Red Mountain Pass, Aerial Photograph

Getting started with Drone Photography

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I have a confession to make. I’ve recently gone over to the dark side. I bought a drone, got a commercial drone license, and am now hopelessly addicted. I thought I’d share some things I’ve learned about drone photography in the process.

Which Drone to Buy

I’ll make this simple – the DJI Mavic Pro 2, or if that costs too much, the original DJI Mavic Pro. Both cameras on these drones are 12 megapixels but the sensor size on the Mavic 2 is significantly larger, so it will produce better quality images with less noise.

If you want to complicate things, you can also look into the Mavic Air, though it has a shorter battery life.

Drone Photography example from Red Mountain Pass, Aerial Photograph

Drone Photography: Red Mountain Pass in Colorado

First Learn to Fly or Your Drone Might Die

When you first get your drone, you may be tempted to immediately fly it up and try to get some stunning aerial images. If you do this, you probably have a greater chance of crashing and destroying your drone than you do of capturing a great image. Before you fly, you should watch a lot of YouTube videos and/or read a lot on how your drone works. Then, you should find a big, open field with no people around and practice flying your drone a lot in low wind conditions.

Once you’ve learned the basics of flying, I recommend learning how to fly with forward sensors disabled and then to fly in Sport mode. You should know how to switch between these modes while in flight. This will allow you to fly the drone much faster than when the sensors are enabled. This can come in handy if the winds pick up and you need to get your drone back fast before the battery dies (not to mention that it’s just plain fun to fly fast).

You’ll also want to learn how to focus the camera, set the exposure on your camera, bracket exposures, take panoramas, etc. And, of course, learn where and when you are allowed to fly, how high, etc.

Drone Photograph of Behind the Rocks, Moab

The sandstone fins in Behind the Rocks, near Moab, look stunning from Drone’s point of view.

Know Why You Must Go High

Once you know how to fly your drone, you may be tempted to take most or all your photos from the air. However, I believe that most landscape photos are still best shot from the ground. A drone gives you a nearly limitless number of new perspectives to shoot from, but it doesn’t allow you to include any really close foreground objects in your images. You are pretty much limited to mid-ground and background objects. Many of the best landscape images have great foreground objects, so getting stunning photos from the air can be more challenging.

Before you fly, you should have a clear idea of why you need to shoot from a higher perspective. Usually, this will be to get a view of objects you cannot see from the ground or to get a view looking straight down to the ground.

Mineral Creek Falls Aerial Photograph

By flying my drone up about 50 feet, I was able to get a view of the upper waterfall that is barely visible from the ground.

Google Earth is Your Friend

If you fly your drone before knowing how the view will look from up high, your chances of getting a great image are slim. This is why I spend hours poring over Google Earth looking for good compositions from the air. Once I find a good composition, I’ll decide whether it is best shot near sunrise or sunset. I try to avoid looking towards the sun, so when shooting towards the west, I shoot with the sun behind me in the east just after sunrise. When shooting towards the east, I’ll shoot just before sunset. When looking straight down, shooting shortly after sunrise or before sunset can work. Overcast conditions can also work well when shooting straight down, as this will provide soft, even lighting.

Clear Lake, Drone Photography

Months before taking this shot, I found this stunning view above Clear Lake in the San Juan Mountains on Google Earth.

Use Bracketing

I usually set my camera to always take 5 bracketed exposures of a scene. If you shoot near sunset or sunrise, the light will change while you’re in the air. I don’t want to constantly be adjusting my exposure during the limited amount of time I have to fly. By having bracketed exposures, you can simply pick out the image with the best exposure later. You can also create HDR images if the dynamic range was too extreme for a single exposure. However, if you avoid shooting into the sun, you usually won’t need to do this with aerial images.

Drone Self Portrait

You can get unique self-portraits from the air.

Okay, that’s it for the basics of drone photography. In my next article, I’ll discuss some more advanced techniques, including an app I use that lets you fly to an exact spot and automatically take pictures there.

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.