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A Complete Guide to Aerial Photography

A complete guide to mastering aerial photography

It’s incredible how quickly the technology, ease of use, and availability of affordable consumer/prosumer level drones for aerial photography has advanced. Just a few years ago the best drone on the market could only fly for about 15 minutes at a range of maybe a half-mile, and now even the most basic drone has specs that exceed that. The portability of drones is probably the most impressive way they have advanced in the past couple of years. The Phantom series basically required you to take it as a carry-on, so it was very inconvenient to travel with, now, there are several drones that easily fit in a backpack making it one of my travel essentials.

What is the Best Aerial Photography Drone for me?

There are so many options available now that choosing the right drone for aerial photography can be a tough task. I’ve broken down my favorites by experience level, size, and budget.

Best Drones for Beginners

Choosing the best beginner drone for aerial photography

If you are in the market for your first drone, you probably don’t want to spend a ton of money, and it won’t have to be the top of the line. You’re probably looking for the easiest drone to fly, and luckily they are all pretty intuitive once you get it off the ground. I would classify the following three drones as beginners drones thanks to their price point, size, and ease of use. You’ll quickly see that DJI has a tight hold on the drone market. Every drone I have owned except for one, the GoPro Karma, which was recalled shortly after I bought it, has been a DJI drone. When you buy a DJI drone for aerial photography you can be certain you are getting a well-built, high-quality product from their entry-level Spark all the way up to the professional drone, the Inspire 2.

Best Mini Drone with a Camera: DJI Spark

DJI’s entry-level beginner drone with a camera is the Spark. It’s tiny, weighing only 300 grams and with a size of about 5.5 in x 5.5 in you could easily fit this in any purse, backpack, or even most pockets. Despite the small size it still has a great 12-megapixel camera that is capable of shooting Full HD video and high-quality still images. If you are unsure of whether aerial photography is something you want to get in to, or if you have a tight budget the Spark may be for you. You can find the Spark on Amazon for less than $500 and even less at target! Unfortunately, it seems DJI may no longer be producing Spark’s, but that’s ok because after you get the hang of flying it you’ll want a better one anyway!

The Parrot Anafi

Like DJI, Parrot has been around since the beginning of the drone-boom. They haven’t advanced at the same pace, and definitely aren’t nearly as big as DJI, but it seems they have a few really great beginner drones. Slightly more expensive than the DJI Spark at just under $700, the Parrot Anafi ups the ante with its camera. It’s still very compact at only 330 grams and its foldable design makes it simple to take with you, but the most impressive part to me is the 4K video and 2.8X lossless zoom making it a competitor to DJI’s mid-level Mavic 2 Zoom.

Yuneec Mantis Q

The amount of features they packed into this tiny foldable drone for under $500 is mind-boggling. Slightly larger than the Spark and Anafi at 479 grams it’s still very much a conveniently packable drone. At the low price point, you still get 4K video, 13 megapixel still images, and intelligent flight modes. I don’t know anything about the reliability of Yuneec Drones, but their website says it has a range of about 1500 m its similar to that of the DJI Spark.

Best Drones for Travel Aerial Photography

Like I said above my drone is now on my list of travel essentials even if there is a chance I don’t use it because I’d rather have it and not need it then find an epic spot and wish I had packed it. Because of the portability of drones today, travel aerial photography has become very popular to the point where you have to pay attention to signs when you travel as a lot of popular spots have become “No Drone Zones”. The following drones are perfect for travel aerial photography because they are lightweight, fold into a small size to easily fit in any backpack, and have very high-quality cameras producing 4K video and super sharp still images.

Best Drone for Travel Aerial Photography: DJI Mavic 2 Pro

The best consumer drone currently on the market for aerial photography is the DJI Mavic 2 Pro. This is the drone that I use for all my drone shots on Instagram and in my vlogs on YouTube. It’s slightly larger than the original Mavic Pro, but the jump in image quality and performance makes up for that small jump in size. It also has a sensor that is more than double the size of the original Mavic Pro giving boosts in dynamic range, sharpness, and overall image quality. With a flight time of over 30 minutes, a range of 8km, Omni-directional obstacle avoidance, if you’re willing to spend the money, this is the best drone for filming travel videos, the best aerial photography drone, and one of the easiest drones to fly that also happens to be packable and costs less than $1500.

Most Compact Drone for Travel Aerial Photography: DJI Mavic Air

The best compact drone for travel aerial photography is the mavic air

The Mavic Air is a little larger than the Spark, but the enhanced video capabilities make it worth the extra size and a couple hundred dollars. The Mavic Air can record Full HD video up to 120 frames per second (My Canon 5D can’t even do that). The Mavic Air also has a range of about 4km and flight time of over 20 minutes. The price point of the Mavic Air is perfect for someone who wants the ability to capture 4K video, slow motion video, and high-quality still images without breaking the bank. You can get the DJI Mavic Air for less than $750 right now!

