Drones Capture Video Like No Other Technology

When it comes to capturing aerial shots, nothing can beat a drone flown by an experienced pilot working along side a good photographer. Newbies to the technology benefit from learning by those already up-to-speed. Read on.

2014 was allegedly the year of the selfie and The Telegraph was quick to herald 2015 as the year of the ‘dronie’, i.e. the sky selfie. It has been making the rounds on Instagram for quite a while now and the first company to put it to work for it was Twitter, at the Cannes Lions advertising industry festival. And now Tourism New Zealand is offering skiers and snowboarding aficionados an 8 second clip taken by one of its two DJI Phantom Vision2 drones. The tourists then receive the videos on their phones and are encouraged to share them on social media, under the hashtag #NZdronie.

Why drones are especially valuable to photography and film making

All of the above would lead one to believe that the trend just popped up overnight and instantly rose to fame, at the same time as tiny action cameras (cue the GoPro revolution). However, the concepts of aerial photography and videography have been around for as long as the technologies themselves—and they’ve been revolutionizing art and society in the process. André Kertész’s famous aerial photos of shadows cast by human silhouettes are influential to this day. Some drone photographers, such as Tomas Van Houtryve, employ the technique to get spectacular shots.

Drones have also been used to highlight societal and environmental concerns, such as China’s pollution and bureaucracy, recently explored by Edward Burtynsky and his drone. Drones are, of course, used by paparazzi, who are trying to sneak in on celebrity weddings with newfound ease. Major news channels have used them to relay the situation cause by the Philippines’ Typhoon Haiyan—and new ways of exploring their benefits are bound to crop up, as both technology and image-capturing techniques evolve. They’re already becoming apparent, thanks to the dedicated community on Dronestagram: one of its members successfully photographed an eagle for a National Geographic competition by flying only a few inches above it.

In case you’re wondering why the world needed drones—as if helicopters weren’t enough!—prepare to reconsider. They can fly a lot closer to the ground, some are small enough to successfully fly through tree branches, and they can successfully orbit tower steeples. A skilled drone pilot can fly one only inches away from a wall and professional-grade models are stabilized to hold up in the face of high winds and find their way back safely with the help of their built-in GPS system. A 2011 BBC documentary titled Earthflight used the comparatively more silent drone to shoot flamingo birds, which the sound of a chopper would have definitely scared away.

Shown here is a Vulcan Multiframe UAV. A key feature is that the frame is built  from high-quality quality carbon Fibre and is fully customizable. Users can change the frame design to support different gimbles and camera loads.

Shown here is a Vulcan Multiframe UAV. A key feature is that the frame is built from high-quality quality carbon Fibre and is fully customizable. Users can change the frame design to support different gimbles and camera loads.

Types of shots only a drone can get

If you’re just getting started with drones, it might be a good idea to check out a comprehensive guide first. Because shooting with a drone both is and is not at all like any other image-capturing technology you’ve used before. In terms of technique, it somewhat resembles shooting with a jib, steadycam, or dolly. There’s no ground to keep you in place, of course, but the focus is still on making very small movements and moving at the slowest and smoothest possible pace. By and large, most aerial imagery taken by drones is based on the following essential types of shots:

  1. The still shot. The camera remains motionless, while recording the motion of its subject(s)
  2. Crane shots. The following shots all belong in this category and are among the easiest you can pull off. They can all be used as establishing shots. All you need to do is start your drone, point it in a particular direction, then yaw (or pan) to whichever side you choose, all the while keeping your subject in view.
    a.The pan shot. This involves moving the camera from one side to the other, at any speed and angle the videographer chooses to do so.
    b.The pedestal shot. The camera moves up or down the subject, in a parallel movement.
    c.The tracking/dolly shot. In this shot, the camera is moving at the same pace with the subject, horizontally parallel to their movement.
  3. The strafe/side-slide. This type of shot starts with the subject off-camera and continues by heading toward it in a straight line. As the subject enters the frame, pan across it to one side and let the subject slide across and out of the frame.
  4. The orbit-by/wellsfar. More on the full orbit and its complexities follows below. For beginners, though, it might be safer and less daunting to focus on achieving an orbit-by. Start your drone by flying toward your subject, but slightly off to one side, then pan away, with the subject still in frame. Move backward and away.

