Given the way that sales of drones have grown over the last couple of years it was always inevitable that photographers would be amongst the core users of these amazing devices. I first set my sights on one seven years ago, but at the time they cost $30k and were only marginally easier to fly than a space shuttle. So I bided my time and this year the combination of price and performance finally came down to a level I was happy about and I bought my first drone – a DJI Phantom 4. I see my Phantom 4 as being a ‘tall tripod’ and that’s precisely the way I’ve been using it. It’s a device that enables me to take all those shots I’ve always dreamed about – those alternate viewpoints, tucked away locations and new perspectives.
One thing I realised very early on was that drone photography had some major differences to land-based photography. And as I make the transition to drone photography myself, I thought I’d share my experiences and growing pains, so that if you are thinking of putting a lens aloft too, you might be prepared for the changes.
It’s much more restrictive
Before I got my drone I would go out most days to take photographs and point my lens at whatever took my fancy. I mainly photograph landscapes and occasionally wildlife, so I just went where I wanted and pointed my lens at whatever I found. However a drone is an aircraft and as soon as you stick propellors on your camera and put it in the air, you are bound by the laws regulated by the government (CASA here in Australia), the local authorities, the military and the ‘managers’ of whatever land it is that you’ve chosen to fly over.
I was extremely naive when I got my drone – I had no idea that I couldn’t simply put it in the air wherever the hell I wanted. Over the course of the first month I had a very steep learning curve as I came to realise just how restricted flight is here in Australia. Firstly I came to grips with the basic CASA rules here – no flying over populous areas, never closer than 30m away from people, buildings, vehicles or boats, never at night, never beyond visual line of sight, never more than 120m up. Then I came to grips with the airport zones (5.5km from all airports). Then I found out about helipads, which are everywhere here in Australia and have the same 5.5km recommended exclusion zone. Then I found out about bans or restrictions within national parks. Finally I came to grips with controlled and restricted airspace. I found out about a month after getting my drone that I live inside a huge restricted airspace zone within which I cannot fly between 8:30 and and 11pm from Monday to Friday. It was extremely dispiriting – it seemed to me that I’d bought a shiny white paperweight because nobody – government, military, council, land-owners, land-managers and the public – wanted it flying near them.
So here I was with this expensive bit of kit but the incredible freedom I’d enjoyed with my DSLR was virtually non-existent on the drone. Here in Australia (like many countries coming to terms with drone usage) there is a licensing system that enables me to use the drone with more freedom, but that paperwork and associated public liability insurance runs to about $6000AUD. It would enable me to fly (with permission) within the restricted airspace, to fly beyond visual line of sight, to get higher in the air and closer to people but it’s a very serious amount of money for someone who doesn’t earn their living through photography. At some point I will probably get fully licensed, but it is a high price to pay for only a small increase in freedom.
Everyone wants to talk to you about your drone
This will probably fade over time as drones become more and more common, but right now you can expect to be quizzed about your drone when it’s in the air. Here in Australia that can make life tricky because if you’re unlicensed you’re not supposed to fly within 30m of anyone unconnected with the flight and you’ll have to tell them to piss off before you land. Pretty much any time my drone’s up and a member of the public notices, they come over and ask questions and want to see what’s on the iPhone screen. So if talking to strangers bothers you, fly well away from people.
Licensed/Professional Drone Fliers Tend to be Enormous Tools
Maybe there are some nice ones out there, somewhere, possibly, but almost every single interaction I’ve had with licensed or professional drone fliers has been painful. They appear to be labouring under the delusion that the five day course they did somehow makes them equal to the pilot of an Airbus A380. They call themselves things like ‘chief pilot’ and have polo-shirts with ‘UAV Pilot’ written on them. Some of them are the most staggering pompous tools you will ever meet. They like nothing better than letting inexperienced drone pilots know that they are idiots and are always ready with their pitchforks for when someone breaks the rules. It might just be an Australian thing, but nothing put me off getting licensed more than the wankers who’ve already done it.
The weather is more important
The technology behind drones is improving at a steady rate and the models available now are considerably more robust than earlier versions, but they are still quite fragile objects. My Phantom 4 is about as waterproof as a teabag and so I have to be very aware of not just the weather that’s happening right now, but the weather than might be happening by the time I fly my drone back to me. Compare that to my Canon 7DII which has a weather-proof magnesium case and which can be operated in pouring rain if required.
