How to Choose a Camera Drone for Aerial Photography

In this tutorial we take a look at quadcopter drones for aerial videography and photography and explore how to decide if drones are a good fit for your project.

Are Drones Right for Your Project?

Do you have to have aerial video or aerial photos? If your answer is yes, then an unmanned aerial vehicle might be a good option. They are a low-cost and effective way to get the shots you need, especially if you are on a budget for a short film, a promotional video, or real estate job. There is a learning curve with drones, but after ten or so practice flights you should have enough coordination to achieve basic aerial shots for your project. Just remember to stay within your means and don’t try any shots you are unsure about.

Not Just Aerials

There are also shots you can achieve with drones you might not have considered. Drones make great substitutes for jib shots or even long dolly shots. Larger jibs often require two or more people to use properly, and are quite heavy to haul and set up. Small drones can be carried in just a small back-pack or case, which also make them optimal for jib shots you might need in a remote location, like down a trail, for example. They also typically require just one person to use and setup is minimal. For long tracking shots you don’t have to set up and level a really long camera track. The drone is in the air, so you can work on all kinds of terrain.

When Not to Use a Drone

Now, there are other cases where a drone might not be the best choice for a project. Weddings are a good example. Drones may be great for getting aerial pictures of the location or of the bride and groom before the service, but I would never recommend to use one during a service (unlike one of the DJI promotion videos shows). The fact is that they are just too loud and distracting for a scenario like that.

Anything with dialog will obviously pose problems, because again all you will hear is the humming from the drone. Some drones don’t even record audio because of this. But that is something that is pretty obvious and I would think that most people would expect to be recording the audio separate anyway or, if there is dialog, doing audio dubbing after the fact.

A drone will also obviously put out a fair amount of wind, nearly all of it directly below. Normally this shouldn’t pose much of a problem, but if you are trying to capture shots directly overhead of someone (which really isn’t recommended for safety reasons) know that a lot of wind will be pushing down on your subject. Drones will also scare away animals and stir up dust.

Unless you are really well experienced, having logged 100 or more flights, I don’t recommend indoor flights. Now some newer drones such as the DJI Phantom 3 and Inspire 1 come equipped with a vision positioning camera underneath the drone to keep it steady when it is close to the ground, even without a GPS signal, so this makes indoor flights much easier. However, I still wouldn’t recommend flying inside anything smaller than a larger maintenance garage or warehouse because things can just go wrong very quickly.

Technical Considerations

In this section I’ll cover some of the key things I learned when I started flying drones. My advice is focused on the DJI Phantom 3 and the Phantom 2 with the H3-3D gimbal, since I’d expect these two models to be the most popular among beginners.

Batteries

One of the most-asked questions is flight time per battery. This is roughly 10 to 14 minutes.  Both drones claim much more time on their specs, from 20 to 23 minutes, however that is if you drain the battery completely and that isn’t recommended for most flights. It is common practice to begin to land the drone with about 35% battery left to prolong the life of the batteries and to have some flight-time left in case something happens to go wrong and you can’t land immediately.

The batteries have a shelf life. They will eventually ‘bloat up’ and expire. It's not that your drone will just suddenly fall from the sky one day, but the batteries do inflate with repeated use. Once they reach a certain level you must dispose of them properly because they can be a fire hazard and even explode. Draining the battery to close to zero every flight will wear them out more quickly, and if they get banged around a lot this can cause inflation, too.

Proper battery maintenance does include, however, a full discharge of the battery about every 15 charges. Batteries should be stored with about 50% charge. With proper maintenance you can probably expect a battery to last one to two years, or roughly 200 flights. Some could last longer even, and others not. They retail for about $100-to$150.

First-Person View Transmitters

Next is the first-person view transmitter. I knew nothing of these when I was first became interested in drones. They are a cost that most people don’t initially factor in! Depending on which drone you choose, you have different methods of observing your footage from your controller. For most people's purposes there are two main types: digital antenna and wifi signal.