But, aside from these essentials, there are several more complex shots you can take, either by combining the techniques above, or by finding creative ways to reveal your subject. Here are some interesting ways of capturing aerial footage:

  • Shoot for the details first. One way to create a dramatic full reveal of your scene is to start the shot with a close focus on relevant details, then pan out, up, and away, to show the entire setting.
  • Start from the foreground. Identify an interesting subject in the foreground, pan vertically on it, then reveal the entire scope of the scene. This works very well when shooting in a forest with a valley, river, or lake nearby, in a theater or over a stadium, etc.
  • Line of sight. Establish a straight line through the objects framed within your shot, then maneuver the drone straight toward or away from you. This is actually far easier to achieve for beginner drone pilots, then flying a drone around an object. This latter scenario requires you to adjust your depth-of-field perception, which would be even further reduced by the distance from your subject. A good tip is to identify objects forming a straight line in your proximity (think trees or a narrow ravine/canyon) and try to use speed and motion to add a sense of excitement to your shots. Do bear in mind that these are some of the most dangerous, if not the most technical or difficult shots you can aim for. They are definitely not recommended without an FPV device, nor in the absence of finely honed spatial relations.
  • The orbit. If the above was the most dangerous, this one is the most difficult type of drone shot, since it involves both great skills, as well as good hardware. First off, you’re going to need the best possible gimbal, with significant stabilization potential. Then, you’re also going to require a lot of practice—not to mention a good FPV. The trick to getting this kind of shot right is to keep the pan/yaw pace steady, while also maintaining a constant distance from the object you’re shooting. Finally, the speed of your UAV needs to be steady for best results. 
Capturing fast-paced action, especial if the object turns, requires both an experienced pilot and high-quality equipment.

Capturing fast-paced action, especial if the object turns, requires both an experienced pilot and high-quality equipment.

The cost effectiveness of drone photography and cinematography

Let’s get something out of the way right off the bat: drone photography and filming are expensive. Sure, you can buy your first one off Amazon, at £30 a pop, but there’s no way you’re going to be able to use that drone professionally—save, perhaps, in order to get acquainted with the basics of piloting. That being said, it’s also important not to overspend when you get started. The world of drones and their accessories is infinite and the beginner might find it overwhelming and/or get carried away. Without further ado, let’s take a look at some of the costs you can expect to incur, if you seriously want to get into drone photography:

  • A professional drone: There’s no definitive ‘winner’ in this category, but, by and large, most experts recommend a DJI Phantom 1 with a GoPro Hero 4 (for small businesses) and fully equipped a 3DR Solo (upwards of £900) or a DJI Phantom 3. Or, you could wait till next year, when GoPro release their very own first drone. Whether you spend £300 or £3,000 on your drone, do make sure it has at least a gimbal and native image stabilization.
  • Other hardware: Tailor this list to your needs and make sure you don’t go overboard with your spending. Here are some extras you might want to invest to, depending on your niche:
    Propeller guards – for drones flown indoors;
    A ground station – for drones that fly long distances;
    An FPV device – for trickier shots;
    Drone flight simulator – to get a hang of the controls;
    Drone hull and liability insurance – not mandatory yet and usually costing as much as the drone itself, but useful for damage control.
  • Drone registration: The UK doesn’t have any laws that mandate the registration of drones and neither does the US—yet. However, the US’s FAA has announced such plans for 2016 or 2017 and Ireland already has the laws in place.

After all is said and done, though, there are plenty of ways to make money as a cinematographer or photographer equipped with a drone. Community site Dronelife recently launched JobForDrones.com, a listings portal for aerial photographers. As the site advertises, some of the more popular types of jobs for such professionals for hire include:

  • Mapping and 3D modelling
  • Real estate & construction
  • Wedding photography/videography
  • Sporting event coverage
  • Surveillance

--and lots more to come!

Ben Sheppard, Managing Director, Spider Aerial Filming, and UAV Pilot

Ben Sheppard, Managing Director, Spider Aerial Filming, and UAV Pilot

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