How To Choose A Drone For Photography.
As a photographer, you are always seeking ways to improve the images you take. Experimentation with composition and technique helps you find new ways to express your world. The medium of aerial photography is now available to all; thanks to drone technology. And this article aims to help you get started in this exciting new field and assumes that you have no prior experience.
I’m going to take you through some of the questions you may have as a new drone user. I’ll cover the best way to get airborne if you have no experience, the legal rules you need to be aware of, and the basic do’s, and don’ts of drone safety.
I’ll then talk about the quality of the cameras you can expect on today’s drones, and what equipment you need to buy to get started. Finally, I’ll cover the capabilities of drone cameras and how you can use them.
I’ll end by recommending three drones which I believe are good options for starting an Aerial Photography Business So, let’s take a look first at the best way for those that are new to drones to get started.
How to Get Started.
When you first get your new drone, it can be tempting to slap in a new battery, head out to your back yard and get airborne. But the last thing you want to do with your expensive new investment is to crash and damage it.
If you search YouTube for ‘drone fails’, you’ll find plenty of new drone photographers doing just this, however. When the day of the maiden flight comes, they get into trouble shortly after takeoff and $1400 slams into the concrete.
Instead, I would suggest you take a more planned, thoughtful approach. For as little as $50, you can buy a starter drone for the inevitable bumps and crashes you’ll have when learning the fundamental moves.
Starter drones may appear to be toys aimed at children, but they operate in precisely the same way as more expensive drones. You’ll get to learn about pitch and yaw, takeoff and landing. Mastering a cheaper drone will make you a better all-round pilot too. More affordable drones don’t have the inbuilt flight assistance technology of more expensive ones.
You can even use some of the smaller models indoors too, as they often come with protection for the propellers and can ‘bounce’ off obstructions.
So, before you start shopping for a good quality photography drone, buy a cheap one first and start practicing your skills.
Are Drones Easy to Fly
You give a drone flight command via a handheld device called a controller. It has as a pair of sticks to direct the drone and looks much like a modern version of the units used by enthusiasts to fly radio-controlled planes.
The left stick controls the throttle dictating altitude and yaw for rotation through the horizontal plane. The right stick controls the roll for turning right or left, and pitch for moving you forwards and backward.
Controllers also have other switches for camera settings or flight operations such as automatic takeoff and landing.
For the majority of drones, the controller communicates with the drone via a radio signal, but some smaller toy drones can use a WI-FI signal which enables you to use your smartphone to pilot the craft.
Controllers for the higher end drones will either come with a dock for you to use your smartphone as a display or may even have a screen built-in. The screen displays a first-person view (FPV) of the camera and is also used to configure settings for the drone and camera.
Assuming you have been practicing with a cheaper training drone, you should find a more expensive drone easier to fly. These drones are usually heavier, so they are more stable in flight, and most have GPS sensors built-in. The sensors lock onto available GPS satellites and the drone’s onboard technology can then assist you with the flight.
A GPS drone will be able to hold and hover in a fixed position of your choosing. You can also set an autonomous flight path using GPS waypoints too. A GPS drone can also remember the takeoff location. So if you got into trouble on your flight, you can get the drone to automatically fly back to you with the press of a button.
What are the Legal Aspects of Flying a Drone?
There are two main factors you need to consider to get your drone in the air legally – weight and flight purpose.
Drones under 0.55lbs (250g) are exempt from regulation so you can fly one as soon as you get it. But if your drone weighs between 0.55lbs (250g) and 55lbs (25k), then it must be registered with the FAA before a flight.
Registration costs $5 and can be completed online.
You’ll be covered for three years and be issued with a registration number that must be displayed on your drone. If you have more than one drone, you can use the same number for them all. Most good quality photography drones will weight over 0.55lbs and require registration.
If you want to use your drone for commercial purposes such as selling images or providing film-making services, then you will need to get a license. Called the Part 107 Drone License, it aims to make sure that professional drone pilots fly safely and responsibly.
To get you Part 107 Drone Pilots Certification you will need to pass a multiple-choice test at a licensed center, which costs approximately $150.
An important distinction should be made here between sharing your photos and videos for personal entertainment and commercial use.