DJI Mavic 2 Zoom

The DJI Mavic 2 Zoom is more of an upgrade to the original Mavic Pro, which you can get for right around $800 right now! It retains the smaller footprint than the Mavic 2 Pro, but also the smaller sensor. I haven’t had a chance to fly one of the Mavic 2 Zooms yet, but I’d imagine having the ability to zoom up to 2x would come in handy in certain travel situations, like when the area you want a photo of is a no-drone zone, you can still get a great photo of the place with the zoom version of the Mavic 2. The Mavic 2 Zoom’s price point lies in between the Mavic Air and Mavic 2 Pro at about $1200.

Professional Drone for Aerial Photography

DJI Inspire 2 is the Standard in Professional Drone Photography

Once you get into the level of professional drones for aerial photography, you’re talking about dropping some serious cash and losing all chances at portability. Most professional-level drones are large because they have to support the fans to cool them off, the processor to process the high-quality photos and video, and be able to support the larger cameras needed to capture the quality you’d expect from a professional drone. That being said, if you can afford it, and don’t mind lugging around a heavy case then a professional drone may fit your needs.

The Best Professional Drone for Aerial Photography: DJI Inspire 2

The industry standard for professional drone video and photos is the DJI Inspire 2. With capabilities to record up to 6K raw video with 14 stops of dynamic range, the Inspire 2 Cinema Premium model is what’s used in big Hollywood productions. It also comes with the ability to switch lenses based on the shot you’re trying to get. The Inspire 2 doesn’t come cheap, kits with a camera start at $10,000 and can go upwards of $18,000 with the latest camera and lens combo. DJI also offers the Matrice 600, which is a modular Hex-Copter that you can change cameras on. But like the Inspire 2, it’s expensive and overkill for the average consumer.

Drone Accessories that you Must-Have for Aerial Photography

Essential drone accessories for aerial photography

Just like any photography hobby, aerial photography usually requires a few extra accessories to capture those breathtaking photos and videos. Below are some important accessories that you should have before getting started with drone photography.

PolarPro ND Filters

These little filters can be lifesavers. Between reflection off the water, sand, even buildings, and that fact that you are most likely going to be flying during some of the brightest times of the day having an ND filter so that you can keep the shutter speed slower is a huge help. Polar pro makes ND filters for cameras, the Mavic Pro, the Mavic 2 Pro, the Mavic Air, and the Phantom Series.

SanDisk MicroSD Cards

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve unloaded my memory card, then forgot to put it back in the drone for my next day of shots. In fact, on our recent trip to Amanyara in the Turks and Caicos, I forgot an SD card for my drone, and the spares I typically keep in my camera bag weren’t there either. Lucky for me the Mavic 2 Pro and the Mavic Air have small a small built-in storage of about 8GB, so I was still able to get some great shots with the drone. These SanDisk Extreme memory cards are my favorite.

Extra Batteries

Out of all the drones I listed above, even the one with the best battery life is at or below 30 minutes of flight time. That seems like a lot, but once you get up in the air and flying, you’ll be surprised how quickly your batteries drain. Weather also plays a factor in how quickly your batteries will die. If it’s too hot or cold, or too windy you see you battery level drain a lot faster. DJI offers “Fly More Combos” on its drones that include two extra batteries, and some other extras that let you spend more time flying and less time charging. You can find extra batteries for DJI drones here.

Extra Drone Propellers

Accidents happen, and sometimes you might break a propeller during one of your flights. It’s good to have a few spares in your bag just in case something happens. Extra propellers are included in DJI’s fly more combos, but can also be found here.

A Power Bank

This is another item that is always in my camera bag because you never know when you’re going to need it. I swear by two brands of power banks, Mophie and the power bank from my Away Suitcase. Most drones are controlled via a remote that connects to your phone, and you’d be surprised how quickly a flight taking 4K video or practicing your aerial photography will drain your phone. You don’t want to be in the middle of your flight when your phone dies, that is for sure!

Mastering Aerial Photography

Now that you have a full drone photography kit and all the accessories you need it’s time to get that drone in the air and start flying. All of the same principles of photography will apply in the air, and most likely you’ll notice that the camera on the drone is much less forgiving than your DSLR if your settings are off due to the smaller sensor size.

Beginners’ Drone Photography Tips

The angle of the gimbal makes a huge difference on how impactful the shot is. The image on the right is one of my favorites because you get the pop of color from the people on the beach it just feels like I was there, where the image on the left doesn’t provoke the same feelings for me.

Everyone is chasing those super cinematic photos and videos, especially in aerial photography. Following these tips will help you get more of those beautiful, cinematic drone photography shots that you are craving.

In order to get the best shots with your drone, there are a few important things to remember.

