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Drone Photography: Scale to a Professional Level

May 22, 2021 | 0 comments

Note: Keep safety and responsibility in mind when flying. If you’ve never flown before, it’s never too late to learn. Find a hands-on Training near you.

 In order to legally operate a drone business, you will need a Part 107 License. If you want to pass the test on your first try, take a Prep Course.

Drone photography is the newest trend for photographers. In photography’s history, innovation has always been constant. We have never slowed down in our quest for visual perfection, from the first camera to the newest mirrorless sensors.

Although technological progress has been impressive, no innovation is quite as revolutionary as the ability to take aerial photos while the photographer remains on the ground. Only a few years have passed since the dawn of drone photography, but the impact it has had is unprecedented.

Drones are now providing perspectives that were previously only possible with an airplane or helicopter.

Many photographers, eager to take their lenses to the skies, have come to us for advice on capturing images like a pro. Try these tips and you’ll be on your way to doing just that. Photographers are often concerned about flying their expensive equipment, and we want to discuss which drone will be most suitable for you before we begin. This guide will cover the following topics:

  • What to look for when choosing a drone
  • Practice safe flying right from the start
  • Exposure settings and shooting modes
  • Using filters on drone cameras
  • How to post-process your aerial photos
  • Making a career as a drone photographer

For in-depth training consider taking the Learning Aerial Photography with Drones course. Rich and Francis do an excellent job teaching this course. They cover the essentials of flying your drone as well as really important tips on post-production.

What to look for when choosing a drone for photography

While it might be tempting to invest in a drone that includes a DSLR mount, most remote pilots are more likely to purchase a consumer drone that includes a camera. Drone photography requires not just being skilled in flying a drone, but also getting to know the kind of model you need to capture the best shots.

The build-in cameras of drones are slowly catching up to the specs of consumer-grade to professional-grade cameras. The primary consideration when comparing current models should be their intended application.

When selecting the right drone model for you, ask yourself the following questions.

Is it necessary to shoot in raw?

Having raw files can make a significant difference in the post-processing of an image. Landscape photographers will quickly realize taking shots with their drone presents the same challenges of high contrast and the necessity for flexible editing.

Some older and less expensive models may only shoot in jpeg, but some newer models will have raw image formats integrated. To use your drone for professional-quality images immediately, an all-raw setup might be your best bet.

How many Megapixels and what sensor size will you need?

In addition to the number of megapixels the sensor produces, quality enthusiasts also take into account how well it handles low light. Whether it’s a 30 MP camera on top models like DJI’s Inspire 2 or a 2 MP sensor on the Force1 Quadcopter, the sensor of a drone can drastically affect its price and quality.

Photographers who plan on printing fine art or capturing files for professional clients will benefit from a camera that supports 20 MP stills. In addition to a larger file, most 20MP drone cameras have a 1″ CMOS sensor, which means you can increase the ISO in low light situations, resulting in significantly less noise in the image.

You can capture stunning views with respectable quality even with a 12 MP drone if you’re only interested in sharing your drone photos on social media.

What Kind of Versatility Do You Need?

The nature of drone photography involves a lot of adventure, and the size of the drone has become an important part of the discussion. In terms of portability, the Mavic Mini 2 is considered to be the best drone able to shoot extraordinary images, but lackluster when compared to drones that compete on a professional scale. The Mavic 2 Pro is mostly seen as the best drone for image quality and portability by the drone community although, the new Air 2S is a strong competitor.

You can easily deploy the Mavic 2 Pro anywhere, even if the climate changes. With a 20 MP sensor and a weight of only 5.51 pounds, it’s very difficult to compete against.

Practice safe flying right from the start

A drone pilot’s first trip away from the ground will be the scariest moment in their career. The same sense of caution must be applied to every flight operation, but once you complete your first day of training, it becomes apparent just how amazing drones are at not falling from the sky. Many drone operators will tell you flying one is incredibly simple.

