From Ground to Air: An Introduction to Drone Photography

June 02, 2017

Drones are a common sight in the skies these days, and they're used in an amazing array of different activities. Some people fly them for fun and others like to race them. They can even be used to deliver products and medical supplies – but one of their most popular and exciting applications is in photography. Drones give photographers a bird's-eye view of the planet. Dramatic aerial shots, once the preserve of professional photographers with big budgets, are now accessible to all.

What is a drone?

A drone is an unmanned aerial vehicle, or a UAV. That means they can be flown and navigated without an on-board pilot. Drones originated in the military, where they still have a variety of uses. They can access hard to reach or dangerous places, carry out surveillance, and undertake special missions with minimal intrusion. Some military drones are as large as planes and need runways to take off, others are tiny.

Advances in technology have led to an explosion in the production of small, affordable drones for consumers. They can be launched by hand, and you can pick from hundreds of different models online or in stores. A simple drone can cost under $100, and more complex vehicles can be several thousands of dollars. There are numerous drones, many from third-party manufacturers, which users can consider for photography purposes.

You launch and navigate your drone using a controller — usually a hand-held remote control or a smart device — that communicates with the UAV using radio signals or Wi-Fi®. Most drones are powered by a battery, and many have GPS to track their position and a gyroscope (a special type of spinning disc) to keep them stabilized.

Types of drones

Different drones are designed for different purposes. Models that are good for freestyle flying or racing will be fast and easy to maneuver, while delivery drones are engineered to carry a payload most efficiently.

The type of drone that is most commonly used for taking photographs is a multi-rotor drone. These are drones that have more than two rotors (sets of vertical propellers). The most popular consumer drone is a quadcopter, which has four rotors mounted on the corners of the vehicle. A tricopter has three rotors, a hexacopter has six, and an octocopter has eight.

Selecting the right drone for your Canon camera

As you will be using your Canon camera to take photographs, you do not need a drone with a built-in camera. However, you will need to choose a drone that is compatible with your camera model, whether it is lightweight, compact, or a full-sized DSLR. Here are some factors to consider that will help narrow down your search.

• Number of rotors

Drones with a higher number of rotors have more lift. Choose a drone that has enough lift to be able to take off with your specific model of camera and lens attached. A DSLR, for example, may require the extra lift that a hexacopter or octocopter offers — even with a relatively compact lens attached. Lightweight cameras do not need as much lift and can often be carried on a quadcopter.

• Mounts

You need to be able to securely attach your camera to your drone. This is done using a specially designed mount, which usually suspends the camera below the vehicle. Some drones come with camera mounts, but you can also buy them separately. Make sure that the mount is compatible with your specific Canon camera model, and the lens you intend to use.

• Weight

A drone's weight-bearing capacity is one of the most important factors to keep in mind. A drone that can't take the weight of your camera won't launch. Or worse, it will get off the ground but soon crash down again, resulting in a broken kit.

A Canon compact or mirrorless camera will weigh less than a full-size DSLR. For example — a Canon EOS M5 or M6 “mirrorless” camera body weighs about half of what a full-frame camera like an EOS 6D or 5D Mark IV weighs. When buying your drone, make sure you know the weight of your camera — and lenses. Then cross-check this with the drone's weight-bearing specifications.

To cut down on weight, drones have lightweight batteries. However, that means less flying time, usually between 10 and 20 minutes. Tip: When you go out to shoot, remember to take a spare battery with you.

• Stability

When you are taking still photographs, it's important to choose a drone that is stable and easy to control. To ensure that your image isn't blurry, you will probably want to hover steadily over a subject or landscape. Most drones contain gyroscopes to ensure smooth flight and hovering. Look for a drone that has a good reputation for stability and self-stabilizing capabilities. It's helpful to check consumer reviews and to browse online forums related to drone photography.

• Controllers

As we mentioned earlier, you launch and navigate your drone using a controller. This is a remote, hand-held device that tells the drone what to do. It usually communicates with the vehicle via radio signals or Wi-Fi. These devices come in different shapes and sizes, and often look like the controllers used in gaming. Joysticks or directional buttons are usually used to control flight.

Some drones are controlled by apps that are accessed via a smartphone or other device with a screen, which can be handy for monitoring your shots. You can also monitor your photographs by choosing a hand-held controller that can be connected to your smartphone. Make sure that the controller has a shutter button, or other control function, that allows you to take your shot.

