The Handbook of Drone Photography: A Complete Guide to the New Art of Do-It-Yourself Aerial Photography
WHAT IS A DRONE?
A drone is a type of unmanned aircraft either controlled remotely by a pilot on the ground, or by a series of onboard electronics, or by both. Drones have their roots in the military, whereby governments could perform aerial combat operations without risking the safety of their pilots. Today, the word “drone” is also used to describe a different set of technology that’s not defined by military exploits. This term has come to represent UAVs, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. In the context of this book, I will be using both drone and UAV interchangeably to describe the more innocuous variety of unmanned aircraft that’s designed for aerial photography and videography purposes. Camera drones, to be specific, have exploded onto the scene in the last handful of years, allowing the everyday consumer to get professional-grade aerial imagery that was once only possible with a sizeable helicopter budget. In an incredibly short span of time, these devices have advanced considerably paving the way for a wide variety of applications and uses.
For example, farmers can now use camera drones to survey crops that stretch across a multi-acre field, property owners or insurance companies can inspect a vast array of infrastructure for damage, police or fire departments can use UAVs for search and rescue operations or to inform their emergency responses, and cartographers can send aircraft into the sky to map surrounding areas. Companies like Amazon are even exploring how they can use drones to deliver products into your backyard in under 30 minutes.
As a photographer, my excitement with drones is driven by aesthetic and artistic urges. With UAV technology, you can elevate your imagery to literal and figurative heights. This book zeroes in on the photographic side of drone tech, teaching you the best practices as you ease into this emerging medium.
THE ANATOMY OF A DRONE
Let’s break down the anatomy of a standard camera drone. Depending on whether the drone is a quadcopter, hexcopter, or octocopter, the UAV will either have four, six, or eight arms, respectively. These arms extend outward from the drone body and have motors positioned at the end of them. The motors spin and provide lift to the aircraft when propellers are attached. At the center of the UAV’s frame exists sophisticated electronic systems. These electronics communicate with the remote control used by the pilot on the ground and can also assist the operator in keeping the flight smooth. Below that frame, a camera gimbal sits. A gimbal is a pivoting mechanism that allows the drone operator to move the camera around and keeps the lens still and stable while the UAV is in motion. Then there’s a battery, which supplies power to the entire aircraft—out to the motors and down to the gimbal. Lastly, there’s the aircraft’s legs or landing gears, which allow the drone to safely touchdown without exposing any other parts of the UAV to damage.
The vast majority of camera drones are quadcopters—or drones reliant on four arms and four propellers for lift. Quadcopters are the standard drone model and they have long defined the market because they’re cheaply constructed and easily sold. However, quadcopters lack certain redundancies. Hexcopters and octocopters, although rare to find in commercial ready-to-fly systems, have more motors, and thus have greater lift and greater redundancy in case of possible motor failure. Because of these extra motors, hexcopter and octocopters are able to safely land even in the unlikely event of motor failure. Naturally, these larger, redundant systems are typically less transportable and come with a heftier price tag as well. In general, larger copters also take greater piloting and maintenance know-how. Drones have sparked artists to create huge inroads with unique explorations into verticality, offering a heightened vision for the everyday consumer. While the camera drone market has truly taken off in the past few years, the technology itself is still in its infancy. Like any piece of consumer technology, UAVs will certainly be refined over time—increasingly characterized by more intelligent features and autonomous functionality. Naturally, drone models have become more and more sophisticated as marketplace competition has intensified over this exploding tech sector. Currently, there are some fundamental obstacles that limit the strength of contemporary UAV technology. First and foremost, operating a camera remotely has its own set of complications. A live view screen that enables an artist on the ground to see in real time what the camera sees is essential. Without a live video output, aerial imagery and videography becomes a matter of guesswork, severely limiting the medium’s artistic function. Furthermore, drone operators need to have remote control over the camera in order to time the shutter’s release. Correct timing is not only a pillar of effective imagery, but with regards to drone photography, timing means you don’t have to fill your memory cards with undesired photographs that are shot in an interval shutter release mode.