A digital antenna is definitely the less superior choice of the two. These are primarily used with the Phantom 2 and a GoPro camera. In my opinion this method of observation is now outdated, but it is by far the cheapest way to view you footage live if you need use a GoPro camera. The major disadvantages with this setup are that the signal is standard definition and usually has quite a bit of static. The range is also quite short, typically cutting out 400 to 600 meters away. One advantage is that they are simple to use once installed: just turn them on and go. Thse systems are 3rd party kits that you can buy and install yourself or buy pre-installed on a new Phantom 2. Kits usually run in the $500-600 range. Also, it is not recommended to use the GoPro Wifi app on your phone because this signal can interfere with the controller signal and cause malfunctions. Wifi Transmitters A much better solution is a transmitter that uses a wifi signal, such as those on the DJI Phantom 3 and DJI Inspire. These work though a wireless signal sent to your device, a tablet or smart phone, mounted on the controller. The signal is typically much stronger, high-definition, and has a much longer range: around 1000m to 2000m depending on surrounding terrain. The controls work though the DJI Pilot app, which also gives you real-time feedback on the status of your drone and where you can selectively record or take photos. Image Quality The Phantom 3 and DJI Inspire 1 both have a 20mm equivalent camera. This camera does not have the fisheye distortion like the GoPro cameras, and has less of a ‘jello effect’ with motion. GoPro has a much wider angle view, as well as the options to crop the view to medium or narrow. But which camera has the best performance? I believe the GoPro Hero 4 Black has better image quality and dynamic range than the DJI Phantom 3 or Inspire 1. GoPro has been consistently focused on improving their cameras and image quality, while DJI is just getting into the camera market. This doesn’t mean the DJI cameras are bad, but the footage suffers greatly from moiré issues unless you really dial down the sharpness, after which the footage can look a bit smudged or soft. However, if you are recording in 4k to output to 1080p you can get quality results. I’d just make sure to always film in 4k with the Phantom 3 or Inspire 1. The GoPro is a bit more of a hassle filming in 4k, as the codec isn’t as user friendly, but filming in 4k and outputting to 1080p is great. The 4k works wonders at retaining image quality when you need to counteract the lens distortion in post. I don’t recommend GoPro models below the Hero3+ or Hero 4 Silver or Black. The reason is that these models allow you to manually adjust more options, like ISO and exposure. These options are what allow the GoPro dynamic range to shine, otherwise you get footage with a lot of blown out skylines. You will also need a lens hood for your GoPro, to help prevent the strobing effect from the sun flaring through the propeller blades. Other Gear The next thing you'll need is a travel case. Trying to keep up all the separate drone pieces organized is a huge pain. It is just a smart move to invest in a quality case to store the drone in and if you have to travel, you're all set and the drone will be secure. Most of these cases will run in the$250 to \$500 price range, comparable to a good Pelican case. They also make some cool travel backpacks that are great for transporting drones on hikes.

Use some sort of prop guard. It’s really not a matter of if you are going to crash: it’s when. Crashing is just part of the learning curve, when you’re testing the limits of the drone. It is also important to get in a lot of practice before using one in a public space. Prop guards are going to save you from close calls if you bump into a tree branch or if you have a hard landing and the drone tips over.

Recommendations for Beginners

If you are looking to buy a starter drone, my recommendation is the DJI Phantom 3. It has a good package of features and is much more user-friendly than previous models that don’t have wifi transmission and the DJI Pilot app.

I also can’t stress enough to just go slow when you are filming. This is not only safer but it is going to look more cinematic, keep the camera steady, and prevent ‘jello’ effects.

Think safety first! Don’t fly over crowds or other people; keep the drone off to the side and not directly above them.

If you think that you are going to regularly use a drone as a part of your work look into obtaining Aviation Insurance so you can be covered in case of a major accident. General business liability insurance doesn’t cover drone use.

Hopefully you found this introduction helpful. There is still a lot more information and options for drones I didn’t cover here, so I encourage you to do some of your own research. Stay tuned, we’ll be releasing more drone related tutorials soon.