Best drone video settings. A definitive guide for the perfect video

Getting to grips with the best drone video settings will make sure that your precious time in the sky will be well spent every time! There’s a fair amount of tinkering that we can do with the video settings to make sure that you capture drone footage in the highest quality but there’s so much more to capturing awesome shots than the settings – however, they are an excellent place to start!

The most important settings and their values are listed below. Remember that each is a guide only and will vary depending on the weather, time of day, and creative expression:

  • Codec: H.264 (8-bit)
  • Resolution: Highest your drone will allow and your computer can edit (HD or 4K)
  • Color: Normal or DLog-M (advanced users)
  • Video format: MP4 or MOV
  • White balance: Sunny or Cloudy

These settings will help you get started with your drone and for most drone videographers this really doesn’t change very much. It is not until you enter the professional range of drones (where DSLR’s are hung below the propellers) that you need to worry about really fine tuning your manual settings to achieve the perfect shots.

Now lets take a look at each of the settings and what choices you have for each:

Best codec for drone video

A codec name is a mash-up of two words = code and decode (co-dec). Very broadly, it is a computer program that uses a form of compression to shrink a large movie file (as captured by your drone) and then the codec decompresses the video from its compressed state for playback or editing.

Ultimately, every single codec that a drone uses is to achieve one thing – to store your data in as small a file as possible with no loss of quality (in reality it’s as little loss of quality as possible).

There are thousands of codecs available to use and the are grouped into a variety of different groups. These can also be broken down as:

  • Lossless codecs – as the name suggests these codecs reproduce video exactly as they are produced with no loss in quality.
  • Lossy codecs – these lose a small amount of information during the decompression stage to reduce the file size. These codecs are great for drone footage that needs to be uploaded to the internet or sent to someone via email.

For high definition drone footage, we’d recommend H.264. H.264 is a family of standards with a wide number of use cases. This is what a number of drones default settings are but take a moment to check what codec your drone uses.

Best video resolution for drone footage

It is a common feature quoted by video enthusiasts but what does video resolution really mean? You’ve probably seen drones with cameras that have 360p, 480p, 720p, 1080p and 4K resolution and you’d be right in thinking the higher number is the better.

most people make the mistake that the ‘p’ in the above numbers stands for pixels – it does not. The ‘p’ stands for progressive scan and the number refers to the number of horizontal lines that each video frame has.

Here’s a list of video qualities and the number of lines that video quality has:

Video qualityHorizontal linesVertical lines
360p360640
480p480854
720p7201280
1080p10801920
4k40961072
16:9 aspect ratio lines

It’s good practice to always record in the highest quality possible for each drone. For a lot of the prosumer type drones at the moment have a 4k maximum resolution. There are a couple of reasons why you’d record in a lower quality, even if your drone can achieve a much higher resolution:

  • Your memory card isn’t fast enough – you need an extreme speed (micro)SD card to record at an ultra-high-definition quality. Maybe you don’t want to buy an extra SD card and make use of the ones you have. That’s all good! Just drop to HD and you’ll not have an issue.
  • Your memory card is running out of spacecheck out my other blog post on how much a drone video typically takes up at different framerates and qualities. If you are running out of space you can drop the quality to fit more on the card.
  • Your client requests a certain RAW definition – some clients require very specific resolutions and formats.
  • Your computer would struggle with 4k footage – this is a little bit of a non-issue these days because you can always use a proxy. This is where the editor uses a lower resolution version of the footage for editing but then uses the 4k footage for the rendering.
  • You want a high frame rate – Some drones can only record slow-motion (high frame rate) footage at lower qualities. For example, my Mavic Air requires me to drop to 720p for 120 frames per second.

Take home message: most of the time using the highest quality footage is best.

Best frame rate for drone footage

When answering this question for yourself you need to work out what you want to do with the footage. There’s no universal “best frame rate” but it relies on the purpose of the footage.

At low frame rates, you typically have the option of 24, 25 and 30 fps. Why do we need so many. Well, there’s a long convoluted history of why these exist but the basic rules are:

  • In europe/oceana = 25 fps
  • In the USA = 24 fps or 30 fps

Really, unless you are planning on broadcasting this on a particular channel you’ll be fine with any of the above and there aren’t many people who can really see the difference between these frame rates. All will give you an excellent video!

Now for the fun stuff: slow motion footage!

Slow motion frame rate

High frame rates give you the option of slowing down your footage without having to double up on frames. Known as dropped frames. This gives you the best cinematic look. For example, you can slow 60 frames per second video down by half on a 30 frames per second video and retain the best quality possible!

I love slow motion drone footage it gives such an awe inspiring and majestic feel to the footage!

Since high frame rates are so demanding for drone cameras you almost always have to sacrifice the image resolution to achieve high frame rates. For example, my DJI drone will only record high frame rates in 1080p HD recording settings.

White balance for drone footage

Simply put, white balance is the color temperature of your drone footage. It’s basically how warm (yellow) or cold (blue) your footage looks. You are able to adjust the white balance of a drone while taking the footage or you can also adjust it in post-production. Nearly every editor has the ability to correct the color balance of videos.

White balance is measured in Kelvin – it’s named aver a scientists and engineer, Lord Kelvin – but we do not need to know the science behind it to understand what it means. Basically, different lights are warm while others are cooler and this is given a number between 1,000 and 10,000 to represent how warm the light is. Higher numbers represent warmer lights.

The goal is to make the photo look as neutral as possible. Not too warm (yellow) not too cold (blue) but just right – so the whites look white!

The light changes throughout the day and this is particularly important for drone videos. Pay attention to how the light changes and the adjustments you need to make to keep your whites white!

Auto or manual settings?

