Drone Photography: Beginner’s Guide to Getting Started

Sounds easy, doesn’t it?  I thought so when I first got into the hobby of flying drones.  However, if you want to take drone photos that look great and that you can be proud of, you’ll need to get the fundamentals of general photography down first.

This article will serve as a complete beginner’s guide to Drone Photography covering:

  • The Exposure Triangle: What you’ll need to know to expose your shots correctly
  • White Balance
  • The use of ND filters (are they needed?)
  • RAW vs JPG
  • Composition
  • Miscellaneous Camera settings 
  • Photo Modes (DJI Fly and similar flight apps)
  • Photo Editing Software

Years ago, prior to having ever taken a picture with any camera, I did think taking drone photos was going to be a piece of cake.  Sadly, that wasn’t the case.  My very first drone shot was on Auto, washed out, had a crooked horizon – with overexposed areas, a non-discernable subject (Downtown Orlando), and, frankly, was an embarrassment.

If you want to get a little more guidance as you learn the ins and outs of drone photography, a course is a great way to ramp up your learning curve. Check out our recommended drone photography courses DroneSchool.com.

Below is that very first picture I had ever taken years ago.  Stay tuned for a much-improved version in the section on Composition.

Image credit: Dan Bayne

There is a lot of forethought and practical knowledge that goes into taking really good photos, whether on the ground or in the air via a drone.  Sure, you can put everything in “auto” and hope to get a decent picture, as I did in the above example.

However, anyone new to drone photography will do well to understand the fundamentals of standard photography and get out of Auto and into Manual mode to have complete control over the drone camera, to get the best results possible.

The Exposure Triangle

Proper exposure is one of the keys to having a good photo.  Have you ever seen a picture that was too dark or way too bright?  Or in the words of photography, underexposed (dark) or over-exposed (bright).

That’s because the person taking the photo didn’t adjust any of the settings in-camera, to counter the lighting conditions.  The things that would need to be adjusted to get the proper exposure are the Aperture, ISO, and Shutter speed – also known as the Exposure Triangle.

To keep things very simple and basic:

Aperture

If you were to look into the lens of any camera, you’ll see a hole or opening.  THAT is the aperture.  It can be manually or electronically adjusted to open up or close down (but not fully).  The larger the aperture opening (ie f2.8), the more light gets in and the brighter the image will be.  The smaller the aperture opening (ie f22), the less light gets in, resulting in a darker image.

On a standard camera, the aperture also controls how blurry or sharp a background is.  When the aperture is open more (ie f2.8) and depending on the distance from you to your subject, the shallower the depth of field is, meaning the background behind and around your subject begins to blur out.  With the aperture closed down (ie f22), the background is sharper or more in focus, with everything in the shot easily identifiable.

Many/most consumer drones come with what is called a fixed aperture.  Meaning that it does not adjust, it stays at one size, around f2.8 for many drones.  Some of these drones that come to mind would be the Mavic Mini/Mini 2, Air 2, Air 2S, Autel Evo I, and similar drones, with the newly released (as of this article) Autel Evo Lite having an f1.8 aperture.

While this is the case, there are a few drones that do indeed have adjustable apertures. For instance, the Phantom 4 Pro, Mavic 2 Pro, Mavic 3 series, Autel Evo II Pro, and newly released (as of this article) Autel Evo Lite+, just to mention a few.

Since many drones do have a fixed aperture, you will have to play around more with just the ISO and Shutter to get a properly exposed shot (see below).

ISO

Simply put, ISO is the value of measure for a camera sensor’s light sensitivity.   100 is generally the lowest value (darker) and runs into the thousands (brighter) on most modern DSLR and Mirrorless ground cameras.  An average ISO range on drones is between 100 and 12000 +/- when taking photos.  The maximum is oftentimes less when filming video.

Generally, when taking photos, you want your ISO to remain as low as possible, as increasing the ISO during dark conditions introduces “noise” or grain into your photos.  A thing to note is that having a larger sensor on your drone camera (ie Mavic 3) will allow you to bump the ISO a bit more in darker conditions without noise than, say, the camera on a DJI Mini 2.

