Drone photography for beginners [the complete guide]

Arguably, one of the main reasons why people want to buy a drone is to capture photos and videos of awesome locations from an awe-inspiring height. No matter if you are a new photographer or a seasoned professional drone photography has an attractive aesthetic that used to be only available to those with access to a helicopter. Drones are becoming increasingly inexpensive and accessible. With even the base models having high definition cameras. It’s such an awesome time to get into drone photography and here is everything you need to know for drone photography for beginners.

What is drone photography? 

Drone photography is, unsurprisingly, exactly what it says is like. It is the capture of still images and video by a remotely operated unmanned aerial vehicle. Drone photography allows images and video to be captured that might not otherwise be possible unless you have access to a helicopter. This is only a recent development. Technology has come on quickly, and allowed people to send a high definition camera many hundreds of metres into the sky. This has required the advancement of battery technology – batteries that are light but powerful enough to carry a camera.

Drone photography enables a first person view (FPV) of the environment. The first person view means that it is like you are in the pilot seat of the drone. Although we often think of drones as quadcopters i.e. four arms with four propellers. It can also be a fixed wing aircraft with a propeller or jet engine. The cost of a consumer drone can range anywhere from about US$25 to several thousand dollars for drones that have very specific applications. Drones increasingly use artificial intelligence and smart flight features, like GPS stabilisation, allowing even the most novice of flyers to take photos with a drone with confidence.

Let’s take a look at how hard it is to learn to fly a drone if you have never flown one before.

Is it hard to learn to fly drone?

If you want to learn more about how hard it is to learn to fly drone, I have a full article on this exact question. The article is called is it hard to learn to fly drone? [The ultimate guide] – click here to read the article.

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With the onset of advanced artificial intelligence technology and its ability to be embedded in drones, it is becoming easier and easier to fly a drone. It is common that a drone manufacturer has designed the drone to be able to be flown within minutes of opening the box. Even if you have never flown a drone before. It takes more time to read and understand the documentation than it takes to set up the drone and start flying. Automated flying technology will do things like auto hover, auto stabilise, auto return to home, and even avoid obstacles during the flights.

Although it is easy to take off, controlling the drone in a way that makes video and photos awesome takes much longer to learn. I often joke that flying a drone is like playing chess – you can learn in minutes, but it takes a lifetime to master.

So, how quickly can someone learn to fly a drone.

How long does it take to learn to fly a drone?

The answer to this question depends very much on you, your skills, and the experience that you bring to drone flying and other remote-control endeavours. Some people who buy a drone are ready to fly within minutes. What other people require many hours of practising and time with a professional instructor. Camera drones that are commercially available have such a high level of automation and sensors to keep you safe that the majority of the learning is done before you even take off. As a new pilot, all you have to do is understand the control and software that you will be using to control the camera and the drone. Quite often, within a couple of hours you will be able to confidently get the drone to do what you wanted to do and position the drone for awesome drone photos.

If, however, you want to obtain a commercial license for drone piloting it will require you to sit exams and take about 40 hours of theory. It also often contains a minimum of five hours of practical instruction with a trained drone instructor.

The cheaper the drone is the more difficult it will be to fly in a controllable and stable way. When you skimp on price often that comes at a cost to advanced flying features. These features make flying so much nicer and are completely worth the extra amount of money.

Let’s take a look at what you need to be equipped for drone photography.

What do you need for drone photography?

When you first start considering becoming a drone photographer, the price of the drone and accessories can be very offputting. A good camera drone starts from about US$500 and can go into several thousands of dollars. As soon as you read blogs and other articles online, it can seem like you need a whole mountain of accessories to get started. But what you really need is just a drone and a sense of adventure. All of the extra things like neutral density filters, a landing pad, a sun hood, and extra batteries can be purchased when you need them. Let’s take a look at the most crucial part of your drone photography kit – the drone.

A drone with a camera

clearly, this is one of the most important decisions that you will need to make before launching into the drone photography world. There are a whole range of drone’s that have cameras with a plethora of different features. It will be up to you to work out which camera drone is best suited to what you need it to do and your budget.

If you are a professional photographer and want to include drone shots in your service offering, then you will have to look at the top end range of drone products. If, however, you are on a tighter budget and want something capable but without the expense – there are plenty of great options for you.

What drones do photographers use? 

If taking photos is the main reason that you are buying a drone the one thing you should care about is the specs of the camera. This includes the lens, sensor, ISO range, shutter speed and the different photography modes that you will get with the camera.

It’s all about the camera

Drone camera technology has become smaller and so much more affordable in recent years. The miniaturization of the electronics means that they are much lighter (so drones can carry them for extended periods of time). Here are some of the most important factors of each of the components of a drone camera, starting with the lens:

Lens

When we talk about the lens, we must address all of these components:

Field of view: expressed in degrees and tells you how wide the drone can capture an image.

