Aerial photography could be the perfect way to expand the sales potential of your photography offering while capturing the world in exciting and unique ways
Drone photography is easier than ever thanks to the incredibly intuitive and easy to fly drones that are now available. Not to mention, image quality has also improved massively with even the smaller and more portable sub-250g drones being able to produce excellent image quality despite their relatively small sensors.
The best image quality naturally comes from models with larger 1-inch or Four Thirds sensors, but these are larger and heavier drones. So, when choosing a drone, you always have to consider size and weight versus the best image quality possible in a consumer/prosumer drone. But whichever option you choose, you can be sure that image quality will be more than adequate for producing images for your stock portfolio.
Many of the elements of aerial photography are identical to ‘standard’ photography, so there’s a good chance you’re already halfway there, but there are some aspects of drone photography that require a specific approach. So, here are 10 tips to help you to shoot amazing aerial photography and take your stock photography to new heights…
1 Plan your shoots
Planning is an important part of any shoot, and drones are no different. In fact, there’s a little more planning involved because you need to ensure that the location where you plan to fly isn’t restricted in any way, you need to be aware of potential ground obstacles such as electricity pylons and, be sure that the weather is suitable for both drone flight and the shots you’re planning to take.
Three Android and iOS smartphone apps that are particularly useful for this; Drone Assist (and also AirMap) uses mapping to show you airspace restrictions and ground obstacles making it a must-have app; UAV Forecast provides drone-specific weather information about the weather conditions and ultimately whether or not it’s good to fly, while RainToday provides rain information for the next hour and works well alongside UAV Forecast.
2 Use Google Maps and OS maps to identify potential locations
Many photographers simply carry a drone alongside their regular photographic kit to provide additional shooting opportunities when on location. This is a fantastic way of working because it allows you to respond to locations in an instant, but there will undoubtedly be times when you simply want to head out with only your drone.
For these occasions, Google Maps and OS Maps online are excellent tools for discovering potential drone photography locations. Google Maps provides a satellite view, which is perfect for seeing the ground from above in photographic form, while OS Maps online provide more topographical information that better helps to understand ground features such as hills. Used in combination, Google Maps and OS Maps allow you to see the ground in two incredibly useful ways that are invaluable when searching for new and unique potential drone locations.
3 Switch on exposure and composition guides
Most drones, through their smartphone apps and/or smart controllers, offer the ability to switch on both compositional and exposure guides that can help to make shooting quicker and ultimately easier and more effective. In the screengrab above, five visual guides have been switched on and each plays an important role in either exposure or composition.
For composition, the rule-of-thirds grid naturally aids composition with the diagonal lines helping when composing diagonals. The centre cross clearly marks the centre of the frame, which is useful for central compositions, and along with the other guides helps to ensure the subject is perfectly straight. For exposure, the histogram provides information about the tonal values of the scene with the zebras (overexposure warning) providing an instant visual warning of blown highlights.
4 Shoot in Raw
There’s a lot that you can do with JPEGs in terms of processing, and for photography beginners it can remove the need to process images. But for the ultimate level of control and the ability to make more significant adjustments, shooting in Raw is always the best option. All higher-quality drones can capture DNGs which opens up huge potential for processing images in software such as Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop.
Some images will require more processing than others, but it’s always best to ensure that the adjustments you make aren’t so heavy-handed that images don’t look overprocessed. It’s also best not to over-stylise images because this also moves things along from looking natural and could be the difference between making a stock sale or not. Apply what’s required and a little extra is fine, but less is often more when it comes to processing.
5 Shoot in the best light
Just like ground-based landscape photography, aerial photography is best shot around sunrise and sunset when light is softer, shadows are more dramatic and there’s vibrant colour from the low sun. You can, of course, shoot in the middle of the day when there’s a break in cloud that creates interesting light, or scattered cloud that provides areas of light and shade. But shooting in harsh light will often result in images that look flat and ultimately boring.
