The Sky’s No Limit for Drone Photography

Like an ascendant Hollywood star, the commercial drone industry is young, rich, and ripe for exploitation. In the five years since Amazon revealed plans for drone deliveries, UAVs have sky-rocketed in terms of profit-making potential. And, with the cost of high-end drones moving steadily in the opposite direction, they are winning over new audiences and taking on new roles all the time.

Photographers in many sectors, from property to filmmaking, will be aware that UAVs can be a wise investment. But whether you’re looking to win new business or an Oscar, you’ll want to be sure you can capture the best images possible.

Expert tips: Making the most of drones

John MacRae is an award-winning commercial photographer with nearly 40 years’ industry experience. Luckily for you, he’s also a flight instructor and assessor for COPTRZ, and delivers the COPTRZ training course on drone photography.

This one-day taster course welcomes people coming into the industry with amateur-level photography skills. An introduction to the exciting possibilities of drone photography, it gives participants technical tips, more confidence, and plenty of inspiration. From wedding photographers to budding Steven Spielbergs, everyone can learn how to capture high-quality images.

We asked John for a snapshot of his considerable expertise to help you get the best from drone photography and avoid some common pitfalls.

Who needs aerial images?

When you consider the creative possibilities of aerial filming and its undisputed advantages over manned helicopter hire, it’s no wonder that, until recently, television and film work accounted for 75% of UK commercial drone activity. Drones are a dream come true for filmmakers – reducing hazards and costs while maximising versatility and manoeuverability. And the results speak for themselves: dynamic images and unique perspectives.

Seeing the commercial potential for their own applications, the property and construction industries have become the biggest sources of aerial work, with drones being used for property marketing, building and site inspections, land surveying and mapping, as well as for agriculture and video filming.

Getting started: equipment

In an innovation-led industry that moves faster than an FPV racing drone, there’s plenty of scope to run up large bills in pursuit of the latest tech for amazing aerial images. (It’s worth noting that it’s not just camera technology that evolves, but other drone components too, such as gimbals and even obstacle sensors.) That said, even entry-level drones have good on-board cameras, according to John MacRae.

The drone

You don’t have to go large to get good results. John points out that little drones ‘like the Phantoms and the Inspires’ do the majority of commercial aerial photography work. But he cautions that small drones (20kg or less for regulatory purposes) are not as stable as their larger counterparts. The heavier the drone, the greater its stability and the better its images.

Depending on your needs (and budget!), you may decide to splash out on more than one drone. Different models are suited to different types of aerial work – but don’t forget that they may need different licences too, as regulatory requirements vary according to weight.

The camera

You don’t need a fancy camera to get high-quality aerial images. An on-board camera is your starter for ten, says John. External cameras are for when you’re bitten by the bug.

If you’re looking to upgrade, remember that a heavier camera will drain your drone’s battery more quickly and reduce flying time. It sounds obvious, but it’s something that can be easily forgotten while you’re caught up in the thrill of a flight.

Gimbal

A stabilisation mechanism that steadies the camera, a gimbal guards against those frustrating blurry images. Essential for smooth video footage, they also let you move the camera, giving photographers more flexibility with composition.

Most drones have a built-in gimbal for their onboard cameras, but you’ll need a separate one for an external camera. For perfectly smooth images, look for a three-axis gimbal. Again, keep battery life in mind and make sure you’re not asking too much of your drone in terms of payload.

Transmitter

The COPTRZ course will also introduce you to different ways to monitor your drone’s camera. If your transmitter has a built-in video monitor (or attachments for a smartphone), you’ll be able to see the live video feed on your mobile device.

Bear in mind that what you see depends on the quality of your equipment – if you have an HD kit, you can expect to enjoy top-quality footage.

Your crew

Safety is paramount, so it often makes sense to divvy up the tasks on a photography shoot. You may be surprised at just how many people you need for some scenarios – and you’re not alone. According to John, under-crewing is a common pitfall.

Some drones have dual operator control – just as well when you consider that most aerial photography cameras can’t optically zoom, and pilots have their work cut out to get the right focal length to frame a shot. Having a dual pilot system – where one operator controls the UAV and the other operates the camera – maintains safety, as both can focus on the job at hand.

