5 helpful tips for getting started in drone photography and video
Drones are more accessible, better value and easier to operate than ever before. Fergus Kennedy's expert tips will set you on the right flightpath, from avoid trouble to travelling with your drone…
1: Practice your flying skills
Man practicing with drone (Dreamstime)
Before you can focus on your aerial photography, you need to be confident with your flying skills. Many people find that buying a very small, cheap drone and flying it around the house is helpful. These small indoor drones are actually a bit harder to fly than the larger outdoor models that are GPS stabilized, but a lot more forgiving to crash.
When you move on to larger, outdoor models, get into a routine of pre-flight checks, just simple things: check the batteries in the drone, remote and your tablet or phone, check the flight settings are correct and check for damage or loose fixings on the drone.
Take off from a clear, open space and practice some exercises, flying precise patterns and improving your level of control. Get familiar with all the functions on the drone. Practice the automatic ‘return to home’ function. Keep a constant eye on your drone’s battery level during flight. Strong winds or cold temperatures will drain your battery quicker.
2: Be safe and legal
Colourful high rise buildings in Hong Kong (Andy Yeung / Drone Photography And Video Masterclass)
There are good reasons behind drone regulations, so know the rules where you’re flying and abide by them. The details will be different in each country, but in general you should stay well away from airports and other restricted areas. Keep at least 50m clear from buildings, roads and people not under your control, and a minimum of 150m from congested areas (towns and cities) and large gatherings of people.
When you are learning, find yourself an open area with few other people and a minimum of obstacles such as trees and overhead cables. In general, always err on the side of caution and always use common sense.
Many modern drones have collision avoidance technology, but it’s not infallible. Thin cables and tree branches may not be detected and your drone may not have sensors that cover you while flying sideways or backwards. You’re far better off trusting your own eyes and good flying skills.
3: Travelling with a drone
Palau, Western Pacific Ocean (Andy Deitsch / Drone Photography And Video Masterclass)
Drones with decent cameras are getting smaller and lighter all the time and half the fun of having a drone is documenting epic landscapes from elevated angles, so it’s only natural that you might want to take your drone with you on your adventures.
This is generally a feasible idea, but make sure of several things in the planning phase. Check the local regulations. Drones are completely banned in several countries and many National Parks.
Check the airline’s policy on lithium polymer batteries. In general, batteries must be carried in hand luggage and there are battery size/capacity restrictions.
Be sensitive to local cultural sensitivities. Apart from safety issues, people may not take kindly to continuous hovering next to a place of worship or other cultural significance.
4: Get creative
Camels in the Empty Quarter of Oman (Miguel Willis / Drone Photography And Video Masterclass)
Don’t forget that even though your camera flies, you’re still a photographer. In the excitement of controlling a flying machine, it’s easy to neglect photographic considerations. Be imaginative with your photography.
A bit of planning goes a long way. Use Google Earth to find promising new areas. Think about the best time of day to get the best light. Think about composition. Can you get a fantastic abstract composition by pointing your camera directly downwards?
Even after careful planning, don’t be afraid to be spontaneous. It may be the shot you dreamed of doesn’t work for some reason, but there’s a spectacular angle you hadn’t envisaged.
Take full control of your camera. It’s easy to leave the camera on fully ‘auto’ mode, and while this may achieve acceptable results, it’s often better to take control yourself.
Understand the effects of varying ISO, shutter speed and aperture and use it to your advantage to make your shots stand out.
5: Be aware of the weather
Lancing College Chapel, West Sussex, UK (Fergus Kennedy / Drone Photography And Video Masterclass)
Whether you’re the pilot of a jumbo jet or a tiny quadcopter, you need to know what the weather might have in store. Always check the forecast before you go head out with your new pride and joy.
Wind is the one that most often catches people out. Each drone has a maximum flying speed (air speed). If the wind is approaching this speed or faster than it, the drone won’t be able to make any significant progress into the wind (but will go very fast downwind).
Furthermore, the wind will often be significantly stronger up high than it is at ground level, particularly if you’re taking off from a sheltered spot. I’ve heard many tales of inexperienced drone pilots watching their precious new gadget disappear off at height on an unexpectedly strong wind.
Even if the wind speed is manageable, it may be turbulent close to obstacles. Expect strong downdrafts and gusts in multiple directions downwind of things like buildings, trees, cliffs and other obstructions. If it’s windy, give them a wider berth than you normally would.
A good rule of thumb is that things are likely to get interesting as the wind gets above 15mph, and above 20mph its probably best to keep the drone grounded unless you’re a confident and experienced pilot.
Rain and electronics generally don’t’ mix so look out for unexpected downpours and try to keep your drone dry.
Finally, in very cold weather you need to keep you battery warm before the flight. If it’s below 15C, try to keep the drone battery in a warm car or an inside pocket right up to takeoff. Once it’s in the air and the drone is drawing current, the battery will generate its own heat.
Drone photographs taken from Drone Photography And Video Masterclass by Fergus Kennedy, a new book from Ammonite Press (£16.99), out July and available to buy HEREand at good bookshops.
Fergus Kennedy is a marine biologist, photographer, and film-maker, and an experienced multi-rotor pilot and camera operator. Through his company, Skylark Aerial Imaging, he provides aerial video, still photography, and 3D modelling services to clients, including the BBC, ABC Television, Canon Europe, Love Productions, WWF, and the Royal Navy.