(Last updated on July 8th, 2022)
There are many different types of photography – not all of which use a traditional camera. If you are looking for something different and unique, you may be interested in drone photography. Drone photography involves piloting a small drone equipped with a camera and taking interesting aerial photos.
If this sounds appealing, I have created an essential beginners guide for your benefit. In this guide, we look at how to choose a drone for photography, piloting considerations, and a host of useful tips for flying and for composition.
- Choosing the Right Drone for Photography
- Considerations for Piloting the Drone
- Drone Photography Composition and Tips
- 1. Drone Photography Gives You a Unique Perspective
- 2. Look for Patterns and Symmetry
- 3. Look for the Contrast Between Nature and Man-Made Objects
- 4. Use Drone Photography to Show Subjects in a Different Way
- 5. Configure the Camera Settings Beforehand
- 6. Always Carry Multiple Spare Batteries
- 7. Get Comfortable Flying Your Drone First
- 8. Pre-scout Locations Beforehand
- 9. Always Check the Weather Forecast
- 10. Always Shoot in RAW Mode
- 11. Look After Your Drone and Maintain It
- Drone Photography Photo Editing
- Frequently Asked Questions
Before we even look at taking photos and composition, we must first understand what makes a suitable drone for photography. There are many different types of drones, and some are not suitable for photography. Below, I have listed the main features to look at when choosing a drone.
One of the first considerations is the battery life of a drone. Drones typically use lithium-ion batteries. Although the technology continues to improve, a typical drone’s battery life is between 15-40 minutes. As you can imagine, this doesn’t give you much time to take photos.
Therefore, I would always advise purchasing a drone with a superior battery life. The longer the battery life, the more productive you can be. As you will see below in the article, I also advise buying multiple spare batteries to extend your overall flight time too.
The transmission range is related to how far you can control the drone. You control a drone using a remote – this typically works via WiFi or Infrared.
Each remote control and drone has a maximum distance where the transmission still works. If you exceed this distance, you will lose control of the drone and it will be unresponsive.
Today, drone technology has improved greatly and most drones have an impressive transmission distance. For example, the DJI Mavic Air 2 has a transmission range of 6.2 miles / 10km. This means you can fly it over long distances and still maintain full control.
As a result, I advise looking for a drone that has a sufficient transmission range for the types of photos you want to take.
There are two types of drone remote control.
The most common is a remote control that you use in-conjunction with your smartphone. You slot your mobile into the remote and get a live feed from the drone’s camera on your smartphone. These remotes are typically cheaper.
Alternatively, there are remote controls that include a display screen. These are usually more robust and included with more expensive photography drones.
Also, look at the flight capabilities of the remote. Does it have any special features such as subject tracking, auto-return, and auto-land? Features like these make the drone far easier to pilot and handle.
The quality of the camera is also highly important. You should look at the sensor size and resolution of the camera. Ideally, you want a sensor that can shoot photos at a 20MP or higher resolution.
It is also important to note that generally, drone cameras do not offer the same flexibility in terms of lenses, control, and usability as DSLR or mirrorless cameras.
Key Drone Features to Look for:
To make the above sections easier to understand, I have created a short summary list that shows the main drone features you should look out for:
- Battery life / flight time
- Transmission range
- Availability of a live video feed
- Remote control type (built-in screen or smartphone)
- Camera resolution
- Automatic landing when low battery
- Automatic return to remote feature
- Subject tracking flight features
- The ability to mount different cameras
Once you have chosen the best drone for photography, there are still other considerations to make. Owning a drone is one thing. Flying the drone safely and legally is something completely different. Below, I have outlined the main considerations you must make for piloting your drone.
I cannot stress the importance of understanding drone regulations enough. Drones allow you to access places that you previously wouldn’t be able to. Also, there is the risk of invading people’s privacy, and potentially causing property damage.
As a result, most countries have strict drone regulations. For example, in the US, if your drone weighs over 250g, it must be registered with the FAA. Also, many countries have a series of drone rules and etiquette. This usually includes restricted areas where you cannot fly and guidelines for public places.
Make sure that you are fully aware of the drone requirements and regulations in your country.
Regardless of regulations, you must always be considerate of others when piloting your drone.
Drones are quite noisy – they essentially sound like a swarm of bees or hornets! This noise can be disturbing, and unnerving for people. Also, there are obvious safety concerns. No one wants a drone landed on their head or through their window!
Whenever you fly your drone, think of the impact it has on others. Are you respecting people’s privacy? Could the drone cause any potential safety risks? Depending on the answer, it may be respectful that you choose a different flying location.
Aside from public safety, you must also consider the safety of your drone. Unlike a handheld camera, there is a much greater risk of damaging a drone or even destroying it completely.
This is why as you see below, I advise never flying your drone in adverse weather conditions and always pre-scouting locations for potential collision hazards.
Now that you know how to choose a drone for photography, we can delve into compositional and flying tips. Drone photography is more involved than traditional photography as you have to consider piloting skills together with compositional skills.