  1. Make Sure You Shoot RAW: This is the first thing you should change before the drone even leaves the ground. Shooting RAW saves much larger photo files, but that is because it saves all of the information, giving you the freedom to edit colors, exposure, and tones more freely in Lightroom.
  2. Light and the Direction it is coming from. Photography is just playing with light, so this is the most important thing to take into consideration when trying to get beautiful photos. The direction of the light is also important because it causes shadows to be cast, which adds drama to your photos.
  3. Time of day: Just like in regular photography the best time of day to shoot is first thing in the morning about 30 minutes before and after sunrise, and at sunset from about 45 minutes before and after sunset. During these times the light is softest and gives the best shadows. If you have to shoot in the middle of the day, use those PolarPro ND filters you bought to help cut out some of that harsh light.
  4. Think About Composition: A photo of the coastline will be much more impactful if there is an element that gives scale to the scene like a boat or a person on the beach. The angle at which you shoot also makes a difference in how the image turns out. If you think about it you have full ability to change your perspective on a place without moving, so use this to your advantage and find interesting patterns or different compositions that showcase a place in a way no one has seen it before.

Tips for Cinematic Drone Photography

Finding patterns makes for more interesting shots
  1. Plan Ahead: I can’t stress this one enough. Do your research to find the spots and angles that give the most cinematic feel. It might take a little trial and error, but if you do the research ahead of time you’ll spend less time aimlessly flying around and more time getting the shot. Google Earth can be very helpful for finding and planning shots.
  2. Shoot at 1/50 or 1/120: Especially if you’re shooting video. When shooting video you always want your shutter speed to be double the framerate. Since the standard framerate is 24 fps, you’ll want to shoot at a shutter speed of 1/50. This can also be true for aerial photography if you’re taking a photo of a coastline with large waves crashing it may be more impactful to have some motion blur as the waves wash ashore.
  3. Use patterns and lines to lead your eyes to the subject: As I mentioned above in the section about composition you have the advantage of a completely different point of view than from the ground, use it to your advantage. When you’re doing your research ahead of time, or while you’re starting your flight look for symmetry, patterns, and leading lines that you can use to your advantage.
  4. Take Panoramic shots: Most of the drones above have “intelligent flight modes” that will automatically fly a path for you, but they also have auto-pano modes that will take usually 3 photos automatically then stitch them together. I prefer to do this manually taking 6 or 9 photos then using Photoshop to automatically merge them together. This gives you way more pixels to work with meaning sharper higher definition aerial photos. One thing to note is file sizes can get very large quickly, so make sure you have a good external hard-drive like this LaCie 4TB.

Using Intelligent Flight Modes for Aerial Photography

This is a perfect example of taking 4-6 individual photos and combining them to make a vertical panoramic image using photoshop

Almost all of the drones I mentioned above have several different intelligent flight modes for aerial photography and videography. These automatically set your drone to fly a specific pattern without the worry of controlling it. I haven’t used all of them, but some of the most useful intelligent flight modes are:

  • Follow Me Mode – You select yourself, or an object you’d like to follow and the drone tracks it. This is very useful for some cinematic drone photography shots of someone running, a car driving down a road, or someone on a skateboard or bike.
  • Orbit Mode – This shot is useful to give perspective. You hover over a point then choose a radius you’d like to orbit and the speed, the drone does the rest. Another way to use this mode is to create a timelapse by setting the photo mode to “timed shot” and select the interval you’d like to take photos at.
  • Auto Exposure Bracketing – While this isn’t exactly an intelligent flight mode, but a photo mode that will take 3 or 5 photos consecutively at underexposed, properly exposed, and overexposed sets which you can then combine in photoshop or lightroom to create an HDR image that helps save the highlights and shadows if you’re shooting in a high contrast area.

Bonus Tip: Use Your Drone for Filming Smooth Footage on the Ground

Nearly all of my recommended drones have a gimbal system on the camera for smooth footage. If you’re in a bind and need some smooth video footage on the ground you can always use your drone. The gimbal will make the motion smoother than just a handheld DSLR! PolarPro actually makes a product that you strap your drone to with two handles so you can use it for stabilized video on the ground called the Katana.

Start Practicing Aerial Photography

Creative aerial photography. The best tips and tricks to start taking better photos with your drone today! Whether you are just getting started with aerial photography, or looking for tips to improve your drone photography, this guide has it. Learn what drone is the best one for you to buy, what extra drone accessories you should have to improve your aerial photography, and tips and tricks to take better drone photos.
Don’t forget to get creative and have fun with it! A drone is just another tool to fuel your creativity!

The only way to improve is to get out and practice! I hope my aerial photography gear recommendations and my drone photography tips will help you choose a new drone, or improve your aerial photography and videography skills. Another great resource for learning about photography and drone photography is Skillshare. Sign up today to get two months of unlimited lessons for free!

If my tips helped you tag me in your drone photos on Instagram @passports2life! I’d love to see them! Please share this post with any of your friends that are interested in drones and aerial photography it may be exactly what they need!

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Whether you are just getting started with aerial photography, or looking for tips to improve your drone photography, this guide has it. Learn what drone is the best one for you to buy, what extra drone accessories you should have to improve your aerial photography, and tips and tricks to take better drone photos.

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