Using a drone safely – including legal considerations

Before you start, be sure that you understand how to use your drone safely. Mid-air collisions, damage to property, and injury to people and animals are real possibilities, especially when you are a novice drone user. There have even been accounts of commercial aircraft pilots encountering high-altitude drones during flights.

Privacy also needs to be taken into consideration. Drones have a history of being used for surveillance and they can get into hard-to-reach places. This has raised some concern amongst the public. While it can be tempting to be nosey, doing so can get you into a lot of trouble. We urge you in the strongest possible terms to always respect private property and the privacy of civilians, and to never use a drone for unauthorized surveillance purposes.

Many countries have regulations and guidelines in place that are designed to ensure that public safety and privacy are protected. Make sure that you are up to speed with local policies and trespassing laws regarding where and how you can fly your drone.

In the US, for example, you have to be over 13 to fly a drone and you need to register your drone if it weighs over 55 pounds.  It's advisable to consider registering your drone with federal authorities, even if it's below that 55-pound threshold. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has issued the following safety guidelines:

• Fly at or below 400 feet
• Keep your drone within sight at all times when it's airborne
• Never fly near other aircraft, especially near airports (there are US laws which prohibit drone operation within a 5-mile radius of airports)
• Never fly over groups of people
• Never fly over stadiums or sports events
• Never fly near areas where there are emergency response efforts, like fires
• Never fly under the influence
• Be aware of airspace requirements

Equally important — beyond FAA regulations in the USA, there are local and state laws which also regulate drone operation.  It's absolutely your responsibility to know all relevant laws about drone operation in the area(s) you're considering using them in.  Just one example — in New York City, there's a city ordinance that prohibits drone take-offs and landings on city park property.

Tips for still photography

Here are some handy tips to ensure you that you get the best out of your drone and your camera:

Keep an eye on the weather forecast. Wind can make flying drones difficult and dangerous. Clear, still days are best - unless you want to capture dark and moody landscapes. The weather can change quickly in certain regions, so plan ahead.

Get a bird's-eye view. While keeping within flight height guidelines, raising your drone's altitude will ensure that you get a stunning viewpoint and a dramatic shot.

Think about your location. Congested areas with high buildings are going to be a more difficult and dangerous to fly in than open spaces with few obstructions.

Beware of birds. You may be able to control your drone, but birds have minds of their own. Remember that you will be sharing airspace with our unpredictable, feathered friends.

Use a short lens. Long lenses are more likely to be damaged by wind and their size and weight can interfere with flying.  Furthermore, they require even faster shutter speeds to ensure sharp, vibration-free images.

Use a fast shutter speed. To create sharp images, a shutter speed of 1/500 or faster is recommended.  

Practice makes perfect: You might want to start out practicing with a cheaper drone and then move up to a more expensive model.

Tips for video

Nearly all recently-introduced Canon EOS and PowerShot digital cameras can record HD or Full HD video, as well as shoot still images. Here are some tips for capturing professional-looking aerial videography.

Use a gimbal. Gimbals are pivoted supports used to improve camera stability.  They can keep a camera anchored at a specific angle, and can be tilted to different angles as needs arise (there are numerous gimbal designs, for different cameras and shooting requirements). They keep your camera steady while it is in motion, which is essential for creating moving images that are not jerky. Some drones come with gimbals, but you may need to purchase one separately.

Plan your flight and footage. Drones do not have a long battery life, so it is important to have a clear idea of the footage you want to capture. Where will your flight start? Where will it end? Think about the factors we have already discussed, including weather conditions, altitude, and safety. Picture your flight path in your mind before you launch your drone. And remember, you must keep it within sight during the entire flight path you're planning, as you operate its controller.

Consider hiring a drone operator.  In many areas, you can find companies that will rent a suitable drone and experienced operator for your photo and video shooting needs.  This relieves you, of course, of the expense of purchasing a drone.  And beyond that, especially if you aren't considering doing aerial photography on a consistent basis, it will save you the time required to learn how to skillfully plan and operate a drone with a camera attached.

Drones can be used to shoot amazing still photographs and videos. We've covered many of the things you need to think about before buying a drone and taking your first flight. Now it's time to get out and try it for yourself. Happy flying!

The CDLC contributors are compensated spokespersons and actual users of the Canon products that they promote.

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