How do I get started in Drone Filming?
1. Get a Drone
Drones come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, prices and intended uses. It is important to understand what sort of photography you would like to achieve, be it still or motion and to look for some key features to ensure the final output from your brand new drone is what you are after!
Dedicated camera drones are designed to be as easy to fly as possible so you can concentrate on capturing the “perfect shot”. Not all drones are the same though and it is important when you are buying a drone, or if you want to build a custom drone, you need toconsider many features to ensure your drone is going to be suitable for photography or videography.
Firstly, the drone you buy needs to be easy to fly. GPS and barometric pressure sensors are typicallyinstalled on most ready-to-fly drones and are both instruments that are there to help making the flying experience as simple as possible. These assist the pilot with smooth and stable shots especially when flying in windy and gusty conditions. The GPS will tell the flight controller if the drone is being pushed by the wind and allow the flight controller to lean the drone into wind and stop any horizontal drift, allowing you to pan around on the spot without the hassle of applying constant correction. The barometric pressure sensor will, when the throttle stick is centered, hold the current altitude of the drone. Any throttle input above half throttle will make the drone ascend, whilst any throttle input below half throttle will cause the drone to descend.
Drones such as the Yuneec Q500 4K, DJI Phantom 3, and DJI Phantom 4 are designed to have the camera operated by the pilot simultaneously. This is called single operator, while dual operator drones have one person who is in charge of focusing on flying the drone safely whilst a second person operates the framing of the camera. For professional video, dual operator is a must to produce smooth pans whilst single operator mode is fine for still photography and shooting most general video.
Return to home, also known as return to launch, is a failsafe, which records the take off position, and, when activated by either loss of signal or manual activation, the drone will fly in a line back to this pre recorded position and land. This feature is particularly useful if the pilot is flying at long distances where the drone can be difficult to orientate. You can press return to home and have the drone return and land right back at the takeoff point. Some drones, such as the Blade Chroma, have a dynamic return to home point which means rather than returning to the take off point, the drone returns to the transmitter meaning it will never be a long walk to collect it if you have moved location during the flight.
There are many factors that will need to be considered when choosing a camera for your drone. Sensor size, lens, recording format, resolution, dynamic range and ISO range all come into play when deciding what you want to snap with. Many smaller hobby drones come with a camera built in with features that will suit most hobby grade or prosumer photographers and cinematographers but if you want to produce professional, high quality photos or perhaps want to shoot in low lighting scenarios, you may need an independent camera.
Cameras such as the ones found on the DJI Phantom 3 series and DJI Inspire 1 come with a 12MP sensor and can record video in either 2.7-4K depending on the model of Phantom. To give the DJI Phantom 3 the ability to have such outstanding flight times of ~20 minutes and a take off weight of about 1 kg, all of the components are miniaturized. This results in a smaller sensor size which isn’t an issue when flying outside in broad daylight but results in poor image quality when flying in low lighting conditions.
With a wide-angle lens and durable casing, GoPros are an excellent action and sports camera. With many people owning GoPro cameras, there are a few drones on the market that will adopt them such as the Yuneec Typhoon G.
For larger drones that are able to carry heavier payloads, sometimes called commercial drones, a DSLR or DMC camera can be used to capture your aerial photos and videos. These cameras can produce very high quality imagery and still be very affordable. The sensors can come in two common sizes, full frame and micro 4/3rds. The full frame sensors as found on cameras such as the Canon 5D series are exceptional in low light conditions and produce outstanding still photos. The Panasonic DMC-GH4 has a micro 4/3rds sensor that can struggle a touch in low light situations but produces stunning 4K videos. Both of these cameras can be flown using larger hexacopters and octocopters such as the DJI Spreading Wings S900 and S1000. These hexacopters and octocopters also have the ability for an engine failure to occur and still remain airborne with the remaining motors.
Once you’ve decided which camera best suits your needs, it’s time to make sure your horizons are level. This is achieved by mounting the camera onto a gimbal, which is a device the camera mounts onto to keep the camera perfectly flat. This is achieved by using electric motors or servos in either 2 or 3 axis, the optional 3rd axis being pan to delay the movement of the camera as the drone turns resulting in silky smooth pans.
Now that we have our drone and camera, the final product you will need is a video downlink. There are many different types of video downlinks costing between $200 with a screen to $20,000. The two main types of downlinks in the 5.8Ghz range are analog or digital. Analog video transmitters in Australia have a power output of 25MW resulting in about a 200-400m range in a best-case scenario. Digital systems don’t have the same restrictions and can get up to 2km of range. Both standard definition and high definition downlinks are available with various latency differences. How good the feed is really depends on your budget.
