In this article, we look at various different techniques to help you improve your drone videography skills.
Alright, so you’ve bought your first drone. It’s just been delivered by Amazon and you’re buzzing. Pun intended. This brand new, shiny, high-tech flying machine is guaranteed to take your filmmaking and drone videography to the next level. This is it. Right?
Aerial footage really can improve and add so much to your filmmaking skillset. However, it’s not quite as simple as taking it out of the box and hitting that take-off button on the screen. To really capture great drone footage, you need to work for it.
Before you’re even airborne, there are a few essential things you can do that will have an instant impact on the footage you come away with from any flight.
1. Think About Your Shots
Firstly, think about your shots. You wouldn’t go into any other shoot with a ‘normal’ camera without having a shot list, or at least an idea of what shots you want, right? We hope not! So why should your drone videography be any different?
When you get to a location, or even before you arrive at the location you’re flying, you need to think about what shots you want. In other words, you should storyboard a sequence of shots in your head.
For example, say you’re exploring a waterfall in Iceland. You’ll want to get a shot from above the waterfall, looking straight down as you rise up.
Secondly, you’ll want to get one moving forward towards it, low to the ground. Then you may want to get a wide shot circling the falls as a ‘point of interest’. You get the idea. Planning your shots before you take off ensures you get the most out of your drone battery whilst in the air.
Top tip: if you have the benefit of planning ahead, use Google Earth to scout out your location. It’s an amazing tool that’s free and helps you really understand and ‘see’ a place before you’ve ever visited it.
2. Buy Some ND Filters
You may have heard of these little things before and with good reason. They’re a drone pilot’s best friend. The chances are if you’re reading this, you want your footage to be as cinematic as possible.
Therefore, you need your shutter speed to remain low (probably 1/50). ND filters are basically sunglasses for your drone that allow you to stay low on the shutter speed without all of the highlights (or everything) being blown-up and over-exposed. Very, very useful.
If you’re happy to spend so much on your drone you may as well spend a little more to get these!
3. Check Your Settings
Talking about keeping your shutter speed low, it’s important to be in control of your drone’s camera settings. Most importantly, if your drone allows, shoot in a custom style where you can set the contrast, saturation, sharpness, and many other things.
You may want to introduce certain things onto your flight screen such as the histogram, or the rule-of-thirds grid. All of these things can assist you in capturing the best drone videography possible.
Furthermore, if you’re particularly comfortable with your drone knowledge, you can look at changing the yaw, the pitch, the roll, and throttle. This will change how your drone moves in the air and how responsive and sensitive it is to what you’re doing on the sticks.
You should only try this if you’re comfortable and know what it is that you’re changing!
Shoot in a picture profile that’s really flat (low saturation, no contrast). This will allow you to do a lot more in the edit when it comes to how the final footage looks (colors, tones, styles). Of course, color grading is a whole other topic!
4. Study Other Drone Videography
You’re probably already doing this one. It’s really important to watch and study other people’s drone videography online.
Is there a favorite YouTuber you watch? Do you know a cinematographer who gets amazing drone footage? Have a look at their videos and analyze what they’re doing in the air. Think about what you would do to get the shots you admire.
With all of the above checked off, you should now feel pretty confident and ready to go. However, there is plenty more you can do whilst airborne to improve that drone footage even further.
5. Foreground vs Background
Depending on what you’re capturing, is it possible for you to focus on something in the foreground? If yes, have the foreground subject moving in your shot against the background.
This creates real depth and interesting shots that capture your viewer’s attention. It’s a simple but very effective drone shot.
6. Slow That Drone Down, Kid
If you’ve watched a lot of drone videography, what’s the one thing all of the bad to average videos have in common? Speed. Just because your drone can go that fast, doesn’t mean it has to.
The most beautiful drone footage is often quite slow. Be gentle on the sticks and move your drone around at a slower pace. This allows the viewers to take in everything in front of them.
Once you’ve hit record it’s really important to keep everything as smooth and calm as possible. If the drone suddenly and erratically changes direction, the camera will snap to filming something different. How many times have you seen this? It’s very jarring and will disrupt your audience’s viewing experience.
If you’re struggling to rein in the speed consider using ‘Tripod Mode’. Most DJI drones have the option and it really does help.
On the other hand, in direct contrast to what I just told you, sometimes speed is great! You could try getting as low as possible and have the drone move forward at full speed. The ground or sea should race past the camera which always looks great. Of course, use your common sense with this one and stay safe!
7. Don’t Just Go For The Wide Shot
Due to the nature of drones, there’s a tendency to shoot wide, Who can blame us?
You send that thing up there and before you is planet earth. A huge, big, beautiful landscape that needs to be captured. Wide shots are essential and help set the scene in any video or film but remember, you want to treat your drone filming like you would any other shoot.
To clarify, this means that you don’t just want wide shots. You also need to get medium shots, as well as close-ups.
For example, if you’re shooting property, you may start with your drone high up above the building, showcasing where it sits in the surrounding landscape and environment.
You’ll then film in a circling motion from above, focusing more on just the building, before finally capturing footage of just one part of it, showing real detail.
It’s important to use your drone for what it is. A camera. Yes, it can fly, but it’s a camera and shot variety is key!
8. Get Dynamic
Along with variety, be dynamic. Don’t be afraid to get creative with your drone videography. Too often you’ll see a video where the drone just flies directly forward, or backward. Or straight up. Yawn.
With a flying camera, you have the ability to move within a huge three-dimensional space, in any way you want. Make the most of that!
Rather than just flying forward as you look straight ahead with the camera, fly forward but have the camera facing directly down, to begin with. Then, slowly pan upward (this works well if you’re flying over the sea towards land, for instance).
Or rather than rising straight up, why not choose a focal point and circle slowly around it, starting low and gaining height as you circle?
Again, think about adding foreground against the background. You may want to start off with a close-up of something and then, as you move away from it, it reveals a much bigger background behind, transitioning into a wide shot. There are a million different options available to you so get creative and experiment.
Your gimbal is your friend here. Use it right and you can utilize your camera’s up/down movements to get some really incredible footage. If you’re flying over a mountain summit, you could have the gimbal slowly panning down so that as a result, when you fly over that summit it reveals the huge drop down or the epic view on the other side.
Drone Videography – Wrapping Up
In short, drones are awesome. But you already knew that. That’s why you have one. To really maximize and get the best out of it, putting all of these steps into action will take you far.
Above all else, however, is one single word. Practice. Just like with any other part of filmmaking, you need to put in the hours. The more you practice, the more you learn and the more you improve. Nobody becomes a drone videography pro overnight. It takes time!
As always, remember to fly safely with caution.