If you upload your videos to your YouTube account and you earn money from the ad share program, this is commercial use and requires a license.
Similarly, if you upload your photos to a stock image website for sale, then you will also need to get a license. If you are just sharing content for fun, then you don’t require a license.
You can find more about the requirements by visiting the FAA page on drones.
The Do’s and Don’ts of Drone Safety
Flying a drone should always be pleasurable and rewarding, but you also need to consider the rights of people around you too. Here are a few things that you should consider when flying your drone.
Do always keep your drone within a visual line of sight.
Do keep your drone at or below 400ft in altitude.
Do practice maneuvers when you are starting in a wide-open space, which has minimal aerial obstacles such as overhead cables and trees.
Do respect the privacy of other people.
Don’t fly your drone within 5 miles of an Airport or Heliport. Some cities may have designated areas where it is safe to fly drones close to Airports and Heliports – check with the FAA.
Don’t fly your drones in a National Park; it’s illegal.
Don’t fly your drone in an area where emergency services are responding to an incident.
Like many things in life, use your drone with common sense and thought for others, and you will help to keep the good name of the drone community. Don’t be the person who causes an incident that forces the authorities to enact restrictive legislation. If you find yourself thinking ‘should I be doing this?’, then the answer is invariably ‘no’.
What Type of Drone do I Need to Start With?
When looking for your first photography drone, you should start with a quadcopter. This is the most common design of four propellers in a square around a central frame. Suspended underneath the frame is a camera housed in a gimbal to provide image stability.
A mid-priced quadcopter drone will generally fly for 30 minutes, have a range of about 8 miles and a top speed around 40mph. A drones maximum ceiling will be around 1,600 feet, but FAA regulations restrict you to an altitude of 400 feet.
When you buy your first proper photography drone package, you will get the basics you need to get airborne. Typically, the drone will come equipped with a camera, a battery for power, a controller for piloting, and a few spare propellers.
Many drones also have a ‘plus’ package that provides extra batteries, propeller protectors and carrying cases. These packages are worth considering as they generally work out as much better value than if you purchased the extras separately.
At the end of this article, I have picked out three drones at different price points that I would recommend as reliable purchases.
What About Camera Quality?
Camera quality varies depending on price. The ‘toy’ drones aimed at children sometimes have a camera, but resolutions are not much better than the phone cameras of 10 years ago. To get a camera suitable for high-quality photography then, with a few exceptions, you need to look at the mid-range drones ($1000 and higher).
You can expect to get a camera with the following specifications from a mid-range drone:
Pixels: 20 Million
Sensor: 1″ CMOS
Color Profile: 10 bit (1 billion colors)
Aperture: f/2.8 – f/11
ISO Range: 100 – 12800
Shutter Speed: 8 – 1/8000s
Image Format: JPEG, DNG(RAW)
The camera will come mounted underneath the drone on a gimbal to give you image stability. It is surprising how effective these can be, even in marginal conditions, at producing great shots.
Cameras with a zoom lens are available too, but there may be a trade-off in other specifications of the setup. Drone manufacturers have to consider the overall weight of any configuration and balance it with requirements for drone range, lift, and speed.
What Accessories Do I Need to Buy?
There are some essential accessories needed to start drone photography. Spare batteries should be on everybody’s initial purchase list; I would recommend you buy at least two. Flight time per battery is around 30 minutes, so several are needed to make the most of a session. Batteries take about 1 1/2 hours to charge fully, so it’s worth considering buying a multi-charger and maybe a car charger too.
Other accessories you should have on hand are spare propellers. Drone propellers are especially vulnerable to snapping or cracking if caution is not taken when flying or handling them on the ground. However, you can add some protection with propeller guards, which can help to prevent damage from a novice pilot.
A takeoff and landing pad can be useful when the ground you are operating from is dusty or muddy, and help protect your investment. A carry case to transport all your drone equipment safely is not something you should be without either.
Finally, always carry spare memory cards for the camera. It’s extremely frustrating to arrive for a shoot only to find your current card is full or not storing properly. Don’t be that Guy or Girl!
Getting in the Air.
Like any pilot, before you take your aircraft off the ground, it is vital to perform pre-flight checks.
