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Until very recently, my mindset was decidedly anti-drone. To me, drones seemed like a complicated plaything for geeks. After all, isn’t this photography hobby expensive enough without adding flying apparatuses to the equation? Plus there was very little doubt in my mind that if I bought a drone I would send it flying into the ocean on its first flight. No thanks.
I had a problem though. I had a coastal photography trip planned, and in coastal photography it is often difficult to take pictures of the coast while standing on the coast. I have long wanted some way to be able to look back at the coast from out to sea and photograph it from that perspective. A drone was the only real answer for me, so I bit the bullet and bought one.
After having used the drone for several months now, I can say my attitude has changed markedly. Much of what I thought about drones was wrong, or at least the problems were overemphasized. Flying them is actually very easy. It isn’t that complicated. It isn’t even that expensive (at least not compared to what we spend on cameras and lenses).
You may be pondering buying a drone, or at least wondering what they are all about. You might also see all the video footage from drones and wonder how drones are used in still photography. So let me introduce you to drones and how they can add a new dimension to your photography.
First, let’s talk about flying drones. This is something you are probably concerned about. You might wonder if flying will require skills you don’t have. Or perhaps you just don’t want to devote time to learning it. This is one area where you have nothing to worry about. Flying a drone is remarkably easy. That’s not to say you shouldn’t be careful or that you won’t be nervous every time you fly it, but flying is really easy.
The main thing to understand is that if you have your drone in the air, and you completely let go of the controls, it will just hover harmlessly in the air. It literally just sits there until you tell it what to do. Another thing that people worry about is having the battery run out while you are in the air. That won’t happen. Most drones have a feature that brings the drone back to its take-off point when the battery gets down to a certain level. In fact, most drones have a return to home feature you can press if you ever find yourself in an uncomfortable situation. You always have a way out.
Controlling the drone is easy. You have a controller with two joysticks on it. Pushing on one of them sends the drone up or down; doing the same to the other joystick sends it forward and backward. Each of the joysticks also goes right and left. One will turn the drone to the right and left; the other will make it move to whichever side you push to. I’ll talk more about the specifics of the control later. For now, I just want you to get a feel for how easy it is. If you were worried about being able to fly a drone, don’t be.
You may have heard a lot about the new laws affecting drones. It is true that most countries are enacting regulations for drones. In the U.S., the FAA has recently finalized its rules regarding drones. But many of the rules and restrictions apply to those using drones commercially. Most of us are just doing this for fun, so let me try to make this simple for you.
If you are flying your drone for recreational purposes, you don’t need a permit. There are no pilot requirements. Just register your drone with the FAA and you are set. The registration process is simple and only costs $5. To do so, just go to this page, create an account, and follow the instructions to register your drone.
That said, you cannot just fly your drone wherever you want. The main limitations you should understand are as follows:
There are other restricted areas as well. For example, you cannot fly anywhere in Washington D.C. or in national parks. There are online maps and apps for your phone – including the FAA’s B4U Fly app – that will tell you when you are in a restricted space.
Next, let’s talk about getting a drone, if you don’t already have one.
You may have dreams of buying a drone and sending up your DSLR to take high quality pictures. Forget about that, unless you want to spend upwards of $6,000. Instead, you’ll probably want to get a drone that comes with its own camera, but there are also models that work with the GoPro. The most common models are the Phantom 4 by DJI (check prices on Amazon or B&H Photo) or the Typhoon H by Yuneec (check prices on Amazon or B&H Photo). These will cost you about $1,300 – $1,500 for the drone and camera, although you can still get older models cheaper.
What will you get for that? You’ll get a drone that will fly up to about 40 miles per hour, which can operate up to a few miles away from you. It will remain aloft on a battery charge for about 20-30 minutes. You can expect it to have features like an automatic return to home, collision avoidance, and the ability to follow you. Of course, specific features will depend on the actual model you choose.
As to the camera, you can expect to get one that shoots both stills and video (usually 4K). We’ll talk more about the specifics of the cameras in a minute. First let’s talk more about how to fly.
When you fly the drone for still photography, things are pretty simple. Unlike shooting video, you won’t need to do any fancy pans or reveals. You just want to get the drone to the right spot(s) to take the picture. It’s just a matter of getting it up in the air, watching where you are going with it, and moving it where you want.
Your drone will have a controller with two joysticks. The controller plugs into your phone or other device. You control the drone with the two joysticks. At the same time, you can see through the drones camera on your device. To send the drone up into the air, all you do is press up on the left joystick. That stick controls altitude. It is as simple as pushing up on the stick to increase the altitude, and pulling down to bring the drone down. That stick will also turn the drone from side to side. The other (right) joystick will fly the drone forward and backward by pressing up and down. When you press that joystick left or right, it moves the drone in that direction.
To keep an eye on where your drone is going, you can either watch the drone itself or watch where it is going via the screen on your phone. Of course, you can operate the controller while keeping your eyes on the drone to make it go where you want. But you can also see what the drone sees to control it, which is often much easier. You will have a controller that connects to your phone or other device. Your screen will show the view from the drone’s camera as well as other pertinent data. Remember that your drone has to be kept in direct eyesight though.
