In the last few years, drone photography has revolutionized the way photographers document the world they see through their images. Nowadays, more and more photographers use drones as a tool to diversify their shots and express themselves in new creative ways.
Referred also as unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), this rotor-driven remote-controlled quadcopter has given access to unique perspectives from a bird’s-eye view and stunning places sometimes hard or impossible to reach by land or far too expensive for the average photographer.
Though, prices has dropped and drones tend to be more affordable, getting started can be a challenge for a decent drone from reputable brands. As DJI is the world's largest and leading drone manufacturer, I would address drone photography beginners to this Chinese brand for buying their first reliable on-board camera drone.
Before purchasing a drone, it's important to consider how well you can fly a drone and which drone may match your needs and skills. There are drones equipped with side lights useful or compulsory for night photography, drones that fly farther than others. Beside your budget, you have to check carefully the features the single drone offers and compare them with your photographic needs.
As personal suggestion, consider as drone to purchase for your photography needs one of these DJI models:
- the entry level DJI Mini 3;
- the upper-mid-range DJI Air 2S (combines a pro-quality camera with a compact frame);
- the most expensive and professional DJI Mavic 3.
Once you have purchased the drone more suitable for your photo needs, you must proceed with registering it if the laws of your country require so.
REGISTER YOUR DRONE
In many countries, all drones over 250 grams must be registered at the local National Aviation Authority. Of the three drones I suggested above, only the light DJI Mini 3 is register free. Here I will consider the needed steps and information for European Union and USA only.
Since January 1, 2021, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has standardized drone regulations throughout its 28-member states. The new regulatory framework replaces existing regulations that were previously passed into law by individual member states. In addition to the EU's member states, also Iceland, Switzerland, Lichtenstein, and Norway have adopted the new EASA drone regulations.
You must register with the National Aviation Authority (NAA) of the EU country you are resident of or, in case you don't live in any of EU countries, the first EU country where you intend to fly your drone.
Your registration number issued by the NAA must be displayed with a sticker on your drone and then upload it into the ‘Remote Identification System’ of your drone. Your registration number is valid for use in all EASA member states.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires you register your drone (if over 250 grams) under part 107 (commercial use) or the exception for Recreational Flyers. The registration fee is $5 per drone and is valid for three years.
Beginning September 16, 2023, all drone pilots required to register their drone must operate their aircraft in accordance with the remote ID rule for pilots.
Once you registered your drone, you have to pass a pilot training test to fly your drone legally.
Till December 31, 2023, each EASA Member State may define the appropriate remote pilot training requirements depending on the type of drone you use. In the EASA website, you find all the information about the proof of completion for online training for A1/A3 "open" category and for the remote pilot certificate of competency for A2 "open" subcategory. The A1/A3 on line exam consists of 40 questions with at least a 75% pass rate. In some countries the exam comes for free (Spain) while in others for a fee (Italy). The A2 on line exam consists of 30 questions with at least a 75% pass rate.
TRUST is a collaboration between the FAA and industry to provide educational safety material to recreational flyers. Recreational drone flyers must take the free on line Recreational UAS Safety Test (TRUST) required by the FAA before flying the drone. It's an online multiple-choice test and it takes about 30 minutes to complete it, normally. No prior drone knowledge is needed. Test allows unlimited attempts to pass. All FAA-approved TRUST test administrators offer the test free.
FLYING A DRONE FOR THE FIRST TIME
Knowing how to use your drone will minimize the chance of accidents and flyaways. If you're going to fly a drone for the first time, you MUST follow these simple steps:
- Know the single laws that regulate the use of drone in your country or in the country you intend to fly your drone (see the basic rules to fly your drone chapter below);
- Read your drone's user manual;
- Put your drone in beginner mode and practice lots of flying in a safe area away from houses and people.
MAKE SURE YOU'RE COVERED!
Regardless of how big or small your drone is or how fast is traveling, it can damage properties and even injure people.
Remember EU's drone regulations require all professional drone operators should be insured for damages caused to third party with a limit of no less than 1 000 000 Euros.