The day before your flight, check the weather for your chosen location. A great resource is uavforecast.com. This site shows you the expected wind and rain in the area and recommends whether your flight is advisable or not.
High winds or heavy rains are conditions you should certainly avoid. Some drones can be flown in light rain, but for the most part, drones don’t have any water resistance, so if you value your Investment, this should be avoided.
Clear any SD cards you want to take and make sure any apps you are going to use on the day are downloaded and updated. If you are going to be flying on or around private property, make sure that you have permission to be in the area.
When you arrive at your flight location, before unpacking your drone, take a minute to familiarize yourself with the surroundings. Are there any obstacles you might not have seen at first glance? Look around for potential problems and other drone pilots who might be operating in the area.
When you’ve determined the location is safe for flight, unpack and assemble your drone and perform the following checklist.
- A general inspection to remove any foreign objects such as twigs or grass stuck around the frame.
- Make sure that no parts are loose or cracked and rotor arms are set in their proper position.
- Ensure all propellers are seated correctly, and there are no chips or cracks in them.
- Inspect the camera housing and gimbal for foreign objects, remove any lens cover and make sure the lens is clean. One of the worst things to find in ‘Post’ is Dust or Water Droplets resting on the image you just captured.
- Ensure that you are using a fully charged battery and it’s seated correctly in the compartment.
- Make sure that your camera SD card is inserted correctly.
- Make sure the connection between the drone and the controller is strong.
Many drone pilots also like to perform some basic checks when first hovering 3-5 feet off the ground. Listen carefully for any sounds which may indicate a potential problem. Anything out of the ordinary; such as Rattling, odd rotar noise, or notifications from the App. If it all sounds normal, commence flying.
Like all modern cameras, the standard rules of photography will apply to Drone Photography. Its imperative to Get the right exposure, to remember the rule of thirds, and to seek out patterns and symmetry.
As with a modern DSLR, drone cameras also come equipped with technology meant to help you to get great shots. If your drone purchase was solely for photography, I’d recommend you stretch your budget to at least the mid-range drones because of the difference in camera features. There is a vast difference in camera capabilities between the low end drone camera market and the mid-range.
A mid-range drone camera will have a 1′ CMOS sensor, a shutter speed of 8 – 1/8000s, an ISO range of 100-12800 and a lens with an f/2.8 – f/11 aperture. You will also get the option of shooting your pictures in DNG(RAW) format. RAW format is essential to get the most out of your shots with post-production processing in your favorite imaging software.
Accessories are also available for drone cameras too. One you might consider is ND filters. ND Filters clip on over the lens and reduce the amount of light entering the camera. This gives you more flexibility over your choice of shutter speed and enables you to capture a more cinematic feel for your photography.
What are the Different Photography Modes Available on a Drone?
With your drone, you can, of course, take standard single shots. A burst shot option gives you a higher chance of getting the image you were hoping for by rapidly taking 3, 5, or 7 pictures. Burst shots are especially useful for capturing images of movement.
If you are unsure of the lighting conditions, the AEB mode (Auto Exposure Bracketing) can take a burst shot using different exposure settings. You can then combine the separate shots in your image editing software later to get the best image possible. Some cameras also come with an HDR mode, which will automatically combine the best elements of bracketed shots into a single image for you.
Panorama modes are often also a feature on mid-range drones, but if the one you choose doesn’t have this option, then don’t worry. Similar results can also be achieved by rotating your drone through the horizontal (yaw) while snapping away. These images can be stitched together later in post-image editing.
What are the Options for Drone Videos?
Video recording quality on a mid-range drone should be 4K as standard, though you may be limited to 30fps in that resolution. Higher frame rates of 60fps are available in 2.7k and 120fps in Full HD.
The real magic with drone video comes with the intelligent shooting modes available. Autonomous video capture settings enable you to achieve professional standard footage with just a few taps on the control screen.
You can select an object on your screen to be the focus of your video, and the drone will then fly around the object in a smooth continuous pattern. Automated flight options include a 360-degree circle, or you might prefer an ascending helix for your shot, or maybe even an angle that simulates a rocket taking off.
