Before the advent of drones, people had to rely mainly on planes or helicopters to take aerial photographs. Now, thanks to the increasing availability and decreasing prices of drones, as well as advances in obstacle avoidance technology, GPS navigation, battery life, and camera stabilization, it certainly seems easier to take photographs from higher elevations.
But that doesn't mean anyone with a drone can take great photos. Here are some practical tips on the logistics of using drones and tips for taking better photos while traveling.
First, know the rules.
In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration oversees drone regulations and FAADroneZone is the country's official website for understanding drone requirements and managing drone services. If you are a recreational pilot, you must pass an aeronautical knowledge and safety test, called the Recreational UAS Safety Test, before flying your drone.
Drone company DJI also has a detailed website that instructs drone users on local rules and regulations.
The basic rules for flying a drone as a hobbyist, that is, using a drone recreationally, are to fly the drone only at 400 feet or less, always keep the drone in sight, do not fly in restricted airspace, and do not fly over Groups of people. If you are flying your drone commercially, you must become a certified remote pilot by passing the FAA Part 107 test. This is a more extensive test and covers additional drone rules, airspace regulations and weather conditions.
Please note that many countries may have different regulations. Wherever you go, you can be fined or have your plane confiscated if you don't follow the rules.
Understand what your drone can do
Drones are incredibly fast, maneuverable and precise. You can fly up to 400 feet and move laterally in an infinite number of directions to get the perfect shot. But first-time drone flyers often fly as high as possible and take photos that lack a strong focus point or composition.
To get the most detailed photos, set your drone to the lowest ISO, usually 100. This is the feature that sets the camera's sensitivity to light and was known as film speed in the days of film. For the best quality photos, it is best to take photos in RAW format, which is an unprocessed digital image file that contains the most data. When processed, this will produce photographs with the greatest detail.
After you have purchased your drone, it is good practice to periodically update the firmware, which is software that provides basic instructions for the drone's hardware to function properly, such as the drone and remote control working together.
Use maps and the weather forecast, and schedule the appropriate time
Whether you consult an atlas or follow your car or phone's navigation, maps are very effective tools for seeing the shape of a river, lake or pond and provide ideas for good aerial subjects.
Once you have a location, shoot during the “golden hours” – shooting around sunrise and sunset will often produce the most dramatic images with warm highlights and shadows. It is a good idea to pay attention to the weather forecast to know the times of sunrise and sunset and also what the weather will be like. Strong winds and rainy or snowy weather make flying a drone much more difficult.
Look for patterns, lines and lights as you fly.
Many times a drone photographer will make discoveries from the air. You may jump into the idea of photographing something and, while you're in the air, you may discover something more compelling. Rivers, solar panels, agricultural fields, and trees can provide attractive patterns and lines.
And don't forget the light and shadows either. Good lighting can make or break a photo. Sometimes the best light means a golden dawn, as we said before, but other times it means a cloudy day with diffused light. On cloudy days, shooting directly at a subject can be very effective.
Taking drone photos at sunset can also be very captivating. This is the time after sunset and before nightfall. Set the drone to manual exposure, set the ISO to 100, and experiment with long exposures. Some drones can take exposures of up to eight seconds and maintain sharp focus.
Study the work of an expert
One of the best ways to improve your photographs is to study the work of a professional photographer.
Photographer George Steinmetz has been taking aerial photography for decades (even before the rise of affordable drones) while working with publications like National Geographic and The New York Times. He has published five books on aerial photography.
“For intimate aerial photography, a drone is exceptional,” he said, but added that any type of aerial photography can be transformative.
“You see the world in a way you're not used to,” he said. “It adds context and a new perspective.”
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