Take Better Drone Photos

Drones are helping a new generation of people to take their first serious steps into photography. In fact they might not own another camera at all, apart from the one that Apple or Samsung stuck on the front of their smartphone. Being in this situation has both advantages and disadvantages. Principle amongst those advantages is that they're not weighed down by all the bullshit rules that serious photographers are forever banging on about and which often limit their vision and result in somewhat formulaic photographs. The disadvantage is that, at the risk of sounding like a chin-stroking wanker, they haven't developed your photographic 'eye' yet. What do I mean by that? Simply that you have to train yourself to see the world in terms of a frame and understand how best to fill that frame with interesting stuff.

While aerial photography was new to me when I got my drone, landscape photography was not. I've been taking photographs as a hobby for over 40 years now. Yes, I'm an old bastard - generation X and proud. I started with film cameras when I was a little kid, and learnt to process my own film and do my own prints. When digital cameras first arrived I was a tech journalist working on gadget magazines in the UK and I got to play with these gizmos back when they had the resolution of a potato. I've had point-and-shoots, DSLRs, mirrorless cameras and, more recently, drones. And when I got my first drone I applied many of the same principles I'd learnt from traditional landscape photography to my aerial shots.

So if you're dissatisfied with the images you're faced with when you pop that SD card into your PC and you'd like to create more interesting shots, then I have put together five solid tips to set you on the right path. But before we begin I'd just like to say that above all, remember to do your own thing - take inspiration from other drone photographers but try and create your own style.

Better bomb shots

Bomb shots are far and away the most popular kind of drone photograph. In fact I saw the winning shots in a recent drone photography contest and every one of the finalists photos were bomb shots. They're taken by pointing the drone's camera 180º straight down towards the ground and the reason they're popular is because they give a unique perspective on the landscape that is difficult to emulate with a regular camera. And if you want to take a good bomb shot, you need to look for two things - contrasts and patterns.

Contrasts might be the verdant green of a coastal forest and the white sand of a beach next to it. Or it might be where the urban landscape ends and turns into the natural landscape. Or it might be a single green garden in a parched landscape. Or it might be a single person in an empty vista. When you're flying over the land - keep an eye out for those contrasts and you've already got the makings of an interesting photograph.

Patterns always make for great bomb shots. For instance, look for the way a river estuary's tributaries appear from the air. Not close to any river estuaries? What about buildings? Haulage containers? Suburban roads? Also remember that some patterns and contrasts only become evident at certain times of the day. For instance a landscape might appear fairly boring, until the rising sign causes the trees to cast large shadows. So if you see something that has the makings of a great bomb shot, consider if it would work better at a different time of the day, or even a different time of the year.

Of course some patterns and contrasts do not become evident until you're at a specific height - so remember to experiment with the height of the drone over your chosen area and you might find the composition improves drastically when you get higher or lower. Consider also the rotation of the drone - get the angle just right in the air and you won't have to waste valuable pixels by cropping into your photo at a later stage. And remember also that you can always go back and try again if you don't nail it first time - it's just space on an SD card.

Filters

You may have seen an image and wondered how the photographer achieved the look. You may have wondered if it was all done in Photoshop. And the honest truth is that it could well have been 'retouched', but it also might be the case that the photographer was using some extra glass on the front of their drone's camera. And I'm talking specifically here about ND and polarising filters.

ND filter

ND stands for neutral density and these are like sunglasses for your drone camera - just as you wear sunglasses to reduce the amount of light reaching your retinas, the ND filter's only purpose is to reduce the amount of light that's hitting the camera sensor. And why would you want to do that? Two main reasons - firstly because there's simply too much light for your drone to properly expose an image without having blown out highlights and secondly because you want to shoot a long exposure shot.

When the sensor's over-loaded in bright sunshine, you get those empty white areas of an image and they look that way because the sensor was over-loaded and incapable of recording any light or colour information. So you put an ND filter on the front, which reduces the amount of light reaching the sensor and hey-presto the sensor can properly read the light and colour of that part of the scene you're photographing. If you have a drone with controllable aperture, such as a Mavic 2 Pro, then ND filters are incredibly useful because they enable you to take photographs at the apertures you want, rather than the one that's forced on you by the brightness of the scene. I live in Australia and ND filters are virtually essential during daylight hours here, particularly during the summer months, because there's just too much light for the sensor to handle.

If you want to shoot a long exposure shot then you'll almost certainly need an ND filter to reduce the amount of light hitting the sensor enough to allow for a slow shutter speed. In bright sunshine you'll need at least an ND64 to get into slower shutter speeds, but an ND32 or ND16 might suffice at either end of the day. I use the PolarPro Cinema filters on my Mavic 2 Pro and they're colour-cast free and easy to use.

Using a polariser on the drone removed all surface glare and revealed the beautiful clear water.