1. Drone Photography Gives You a Unique Perspective
The best tip I can give for drone photography is to embrace its uniqueness. Drone photography truly opens your eyes to our world. You see it from a completely new perspective – it’s liberating and it opens up a whole new area of creative possibilities.
2. Look for Patterns and Symmetry
Drone photography lets us see patterns and symmetry on a truly epic scale. These patterns are often unrecognizable from the ground and it’s not until we soar into the sky that we can see them.
As you pilot your drone, you will see some truly amazing patterns both natural and man-made. You can use this unique symmetry to create superb and eye-catching drone photography.
In the example below, we see a huge car park in the UK. I love this photo as it has both patterns and symmetry. The symmetry comes from the diagonal roads between the cars. Additionally, the pattern is created by the hundreds of parked cars all with their similar rectangular shape.
In contrast, below we have a beautiful natural photo of a forest that also shows patterns. Here we have a brilliant mix of red and grey trees that create a stunning and colourful pattern.
3. Look for the Contrast Between Nature and Man-Made Objects
I love drone photography that creates a juxtaposition between the man-made world and nature. When you take your drone up into the air, you can quickly see the stark contrast between nature and humans. On the ground, this difference is often not as apparent.
I find it intriguing and it also creates some superb photos. This is demonstrated perfectly in the below image. Here we see a magnificent aerial photo of a verdant forest. The luscious greens of the trees look amazing.
However, dissecting this forest we see two objects. The first is a winding road, the second is a perfectly straight power line. The contrast is incredible and I love the dynamic this photo creates. On the one hand, we have a natural forest in all its glory. On the other hand, we have the creations of humans ploughing relentlessly through that nature with brutal efficiency. This is the type of image you can create using drones.
4. Use Drone Photography to Show Subjects in a Different Way
With drone photography, you have the unique chance to show subjects differently.
For example, let’s consider a house. When taking photos of a house using a DSLR, you are limited in terms of style and positioning. We typically shoot wide-angle photos of the entire house or interior photos that show the different rooms and architectural features etc.
In contrast, with a drone, you can take photos of that house from completely new angles. You could, for example, take a birds-eye photo looking down on the roof. Alternatively, you could take angled photos from a higher perspective that show the house beautifully in its surrounding location.
5. Configure the Camera Settings Beforehand
As with traditional photography, I advise configuring your camera beforehand and looking at the settings. It is important to do this so you get the best quality from your images.
Typically, I would suggest the following settings (if they can be changed):
- File format: RAW or RAW + JPEG
- White Balance: Auto
- Exposure: Auto
- Aperture: As small as possible
I explain below the purpose of shooting in RAW. White balance and exposure should generally be set to auto as you can easily correct these in photo editing software afterwards.
If you can change the exposure manually, however, I would advise doing this so that you can balance the lighting in your photos better. For aperture, as you will typically be shooting wide-angle aerial photos, a smaller aperture of f/6.3 or narrower is better as you want as much in focus as possible.
6. Always Carry Multiple Spare Batteries
Even the best drone photography models do not have unlimited battery life. Unlike DSLR and mirrorless cameras, a drone’s battery life is relatively short.
With a DSLR camera, you can easily take hundreds of photos and a single battery can last days. In contrast, it is common for a drone battery to last for a maximum flight time of 20-40 minutes. Comparatively, that does not leave much room to take a heap of photos.
Therefore, I advise having 2-3 spare batteries at all times fully charged. If possible, it is a great idea to have 4 drone batteries in total. This means that when one is depleted, you can simply land the drone, and put a new battery in. Having multiple spare batteries increases your flight time and productivity greatly.
7. Get Comfortable Flying Your Drone First
With traditional photography, you can head out with your camera even if you are still learning how to use it. It’s low-risk and there are minimum dangers. Unless you are incredibly clumsy, you aren’t likely to damage your expensive DSLR.
In contrast, I would not advise anyone to immediately take their drone out after buying it and flying it miles in the air. This is a recipe for disaster. You could easily lose control of the drone, crash it, or even potentially hurt someone.
Instead, before you think about embarking on epic drone trips, you MUST get confident piloting the drone. This is highly important. Drone photography is 75% drone piloting, and 25% photography skills. If you aren’t confident with that 75%, you won’t be able to put your photography skills to good use.
8. Pre-scout Locations Beforehand
This tip holds true for both traditional photography and drone photography. I always like to pre-scout photoshoot locations beforehand. Primarily, this allows me to spot any particularly interesting photo subjects.
However, scouting for drone photography, also allows you to spot any potential dangers. You can look for tall structures and obstacles that you may have to navigate around, for example. Also, you can find suitable spots for taking off and landing.
9. Always Check the Weather Forecast
When I go out on a traditional photography adventure with my camera, I give the weather little thought. Worst case scenario, I get a little wet, but my camera will remain safe and I can easily store it in a bag!
For drone photography, you must be cautious and check the weather forecast before heading out, however. Adverse weather can affect drones and the worst-case scenario could be that you lose control of the drone, and it crashes and is completely destroyed.
