Advanced Techniques for Drone Photography

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In my previous article, I discussed some of the basics of drone photography. I’ll go over some more advanced techniques in this article.

Consider the AutoPilot App

I recommend using the AutoPilot app for DJI to help with taking your drone photos. After finding the spot you want to shoot in Google Earth, you can program the GPS coordinates and height into AutoPilot and it will fly the drone to that exact spot and take a single image or, better yet, a large panorama that you can later stitch together. You can even program an entire mission and have it fly the drone to multiple locations, taking panoramas at each spot. The missions usually take a little longer than the estimated time, so you should limit missions to no more than 10 or 12 minutes so the battery doesn’t die.

Drone Photography at Blue Lakes, Mount Sneffels

I programmed AutoPilot to stop the drone 50 feet before the wilderness boundary and take this stitched panorama of Blue Lakes below Mount Sneffels.

Once it finishes, you can have your drone automatically return and land, or you can have it hover in place. For shorter missions, I usually have it hover in place, so that I can take some images manually. Although Google Earth is a great way to plan drone photos, you won’t know exactly what you’re shooting until the drone is in the air. Sometimes you will want to revise the composition based on lighting and weather conditions.

Another very useful thing you can do with Autopilot is to program your drone to fly in a grid-like pattern, while your camera is pointing straight down, taking shots every 5 or 10 seconds. You can later stitch all of the landscape photos together to capture an extremely high-resolution image of a very wide swath of land while remaining at or below the 400-foot height limit.

It does take a while to learn this app, so you should watch YouTube tutorials and practice using it over a big, empty field. There are other apps that are easier to learn, but they seem to be mostly geared towards shooting video, whereas AutoPilot is very useful for both photo and video.

Utah Badlands from DJI Mavic Pro

I programmed Autopilot to fly in a grid-like pattern and capture a huge stitched image of this bizarre landscape.

Flying Higher than 400 Feet

FAA guidelines state that you should never fly your drone over 400-feet high. However, the 400-foot limit applies to the height of the drone above the ground, not the height of the drone above you. As long as you’re within 400 feet of a tall object, you can fly 400 feet above that object. So if you take off from the base of an 800-foot tall cliff, you can fly to 1200 feet. The Autopilot app is very useful for this, as you can program your drone to fly to precise locations, while always remaining within the height limits.

FAA regulations also state that you need to keep the drone within unaided sight. So that can also limit how high you can fly.

Castle Valley Sunset

By staying close to the tall rock formations in Castle Valley, I was able to fly over 400-feet above my takeoff point.

Commercial Drone License

If you plan to sell images you take from your drone, you should get a commercial drone license. You have to pass a test and pay $150 for the license. I got mine last year. Many of the questions relate to flying a drone near an airport. This is a catch-22, as the FAA will almost never grant permission to fly a drone near an airport. Therefore, much of the knowledge you gain from the test is almost completely irrelevant. You simply need to stay at least 5 miles away from an airport when flying a drone. I spent about 8-hours studying for the test by watching YouTube videos and reading the FAA drone manual. So you really don’t need to pay for a course that teaches the test.

Drone Photography: Above Colorado River and Castleton Tower

I found this view above the Colorado River on Google Earth and then programmed the exact GPS coordinates into AutoPilot.

Drone Etiquette

People seem to either love drones or hate drones. Drone owners love them for the exhilaration of being able to fly on a low budget. Others hate them for their noise and the disturbance they can cause. If drone owners try to minimize the noise and disturbance, it can at least reduce tensions.

I try to fly in places where there is no one else around. If that’s not possible, I recommend immediately taking the drone up to 400 feet, where it can barely be heard. Always avoid flying near or directly over people. You should also know how to manually return and land your drone rather than relying on the Return-to-Home feature. When Return-to-Home is activated, the DJI controllers give off a loud, annoying beep that cannot be disabled.

Drone Photography Example - A unique perspective of Colorado Waterfall from the air.

Drone Photography Example – A unique perspective of Colorado Waterfall from the air.

Keep these tips about drone photography in mind next time you head out to capture that stunning shot with your drone. Feel free to share your own tips and techniques about Drone Photography in the comments below.

About Author Grant

Grant Collier has been working as a professional photographer since 1996 and has been shooting photos at night since 2003. He is the author of 12 books and has recently released a book called Collier’s Guide to Night Photography in the Great Outdoors. He has also produced a new instructional video called Collier’s Guide to Post-Processing Night Photos.