Obviously the biggest issue with drones is the wind. The Phantom is a very capable bit of kit that is unfazed by everyday windspeed. However it’s not invincible. It’s also worth remembering that the windspeed varies enormously the higher up you go and while it might be a light breeze at ground level, 120m up the drone might be fighting powerful winds. If the drone has to constantly put its shoulder into the wind then it consumes more battery power and that reduces both the flight time and distance. Consequently I have become used to checking windspeed before I even consider heading out. I’m not afraid to put my drone up when it’s windy but I’m much more conservative about how far I fly it and how high up I put it.
The camera’s not as good
There are of course drones out there that can take pretty much any camera as payload. Even DJI’s Inspire 1 (which isn’t *that* much more expensive than the Phantom 4) uses Micro 4/3s hardware. But for most of us we have to make-do with the camera that comes with the drone and while most modern drones have decent cameras, they’re not that much better than the one you get in your smartphone.
Consequently you need to adapt the way you take photographs to account for reduced resolution, quality, colour rendering and noise. You would be well advised to buy some filters for your drone (I use the PolarTec ones) to handle very bright scenes and wide dynamic ranges. I always use either the circular polariser or one of the ND filters when flying as it greatly improves the quality of the resulting stills and videos. If you take bracketed shots to capture a sunrise or sunset then you can use the built-in AEB feature but I’ve found it works best with 10 exposures – two sets of five – one standard and one exposed for the sun.
For the most part though, getting the best out of your drone’s camera is about playing to its strengths. That means shooting in good light, during the day. Since you can’t change the aperture you have no control over how sharp the image is, but you can manually change ISO and exposure settings if required.
It’s all reversed
Like most photographers I have become used to picturing a shot in my mind long before I take it. I can see the foreground subject and the background and I can picture the light at different times of day. It’s a useful skill to have but, like me, you’ll need to retrain yourself when you get a drone because it throws the old rules out of the window. This is because once you get up in the air, you nearly always have to look back on the bit of landscape you’re standing on in order to get any perspective.
So for example, there’s a spot here in South Coast NSW on Seven Mile Beach that goes by the name of Berrys Beach. It’s about half way along this amazing stretch of sand and it’s a peaceful and scenic spot. As lovely as it is, however, it’s useless for sunsets, because it looks due east out into the Pacific and there’s no way of shooting the beach, bush and ocean in any interesting way. However if I put my drone up in the air, fly it 350m out over the ocean and then spin it around to look back at me, it’s a whole other story. Suddenly I have the ocean, the beach, the national park that fringes the beach, the escarpment, the setting sun and the sky. All of which meant that I had to throw my old favourite shooting locations out of the window because what makes them great for shooting on the land with a DSLR does not necessarily apply to drones.
Of course the same rules about reversed perspectives holds true in a negative way too. I live fairly close to Bombo Quarry – an amazing location that photographers travel from all over the country to shoot in. So of course I took my drone down there one morning to shoot the sunrise and see what kind of shots I could get. I quickly realised that sunrise is actually the worst time of day to fly a drone down there – it was a fairly colourful sunrise, but my drone shots are boring because I couldn’t fit the subject (the rocks of the quarry) in with the colourful skies and the rising sun. If I flew there at sunset however I’d be able to get the awesome rock structures, the breaking waves, the sky and the setting sun all in the one shot.
The power of the ordinary
Before I got my drone I had a shopping list of locations that I was going to visit. My favourite beaches, parks, headlands and lookouts were going to look incredible from the air I thought. In some cases this turned out to be perfectly true, particularly once I applied the ‘look behind you dummy’ thought process I mentioned above. However in most cases the stunning ‘keepers’ did not flow freely from the drone’s memory card in the way I was hoping. Then I noticed something interesting, some of my accidental shots were actually really cool. I started analysing my out-takes and began incorporating those happy accidents into my process.
Perspective gives even the most ordinary location a new twist. When you aim the camera straight down from a drone (called a bomb shot) you’re suddenly able to play with colour and texture in a way that you simply cannot with a DSLR. The rocks, beach and ocean may not be very appealing when your camera is just a couple of metres above them, but change that height to 120m and it’s a whole other story.
You don’t have to get high to get good
I’ve taken my drone up to 120m, which is high as I’m legally allowed in controlled airspace here in Australia without a licence. Similar regulations apply in many countries including the UK and the USA. When I first got my Phantom 4 I flew it everywhere at that maximum altitude because I was convinced that there was where the best action was to be found. It didn’t take me terribly long to realise that high is not always best.
