How to get smooth drone footage

You have probably bought a drone because you have been in awe of the footage that you have seen online. There are some people who are doing some amazing things with drones that cost very little. Just like every creative tool, learning to use a drone properly is important if you are going to get the smooth drone footage and cinematic feeling that you want. Manufacturers are making it easier and easier to get cinematic footage out of the box with ends like cinematic mode and tripod mode but, there are also some things that you need to learn and practice so that you can get the smooth drone footage you have always wanted to.

Getting smooth drone footage is as easy as changing the EXP settings of your drone – this controls the responsiveness of the drone to the joysticks – and learning to take advantage of various artificial intelligence modes for smoothing out your footage. Also, learning to fly the drone predictably will also enable you to capture incredibly smooth drone footage.

Here are the ways and tips you can use to capture the amazingly smooth drone footage you have always dreamt of. Bear in mind that sometimes it is simply not possible to get super smooth drone footage because of either the drone or a combination of the drone and the environmental conditions that you are flying in.

How to get smooth drone footage

Getting smooth drone footage will rely on you learning how to fly the drone properly and control every aspect of its movements. Also, learning about the interplay between the joystick movements and the drone’s interpretation of those movements will allow you to become a better drone pilot and cinematographer.

Change EXP settings on your drone

Changing your EXP settings on your drone is one of the quickest ways to get smoother drone footage and have much greater control over your drone. These settings interpret your controller stick movements and translate that to the movement of the drone. They essentially control how much and how quickly the drone will move given the movement of the joysticks.

Access them by going here: Main Controller Settings > Advanced Settings > EXP

In the settings you will see three graphs with exponential curves on them. You can change the fraction below each of the graphs to change the shape. You can also use your finger to manually change the shape of the graph by moving the curve. Try changing the settings to a lower value for example, 0.15 to see how that changes the joystick response.

Change the Gimbal settings

The Gimbal is a very important part of the drone. It is a stabilising feature as well as allowing you to pan up down, left and right. If you want to use the Gimbal movements as well as the drone movements (which is where you get the most cinematic feeling from your footage). You can change the sensitivity of the Gimbal’s movement by going into the DJI GO4 app and selecting a configuration whilst also changing the Max Gimbal pitch speed, the Gimbal pitch smoothness and allows you to extend the Gimbal tilt limit – which could get you shots of the propellers.

How to get smooth drone footage

Changing the smoothness and the speed means that your footage has a higher chance of being smooth than if you were to try to control the movement of the camera manually without changing the settings.

Play about with the different settings until you find one that makes you comfortable and provide you with the sorts of shots that you want.

Go easy on the controls

No matter how good of a pilot people become it can be very difficult to fully relax while you are flying your drone. It is a combination of wanting to make sure that you get the perfect shot with the time pressures of the drone batteries slowly counting down.

If you want smooth footage you should ease up on all of the controls and joysticks irrespective of the EXP settings that you have set for your drone.

Practice makes perfect when using a drone. If you want to know more about how to practice flying a drone check out my other articles, below:

Practising combining different combinations of drone movements and Gimbal movements gives you the best opportunity to capture amazing cinematic footage. I always combine at least three different movements, for example roll right, yaw left and Gimbal pan up, to get some incredible footage.

Fly in calm conditions

Sometimes, as drone pilots we want to be flying in every sort of condition. However, you can only capture amazing footage if the weather allows you to. The maximum wind speed at which you can capture smooth footage will depend on the model of your drone and the maximum power output of the motors. Also, the more propellers you have the better the footage will be because more propellers provide a more stability.

If you want super smooth drone footage you need to fly in as calm conditions as possible for the area that you are flying in. It could be that you want to fly in a coastal environment – this will mean that getting zero wind will require you to head down to the location in the early morning before the wind has picked up.

Investing in a bigger more powerful drone with more propellers will allow you to fly in more conditions but comes at quite a significant price. However, drone manufacturers are making more and more powerful drones at lower price points which makes hobby filmmakers very excited.

Fly backwards

A lot of the time we capture footage flying forwards. The issue about flying forwards is that the nose of the aircraft points down and there is a real possibility that the propellers can come into field of view of the camera.

Even if the propellers do not come 100% into the frame, they can interfere with the light entering the camera and cast shadows which can be seen on the lens. This will give the effect of a choppiness which is hard to identify when you review the footage on your computer.

Flying backwards allows the nose of the drone to point upwards and the Gimbal can remain pointing down or forwards and you do not run the risk of having the propellers create any light wash or come completely into frame.

Flying backwards I have also found results in a significantly smoother footage than flying forwards. It could just be my confirmation bias but sometimes when I’m really struggling to get the footage I require I simply reverse out of the scene and it always works out better.

Record your entire flight

Sometimes the most effective tips are the simplest – and I believe this is one of those.

Sometimes we can overcomplicate the act of collecting footage. Ultimately, all we have to do is push record and then go on the flight of our dreams. The thing is that the world has different plans to us most of the time. The shot that you thought you would get you did not get but there were other amazing moments to rate your flight – you just need to make sure that you are recording it.

By recording your entire flight you can use other parts of the flight (which are smoother) that you wouldn’t have otherwise been able to use. Sometimes, when I have returned from a drone flight I noticed that the shop that I had planned has some form of wobbliness or instability which makes it hard for me to use. Most of the time all I have to do is look for parts of the flight that are long enough and smooth enough for me to use and slotted right into the narrative that I am creating.

My ultimate tip is to record your entire flight (if you have the space for it on your SD card or internal drone memory). You won’t run the risk of missing some incredible shots.

