Aerial Drone Photography: Capturing The View From Above

Photography and Text by Chuck Place

All the world seems to have gone drone crazy, and for a very good reason. The camera viewpoint is totally unique and gives you access to locations you can’t reach by foot. They can fly lower than a helicopter, are not as disruptive and they cost little to shoot.

Is photography with a drone the same as shooting with a DSLR? Well, yes and no.

First, let’s talk about safety. Essentially you are flying a four-bladed weed whacker. That needs to remain in the front of your mind at all times. Drones can, and do, fall out of the sky unexpectedly for a whole variety of reasons. Check out https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h8_9F6J7qw8 for a fairly complete lists of safety procedures. Ignore her voice. It’s pretty annoying.

Aerial drone photography of foggy sunrise

Aerial drone photography of foggy sunrise in the Santa Ynez Valley. Camera altitude 105 feet.

Creating aerial photographs with a drone is similar to shooting with a DSLR, but you must pre-visualize the image from different heights, and that adds a whole new layer of complexity to the process. 400 feet is the maximum legal altitude for a drone and you’ll find the world looks quite different from that vantage point. Although the monitor on your controller displays what the camera is seeing, these are usually small screens and some times difficult to view in sunlight.

Time of day, light direction and composition all interact the way they do during a ground-based photo shoot, but you add the variable of camera height, which changes everything. Over time, I have found that my images fall into three altitude brackets. Sky High spans 300-400 feet, Way Up covers 100-300 feet and Tall Photographer falls between 30-100 feet.

Aerial drone photography of wildflower super bloom near Soda Lake, Carrizo Plain

Aerial drone photography of wildflower super bloom near Soda Lake, Carrizo Plain. Camera altitude 60 feet.

The Tall Photographer altitude is the most intimate, and my personal favorite, while Sky High often produces unexpected results.

The scale of your subjects will also have a big impact on this altitude decision. Most drone cameras can’t be pointed above the horizontal position, making altitude critical when shooting in the mountains or in cities. Capturing the tops of mountains or skyscrapers turns out to be a matter of distance from the subject. If you are working too close, 400 feet of altitude doesn’t really make much difference and you may have to go topples.

Aerial drone photography of Soda Lake watershed in Carrizo Plain

Aerial drone photography of Soda Lake watershed in Carrizo Plain. Camera altitude 300 feet.

The shooting angle also impacts the composition. Again, flatter angles tend to show us what we expect to see while a steeper or more vertical angle tends to capture patterns that were not so apparent at ground level.

This is one of the exciting aspects of aerial photography, creating images that are impossible from the ground.

Light direction works pretty much the same way it does at ground level, with the exception of backlighting. Most entry level and mid-range drone cameras are built with a wide-angle lens. There is no lens shade, which might cause flight issues, so lens flair is a constant issue when shooting any kind of back lit situation. If the sun is high in the sky, dropping the camera angle can sometimes eliminate this problem, but that isn’t always an option.

Aerial drone photograph with flair

Aerial drone photograph with flair. Camera altitude 120 feet.

It took a while, but I have learned to embrace flair.

For a professional photographer, that’s a soul-searing adjustment, but I have found that some of my favorite drone images have rays of sunlight poking in from the edges. Too much flair can still ruin an image, but just the right amount can actually improve it.

 

This just scratches the surface of drone photography and in future posts we will discuss drone technology in greater depth, the care and maintenance of a drone, safety issues and flight rules and, of course, more photo tips and techniques.

Give yourself a few months to get comfortable flying your drone safely, especially in windy conditions. Try to pre-visualize what your subject will look like from several different altitudes and above all, enjoy the view but don’t abuse the freedom a drone provides. Have fun and fly safely.

 

All images in this post were produced with either a DJI Phantom 4 drone or a DJI Phantom 4 Pro. To view more images, drop by my portfolio site at https://www.chuckplacephotography.com/Still-Portfolios/Aerials/thumbs and sign up to see new work on my Instagram feed at https://www.instagram.com/chuckplace/.