Shutter speed

The shutter speed on a camera, measures just that, the speed of the camera’s shutter, or how long the shutter stays open while the picture is being taken.

The shutter is important in two ways.  The first way is it can control the brightness of an image.  The longer the shutter is open, the more light is allowed into the camera, and the brighter the image will be.  Conversely, the shorter the shutter is open, the less light is allowed into the camera and the darker the image will be.

This is because the shutter controls how much light is allowed into the camera based on the open shutter duration.

The second way the shutter is important is that it also controls motion blur.  Have you ever seen an artistic rendering of a beautiful, multiplane waterfall and the cascading water is smooth and blurry?  Have you wondered how that look was achieved?  That would be by having an extremely slow shutter speed.

On the other hand, we have all seen action sports images, where the subject is running or jumping, and they seem to be frozen in place.  The picture is perfectly in focus and crisp.  That is achieved through a quick shutter speed.

Image credit: nofilmschool.com

This was just a high-level and uncomplicated look at the Exposure Triangle and how the various aspects of Aperture, ISO, and Shutter can control the brightness and look of your image.  Jump into Manual shooting mode and play around a little with these 3 settings, to see how they affect the image your drone will take.

White Balance

White balance evens out the color temperature in an image to make the image look more natural.  It does this by bringing in opposite color temperatures that help bring the whites back to neutral, which affects the entire color of the image.

Color temperature is measured in Kelvin (k).  10,000k is Blue, 1,000k is Orange and there is a vast mix from blue to orange in the spectrum therein.

For instance, the colors in an image can appear to be too warm (too much orange or yellow tones – 3,000k) or too cold (blueish tint – 6500k).  When the white balance is set correctly, then the color white falls more in line with the actual color white, which in turn normalizes the look of the entire image for the conditions that the pictures will be taken in.

Color Temperature

When taking pictures outdoors, the light can present itself in various color temperatures other than just “direct sunlight” (5200k) and can constantly change on the fly.  For instance, when taking pictures during a cloudy day, the light will be more blueish (6500k).  Midday is pretty even, and favors a more correct white balance (5200 – 5500’ish k) and during sunrise and sunset, more orange (2500k).

To counter this and produce an image that looks more natural, white balance can be easily set within your drone’s flight app, to match the conditions you are flying in.  For many drone apps, there will be choices like Auto, Sunny, Cloudy, Incandescent, and Custom.  Simply pick the white balance that matches your conditions.

With the DJI Fly app, however, there is only a white balance slider where you pick the numerical kelvin (k) value.  For some, this might be a challenge.  In this case, if you find it challenging, choose auto, note the value represented on-screen, then manually put that value in to assist in getting near where you’d want your white balance to be.  You can then adjust +/- as needed from there.

Note: If you have set your white balance and it is not near where you’d like it to be upon final review of your pictures for the day, you can fix this “in post”, in a variety of image editing software, if shooting in RAW image format.  More on editing software and RAW format later.

ND Filters

This might be a term less familiar to most non-video shooters.   ND (neutral density) filters are like sunglasses for your drone’s camera.

Earlier we talked about shutter speed and motion blur.  ND filters, when used for video, allow you to set the correct shutter speed in bright conditions, which give you the appropriate motion blur in between each frame, which allows you to create a cinematic look that the eye is accustomed to seeing when watching TV or Movies.

A typical boxed set of ND filters will include an ND4, ND8, ND16, and ND32.  Additional higher value ND filters will be ND64, ND128, ND256, and ND512.

Why would a photographer want to use ND filters?  Since the Exposure Triangle is heavily used in photography, all three aspects mesh well together for exposing the shot, so “sunglasses” of sorts are not needed for general photography.

ND Filters are primarily used in photography for one thing:  Daytime Long Exposure Photography.

Long Exposure Photography (daytime)

Earlier we mentioned a photograph of waterfalls with the cascading water looking extremely blurry and smooth, while the surroundings remained clear and in focus.  That would be an example of a Long Exposure shot.

