If you just got a drone or are considering getting into aerial photography these 10 tips will help your images stand out from the competition and improve your overall photography and experience with your drone. In my list below I'm trying to avoid some of the more obvious tips such as: use polarizer/nd filters on your drone, use the rule of 1/3 (which I don't think is always the best advice), shoot top down, etc.
Instead I'm going to try and keep these tips focused on the creative side of producing an aerial image and some things you may want to consider in the creative choices you make. As always fly safe and obey your local aviation regulations. Before we jump into the tips one thing you might want to consider is studying for the Part 107 exam, even if you don't plan on taking it. Why? Well education is never a bad thing and if you're a more education pilot you'll have more confidence in the skies. With that, let's jump right into it...
Tip 1: Fly during 'golden hour' and battery use strategy
The single easiest way to improve your images is to fly in ideal lighting conditions. 'Golden Hour' is a term that represents the hour after sunrise and hour before sunset where the sun produces 'golden' light that is visually very appealing. This is due to the low position of the sun which creates a soft light affect along with depth and shadows across the landscape. If you're a more seasoned photographer you probably already know this, so the key question is how can you MAXIMIZE your time during 'golden hour'? Well this is my 'battery use strategy' which requires you to have at least 2 fully charged batteries for your drone and ideally 3. I recommend you arrive at your location at least 30 minutes before 'golden hour' starts so you can strategically use your first battery exclusively for location scouting. When I say scouting what do I mean? Fly that drone across your visible range and evaluate all the various compositions you can leverage taking mental note of the options you want to come back to. As you fly make sure to check out various angles and work the scene (Tip 5) so when it's 'prime time' you're ready to go. Once you've exhausted your 1st battery, take a deep breath and get the next two batteries ready to capture the compositions you spotted when the light is right. Start with the composition furthest away from you and work towards you, so if you need to do a battery swap you minimize the time the drone is flying from you back to the next composition. Practice, repeat, practice, repeat... it will become second nature.
Composition found using my first battery and composition captured on second battery.
Tip 2: Shoot using manual settings (why? and what settings?)
Manual camera settings can be intimidating. Here's the basic version. ISO represents the cameras sensitivity to light (lower = better quality); Aperture represents how wide the lens is open; therefore how much light it lets through (each lens has an optimal quality aperture where the image will look best... learn it for your gear). Shutter Speed represents how long the camera is taking an image (fast shutter speed freezes motion, long shutter speed blurs motion). These three things together influence your camera exposure and can creatively influence the end image. For maximum creative control you should shoot in manual so you can influence the camera to do exactly what you want it to do.
For my Mavic Pro 2 (MP2) drone and shoot ISO 100, F/4 and adjust my shutter speed for the light conditions (but bracket, next tip). Here are a few important things to consider. ISO 100 will ensure the best possible image quality for each image and limit the amount of noise in your final product. F/4 will give you the sharpest quality image based on 3rd party testing I've read about the best aperture for sharpness with the Hasselblad lens/sensor. Use shutter speed as your variable to adjust for lighting conditions and shoot faster than 1/125 of a second if you can. If your a seasoned photography and already use manual keep in mind that every lens has a different range for optimal sharpness and if you can shoot in that range you'll likely have the best quality image every time you press the shutter.
ISO 100, f/4, 1/80 shutter speed. Shutter speed reduced for some vehicle motion blur.
Tip 3: Bracket your shots to create more dynamic range
Cameras and technology have limitations. We edit and 'bracket' our images to create more dynamic range to resemble what the human eye is capable of seeing. What does this mean? Here's a simple example... The human eye is able to see a range of brightness from 1-10. Current technology in cameras are only able to capture a range of 3-4 within that same brightness spectrum. So, a camera can see 1-3, 4-6, or 7-10 in one single image; however, our eyes can see all 10. Yeah, the human body is awesome. So, why do we bracket? To increase the ability of our images to resemble what our human eye can see. Bracketing is the technical term for capturing multiple exposures (taking similar pictures) with different camera shutter speeds to capture the as much detail in the dark parts (1-3), mid tones (4-6), and bright parts (7-10) of a composition. It's true that many digital cameras today might not require bracketing given their ability to recover detail from the dark parts of an image; however, I haven't found that to be true on my MP2 and therefore bracket with 3 or 5 images so I am always covered. There is nothing worse than watching an incredible sunset and realizing you blew out the highlights and have no detail there - it's just pure white and there is no information or way you can recover this in post production.
