How to Use Drones to do Stunning Aerial Photography

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DPSLakeSheds

One of the most exciting developments in photography in the last year or two is the drone – high flying cameras that enable you to capture unique viewpoints of common subjects. Recently the cost of getting a camera into the air has dropped dramatically and if you decide to venture down this road I guarantee you won’t be disappointed. Apart from the amazing images you will capture, they are also tremendous fun!

DPSBeetWest

As with most modern technology there is a vast range of drones, or UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), on the market. Similar to camera equipment in general, how much you’re prepared to spend will determine the quality of camera on-board, and the flying characteristics of the drone itself. There are low-cost models that will take very basic images, up to the big boys toys that will happily lift your prized DSLR up into the heavens. You can even add your GoPro on to some units that will take advantage of camera gear you may already have. One company has a range of models that has a large percentage of the market – DJI. Their Phantom range of drones are the first choice for many, and though they do make some high end-models, the Phantom 3 series models are the most popular drone in the world, for good reason.

Getting Started

DPSSovHIll

One of the big advertising features of most drones these days is their ease of operation. “Fly Straight Out of the Box” is a common term you’ll see, and in fact it is also very true. Charge the battery, download the app to your smartphone, fire it up, and away you go.

However, it must be mentioned that as easy as these are to fly, common sense and care is a big part of aerial flying. It’s suggested you start with some limitations in place, easily set up on the smartphone app that runs the drone. This is usually along the lines of limiting the maximum height you can fly, and also how far away you can send the drone.

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Photo courtesy of DJI

Always start somewhere wide open, such as a local oval or park, and spend time getting a feel of the controls before you even think about pressing the shutter button. Always be aware of your location in relation to what’s around you. As these cameras usually have a wide angle lens (20mm equivalent) and it’s easy to mis-judge your positioning when in close proximity to objects such as trees and buildings, especially if viewing the smartphone screen is your prime.

Rules and Regulations

Most countries have rules to follow, and while they can’t all be mentioned here, usually they are along the lines of these:

  • Drone must always be in Line of Sight (LOS) – that basically means you should always be able to see it
  • Maximum Height 133 metres (400 feet)
  • Never fly over groups of people
  • Respect others privacy
  • No flying anywhere near airports and other no-fly zones as specified in each country

It’s suggested you check with your local air safety authorities for particular details in your area.

DPSBurrumbeet

A few months ago I was flying above my local railway station, looking for the perfect image at dusk, just as the lights came on that illuminate the tower every evening on this historic building. Happily flying for five minutes or so, I looked down to see two local policemen coming over to me. My first reaction in these circumstances is to gauge their reaction to drone flying, and if there are any concerns I bring the machine down immediately. Unfortunately drones have been getting some negative publicity in the press, certainly not helped by the person that crash landed one on the front lawn of the White House in Washington earlier in 2015. Luckily these two policemen were very interested in what I was doing. By showing them exactly on-screen what I was seeing, and explaining the whole procedure and the care I was taking in not flying directly above any people, they left with a very positive attitude.

I think it’s very important to fly with this attitude in mind. And one other thing about flying in public places….you will need to be prepared to become the centre of attention as people are generally quite intrigued by what you doing!

DPSRailStn

Its also tempting to think that aerial imaging is going to be a great new avenue for making some money from your photography. Once again this is another area where the rules vary from country to country, and you should look into the certification you may need in your area to undertake paid aerial work.

DPSWHeip

Amazing Technology

Todays drones have some amazing technology on board that has revolutionized aerial photography:

  • By connecting your smartphone to your handheld remote control unit, you can see on-screen exactly what the drone is viewing. This makes for perfect compositional adjustments.
  • Camera controls are extensive – auto or full manual control, RAW capture, even time-lapse
  • The drone will hover in the one spot with incredible stability, almost like an aerial tripod! You can take your hands off the controls and the drone will stay in that position.
  • Failsafe flight options. With an average 20 minutes flight time per battery charge, the drone can detect when your battery is getting low and will go into RTH mode (automatic return-to-home), ensuring the drone comes back to you! If for some reason the lightbridge connection between the remote control and the machine itself is lost (this can happen when flying behind buildings or trees), once again RTH is activated. Another great use for the RTH feature is when you have lost sight of the drone, which is quite easy to do once it gets some distance away from you, by pressing the RTH button your flying camera will happily return to you before you know it.

