7 Essential Tips to Elevate Your Drone Photography

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Just out of reach of the longest selfie stick and the lowest-hovering helicopter, drones can capture what no other technology is typically allowed or capable of capturing. That's particularly liberating in a world where 350 million photographs are uploaded to Facebook daily. Here are seven tips to help make your drone photography stand out rather than drone on.

Fly smart


If you're just getting started in drone photography, the most important thing that you can do is learn how to pilot your craft effectively. With lots of practice, the mechanics of your aerial system can become an afterthought, allowing you to focus on what's most important—capturing stunning imagery. I recommend starting out with a trainer drone, an inexpensive UAV with which you can learn to fly before investing in a pricier piece of hardware. Even if you already own a sophisticated camera drone, companies like DJI and 3DR allow their customers to hone their flying skills on virtual flight simulators.  

Keeping your drone flights safe and legal is the other part of the “flying smart” equation. Always do your research and due diligence to know and comply with local and federal laws. Before taking to the sky, it’s also wise to run through a quick safety checklist and ensure that your aircraft is in tiptop working shape.

Fly prepared


Find a location commensurate with your drone’s battery life. Start from a place of inspiration—for example, follow aerial photographers on Instagram (I have a pretty good drone photography feed, if I do say so myself). Then, make a list of nearby locations and regional points of intrigue. Utilize tools, such as Google Maps, to examine the feasibility of each of your ideas. If you were to go there, think about what the backdrop of your image might be and how the light would interact with your subject at different times of the day.

Survey the scene


Now that you’ve arrived, it’s important to get the lay of the land. It’s incredibly easy to develop “tunnel vision” as a drone operator, where you get so fixated by a certain subject or composition that you ignore all the magnificent beauty that exists in the scene behind or below your UAV. Encircle your subject (either manually or with an automated flying mode) and note where the light, composition, and background seem to come together best. Revisit those locations and tinker with distance and height to further enhance your frame.

Light your way


 

Endeavor to fly when the light is most tantalizing. “Golden hour” refers to the soft yellow-tinted light that fills the skies as the sun begins and ends its journey across the horizon. “Blue hour” is another special stage in the day when vibrant blue hues take over the sky before sunrise in the morning and after sunset in the evening. Light is a crucial ingredient to every photograph and these special times of day offer visual opportunities for artists both on the ground and in the air.

Composition with intention


Lines, patterns and geometry are some of the most potent compositional elements in this new, high-flying medium. Lines have incredible implications for the compositionally aware because they have the power to direct the human eye from the foreground to the background of your photograph. Patterns are of paramount importance in drone photography because height allow pilots to discover visual rhythms that can easily go unseen from the ground. Finally, geometry is a pillar of thoughtful framing because shapes, particularly ones that interact with one another, keep our eyes moving throughout the frame.

Effective perspective


Obviously, the main compositional advantage that you control with your UAV is perspective. As a result, seek out visual drama that a different angle can bring to life. Remember that the best photographs aren’t necessarily taken at maximum flight altitude. Usually, the drone photography sweet spot exists just a few feet above your head. At about 10-100 feet high, you can create clean but nuanced imagery with foregrounds, middle grounds, and backgrounds capable of guiding your viewer through a unique visual experience. It’s also at this height where you can best capture the unseen.

Charged up


Snag multiple drone batteries for the best photographic experience. With one battery, you can explore the entirety of your environment and envision a shot list of notable perspectives, compositions, and frames. Sometimes, you can also venture to distant scenes that show visual promise and begin to discover the unexpected. Then, you can devote your entire second battery to executing your shot list to perfection. If you aim to capture moving imagery, as well, snag a third battery with which you can fully devote your efforts to captivating cinematography.

There’s new technology hovering on the horizon and, with the right knowledge, you too can be on the front lines of this burgeoning industry.

For more practical tips and helpful information on how to get started with drone photography, you can pre-order my book, The Handbook of Drone Photography, which will be one of the first-ever books on this exciting new medium.


Chase Guttman is an award-winning travel photographer and drone photography expert who won Young Travel Photographer of the Year three times. Guttman was also named a 3 Best Travel Photography Blogger by USA Today, a Top Travel Photographer by the New York Institute of Photography, and a Rising Star by Instagram. He has travelled to 50+ countries and every U.S. state, and is currently authoring a pioneering book on drone photography. You can follow him on Instagram.

To read more about the full line of drones available at B&H, click here.

21 Comments

Great tips especially for new pilots. Your imagery is very stunning. I upgraded from Phantom Vision to P4 and can't beleive the difference.  Looking forward to new pictures you share!

Nice article with reasonable advice. Fun pictures.

I disagree with the people who have left comments stating that it is so hard to stay compliant while flying a drone - I think it is very easy. There are simply a few things that are off limits, like all things in life.