Whenever possible, a pilot should prioritize flying safely when capturing beautiful imagery. Poor flying will not allow you to take spectacular aerial shots. You will lose all chances of ever flying that drone again if you damage it or its surroundings, or if you even lose it. It will impact both your confidence and budget, no doubt.

Those who have completed the Part 107 training will already be familiar with the safety regulations they have to adhere to during each flight. Here are some examples:

Keep your drone in your line of sight

The drone might be flying dangerously close to a line of trees out of your sight while you are focused on the scene on your controller’s monitor. Before launching the drone, place yourself in a position that maximizes your field of view.

Weather conditions are especially important, the wind in particular.

Bad weather is an often cause of drone accidents. When it comes to wind velocity and resistance, every drone model varies. The manual outlines what constitutes an acceptable day for flying, and it is your responsibility to familiarize yourself with the restrictions. Despite your drone being able to stay up in the air, it might not be able to return to you at times if the wind is too strong and its battery is running out.

Stay Calm; Don’t panic

Many pilots panic when their drone’s video signal stops appearing on their monitor mid-flight, thinking their drone has crashed or flown away. The importance of maintaining line-of-sight is also underscored here, but most models have a return-to-home button that overrides a lost video signal.

The maximum altitude is 400 feet above ground level.

Among the rules you’ll hear repeatedly is to not fly over 400 feet above the highest point on the ground. High wind speeds may also affect the UAV when flying higher than 400 feet.

By using drones to capture photos over a video, you can avoid cinematic maneuvers to achieve specific shots. Before becoming an expert drone photographer, you will need to become a skilled drone pilot.

Exposure settings and shooting modes for drone photos

Let’s get to know the most important settings of drone photography now that you have the mindset to start flying. The drone should be set up for shooting, with its camera’s exposure settings adjusted, and gimbal calibrated before it leaves the ground to capture level photos.

Setting up Shooting Modes on your drone

Drones are also equipped with automatic, aperture, shutter speed, and manual modes, similar to DSLRs. As a result, you can adjust your aerial photoshoot based on your skill level and overall needs. It’s always recommended for beginners to first learn how to fly with automatic settings and gradually introduce more control once they get used to it.

Why Manual Mode Is Beneficial

Having full control over your drone camera will help you achieve your desired aesthetic. The auto mode’s accuracy is remarkable, but when you face low-light conditions or flight instability, you’ll learn what settings are best for aerial photography.

Adjusting Shutter Speed

Shutter speed is an important factor in determining image clarity in the sky, just as it is when taking handheld photos on the ground. The tripod mode of certain drone models can be used for exposures of several seconds on calm days without wind.

As most drones are limited to a F/stop of 11, shutter speed may be additionally important for exposing a scene properly, as you may need a faster shutter speed to keep the camera from overexposing the sensor. Neutral density filters are also a good choice for limiting light, and we’ll discuss them later.

When selecting shutter speed, a good guideline is doubling the focal length of your lens. Afterward, do take into account all other factors. For example, if your drone has a 24 mm, avoid shooting images that are lower than 1/50th of a second. Disregard though if, the operation is within stable air or a tripod mode is enabled.

Adjusting Aperture

The ability of drones to have variable apertures is pretty new. Common lenses in the past had a fixed aperture of 2.8. Even a wide-angle lens would only cover a narrow depth of field which was too bright for long exposures.

Currently, the lenses on the majority of new models are f/2.8 to f/11. Tests have revealed that the sharpest aperture on the Phantom and Mavic DJI families is f/5.6. Alternatively, narrower f/stops perform nearly as well.

As sharpening images afterward is relatively straightforward, use the aperture first, and aim for f/5.6 whenever possible.

Increasing ISO in camera Drones

Drone cameras have a potential downside when it comes to increasing ISO. As opposed to high-end mirrorless bodies like Sony and Canon, drone sensors begin to strain beyond ISO 400. The camera automatically controls the ISO in shooting modes such as Auto and Aperture/Shutter,

It’s a good idea to experiment with ISO and observe which value produces the cleanest images. This will pave the way to mastering drone photography. ISO is typically increased above 200 only when shutter speed and aperture are not sufficient.