If you are looking to film a moving object, the drone can actively track a moving object keeping the subject in the center of the shot. If your object is stationary, then you can enter a point you would like the drone to fly to capture an image with a simple tap of the screen. You can also control the speed and altitude that the drone flies to the location if you want to shoot a video of the object
You can make a hyper-lapse video of an area, which uses lots of images taken at a short interval. The images are stitched together automatically to producing a staccato film with a different mood to a regular video.
Time-lapse photography is also possible using a drones GPS functions. You can program the drone to follow the same flight path at different times of the day, which remembers the speed and angle of the camera and then blends the footage for a stunning effect.
So, hopefully, you are now even keener to get started with drone photography. But which drone is the best one to get started with?
What is the Best Drone to Buy?
Whether you are buying for a new hobby or adding drone photography to your photography business, there are drones to suit most budgets.
Drones under $400, for the main, fall into the ‘toy’ category. These shouldn’t be disregarded entirely – you can build up your flying experience with one of these drones before buying a professional drone. But to capture images that you might want to share publicly or even sell professionally, then consider paying a bit more money.
With that in mind, I’m going to recommend three different drones that would fit somewhere into most aspiring drone photographers’ budgets.
Best Budget Drone – DJI Mavic Mini
The DJI Mavic Mini is aimed at the starter enthusiast. Weighing 0.548lbs, it does not need to be registered with the FAA. At this price point, you are making some sacrifices with the camera and drone features. But it is a solid starter drone, and its small dimensions when folded make it an ideal drone to take with you on vacation.
Flight Time: Up to 30 mins
Top Speed: 29mph
Weight: 0.548lbs (249g)
Spare Battery Cost: $71.99
Camera Sensor: 1/2.3″ CMOS
Shutter Speed: 4 – 1/8000s
Max video resolution: 2.7K
Image Formats: JPEG only
Best Mid-Range Drone – DJI Mavic 2 Pro
The Mavic 2 Pro comes supplied with a Hasselblad camera which produces incredibly high-quality image and video. This drone is, without a doubt, the best all-rounder for both hobbyist and professional.
While it is a significant price jump over the Mavic Mini, that extra cash does get you some significant improvements: A better, more reliable battery, and the connection between drone and controller are stronger giving you more confidence when flying. Also, multi-directional object avoidance cameras help protect your investment too, by automatically piloting away from potential impediments.
It’s the drone to get once you have some confidence with your flying skills.
Flight Time: Up to 30 mins
Top Speed: 44mph
Weight: 2lbs (907g)
Spare Battery Cost: $134.95
Camera Sensor: 1″ CMOS
Aperture: f/2.8 – f/11
Shutter Speed: 8 – 1/8000s
Max video resolution: 4K
Image Formats: JPEG/DNG (RAW)
Best Top Range Drone – Freefly Alta 8
The Alta 8 drone is the workhorse of the movie industry, made by the American company Freefly Systems. This young company has become a disruptive force in the film industry, producing many innovations that are changing the way films are shot.
As the name suggests, the drone has eight motors and propellers to power the drone. The Alta 8 has a shorter flying time than many cheaper drones as it will always be trading off the payload needed to transport the heavier cinema-quality cameras against battery power.
If you are considering using your specialist cameras for ‘big screen’ aerial filming, then this is the drone for you.
Flight Time: Up to 15 mins
Top Speed: 35mph
Weight: 13.6lbs (6.2k)
Spare Battery Cost: $375
Payload: Up to 20lbs
Camera Gimbal (sold separately): $4995.00
Cinema Quality Camera: Not included
The world of aerial photography is now open to all with drones available at all price points. And while the smaller ‘toy’ drones don’t have the camera quality or features suitable to produce outstanding images, they still have a place on your drone journey, enabling you to try out the medium at a reasonable price.
You don’t have to choose a drone from the three I have recommended, but if you do decide on a different model, I would suggest that you choose one that has an active online community so that you can learn from others who started before you.
Drone safety should always be your primary consideration when you are flying. The drone community needs to make sure that it behaves in a manner that doesn’t attract restrictive legislation from the authorities.
But once you are safely in the air, you will discover an exciting new perspective for your photography, whether you want to focus on still images or video, for pleasure or commercial venture. The world of drone photography is a rewarding experience. I recommend you start today.