Drone Photography: A Beginner's Journey :: Digital Photo Secrets

Drone Photography: A Beginner's Journey

by Liz Pekler 9 comments

Are drones the future of photography? Probably.

In recent years, these amazing flying contraptions have become tremendously popular among photographers, and it’s easy to see why. You only have to look at the stunning photos and videos - all of which would have been extremely difficult or virtually impossible with any regular, non-airborne camera - to be convinced of the endless possibilities that drone photography has to offer.

Being a travel photographer, I knew I had to jump on the drone bandwagon. I could definitely see myself enjoying drone photography, and I knew it would give me more artistic freedom and provide me with exciting new opportunities for capturing the unbelievable sights that I frequently came upon during my travels.

With that in mind, I began my drone photography journey.

Buying the Drone

The first step, of course, was to buy a drone. Since I was a first-time buyer, I had to do some research on the different drone brands and models before I could purchase the right one for myself. I then went online and scoured all the tech websites. I knew I definitely wanted something from DJI, as I had heard good things about the Phantom series (the company’s flagship line), so I focused on looking at reviews for those particular models.

After days (or maybe even weeks) of researching, I decided to get the Phantom 3 Standard. Most of the articles, reviews, and drone buying guides I came across suggested it as the perfect mid-range drone for beginners, and given my preference for DJI drones, it wasn’t a hard sell. I knew that I definitely wanted my drone to have built-in GPS, a good onboard camera, decent battery life, and easy-to-use controls - and the Phantom Standard 3 seemed to fit all my criteria perfectly.

Initially, I wanted a drone that would give me the option of attaching my DSLR camera, but those would be on the high-end of the spectrum, and therefore extremely expensive. I definitely wasn’t ready to pay thousands of dollars for something that I had no idea how to use yet. Though I wanted to use the drone for my photography, it did not make sense to make such a hefty investment right away. Mid-range offered the best of both worlds: beginner-level ease of use and a few advanced user features.

If you are a photographer and you are looking to buy a drone, my advice is don’t go for the high-end models right away. Get yourself something that is more suited for beginners. And most importantly, go online and do your research before choosing a specific brand and model. Check out all the reviews, articles, blogs, and videos that you can find to help you find the drone that is best for your needs.

Learning to Fly

When I first got my Phantom, I resolved not to fly it right away. I wanted to make sure I was fully prepared before flying it, as I had no desire to wreck something that I had paid hundreds of dollars for. So, first things first, I made sure to read the entire user manual prior to doing anything else, apart from simply taking the drone out of the box.

After reading the manual, I proceeded to examine all the other contents of the box. In addition to the body of the Phantom, there were the four detached rotors, large remote control, the battery, and the battery charger. I knew from watching a couple of reviews and unboxing videos on YouTube that the Phantom 3 Standard required minimal assembly—all you had to do was attach the four rotors. Still, I was a little intimidated by this task, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was relatively easy. I then downloaded the DJI GO app on my iPhone, followed the instructions to connect it to the Phantom, and then studied the rather complicated (to me, anyway) interface of the app.

Once I felt like I was (somewhat) ready to start flying, I plugged the battery (after charging it to full capacity, of course) into the drone and moved the party out to the backyard, where I planned to do my first trial run. Being the overly cautious person that I always am when it comes to any kind of technology, I decided to fly the Phantom just a few feet high. Mind you, this was a few months before the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) required everyone to register their drones, but I didn’t want to catch the attention of my neighbors and risk someone complaining, so I opted to stay low.

I attached my phone to the controller, made sure that the app was connected, took a deep breath, and tapped the auto-takeoff button on the app. The drone rose a few meters off the ground and hovered until I started using the joysticks to make it move around my backyard (making sure to give the trees a wide berth) and rise a few more feet.

It was surprisingly easy to maneuver. But then again, the app was in the default Beginner Mode. I wasn’t confident enough to go manual just yet on my first try.

I tested the camera as well. Unlike most of the other drones in its price range, you can control the vertical tilt of the camera in the Phantom 3 Standard using a small dial on the remote control. However, it could not swivel around, meaning you had to point the drone in the direction of what you want to shoot.

As for image and video quality, I was pretty impressed. The photos were great, but what amazed me was the stability of the video footage. It looked incredibly smooth and gave the video that cinematic feel most people have come to expect from drone footage.

Reaching New Heights

After a few more flights within the comfort and safety of my own home, I was itching to try the drone out in a larger, more open space so that I could safely pilot without worrying about angry neighbors or anything. At this point, I was a little more confident about my drone flying skills, so I decided to go to a nearby baseball field and allowed myself to fly higher than I’ve ever flown before.

The Phantom 3 Standard can fly to an altitude of thousands of feet in the air, but not wanting to lose sight of the drone, I settled for a few hundred feet. And at this point, I was no longer on Beginner Mode, so I didn’t want to take too much of a risk.

Admittedly, there were a few near misses (every single one of which almost gave me a heart attack) during this little outing. But after a while, once you get the hang of the controls, it gets a lot easier.

Traveling with the Phantom

Eventually, I came to a point in my journey when I was confident enough with my piloting skills to take the Phantom with me on my travels. The time had finally come for me to try my hand at aerial travel photography.

I did have to invest in a Go Professional case (I got mine here) to ensure that the drone was fully protected in transit—particularly when I brought it on flights, as I didn’t want to check it along with the rest of my luggage. When I first brought it with me on a trip to Europe last year, I realized exactly how cumbersome it was to add a drone (housed in a big, bulky case) to all the camera equipment I normally carry with me when I’m traveling.