Image Credit: colesclassroom.com

While long exposure shots are more accurate when using a ground camera and tripod, you can definitely still shoot them with your drone.

To shoot long exposure drone photographs, you’ll need to have stable air conditions (the least amount of wind possible), a longer shutter speed, and a higher count ND filter (>ND64).

Stable Air Conditions
The reason you’ll want to do your long exposure photography during less windy days is that, with a slowed/longer shutter speed, any movement in the drone will be seen on the final image.  For a waterfall, you’d only want to see the water as smooth and blurred, with all the surroundings sharp and in focus.

Shutter Speed
This is important.  Remember from earlier, the longer the shutter is opened, the more motion blur.  In the case of drone long exposure photography, having a shutter of about 1/5 will enable there to be noticeable motion blur, while at the same time minimizing the possibility for everything else in the photo blurring, due to the drone moving around.

ND Filter
Since the shutter will be open so long and many drones have a fixed aperture at f2.8, the picture’s exposure will be “blown out”, or super bright with not much discernable detail.  This is where the ND64 or higher filter comes in, as this will enable the shutter to be open longer while keeping the exposure at the correct level.

Note: To achieve the same look with a drone with an adjustable aperture, try setting the aperture to f11 and use an ND16 filter.

Suggested settings for shooting daytime long exposure shots, in list view:

  • Manual exposure
  • 100 ISO
  • 1/5 Shutter
  • ND64 Filter or higher
  • RAW image format – for room to play around in Editing Software
  • Multiple shooting modes – to ensure that at least one of the shots is usable

RAW image format (vs JPG)

RAW files are uncompressed, unprocessed files that contain all the information the camera sensor collects for said images.  Some of this information would include the image’s colors, dynamic range (highlights & shadows), white balance, etc., all of which you will be able to manipulate in editing.

If you were to accidentally shoot with your exposure too low (underexposed), RAW will enable you to bring back the details in the shadows.  You can also bring back some detail in the highlights if slightly overexposed.

JPG files are compressed and fully processed files that contain less information than RAW files.  These files are pretty much complete and ready to share online, with no editing required, though you can indeed manipulate them, somewhat.  Sadly, if you under or overexpose your shots, you won’t be able to fully bring back those details, if at all.

We’ll use a meal to easily illustrate RAW vs JPG.  RAW files can be compared to all the ingredients you would need to make a 3-course meal, your way.  You add all the ingredients together to cook a meal to your tastes.  You don’t want a certain seasoning; you don’t add it.  Is the steak too rare?  Drop it on the grill longer.  After quite a bit of work, you have the exact meal you were craving.

JPG files, on the other hand, would be like dining at a restaurant.  Although the food may be good, it’s all prepared by someone else, with their ingredients.  When you get the meal, you might add some salt or pepper or add a little lettuce or remove some here or there, however, you won’t be able to remove the marinade from the steak; the meal is governed by the chef.

The same is true with RAW and JPG.  If you want full control over your final image using editing software, RAW enables you to do whatever you’d like.  If you want shots that are pretty much ready to hand out, with little to no editing (having been shot with proper exposure and white balance), then JPG is the route to go.

Here are a few quick comparison points to be aware of when choosing which format is right for you.

RAW

  • No Compression
  • Ultra high-quality images (mine are usually between 10-30Mb prior to editing)
  • Larger file sizes

JPG

  • Compressed
  • Lower quality images
  • Substantially smaller file sizes (2-5Mb +/-)
Note: Some of the newer drones can shoot RAW and JPG simultaneously.  This is a great option, allowing you to choose after your shoot which format is the best for the given circumstances (quickly distributing the images via social media right there on the spot, or taking time once home to edit the photos).

Composition for drone photography

We’re not going to go through all the intricacies of fine art and composition and what’s the best this that and the other, etc., etc.  Nice images are subjective to each individual viewer or the person taking the shot.  Out of 20 people, you might have 20 different opinions about the shot.  However, there are a few things that do aid in good composition when it comes to drone photography.