As some EU member states (like Spain, for example) force ALL drone's owners to have a liability insurance, check the rules in the EU country where you intend to fly your drone.
A suggested and reliable international drone insurance is Coverdrone.
BASIC RULES TO FLY YOUR DRONE
Once you passed the on line exam and you get the certificate release by the local aviation authorities of your country, it's time to see the basic rules to fly your drone safely and legally.
Under the EASA new regulations, you have to follow these rules when flying a drone under Open Category:
- As remote pilot you must be familiar with the user's manual provided by the manufacturer and operator’s procedures;
- you can't fly over uninvolved people and assemblies of people If you have a C0 rated drone (DJI Mini 2 or 3 or any drone under 250 grams);
- you can't fly intentionally over uninvolved persons if you have a C1 rated drone (DJI Air 2S or any drone under 900 grams) . If that happens you must steer the drone away as quickly and safely as possible;
- you can get closer to people at a horizontal distance of at least 30 metres (or 5 metres if low speed mode is activated) if you have a C2 rated drone (DJI Mavic 3);
- you can't exceed 19 m/s speed (68 km/h);
- you can't fly over an altitude of 120 metres;
- always keep your drone in the line of sight (VLOS);
- you have to be distant at least 150 metres away from residential, commercial, industrial or recreation areas;
- you can't follow, take photos, videos or sound recordings of people in their home, garden, car, etc. without their permission, even in public spaces;
- you can't interfere with ongoing activities or emergency operations, unless you have been granted permission from the emergency services;
- immediately land the drone if a helicopter or other low flying aircraft approaches the area;
- if people or animals move toward the area, fly away from them to a safe place and wait until all is clear. If this is not possible, abort the flight and land the drone.
- don't fly if you're under influence of alcohol or using any drug or medication that may affect your faculties in any way.
For more information check the EASA website.
These are the FAA rules to fly a drone for purely recreational purposes:
- Keep your drone within the visual line of sight or use a visual observer who is co-located (physically next to) and in direct communication with you;
- Give way to and do not interfere with manned aircraft;
- Fly at or below 120 metres in controlled airspace (Class B, C, D, and E) only with prior authorization by using LAANC or DroneZone;
- Fly at or below 120 metres in Class G (uncontrolled) airspace.
- Have a current registration, mark (.pdf) your drone on the outside with the registration number, and carry proof of registration with you;
- Do not operate your drone in a dangerous manner (do not interfere with emergency response or law enforcement activities or fly under the influence of drugs or alcohol).
SUGGESTED DRONE PHOTOGRAPHY APPS
The leading global provider of aeronautical data & services to drones. Get real-time feedback of airspace rules and conditions pertaining to your flight specifications, with national rulesets for 20 countries, including all the European Union, USA, Canada, Japan, and United Kingdom.
It let you plan a flight path to specific duration, altitude, and airspace requirements, connect to any supported DJI drone to fly and toggle camera settings directly from the AirMap app, get real-time traffic alerts for nearby manned aircraft and much more. Definitely recommended.
If you live in the US or are visiting this country, B4UFly will make sure you are following the FAA regulations. This (free) app tells you where in the States you can and can’t fly your drone. It includes a detailed listing of every airport in the country and a 8 km radius around each one.
A popular autonomous flight app for DJI drones and also an alternative to DJI Go or DJI FLY apps. It offers the user the possibility of creating automated missions. Among its highlights, Litchi offers a track mode, manual mode, Virtual Reality mode (FPV experience), assists you by taking control of both the gimbal and the drone's yaw axis, so you can concentrate on horizontal movements and easily shoot horizontal, vertical and 360 spherical panoramas.
One of the best existing apps for photographers is helpful also for drone photography. You know in advance when sunrise, golden hour or twilight will be or to make sure the subject you want to photograph is shown in the best natural light available for the best photo. Thanks to its Live Camera View and Interactive Map you have the double option to make use of your phone’s camera and also to see the overlays over Google’s Street View for other desired locations where flying your drone.
There’s also a feature-limited, free lite version though I suggest to buy the pro edition as I consider it one of the best apps for professional photographers.