Beyond the need for your camera drone to offer a live view screen with remote shutter release capabilities, there are certain criteria you should use to evaluate all UAV products. Of course, price point and ease of use are paramount to any purchasing decision you might make, but let’s delve into other factors.
CHOOSING A DRONE
Camera quality is one vital criterion, as that dictates the visual attributes of your final product. To assess camera quality is to assess camera models, and to assess camera models is to assess a drone’s payload. Payload is the amount of weight a drone can carry through the air. Smaller payloads mean greater maneuverability and battery life. The simple fact is that most commercial camera drone models utilize small, lightweight camera systems with small, lower-resolution sensors to reduce the aircraft’s payload. One reason why GoPros are popular in the drone realm is because they can output high-quality media from an incredibly small camera model. However, many photographers require higher quality camera models to get professional results.
Towards that purpose, my recommendation is to seek out drone products based on the camera’s sensor size instead of megapixel count. This is a technical concept, but essentially sensor size is of greater importance to the quality of a digitally outputted image than the number of pixels the camera is able to capture. Furthermore, to fully utilize the digital capacity of your camera, look for a drone that can process raw, uncompressed files. Additionally, seek out camera lenses with low-light ability (identify models with large apertures) and limited distortion. Distortion or the abnormal curvature of a scene, can make the edges of your frame appear wide-open and loose. As a matter of personal preference, I try to avoid distorted camera drones and when my images have visible distortion, I try to correct that curvature with post-processing software like Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop. On the other hand, distortion can enhance an image if you’re endeavoring to accentuate an object’s size within the larger context of the landscape.
Battery life is another consideration as flight time can be a seriously limiting factor. The vast majority of camera drone models have flight times that fall in the 10 to 30 minute range. While most models allow you to purchase additional batteries to swap out as needed, this process still requires you to land your UAV before you can get the drone back into the air with a fresh set of batteries. Note that a drone product’s posted flight time isn’t entirely usable. These time ranges are the maximum amount of time for which your UAV can remain suspended, but most manufacturers will warn you to land your drone before your aircraft’s battery reaches a critical low point. Battery life is of practical relevance because getting incredible drone photography requires even greater discernment, purposefulness, and efficiency when you have less time in the air. When your usable flight time is just a handful of minutes, you can only explore a small slice of your surrounding environment. As a result, you need to have a basic vision in place before you can start your motors. If your ultimate goal is to create stunning aerial imagery, you should use your airborne time to distill rather than discover your vision. Of course, there are serendipitous stories that you can stumble across in the air, but your storytelling ability is in many ways impacted by the limits of your UAV’s battery.
THE CAMERA DRONE MARKET
Choosing a commercial drone model that works for you comes down to your needs. For the reasons I previously mentioned, I will only be evaluating commercial, ready-to-fly camera drones that have a live view screen and allow for remote shutter release. Nonetheless, there are plenty of options to construct your own drone for more advanced technical needs. Online communities such as DIY Drones are great for those hoping to embark on their own UAV build.
The drone photography market currently has a few major players that compete with each other for market share. DJI, a Chinese powerhouse, essentially created the consumer camera drone market with the launch of the Phantom Original back in 2013. DJI moves the most drone product of any manufacturer in the industry and for good reason. Every DJI product that I’ve ever had the chance to test I’ve found both intuitive and approachable. You don’t need to be an expert drone pilot to competently operate their merchandise. GoPro has become a key part of the camera drone market as well, first as a popular attachment camera, and now debuting its own UAV model, the Karma, in 2016. Then there’s 3DR, which in 2015 debuted the Solo, a camera drone with deep GoPro integration. Parrot offers a few integrated camera drone models as well with its Bebop series. Lastly, there’s Yuneec, another Chinese company whose products have impressive hardware specs.
Now that you know the industry’s major players, let’s explore which drone product or products might work best for you. No matter what UAV model you ultimately choose to put into the sky, you need to feel comfortable with it both as a pilot and as an artist. Sometimes, the mechanics of an aerial system can become an afterthought for photographers such as myself. Our primary concern is the end result and whether our aerial system can reliably deliver results. In my opinion, DJI currently manufacturers the best camera drones on the market and it offers multiple product lines which fulfill drastically different needs. DJI’s drones are the gold standard—they’re feature-rich and do a fantastic job with low-light and long exposure photography. The only downside to purchasing a DJI product is customer service. DJI has been growing at a remarkable speed and it has struggled to maintain high-level customer service throughout its expansion.
