Simple Tips for Better Drone Photography

After shooting drone photography for about a year, I've picked up on some tips that have really made a big difference in the quality of photos that I produce. While some of these just require a lot of practice, many are simple methods or settings that yield surprising results that can help take your photography to the next level, even if you are just a hobbyist. The primary drone that I use for photography is the DJI Phantom 4, so while these tips are based on my experience with that drone (and DJI in general), many of these tips apply to any drone.

1. Shoot RAW

This one is easy. Make sure that you are shooting in RAW all the time. RAW is the native format that the camera uses to store all the information it captures from the sensor, including details about the white balance, brightness, and color.

The alternative JPEG option processes and compresses the RAW image into a simple array of dots with color information, with no data on what the camera sensor recorded. In short, you want to use your computer to do the processing from RAW to JPEG, not the camera, since your computer is much more powerful and can apply smarter edits by using as much sensor data as possible. The only cost is storage space, but that is cheap and easily expandable.

2. Shoot in D-LOG Color

When I first started shooting, I was surprised at how over saturated my images were looking. In the image below, for instance, the greens seemed to be very strong and unrealistic:

To fix this, I started using a different color mode on the Phantom 4 called D-LOG.

D-LOG is a color mode that applies a flat color profile. This allows the sensor to pick up a greater dynamic range, which helps bring out more details in shadows and mitigate washed out areas from bright lights. The catch is that the images captured are intended to be processed (edited) with software, so essentially you are the one deciding what the coloring looks like, not the camera. This means that the images will at first look bland, gray, and undersaturated (especially within the DJI Go app), so make sure to process them (add color and contrast) to take advantage of D-LOG. You will be surprised how much of a difference it can make between a good picture and a great picture.

Compare the picture above with this image shot with D-LOG. I realize the locations are different, but hopefully you can see how much better the dark areas are captured and the flatter color scheme:

And with just a few tweaks, the picture came out quite nice:

3. Use Bracketing and HDR

Bracketing is the process of taking multiple photos of the same scene at different exposures. This is mostly used to create HDR photography by combining the photos in software. I've already written a separate guide on how to take HDR photos. Given that the DJI Phantom 4 has a somewhat limited dynamic range (the Phantom 4 Pro is much better), many drone photographers shoot exclusively HDR photography. My advice is to experiment around with HDR, but use it conservatively for when the dynamic range of the picture demands it, like sunsets. Here's an example of the dramatic effect HDR can bring:

Even if you don't really like the HDR style, the other reason you may want to use bracketing is that it gives you several different images to choose from afterwards if you didn't get the exposure level you were hoping for.

4. Shoot During the Golden Hours

This is common advice for photographers, but is even more important in the air. The golden hours are sunrise and sunset, where the sun gives a warm temperature to your pictures (like the one above!). From the sky, the golden light spreads across large areas, often giving off a nice gradient and highlighting certain areas, giving more options for creative shots. Be quick though, sunrise and sunset pass quickly, and drones take more time to prepare than a hand camera!

5. Shoot Boring Objects

One of the great surprises with aerial photography is how seemingly boring, everyday scenes can look so fascinating from the sky, sort of like how the city you live in looks completely different as you take off in an airplane looking down at it. There's something about viewing the earth at a few hundred feet that makes everything seem so grand, but small. In some ways, I've yet to take a boring picture from the sky. Don't assume that what you see from the ground will be the same from the sky. Geometries and sizes are completely different from high above, and you will find designs that you didn't realize existed. The picture below is one of my favorites - even though its just a dirt road with some trees that would look incredibly boring from the ground.

6. Take a Lot of Photos

When you are just starting out, it can be difficult to take nicely composed shots from the air. After all, you are also focused on flying the bird and it can be hard to see the picture on a relatively dim screen outdoors. The result is that a lot of your pictures just won't turn out that well. After almost every flight, I regret not taking more pictures, even though I thought I was clicking too much in the sky. The simple solution is to take way more pictures than you think you need. With each shot, change your position/orientation just a little bit. It's amazing how 50 ft of altitude can completely change the composition of the same object, from the amount of detail, to opening up the surrounding scenery. You will probably only save about 10% of the pictures you take, so give yourself plenty to choose from! Pro photographers might scoff at this shotgun approach, but the truth is that taking pictures from up in the air is a lot more difficult than on the ground, and this well help you learn faster as to what pictures work and which don't. As you get better, you'll find that it doesn't take as many pictures to get it right, but until then, fire away.

7. Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds is a very well known rule in the photography field and is no different in the sky. Try to line up the interesting parts of your shots at the intersection of the lines in a 3x3 grid. This helps bring balance to the subjects in the shot and is more pleasing to viewers. Remember that if you can't quite line it up while in the air, you can always crop it to some degree.

8. Take the Time to Post Process

Photographers will like to tell you that the best shot is the one that you don't have to edit, or it's always better to take it right the first time than rely on post processing to fix it. That is all true in theory, but the reality is that most consumer drones have cameras that are marginally better than those found in mobile phones and thus will come with a lot of limitations that can be mitigated with a good photo editor. Specifically with the DJI Phantom 4, its weak points are color saturation, noise, and focus/clarity - all of which can be fixed in an editor. I rarely post an image online straight off the drone - even a little editing gives a nice touch. Get yourself a nice RAW photography software. I recommend Adobe Lightroom as a good start, but there are many others that will work well, even at low cost.

9. Fly a Lot!

Finally, fly as much as possible. The better pilot you become, the more you can focus on taking great pictures and not as much on flying (though don't forget you are doing just that!). Build up muscle memory with the drone controls so you can quickly position your drone where you want it without thinking too much. This will allow you to capture your shots quicker and make little adjustments with great precision to capture the perfect shot.

Hopefully you find these tips useful in taking better aerial photos. Feel free to share additional tips in the comments!