Drone Photography for Beginners

Cameras are getting everywhere these days – they’re not just in our hands anymore. They’re attached to doors, walls, street lights and now, they’re in the sky!

This drone photography for beginners guide will give you a full breakdown as to how to get started with drone photography, the best drones to buy as a beginner and what the rules around flying your camera.

drone pilotage at sunset

What is Drone Photography?

Drone photography is an expanding area of the industry over past few years. By using a remotely-controlled aerial drone you can take photos, or even make videos, from hundreds of feet in the sky.

While flying a drone and taking photos with it sounds really cool, there is actually a lot of skill that goes in to piloting the craft which we’ll get into later. But with lots of practise you can take some incredible aerial photos of sights that you would never have been able to access without hiring a private jet (or helicopter)!

Each year new modules of drones are released which means you can pick up a drone for cheap – but cheap doesn’t equal good. As with any investment in photography, the more you spend the better quality, generally speaking, the unit is. But it’s always down to the pilot as to whether you get the best possible photos from the drone.

If you’re brand new to drone photography, unless you’ve got the expendable income, don’t splash out on a top-end one just yet. Purchase a small. entry-level unit until you know it’s something you want to take seriously.

Man operating a drone with remote control. Dark silhouette against colorful sunset. Soft focus.

Attaching a Camera to a Drone

Depending upon the drone you buy you may need to consider attaching a camera to it to take the photos. Not all drones have a camera built-in to them already.

The drones that have built-in cameras may not produce as higher quality of the image as your separate camera unit BUT with it being inside the unit it does have an added level of protection if something goes wrong.

The issues with attaching a camera to a drone are;

  1. The added weight
  2. The manoeuvrability
  3. The cost of an accident

 

A DSLR and lens, even a cheap one, add 1.5-2lbs of weight hanging off the bottom of your drone. Check your drone to see how much it can carry. Attaching a mirrorless camera, which typically is lighter, maybe a better idea.

Whenever you add weight directly underneath a dangling object the centre of gravity becomes heavier and makes moving the drone a little more sluggish at low speed and harder to control at high speed. It takes a lot of practice and time to get used to the responsiveness of the drone with the camera underneath.

Imagine if your drone crashes or gets lost – how much will it cost you to replace that whole kit? While I hope the worst never happens you do need to consider getting appropriate insurance that covers any accident or loss of your drone, camera and lens.

But there are benefits though to attaching a camera to a drone – the image quality is heightened. You’ll be able to shoot video based on your camera’s settings (1080 HD or 4K) as well as take photos in RAW too.

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Drone, octocopter, copter
Image: An octocopter with a DSLR camera attached underneath on a gimbal.

Other Drone Equipment You’ll Need

Gimbal

A gimbal is a frame which is suspended underneath the drone which your camera fits into. They absorb a lot of the shakes and shudders you may experience while flying the drone to create a smooth video or camera shake free photos. Setting the camera at a slightly faster shutter speed is helpful to combat this in the first place.

A Viewing Screen

You may have seen other drone photographers wear googles when flying drones – that’s because there is a screen built inside to help them block out the world and concentrate on what the drone camera is seeing to make flying, and taking photos easier – it’s the same as ‘grounded photographers’ looking through the viewfinder and closing the other eye.

If you don’t want to splash out on this premium alternative then make sure you purchase a drone that has a viewing screen attached to the remote control to help you locate where the drone is and what it’s seeing.

Batteries

Drones are small units and therefore the battery is small and small batteries don’t last long. While they’ve got better in recent years a drone battery won’t last much longer than 25 minutes so having a back up to replace it with is useful when you’re out for a long period of time.

Man playing with the drone. Silhouette against the sunset sky over the city.

Do I Need a License to Fly a Drone?

A license is probably the most important purchase after you’ve got your drone. In the UK and USA, you must be registered before flying most drones.

In the UK for example, if your drone has a camera and weighs more than 250g, you’ll need a flyer ID and an operator ID. You’ll be required to sit a theory test to get your ID. It’s against the law to fly a drone without the necessary ID. Don’t let unlicensed friends or family fly the drone, as like the owner of a car, you’re responsible for its use.

In the UK CAA (Civil Aviation Authority) has tightened its regulations. Watch out for crowds, respect others’ privacy, and make sure you know where you can and cannot legally fly.

If you’re in the USA, everything you need to know about the laws of flying drones can be found on the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) website.

Check the rules and regulations where you live before flying your drone outdoors.

How to Register Your Drone

In the USA, if you wish to fly a drone whose total weight exceeds 0.55 pounds you’ll need to have the drone registered. It’s easy and cheap to do, but gives you peace of mind you’re doing it legally. If you don’t register your drone, and caught out, you could be heavily fined (like $20K+)!

When registered, you’ll be give a unique ID number which you’ll need to write on the drone somewhere to identify it (and the owner) in case it gets lost. If you sell the drone make sure you change the name of ownership, or cancel the registration and let the new owner know.

In the US, some state laws about using drones supersede federal laws. It’s down to you to know the rules wherever you’re flying to ensure you’re within the law.

aerial view from drone to old castle in foggy morning in France

What is the Best Drone for Photography?

Beginner drones don’t need to cost the earth. Most entry-level drones will have a camera built-in with a fixed lens. Check if your drone is suitable for indoor or outdoor flying (as some small drones can be too light to and underpowered when flying in even light winds. These more basic drones may limit you to shooting in automatic mode where you’ll have less control over the final photo.