Firstly, drone image composition could be defined as simply arranging or framing elements/subjects of your shot in a way that suits your (or clients) idea of what the shot should be.  Good composition guides viewers’ eyes to the subject you are wishing to highlight.

For instance, if you wanted a certain mountain in a standard landscape shot to be your subject, you’d want to make sure that the viewers’ eyes are either guided to the mountain OR the mountain takes front and center stage.

If you are framing a shot of a beautiful exotic car, you wouldn’t bury it in a super busy picture with a bunch of buildings and other cars in the way.  Again, your subject would need to be the focus of your image.

This isn’t to say you can’t have a simple landscape photo showing the general beauty of an area, with no discernable subject.  But, in this case, you’d want to frame the shot to highlight that beauty, perhaps, without too much sky or ground, giving the picture some balance, as the following picture I shot shows.

Image credit: Dan Bayne

Below is an example of a poorly composed shot that I took when first starting out, followed by a better-composed shot taken later.  Downtown Orlando is supposed to be the focus of both.  Note: Composition points will be highlighted in each.

First Shot Ever
Image credit: Dan Bayne

In this image, you’ll notice regarding the composition that the horizon line is severely crooked and the subject of the image, Downtown Orlando, is barely visible.  In addition to this, because the subject is so far away, there is much too much sky and surrounding neighborhood.  All this distracts the viewer.  First thought?  “What am I looking at?”

Image credit: Dan Bayne

For this picture, we see the subject of the photo, Downtown Orlando, is more front and center.  The horizon line is pretty level and neither the sky nor low-lying elements detract too much from the subject.  All these shot elements were easy to achieve while on-site.

Gimbal calibration

As was glaringly obvious in the first Downtown image, the horizon was crooked.  Whenever you take photos with your drone, you want to ensure that the image is straight.  To achieve this in-camera, locate the options area that pertains to your gimbal and run a gimbal calibration, only if the camera is crooked.  This step is different for each drone manufacturer’s flight app but runs automatically when choosing said option.

If you want to straighten your gimbal manually, this many times is an option as well, using + and – values to straighten the gimbal (by the flight app physically adjusting the gimbal roll).  This should also be in the gimbal or camera main options.

When doing this, though, you’d normally need to be in the air, pointing the drone to the horizon, then use the horizon line to straighten your gimbal.

Flight app tools to guide in composition

I mentioned that good composition is easily achievable on-site while taking pictures.  Some people have an eye for good composition, while others need some assistance in doing so.  For those who need a little assistance, there are built-in tools your drone flight app has, readily available.

Grid Lines
Buried in the camera menu systems of many drone flight apps is the option to turn gridlines on or off.  Below are what these onscreen gridline overlays look like.

Image credit: Dan Bayne

As can be seen, I fly with all available gridline options turned on, these being:

  • Rule of Thirds
  • Diagonal
  • Center target

Rule of Thirds
The Rule of Thirds overlay has 9 equal blocks that divide each frame.  There are 4 intersecting points on these lines and placing your subject on one or more of these intersecting points creates more compelling compositions, than just having the subject in the middle of the screen would.

Diagonal and/with Center Target
These lines simply aid in framing up your shot.  For some, the diagonal lines may be an added distraction, whereas for others, like me, they are useful when you’d like a particular subject (boat, jet skier, or something else) to be front and center in the picture.

Flight photography app tools (general)

Histogram
A histogram is a representation of the overall exposure coming out of your drone’s camera.  It keeps things from being too light or too dark.  The left side represents the shadows and blacks, the right side the highlights and whites and the center represents the mid-tones.

A properly exposed shot should look sort of look like a mountain more towards the middle, without bars elevating too high on the far right and left extremes.  This option is not static and can be turned off and on.

The histogram below is from a screengrab of an overexposed shot for this guide.  Notice the right side displays overexposure.

Over-Exposure Warning
Like with your standard ground photography camera, another built-in exposure tool many drones have is the over-exposure warning option.  This is a screen overlay that presents itself as zebra stripes in areas of the screen that are blown out or over-exposed.