On the lower end of the price spectrum, there’s DJI’s Phantom series. DJI’s latest iteration is the Phantom 4, which is perhaps the greatest bang for your buck drone on the market. It’s the prosumer option for those wanting high-end features at a modest price. The UAV boasts a 20mm f/2.8 lens with 12 megapixel (or MP) Adobe DNG RAW files for photographers and 4k at 30fps for videographers. The Phantom 4’s spectacular 28-minute battery life and extended range is also impressive, but the product’s greatest feature is its new obstacle avoidance technology. With two forward-facing sensors, the Phantom 4 can prevent crashes by maneuvering around visible obstructions. This is one of the first commercial drone models to offer this new technology, and I expect to see obstacle avoidance become a standard feature on drone models fairly soon. From my personal tests with the product, the Phantom fares pretty well with sizeable obstacles. My concern is the lack of sensors on the other sides of the Phantom. As the sense and avoid system only works with forward-facing obstacles, the drone will not detect objects on the left, right, or rear sides of the aircraft when you’re flying. Obviously, obstacle avoidance is no substitute for true piloting skill, but it’s an awesome safety feature to offer customers. Lastly, the Phantom has multiple intelligent flight modes, which can assist videographers with technically difficult moves. At $1,399, the Phantom 4 is the right drone for most anyone hoping to embark into the world of drone photography. The Phantom 4 is likely a good fit for you unless you require a higher quality camera, want focal length variability, or need the flexibility of moving your camera completely independent of the drone.
Since the release of the Phantom 4, DJI has released an even smaller drone model with comparable versatility to its pricier companion. The Mavic Pro bears the same quality camera as the Phantom 4, but with the added ability to collapse the arms and bring the bird down to a smaller and even more transportable size. A drone that can fit in your hand opens the door for a whole range of new and additional uses. The Mavic Pro also sports a 28mm f/2.2 lens, obstacle avoidance technology and a 27-minute maximum flight time all for $999. The Mavic Pro looks poised to dethrone the Phantom 4 as one of the greatest values on the drone market, however I cannot recommend the product until I’ve tested it out for myself, and at time of writing, the Mavic Pro hasn’t even shipped to its first customers.
DJI’s Inspire series is a tier above the Phantom series across the board—be it camera quality, size, or price tag. The Inspire 1 RAW is an awesome option for serious aerial photographers and especially for videographers. At $5,999, what can an Inspire do that a Phantom cannot? First, the model’s integrated camera can be freely moved in any direction no matter where the drone is pointing. Inspires can work with two controllers—one designated for a pilot and a separate controller just for a camera operator. This additional precision is game changing for videographers as it opens up a world of possibilities, but it’s less critical for still photographers. If you wish to use only one controller, you can still aim the camera in any direction using the DJI Go App. Inspires also have retractable landing gears that lift above the body of the drone in flight. This feature goes hand-in-hand with the ability to move the camera in any direction. Without retractable landing gears, the legs of the drone would block the camera’s view as the gimbal swivels around. In addition, the camera sits so low below the aircraft, that you will never get spinning propellers within your frame (as is possible with Phantom models). The Inspire 1 RAW even boasts the ability to interchange lenses. As the selection of compatible lenses grows, I have become increasingly impressed with this aspect of the Inspire. Although the Inspire 1 RAW ships with a 15mm f/1.7 lens, the ability to extend your focal length range to up to 45mm is a huge benefit. Wide-angle lenses are very limiting in the artistic stories that you are able to tell and the ability to throw on a different focal length lens is an exciting prospect for a ready-to-fly drone system. Ultimately, the biggest selling point for the Inspire is camera quality. With a Micro Four Thirds sensor, especially in terms of sensor size, the Inspire 1 RAW blows the Phantom 4 out of the water. The drone shoots 16MP stills as well. This results in practically DSLR camera quality imagery from the sky. The obvious disadvantages of the Inspire are decreased battery life (the 15-minute advertised battery life is on the lower end of the drone flight time spectrum), lessened portability due to size, and a remarkably higher price tag.
