Drone Photography–It’s All About Altitude

Text and Photography by Chuck Place

Often I am asked if composing a photograph with a drone is the same as creating an image at ground level. It is similar, of course, but being able to make large adjustments to the altitude of a camera adds a whole new dimension to the process.

Low altitude aerial of Knapps Castle at sunrise

Low altitude aerial of Knapps Castle at sunrise

When I am out shooting landscapes, I use a tripod and continually adjust the camera height from 1 foot off the ground up to about 5 feet high. Some times, adjusting the camera up or down just a few inches can have a big impact on a composition.

Low altitude aerial of lake produces better reflections

Low altitude aerial of lake produces better reflections than a higher altitude

Imagine having a tripod that can extend from ground level to 400 feet with infinite adjustments in between. For that matter, any photographer that can carry a 400 foot tripod would be equally impressive.

Welcome to the age of photo drones!

In an earlier post on drone photography, I mentioned that I shoot within three general height brackets—Sky High, Way Up and Tall Photographer—that cover every altitude from 10 feet to 400 feet. Notice I keep stopping at 400 feet above ground level. In the United States, that is the maximum allowable altitude for a drone. Manned aircraft have a minimum altitude of 500–1000 feet. Only a fool, or someone who gives little thought to the safety of others, flies a drone higher than 400 feet above ground level.

Because most entry-level and prosumer drones have built in wide angle lenses, at low altitude, near objects appear larger than the same objects farther away and assume more visual importance, just as if you were shooting at ground level.

Low altitude aerial of windmill and vineyard

Low altitude aerial of windmill and vineyard produces the same wide angle lens effect as at ground level

As your drone climbs higher, everything is at a distance and appears proportional to their actual sizes. Buildings and roads may be revealed that were not visible from ground level. Patterns as well. The monitor on your controller will show you what the drone’s camera actually sees, but the screen is small and the image is not easy to view in strong sunlight. Just like ground-level photography, pre-visualization is critical.

High altitude aerial of coast shows greater range of sea cliffs

High altitude aerial of coast shows greater range of sea cliffs

Pre-visualization is the key to most great photography and working with a camera drone is no different.

Block out the arrangement of components in your head so that the composition feels balanced. Fly your drone to an appropriate position and see how it looks. Usually you will fine-tune your composition by adjusting altitude or position to hide or reveal objects and then adjust your camera angle to control framing. Adjust exposure and shoot away. Then make a big change in your altitude and create a totally different image. That’s the beauty of a drone. You are working with a 10-400 foot tripod. Anything is possible.

Medium altitude aerial shows the pattern of marinas and boats in a harbor

Medium altitude aerial shows the pattern of marinas and boats in a harbor

If you are interested in drone photography, start cheap. Many photographers crash their first drone. Some crash their second and third drones. Learn to fly safely, then learn to shoot with a drone. It’s a great tool, but it can be tricky.

Future drone posts will examine camera angle and lighting direction. Check out our earlier drone post at https://santabarbaraphotographicworkshops.wordpress.com/2018/10/17/aerial-drone-photography-capturing-the-view-from-above/.

Stay safe out there.