DPSGolden

Aerial Photography

When you first start flying, it’s very exciting to get home, load your images, and marvel at the amazing scenes you have captured. In my first few weeks of flying, everything I took was thrilling. However, I quickly realized that aerial photography is no different to other forms of photography – it’s still all about the light! So rather than just heading out randomly, I once again started to chase the light and conditions, which has always been the strength of my landscape photography.

As a landscape photographer I am always aware of weather conditions and what they might offer. Now even more so, as a drone pilot you will have to also take into account the wind forecasts. Drones are not something you fly in high winds (unless you have to get that amazing once-in-a-lifetime scene in front of you!) and you will find yourself looking for calm weather more than any other condition.

DPSWindfarm

At present the in-built cameras on most drones are nowhere near the quality you are used to with your ground level camera. However, I have found the images I have been able to capture are surprisingly good. Though only 12mps, the fact that you can shoot a RAW file gives you more options to work with later on. The jpg files are also surprisingly good, especially if you have been flying in good light.

Even when shooting in low light the quality has been amazing for such a small camera unit, and the stability of the camera at 300 feet can be quite astonishing. You can also shoot panorama images just as you would when down at sea level, once again creating something very unique. And why not try a time-lapse from 300 feet?! I have had images printed up to A3 size (roughly 12×16) and you would be hard pressed to tell they were taken with a 12mp camera.

DPSGlengower

I should also mention that most drones these days shoot high quality video, even up to 4K, which produces stunning aerial footage. In fact, at 4K resolution it’s possible to take a high quality frame directly out of the video.

Unique Views

One thing you will love is the amazing patterns you find in the landscape when viewed from above. Drones allow you to get into the area that most planes and helicopters are not allowed to – below 300 feet. Google Maps makes a great starting point for finding locations that look worth visiting.

It certainly beats putting your camera on the end of a ten foot pole (yes, I did that a few years ago).

DPScanola

As a landscape photographer for a number of years now, I can’t recommend highly enough aerial imaging as a unique way to add that extra aspect to your photography. Everyone you share your images with will be amazed and intrigued, and don’t forget how much fun it is. If you ever tire of it, you may like to try herding sheep with your drone – yes, it’s been done!

Have you tried out any drone or aerial photography yourself? Please share your tips and images in the comments below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Andrew Thomas is an award winning Australian landscape photographer who has been working on 2 major projects for the last 8 years. First is to photograph his local district around Ballarat, Victoria, in all seasons and at all times. His 2nd project is to photograph the 59 USA National Parks, which he is pleased to say he accomplished in August this year. His USA book is in preparation and will be launched in 2016. You can see his daily postings on his blog or see more of his aerial images here.

  • Hi

    Thanks for the great article! There is some stunning photos there! One thing I would like to mention though is where you said that an A3 print is similar in size to an 8″x10″, A3 is actually a lot closer to a 12″x16″ print as A3 measures 11.7″x16.5″

    Great article nonetheless!

    NVeal
    http://www.solihullphotography.com

  • Jim

    I cannot over-state the Regulatory requirements, which due to the international flavour of this posting have been mentioned but not detailed.

    Requirements here in Canada have not yet been codified, but the requirements in the United States have been published. Included among the US requirements, from memory: Maximum height 400′ AGL, maintain line of sight at all times, no flying over crowds or events, respect for individual privacy, the UAS must be registered if it weighs more than 0.55lb (250g), and non-commercial use only.

    Is sounds like overkill for a small drone, which looks like a toy. However, think of this as a parallel to taking a tricycle out on the freeways.

    No flying allowed within 5 miles of an airport unless you first contact the control tower – the National Airspace System starts at ground level within 5 miles of a controlled airport.

    If you want to use an UAS commercially (such as taking pictures for your photography business), then there is a separate registration process to undertake, and, from a quick reading, there appears to be a licensing required of the pilot.