I have many concerns over drone safety and those who ignore the FAA rules, regardless if drone use is commercial or not. We do aerial photography in the greater Seattle area, and we are seeing increased encounters with drones in our airspace.

We had a near collision last month with a drone at about 1,000 feet over Seattle, in which the pilot had to take evasive measures; the drone came close to hitting the strut of our airplane. We take aviation safety very seriously, our lives and business depend on it.

There are a number of drone operators with social media accounts that have samples of photos that are in clear violation of FAA rules, including flying in Class Bravo airspace, at night over Seattle (Class B airspace over Seattle is 1800', we need permission from flight tower to operate there - commercial airliners are routed over Seattle from both Seatac and Boeing Field). Other photos were from above the cloud layer (no line of site?), from above the Space Needle (which is 605' tall), etc.

My point is, I want to see stricter regulations, and I want them enforced - before something horrible happens. I believe all drone retailers should offer a set of safety guidelines for every unit they sell.

People need to be educated on what possible damage can happen. There are tests to suggest that a drone could take out a jet engine, although wouldn't likely take down a commercial airliner, as they are designed to fly with engine loss. That may not be the case if a drone were to take out our propeller - or tail tail rotor of a helicopter.

Tests Show Drone Strikes Could Cause Jet Engine Failure

FAA Fact Sheet – Small Unmanned Aircraft Regulations (Part 107)

I am a pilot and a UAS pilot.  I emphathize with your situation.  I fly a Phantom 4 and the firmware upgrades to the software force the pilot to take responsibility for actions before they are allowed to fly.  The area that I fly in has no TCA.  I can foresee that eventually you will have to type a certificate of compliance number into the app before you are allowed to use it. This will help eliminate some of the problem.  I watched a video that showed a drone above the cloud layer and come straight down through the clouds to the home point.  As you know....a clear violation and the operator did not think he was doing anything wrong. right now it is like the wild west but safety improvements in the equipment, software and firmware should help to minimize concerns we have.  

Was reading through the conversation on being legal and I thought I'd simply say - they are beautiful photographs and thanks for capturing them.  Life goes on and glad we have these images to enjoy.  Fly Safe :)

In Canada, photos 2, 3, 5, 6, 8, 9, & 10 are illegal for this Special Flight Operations Certicate holder. If one does not hold an SFOC, the restrictions are these and then more. No flying at all within 100' laterally from people not involved in the UAV's operation.

From the certicficate's 86(!) conditions:

1. The UAV shall only be operated within visual line-of-sight.
...
3. The UAV pilot shall only operate the UAV in visual meteorological conditions which shall be a minimum of 3 statute miles visibility and a minimum ceiling of 1000 feet above ground.
4. The UAV shall only be operated during daylight hours.
...
8. The UAV pilot shall operate the UAV at 100 feet above ground or lower when within 5 nautical miles of any aerodrome, runway, helipad or waterdrome, and at 300 feet above ground level (AGL) or lower at all other times as specified in the application and supporting documentation.

...

24. The UAV pilot shall not operate the UAV system, where visual observers are used as part of the sense and avoid function unless reliable communication is established and maintained between the visual observer and the UAV pilot and standard operating procedures are followed.
25. The UAV pilot shall ensure that visual observers perform observation duties for only one UAV.
26. The UAV Certificate Holder shall not permit piloting or visual observer functions to be performed from a moving surface vehicle.

...

45. The UAV Certificate Holder is responsible for obtaining permission from the owner(s) of the property on which the UAV intends to take-off from, land on or overfly.
46. A NOTAM shall be filed at least 24 hours in advance for any operation under this SFOC that is within Class C, D, E or F airspace and/or within five (5) nautical miles of any aerodrome in either controlled or uncontrolled airspace, unless directed otherwise by the Air Traffic Service Unit Manager or the Military Air Traffic Service Unit responsible for that airspace.

..

48. No UAV pilot shall operate the UAV system in such a reckless or negligent manner as to endanger or be likely to endanger the life or property of any person.

...

66. No UAV pilot shall operate the UAV at a lateral distance of less than 100 feet from persons, buildings, occupied vehicles or vessels unless;
      1. the owner has granted consent; and
      2. only persons involved in the operation and familiar with the hazards are present.

67. No UAV pilot shall operate the UAV at a lateral distance of less than 100 feet from the general public, spectators, bystanders or any person not associated with the operation.
68. No UAV pilot shall operate the UAV over a built-up area.
69. No UAV pilot shall operate the UAV within built-up or populated areas other than within the specific operation area as described in the security plan as described in the application.
70 . No UAV pilot shall operate the UAV at a lateral distance of less than 500 feet from open air assemblies of people.

Between the regulations and the ass-hats that ignore the regualtions, this hobby is becoming very difficult to pursue. The mandatory liability insurance alone costs $800-1200 a year! Transport Canada mandates a minimum of $100,000 insurance, the companies selling it in Canada won't sell you less than a $500,000 policy and some cities, all national parks and many other parks require $1,000,000. Plus written permission that isn't very forthcoming.