Polarising filters

These are the secret weapon of the aerial photographer. These filters cut down on the amount of randomised light in a scene. What's random light? Reflections on water are an example or the haze you get in the air when the light hits molecules of water vapour or pollutants such as smoke. If you've got a pair of sunglasses with polarising lenses in them, then you can easily observe the effects that polarising filters have on a scene - they make colours pop, they darken blues and they cut down on the reflections on water. So if you regularly film at the coast or over any body of water then these filters can take away the reflective light on the surface of the water and reveal what's underneath. Ever seen an aerial photo with crystal clear water and wondered why the water never appears that good in your photos? Now you know.

You don't have to get high

The temptation when you have a drone is to put that thing into the air, push the stick up and send it right up to its maximum legal height. Get that real bird's eye view, right? Yes and no. The problem is that 120 metres up isn't always the best vantage point for a good photograph. In fact you don't have to get that drone very high at all, to take interesting photographs.

I've found that 30 metres up is often the sweet spot for cool landscape photographs since it gives you the aerial perspective but doesn't take you so far up into the stratosphere that you lose all the detail in the scene you're photographing. So instead of placing your drone alongside one of Elon Musk's starlink satellites, experiment with the view from much closer to the ground and play to your drone's ability to position the camera at otherwise unreachable locations.

Shoot RAW

And by raw, I don't mean, stark-bollock naked. No, no, no - RAW is a photographic file format and it can make the difference between an average photograph and a great one. Why? It's simple - dynamic range. Ok, so you're undoubtedly familiar with the venerable JPEG file format. This is a photo format that uses lossy compression to create smaller file sizes and if you shoot only with JPEGs then you bake-in the look of a photograph - the saturation, the amount of light and shadow and you also greatly impact what you can do with that photograph in post-processing. JPEG is what you should use when the photo is finished, not when it's being baked.

Back in the days of film, cameras exposed acetate to light to create a single exposure. And when you process that film you ended up with a negative. And you could take that negative to the dark room and, by using different amounts of light, different timings, different papers and various clever techniques such as dodging and burning, you could get more out of the image than if you were to simply expose and develop that shot. Negatives gave you the chance of producing a print that looked the way you wanted. And RAW files are the same - they are like digital negatives. They are called RAW files because they contain all the unmodified data received by your drone's sensor when that photograph was taken. They are not processed in any way, shape or form by the drone like a JPEG would be and for this reason when you look at an unprocessed RAW file it usually looks pretty crappy. All RAW files need to be processed and to do that you need to use an application such as Adobe Photoshop to interpret the image.

When you're developing a photo in the RAW format you get to decide which information the sensor captured makes it into the final image. For instance, you decide how much detail there is the shadows and how much dynamic range to include in the sky. You also get to control how much colour and saturation is evident in the landscape. If you're worried about post-processing your images then to begin with shoot in dual mode - both JPEG and RAW - that way you always have the baked-in JPEG version to fall back on. However post-processing RAW files is not difficult or indeed arduous - in fact in most instances it basically comes down to dropping the highlights and boosting the shadows. And once you've found some settings that work well for your image, you can use the same settings on the other images taken in the same location. Quite often I spend some time getting the first shot looking good and then simply copy the settings across to a whole bunch of other images. And the other great thing about RAW files is that any changes made are not permanent - if I decide later on that I want to bring out more detail in the shadows then I can just open up Photoshop or Lightroom and tweak the image with no loss of quality. It's like a musician going back to the original master tapes to produce a new edit of a song.

Remember the context

So let's think about the process of taking a shot with your drone. Whether you planned it out before-hand or are just flying around looking for cool stuff, at some point you see something that appeals to you and decide to take a photograph. The thing that appeals to you is the subject, but the problem is that the subject is often pretty boring without some context to explain it. So for instance if you decide to photograph a waterfall, the temptation is to fly your drone up to the waterfall, centre it in the frame and take your shot. But if some third party looks at that meat-and-potatoes image of yours, then they will start asking questions about it. For instance, how do they gauge the waterfall's size? How do they know what sort of a landscape it's in? How do they know what time of year it is? How do they know where the water goes after it's gone over the falls? All of these questions are about the context of the shot.

So instead of centring your subject slap-bang-wallop in the middle, consider putting it closer to one of the four edges of the frame and include some surroundings. Or put a person, perhaps yourself, in the shot so that someone who looks at it can easily gauge the size of your photo's main subject. Context isn't just about framing of course, because the context you need to include might be the time of day which in turn affects the colours of the image. So remember that the subject of a photograph is not the whole story and that by playing with how you position your subject, you can give the image a degree of context that takes it from being a simple snapshot to being something you'd print, frame and stick on your wall.

For the last 16 years I’ve been photographing, blogging (and more recently vlogging) about everything I find, see and enjoy here in South Coast, New South Wales. This is my blogging site focused on my hobby (and part-time job) of photography. Please enjoy my little writing and my photography and I’d love to hear your feedback.
© 2021 Andy Hutchinson
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