When it comes to nailing the ultimate shot with a drone, even when flying drones with advanced piloting settings, like the DJI Mavic Pro, practice is essential. Remember not only are you using a high quality camera, you’re also flying a drone, or as drone pilot Anders Carlson says, “it’s a camera that flies.” Being familiar with your equipment and its capabilities is essential to success.
“The drone is an amazing camera platform because it frees your perspective in that you can put the camera in a place you could have only imagined before,” says Carlson, who is the founder and pilot of Visionary Aerials.
The sky is literally the limit when it comes to the types of shots you can capture with a drone. In addition to incorporating drone photography into his work, Carlson says it gives recreational pilots the ability to “create and capture spectacular moments.” His short list of shot ideas includes family selfies from the air, weekend warriors capturing their epic event of the year, spectacular images of friends (or yourself) in incredible settings and the ability to add multi-dimensional context to images.
Practice, practice and practice some more
According to Carlson, the first step is learning how to put the drone where you want it to get the shot you want. Consider launch point, line of sight, necessary elevation and your surroundings.
Jason Hatfield, of Jason Hatfield Stills & Motion, says that just like learning DSLR photography, practice is essential when it comes to getting incredible shots with your drone. “The better you know your equipment the more you focus on getting great shots and not fumbling with the controls or settings,” Hatfield says.
Adjust the Settings
While you can change camera settings once a drone is in the air, Carlson recommends getting them in the ballpark ranges before you launch. He sets them when his drone is on the ground pointed at what he wants to shoot, or something representative of it, to make the initial setting adjustments. Shutter speed, aperture and ISO all depend upon what you are trying to shoot and the conditions. Carlson also says auto mode produces reliable shots, but he prefers manual because you don’t necessarily want the camera adjusting in the middle of a shot. Truly though, it’s all about trial and error (aka practice) and playing with all the different settings to get the shot you want.
Pro tip: Use the camera’s light meter as a guide for determining exposure. Putting it in the middle of the recommended plus or minus values is a good general rule.
JPEG or raw, live or stills?
You also have decisions to make regarding whether to shoot JPEG or raw and videos or stills. Carlson says you get higher resolution in the still mode, and you have more data to work with if you shoot raw. Raw stores the light data that was captured by the sensor and gives you more advanced control over the image. You can also pull stills from video. Video stills may be lower quality than traditional stills, but video stills shot with the DJI Mavic Pro “look really, really darn good for social media,” according to Carlson.
Pro tip: Video gives you a sequence of 30 frames per second, making it great for action shots of hiking, running, mountain biking, and skiing. You’ll definitely have a better chance of getting “the” shot when you’re shooting action sports or moving targets of any kind
Get to know your modes
Drones now have advanced feature modes to enable the drone to get epic shots, while making it easier on the pilot. Carlson suggests beginning with follow mode. It basically uses the camera’s image recognition technology to track a subject, be it yourself or a friend—this mode is ideal for hiking shots and videos. Zip line lets you program a start and an end point, usually where some interesting action is going to happen, and the drone will fly that line. Basically, the drone flies itself while the pilot controls the camera. Orbit mode is similar in that the drone circles a subject or object while the pilot gets the shot.
Pro tip: Practice using modes in a wide-open field until you are confident in your and your drone’s capabilities.
Scout your location
Hatfield says taking interesting aerial photos takes just as much work as regular photography. He plans ahead of time, scouts locations and thinks about composition. “I use Google Earth and my photo database to help find new interesting places to shoot.”
There’s an app for that
Determining the best light and monitoring weather are two essential aspects of capturing great shots with your drone. Hatfield uses apps like TPE and Photopills to determine the best light for flying and shooting. He’s looking for interesting light, like at sunset or sunrise, but with enough available light to fill in the details of the image. He also recommends weather apps, like Dark Sky, for finding breaks in the weather when you can fly (and get dramatic shots!).