I was just about to point that out - nearly all of those shots are illegal in Canada. I tried to apply to do a shot in a city park and the city (Surrey, BC) wanted $3 million liability for a controlled shot in an open field 100m away from any people not involved in the shot. This was with two crew members plus a pilot and all the requisite safety gear. I didn't bother to pursue the SFOC for it because the insurance alone (especially for $3 million) is prohibitively expensive - you may as well buy another drone for what it costs. 

"Difficult" doesn't begin to describe things in Canada, though I absolutely agree that "ass-hats" flying recklessly and endangering people, property and the environment with their idiotic stunts are a major problem. Yet somehow, if you are just flying purely for recreation purposes, most of those regulations don't apply, and you don't need an SFOC. So anyone can just run down to London Drugs, buy a UAV and fly it for recreation and they don't need insurance and they have a very condensed version of the regulations to follow. Makes no sense.

What do you have in stock (preferably used) right now that you would recommend a beginner to buy to "hone in on flying skills first".

You might look at the DROMIDA Ominus FPV Quadcopter with Integrated 720p Camera.  It would be an inexpensive option to help you learn how to maneuver the craft outside without crashing.  At the time of this posting, the Dromida is also available in the Used Department

Very wise suggestions.  But it is increasingly more more difficult to fully comply with all regulations.  As someone mentioned previously some of your images are "barely legal." The 400 foot ceiling is one definite FAA rule.  The FAA requires avoiding any situation where people could become injured.   

Will the real challenge we all face is increasingly diffocult peolple.   Attracting a crowd of copy cats.  Or worse, attracting a number of people who constantly tell you  "do you have permission to do fly here?"  or "You know, it's fly here."   

Can't photograph in National Parks, within 5 miles of an airport, State Parks, near military installations.  And more. 

Nevertheless, beautiful images showing the power of a different perspective. 

Actually, you can operate near an airport, you just need to inform the airport about your operations. Unless they determine your drone flight will be unsafe and inform you of that determination, you can fly in accord with the operation as you described, including if you intend to do so on a regular basis (perhaps you're one of the many millions of people that live within 5 miles of the close to 10,000 airports in the US). Perhaps what the article should have been more detailed about is telling operators that they should understand the regulations before operating. A final note is that no matter what the standard rules are, you can apply for a waiver from the FAA to deviate from them (so it is impossible for the casual viewer to know whether an image was legal or not).

"Keep your drone flights safe and legel" is one of your recomendations ,but some of the photos and article contents are in desagriments with FAA and/or Transport Canada safety regulations  

Paul, I think you are mistaken that any of the photos from in this article violate FAA rules. If you still disagree please indicate which photos the the rule violated  Similarly, please identify which statements in the article are in conflict with any rule, and which rule. It would seem challenging to know when each image was taken so that you can know which rules were in effect. Finally, the author appears to be making money with his images (I could be wrong about this), but if that is the case a waiver would have been required whose details are not known to the reader.

I recently attended a very well prepared and authoritative session on drones, including discussions of the rules of drone operation.

First, it is very important to understand that the rules for commercial operations of drones are very different from recreational operation.  That would tend to make me think that the rules are different for professional photographers versus amateurs (far less restrictive).

Secondly, at first blush I think your sample photos would appear to have been taken in violation of one imporant rule: drones may not be operated directly overhead any person or people.  It is possible for a professional operator to get permission to fly over crowds and events, such as sporting events,  But such waivers are difficult and time consuming to obtain.

Finally, the rules are strict, but practically unenforceable.  It is not wise to rely on that factor to fly in violation of the rules.  You do not want to be the exception, and when the feds want to use you to make an example, your life is miserable.

Under: Light your way
Regarding South of the Border: Pedro say " 'before sunrise in the morning and after sunrise in the evening' means señor watches evening sunset standing on his head."

I've been at South of the Border several times day and night and passed by many more times. Sunrise never occured in the evening.
I spot every type of typo.

Interesting comment. I have always noticed that the evening is after surise.

While "after sunrise" "in the evening" is sequentially valid, "after" "sunrise in the evening" was the obvious quasi-intent (the reasonable parallel being "after" "sunset in the evening").

Thanks so much for pointing out this typo Steve. We've corrected the text to help readers make the most of capturing images during the blue hour after sunset, one of my personal favorite times to photograph! Happy shooting and thanks for reading the Explora blog!

Does your Instagram feed photos have EXIF, like the type of camera/drone used, GPS?

To the best of my knowledge, most of the drones with built-in cameras (or designed for use with a proprietary camera) don’t include the camera model in the EXIF data.  Though, if you have questions about where certain images on Chase Guttman’s Instagram page were taken, or what he used to take the photo, you might try contacting him through his website or via Instagram

Nice work Chase...good advice.  I was just wondering what your drone platform of choice is...thanks.

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