Guide to drone photography: tips and tricks from the experts.

Drone photography has changed the way we see the world – an eye in the sky offers a unique perspective and composition that other photographers would struggle to recreate. But there are several financial, skill-based, and even legal challenges to overcome before you can launch your new project. Explore these tips to learn what you need to succeed as a drone photographer.

What you’ll learn:

What is drone photography?

Drone photography is using a remote-controlled aerial drone to take still images or video from the air. Piloting an unmanned craft by remote control can be complicated, but the resulting roll of drone-taken images is simply stunning. With altitude on your side, you’ll discover transformed landscapes and awe-inspiring views from a bird’s-eye view that photographers without a drone can’t access.

Drone photo of winding road in the autumn countryside.

Before the aerial drone entered the mainstream, aerial photographers relied on copters and planes to gain some perspective. The costs of hiring these private flights made the pursuit prohibitively expensive for many photographers. But now, with the proliferation of the remote-controlled drone, more people are taking the opportunity to take to the sky.

“With drones, you can now get a multi-thousand-dollar shot for $1,200 plus a $150 pilot’s license. They’ve given filmmakers and photographers perspective no one else can get.”

Photographer David Green 

 

Expert drone photography tips.

There’s more to being a drone photographer than heading for the heights with your camera running – location scouting, camera settings, and avoiding adverse weather conditions all have a part to play. Let’s see what the experts say.

Shoot downwards.

One of the most popular drone techniques is to shoot straight down. While you can use drone photography to achieve new angles on what’s happening on the ground, like on a football pitch or a busy stretch of the motorway, shooting straight down on the landscape can result in powerful photographs.

"You see the landscape for what it is. You can see patterns and formations you didn’t know were there."

Photographer Steve Schwindt

 

Striking contrasts, unusual shapes and land formations, and the cross between natural and man-made landmarks, often provide good jumping-off points (or rather, taking-off points) for your vertical-viewpoint drone pictures.

Spend time scouting for locations.

The best drone shots take advantage of the unique compositions you wouldn’t get otherwise, while adhering to the principles for what makes a great photograph. Thoughtful composition and consideration of light will take a photo beyond the initial aerial-view “wow” factor and make it a quality image in its own right.

“You have to understand why you’re using it. Ask yourself: ‘What is it doing to add to the story I’m trying to tell?’”

Videographer Dominic Duchesneau

 

Drone image of sunny beach and ocean with a wooden pier in the centre.
Photo of snowy winter waterfall taken from above.

Try using Google Earth to scout your location so you can start planning what kind of photos you want to get. Look at other photographers’ work or photos taken at the same location. This can help you visualise the scene before you take flight. You can also collect inspiration from the Adobe Stock photographers working above the power lines.

Make use of natural light.

Whether you’re shooting a portrait, a building, or out in the wild, one of the first things to account for a better image is the amount of light available. Even the best drone cameras tend to have smaller sensors than traditional DSLRs, and megapixels aren’t as plentiful.

The eye-catching perspectives that come with shooting from a distance tend to make up the shortfall in image quality. However, you should still ensure that the environment you’re flying in has enough natural light to play with, as this will allow you to create detailed, high-contrast images. For this reason, as well as any potential safety issues, we wouldn’t recommend flying drones in cloudy conditions or where general visibility is poor.

Natural light is a photographer’s best friend, but there are ways to use the daylight as a visual enhancement for your drone images.

The golden hour is a great time to capture images from the air – the sun’s rays diffuse the light as they come in at an angle – creating a softer, more flattering light. With lots of yellows, oranges and reds, it’s also the basis for a more positive colour palette.

When you’ve mastered your drone’s flying capability, you can get it to hover in place, giving you the chance for some great long exposure shots – perfect for capturing the effects of a sunrise over the horizon.

But don’t neglect shadows.

drone aerial view windy road in summer

One of the most striking examples of contrast in drone photography will come from natural landmarks casting their shadow over the landscape. Fly your drone enough during different times of the day and in your photographs you may start to notice the range of effects that shadows can have on the landscape. When the sun is higher in the sky (late morning and early afternoon) you’ll notice shorter but stronger shadowing. On the other hand, the sun will throw longer shade on surroundings during an early morning or early evening flight.

 

See how the shadows can help point to, or surround, a specific landmark in the image. You could even try framing a shapely shadow as the main aspect of your composition.

Experiment with camera settings.

There may be some limits to drone photography that you don’t face when shooting on the ground – things like shooting in automatic mode or different shutter speeds. When it comes to adjusting camera settings, you simply won’t have the same level of control as you would on a regular shoot.

But provided you’ve got the hang of flying your drone – more on that shortly – any shot from above is surely going to turn out unique enough to just need tweaking in the editing suite. Take a lot of shots and sort through them in Adobe Lightroom post-processing to find the best photos.on.

Get some drone piloting practise.

Becoming a drone pilot can seem daunting, but with some practise, drones aren’t hard to operate. Rather, the more important concerns are being safe and playing by the rules. Unsafe piloting can put people and environments at risk.