In fact, you might need anything from a two-person operation to a crew of eight or 10 to tick all the boxes. Take the scenario of a shoot in a local council playground, for example. There might be several entrances to the area, so you’d potentially want one person at each with a walkie talkie (a step up from a traffic cone and warning notice). You’ll need observers to alert you to everything from birds to helicopters, and you may have specialist roles, such as gimbal operator, too.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. There are plenty of jobs to do before you’re ready for take-off…

Pre-flight planning

The beauty of drone photography is that it can capture views that would otherwise be tricky, or even impossible, to achieve. The results can be breathtaking – so it’s easy to get carried away with the exhilaration of the experience and fail to notice a pigeon in the wrong place, or that giveaway shadow of your drone in shot.

Even if you have a co-pilot to help you out, you may only have 20 minutes in the air to get it right. Good planning will minimise the potential for problems that waste time and battery power.

Know your subject

Research your subject thoroughly and decide on your desired image composition, so you can launch your drone exactly where you want it. You don’t want to be flying around in search of the perfect shot.

Positioning

This is a biggie for aerial images: consider time of day and the position of the sun. You don’t want overexposed shots or your subject obscured by shadow.

Timing

John recommends aiming for the ‘golden hour’, which occurs at dawn and dusk, for optimal light levels and a beautiful soft ‘glow’.

(The reason for this, John reveals, is that light is traveling through the ‘rubbish’ in the atmosphere – safe to say the reality is far more appealing.)

In colour temperature terms, the light is warm and golden because more of the blue wavelengths are scattered.

Colour temperature

Getting to grips with colour temperature charts may sound daunting, but it will pay dividends for your photography skills.

Different light sources emit their own colours, or ‘colour temperature’, which vary from red to blue. Candles and sunsets give off light that’s close to red, giving a ‘warm’ look to images, while blue skies give off a cooler, blue light.

Confusingly, lower colour temperatures are called warm colours, and vice versa. Once you’ve got your head around that, you’re ready to find out how to capture accurate colours in tricky lighting conditions such as hazy skies and sunsets. How? Check where they sit in the colour temperature scale and the corresponding recommended camera settings.

Know your camera

On the COPTRZ course, John explains how to overcome common pitfalls of aerial photography by using your camera’s settings to your advantage. Even a basic understanding of how these work can give you the confidence to make adjustments that will improve your images.

Exposure

One of the first things that is covered on the course is getting the correct exposure, and how to roughly set it before flight.

Although very elaborate cameras will be able to zoom and focus while airborne, many won’t offer this luxury, so you’ll need to figure out the best settings beforehand. Specifically, we’re talking shutter speed, aperture and ISO, which all work together to create exposure.

Shutter speed

Shutter speed is one of the most important – possibly the most important – camera setting for aerial photography.

Unless you’re aiming for artistic blur, you’ll want sharp images. Use the fastest shutter speed you can, to ‘freeze’ the movement of the subject and offset the vibration of the drone.

Keep slower shutter speeds for shooting video, as you’ll want a certain amount of motion blur for smooth playback.

Aperture

Aperture affects depth of field – happily not an issue in aerial photography. This is good news, because you’ll want the largest aperture possible to get short shutter speeds. Find the largest aperture at which your lens is sharp, and go with that.

(If you’ve got an integrated and/or small camera, it may have a fixed aperture.)

ISO

The ISO setting gives you the flexibility to capture subjects in a range of lighting conditions. For example, changing to a higher ISO value lets you continue taking photos as light levels drop, without using flash.

You might say that the ‘three Rs’ of aerial photography are resolution, resolution, and resolution, so the lower the ISO setting, the better.

Metering

Your camera’s light meter determines the correct shutter speed, aperture and ISO for optimal exposure. There are several metering modes available, so it’s useful to know what each one does. The sun is a pivotal factor in aerial photography, so choosing the appropriate metering mode can work wonders.

Health and safety

Whether you’ve got 100 grand up in the air or you’re experimenting with a ‘budget’ drone at the other end of the scale, safety is paramount.  As John reminds us, whatever happens – including things that go wrong – you, as the pilot, are in charge, so you’ll want to make sure you’ve got all your boxes ticked.

Permissions and other rules

There’s a lot to think about here – from permissions for take-off and landing to model release forms, and regulations around selling your images.

While amateur drone flyers don’t need official permission or training, if you’re operating a drone commercially in the UK, you need annual Permission for Aerial Work from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). The CAA will require paperwork including evidence of competence from an approved assessment organisation such as COPTRZ.

You’ll also need to be aware of the relevant UK law, including CCTV surveillance, privacy and data protection, which apply to any collection of personal information, including drone footage.

Whether you’re a land-based photography pro looking to set your sights somewhat higher, or you’re still getting to grips with exposure and shutter speed, this course will open your eyes to the fascinating science and art of aerial drone photography.

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