Drone Photography Planning (Explained for Beginners)
Operating a flying camera is much different than operating a handheld camera on the ground. Before you get started with aerial drone photography, you will need to learn how to do the planning that goes into getting good shots from hundreds of feet in the sky so you can make the most of your time in the air and succeed as a drone photographer.
It’s also vital you know how to pilot your drone as well as know the legalities of flying your quad before you even consider taking photos with it.
Planning for your drone photography mission should start before you leave the house and includes such things as researching your flight location, planning the best time of day for your shoot, and being familiar with the camera settings on your drone.
Planning your aerial photography session ahead of time will allow you to frame up your shots quickly and get to business when you arrive at your location.
Learn the laws and where you can fly your drone
Just like driving a car, there are laws and regulations that need to be followed when operating your drone. Before taking to the skies, every drone owner needs to understand the airspace and make sure it is legal to fly at your desired location. Learning where and when you can and cannot fly is essential to planning a safe and successful mission.
As a drone pilot, it’s your responsibility to know where and when you can fly your drone to be safe and legal. Before launching for your maiden flight, you need to familiarize yourself with the Federal, State, and Local drone laws where you live. Here in the United States, those include:
Basic Drone Laws in the USA
- It is unlawful to fly your drone higher than 400ft
- Never fly your drone near crowds of people or near birds or animals
- You must always keep your drone within your visual line of sight.
- The FAA prohibits drone flight over certain areas such as near airports, prisons, and other areas of airspace. Know your No-Fly Zones.
Get your TRUST Certificate: If you are flying your drone recreationally (for fun) you need to take the FAA Recreational UAS Safety Test (TRUST) before launching your drone. Don’t worry, it’s totally free, super easy, and only takes about 15-30 minutes online.
» MORE: Learn more about the TRUST test here
Register your Drone: If your quad weighs more than 250 grams you need to register the drone with the FAA. Keep in mind, if you own a drone that weighs under 250 grams but you plan to attach propeller guards, landing gear, or other accessories this will increase the weight of your drone in the air, so in that case, you will also need to register. This costs $5 and your registration is valid for 3 years.
» MORE: Learn more about registering your drone here
Know what to do in an Emergency
Not only are drones dangerous to those on the ground, but it’s also a really bad day to lose your expensive quad to a crash or flyaway. The internet is full of sad stories of novice pilots who lost their drones in situations that could have been prevented.
It is best to learn beforehand how to handle various circumstances that can occur while on a flight rather than be stuck midair in a state of panic. It can be a very scary experience if your connection is interrupted or your controller completely loses connection to your drone mid-flight, but if you know ahead of time how to manage the situation you can be better prepared.
How to do the planning that goes into getting good drone shots
Planning your mission ahead of time is crucial to successful drone photography. Most consumer drones have a battery life of about 30 minutes. If you launch your drone without planning your aerial photography shots ahead of time, chances are you will end up in the air moving around aimlessly looking for good shots wasting precious battery life and the end result will be bad images or not enough footage before your battery is depleted and you are forced to land.
Here are some things to do to make sure you are prepared and ready to capture those jaw-dropping images you’ve been dreaming about.
Scout a location to fly
Google Earth is an excellent app to help you scout places to fly your drone. The satellite images on Google Earth are very similar to the view you will see from your drone and is a perfect way to explore the landscape and discover new and interesting places to capture some epic shots.
The Google Earth app also has altitude reading as you’re flying around, so you can visualize exactly what your potential photos or video footage will look like from 400ft in the air, and you will get a better sense of where you can capture the best footage.
Some of the things you need to consider when choosing a location to fly include:
- Can I fly there?
- Will I need FAA Authorizations?
- Is it private property?
- Where will I launch from?
- How close can I get to my desired subject?
Before you take to the sky, you’ll need to research the intended flight area to find out if your desired location is in restricted airspace. The B4UFLY app is the official app of the FAA and is an important tool for all drone pilots – from planning your mission to flight completion.
While you are still at home scouting locations to fly, you can input your chosen location into B4FLY and quickly find out if the area is in controlled airspace or if you will need any FAA authorizations to fly there.
What time of day is best for the shoot?
Now that you have chosen a location to capture some awe-inspiring photographs, it is time to determine what your goals are for the flight. These could be things such as what shot you have in mind and what your vision is for the footage. This will help you identify the best time of day to take to the sky to capture those amazing aerial images.
Choosing the right time of day to shoot your subject will assure the sun is at the right angle to make your images look their best and provide the desired amount of natural light.
Golden hour is considered 30 minutes after sunrise, or 30 minutes before sunset. This is prime time to capture some intense colors in the sky. Shooting when the sun is low will capture epic shadows from buildings and trees to provide more depth to your photo.
