July 13, 2016

Taking Drone Photography To A Professional Level

Words + Photos : Chad Copeland

I’m a big believer that aerial photography will continue to grow into future. The use of small robots to capture scenes that were previously unattainable is evolving. In 2016, we still are very limited by flight times, over regulation and aircraft design. Having used drones for National Geographic, the BBC, Microsoft and countless other clients, I’ve watched the industry grow rapidly and the machines get smaller, cheaper, and easier to use.

Being on the forefront of drones carrying cameras, I appreciate that these intricate machines are becoming more accessible, easier to use, and affordable for the everyday enthusiast. When shooting cinema grade work I rely on the FreeFly Systems Alta 6/8. Outside of that the DJI Inspire and the DJI Phantom 4 are great solutions.

Whether using my DSLR or Moment, here is my best advice on capturing stunning aerial shots.

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Plan Your Shoot

This may seem obvious, but often gets missed. Aerial photography is highly dependent on weather, which means it requires forethought in planning where and when you shoot.

Cold weather especially affects the batteries and severely reduces fly times. It is actually very dangerous to take off with cold batteries because they become unpredictable, potentially even preventing a departure. I will often place them under my jacket, directly against my skin, to warm them up enough. After that, the flow of energy will normally warm the flight pack up enough to sustain flight.

My personal motto is “train how you operate and operate how you train”. It means flying in the exact configuration that I plan to fly on the assignment because you really never know what can happen. Ordering equipment can have long lead times. Power resources may be hard to find and batteries may drain sooner than you expect due to the effects of temperature and altitude. So whether you’re shooting in your backyard, another city, or another country, plan, train and design the shoot in advance.

If you’ve never flown a drone before, pick a wide open space and practice. The DJI Phantom 4 is the perfect beginner model and only costs around $1399.

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Use A Wide Lens

Aerial photography can provide stunning context to a scene, which is why I prefer to fly with a wide lens. I focus to infinity because anything beyond 15 feet is generally infinity, and when you are in the sky, your subject is normally at least 15 feet away. If you do have to use a long lens then you will need a “FIZ” (Focus, Iris and Zoom) system in order to control the settings.

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Playing With Composition

Shooting with a drone requires you to operate within a three dimensional space, aligning camera and miniature plane together in a poetic way. When trying to frame the shot I think a lot about context, especially what is the foreground and background.

I also believe that a great visual story can’t be told if you’re not paying attention to the edges. Avoiding lone branches dangling into the shot or a tree growing out of someone’s head are important elements to watch for. In the case of the drone photographer, the pilot’s eye remains just as important to the composition as other types of photography.

I recently went to Iceland with only a drone and my Moment lens kit. Flying inside a massive glacial cave, I put the Wide Lens on my iPhone and mounted it to the gimbal. Due to the limitation of space, aerial maneuvers are limiting. However, I was able to create a beautiful aerial slider move that took the viewer seamlessly through the mile long cave without interruption.

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Altering Approach Speed

A long fly-away with a strong swooping motion up not only creates a visually dynamic move, but also allows you to reveal the topography of your surroundings. We’re all looking for that great establishing shot and this is one way to do it. Fly in a way that the viewer doesn’t realize it’s a drone. At least not at first.

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Avoiding Prop Shadow

For video, angle the camera down and get closer to your subject. You can also move the drone left or right so that it’s looking at the target from a different angle, and therefore changing the sun-angle.

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Understand Regulations

Less exciting creatively, but crucial to being successful as a drone photographer, is knowing and meeting the FAA requirements. You never want to be someone on a commercial airliner that was on take off, but someone fails to observe FAA guidance and puts a drone in front of your aircraft. Don’t be that person. Fly responsibly in the NAS and around people.

International assignments are even more challenging due to logistics, access through permitting, and foreign governments. For instance, operating in China you are limited to a certain number of “watt hours” when flying in commercial aircraft, which means you can only bring one or two flight battery packs.

Finally, respect wildlife and all natural environments. This rock we live on is pretty cool and requires our respect if we want to help maintain its wild beauty.

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