Before flying your drone, it's extremely important you take some time to ensure you have the proper equipment and ideal conditions for a safe and successful flight:
- charge the remote controller;
- check for any firmware update from your drone manufacturer’s web:
- check any flight hazards near you before take-off as tall obstacles or people;
- bring with you spare memory cards for your drone;
- have one or two spare charged batteries with you beside the charged one installed inside your drone;
- carry spare propellers with you in case any of installed propellers may get damaged during the flight;
- after turning on the controller and drone, calibrate your drone's compass through the app.;
- verify the controller’s antenna communicates correctly with your drone and check the signal strength. Don’t take off until it’s good!
- check GPS satellite reception and weather conditions in the area where you are going to fly your drone. Also make sure the chosen flight area is also cleared for drone use;
- set a home point and altitude for RTH.
- before take-off, look around and above you carefully. Make sure there aren’t any obstacles that you may not have seen before;
- HAVE FUN!
MY TIPS FOR A SUCCESSFUL DRONE PHOTOGRAPHY
Compared to land photography, aerial photography looks different and somehow it can be a bit tricky. This because making an aerial composition is slower and more difficult and aerial perspectives look different from those you have shot on the ground. Same you did with your first camera long time ago, also with drone you will have to practice more and more before becoming a drone photographer. You will learn new photographic perspectives and enjoy more and more the drone photography.
To make your drone photography successful just follow these following tips:
SHOOT WITH LOW ISO
Same you normally do with your reflex/mirrorless camera in landscape photography, use low ISO value when shooting with your drone. By shooting at ISO100 your images will turn out sharp and digital noise free. If your drone has adjustable aperture use f/4-f/5.6 values. Avoid higher values (like f/11).
Drone set in GPS mode is remarkably stable. Setting the shutter speed as low as 1/6th of a second to use an ISO 100 can result in a sharp motion-free image, providing wind is light.
Take multiple frames to increase your chances of having a sharp shot.
Noise stacking is a useful and effective technique in reducing the digital noise in drone photography. Due to the small size of the drone's sensor, images can be rather noisy, especially when we try to recover shadows' details. This may happen even if we shoot ISO 100. When we shoot photos with a drone, it's better to shoot them in burst mode. The drone will shoot very quickly 5 identical photos in a row of the same subject. By combining those images together in post-processing, you can create a single “average” stacked image that allows to reduce noise levels significantly and keep all the details intact. For a successful result, don't move the drone physically while is capturing a burst of images because any small change of perspective will make impossible to align and average your shot images. Burst mode doesn't work with shooting fast move subjects like waves as the final averaged image might not look good.
Here's how you can get a final sharp image with Adobe Photoshop:
- Select the 5 images with Adobe Lightroom -> right click -> open as layer with Adobe Photoshop;
- Select all the 5 layers in Adobe Photoshop -> Modify -> Auto Align;
- Select all the 5 layers -> right click -> Convert to Smart Object;
- Layer -> Smart Object -> Stack Mode -> Median;
USE THE THIRDS GRID OVERLAY TO AID YOUR COMPOSITION
Third grid lay is useful for getting the correct composition in your image. It helps you in avoiding unnecessary cropping in post processing and loosing so precious pixels. When flying the drone, look always for interesting lines (like a river or a winding road) or objects and position them in the third grid overlay.
Lines help to shape the composition of your photo. Use them to drive the viewer into the image like you would normally do by shooting a photo with your camera. With a river or a road frame your shot to make the line extend from left to right or top to bottom.
JUST PLAY WITH SHADOWS
Try to improve your composition by adding a deep sense to the image like, for example, using the shadows of objects. By shooting at early morning or late afternoon when sun is low, shadows stretch out into huge and contrasting silhouettes adding more touch to the story of your photo.
CREATE MORE MEGAPIXELS PHOTOS WITH PANORAMIC SHOTS
Most of camera drones available today have still a relatively low megapixel count compared to reflex and mirrorless cameras. This turns to be a problem if you wish big prints from the images shot with your drone. A solution to this problem could be to fly over your chosen subject and shoot a series of photos which you can easily stitch together with Adobe Photoshop later.