Practice your manual controls

Practising your manual controls irrespective of the settings of your drone will get you more comfortable planning and positioning for the ultimate smooth shots. YouTube content creator Casey Neistat uses drone footage only when it doesn’t look like it has been captured by a drone.

People have become very used to seeing drone footage in content and are very sensitive to the stability artefacts that can be seen when the drone is trying to stay still.

Practising controlling the drone manually whilst capturing footage allows you to counteract some of the unnatural drone movement which can put off some viewers.

Use automatic flight modes

Because drone manufacturers want you to have the best time flying their drones they have developed a range of automatic flight modes which enable you to capture smooth footage easily. The most popular of the DJI automatic flight modes for capturing smooth footage are cinematic flight mode and tripod mode.

How to get smooth drone footage

Cinematic flight mode

Cinematic flight mode changes how the drone flys. It extends the aircraft breaking distance and reduces its rotation speed. This means that when you let go of the controls the aircraft slows down gently until it stops keeping the footage smooth and stable even if your controller movements are not.

Turning on DJI cinematic mode is relatively simple and all you must do is go into the drone settings and select the cinematic flight mode.

When you are flying in cinematic Road you must be aware that the top speed is significantly slower than in your normal mode. So, if your battery is running out turn off cinematic mode to return home.

Tripod mode

Tripod mode significantly reduces the speed of your drone to about 2.2 mph for the DJI Mavic pro and approximately 5.6 mph for bigger drones. Tripod mode allows you to make very fine adjustments to the drone’s position whilst travelling forward. It results in a greater stability as the Gimbal has to work less hard to counteract movements of the drone.

This is great for using indoors and when you’re flying close to the ground or want to pass obstacles closely.

The tripod mode is available for you in the automatic flight options of the DJI app alongside other features such as active track, smart capture, cinematic mode, tap fly, and point of interest.

Use course lock

DJI also has one of the best automatic flight modes that you can use to capture smooth footage. This is called course lock. A good rundown of course lock can be seen in the video, below:

Essentially, this forces the drone to move along a fixed axis and line. I using the right joystick you can move along or reverse backwards on that line.

Course lock means that your drone will always move in the same direction and will make it easier for the Gimbal and the software to counteract any movements of the drone such as yaw and pan.

Slow down the pan

Panning your drone is a very common way of keeping a subject in frame. However, panning the drone at very high frame rates can result in choppiness of the footage.

If you want to look at more reasons why your drone footage is choppy check out my other article – why is my drone footage choppy? [Solved] – click here to be taken to article.

Slowing down your pan rate is a simple way of reducing the effect of a fast shutter speed.

Reduce shutter speed

The shutter speed can sometimes be set too high if you are not using a neutral density filter. The neutral density filter is like your sunglasses for your drone and will reduce the amount of light that enters the sensor and will stop you from overexposing the video (making it to white).

The thing is that our eyes are used to seeing motion blur. Motion blur is something that gives the footage a sense of flow and smoothness. If you are capturing drone footage at a very high shutter speed each individual frame is going to be incredibly sharp and defined. Because our eyes are not used to seeing very sharp and defined movement it can look choppy.

If you think that this is part of the reason why your drone is capturing unstable footage have a look at the individual frames of the video and check for motion blur. If each frame is perfectly in focus and none of them are blurry during fast movements, you may want to reduce the shutter speed.

Buy a bigger more powerful drone

Lastly, if you want more cinematic footage with your drone you can also look at upgrading your drone into a bigger more powerful one.

Drones fly in a range of conditions and the more powerful the motors and the more numerous the propellers the better the footage. The more stable drones tend to have 6+ motors and propellers and are also much bigger so they have more leverage in the sky to counteract any wind gusts or other environmental conditions.

The good news is that drone manufacturers are creating more and more inexpensive drones which can capture smooth footage. For example the DJI Mavic air 2 is one of the most incredible cinematography drones currently available and it is at a very reasonable price. That said, even its predecessor – the DJI Mavic air – can capture some incredible footage and many YouTubers have been known to use the DJI Mavic air as it is inexpensive and easy to carry to locations.

 

Post processing

Sometimes we don’t notice the instability of our footage until we get home. Here are some of the ways that you can stabilise your footage in post processing which I have used with great success.

Use stabilization

Most software video editing packages have the ability to stabilise footage using a range of different technologies. In Adobe Premier pro there are warped stabilisers which do a fantastic job at smoothing out the effects of flying a drone in windy conditions.

Motion blur

At times the reason a drone video doesn’t look smooth is because there is no motion blur. Motion blur is something that our eyes equate with smoothness and if a video is frame rate is too high and the movement of the drone is too quick we can interpret the continually focused shot as not smooth.

You can reduce the shutter speed to increase the amount of motion blur but you can also add this in post processing to smooth out your footage and it is particularly important if your drone is moving quickly through the scene.

Slow down the footage

If you are lucky enough to have a drone with a high frame rate capture at high definition you can slow down the footage without any doubling up of frames. I recommend that you record in the frame rate that you are exporting in unless you want to do super slow motion shots of your drone videos.

Recording at 60 frames per second allows you to slow the video down significantly and provide a supersmooth viewing experience for your audience.

Summary

Getting smooth drone footage is a combination of knowing exactly what to do with the drone in terms of automatic flight modes and configuration of the joystick settings with post processing tips and tricks.

Ultimately, you should practice getting smooth footage as often as possible so that you can easily reproduce the best combination of approaches for capturing smooth footage when the time matters! I’m in no doubt that you will be able to produce footage that you are proud of with a little bit of practice and patience.

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!