Once upon a time, in order to take a breathtaking bird’s-eye photo, photographers had to rent a plane or helicopter, planning ahead for such a shoot. Today, everything has changed — drones have become more accessible than ever, while they open up huge opportunities for landscape photographers: new angles, quick reconnaissance, etc. We have translated for you an article by Sean Steiner, which focuses on the main advantages of using quadcopters for landscape photography.
In landscape photography, a lot depends on whether you manage to get to the right place at the right time. Many photographers suddenly find that the right angle from the ground is simply not available. Therefore, drones can become a great new tool for photographers. You don’t need to rent a plane, you get more angles and you don’t have to plan too much in advance. There are a few other less obvious ways to use a drone for landscape photography that make it a particularly useful tool to have on hand.
How drones have changed the game
As we’ve said before, drones can help landscape painters get angles that weren’t available to them before. This is the simplest explanation of how a drone can help a photographer. Now you can take a bird’s-eye photo of the cliff you’re standing on, and you don’t need a helicopter or a plane to do it.
In addition, you can see the scene from a completely different angle. One common example is shooting from above, with the drone’s camera pointing downwards perpendicular to the ground. This can open up a lot of interesting scenes and patterns for you that would otherwise be impossible to capture. This is also a rather complicated angle, which is difficult to catch without a special aerial platform (including from an airplane window).
Drones are also good not only for shooting itself, but also for reconnaissance. Sometimes you want to get a glimpse of what a particular scene might look like before you walk a few miles through the woods or find out how today’s weather affects a location you’ve already spotted. Using a drone is a much faster way to do this kind of reconnaissance.
Top Tips for Using Drones
If you’re heading outdoors with a drone, we have some important tips.
Check the weather
The weather in this case plays a much greater role than for ordinary landscape photography, which can be carried out on a windy or rainy day. Drones prefer clear, sunny days. There are many reasons for this, but the main one is that when you fly a relatively light electronic device through the air, rain and wind can create serious problems. Drones are designed to reduce excess weight, which means that protection from dust and moisture is not as serious as that of your professional DSLR. In addition, strong winds can cause the aircraft to drift off course or cause the battery to drain prematurely.
Learn the law
I can’t help but raise this issue. Check local regulations and laws regarding flying drones. If you’re unsure, check with your local authorities before flying. If you do not follow the rules, you may receive a large fine. Or, in the worst case, someone might get hurt.
Exposure bracketing is cool
On the ground, you have time to take the shot, check the exposure and details before taking the next shot. Drones have no such advantages. In the best case, you will be working with a more or less suitable screen that is connected wirelessly to a device that is a couple of hundred meters away. These are not ideal conditions for shooting landscapes with a wide dynamic range. Also, the smaller sensors in drones are usually more limited than in APS‑C and full-frame DSLRs, so you need to make sure your exposure is as close to perfect as possible. Exposure bracketing (a series of shots with different exposures — approx. Translator), combined with the use of additional tools such as Zebra (Zebra pattern), will help ensure that you get the right exposure before you land.
Shoot in RAW
This is a simple tip to help you get the best shots — shoot in RAW format. RAW saves as much detail as possible for later editing. When shooting from a drone, when you cannot be completely sure what is happening there in the air, you will need the maximum range of possibilities for post-processing.
Take advantage of built-in features
Some drones, such as the DJI Mavic 2 Zoom, have interesting modes that allow you to get the most out of the sensor. For example, the multi-shot mode, in which the drone creates an image with increased resolution and much more detail than its sensor can initially capture. Using these modes, as well as features such as a tripod mode that keeps the aircraft steady, will help you get the shot you want. Make sure you are using them.
What drone do you need
Today, there is a huge variety of drones on the market, with prices ranging from a couple of hundred to thousands of dollars. It all comes down to personal preference and budget constraints, but we’ll go over the key specs to look out for.
In my opinion, this parameter is very important, because if the drone is too big to take it with you often, it doesn’t matter how good it is. In addition, it is worth looking for smaller drones (under 250 grams) so as not to register it. You will also find many foldable drones that are high quality and easy to transport. Finally, there are big serious drones with larger and more complex cameras that require separate luggage space for travel.
I would go for a mini drone for everyday use and a foldable drone for more serious work. Larger drones are meant for high-end shoots as they are too much of a hassle to transport for casual photographers.
Image sensor and lens(s)
The camera in your drone will most likely be built-in, which makes it impossible to make changes in the future. Therefore, you need to make sure that this key part is of the highest quality. As with conventional cameras, you need to evaluate its sensor. Physical size and resolution play a significant role in image quality.
The resolution has obvious advantages: a 20-megapixel sensor captures more details than a 12-megapixel one. Matrix size is a less obvious parameter. Given that most drones are extremely compact, sensor sizes are also relatively small, typically around 1/2.3″, which is closer to a smartphone than a mirrorless or SLR camera. That’s why some of the latest models with 1‑inch sensors show a marked improvement in dynamic range, low-light shooting, and are generally better for photography.
Most drones come with built-in fixed lenses. More advanced models may have cameras with a bayonet mount for mounting interchangeable lenses. First, decide if you’re ready for the extra expense and hassle of additional lenses, or make sure your non-replaceable lens is good. Currently, you have two fixed lens options: wide-angle fixed lens or zoom. Fixed lenses usually provide better picture quality, but zooms are much more versatile. You can’t go wrong with any of them.
Filters and optional lenses
Even though (most) drones don’t use regular lenses, many companies make accessories to work with them. Firstly, these are special filters and attachments for lenses. If you’re already into landscape photography, you’re probably familiar with various filters, such as polarizing and ND filters. ND filters may not be your first choice for aerial photography, as you’ll probably want to use faster shutter speeds, but polarizing filters will be just as useful as they are on the ground. Just don’t forget to check the polarization before take off, because after takeoff it will be impossible to adjust it.
Another unique accessory is the anamorphic lens attachment. Although it’s more of a video tool, it can also help photographers by shooting panoramic images without relying on software stitching multiple shots.
For photography, you should pay attention to drone models that shoot in RAW. Many more budget drones are limited to JPEGs, and any landscape photographer who wants the highest quality photos knows to shoot in RAW. I would say that this feature is especially important for drone photography, as the screen of a remote control or smartphone is not the best option for checking exposure, so you need to make sure you have as much room as possible to correct possible errors during post-processing.
Battery and range
Two key characteristics that affect the overall usability of any drone are battery life and flight range. The battery is simple: the more you can fly on a single charge, the better. The second part of the formula is the range of operation, and it depends heavily on various technologies. Some drones use Wi-Fi to operate over short distances, some use 2.4 and 5 GHz wireless to increase their range, or use special technology to get a range of several kilometers.
Together, all this determines the overall flight characteristics of the drone. I would say that the most important part is the wireless technology and you should refrain from models that use only Wi-Fi, unless of course you are using the drone purely for fun. A loss of communication can completely ruin a flight, and as far as batteries are concerned, you can always take a couple of spare batteries to extend your shooting time.
There are plenty of reasons why every landscape photographer should consider adding a drone to their kit. Today, drones have become very compact and powerful, while you can choose a model for almost any budget.