Drones as a Photographic Tool

Opinion / July 25, 2018

Drones have pretty bad reputations with the general public, they are toys and annoyances. I don’t blame a lot of these snap judgements either for years drones have had crappy quality cameras inconsistent software to fly them resulting in bad footage and lots and lots of practice to even get that. That’s not even to touch on the noise, the peeping toms and the general feeling of privacy loss by having a camera hovering over your home. In the past few years however drones have improved massively, allowing simple flight options, smooth flying, good quality cameras, good quality radio connections and software to fly them that will help you get it home in case of problems. At this point in the hands of a photographer or videographer a drone offers you a new perspective on a subject and perhaps even a new subject to take pictures of (not creepily). It’s a worthy investment for anyone looking to continue pushing their photography to the next level.

Once you get a drone, even with the technology enhancements you’ll need to invest some time into learning the software, the controls and hone your judgement for how close you are to things as you fly near them. A few helpful hints I can give while you get started -

  • Keep your distance from objects, it does not take much to down your drone.
  • Lower the sensitivity on the controls especially the camera up/down and the yaw.
  • Keep the camera in manual mode
  • Don’t forget to focus (if your drone supports it)
  • If supported try shooting in vertical as well, sometimes it’s a change in perspective that helps drones too.

Once you have the basics of flying down you get to the fun part of drones, using them as tools to find a new look or perspective. I’ve spent lots of time using the drone’s to find a different feel on the same landscape that I’m shooting with my DSLR, sometimes it works, sometimes it does not. Where I’ve found more luck and the reason I think that drone’s have an intrinsic value in photography is looking for items you can’t get on foot. Fly your drone up into the air and look for some new perspectives but keep these ideas in mind, they have been the most helpful to me.

  • Unique colors that may not be visible from the ground
  • Lines, roads, path’s that lead your viewer, make sure you have a ultimate subject though.
  • Weather related, snow stuck to trees, clouds (getting above the clouds)
  • Abstract Options
  • Black and White Compositions
  • People and animals in their environment (deer in a valley, people at a beach, hikers on a trail)

Drone Image of Lofoten Norway

You should be keeping your normal composition rules in place with a drone too, include too much and it’s visual clutter, don’t lead your viewer to a subject and your leading them out of the image and so on. That said you can find that you have many options for interesting drone photography. I know over the last two years of using a drone for some of my photography I’ve found that I can get into a rut where if I’m not in the right mindset to be looking for these things I just don’t like any of my drone shots. It’s at these times that I come back to the list above and start to focus, keep it too broad and sometimes you miss the shot you’ve been looking for.

Another interesting use I’ve found for drones is scouting locations, this has come in different mindsets for me personally. The first instance where I use this is for shooting a location, after a time it’s good to clear my head by stopping and looking for a new perspective, today I’ll turn on the drone and if I’m in a clear location I’ll fly around to see different perspectives on the same area, what would my shot look like from one direction or another. The second instance I’ve used this was for times when I’m in an area where it’s not easy to see my surroundings, usually this means I’m in the tree’s and I can’t get a good perspective of my area, is there a lake or river nearby, some rock outcroppings I may have missed in my pre-shoot scouting? It just gives me the ability to take a few minutes and make sure I understand the bigger picture.

The first year of my time with drones it was as much about flying the drone and seeing how far it could go rather than being about getting a cool photograph. As time has progressed I’ve found that the allure of flying the drone just for flying the drone has worn off, I’ve moved into a stage where I set goals for my flights, I want to get a shot or see if there is anything else I’m missing. Rarely do I fly the drone any more where the end goal is just to enjoy flying the drone, it’s turned into a tool for my photography even when it’s not being used to take a picture.