By Dan Ballard & Nicole Albrecht
I look down at my Inspire 2 screen, watch my world shift in perspective with each meter gained in altitude, and wonder out loud if those who haven’t gotten into drone photography are missing out on a big secret. It completely changes the way we are able to shoot… I tell my partner who is sitting in the truck next to me, also flying her new favorite toy — the Mavic 2 Pro. With our drones, we are zipping around snowy peaks in single digit weather; but we didn’t have to brave the cold for this photoshoot. We’re flying from the comfort of our heated seats. Not a common thing for us.
But the best part of drone photography isn’t occasionally skipping out on the long hike or staying warm. It’s the freedom of artistic vision that enables us photographers to take our work to new heights. It’s trying out something completely different. It’s shooting from vantage points we never before thought possible.
As with all great tech, there are also some disheartening downsides. It’s becoming increasingly more difficult to find places to fly and you’ll quickly discover that many of the most beautiful landscapes don’t allow drones. Some countries have banned drones all together. But if you’re up for the challenge, you can Lewis and Clark your way to incredible, remote air space that is just perfect for creating stunning drone landscape photography.
We’ve just wrapped up a full year of travel — flying our drones in places like Ireland, Norway, Iceland, Kyrgyzstan and across the States. After hundreds of flights in all sorts of conditions, we’ve dialed down the techniques for putting out the highest quality images. And while there’s a bunch of great drone articles out there that break down the basics, this blog is for those looking for practical ideas from tons of time using our drones in the field. So here’s what we learned during a year of experimentation.
It’s still all about light, but…
Photography is all about and light, and it is no surprise that drone photography follows suite in this regard. If anything, light is even more important when it comes to drone photography. Very few drones have a sensor that is anywhere close to being as good as most DSLRs or mirrorless cameras these days. Consequently, you have to find conditions that are just right. You are still looking for early morning and late evening light, along with interesting weather, such as storm clouds, awesome sunrise/sunset color, fog, etc. but most drone sensors are much less forgiving of challenging situations.
This means you are looking for interesting light that works great photographically, yet is also fairly low contrast. The higher the contrast, (say shooting into the sun where the sky is super bright, but the foreground is extremely dark) the harder it is for a small drone sensor to handle the range of tones in the image. (Beginners: this is called dynamic range.) Many top full frame cameras have 14 to 15 stops of dynamic range. Most small drones have between 10 and 12.5 stops. Super dark scenes will also be challenging as you have no tripod and the high ISO noise is terrible. This is where shooting multiple images comes into play (see more below), but keep in mind if you find great even light you can get an awesome image in a single shot.
Multiple Exposures, RAW
The ideal scenario is always finding soft beautiful light that the drone can easily handle. However: you will rarely have this scenario. That’s just how landscape photography works. Good news is... there are a few tricks that allow us to work with more challenging light.
First, make sure you are only shooting in RAW. This will let you capture much more dynamic range (DR) than jpeg. Next, consider shooting multiple exposures. You can either do this manually or (depending on the drone) you may already have an easy option built in. For example, AEB mode on the Mavic 2 Pro quickly takes 3 or 5 shots over and under exposed in RAW (if it is set to RAW. I prefer this to HDR mode).By shooting multiple exposures, you can later blend the images into one, either manually or use an HDR program (Lightroom for example).
I typically just take 2 single shots and adjust the settings myself, since I usually want to focus stack and do panos. This way I can adjust the exposure for the foreground in shot one and focus there, then focus on the background for shot two and focus there. These two shots should give you all the detail needed for both exposure and focus. There will be a little movement in between shots, but thanks to modern gimbals and always-improving software, most of the time it works great. This will drastically increase the range you can capture.
Settings and ISO for more dynamic range
I keep it simple in terms of basic settings. The first and most important thing in my mind, is to shoot on manual and shoot at a max of ISO 100 in most situations. You have a lot more DR at ISO 100 than you do at higher ISO settings — especially on small drone sensors. (As discussed above that is a challenge with drone photography anyway.) Of course, you also need to ensure that you’re keeping a fast-enough shutter speed to have a sharp image. The minimum shutter speed you need will vary from drone to drone and depend on conditions (a windy day needs a faster speed for example). But I’ve found that you are normally okay with a much slower speed then you’d think.
I hate to give examples here, as there are so may variables, but 1/20 is almost always safe and I have had really good luck with much slower (even ½ sec is actually sharp most of the time). If you shoot at 2.8 and ISO 100 you can stay above 1/20 in most situations, and most of time I am in the 1/40 to 1/60 range or above. Remember your lens will be sharper as you get away from 2.8 and closer to 5.6, so if you have plenty of light don’t stay at 2.8. But if the light is low, I personally think staying at a lower ISO and getting a fast shutter speed is better then the slight softness you get at 2.8.
Simplicity is still a priority
You’ve probably heard this one before, but since it is so important, I’ll be the one to say it again. Keeping your composition clean and simple is one of the most important things in photography. Drone photography especially! The higher you fly, the more likely you are to get a lot of “stuff” in your scene. Spend some time scouting and keep your eyes peeled for super simple compositions that only add to the story you’re trying to tell. Think leading lines, interesting shapes and patterns, bold colors or anything that has a graphic feel while remaining simple. If you’re struggling to remove unwanted subjects at the corners of a scene, keep in mind you can potentially crop it out later.
More than cool aerials
I remember joking about carrying around a ladder for shooting landscapes, long before drones were available. That’s because the number of times I’ve been on the cusp of a killer image, but needed to be 10 feet higher, or out over a cliff edge, or the opposite side of that waterfall… is painful. So when I first got a drone, it was with the idea of using it just like a less limited regular camera rather than shooting aerials.