ISO 100, f/4, 1/80 shutter speed. Shutter speed reduced for some vehicle motion blur.
AEP 5 for Auto Exposure Bracketing to capture as much dynamic range of the scene.
Tip 4: Provide a sense of scale (why? and how?)
When it comes to landscapes and outdoor photography sometimes people can ruin the image and serenity of the composition. Other times they can be an incredible asset as they have a unique ability to provide a sense of scale to a vase and deep scene. I personally find that as I look at images of landscapes, in particular aerial images, when there is a recognizable 'scale' object that I can relate to the power of the landscape and scene is a lot more impactful. While this is definitely a bit of a generic photography tip I believe it's even more important with aerial photography where you can be hundreds of feet off the ground and scale can easily be lost.
My wife and I in lawn chairs outside of our Jeep gives some scale and context to the beach.
Tip 5: 'Work the Scene' for new compositions and angles
As I mentioned in Tip 1 this is the purpose of battery #1 in your 2-3 battery aerial strategy. If you're a seasoned photographer you've probably heard this term before or understand the importance of walking around a scene and not just landing on the first composition you see. I can personally tell you I've learned this the hard way after many times showing up to a location getting a few shots and then wishing I had taken time to assess other compositions I might have preferred in the optimal lighting. Same thing goes with aerial photography; however, you don't have to physically walk, so fly that drone to assess as many compositions as you can. How should you do this? I suggest you start flying as far as you can and go through various angles of view as you start flying the drone back towards you. This way if you start running out of battery the drone is already working back towards you. On the initial flight out keep your eyes out for things you'll want to do a 'compositional scan' at but don't overly focus on all the angles you are going to do during your return flight. On the way back, 'work the scene' and keep note of the compositions you want to shoot during optimal conditions for battery 2-3.
Same scene, different composition from Tip 1 above.
Tip 6: Leverage the Horizontal Pano Mode for wider POV
Sometimes you want a wider shot or you want a higher resolution image... so how do you do that? Well you can accomplish both using the Horizontal Pano Mode on your MP2. I will often use this mode with a manual exposure bracketing technique which allows me to combine this technique with Tip 3 (Bracketing) to create wider, larger image with the maximum amount of dynamic range. One thing to be careful of is that typically with panoramic shots you have to watch out for distortion or warp that can appear in objects (most obvious in buildings/straight lines) so be aware of that this might occur and you may have to fix it in post production.
Wider field-of-view with Horiz Pano mode with HDR.
Select Horiz. in Pano mode to create a 'large square' pano which will give great field-of-view.
Tip 7: Simplify your subjects for better isolation
There's always a sense of peace and relaxation I get from a simple composition. Outdoor photography in particular lends itself to powerful simple compositions but there are other types of photography this also works well in, such as automotive photography. Many times an image can become confusing or have clashing colors/textures that distract the viewer so a simple composition is a way to be much more effective with your subject and focus. This is particularly important in aerial photography and I often find myself working to create a clear and simple subject/focal point. One technique I've recently started doing is flying much lower than I did initially with my drone. It's almost our first instinct as soon as you get the drone to grab the joysticks and see 'how high this bad boy can fly'. We'll when you're at 300-400ft AGL it's harder to create subject isolation and there can often be a lot of conflicting items in your composition. So how do you fix this? Work on simplicity and try flying much lower than you might think you need too.
Audi R8 shot in parking garage. In post-production all 'parking lines' removed to help simplify and crate focus in the image on the vehicle.
Tip 8: Shoot Top Down & create dimension
One of the coolest perspectives with a drone is the 'top-down' perspective where the drone is looking straight down at the ground. The challenge with this perspective? Objects and items in your composition can often look 'flat' and 2D which creates confusion because our eyes see the world as 3D. If executed poorly these 'flat' images will quickly be dismissed because they do not create enough interest to the viewer. So, how do you fix this and create 3D images that are more interesting? The easiest thing is to have great lighting that creates depth through bright areas, mid tone gradients, and dark areas which create shadows. For areal photography this can be accomplished by following Tip 1 above and shooting during 'golden hour' but that sometimes needs to be accentuating further in post production. In Adobe Lightroom/Photoshop (or other image editing software) you can select the brightness ranges around you subject and adjust them accordingly (bright areas = brighter; dark areas = darker) creating deeper shadows and brighter highlights. To the human eye this will help your subject/focus point stand out, creating more depth and the appearance that the object is 3D. In top-down areal photography this is one of the most important things to create depth in your image.
