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Two inevitable user groups for aerial imaging are wedding photographers and videographers. Let's face it—RC multi-rotor aircraft were pretty much made to carry a camera. With GPS flight-control systems, they can stand and hover in a fixed position on their own, track a moving subject, and they are highly maneuverable. With a drone, you can add a whole new dimension to your productions.
The first thing to consider when using a drone to shoot weddings or anything else, of course, is picking an aircraft that holds the combined weight of the camera with battery and lens, plus the gimbal system. For very lightweight cameras—especially action cameras like the GoPro HERO line—this generally means a quadcopter. For mirrorless cameras, and especially DSLRs, you will need at least a hexa- if not an octo-rotor.
For video, the most essential piece of hardware, besides the camera, is a two- or three-axis gimbal. Gimbals are the latest in motorized camera stabilization. A two-axis design typically can tilt (pitch) and also cant (roll) the camera, the latter adjustment keeping it level relative to the horizon, unless you want a Dutch angle. On top of keeping your shot level and allowing tilt, a three-axis system enables the camera to pan (yaw) as well. On aircraft with retractable landing gear, this can mean a full 360 degrees of unobstructed shooting. Mounting a camera rigidly without a gimbal will render unusable video. Not only will it lead to extremely shaky footage, it will also mean a lot of rolling shutter wobble from most CMOS cameras—that is, just about every camera on the market. Rolling shutter is particularly bad on larger-sensor cameras with slower read-outs, such as DSLRs and mirrorless cameras.
With photo, one could argue camera stabilization is not required. However, a gimbal is still highly recommended. For one thing, it gives you some degree of camera control independent of the copter, and means the camera can stay locked on a subject to catch just the right moment, even if wind conditions cause the aerial platform to rock and sway. Additionally, as with lens-based optical image stabilization, having a steady camera decreases the minimum shutter speed you can get away with using. In broad daylight, this might not be a big deal unless you are applying ND filters to capture motion blur, but in low light, the ability to use slower shutter speeds can be a major boon.
Whether you are taking stills or recording video, you will need a way to monitor from the ground to compose your shots. Many purpose-made aerial cameras have some form of video transmission built in. Or you can pick up a separate video transmitter and receiver set. Either way, this can be an old-school analog 5.8 GHz system or a digital system that is either 5.8 GHz or, more likely 2.4 GHz. Analog 5.8 GHz systems still have the longest range out there, and can hold up to weak signals better. On the other hand, the quality isn't going to be spectacular.
Modern digital downlinks offer HD image quality and often additional camera/gimbal control via the app or a dedicated radio controller. The trade-off is that range may be reduced under the burden of the added bandwidth. Between 2.4 GHz and 5.8 GHz digital systems, 5.8 GHz has shorter range, but also won’t create interference with 2.4 GHz flight control systems.
In addition to traditional field monitors or using a mobile device's screen where there's an app, increasingly, aerial imagers are turning to so-called FPV goggles. The FPV, or first-person view market, is all about seeing the world from a bird's-eye view. FPV goggles look like futuristic VR headsets, and many even use head tracking to move the camera as you turn your head. But they provide a great way to monitor, especially in bright daylight, where a field monitor might be hard to see. Some goggles have 5.8 GHz receivers built in, and are usually distinguished by mushroom-shaped "cloverleaf" antennas protruding (the actual cloverleaf is inside the mushroom-shaped protective dome). Alternatively, many monitors with built-in receivers have video output. This means a pilot can use the monitor and keep visual contact with the copter and view OSD telemetry data, while the camera operator uses the goggles to concentrate just on framing and camera work.
As mentioned, dedicated aerial cameras typically feature app-based control. In addition, the handheld controller (transmitter) for the aircraft itself can often have controls assigned to operate the gimbal (or a whole separate transmitter can be used). But what if you're using an action camera, DSLR, or mirrorless camera? For video, you might opt to just let the camera roll the whole time; let's face it, on most copters, you'll get 25 minutes of flying time—if you're lucky. Even DSLRs can usually roll for up to 30 minutes in a clip.
If you need camera control, you'll want to consider the gimbal you select. Many that are camera specific—which most currently on the market are—feature a downlink for the shutter release. With these, the gimbal would link to the copter's flight control system. You would then need to program a switch or button on the controller to operate the shutter release.
Many camera-specific gimbals allow you to assign a toggle or switch on the transmitter (pictured here) to operate the camera shutter release.
Other than the shutter, you are pretty limited. The best plan of action might be to leave the camera in Program or your preferred auto-exposure mode. Depending on your aperture setting and camera-to-subject distance, you might get away with locking focus. Otherwise, you'll need to entrust autofocus.
One thing to note: Many cameras have their own built-in wireless functionality—newer GoPro HERO models, for example—and even an increasing number of pro cameras. Do not use this feature. Chances are it operates on 2.4 GHz, the same frequency as most RC aircrafts’ radio-control systems. Normally, Wi-Fi routers and other 2.4 GHz radio devices in the vicinity aren’t a problem; frequency hopping means devices can work around interference. But when you have a 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi transmitter on a camera that is mounted in extremely close proximity to the copter's control receiver, you are asking for trouble. This is part of the reason video downlinks are almost always 5.8 GHz.
Multi-rotors are noisy. At close range, it is unlikely you will be able to avoid picking up motor and wind noise, regardless of how you mic your subject. For long shots, noise won't be a problem, but the shot will probably be too wide for lip-sync to be noticeable. For wedding shooters, UAVs are best for scene setting, acquiring establishing shots such as the exterior of the church or temple, or for staged scenes where capturing live sound is unnecessary.
As long as the copter knows where it is in space, based on its GPS position, it can overcome many of the worst pilot mistakes, and many UAVs are equipped with this sort of intelligence. If you choose to fly indoors, you will not have this safety margin. Gyros, accelerometers, and other sensors will still help keep the copter from stalling. But they can't bring the quadcopter back automatically if you lose control of it. A few employ ground-facing cameras to recreate the positional awareness GPS provides. However, even these systems are nowhere near as reliable as having true coordinates from which to work. If you plan to fly indoors, ensure that you are very, very comfortable with your aircraft.
As in other avenues of video and photo production, UAVs have the potential to be great tools. But they are mini aircraft with very sophisticated computer control systems. Using them responsibly requires a great deal of respect for the technology, as well as lots of practice flying. Additionally, legal considerations have to be taken into account. All but the tiniest require registration, and commercial use is still murky waters, though we've seen a lot more clarity from the FAA.
To read more about the full line of drones available at B&H, click here.