Landscape photography has a lot to do with getting to the right location at the right time. Many photographers quickly find out that sometimes the best angle is unreachable by those of us stuck with our feet firmly on the ground. Drones might just be the next best tool for photographers. No need to rent a plane, you can get more angles, and you don’t need to schedule out so far in advance. There are even some less obvious ways to use a drone for landscape photography that make it a worthwhile tool to keep on hand.
How Drones Change the Game
Already mentioned is that they can help landscape shooters reach angles they couldn’t get before. That’s just the easiest explanation for how a drone can help a landscape photographer. You can now get an image of the cliff you are standing on from way up in the sky—no helicopter or plane required.
Beyond that you can get a completely different angle on the scene. One common example is the overhead shot with the drone’s camera facing directly downward. This has revealed many interesting scenes and patterns that never would’ve been captured otherwise. It’s also something that is tough to shoot unless you have an aerial platform designed for downward shooting (outside a plane window doesn’t provide that opportunity easily).
Drones aren’t just useful for taking photos, they are also great for location scouting. Sometimes you want a good look at how a particular scene may look before you hike a couple of miles through the woods, or see how today’s weather is affecting your planned destination. Flying a drone out and over is a much faster way to do some of this scouting. Also, you may find a new place or location to check out on the way.
Basic Tips for Using Drones
If you are going out with a drone there are a few key tips you should follow.
Check the Weather
More so than regular landscape photography—which could take place on a windy, stormy day—drones very much prefer nice, clear days. There are plenty of reasons for this, but the main is simply that if you are flying a relatively lightweight electronic device in the air any water or wind is going to introduce problems. Drones are designed to cut down on all excess weight, meaning weather sealing is not as strong as your pro DSLR. Also, the more wind there is the drone could potentially be blown off course or burn battery much, much faster than you would expect.
Learn the Laws
I can't write anything about drones without covering this point. Learn your local rules and regulations on drone flight. If you aren't sure, you should ask local authorities before taking flight. If you don't follow the rules you can end up with a hefty fine. Or, in the worst case scenario, someone could get hurt.
Exposure Bracketing is King
On the ground you have time to snap a photo, check exposure and then confirm details before taking your next shot. Drones don't have the same advantages. At best you are working off an okay screen that is wirelessly connected to a device hundreds of feet away. This is not ideal for capturing landscapes with vast dynamic range. Also, the smaller sensors in drones are generally more limited than APS-C and full-frame DSLRs, so you'll want to make sure your exposure is as close to perfect as possible. Exposure bracketing combined with options like zebras can help you confirm you have a good exposure before you land.
Shoot in Raw
This one is simple and connected to getting the best exposure—shoot in raw. Raw retains as much detail as possible for editing later on. For drone photography when you can't be quite as sure what is happening up in the air you will want as much latitude as you can get for post.
Take Advantage of Built-In Features
Some drones, like the DJI Mavic 2 Zoom, have fancy modes to squeeze even more performance out of their sensors. One example is a multi-shot mode that can create a high-resolution super resolution image with far more detail than the sensor can natively capture. Using features like this as well as features like tripod modes that hold the drone in a steady position will help you get the shot. Make sure you use them.
What You Want in a Drone
There are a lot of drones these days with prices ranging from a couple of hundred dollars to thousands. Sifting through this comes down to personal preference and limitations, although we are going to run through the key specs to look for when you start shopping.
This is the big one, in my opinion, because if the drone is too big to take out often, then it doesn’t matter how good it is. Also, if you are just looking to dip your toes into the drone market, you might want one on the smaller end (<250g) to stay out of FAA registration territory. There are also numerous folding drones that are of higher quality and yet easy to transport. And finally, there are big serious drones with larger, more complex camera systems that require dedicated storage for travel.
I’d lean toward the mini drones for everyday use and the folding drones for more serious shooting. The bigger drones are reserved for high-end shoots, since the hassle of transport means individual photographers likely won’t be trekking them out on their own.
Sensor and Lens(es)
The imaging tech of the drone is likely built in and doesn’t leave much room for change later on. So, you’ll want to make sure the key part is of the highest quality. As with other cameras, you’ll want to evaluate the image sensor. Physical size and resolution make a huge difference in image quality.
Resolution has obvious benefits: a 20MP sensor will capture more detail than a 12MP sensor. Sensor size is less obvious. Considering most drones are extremely compact, the sensor sizes are also relatively small, commonly around 1/2.3", closer to a smartphone than a mirrorless or DSLR. This is why some of the latest drones with 1" sensors have shown marked improvements in dynamic range and low-light performance and are better for photography.
Most drones have fixed lenses and that’s what you have to work with. Higher-end drones might have cameras with lens mounts. First, decide whether you want and can afford the added cost and hassle of additional lenses, or make sure you have a good lens. Nowadays, you have two options for fixed lenses: a wide-angle prime or a zoom. Primes generally deliver better performance but zooms are much more versatile. You can’t go wrong with either.
Filters and Add-On Lenses
Even though (most) drones don’t have conventional lens designs, many companies have developed accessories to work with them. One market is in drone filters and lens attachments. If you are a landscape photographer already, you are likely familiar with various filters, such as polarizers and neutral density. NDs may not be your first choice for aerial flight, where you’d likely want faster shutter speeds, but polarizers are just as useful as they are on the ground. Just make sure to check the polarization before you take off because it’s impossible to adjust after liftoff.
Another unique accessory is the anamorphic lens attachment. More of a video tool, it can help photographers capture panoramic images without relying on stitching. Worth a look.
Learn more about the Benefits of Filters for Drone Photography.
For photography, specifically, you’ll want to look out for a drone that captures raw images. Many lower-end drones are limited to JPEG, and any landscape photographer who wants to capture the highest quality knows to shoot in raw. I would argue it is especially important for drone photography since the remote controller/phone screen likely isn’t the best judge of exposure, so you want to make sure you have as much latitude as possible to account for potential exposure errors.
Battery Life & Range
Two key specs that affect general usability of any drone are the battery life and range. Battery life is straightforward—you only get so many minutes of flight time from a single battery, and more is always better. The second part is range, and that relies heavily on various technologies. Some use Wi-Fi for short-range use, some use 2.4GHz wireless to get more range, and then even more branch out to 5 GHz or even custom tech to get ranges of a few miles.
Combined, this determines the overall flight capabilities of the drone. I’d argue that the most important part is the wireless technology and to steer clear of Wi-Fi-only, unless you are just doing this for fun. Losing connection can ruin a flight and you can always keep a couple of spare batteries for extra shooting time.
See? There are myriad reasons that every landscape photographer should consider adding a drone to their kit. And nowadays, drones have never been as small or as powerful, giving people great options for nearly any budget.
Need help finding a drone or learning how to best use one? Please feel free to drop us a line in the Comments section, below!
Check out our podcast episode with Ryan Dyar and Miles Morgan on how they incorporate drones into their landscape photography. Thanks.
Really this article is more a buyers guide to drone equipment than anything else. No information whatsoever on actually using a drone to photograph landscapes. What a colossal waste of time.