2. Learn to Fly
As expensive as your flight controller may be, GPS lock can be lost and sometimes will be unobtainable. Drones such as the DJI Phantoms and DJI Inspire have optical flow sensors that help keep it from drifting but only work to a certain height. So what happens if you are filming the face of a cliff and you lose GPS lock because you’ve lost sight of half of the sky? Its up to you to manually fly the drone before it drifts into the side of that cliff!! There are two ways to simulate GPS failure. One is to flick the GPS capable drone into ‘attitude’ mode. This will keep the barometric pressure sensor active so the drone won’t climb or descend but it will drift with the wind. This gives you a chance to learn what controls need to be applied when GPS is lost. The second way to simulate GPS failure is to buy a small drone that does not feature GPS such as the Nano QX or Blade Zeyrok. These are very lightweight and don’t carry much momentum meaning when they crash from mistakes, they bounce and don’t break! These smaller drones are also great fun indoors which means you can still practice even when you can't fly your camera drone outside due to bad weather or when it’s too dark.
3. Learn the Law
4. Plan Your Shoot
Before you go out and film, you should have a rough idea of the style of shots you would like to achieve and how these are best achieved. This prevents the unnecessary use of battery power whilst you think of a style of shot to take, giving you more shots at the end of the day with your limited flight time. Whilst you won’t be able to plan every shot, there are many factors that may change on location and many unplanned shots will turn out to be your best. It is a good idea to write down a few styles of camera movements that you can follow to guarantee a good variety of shots and techniques.
Different shots include the following:
Overtaking Shot: The Overtaking shot is where the drone flies from behind the subject and passes by it. This overtaking maneuver is often combined with a pan of the camera as the drone sails by to create movement within the picture.
Mapping shot: A mapping shot is usually done from high altitude to capture shapes or a subject from above. The camera is pointed vertically downwards as the drone flies overhead. This is a super effective shot when flying over windy roads just following in unison with a subject.
Reveal Shot: The Reveal Shot is as it sounds and makes a great establishing shot. The camera is pointed away from the subject as the drone is flown over it. As the drone passes, the subject becomes visible in the camera's frame. This style of shot gives the viewer an understanding of the setting prior to seeing the subject in a very short space of time.
High Pan: At altitude, the drone is stationary with the camera is looking outward towards the horizon. The camera is panned around to reveal the general scenery in a broad manner. The key to a good High Pan is smooth and consistent movement. If the pan speeds up and slows down, it is very difficult and time consuming to correct it in postproduction and leaves a whiplash effect if it remains uncorrected.
Whilst drones can be flown rather high, closer shots are more effective and challenging to get. There’s nothing more exciting than a tree or edge of buildings zooming just past the corner of the frame as you fly through.
5. Prepare your Drone
"Regular maintenance is essential"
Proper drone preparation is vital to the safety of the people and property around you as well as your drones safety. There are a few things you can check to make sure your drone is in tip top condition for flight and nothing is forgotten. All of these things can be put into checklists to be followed prior to flight. Ensure all firmware is up to date, on aircraft, transmitters, cameras etc. Make sure you are using fully charged batteries. Make sure all propellers are tight/locked and are free of any cracks, chips or other defects. If any ND filters are needed, install them. Is the SD card in the camera and has it got sufficient room to record the flight? Turn the Transmitter and then the drone on. Calibrate the compass. Check to make sure the return to home height is set to an appropriate height to clear all obstacles in the flight area. Confirm the takeoff site is suitable, making sure it is clear of people and pets and that no debris will be stirred up by the drone’s downwash causing issues. If all of these points have been checked you are ready for flight!
6. Post Production
Postproduction is an essential part of drone photography and videography and often takes longer than gathering the footage itself. There are a few tricks you can use to make your drone videos/photos stand out from the rest. Adobe’s Premier Pro and Sony Vegas work well and are quite popular, but any video editing software you are most comfortable with is fine.
Correct your Horizons
During flight, camera gimbals can drift slightly leaving your footage with a crooked horizon. It’s only a minor detail but leaves a rather unpleasant viewing experience so it’s best to always make sure you correct this in post. This can be done by overlaying a straight line on top of your video and lining up the horizon so it is parallel with this line. It doesn’t take long to do for each shot and makes a world of difference.
When filming, it’s best to shoot in the flattest colour profile possible. This helps stop the sky from becoming over exposed in comparison to the ground on bright days. All of the colours are still there; they just need to be brought out in the post processing which can be done through programs such as Speedgrade, After Effects or Davinci Resolve. This will leave you with the best looking image possible and you can tweak the colours to match the mood of the video.
7. Practice, Practice, Practice
At the end of the day it all comes down to experience, trial and error and knowing limitations and what works for you and your drone. By following these few simple steps, you will have a drone suited for the your style of photography and budget, know how to stay safe and fly within the law, get the most out of your aerial photography and have the best looking videos that you possibly can!