Rainstorms and high winds can be potentially devastating for drones. Although most drones can cope with some degree of wind, there is the chance that they can get blown off course and lose transmission.
Also, trying to take high-quality drone photos in poor weather is immensely difficult. This is because you have to think about the safety of the drone, while also trying to compose photos! My advice is to always check weather conditions first, and stay away from rain and wind!
10. Always Shoot in RAW Mode
Most high-quality drones like DJI and Autel EVO models allow you to take photos in RAW mode.
RAW is a type of image file format. It is an uncompressed image that retains all of the original data from the camera sensor. This means that you essentially have a blank canvas to work with. RAW images can be edited in far more detail than a compressed JPEG image, for example.
You can achieve far more impressive end results and also can easily correct things like white balance, contrast, and saturation. I would always advise taking photos in RAW mode if your drone supports it.
Alternatively, if you are new to photo editing, you could also set the camera to shoot in both RAW and JPEG modes. Some cameras allow you to do this and create both an unprocessed RAW image and a compressed JPEG image each time you take a photo.
11. Look After Your Drone and Maintain It
Like cameras and lenses, drones also require care, attention, and maintenance. If you want to make your drone last and get plenty of use out of it, you should check it after each use. Simple things you can do include:
- Immediately removing and charging the batteries
- Cleaning the chassis and blade arms of any dirt and debris
- Checking the rotor blades to make sure they are secure and undamaged
- Cleaning the camera lens
- Storing the drone properly and securely after use
This simple routine can improve the longevity of your drone. It also means that you can easily spot potential issues such as damaged rotor blades.
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I also advise investing in photo editing software if you haven’t already got a program. Using photo editing software, you can turn basic photos into masterpieces.
Also, RAW photos often look flat and dull. This is because they have had no processing unlike JPEG images. Therefore, editing RAW photos afterwards is almost always required. Using post processing software, you can make your RAW drone photos look realistic, and a true representation of what you saw.
Programs like Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Classic, Luminar AI, ON1 Photo RAW, and Affinity Photo all have excellent tools for drone photography editing. My software of choice is Lightroom Classic due to its photo managing tools and extensive editing control.
When editing drone photography, I advise looking at the following parameters:
- White balance (Often when shooting from above, the white balance can be off)
- Saturation (Use this to boost the colors in your photos)
- Highlights and shadows (Ideally these should be balanced to provide great contrast)
If the software supports it, I would also recommend using auto-correction tools to correct things like lens distortion and to remove chromatic aberration.
I hope that you now have a lust to get up into the air and see the world from a different perspective. This is what you can achieve with drone photography. It completely changes your view and teaches you an entirely new type of composition and skillset.
There is nothing quite like the thrill of piloting a drone and watching your remote screen as it soars over epic landscapes. You gain a new appreciation of our world but also get the chance to take some incredible photos.
Remember that researching drones beforehand is imperative. These are expensive items and it is vital that you choose the right one for your capabilities. You should then spend plenty of time testing the drone, understanding how it works, and gaining confidence in piloting it. Only then can you take to the skies and start to improve your drone photography skills.
Frequently Asked Questions
The best drones for photography have a great battery life, long flight time, and a high-quality camera with a large resolution sensor. Drones like the DJI Mavic 3, DJI Phantom 4, and Autel EVO II Pro are all fantastic options.
This depends on the country you are flying it in. Different countries have varying regulations and laws for piloting drones. Some countries have lax regulations, while others require a full license to fly. Also, many areas such as airports are often restricted for drone flights. Always read up on the drone regulations and laws for your country of residence!
There is no set rule for taking good drone photos. However, I advise looking for unique perspectives and different angles that you wouldn’t find from standard “on-the-ground” photography. Look for patterns, and take interesting shots that show objects from an unusual aerial perspective.
Not really. Racing drones are a completely different category and are built for speed and agility. Most racing drones do have a camera, however, this is used for FPV flying as opposed to high-quality photography and video recording.
In most instances yes. If you own the house there is no reason why you can’t. However, you must respect other people’s privacy – your neighbours, for example. Also, I would advise checking the regulations of your country of residence to see what restrictions there are for flying drones in residential areas.
This depends on what type of drone you want. If you want a basic drone for photography, you could spend anywhere between $200-500. However, for the more advanced drones with larger camera sensors like the DJI Mavic 3, you will need to spend easily over $500. For example, the DJI Mini 3 Pro costs around $750 and this is an intermediate photography drone.
Paul Skidmore is a freelance photography blogger and writer. He has a life-long passion for travel and photography that spans decades.
Paul took an interest in photography in the late 2000’s when he started solo traveling. His first camera was a Canon PowerShot SX220 HS which accompanied him to destinations like New York, Rome, and the Caribbean.
From these early adventures, Paul’s love of photography blossomed and it turned into a passion. His photographic expeditions have taken him to the corners of the globe including Antarctica, Svalbard, Thailand, Greenland, and Ushuaia.
He also has a love for literature and writing from an early age and used this together with his photography experience to become a freelance writer specializing in photography and travel.