35 mm format equivalent: The term 35 mm equivalent focal length is a comparison of the field of view seen through a digital camera lens compared to the field of view produced by the older 35 mm film cameras.

Aperature: Also known as f-stops and controls how much light gets into the sensor and the depth of feild.

Shooting range: will tell you how close and far away you are able to focus on an object (expressed in meters and to inflinity)

Each different camera on a drone will have a different array of values for each of the above. Drones typically are not used for portrait or other close up shots so manufacturers make a lens that is suitable for long range focusing with a wide field of view for those awesome landscape shots!

Sensor

The sensor is where light lands after it passes through the lens. This is the part of the camera that turns the light into an electronic signal so that it can be processed and turned into a digital image. Here are the most important parts that you should pay close attention to:

Sensor type

CMOS – Complementary metal-oxide semiconductor. Includes solid-state circuitry at each and every photosite, and can manipulate the data for each pixel right in the sensor. The CMOS sensor can respond to lighting conditions in ways that a CCD can’t.

CCD – Charged-coupled device. Captures photons (light particles) as electrical charges in each photosite (a light-sensitive area that represents a pixel). After exposure, the charges are moved off the chip to an amplifier located in one corner of the sensor.

Effective pixels – this tells you how many pixels can respond to the incoming light and correlates with the maximum resolution of the image.

Most new camera have a CMOS type of sensor as they have better imaging processing capability. Even the Mavic Mini (DJI’s entry level drone) has this type of sensor. The number of effective pixels and the quality capable from each camera is related to price. When you are buying a more expensive drone you will always get a better camera included. That is, until you get to the professional level drones that have interchangeable cameras and sensors.

ISO range

The ISO range tells you how sensitive the sensor is to light. Low numbers require lots of light entering the camera and result in a better image. Higher settings are required when there is less light entering the camera and result in a grainy and noisy image.

ISO ranges typically start at 100 and go upwards to 12800 when operating the camera in manual mode. It’s always best to use the lowest ISO range possible and increase the amount of light entering the camera. If you are dealing with a really bright environment you should use neutral density filters (NDFs) that are like sunglasses for your camera.

Shutter speed

The shutter speed of a camera is the length of time that the camera allows light to touch the sensor. In short, it is how long your drone camera spends taking a photo.

When you use a long shutter speed the first effect that you encounter is motion blur. Motion blur can be used creatively to give a sense of movement and excitement to an image.

When the shutter speed is short it is able to “freeze” fast moving objects in place. This requires a lot more light to enter the camera as the sensor is exposed to light for only a short period of time.

The shutter speed can be anywhere from 8 seconds (lots of blur) to 1/8000 of a second (very sharp clear image). It’ll take a while for you to get a sense of what sorts of shutter speed you need to get the desired effect or creative angle that you want. Getting a drone with a longer flight time will also take the time pressure off and allow for lots of variations of the settings to capture the perfect shot.

Photography modes

One of the last important factors of drones for photography is the different photography modes that you can use. This is starting to get very technical and for most people this will not need to factor into their decision making. As an example of the different photography modes here is what the DJI Mavic 2 Pro offers:

Single shot: will take a single shot and it what most of us are used to with a camera.

Burst shooting: will take 3 – 5 quick-fire images so you can select the best one.

Auto Exposure Bracketing (AEB): The camera will choose one exposure (based upon what its metering thinks is correct) and then it will take one other shot on either side of this best guess (one over exposed and one underexposed).

Interval: Will take an image every so often as the settings dictate. Evert 2 – 60 seconds.

RAW: A RAW image offers very little processing from the image sensor. The camera saves the settings but does not process the image. There is much more freedom to edit the image but the file size can be 2 – 6 times larger than the processed version.

Taking a moment to think about the sorts of things you will shoot and how you’ll best be able to use these modes will be the best thing you can do.

What is a good beginner drone with camera?

For beginners, the best camera drones is always a balance between the functions that the drone has and price. It is very easy to look at the current drones on the market and get something that you don’t need. The slick marketing and increased feature set are always an attractive drawcard that make you want to spend more money.

Deciding on the features that you need rather than want is an important step in buying a drone. You need to ask yourself why you are buying a drone and make a list of those features that are a dealbreaker.

For most people who want to get started in the drone photography world, the Mavic mini is the perfect beginner drone for hobbyists that don’t want to spend a fortune.