There does exist a step beyond the Inspire for those hoping to get full sized camera bodies into the air. Given the recent release of the Inspire 1 RAW, in my opinion, this is only practical for videographers that are making Hollywood grade productions, but if you’re interested in flying professional payloads, both DJI and Freefly Systems offer industrial grade drone solutions that you can explore.
There are a few substantial alternatives to DJI that you should consider as well. Yuneec is one brand to watch in the drone space. Its product, the Typhoon H, has very notable specs and features. At $1299, the Typhoon offers up a 14mm f/2.8 lens and 12MP images while utilizing the same size sensor as the Phantom 4. The Typhoon has comparable sense and avoid sensors to the Phantom 4 and has a 25-minute flight time. The camera can even do some things its competitors cannot—like move freely and independently of the drone’s movement. Even though the aircraft is small, it’s a hexcopter with six motors and propellers (in terms of safety, that means the drone should be able to land even in the unlikely event of motor failure) and retractable legs. These are elements not found in DJI’s flagship model. Given the company’s modest size, Yuneec also has a decent customer service track record. The key issue with the Typhoon is its inferior long exposure ability (the Typhoon can only manage 1.30th of a second, but the Phantom 4 allows for eight-second exposures) and range. Depending on the speed of your subject, 1/30th of a second may not be a long enough exposure to adequately introduce a sense of motion into your frame. DJI products consistently have the best range, but the Typhoon’s one-mile maximum range shouldn’t matter if you’re maintaining line of sight with your aircraft as is legally required in the United States. Yuneec has a superb alternative to the Phantom 4 on its hands with the Typhoon H. Although I have not yet gotten my hands on a Typhoon (so I can’t speak to its fluidity or ease of use), based on specs alone this UAV is worth a try.
The GoPro Karma is a wonderful option for videographers looking to branch out into the drone space. Working with a GoPro camera you may already have (the Hero 4 or 5), the Karma offers the ability to collapse its arms and legs to an incredibly manageable size making it one of the most compact and nimble camera drones on the market. The camera, which of course is a GoPro product, can shoot 12 MP RAW stills and 4k video at 30fps. The drone features a detachable gimbal, something that can be removed from the bird and placed on the Karma Grip, a device that ships with the UAV and allows videographers to get incredibly stable handheld footage while on the ground. With a 20-minute flight time, the Karma’s ergonomic controller utilizes a built-in screen, eliminating the need for a smart phone. However, GoPro has a mobile companion app where another person can control the camera and choreograph shots on their phone, while the pilot continues to guide the craft with the main controller. Meanwhile, companies such as DJI, make you spend hundreds of dollars on an additional controller for dual person operations. At $799 (without the GoPro camera) and given its size and flexibility, The GoPro Karma is the ideal drone for budding videographers or anyone who already owns a GoPro Hero 4 or 5.
The 3DR Solo, which is essentially a “smart drone” that works with your GoPro, is another option. The Solo’s value is in its ability to do difficult cinematographic maneuvers for you while functioning with a camera you may already own. At $999 (minus the GoPro camera), the Solo is an impressive, compact drone product. With GoPro now retailing its own drone, the GoPro Karma becomes a much more worthwhile investment, as the company knows how to take better advantage of its own camera product.
Parrot’s Bebop series is another alternative. At $549, the Parrot Bebop 2 uses the same size sensor as the Phantom 4, but offers higher megapixel images (14MP) shot in RAW format as well. This compact model also offers a 25-minute flight time to boot. The Bebop is operable with your mobile device, however you can purchase a remote controller separately. The Skycontroller, Parrot’s sleek controller, which mimics the look and feel of an airplane’s yoke, would bring the total cost of the drone up to $799. In terms of video functions (1080p and 30fps) and especially flight range, the Bebop lags significantly behind its competitors. In fact, the Parrot Bebop 2 is arguably more of a toy drone than a professional camera drone model. However, the Parrot Bebop 2 may be the right UAV for you if you’re looking for an inexpensive still camera drone stripped down to its bare necessities.
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