But if you want to spend a little more and get a drone with an integrated gimbal and camera with better-looking photos then check out DJI-made drones.

And if you want to attach your own mirrorless camera or a small DSLR, then search for something called an octocopter. An octocopter is a drone frame with eight propellers and retractable legs with the strength and power to carry your camera around comfortably.

Best Beginner Drones

Best Intermediate Drones

Best Advanced Drones

  • Zenmuse X3
  • Zenmuse X5
  • DJI Spreading Wings S1000+
drone quadcopter with digital camera flying at sunset

3 Tips for Becoming a Good Drone Photography Pilot

Learn the Controls

The first thing to do is practise and stay within the laws when doing so. Spend time in your garden or local park taking off with the drone, making small circuits and learning what all the buttons on your remote control do.

Practise changing the pitch (lateral axis), roll (longitude axis) and yaw (vertical axis) and get used to the responsiveness of the drone, how fast it goes and how long the batteries last.

 

No Fly Zones

Find out if there are any no-fly zones near where you’re flying your drone. DJI for example a no-fly database which you can check prior to any flight. Handily, DJI uses the database to automatically prevent its own drones from entering a no-fly zone. This only applies to DJI-made drones though.

  • Fly below 400 feet above ground level.
  • Don’t fly within three miles of an airport or a landing strip.
  • Keep your drone within the pilot’s sight at any given time.
  • Keep the drone away from wildlife, buildings, and pedestrians.
 

Fly in the Best Conditions

No matter how much you spend on a drone they all have smaller sensors than traditional DSLRs with fewer megapixels. This means that they aren’t great at capturing a wide dynamic range and sometimes the detail of distant objects isn’t perfect.

But that’s not what drones are best for – they’re great for landscapes. So just like an earth-bound photographer pay attention to where the light falls and navigate the drone into the right position and height. The eye-catching perspectives that come with shooting from a distance tend to make up the shortfall in image quality.

It’s best to fly in good weather. Getting out the drone in cloudy conditions and fog means you’re going to find it hard to navigate and capture dramatic lighting.

Young hipster man with flying drone. Sunny green nature.

How to Use the Camera on a Drone

If you’re using a drone with a built-in camera, chances are it’ll have a zoom option – avoid it! The reason why is that micro-vibrations caused by the drone’s spinning propellers will cause the camera to be in a constant shake (if there’s no gimbal to absorb it that is).

This is the same as using a slower shutter speed and shooting handheld down on earth. You’ll only end up with blurry photos. Always keep your focal length as wide as possible. There are 3 main types of shots or video you can try out with your drone to get great content.

 

The Follow Shot

Use the drone to follow alongside (but not too close) to a moving subject. Think of a car driving down the road, a cyclist, a bird in flight – that’s a follow shot.

 

The Orbital Shot

An orbiting shot requires a subject in a fixed position and the drone camera simple orbits around it, like the Moon around the Earth. This is great for filming statues, buildings and is used a lot by creative wedding photographers and videographers.

 

The Overview Shot

The typical drone shot is known as the overview. This establishes a location and gives the viewer an introduction to the scene by flying over the top. You’ve no doubt see lots of footage very similar where drones fly through forests and over beaches.

Taking care of the Crop. Aerial view of a Tractor fertilizing a cultivated agricultural field.

Pre-Flight Drone Checklist

Before you take-off do a few last minute checks to make sure everything is in order…

  • Are you flying over the private or public domain? Do you have permission for where you’re flying if needed?
  • How strong are the winds? Will your drone cope?
  • What potential obstacles are there high up? Buildings, pylons, high-voltage wires etc.
  • Are there people near where you’re flying? What is the chance of a collision?
  • Have you charged up all your batteries? How long can you stay in the air?
  • Set the camera based on the normal exposure you’d need when shooting on the ground. Not all cameras will allow you to change settings though.
  • Is there a memory card in the camera?
  • Are your propellers looking straight and damage-free?
  • Are the motors rotating freely? Any odd sounds?
  • If you’re using a smartphone or remote control to navigate your drone – Is it responding to your drone and is it fully charged?
  • Hover at 15ft for 15 seconds to check the drone’s behaviour is normal.
  • Check all controls respond as expected.
drone quadcopter with digital camera

Drone Photography Tips & Ideas

Shooting Down: One of the most popular drone techniques is to shoot straight down. While you can use drone photography to achieve new perspectives on what’s happening on the ground, like over beach, rugby pitch or a stretch of motorway, shooting straight down over the landscape can result in powerful photographs.

Remember the Basics: It’s easy to forget the fundamentals of photography when you’re having fun flying, but they all still apply to the world of drones. Apply the teachings of leading lines and rules of thirds to help you position your drone’s camera.

Symmetry and Patterns: Keep on the lookout for interesting scenes of colours, shapes, and repetition. They form some of the most iconic drone photos.

Road in autumn scenery - aerial shot

Drone Photography: Final Words

Remember to enjoy the world of drone photography and bring innovative and exciting perspectives to your audience that they’ve never seen before – but remember to do it safely and legally.

There is a greater responsibility when using a drone that requires permits and common sense as well as all photography knowledge. Stay within the rules and have fun!

Bookmark and save this article about drone photography so you can find it again in the future. If you’ve got any other questions about photography chances are you’ll find the answers in our other articles and tutorials below.

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