But after seeing the fantastic pictures the Phantom allowed me to take, I knew that it was worth it. I couldn’t be happier with my choice to try out drone photography—I was absolutely hooked.

If you are a travel photographer like myself, a drone might just be your new best friend. Of course, I still took photos with my trusty Nikon DSLR on my travels, but the Phantom gave me some truly spectacular aerial photos of landscapes and cityscapes—photos that would have been impossible with only a regular camera in my hand.

Apart from using the drone for photography, it just makes for a really fun hobby. I’m even considering upgrading to the newly released Phantom 4, which is being touted as the smartest drone on the market right now, thanks to all its innovative autonomous features. It can now track moving subjects, avoid obstacles, and it practically flies itself—perfect for some cool action shots, right?

Of course, it doesn’t really matter what drone you use, as long as it works for you. I’m pretty satisfied with my Phantom 3 Standard, although I have yet to compare it to other models.

Nonetheless, I can honestly say that I believe drones are the future of photography. Whatever photography niche you may be in, using a drone for your artistic pursuits will produce some really stunning results.

Taking Better Photos with Drone

1. Lighting is key.

The key to good photography is lighting, and this rule applies even in drone photography. However, it would be pretty difficult to use the usual lighting gear when using a drone, so know how to take advantage of natural light. Take your photos when lighting is ideal, or during the “The Golden Hour”—the first hour after sunrise and the last hour before sunset.

If you must shoot during brighter days, use polarizing or neutral density filters to counteract the effects of the harsher lighting.

2. Go RAW.

Even the most beautifully captured photos need a few tweaks here and there to make them look even better, and shooting in RAW will give you more control and freedom to make the necessary adjustments in the post-processing stage.

3. Shoot in manual mode.

What some people don’t know is that drone cameras actually have a manual mode—it is not just a regular point-and-shoot. When in manual mode, you can control exposure settings and shutter speeds, which is essential in getting the perfect shot.

4. Try bracketing.

Bracketing is a useful technique that allows you to get the best exposures for your photos. You can do this manually, but some drones (like the DJI Phantom series) do have an Auto Exposure Bracketing (AEB) feature. Using AEB yields three or five photos of the same scene at different exposures, allowing you to either pick the one with just the right exposure for your needs, or to create a High Dynamic Range (HDR) photo—a composite of three photos with different levels of exposure—for a more detailed and dynamic image.

This is great for when the available lighting is a bit tricky, and you aren’t sure what exposure settings to use to get the perfect photo.

5. Don’t skip the editing!

What’s the point of shooting in RAW if you aren’t even going to post-process your work? There is always room for post-processing, and photo editing software like Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Lightroom can help you take your drone pictures to the next level. If you aren’t happy with the original image, don’t scrap it and start over. With good software and some basic Photoshop skills, you can take all those not-quite-right shots and make them as perfect as you envisioned.

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  1. Raymond Magdziarz says:

    I enjoyed reading your experience with the drone very much. I recently got one costing $27, and am learning to fly it. Not being as sophisticated as yours, I had problems reacting to emergency situations outdoors. So I'm practicing indoors. I crash frequently, but the prop guards save me most of the time.
    I haven't tried to use the camera yet because all my attention is on flying the drone.
    When I get more confidence flying, I will be able to use the camera.

  2. Samantha Soto says:

    David! I have taken so many of your classes. A year ago, I left your Dash classes to start pursuing my photography career. One of our inclusive services is Drone photography. This is something my husband and I do togethet. He purchased a DJI Inspire 1 and away we went. Thanks for this great article. I'll be sharing it with my husband!

  3. Andre says:

    For a long time now I consider buying a Drone. You just knock me over the edge. Will go ahead and get it. Your photos is stunning. Congrats.

  4. GARY MCKEE says:

    The camara on these how close are they to say a full frame slr what kind of options do you have with them?

  5. Andy Paton says:

    As a retired aviator I fully agree with the author. Pilots of drones must be very aware of where they are flying and if necessary have permission. Don't forget that when we aviators see a flying object we do knot know if it is a little object very close or a big one far away. Nice article, now I might go and investigate the drone world.

  6. gerald neal says:

    Hi Liz,
    When in the manual mode, Can your exposure controls be changed while the drone is
    airbourne, or must you land and make adjustments ?.
    Thanks for a very interesting article.

    • Liz Pekler says:

      Hi Gerald! I'm glad you liked the article! And yes, you can adjust settings while the drone is in-flight.

  7. Gavin MacLellan says:

    I recently purchased a Phantom 4 and like you was very cautious to start with. It is nice to see a drone article that focuses on the camera rather than the drone ans especially as the Phantom is a camera on a drone rather than a drone with a camera.
    Well done a good article.

  8. Ross Simshauser (Australia) says:

    David, I was very interested in this article on your drone. I have been researching drones for a few months
    and am edging closer to purchasing a unit. My old legs won't let me walk long distances or in difficult terrain any
    more and my photography has stalled somewhat. I think the drone would be the answer; Actually, the very
    model you have is the one that interests me the most.
    Thanks for your report.

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About Liz Pekler
Liz Pekler is a travel photographer with almost 10 years of experience in the field. When she is not out exploring the world, she likes to share her knowledge about photography and travel through writing for blogs.