Top-down shot with increased dimension from accentuated shadows on person and trees.
Tip 9: Post process your images with local filters
I imagine you're aware of image editing software like Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop. If you have some experience with it I'm sure you've played around with some sliders that impact your image such as exposure and contrast. You've probably noticed that when you adjust these sliders they impact the entire image. These are called 'global adjustments' because every part of the image is being impacted in the same way. So if you increase the exposure then every single part of the image is getting brighter and if you decrease it every part of the image is getting darker. That may be exactly what you want but most of the time it is not. Most of the time you want particular parts of your image to stand out more than others and you need to address certain sections of the image differently. How do you do this? With local adjustments and specifically filters. The two filers that I personally use the most are the radial filter (circular filter that allows you to effect inside or outside) and graduated filter (straight line filter that allows you to impact all areas below/above the line). Using these two filters you can take a tremendous amount of control over you image and the end product. What should you objective be? Create focus in your image. It's that simple. One suggestion... be subtle. A new editor can be like a kid at Christmas and quickly get excited using all sort of sliders and filters producing an over-edited look in the image. Trust me, I've been that kid at Christmas and been there.
Graduated filter on bottom of image to darken, radial in center for focus, graduated on top to help bring back highlights.
Tip 10: Use leading lines
Leading lines are a really powerful compositional tool in all photography, not just aerial photography. The thing that I think is unique about aerial photography is the patterns and lines you see once you have the drone up in the sky. I'm sure you've noticed this if you've ever had a window seat in a 747 and flown over mid-west. Almost everything is square and it's incredible to see how much agriculture has influenced the way land looks from above. What can you take away from this? As you look out the window on that plane, or the screen of your drone your eyes are naturally drawn towards a focal point. This is from leading lines. If you find your looking all over the place than the angle you are it is likely a compositional nightmare and your eyes don't know where to focus. As a drone photographer this is your objective. Your job is to evaluate a scene or composition and organize everything in a way that allows the lines of the landscape to create harmony and flow easily towards your subject. This is not an easy task and can be quite challenging but is a critical step in having your images stand out.
Leading lines from tire tracks down the beach help lead your eye through the frame.
BONUS: Collaborate and be open to feedback (even if it hurts)
One of the best things about photography is the individual journey we all go through pushing ourselves to create better. There are many different ways we can push ourselves but one of the best ways I have found is by collaborating with other people and being open to feedback. Every photography approaches things lightly different, just as every painter paints with a brush in a unique way, and that's the beauty of creating images. Even if two people take the same exact shot I can guarantee you they will not edit the image in the same exact way, which will ultimately produce a very different result. The beauty of working with other creatives and receiving feedback is it challenges you to think differently and improve your photography. Now this might sound very intimidating but it's really not. A successful collaboration is all about giving more than you take and having a mutual understanding of expectations and open lines of communication. The same mental approach goes to giving and receiving feedback. You don't have to agree with any feedback you get - you ARE the artist after all. But if you're trying to make any income or profit from the images you create than you should strongly consider being open to feedback and looking for trends. Are there particular feedback points people are giving you across all your images such as "gosh, the colors of your image just really pop. It doesn't look real." You might want to assess if you're over-editing your image. You might hear, "Wow, that's cool" and there is a lack of overall interest in their tone or comment. Maybe you need to asses the subject your shooting, the lighting, or other condition that didn't appear to catch their interest. It could very well be they are not interested in the subject matter, but there might be something underneath the comment that is an opportunity for you to grow and work on your craft.
If you've made it this far and you're still reading this post I THANK YOU. I hope if you've made it this far you've found something in here useful and you'd like more content like this. If that's you I'd really appreciate a comment down below telling me what you found interesting or what you might like to read about in the future. Photography is a journey I've been on for years now and my goal is to share my experiences, lessons learned and tricks with you to make your journey smoother.
Until next time,