Taking stills with drones: the practicalities
After you are sure you are ready to use the drone for photography there are some aspects that need to be mentioned. We have a large amount of functionality on our DSLRS – aperture, shutter speed, focal length etc. – but are these available on drone cameras? Like camera equipment in general, how much you’re prepared to spend usually determines the quality of camera on-board. Most drones were set up to capture video so with some lower-end models, your only option may be to extract stills from video footage. But nowadays many drones capture stills as well, so look for models which allow you to do this. Then comes the issue of image quality, and that will depend on the functionality of the camera. With many lower-end models the resolution is around 12MP and the lens will likely be a fixed focal length. It will be a wide angle lens and it may also have a fixed aperture.
Ian Muir of Ian Muir Photography says: “Essentially what you have is a flying mobile phone camera. With some models low light performance leads to noise.” But like our mobile phone cameras, drone cameras are constantly improving in leaps and bounds. Nowadays, paying a little extra gets you ones with up to 32MP cameras, zoom function, auto or full manual control, RAW capture, and even time-lapse. Essentially, it’s a matter of working with what you’ve got, and this is not necessarily limiting. Bear in mind that everything in your picture will be so far away that the focus will be at infinity. You don’t need a lot of deep depth of field for everything to be sharp.
Bear in mind also that aerial photography is no different to other forms of photography – it is still all about the light and the composition. Anna Henly comments: “It’s the same rules as a normal camera. You need good composition and lighting. And just as you’d walk around to find the best angles, with a drone you fly around and try different heights until you have found a great composition.”
Factor in also that battery time on a drone is relatively short. Some models will only allow for about 12 minutes flight on one battery, while others may get you up to 20 or more. Remember, too, that like all batteries, on a colder day you can expect a much reduced battery time. Always carry spares if you want a longer shoot, but remember that with drone photography you are spending a lot of time with your neck craned upwards which isn’t comfortable. Many drone photographers will tell you they struggle to last for any length of time without getting sore. The trick is little and often. Be prepared for shorter flights with rest time in between.
Taking the best images
So we are now competent flyers and we know what settings we can put our cameras to. It’s time to go and take some photographs. I asked my contributors to this article for their top tips. Here is their response:
Anna Henly: “Take time to survey your subject, just as you would for a ground-based shot. The drone will let you get to heights and angles you wouldn’t be able to achieve on the ground. Fly around your subject and check out the best positions before you press the shutter. Although you have a time limit set by your battery, don’t rush into the shot – just make sure you have enough spare batteries.”
Ian Muir: “My tip would be do your research. Check the weather, cloud cover, wind speed (at 200ft and 400ft) and whether you’re actually allowed to fly in the area. There’s so many restrictions that we need to be aware of as a hobbyist so we need to keep ourselves and others safe.”
Kenny Girvan: “Get to know the drone and its photo modes. Mine for example has a manual mode, can shoot raw and can also shoot bracketed – e.g. 3 or 5 images -at different exposures. It’s just really a flying camera, so watch the exposure, shutter speed and compose as though you were taking a photo, e.g. rule of thirds etc. Also have some ideas of possible shots before you take off, then get those and look for other angles, lighting if you have time.
Bill Smith: It’s important not to rush things. Chances are what you are trying to capture will still be there another day when the weather or lighting is better. Establish the limitations of your camera and work around this.”
Safety foremost – and finally
Despite their in some cases dinky size, these devices are not toys. An out of control remotely controlled device can cause damage, annoyance and injury. Treat it and those around you with respect. Consider taking out insurance even if you are a non-commercial photographer. Even if just for peace of mind, PLI is recommended in case of accidents to property or persons. There’s a world of a difference between someone tripping over your tripod and getting struck by your drone.
And lastly, like all photography, it’s about enjoying yourself and your images. But in a manner which will not cause annoyance or danger to anyone or anything of course.
Thanks once again to Bill Smith of Kilmaurs PC, Anna Henly of Going Digital, Scotland, Ian Muir at https://www.ianmuirphotography.co.uk/ and Kenny Girvan at http://www.kennygirvan.co.uk/ for assistance given in these articles. Courses and workshops in how to fly drones safely are available at several locations including Going Digital Scotland (https://www.goingdigital.co.uk/) who will let you try a drone before you commit to purchasing.