These are the reasons I think is a great drone:

  • it is really inexpensive – for the sorts of photos that a lot of people want to take the social media and for fun this drone has it all.
  • 30 minutes of flight time – this flight time is as long as you’d get from much more expensive drones. This is long enough to have time to frame your shots properly.
  • It’s so small and light you can take it with you, anywhere – you can take photos from a drone if you don’t have the drone with you. Having a super light and easy to carry drone will mean that you are more likely to take it with you when you travel. I know I don’t need any excuse to not take my drone so a small drone is a no-brainer to throw in my bag.
  • GPS auto home landing – this is a little piece of mind that means that when the drone is running out of battery or you need it to come home quickly it will do so safely. It will remember the GPS location of its takeoff spot and land where you took off.
  • Introduction to DJI drones – now I like trying all sorts of different drones but the DJI drone series just is always fantastic. They are always coming up with new innovative ways to make a drone flying experience better. And if you can fly one DJI drone you can pretty much fly them all.

If you want to look at the full range of drones for drone photography check out my other article best drone for photography. Click here to see all of my options and the current best drones on the market.

best drone for photography

Once you have bought a drone that you trust and you enjoy the features of, it is time to look into a few extra accessories that will make your flying experience much more pleasant.

Extra batteries

Drone batteries can be some of the most expensive components of drone photography. That is because they are a newer technology and are made from lithium polymer composites. Having an extra battery on hand will mean that you get more flight time so you can frame your shots perfectly. I always carry at least one extra battery so that I have insurance if my flight doesn’t go as well as I would have hoped.

A sun hood

a sun hood is a piece of material that helps you see the screen of your controller in sunny situations. One of the most frustrating things can be the amount of blur you get from your screen. Even with an antiglare screen on right sunny days you can still see a reflection of yourself. Using a screen hood to shade the screen from the glaring sun is one of the best thing you can do to prove your flight experience and allow you to focus on framing the shop perfectly. It’s inexpensive and there are some hoods for pretty much every single type of control of screen.

A landing pad

a drone landing pad protects your drone from a wide variety of potential hazards while landing and taking off. It allows you to take off on sand and on dirt tracks without worrying about sand or dirt getting into any moving parts. A good landing pad will also have a bright blue or orange side so you can see it using the drones camera. A large landing pad will mean that the down wash from the rotors does not displace any loose rocks or dust when coming into land.

Neutral density filters

neutral density filters are the sunglasses for your drone camera. They are a tool that every serious drone photographer should buy at some point. They simply reduce the amount of light making its way into the camera and onto the sensor. They are called “neutral” because they do not alter the colour or Q of the image being captured.

You have to buy the neutral density filters that are specific to your drones camera. They screw or clip onto the front of the lens and need to be secure so they don’t fall off.

Drone bag

if you have a drone and you want to use it for photography carrying it to places that you want to fly is the first step. You need to buy a bag that can handle the drone, extra batteries, the controller, any charging cables, landing pads, and any other accessories that you need for your drone photography trip.

Personally, I use the everyday backpack from peak design – it’s just so awesome.

Image manipulation software

Pressing capture on the drones camera is only the first step into showing nature at its best. Every single drone photo needs to be touched up – that isn’t because the photo isn’t awesome but rather the lens and the camera capture things slightly differently from your eye. There could be artefacts like Hayes, low contrast and light flares which mean that the raw photo just doesn’t do your subject justice.

If you want a full rundown on drone photography editing software check out my seven free and paid options in my other article – click here to read more.

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There are really two options that I think you need to seriously consider when buying software for drone photography:

AirMagic – affordable AI-driven tools made specifically for drone photos. It’ll make the editing process fun and make sure that you look forward to getting back out flying again!

Gimp – if you don’t want to spend money on things you just won’t use but need the power of a full-featured image manipulator download GIMP right now!

A great drone photo editing software pack should be easy to use and allow you to save your favourite filters and tasks. Feel free to play about with the other options available to you and use a drone photography software that makes you feel the most comfortable.

How can I learn drone photography?

There are two main ways to learn how to take awesome drone photos:

  • buy a drone and get out there – this option requires you to learn as you go. You will have to learn how to fly a drone, do research on the basic and best drone photography techniques, and fail a few times and not lose interest. This is best suited to those who can learn quickly and independently and enjoy the challenge of self-improvement. It isn’t necessarily for everyone so, the next option is:
  • a drone photography course – a drone photography course will allow you to be taught by a professional drone photographer or videographer. You can unlock the true potential of your drone with half-day courses and award-winning photographers. It’ll take the guesswork out of learning and provide a structured course for continuous improvement. If you are the sort of person who likes to learn the basics quickly without fuss this is the best option for you.

However you learn to fly and take drone photos, enjoying the process is the most important thing. If you do not enjoy the process of learning about drone photography, then you will never do it. There are plenty of people who lose the motivation after they come across their first issues. Choose the best option for you and your learning style and you cannot go wrong.

