Aerial landscape photography

Drones are forever changing the world of landscape photography, photography in general, and video photography. With reliable technology, easy flight options and increasing advancement in camera quality - it is now more than ever achievable to get photos and videos that were once only reserved to people or organisations with financial abilities to fly with planes or helicopters.

I know what you might be thinking: "Hey, any kid today who can buy a decent drone can get an epic shot". That might be true, but don't forget the same thing happened with digital photography a few years ago. The gear and technology are indeed more accessible, but eventually it also comes down to the all round abilities of the photographer - from technical thinking, creative composition to post processing skills.

Aerial drone landscape photo of British Columbia mountains area in Canada - Tomer Razabi

what is the difference?

I guess that is pretty basic to understand - altitude. The altitude and there for view points you can have with a drone are kind of like what you get when standing on the top of a mountain. With a drone it is much easier, you can get it almost instantly everywhere. 


Gear

I won't dive deep to brands and camera analysis. As you can probably understand it is much like any other debate about photography gear. The better you have, the better results will potentially be. Every person has their own preferences - drone weight and size, flight time, camera quality, etc. I currently use the DJI Phantom 4 pro and I am very satisfied with it for my needs. It is not too big and not heavy (it is bigger and heavier than the Mavic pro series), and it has a very high quality camera with 1 inch sensor. I sure can't compare it to a full frame sensor, but it does a really good job comparing to it's size. I usually carry it in a dedicated drone bag, but I did manage to pack it along with 2 full frame cameras, 2 lenses and some accessories in my F-Stop "Sukha" bag.

Cogne Italy - Tomer Razabi

Exposure technique

There is one important issue that sets my approach for shooting stills (and video) with a drone - the exposure. It is the same approach I use when I photograph stills in DSLR cameras. But It is even more important here since we're dealing with a smaller camera sensor which has inevitably lower capabilities like dynamic range and noise handling.

I have a very detailed article about "How to best expose your photos" which you are most welcome to read. What it generally says, is that in order to achieve the best image quality (assuming you post process photos) it is necessary to expose a frame as bright as you possibly can, without burning. This method is called "ETTR" (expose to the right). I use it in regular stills and ever more vigorously in drone photography. 

1. ISO

As in regular stills, I prefer using the lowest native ISO possible. That keeps the dynamic range/color depth to maximum and the noise to minimum. I almost never need to raise the ISO, even in relatively low light conditions like sunset or sunrise, mostly because I can compensate low light with open aperture and slow shutter speed. 

2. aperture:

In landscape photography it is very common to use narrow aperture in order to increase the depth of field. When it comes to photographing with drones it is less necessary because the distance between the camera and almost everything in the photo is usually very big. If what we shoot is distant from the camera, our focus distance (one of the factors that determine the depth of field) is large. That means we can use relatively wide aperture and still have enough depth of field. Using a wide aperture has more advantages like more light, and also better sharpness (lenses are usually sharpest when using the F number twice of the widest). My Phantom 4 pro camera has an F/2.8 aperture, so I usually use it between F/2.8 to F/5.6.

3. Shutter speed:

After determining we prefer using low ISO and aperture as we wish, all the shutter has to do is balance the exposure. Fast shutter speed is always welcome and prevents motion blur. I found I can even easily use relatively slow shutter speeds (1/100 - 1/50) and get sharp photos if the drone is strong and stable.


Composition:

There are many similarities in the composition guidelines for landscape photography with drones and regular stills photography. You still have all the basics like foreground, guiding lines, background and more. If you want to read about it with more details, you're welcome to check out my "Wide angle composition" article, and "Telephoto landscape photography" article.

The big difference is that with drones, everything is much more far away. That means you can no longer rely on relatively small elements like a rock, a puddle, a small stream that could have been great as foreground elements in a wide angle lens. You usually have to search for much bigger elements to fit your composition. 

צילום אווירי של קרחון אלץ' בשוויץ קורס צילום נוף - תומר רצאבי

In this photo I took of Aletch Glacier in Switzerland the main composition element is the glacier itself which performs as a guiding line. It leads the eye from the bottom left of the image to the right and upper part.

Aerial drone landscape photo of British Columbia mountains area in Canada - Tomer Razabi

You can find similar elements in this photo taken deep inside the mountains of British Columbia in Canada. Here we have a river stream leading the eye from bottom left inside the center of the frame and onto the background. The clouds also center the eye from the upper corners to the bottom.

new composition opportunities:

Since we have a whole new point of view, it comes with a world of new options we almost didn't think about before, because they were very rare unless we were on a very high viewpoint! I think the biggest new concept is being able to look at a landscape straight down from high above. Think about how river streams, twisted rolling hills, or sand dunes look from above... it is a world of textures, lines, systems and abstracts!

Namibia sand dunes aerial drone photography - Tomer Razabi
Namibia sand dune landscape - Tomer Razabi

In the two images above you can see how huge sand dunes I shot during sunrise in the Namib desert in Namibia look like when the drone is right above the dune looking almost straight down. The first image uses a classic leading line from upper right to bottom left and vise versa.

צילום נוף אווירי עם רחפן של נהר קרחוני באיסלנד - תומר רצאבי

You can find similar elements in the photo above, of a river system in Iceland. It has many captivating textures and is also reticulated with diagonal lines.

Aerial drone landscape photo of a desert river in Israel- Tomer Razabi

What works with glacial rivers, also works with desert rivers! This image above was taken in the southern desert in Israel. from the ground, it looks just like an ordinary desert carved with a dry river. From above, it is a living draining system that looks like a lunge, blood vessels, or whatever your imagination can think of. In general deserts are kingdoms of epic textures and interesting abstracts.

Aerial landscape photography of a desert river in Israel - Tomer Razabi
Aerial landscape photography of a desert river in Israel - Tomer Razabi
Aerial landscape photography of a desert river in Israel - Tomer Razabi

conclusions:

There is a whole new world out there! Drones are getting more and more affordable and their cameras get better and better. First you have to choose the right drone for you. Every person has their own preferences of weight, camera quality, control distance, etc. You should choose your own drone according to your needs and abilities. 

What ever you do - be reasonable and fly safe! Drones are getting more and more restricted these days because people with little experience and bad judgment do foolish things and risk other people's lives. Don't be that guy, enjoy your drone and fly safe 🙂

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