In reality I’ve found that the sweet spot for landscape photography is actually between 50m to 60m up. I don’t know why that’s the case, but I do know that many of the best shots I’ve taken with my Phantom have been from that height. It’s high enough up that it’s obvious you’re not shooting from the ground (not always a given!) but it’s not so high that it looks like Google Maps in satellite mode. So if you’re not getting the sort of shots you were hoping for, try descending to half your current height and see what the world looks like from there.
Things go wrong when you get comfortable
The first few times you fly your drone you enjoy an elevated heart rate, sweaty palms and extreme nervousness. While the sheer shit-your-pants level of fear does temper slightly over the months, it never truly goes away. It is my strong belief that you should never loose that level of fear and become so comfortable with your drone that you get complacent. If you get complacent with your DSLR usually the only side-effect is that you take boring photographs. However complacency flies drones too close to trees, sends them too far away from home and to the limits of their batteries, skims the water too low, travels beyond visual line of sight, flies them backwards into the unknown. Complacent drone fliers also take risks with the safety of the public. The risks of damage to your property and to other people are greatly accentuated when the only control you have over your airborne gadget is radio waves. The day you get blasé about flying your drone is the day you will crash it.
Don’t forget the video
My Phantom 4 has two triggers on its remote’s edge – one takes photos and one takes videos. When I first got the drone the video footage I was taking was mostly novelty stuff, but I quickly realised I was missing out on some amazing scenery. The camera on the Phantom 4 excels at video, it’s what it was primarily designed for, and so I’ve started taking more and more video footage to accompany my stills.
If you thought flying a drone was a steep learning curve, then wait until you try filming cool stuff at the same time. There’s a lot to think about and it’s easy to overlook a cool shot because you’re concentrating hard on not flying your expensive gadget into a tree. As with all things, start slowly and then build up. I’ve found that simple tracking shots when you just keep the gimbal level and fly the drone forward or sideways are often the coolest looking shots. Don’t be afraid to fly your drone quite low either or it will end up looking like Google Earth.
Battery life governs shoots
So you could get around this by buying 20 batteries, but at $200 a go that would be expensive. I can reasonably get 20 minutes of good flight time out of my Phantom 4 batteries – I have three so I get one hour in the air. That means I have to plan what I’m going to do before I get into the air and I need to stick to my plan or risk running out of battery time. I have a list of shots that I have found to work and I run through them in most locations so I have a selection to choose from later when I’m editing. I don’t take the piss with my battery life and always bring the drone back when I get the low battery alert from the app. Bear in mind that strong winds will deplete your battery more quickly than usual and you should fly into the wind at the beginning so you can fly back with it on return.
I’ve had a number of close scrapes and one big accident with my drone. It’s very easy to panic when you have a $2000 gizmo flying 500m away from you over water and the app suddenly disconnects. Remember that most drones have numerous fail-safe features so think clearly before mashing the controller sticks. If you’ve set a sensible return-to-home altitude, press that button, it works great and does not depend on a functioning app. If you lose video remember you have a Google map that you can navigate by. If something goes wrong, pause, then act.
Beyond the basics
My Phantom 4, in common with other popular consumer drones such as the 3DR Solo and the Yuneeq Q500, has a series of advanced flight modes that can make for great video footage. It’s scary when you first use these modes because you surrender some control temporarily to the drone itself, however they’re well worth trying – particularly the zip-line and the focus modes which enable you to pull off cinematic shots with ease.
I’ve also installed several add-on apps for my drone which I use regularly when out flying. To create 360º panoramic spheres I use DronePan, a free app that takes a series of over-lapping shots that you can render into a single 360×180 image. For advanced flight modes I use Litchi which includes most of the functionality of the DJI Go app alongside greatly improved flight modes such as POV and Focus.
To check for airports, helipads and restricted airspace I use the AvPlan app, but each country has its own version of these flight apps. To plan my shots and check where the sun will rise and set I use the Photographers Ephemeris app. For processing out on the road I use the awesome Adobe Lightroom app.
Brave new world
Learning to photograph from the skies is a terrific way to get your Pho-Jo back if you’ve lost it. There is so much to learn about finding the right shot, about framing those shots from high above the ground and about looking for the extraordinary in the hidden details. If you’ve been thinking about getting a drone I can heartily recommend it, but be prepared to see your DSLR collect some dust if you do.