medium altitude aerial of coastal sunset

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.


Aerial drone photograph of North Lake

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/.