Brighter days are still better than overcast days because the smaller sensors in many drones respond better to brighter light. But by shooting in the aforementioned conditions, you’ll experience that all-important brightness but with more pleasing light hitting the landscape that will help you to create much more interesting images.
6 Use HDR to maintain detail
One of the problems with drones when shooting landscapes, when compared to standard cameras, is that you can’t use ND graduated filters to maintain sky detail in high-contrast scenes. The answer to this is to shoot HDR (high dynamic range) images. This is where you bracket three or five exposures so that detail is captured in the shadows, midtones and highlights, and the resulting three or five exposures are merged into one image using Adobe Lightroom or HDR software.
Many drones offer AEB (automatic exposure bracketing) so you can capture the desired exposures with a single press of the shutter button. You simply set the middle/correct exposure for the ground and the camera will calculate the under and overexposed shots based on this exposure. Drones often offer the option of three or five bracketed exposures when using AEB, but since these are only set at one-stop increments it’s usually best to select five exposures.
7 Use compositional devices
When you have a drone in the air looking over a landscape and revealing a new and exciting viewpoint, it can be all too easy to throw everything you know about composition out of the window. The image on the screen looks amazing so you take what is essentially a snapshot rather than a more considered photo because what’s being presented looks amazing in itself.
Take a moment to compose the shot thoughtfully, using the rule-of-thirds to give scenes balance. And don’t forget to use lead-in lines and foreground interest to help guide the viewers’ eye into the scene when there are elements of the scene that could perform these functions. Also, look for symmetry and diagonals, and don’t be afraid to place the subject or focal point in the centre of the frame when it looks best.
The image above uses the rule-of-thirds as the basis of the composition where a farm is placed on the bottom right power point and the sky occupies the top third of the frame. Features in the landscape have also been used as lead-in lines to the sunlit farm, but then the eye is drawn further into the scene.
8 Look for alternative camera angles and viewpoints
The ability to get a camera into the air not only means you can enjoy elevated viewpoints to provide images you could never take from ground level, but they also allow you to look straight down on the world for a bird’s eye view. This type of viewpoint is commonly referred to as a top-down shot and with the right type of subject, it can be a rewarding approach.
You can shoot standard landscapes with this approach, but those that are simple, symmetrical or have interesting lines and shapes often look best. The rules of composition still apply here, but in most cases the rule-of-thirds or a centrally composed subject will provide the best results. Plus, you can sometimes get away with shooting in lighting conditions that wouldn’t work for a more traditionally composed aerial landscape shot.
9 A high altitude isn’t always necessary
When you first get a drone, many new pilots send it straight up to the maximum legal altitude of 120m to see how everything looks from up there. Some scenes will require this altitude, while others may only require an altitude of 50m, for instance. But having a drone doesn’t mean you have to always shoot from a high altitude.
The beauty of a drone is that it can be flown into places that you might not normally be able to reach on foot, so you may only require an altitude of one or two metres like the shot above. Another option is to fly just above head height at three or four metres. Viewers will subconsciously identify something different about the shot, but it won’t necessarily be obvious that it was taken with a drone and this can be a subtle yet interesting visual element.
10 Leave space for copy
When selling images for stock, it can often be useful to leave space for copy. Editorial space is a clean or clear area of an image where designers can place text in a magazine or adverts. This space doesn’t have to be a solid colour, it just needs to be uncluttered of detail like the shot above. In this image, white text could be placed in multiple areas, but you don’t have to have quite as much potential space for copy.
If you’re shooting a scene with a strong focal point, take a photo with your desired composition but also take another with the focal point on the left or right vertical line of the rule-of-thirds grid. This will leave copy space to the side, whether in landscape or portrait format, but in the case of the former, it would allow the image to be used as a DPS (double page spread).
James is a freelance photographer and journalist producing content for photography magazines and websites and is a former deputy editor of Practical Photography magazine. He’s also the author of The Digital Darkroom: The Definitive Guide to Photo Editing.View all articles