AEB Mode and bracketing exposures

Automatic Exposure Bracketing is used across many photography niches. It is much more notable in landscape images, real estate photos, and scenes with a high contrast range. Drone photos are not an exception to those high-contrast scenes.

The Auto Exposure Bracketing feature allows the photographer to synchronize five exposures at once. This enables you to combine them into an HDR image. You could also manually mask and blend them to generate a much higher dynamic range.

Even when shot in raw, such files are less flexible than those produced by most DSLR cameras. As a result, professionals most times will bracket their images so they have options to work with later.

Color Profiles

Lastly, we believe setting a color profile during capturing is important for the appearance and dynamic range of your photos.

There are six options for D-Cinelike, D-Log, Normal, True Color, Film, B&W, and Cool in DJI’s software. Using each, you can adjust the image’s histogram. Whether it’s bringing out the highlights and shadows, boosting saturation, or even simply lowering the white balance.

Color correction is much easier on raw photos than video. Unless you prefer capturing an image in a particular style, there’s little reason to change the normal color. Bracketing raw files allow great results.

Using filters on drone cameras

Your drone toolkit will most likely include neutral density, polarization, and UV filters. You’ll need additional support to block or enhance the light hitting the sensor in certain circumstances.

ND Filters

If you need the proper exposure, you’ll likely need a Neutral Density (ND) filter. When trying to limit light on the drone it should not be needed. You might need it if your aperture is fixed at f/2.8, or you’re attempting to take a long exposure.

Since the camera’s shutter speed typically does not exceed 1/120th of a second (while shooting at 60 fps), Neutral Density filters are primarily used in video applications.

Long exposures are the best way to make use of a neutral density filter for drone photography. Depending on the quality, using an ND may decrease the clarity of a photograph.

Polarizing Filters

Although polarizing filters require practice to be effective, when applied properly they can enhance contrast and tones in your images.

Filters like these are useful when trying to reduce glare off a bright, reflective surface, like the sky or water. You must rotate it correctly when glare is present in a scene to avoid enhancing it.

UV Filters

Knowing that the most important aspect is getting good exposure, photographers usually avoid using NDs and Polarizers unless they need them. As most drones have a single built-in lens, always use this filter while in transit for protection. Replacing the camera due to a scratch on the lens would be very costly.

How to post-process your drone photography

Using your phone to edit drone photos is an exciting way to post-process them quickly for sharing. However, conventional methods on a computer using software like Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom will yield the best results.

Taking more images with the proper settings means more options to work with during editing. Take the following steps when editing aerial shots:

Apply an unsharp mask

Drone shots taken a few hundred feet in the air are significantly further away from the subject than regular shots. It’s a common practice to sharpen images to emphasize details that would otherwise be lost due to distance.

Remove unwanted objects and people with a clone stamp

Photographing from above reveals vast scenes with unexpected and unwanted details. Using Adobe Photoshop, you can clone pixels around an object you wish to delete. This is a handy feature when you cannot avoid capturing something while taking pictures.

Crop and straighten your images

Even with a balanced gimbal, you might still encounter images with a crooked or slightly skew horizon.

Learn how to selectively reduce noise when editing.

The images produced by drones are typically noisy, particularly in the shadows. Use a brush tool and selectively brushing a noise reduction filter over areas that were subject to missing information.

Making a career with drone photography

Drones have become increasingly popular among serious hobbyists and professionals because of the lucrative or creative images they’re seeing online.

To fly commercially, you will require an FAA Part 107 certificate. In this post, we discuss several commonly asked questions regarding getting the license.

Learn more: Drone Pilot – A Very Lucrative Career

If you have any questions, comments or concerns, please don’t hesitate to leave us a comment below.

Fly safe and stay profitable!


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