Aerial photography has existed for roughly 150 years now. The most popular subjects have usually been buildings (often, historically significant ones) and landscapes; however, the practice is proving to be very useful in various other applications, such as surveillance and mapping.
There are many ways to perform aerial imaging: One way is to go on top of a hill, mountain or skyscraper and take a photo from there. An even better way is via helicopter or hot-air balloon.
But I tend to focus on a new way – popular for only few years now – of doing photography. As a drone enthusiast (in particular, quadcopters), I often make aerial pictures using an unmanned aircraft system (UAS), which can reach more places and do so at a lower cost than manned aircraft.
Development of aerial photography through history
The first aerial photograph (that we have a record of) was taken in 1858 by photographer Gaspar Felix Tournachon from a hot-air balloon in a French village.
However, it wasn’t easy to capture: The photographer needed complete darkness inside the basket of his balloon. During the next few years, there were some photographers who tried to copy him, but aerial photography was still a rarity. It evolved in Europe in the first World War, when warring nations tried to determine an enemy’s position with aerial photography from airplanes. Although the pictures were not the best quality, nations did invest a lot of money in the advancement of the practice.
As a result, there were more than half a million aerial pictures taken (mostly with planes) during the war. After that, some companies began making commercial use of the imagery: e.g., aerial pictures of cities or landscapes. Aerial photography has since advanced slowly, and in recent times, drones have continued to gain prominence in the photography space.
What mistakes can you make with your drone?
I have been making aerial photography for quite some time now, but I’ve got to admit I have made quite a few mistakes – and I’m not the only one. Any new drone pilots are bound to experience problems with controlling the aircraft initially.
When I first built a drone – a simple model airplane – I flew it directly into a river. I had also attached a camera on it, and although I managed to salvage the camera in the end, the aircraft still had considerable, costly damage.
So, if you are a beginner, you might want to purchase a micro (miniature) quadcopter: They are inexpensive (many under $50) and are made specifically for novice pilots. In addition, they are quite durable and hard to break, should you crash.
Although they’re small – which might not look as cool as a big, multi-rotor UAS – they may be good to start out with when you’re learning how to pilot your device – and, if they have a camera, learning how to make aerial photography and videography at the same time.
Or, if you do decide to build your own quadcopter (like I did), then, by all means, go for it. I did so because I was particularly interested in the modeling world, and there were not many quadcopters commercially available back then.
I would, of course, also recommend looking at the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) set of rules for UAS flying – which, to sum them up, are as follows:
- Fly below 400 feet, and remain clear of surrounding obstacles;
- Keep the aircraft within visual line of sight at all times;
- Remain well clear of and do not interfere with manned aircraft operations;
- Don’t fly within five miles of an airport unless you contact the airport and control tower before flying;
- Don’t fly near people or stadiums;
- Don’t fly a UAS that weighs more than 55 lbs.; and
- Don’t be careless or reckless with your drone, or you could be fined for endangering people or other aircraft.
In addition, every drone must be registered, as recently implemented by the FAA.
Equipment and helpful hints
In the past, I have experimented quite a lot with cameras. Initially, I tried to make my own first-person-view (FPV) system, comprising my professional camera attached to a drone. The drone flew well, but the antenna was unable to send enough information. Consequently, I was left with terrible lag.
That taught me a lesson: Even today, most antennas and transceivers are not powerful enough to send large data that is usually sent by a good camera. Therefore, it is better to use a camera dedicated specifically to FPV flying. In general, I have found this method works better.
I highly recommend trying out FPV flying because you know how the picture will look like while you are taking it; this is how you can easily determine the best vantage point for taking a photo.
The following are additional, key tips for conducting aerial photography and videography with a drone:
- Note the weather conditions. It’s a good idea to check the forecast beforehand, and it might be best to wait until conditions improve before going out to fly.
- Plan your flight well. If you are trying to capture a big area, you might want to make the photos from a greater distance so that you can capture more area in one photo. If you focus on a specific object, it is better to fly closer.
- Pay attention to the camera’s adjustable features, such as contrast, lens type, ISO settings (determines the camera’s sensitivity to light), pixels and zoom.
- Invest in a gimbal. For videographers, a gimbal stabilizes the camera to remove any shaking or sudden movements.
- If your drone has it, try GPS mode, which will automatically tell your drone where to fly and stabilizes it automatically. In this mode, the drone can fly and stabilize itself, and, in turn, you can focus on getting the shot.
These tips are some that personally help me create better aerial imagery. Please note, however, that the optimal way to improve your skill is through practice.
It’s like riding a bicycle: Tips are helpful, but you can only learn by actually getting on the bike and riding it yourself.
Thomas Foster is an aerial photographer, quadcopter enthusiast and owner of bestquadwithcamera.com.
Photo courtesy of Thomas Foster