May 01, 2017

5 Steps to Shooting Cinematic Drone Footage

Words + Videos : Zach Reed

It’s easy to buy a drone. It’s obviously harder to shoot amazing videos with it. After all, you’re trying to control a camera that is somehow stabilized in the sky by little propellers… What?

It takes a lot of practice, a few crashes, and some solid advice to learn how to capture visually compelling drone footage. I’ve been flying drones for over a year, and I can tell you it takes a while to perfect complex movements, find the right settings, and figure out a style that suits you.

For those just getting started with drones, or those who want to take their videos to the next level, here are my five tips for creating captivating drone videos:




#1 - Somewhere Scenic

Your first ingredient in an epic drone video is always the location. Go somewhere you know will look amazing from the sky. Google Maps can be your friend here. Scope out your location in advance, and be sure you can legally fly there. Peep the FAA guidelines on small UAVs here. Even if you’ve been to a certain location several times before, the aerial view will be a completely new perspective. Your backyard even might look pretty cool -- though it probably won’t set the scene for anything super epic.



#2 - Turn Everything Down

Out of the box, your drone will be set to factory photo and video settings. So the first thing you should do is adjust your video settings to the most neutral picture style there is. Drones like the DJI Phantom 4 will allow you to select from several options and even customize the specific settings to your liking. My suggestion is to turn your sharpening all the way down -- the lowest it can go. Over-sharpened footage looks horrible, and there’s really no fixing that in post. However, it’s easy to add a little sharpening back into your footage afterwards. I also recommend reducing contrast and saturation to negative two or about 50% below zero. Reducing the intensity of these settings will give you a more flat looking image, which is then easier to color grade later. And even if you don’t like to color grade, it’s rather easy to throw on a quick filter and call it good enough. Overall, this is the way to go for a vivid and dynamic image.



#3 - Subtle and Slow Movements

When you first start flying, you’ll want to shoot everything, so it can be hard to focus on one thing at a time. But moving your drone around from side to side and shooting for only a second or two in each spot will leave you with very little usable footage in the end. So it’s best to focus on one shot at a time and try to shoot that shot for 6-8 seconds, at least, so you know you have a solid 4-5 second clip you can edit down.

In addition, try to focus on micro movements and slow, steady shots. For instance, if you’re flying forward while panning the camera down to reveal something below, take it slow. Pan the camera in a slow motion and be as smooth as you can with the controls. Even though the camera is on a gimbal, little bumps or inconsistencies in speed are noticeable in the footage. On most drones, the camera tilt speed can be adjusted pretty easily. I like to have mine at about half of the factory speed for more cinematic shots. The speed of your movements can also communicate the mood of the video, so keep that in mind when you’re flying.



#4 - Don’t Get Too High

The most common mistake you’ll see novice drone flyers make is wanting to fly as high as possible. First off, there is an FAA law that dictates how high you are legally allowed to fly which is 500ft. Secondly, when you get too high in the air, everything actually looks less interesting because you’re losing perspective and angle. I find that my favorite shoots are actually below 200ft in most cases, and I like to fly really low (less than 100ft) often to capture shots through trees, or over water. It really depends on your location, but I would highly recommend keeping your drone a little closer to earth if you want to capture shots that are truly dynamic.



#5 - Keep it Short

People have really short attention spans. There’s endless content out there, so if you want people to watch your videos, keep them short. I tend to keep my drone videos around 1min or less. This works great for sharing them on Instagram and Facebook anyway. Keeping your videos short also challenges you to only use your best footage.




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