 

In response to drones’ increasing popularity, the UK CAA has tightened up its regulations – making it even more important to know the rules. Watch out for crowds, respect others’ privacy, and make sure you know where you can and cannot legally fly. Learn more about getting a pilot’s license and the rules you must abide by when shooting with a drone.

“People don’t pay attention to safety; they think drones aren’t as serious as they really are.”

Photographer David Green

 

 

Also worth bearing in mind is the fact that many drones have a battery life of 30 minutes or less. Make sure to plan your piloting sessions accordingly and pack extra batteries.

caucasian woman with adult daughter flying aerial drone in autumn forest

Essential drone photography tools

 

A word of warning before you rig your state-of-the-art camera to the most expensive piece of drone kit you can afford: unless you’re a registered drone operator with thousands of hours of practice under your belt, you should expect your drone to crash.

 

Learning to fly a drone is a difficult and time-consuming process. So before you go all-in on gear, try a camera-drone combo that’s a little less expensive. But what else will you need before taking to the skies?

Drone

As drone technology has improved, entry-level models have become cheaper. So don’t break the bank to buy your very first model unless you know all the ins and outs of flight. Drones come in all shapes and sizes – some are small, plastic, and designed explicitly for indoor use. For the experts, drones are larger, made from carbon fibre and last much longer in the great outdoors. Start small.

Camera

Many photographers would be tempted to build their drone setup around their current camera, but this could be an expensive endeavour if your current DSLR packs any heft. A smaller, mirrorless camera would be way more cost effective – and because you’re not being particularly eyes-on with the shot composition, it doesn’t require such a sophisticated setup to capture good images from those heights. Remember that what you sacrifice in image quality, you gain in mobility.

drone with a camera

Gimbal

It may sound like the name of a character from Middle Earth, but a gimbal is your best friend when it comes to securing your previous cargo. A gimbal is a harness or frame which is suspended underneath the drone, designed specifically to hold your camera. They’re also quite variable in terms of size and budget, but the most important consideration is whether the gimbal (and the drone) can safely hold the weight of your camera.

Screen or goggles.

It’s entirely possible to obtain some memorable shots without seeing down the viewfinder yourself. If, however, you do want a live view of what your drone sees, you can grab a feed from the camera and show it on a screen or into your smartphone mounted onto goggles. You might find it disorienting at first – piloting from the ground – but sooner or later you’ll get more comfortable and might develop that familiar knack of spotting a good opportunity for a shot before it even arrives.

drone visualy controlled through a tablet

Extra batteries and charger.

Even high-end drones won’t stay in the air for more than 30 minutes. So if you’re planning a long shoot you’ll need plenty of extra juice. Rotate several different batteries, as rapid use, recharge, and re-use can cause them to overheat.

Extra batteries and charger.

In the UK you must registered before flying most drones. Basically, if it’s not a toy (and has a camera) and weighs above 250g, you’ll need a flyer ID and an operator ID. You’ll need to take a theory test to get your flyer ID. It’s against the law to fly a drone without the necessary ID – you could face a fine or even go to prison. As the operator, you’re in charge of who flies it, and responsible for maintenance. 

Drone photography: frequently asked questions.

To round off our guide, here are answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about getting into drone photography.

As drone photography has become more common, so too have the number of artists offering drone photography packages. It’s also an especially popular feature with estate agent websites, particularly for larger properties. The average shot costs in the UK range from £175 to £300.

Taking pictures with a drone is legal, but this comes with a number of caveats around privacy and flight area restrictions. You cannot fly over a group or a crowd of people who are not willingly part of the shoot. You can take photos of a group of people provided they’re ‘with’ you – like if you’re taking photos at a wedding or with friends.

Drone photography is a type of aerial photography, in that any aerial photography is done from the air. The difference is that aerial photography covers any number of setups such as planes, ‘copters, and cranes – as well as drones.

Most importantly, to become a drone photographer you need to have the proper licences and documentation so you’ve got the legal right to fly and operate a drone. Once that’s settled, and you’re confident enough in your flying abilities, you can start to advertise your services through the usual channels – website, social media, and email – as well as setting up your own photography business.

 

Drone photography is about the thrill of discovering new perspectives. If you’re an experienced photographer, drones can open up a new world of possibilities for you to explore. If you’re new to the medium, drones are an amazing introduction to the power of photography. Be patient with the learning process, and enjoy the incredible scenes you can capture with your drone.

 

“To be a better photographer, you’ve got to take more photos. The more hours you fly, the better you become.”


Photographer David Green

Adobe’s drone photography partners.

The following photographers helped to create this article about drone photography.

 

  • Steve Schwindt is a landscape photographer based in Portland, Oregon. He focuses on the Pacific Northwest’s natural wonders. Find his work here
     
  • David Green is a London-based “born people-watcher” who travels extensively in search of the next challenge. His work can be found here
     
  • Dominic Duchesneau is a videographer based in Billings, Montana. He’s worked with some of the world’s biggest brands to produce short films, ads, and documentaries. See his work here

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