Shooting from the sky

A guide to drone photography

I still remember how I felt as I launched my DJI Phantom 4 drone camera for the first time — eager, giddy, euphoric — but over these feelings lay a blanket of terror and anxiety. What if I hit something or hurt someone or something, what if a bird attacks it, or what if I crash it?
These feelings still flash through my mind with each liftoff, but I’ve trained myself to focus on operating my drone safely and smoothly, using good photographic techniques and being acutely aware of the responsibilities associated with piloting a small unmanned aircraft system, often called a drone.
Whether you’re a professional photographer or an enthusiast, setting yourself apart from all the others is an important aspect for successful imagery, and using a drone camera can provide your work with a new perspective. But there are a few things you should know before you make your purchase.
Registration and Licenses
All drones must be registered with the Federal Aviation Administration at, before they take to the air. If you plan to operate your craft according to model aircraft rules, the FAA provides you with one identification number to apply to all of your drones. If you plan to use your drone for activities such as inspecting roofs, or in my case, taking aerial photos to generate income, you’ll need a commercial pilot’s license, which I’m currently working on. Once I earn that license, I’ll change the status of my drone from recreational.
The requirements to become a licensed commercial pilot are short but very specific. You must be at least 16 years old, pass an aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-approved testing center, and pass a vetting by the Transportation Safety Administration.
The testing process is daunting and many people don’t pass the test the first time around. I belong to an online study group, as well several networks of drone camera operators to help me prepare.
The Rules
Rules are evolving when it comes to drones. It’s your job to stay current and know where you are allowed to fly. (It is illegal to fly over national parks.) You can download the free app “B4UFLY” at the App Store or Google Play Store. The app provides awareness of your current or planned operational area and additional reference resources.
On August 29, 2016, the FAA put into effect the NEW Small UAS Rule (Part 107), including all pilot and operating rules. In summary the three-page document states that:

  • Unmanned aircraft must weigh less than 55 pounds.
  • Pilots are required to fly using only visual line-of-sight unaided by any device other than corrective lenses.
  • Pilots may not operate a drone over people, under a covered structure or inside a covered stationary vehicle.
  • Pilots may not operate drones at night (from 30 minutes after sunset to 30 minutes before sunrise).
  • Pilots must yield right-of-way to manned aircraft.
  • Pilots may not fly an unmanned aircraft system faster than 100 mph or 87 knots.
  • Pilots may not fly more than 400 feet above ground level.

Working your Drone

  • Pre-flight Safety
    Always make sure it’s a safe day to fly — dry, no or low wind conditions, with good visibility and nowhere near an airport. I usually fly in the early morning around sunrise, when the air is calm and the resulting long shadows complement my compositions. Before departing make sure your firmware is up to date and all of your batteries are fully charged, including the one in your aircraft, your remote and your First Person Viewer (FPV). This can be a smartphone, tablet or other device for viewing what the aircraft sees.
    Upon arrival to your takeoff location, turn your phone to vibrate or off, and don’t look at it until you are finished flying. Make sure your propellers are free from damage and are tightly secured. Look for cracks or loose parts on your aircraft. Inspect your takeoff area for obstructions such as buildings, power poles and wires, people and animals. Calibrate your compass on a regular basis (weekly or monthly, depending on how often you fly).
  • In-flight Safety
    Stand upwind from your aircraft so that it would blow away from you if a gust of wind kicked up. You don’t need lift like a bird or a fixed-wing plane because your craft uses vertical takeoff and landing.
    Once it is airborne, check your controls by making small movements. Keep watch for potential hazards and obstacles and notice your surroundings.
    If you hear or see emergency vehicles or helicopters, land immediately. You can only get in the way, so don’t be tempted to “help.”
    Remember your craft has spinning parts that can inflict damage to whatever it hits, even if you have propeller guards. Watch out for birds, especially gulls and hawks. If you see one is following or chasing your craft, the easiest way to escape is to climb to a higher altitude.

Flying Basics
To control the images you will produce, you must learn the craft’s controls. My remote control has two joysticks and I chose to leave them configured in the default settings. Each joystick controls different movements: left controls altitude (ascend, descend) and yaw (rotate or spin) and right controls roll (side-to-side) and pitch (forward and backward).
The more you push on a joystick in any direction, the faster the craft moves. Aim to take it slow and easy, especially when you first start flying. Once you reach a safe altitude above people and other obstacles, you can move around.
Work with one joystick at a time until you clearly know what to expect when you use either one. I imagine myself as a miniature pilot sitting at the front of my craft, to keep me oriented as to which direction I’m facing and moving. I first practiced flying in square, circle and figure-eight patterns, all with the craft facing forward. Once I mastered those, I learned to face the craft in the direction it was moving, which required also using the left joystick for yaw.
My remote and tablet’s flying app, have buttons for choosing still photography or video. My remote has easy-to-find buttons on the front and bottom of the device so I don’t have to take my hands off of the joysticks to take photos. When shooting video, I must touch my iPad’s screen to start and stop, so I am careful when choosing when to switch from stills to video.
The Phantom 4’s camera is capable of photographing stills in Digital Negative, commonly referred to as “RAW” and JPG, as well as video in various increments up to 4K. Most of my
work is stills and I like the flexibility afforded when shooting in RAW format, but I also enjoy the convenience of seeing smaller, camera-processed JPG images. For this reason I chose to set the still format to shoot both digital negative and JPG.
When I purchased my system, I immediately set my video format to 4K, thinking I wanted to capture the highest possible quality. However, I quickly discovered that I didn’t have software that was sophisticated enough to handle the massive 4K files, or a computer with a 4K monitor. Rather than adding yet another learning curve to my new system, I decided I would be less frustrated by choosing the next lower video setting until I saw reason to
Extra Tips
Unless the sky is particularly dramatic, I aim the camera downward and include a small portion of sky. Higher isn’t often better and usually a lower camera angle provides more drama than a straight-down, bird’s-eye view. Normally I fly the camera to have the sun off to one side and behind the camera. This prevents lens flare, white skies and aircraft shadows in your photos.
Processing the still images is not a lot different from the workflow I use when processing my digital single lens reflex camera images. I import everything using Adobe Lightroom, view all the images, choose key images, make corrections and adjustments and export images appropriate for the purpose. Video is another matter; I am not a videographer and am not well-versed on the best software applications to employ. I feel the need to educate myself first through video tutorials from one or more of the masters of this craft, then, if necessary, follow up by taking a workshop. ♦
— Ruth Hoyt is a full-time nature photographer, writer, public speaker and consultant. She is best known for her Texas bird photography and professional guiding services on private south Texas ranches, but she also pursues landscape, flora, macro, night and more subjects.

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