That doesn’t sound too difficult, does it? It’s really not. After a few flights, it will be even easier. Of course, there are additional nuances and things will be a little different depending on what model you buy. Be sure to read the instructions and watch a few online videos on your specific model.
Next let’s talk about the camera that will come with your drone. First, the good news. When it comes to shooting video, the cameras in drones are top notch. They routinely shoot Ultra HD and most shoot 4K video. It doesn’t get better than that.
The bad news is that still photography is something of an afterthought for drones. The sensors are small. In most cases they are what you’d get in a compact camera. The resolution is moderate (12-16 MP is standard). The dynamic range is extremely limited and the low light performance isn’t great.
In addition, the lens will likely be very limited; a fixed focal length. It will be a wide angle lens, usually around 15-20 mm. The lens will also have a fixed aperture, meaning you cannot change it.
Virtually none of us would feel good about going out shooting with such a limited camera and lens. However, in drones it isn’t that bad. As to the camera, remember you will be shooting in daylight (you can only fly drones during the day – within 30 minutes of sunrise and sunset – in the U.S.), so there will usually be plenty of light. As to the lens, the fixed aperture isn’t as limiting as it would first appear. Keep in mind that everything in your picture will be so far away that the focus will be at infinity. You don’t need a lot of deep depth of field for everything to be sharp.
So the cameras are pretty limited, but you can make do. In any event, the cameras are getting better all the time, so you can expect significant improvements in camera quality in the near future.
We’ve talked about the capabilities of drones and the basics of how to fly them. Let’s talk now about taking pictures with them. For the most part, it is similar to operating a normal camera. You have the normal modes to choose from. You can set the shutter speed and ISO yourself or have the camera set them for you. That said, there are some aspects of using cameras on drones you should be aware of. Here are some tips to get you started:
I am a dedicated manual mode shooter when it comes to shooting with my DSLR. I would not think of using an automatic exposure mode. But when it comes to shooting with a drone, I put it in automatic exposure mode more often than not.
Why? Because there is enough to worry about when it comes to drones. I don’t want to add exposure control to my list of issues to think about. So when you are starting out using a drone for photography, consider using automatic mode. When you get more comfortable with the other controls, you can then set the exposure controls yourself. In any case, your camera will typically do a pretty good job setting the exposure level. You’ll rarely have tricky exposure scenarios here.
One way to make sure you get the right exposure every time is to bracket your photos. Drone cameras are usually capable of doing 3-shot brackets. Use this to overexpose and underexpose your shots by a stop. Think of this as exposure insurance. Sometimes you will just like one of the over or underexposed shots better. In that case, just use it. In addition, you can blend the exposures or use HDR software to combine the exposures later.
As mentioned earlier, the lens on your drone will likely have only one aperture. That leaves you limited options for changing shutter speeds. You aren’t completely out of luck though; you can still buy neutral density filters for your lens. These filters are used more for video, but they also help still photographers. They restrict the amount of light that gets into the camera, thereby forcing the camera to use a longer shutter speed.
You can also get polarizing filters for your drone. These filters cut down on reflections and make skies appear a deeper, richer blue. This is helpful for drone photography, where the sky is often a significant part of the picture.
This isn’t strictly a photography tip, but it is important nonetheless. Be sure to get more than one battery for your drone. Drone batteries typically last only 20-30 minutes. That isn’t a lot of time. Further, you may also want to fly in a few different locations on the same day. Most of the time you won’t be able to charge your battery in between locations. So, you’ll need more than one.
How many do you need? That depends. You can get away with only two batteries (I do), but many drone photographers have three or four. You shouldn’t need more than that. Batteries are not cheap so think carefully about what you will need.
Obviously, when you are flying the blades on your drone will be spinning. Remember that you will also be using an extremely wide angle lens. If you aren’t careful, your picture will include the spinning blades.
The best way to avoid this problem is to simply angle the camera down. That will keep the spinning blades out of the camera’s field of view. Of course, changing the angle of the camera will change the composition of your picture. Flying higher while angling the camera down might keep the composition similar to the picture you originally had in mind.
In any case, just be sure to look for blades in your pictures. You will need to look closely sometimes because it isn’t always obvious. You don’t want to get home and discover that your pictures are all ruined because there are spinning blades in all your pictures. If they are present, just change things up and take another shot without the blades in the picture.
Your drone will fly up to 400 feet in the air. It is fun to fly it high, and it also ensures that you are far away from trees, power lines, and other obstacles. But for the best photos, you will not want to be anywhere near that high. Your shot will look like something from Google Earth. Instead, keep your drones pretty low to the ground (under 100 feet) to get the best shots. That will help you establish a foreground for your picture.
So I admit it, I was wrong about drones. They are fun, easy to fly, and they really add something to your photography. Is one right for you? The answer will be different for everybody, but if you are on the fence I really encourage you to give it a shot.
A “just get out there and do it” attitude might not seem appropriate when it comes to drones. After all, any mistake can lead to a crash. But there is one simple rule that will make flying drones easy. That is to just stay away from everything. In fact, stay far away. Don’t go anywhere near trees, buildings, power lines, etc. If you do that, very little can go wrong.
Do you have any other drone tips to share with dPS readers? Please do so and share your drone images in the comments below.