    In short, if you fly a drone you are operating a vehicle in the national airspace system, and lots of regulations come into play. Getting a gift and flying a little UAS over your backyard for giggles is very doable and quick, though there are rules to follow. If you wish to operate a UAS as part of your a commercial business, it will take months to get legally airborne.

  • Andrew Thomas

    Thanks Neal, you are right, a slight typo when edited….you can easily get 12″ x 16’s out of this camera. I was going to point this out and you beat me to it (its been nightime here in Australia!)

  • Andrew Thomas

    Thanks for your reply Jim, I was unable to go into full details of regulatory requirements in an article of this size, however you’re points are very valid and its something that all drone flyers need to be fully aware of.

  • Paul McKelvey

    Now the US requires that all drones be registered. The drone has to bear the registration number, just like an airplane. The link is https://www.faa.gov/uas/registration/. It is free for a short period of time.

  • Juleann

    You mention Very Briefly the need to be considerate of people and privacy . . . a standard with a low bar and absolutely no agreement for what that behavior means. What is your definition of a “group” of people? Is it OK to bother three people but not 50?

    Drones are noisy and invasive; they are simply the latest gadget to further degrade personal space, privacy, safety and security. While I believe some people will operate them respectfully, there is no reason to believe people will follow the rules. It is my observation that people — given the opportunity — are generally idiots [when it comes to mechanical flying toys and many other things].

    There is no doubt the images are appealing. Still, the potential for harm is great. I wish photographers promoting the use of this technology would also advocate for greater restrictions on their access and clearer guidelines for where — and when — their use is appropriate. Conservation land in my community will NOT be allowing drone activity. The rights of people to enjoy the out-of-doors without drones outweighs the desire of a few people to invade that space.

  • Andrew Thomas

    Thanks Paul, I did read about this and from the feedback I’ve been seeing its very easy to do. Hopefully this will keep the government happy in the US so they don’t bring in tougher laws.

  • Andrew Thomas

    I can understand your concerns Juleann. In fact drones have been banned totally from all National Park lands in the USA, and though I would love to see what images you could get in these places, I am in total agreeance with this law as the thought of them flying all over the place would totally spoil your experience. Personally, I do almost all my flying in rural areas away from people, and when I do have people around I am very respectful of their space as well as mine.
    I should point out that the few times I have been approached by onlookers they are generally quite interested and happy to discuss the new technology.

  • Juleann

    Thanks for your response, Andrew. I still wish you would define what you mean by “groups of people”. If three people are sunbathing on a beach is it OK to fly over them and take pictures? If a family is having a picnic is it OK to fly over them and take pictures? What role does consent have in this?

    It is essential that photographers who have experience with this technology begin to state very explicitly what activity is acceptable, just to get it on the table.

  • Andrew Thomas

    Obviously groups can range from one person to many……we all have different levels of common sense, I can’t speak for the rest of world however as the situations when you are flying vary so much it is up to the individual to judge them as they see fit and decide if they wish to continue flying or not.

  • Andrew Thomas

    A recent addition from Christmas Eve…..

  • Andrew Thomas

    A new view from Christmas eve….

  • Juleann

    Apparently, in the US it is illegal to fly a drone over any people who are not involved in the drone’s flight. It actually is NOT up to the individual to judge. Perhaps it is different in Australia. However, this is why articles about drone photography need to be clear and specific about legal or acceptable drone activity when people are around.

  • Andrew Thomas

    As I mentioned in the original article it is best to check the regulations where you live. it is not really practical to try and include them all in the one article.

  • Dylan Wentworth

    I can see how people behave with leafblowers and fireworks. The thought of these noisy drones getting in the hands of your everyday inconsiderate person is a scary, scary thought indeed. Luckily, nobody in my neighborhood has one yet.
    I haven’t really been tempted to get a drone yet. They’re still very expensive, you get like 12 minutes to fly, 400 feet is only roughly the height of a 40 story building, regulation still very iffy and I feel like if I had a drone, I’d get most of what I ever wanted to shoot at below 400′ in a day or two. And the thought of having to schlep it along with the other camera gear to shoots….. Oh and most of what I want to shoot is over water. Guess how that will end.

  • Fixed, sorry about that!