We can all appreciate the cool straight down drone shot. It’s a fun way to capture the abstract and unpredictable angles our earth reveals when we are no longer bound to its dirt. Just don’t forget that your drone can act just like a normal camera, with fewer limitations on where you can place it. You have so much to work with if you think about the drone as a way to get virtually any vantage point you can imagine.
Drone photography is still new so it’s an exciting time to be trying new techniques. For example, this a shot of a waterfall with a long exposure for the falls to blur the water. I had to take two images. One for the falls and one for the with a longer exposure time, and one for the peaks and sky with a shorter exposure time to make sure the sky wasn’t to bright and blown out. Then I manually merged them in photoshop. I also do some focal length blending with the drone when I am using the wide angle lens. Again, I won’t go into the details of that here, but it can be a powerful option if you have the skill and knowledge to use the technique.
Don’t forget about vertical panos
Unfortunately, most drones lack the ability to rotate the lens to a vertical orientation, limiting photographers to horizontal images… unless they know a work-around that is. An easy solution is to shoot three horizontal images up and down and then stitch them in Lightroom or Photoshop to make a vertical.
You take one image, then tip the lens either up or down making sure to overlap the last one by around 20% then take image two. Then, tip it up or down again, overlapping 20% and take image three. You will end up with data from a long area, spanning bottom to top or top to bottom. An editing tool such as Lightroom will easily stitch them together and produce a single DNG(RAW) image to work with. You can also get your exposure and focus right for each image and it will still stitch. This is basically doing an HDR and pano simultaneously. Sure, it can be a pain to juggle all of this when you are also focused on not crashing, battery life and weather — but you will be rewarded with a high-quality vertical image.
Keep a stash of batteries and work on timing
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of drone photography is getting the timing right and having a charged battery when you need it. Not to mention, landscape photographers have a very small window where the light is at its best. And we don’t always know when that will be.
I’ve been fooled before. The light will look great and we’ll think it is at its peak. Not wanting to miss anything, I send the drone up and shoot to what I think is completion. Then, right as the drone battery is about to die, the color returns for an encore performance — this time even better than the first. I panic and fly home to change the batteries as fast as humanly possible. That’s if you are lucky and even have another battery to put in. I have been 100% positive the light was at its best and used all my batteries only to have it go crazy once I was 100% dead. This is much more common and challenging in places like Norway where you can have 4 hours of awesome light.
My main advice is to have a TON of batteries and always try to anticipate what could happen next. The more batteries the better in my opinion, that way you have multiple chances for last minute shots. Four is the magic number for me and is the absolute minimum you should have. We have 7 for the Mavic 2 Pro and 5 sets for the Inspire 2.
Setting your remote with photography in mind
An easy hack for increasing your ease of use and productivity is to personalize your remote. I won’t give you exact examples, as this will vary from person to person and drone to drone. But depending on which drone you have, things like setting the joystick on the Mavic 2 Pro to move the camera straight up or down instantly; adjusting your back buttons c1 and c2 to pull up camera settings; or assigning different functions to each dial. Getting all of this optimized will allow you to work much faster and give easy access to the main settings you need. Unfortunately, drones like the Mavic 2 Pro have less customization than the more expensive drones but you can still get them much more usable then stock.
The best drone for Landscape Photography
I will be doing a full article on this topic soon, but for now I feel like the DJI Mavic 2 Pro is the best option for most people. Not only is the quality decent and highly-usable, it’s also super safe and easy to fly. The icing on the cake is how compact and easy to travel with it is. Which is worth a lot in itself.
For those of you photography nuts who want the absolute best quality, and can handle the hassle of size and high costs — the DJI Inspire 2 with the DJI Zenmuse X7 camera is hands down the way to go. It has a much larger APS-C 24mp sensor with 14 stops of DR. It also has high quality interchangeable lenses which are a game changer. A new DJI Phantom 5 could be released very soon and of course that may change these recommendations. I will update this page if so.
Don't fly in National Parks or illegally!
We get it, it’s super frustrating being stuck on the ground when you are in a spectacular area for drone photography. But we all need to take responsibility for respecting drone laws. A big reason drones are banned from National Parks in the first place is due to negligent pilots flying over crowds of people at popular locations, along with disturbing wildlife. It’s not worth it and it’s just plain inconsiderate. Fly in areas that are far away from people, even where its legal to fly, and never under any circumstances fly close to wildlife. The future of drone photography depends on each of us to play by the rules.
Find remote areas and create something new
Challenge yourself to do something different and scout unique locations. After all, it’s far more rewarding to find something on your own and create original works of art. While I would love to be able to fly in the backcountry of National Parks (away from people and wildlife), there is still a seemingly endless list of places that are just as amazing if you put the time and effort in to discover them.
We use an app called AirMap to double check that we are flying in safe aerospace. This, paired with Google Earth, is the quickest and easiest way to find remote places to scope out. You can also use many of the same tactics as I mention in this video about scouting for landscape photography when it comes to drones.
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Thanks for reading and we hope these tips give you some new ideas to think about for shooting drone landscape photography! At the end of the day, I always encourage people to do your own thing and never let yourself be put in a box. Listen to others ideas, mesh everything you hear together and then make it your own... allowing you to have your own unique creative vision.
For thoughts on choosing the best drone for landscape photography, here's a link to my Youtube video Dji Mavic 2 Pro vs Phantom 4 Pro vs Inspire 2/X7.
For hands-on learning in the field of landscape photography, consider joining me on a photography workshop!