Cloudy days can boost drama and make for some moody and dramatic photos. Mid-day on a bright sunny day is a great time to shoot if you want sharper shadow contrast for some killer shots.
Keep in mind that if you choose to fly on a bright sunny day, your screen can be hard to see clearly, so you’ll want to invest in a sunshade to reduce the glare and give you better flight vision.
Before you leave home
Check the weather forecast
It is important to check the hourly forecast at your flight location before you leave home to make sure the weather is cooperating. Weather can change quickly so be sure to check the hourly forecast. A pleasant sunny day can become cloudy and overcast by the time you arrive.
Most drones are not suitable for flying in precipitation and harsh weather will not only ruin your drone but it’s also very dangerous.
It may not feel windy on the ground but 400ft up in the air can be dramatically different.
Update your drone
Check for updates to your drone’s firmware and device app before you leave home.
Make sure you charge up all the batteries for your drone before you leave the house. Running out of battery power midair can be an unpleasant situation and diminish the chances of your drone making it home safely.
Format memory cards
There is nothing more disappointing than being in the air, all lined up to take the perfect shot, and then discovering your memory card is out of storage. Make sure to format your memory card before you leave the house.
Preflight Checklist (after ensuring your location is safe and legal)
- When you arrive at your location it is important to check the B4UFLY for any temporary flight restrictions that may have been issued.
- Take a good look around the location and take note of any obstacles such as buildings, trees, branches, and powerlines.
- Do a visual inspection of the drone, check the structure of all components of the drone for damage.
- Inspect propellers for cracks
- Set home point and RTH altitude based on obstacles
- Put the phone in airplane mode
While in the air
Know the smart photography features of your drone
This is where the magic happens. The built-in intelligent flight modes on your drone’s camera can automatically capture smooth cinematic video without you having to manually drive the drone during the shot.
Learning the camera settings and intelligent flight capabilities of your drone before you launch allows you to capture amazing footage like a pro with minimal piloting skills.
For example, some of a few automatic flight maneuvers the DJI Mini 2 can automatically perform are:
- Rocket: Ascend with the camera pointing downward
- Dronie: Fly backward and upward, with the camera locked on your subject
- Circle: The Mavic Mini circles around the subject
- Helix: Fly upward, spiraling around your subject
» MORE: DJI Intelligent Flight Modes (Including Quickshots & Mastershots)
Shoot in RAW format
Shooting your drone photography in RAW format gives you much more versatility in image post-processing and will allow for greater exposure and color adjustments without affecting your image quality.
Similar to ground photography, utilizing lens filters is crucial when capturing photos from the air. Lens filters help you control the light that reaches the sensor, suppress reflections or glare, or even enhance colors to make your images really pop.
Using the histogram on your camera takes the guesswork out of proper exposure of your aerial images. By viewing the histogram, you can tell whether your image is over or underexposed and easily make adjustments to ensure perfectly exposed images and desired results.
Keep ISO low
When it comes to the camera on a drone, the sensors are smaller in comparison to handheld DSLR cameras. Shooting aerial images at anything higher than ISO 100 will introduce unwanted noise which will result in grainy results.
When shooting drone photography, it is best to stick to the lowest possible ISO to keep your image properly exposed.
Use the Rule of Thirds
Just like in standard photography, following the rule of thirds will bring your aerial images to life. Most drones come with a 3×3 grid overlay function to help you frame your subject to balance out the image with other elements for perfect shot composition.
Experiment with different altitudes
Just because your drone can go 400 feet in the air doesn’t mean higher is always better. Changing your altitude can have a dramatic effect on the composition of your photos. Experiment with shooting your subject and surrounding landscapes from different altitudes to add interesting elements and textures to your footage.
Post-process your footage
Now that you’ve got your amazing aerial footage in RAW format you want to upload it to show it to the world. But don’t do that just yet! Adding some post-processing editing to your aerial images will take them over the top to brag-worthy.
Editing your photos will allow you to bring out your unique vision for the image. Many drone brands like DJI have basic drone editing features built into the app that allow for basic editing of your footage such as color grading, cropping, splicing, and adding music or transitions right from your phone. Color grading your footage in an editing program by adding a ‘lutz’ can dramatically change the look of your image or video.
Some of the more popular programs on the market that allow for advanced editing of your aerial footage include Lightroom, Photoshop, Adobe Premiere Pro, Filmora, and DaVinci Resolve. These advanced editing platforms allow you to do even more amazing tricks with your images such as removing people or objects or changing the entire sky or background.
Now that you know how to capture those jaw-dropping images of the landscape below, the most important thing to do is relax, have fun and let your creativity fly.