  • Andrew Thomas

    Interesting to get your viewpoint, Dylan.Just like portraiture and street photography, they are not for everyone, as is so many things in this world. And you get closer to 20 minutes than 12 minutes flight time, and below 400′ is an area that, even if you could afford the money to do it, is out of bounds for small aircraft and helicopters without special permits. Also, I’m just wondering, did you get everything you wanted to shoot in a day or two when you started taking ground level photos?! 🙂

  • Dylan Wentworth

    No and I use the same reasoning for putting off every technology purchase and then when I finally do buy it, I wonder how I ever lived without it.
    I really am glad though, that the neighborhood doesn’t have any drones yet. I was afraid come christmas morning, we’d have a zillion of them buzzing around.

  • Andrew Thomas

    Trust me, leaf blowers are far more annoying. At least with drones once they get 50 feet off the ground you hardly notice the noise…..!

  • Darren

    Nice article, thanks for sharing. It’s probably good to point out that the 400ft altitude restriction is actually 121m, not 133m.

  • Andrew Thomas

    Thanks Darren, I should have used google instead of my own brain!

  • ellensueEllen Ingram Silverman

    I own a small Photo Art business and recently purchased a DJI Phantom 3 Drone which has
    opened a new dimension to my little business. It provides me great joy and excitement. I follow the rules; I respect the privacy of others, ask their permission to go on their property if necessary, don’t fly above 400 ft., don’t fly over people or animals, and don’t let it out of my sight. I just registered it with the FAA and attached the registration numbers to my aircraft. Unlike the majority, I make sure I follow the rules because it is the wrongs of the many who make it hard on those of us who want to pursue this amazing adventure. Photography was the escape for me when my husband passed away some 9 years ago. It saved me, and I love the creative possibilities that the drone has provided me. For those of you who say drone owners invade your privacy, I do my ultimate best to not do that. Please don’t condemn all of the drone pilots. Most of us believe and respect your privacy. Please allow us our right to fly in open space. Please allow us our creative expression without making us feel like criminals. I’ve attached a couple of photos I took with my drone. The sunset was taken 400 feet above my
    house. The other is of the golf course on which I live.

  • Dylan Wentworth

    We’ll see what happens when gopro enters the space. Prices need to come down either way.

  • Andrew Thomas

    Hi Ellen, thanks for your feedback. I literally just got back this minute from an exciting fly over some lovely early morning mists, so I know the excitement you feel! It’s nice to hear from someone who recognises the tremendous possibilties we now have with the ability to get our cameras into the air. The more people that can pass on their positive experiences the better as the media tends to always look for the negatives. I’d love to see some of your images if you can try again at uploading them……

  • Andrew Thomas

    I’m sure DJI is sitting on their next model, probably the Phantom 4, waiting to see what Go Pro will come up with. And the good thing for us all waiting is that this competition should get us better machines at lower prices…maybe then you may be tempted!

  • ellensueEllen Ingram Silverman

    Thanks Andrew. I’ll try again.

  • Andrew Thomas

    Very nice Ellen….Looks like a great spot for flying!

  • Dylan Wentworth

    Another problem is that I don’t have a very clear LOS. Lots of tall trees.

  • Andrew Thomas

    You know that soon you’re going to run out of excuses NOT to get a drone……!

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  • Stoo

    It’s sad to see soo many ignorant opinions of quads here. You’d think that photographers would embrace the opportunity to get a totally unique viewpoint. Most people who own one of these devices will use them respectfully and for the intended purpose, unfortunately the media vilifies the hobby by bringing attention to the few idiot who misuse or abuse them. Your common 300mm lens is potentially more invasive, and cars are noisier and more dangerous.

    Fun fact, even though I know there are dozens of other people who own quads in Manchester, I’ve not seen anyone with one, so they are hardly the modern scourge some people drone on about 😀

  • Andrew Thomas

    Thanks for the reply Stoo…and for putting some positive feedback into this thread. I totally agree with your comments, especially in regards to something like the 300mm lens. Most people don’t realise that the lens on most drones is very wide, about 20mm equivalent, so it has to be very close to the subject to cause any concerns about invasion of privacy. You’d almost need to land it in someones lap to really get anything to worry about! Happy New Year!

  • Hi,

    Nice article. Thanks for sharing this post.
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