charged? If you’re using a remote control, does it have batteries? Is it responding to your drone?

Photo by Dose Media

With all these in check, now comes the exciting part—flying your drone.

06. Test drive your drone

Can you imagine spending a lot of time and money on a shiny new drone, hooking your expensive camera up to it, and then losing control and watching it plummet to the ground? Don’t set yourself up for tragedy—test drive your drone.

Photo by Neon Brand

Every drone is different; thus, they all fly differently. Taking your new toy out to a big open area, like a field or park (keeping clear of large crowds of people, private buildings, and cars) will allow you to get the hang of the controls all while minimizing the risk of breaking or damaging your drone.

Photo by Jakob Owens

Just like other photography techniques, drone flying is all about practice, practice, practice. Learn how to fly your drone to get the most out of it.

07. Learn drone photography techniques

Now, there’s no point travelling to an amazing location and getting your camera in the sky, only to have a weirdly-framed, unclear photo. There’s an art to panning across beautiful scenery, which can only be learnt with time and testing.

Here are a few tips to keep in mind:

Don’t forget the “rules: ”Sometimes it’s easy to forget the fundamentals of photography when you’re flying, but they all still apply to the world of drones. If you’re not familiar with beginner techniques such as the rule of thirds, leading lines, and golden ratio, then get back to basics and study up.

Look for symmetry and patterns: While you’re soaring high, keep on the lookout for interesting scenes of colors, shapes, and repetition. They form some of the most iconic aerial photos.

Keep it simple: Just like ground level photography, simple compositions can result in incredible shots that celebrate the subject.

Go slow and stable: Because of how stable some drones are these days, you can still use long-exposure, which can be particularly amazing when capturing swaying trees or the crashing ocean.

Celebrate light: The right light can be a huge advantage for drone photographers—shooting at particular times during the day can create long shadows and striking patterns.

There are so many techniques to discover and conquer. Never stop learning.

08. Post-process your photos

Whether it’s color correcting a batch of photos you’re unhappy with or editing something out of the shot, what you do after the drone’s packed away can be just as important as actually taking the photo. Drone photography almost always relies on post-production to make it shine.

The thing is, editing drone photos takes just as much learning and practicing as capturing them. Even if you’re already a gun at post-production editing, editing photographs taken from high above—considering the differences in lighting and angles—is a whole new skill.

Try various software like Photoshop or Lightroom, which have different interfaces and areas of focus, to see which one can best help you achieve the outcome you’re going for.

It might be time consuming and, often, tedious, but every good drone photographer is also a great editor.

09. Don’t forget the essential add-ons

Just like any other camera, drones also have different add-ons that you can use to improve flying or the quality of your photos.

Batteries

One big, limiting factor to keep in mind - drones don’t have the longest battery life. An average drone will fly for about 10 minutes, while high end drones will allow you to fly for around 20-25 minutes. To avoid spending half your time by a power point or having to call it a day without getting the money shot, consider investing in an extra battery (and remembering to charge it). They’re not cheap, but as a beginner, can you afford to shoot on such a limited time frame?

Photo by Dose Media

Propeller Guards

Crashing a drone or getting it stuck in things, like plants, especially when you’re just starting out, is not uncommon. Getting too close to the propellers could also result in a minor injury. Get propeller guards that will help avoid damaging your drone or hurting yourself and others around you.

Photo by Chris Brooks

Extra Propellers

Propellers can also be fragile and are detachable, so they can easily get lost. While you’re still learning, buy extras just in case. They don’t cost much and will ensure you’re always on the go.

Photo by Pok Rie

Extra SD cards

Don’t miss out on the hero shot because your SD card fills up. Drone shots take up a lot of memory space—a 2-minute 4k video takes up around 1GB. No matter how big or small, get extra SD cards, so you never miss a shot.

It’s not all boring essentials. Once you’ve got the responsible stuff, you can accessorize. Whether it’s a funky light kit that makes night flying a breeze to camera filters that add an automatic flair to your flight photos, manufacturers are taking advantage of the popularity of drones and churning out loads of amazing accessories.

Here are a couple that I recommend:

Mini drone landing pad

Equal parts cool and functional, having a drone landing pad helps ensure your UAV won’t be landing on something that could potentially damage it.

LED lights

Never lose your drone in the dark! LED lights mean you’ll can always keep track of your drone. Plus, it looks sweet.

Undoubtedly a powerful tool for photography, drones have opened doors to shoot from angles and locations like never before. While they certainly aren’t for everyone (with a lot of people skeptical about their inception), they have made a huge impact on photography and aren’t looking to faze out anytime soon, so why not hop on the train?

Just remember, mastering drone photography doesn’t come to everyone over night. It can get seriously tricky, but with practice, planning, and time, you can take your shots from amateur to amazing.

 

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