While the zebra stripes do show on-screen, they do not appear in your shots.  Like the Histogram, this is another great optional tool to quickly help in identifying and correcting exposure issues and can be turned off and on.

Image credit: Dan Bayne

Photo modes

If you are getting into drone photography, you’ll be happy to see that there are a few different photo modes to help express your creativity, not just a one-shot point and click and you’re done.

While different drone manufacturers have different names for their proprietary shooting modes, in general, the common photo modes are as follows:

  • Single Shot
  • AEB
  • Burst
  • Timer

Single Shot
This is the most common of the photo modes and one that gets plenty of use.  As the name suggests, after you properly frame up your shot and dial in the exposure, you take a photo and it’ll be one photo.  Plain and simple.

AEB
AEB stands for Auto Exposure Bracketing.  This is an interesting mode, as when you take a shot, the camera will automatically fire 3 or 5 nearly identical shots in a row.  These shots will be at different exposures.  This photo mode is perfect for difficult or low-light scenarios.

For instance, if you’ve chosen the 3 shot AEB, and you’ve exposed the shot correctly, you’ll have an under-exposed shot, a properly exposed shot, and an over-exposed shot.  These shots can then be brought into a photo editor that stacks and merges files, like Lightroom,  Photoshop, or Aurora HDR.

There the photos are combined to create an image that has all the details in the shadows, as well as proper highlights and mid-tones.  This type of photography is commonly referred to as HDR (high dynamic range).  An example I recently shot using this is below.

Image credit: Dan Bayne

Burst Mode
This is a rapid-fire mode that takes multiple shots in quick succession (for DJI drones, this may be between the 3-7 shot range).  This mode is especially useful for action shots, where your subject is fast-moving (Car, Boat, Jet Skis, Large Birds, etc).

Timer
As the name suggests, this is a shot you take, using a variable timer, perfect for taking single or group selfies where you’d like to hide your controller (rc).

Again, on different drones there will be different names for some of these photo modes and different drones might have additional shooting modes that differ from the norm.

Photo editing software

This is a subject that we could deep dive into for hundreds of pages.  For our intents and purposes, we will briefly discuss what photo editing software is, what the benefits are to photographers, as well as a few software suggestions.

Photo editing software is exactly as the name suggests, a type of software used to edit photos.  Photo editing aids in the artistic expression for many and helps to convey the picture as the photographer had in mind.

When you look at the plethora of photos online (regardless of if they were taken by drone or a standard digital camera), many, if not most, have been edited (even if just slightly) using some sort of software.

When we speak of editing, we are talking about the manipulation of a photo’s size, color, white balance, defect removal, texture, sharpness, exposure, and the list goes on and on.

All the pictures that I have posted here taken by me, aside from my very first flight photo example, were edited or modified using software.  If you’ve ever posted a picture on Instagram and applied a color or look filter, well, that was a tiny example of photo editing.

We spoke about the pros and cons of RAW vs. JPG image types.  If you are planning to do heavy photo editing, then the RAW format is the best way to go and will utilize all the feature sets in today’s popular editing software.  This of course doesn’t leave out JPG files, however, note that the flexibility in editing JPGs is not as great as with RAW files.

Below is a short listing of the more popular paid photo editing apps

  • Adobe Photoshop
  • Adobe Lightroom
  • Adobe Lightroom Classic
  • Luminar AI
  • Aurora HDR

Free photo editing apps

  • Gimp
  • Pixlr
  • Adobe Lightroom Mobile

The lists above are not of all the software available, as there are many of them.   New photographers will eventually fall into a groove as to what editing software provides the best feature set for them to convey their artistic expression at the price point that is comfortable.

Conclusion

The aim of this guide was to get new photographers familiar with the terms and concepts behind taking good drone photographs.  However, we only scratched the very surface here.  As you grow as a drone photographer, you will learn more advanced and creative ways to take and display your photographs and images.  Happy flying!

Leave a Comment