Never use “AUTO” this is why…

Many drone cameras have the capability to automatically adjust white balance while they are filming. Pay attention to whether the conditions are cloudy or sunny and adjust the settings accordingly. These are fixed values and won’t change throughout the flight, unlike the “AUTO” setting.

For most drone videographers this will be more than enough to make sure that the majority of your footage is well balanced and then you can tidy it up in post-production.

However…

If we had to be really pedantic about the shot, we need to manually set the white balance so that there are no changes during recording.

The simplest way to correct the white balance of a drone is to get a piece of white paper and manually adjust the temperature of the shot until the paper looks white. If you want to be super professional about it all there are things called “Grey cards” that professional photographers use to perfectly balance the whites in the photo. Unless you are doing stuff of a client, save your money and use a bit of white paper…

Best ISO settings for drones

In basic terms “ISO” means how bright or dark a video is. It does this by changing the sensitivity of the sensor to light. As with everything in photography, there is a trade-off. You can’t just increase the ISO to brighten an image – you will add unnecessary noise. Rather you have to balance the ISO settings with the exposure settings to achieve the brightest low noise image you can.

ISO stands for “International Organization for Standardization” and is a historical term that was used to rate the film sensitivity. Nowadays, it is used to describe the sensitivity of sensors in digital cameras.

Standard ISO values will vary a little from manufacturer to manufacturer but all will have what they call a “Base ISO”. This is the lowest sensitivity setting on the camera and will give you the best image.

A base ISO for most drone cameras is 100 – always try to use this!

If your image is too dark (like in low light conditions) you can increase the ISO – but go too far and your image will get very grainy. Where possible stick to the base ISO as much as possible.

Best aperture setting for drone video

In terrestrial photography apature settings are used to change the depth of feild. Also known as “a blury background”. I love the look of a portrait shot that has a nice soft background!

In drone footage, because we don’t often use the aperture for depth of field to achieve a blurry background, it controls how much light hits the sensor.

The aperture is called the “f-stop” on cameras and here a value from 5 – 8 is probably what you want to stick with.

You may be wondering why we are concerned with the aperture if it doesn’t give us the creative freedom that you would get with close up shots…well, if we have a particularity bright day we can use the aperture setting with filters on the front of our camera to optimize the brightness of the image mid flight…

Best shutter speed for drone video

Shutter speed is something that tells the camera how long to allow light to get through to the camera sensor. In photography, we can use the shutter speed to add a little blur to our subjects. Or use short shutter speeds to freeze fast-moving subjects in place.

In drone video, our aim is to make the video feel natural and therefore emulate the natural motion blur that our eyes experience.

As a rule of thumb, to achieve motion blur the eye is accustomed to we should ‘double’ the frame rate.  That means that for a 25 frames per second video we will set the shutter speed to 1/50th of a second.

Now, this works nicely in theory but quite often this rule results in a very, very bright image. The trick to get around this is to place a filter called a “neutral density filter” on the front for your camera lens. These filters are like sunglasses for your camera and will allow you to capture perfectly exposed footage at longer shutter speeds.

Neutral density filters

Neutral Density Filters reduce the amount of light entering your camera without affecting the colour tones. And, due to reduced exposure value, you can make full use of slow shutter speeds bringing a natural feeling to your drone videos. 

Start with a ND16 filter when filming while flying your drone during daylight.

You will need to buy packs that are specifically made for your drone model. You’d hate for them to come off during a flight. They also need to be well fitted and quality construction so that you don’t get any light leakage into the camera!

So there we have it – there are all of the settings that need some thought to perfect your drone videos. BUT and it is a big but…if you adjust all of these settings you may not end up with your best every footage.

That is because drone footage is so much more than the numbers in the software or on the camera. You have to learn how to make the settings work in the context of your filming. You have to fly the drone in such a way that makes the subject matter pop!

I love drones because they seem to be at the interface between art and science, creativity and logic…it is a craft like any other art form and so getting out there and playing with the settings. Learning how to make the best video recordings…

Failing…

again…

and again…

until you take that perfect footage. Then trying again to replicate it, only to fall short for quite some time.

Here are a few tips that can help make sure that your settings show off your video to it’s best.

How can I take better drone videos?

The first thing about drone footage is that you need to be able to fly the drone in such a way that keeps your drone stable, lights and frames the scene in the best way possible. Here’s a quick rundown on what you need to do to make your drone videos awesome:

  • Fly with or against the wind – Some smaller commercial drones struggle with crosswinds. Consider flying your drone with or against the wind. Be careful, always leave from the take off point against the wind. You don’t want to run our of battery battling against the wind to get back!
  • Don’t fly when it is gusty – low, the regular breeze is your friend if there are wind gusts reconsider your flight time and day.
  • Fly slow – speed up the footage in post-production if you need a fast flyby. I don’t do this when there are other things in the frame that can give away the speedup footage (like waves or traffic)
  • Combine multiple movements for cinematic effects – use panning, sideways and forward motion to make complex panning effects that just look cool. Hold the movement for longer than you think. I often count to 20 once the drone is in a steady motion to make sure I have enough footage for editing.
  • Use High frame rates for slow motion – as we discussed above!
  • Fly in the golden hour – some of my best lit shots have been due to flying at the golden hour (one hour after or before sunset) it really makes the footage great!
  • Avoid having the sun directly in front of the camera (accept at golden hour) – avoid lens flaring unless that is your creative decision!
The Author

Dr Andrew Stapleton is a writer and YouTuber with a PhD in science. He has written and/or produced videos for Science Alert, COSMOS magazine, and Australia's Science Channel among others. Andy started droneflyingpro.com to share his love and the research of all things drone! He has been a drone pilot for many years and has flown many types of drone. His favorite is still the DJI Mavic Air for the portability and functionality packed into a small and portable drone!