I have owned my Phantom 3 Professional for a little over a year now and started off only shooting video. Recently, I have really grown to love the photography capabilities of the drone. I am not claiming to be an expert, but I believe I have valuable insight to help improve your aerial photography. In addition to the 10 tips I have listed below, number one tip is to get out and shoot as much as you can! I learn by constantly taking and editing photos.
1. Keep ISO Low
When shooting in low light such as a sunset/sunrise or at night it is important to keep your ISO as low as possible. When pushing your ISO to 800 or above you are going to notice a significant amount of noise or grain on the photograph. So instead of increasing your ISO to increase your exposure, the shutter speed should be slowed down/lengthened. Many drones including the Phantom 3/4 are able to shoot sharp clear photos with shutter speeds up to 3 seconds depending on wind conditions.
Shot at ISO 400 and 1/15 shutter
2. Shoot RAW
This is what will separate professional photos from average looking photos. If you chose to only shot JPEG, your photos will never reach their full potential. The Phantom 3 only shoots 12MP photos and when that is compressed into a JPEG you will lose lots of the data. RAW photos allow you to fully edit the photograph yourself without letting the camera process it for you. RAW photos will have the appearance of being “flat,” but they allow you to edit every aspect of the photograph. For example if you underexposed a portion of you image, you are able to get back those shadows and expose correctly in an editing program such as Lightroom.
Before and After RAW photograph
3. Aim Down
The reason you probably bought a drone was to capture the world from a new and unique point of view that most people wouldn’t be able to. So create content that is unique! I found that the majority of drone photographs that I take and ones that I really like, tend to be aimed straight down. I am not saying that this is the only way to take drone photographs, but this certainly creates one the most unique angles. The world looks so different looking straight down and there are endless patterns to observe. I run across many drone photographs that are taken aimed at the horizon and I do not find them as unique as those pointed downwards. Something as simple as a neighborhood can look awesome and many patterns can be found from a drone aimed straight down.
Neighborhood looks like a perfect grid aimed down
4. Get Up Close And Personal
A common beginner mistake is to fly your drone as high as you can then start taking pictures. Hopefully you only fly to 400 feet because any higher would be illegal, but the higher you fly the less detail you achieve in your photos. The Phantom 3 and other similarly priced drones do not shoot the highest detailed photos. This is for a couple reasons; the sensor is very small, the lens is very wide angled, and the camera only shoots 12MB photographs. The closer you get to your target the more detail you can retain. So instead of shooting only a photo of an entire bridge, get lower and shoot only a third of the bridge or maybe just one beam from up close.
Focused on a certain portion of the dock and not the entire area
The Adobe programs are not the cheapest out there, but if you really care about your photography it is the only way to go. The combination of shooting RAW photographs and editing on Lightroom is hard to beat. Photoshop is the next step up from Lightroom, but a completely different animal to learn. Lightroom is simple to use for beginners and has features that experts can take advantage of. The photographs straight out of the Phantom 3 camera or other similar drones are quite boring and always have room to improve. Just simple adjustments can be done such as opening up the shadows, adding contrast, adding saturation, and brightening up the image can take your photography from bland to exciting very quickly
Lightroom / Adobe cc
Bracketing is very important with drone photography; over 90 percent of my photographs are taken using this technique. If you have ever taken a single drone photo you will have experienced a portion of the photo to be overexposed or underexposed. For example, if you take a photo of the horizon either your sky will be overexposed or the land will be underexposed. Bracketing fixes this problem by taking several photos that are underexposed and overexposed. The Phantom 3 allows you to take either 3 or 5 photos total. After the photographs are uploaded into a program such as Lightroom/Photoshop, you can simply combine them into one photo that is properly exposed throughout the entire photo. Not only is this helpful to combine into an HDR photo, but if do not nail your exposure correctly, the additional images taken could be used instead.
AEB 3 shot photographs with Phantom 3
7. Different Lighting
Don’t think that you only should take your drone out during perfect conditions or only in the middle of the afternoon. Some of my most favorite photographs were taken during different hours of the day rather than the middle of the afternoon. During sunset or sunrise you will encounter unique lighting and colors that you will never see during the middle of the day. Not only will you get different lighting, but also during these times of the day the shadows will look amazing from high above.
Shot during sunset in Laguna Beach, CA
8. Subject / Story
My favorite drone photographs are always the ones that are showcasing a person or a subject that tell a story to the viewer. When you can tell a story with your photograph viewers can fully immerse themselves in the story. Photograph your subject involved in the surrounding environment. An example of this could be a car driving through a mountain road with pine trees coming up toward the drone, or a paddle boarder paddling through the busy harbor. Instead of taking a photograph on top of a mountain or the just the scenery, ask your buddy to stand on the top looking out toward the scenery. This allows the viewer to image what its like to be on the edge of that mountain.
Relaxing in a donut floaty is the story of the photograph
9. Develop a plan
It is important that you are somewhat familiar with the area you are planning to fly at prior to getting there. Since most drones only have 20-30 minutes flight time max, you need to make the most of your time in the sky. Prior to flying the best way to research the area you are going, is to use Google Earth or a similar website that shows satellite images. The satellite image wont show you every little detail but it will help so you get a general idea of the things you may or may not want to photograph. Having a plan set out before you get there will make your flight go much smoother.
Bus Station on Google Earth
Bus Station taken with Phantom 3 Professional
10. 4x3 And Instagram
The Phantom 3 and many other drones allow you to shoot still images in an aspect ratio of either 4x3 or 16x9. 16x9 should really only be left for use on video, for stills you should only shoot 4x3. 4x3 uses the entire sensor and produces a larger image than 16x9, which crops off the top and the bottom slightly. In postproduction you can always crop the 4x3 image to 16x9 or what ever aspect you may choose. You may have noticed that some images are more vertically long vs others that are square or horizontally long on Instagram. To achieve that vertically long crop use the aspect ratio of 4x5 or 8x10. When scrolling through Instagram and you run into a vertically long photo, it draws your attention because it is larger and you are more inclined to stop your scrolling and check it out.
4x3 image flipped vertically and cropped for better composition