One of the best places to meet other drone photography enthusiasts is on a common interest group like meet up.com. There you will come across loads of other common interest drone groups that you can attend and learn from as well. The community aspect of drone flying cannot be underestimated as it keeps people motivated and interested in the hobby.

Now, let’s take a quick look at all of the drone photography tips that will help you as a beginner start with confidence.

Drone photography tips

Here are the best drone photography tips that I can give you for starting your drone photography journey. The important thing is you don’t rush into capturing footage without doing a little bit of planning in a variety of ways…

Choose a drone you need not want

When you are first thinking about getting into drone photography it can be easy to get carried away and buy the best drone on the market. But as we have discussed, the best thing for you to do is think about the sorts of photography you wish to capture and choose a drone that is best suited to that. That is easier said than done but choosing a drone with a feature set that matches your expectations will allow you full expressive creative freedom.

You need to work with your drone and not against it.

Run some test flights

If you have a big trip or event coming up, you should practice your drone photography skills before the big photo shoot. Being underprepared is one of the worst things that can happen for your drone photography adventure. Even the smallest of technical issues like, not having updated firmware, can ruin an otherwise awesome trip.

Take your drone out for a series of test flights in various conditions and locations before you need it for an important photo shoot. Test the drone in a variety of conditions such as, high winds, in wind gusts and in sunny conditions. You will quickly work out what the limits of your skill are as well as the limits of the drone that you have. Take a variety of photos in a variety of formats to find out which is best for you. If you are using neutral density filters then you will need to work out what is best for your upcoming photo shoot.

Before you go anywhere research the drone rules

There is nothing more frustrating than planning a big international or interstate trip to find out that you cannot fly the drone where you wanted to. There are a variety of apps that allow you to research the different drone rules for different jurisdictions such as the drone mate app.

The last thing you want is a fine or for your drone to be converse skated because you are unaware of the drone rules. An important thing to note is that some people will also approach you and ask you to stop flying your drone. Even if you are allowed to I always take the approach of landing as safely and quickly as possible and apologising. There is no need for the extra stress of arguing with someone even if they are wrong.

Plan. Plan. Plan

One of my favourite sayings is – planning prevents piss poor performance. You need to plan your photo shoot as carefully and deeply as possible. This includes:

  • preflight checklist
  • shot list
  • whether checks
  • licenses and regulations
  • accessories
  • location check
  • and much more…

Sometimes, you will just go out for fun and capture what you capture. And that is just fine. However, if you want to make sure your flight is the best it can be (for example someone is paying you for it) you need to plan for every eventuality. It is super frustrating to have everything ready to go and then a silly mistake or oversight stopping your plans.

Rule of thirds and fundamentals of photography

Study the rules and fundamentals of photography so you know them like the back of your hand. There are a load of simple rules that can, if followed, make your photos particularly impressive and level up your photography skills. There are so many variables to photography that having the fundamental set in stone in your mind will allow you to bend the rules and find your style. But that happens after understanding all of the fundamentals. There are plenty of great online courses on the fundamentals of photography.

For example the composition basics are:

  • angle of view
  • point of view
  • subject placement
  • foreground and background scale
  • rule of odds
  • rule of thirds
  • removing distractions
  • and so much more…

With drone photography you are not only learning about how to pilot a drone but had to take the best photos – if you decide to take on this challenge you will be learning for a lifetime.

Drone photography ideas

If you want 20 drone photography ideas, please check out my other in-depth article – drone photography ideas – 20 ideas to level up your drone shots! Click here.

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There are a bunch of awesome ways to find new and interesting drone shots. The amount of potential drone delivers to your creative expression is unparalleled. It’s the ability to see the world from a viewpoint once reserved for birds that strikes and or inspiring frission shockwave into the most cynical of people. Like with most things, the only thing that is holding us back is our own imagination. That’s why in the article above I allow you to see the 20 best ideas for drone shots. I hope that you can use it to spark your own little bit of creativity. The list includes, perspective shifting, creating symmetry with body and objects, finding contrast in nature, tilt shift, snow shots, long shadow shots, and much more.

Check out my YouTube video for more information:

Continue to discover and find new drone photographers to inspire your style. It’s not until you have consumed a lot of other people’s photography that you can start to decipher what you want from your shots. It is a learning process not only about the drone and the camera but also about you and your creative expression.

Conclusion

There we have the ultimate guide for drone photography for beginners. There is a lot to learn but with slow and steady progress you can learn almost anything and use drone photography to wow your friends. It is an incredibly rewarding hobby that includes some of the best things in life. You get to go out in nature, express yourself creatively, record and show off your surroundings and grow a community of friends.

You won’t regret getting into this incredible hobby – happy flying my friend!

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!