At first, aerial videography sounds relatively straightforward. Strap a small camera to a remote controlled UAV, set up your shot and then start recording.
Oof…if only it were that easy!
While recent advancements in technology have made aerial videography more approachable, I can say firsthand that cinematography with a drone is not a very forgiving activity. Learning to safely pilot a UAV is one thing, but knowing how to produce useable, squiggly-free video is another.
From mastering basic aerial videography pans to balancing your propellers and using gimbals, let’s deconstruct what it takes to become an expert drone videographer. Below are 17 aerial videography tips to help get you started.
Note: You may want to skip sections based on your skill-level.
Table of Contents
→ Brush up on local UAV regulations
→ Become a proficient UAV pilot
→ Choose your quadcopter
→ Choose your video camera
→ Follow a pre-flight checklist
→ Know your settings and have a disaster plan
→ Know your flying modes
→ Slow down tiger…be gentle
→ Use a gimbal and prop balancer
→ Tweak your settings
→ Fly through the shot
→ Don’t overshoot your flight time
→ Avoid wind (and rain, and other stuff)
→ Plan your shots ahead of time
→ Establish a direct line-of-sight
→ Consider a first-person-view (FPV) system
→ Master these aerial videography pans
There are many misconceptions about Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) and Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) regulations. Since I’m based in the U.S., we’ll start there:
U.S. Drone Regulations
The FAA first authorized use of unmanned aircraft in the National Airspace System (NAS) in 1990. In 2012, President Obama passed The Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, which authorized the FAA to issue licenses for commercial drone use in the U.S. The legislation also required that the FAA draft rules governing the use of civilian drones by law enforcement agencies and private entities.
So far, we’ve seen a lot of noise but not much real modernization when it comes to legislation. Here are some resources to help you get started:
- Official FAA page on Unmanned Aerial Systems
- FAA Fact Sheet on Unmanned Aerial Systems
- Busting Myths about the FAA and Unmanned Aircraft
Recreational vs. Commercial Drone Flying
A lot of people want to know, Can I fly my drone commercially in the U.S.? Can I use my drone to make money?
Great question. The answer is yes, but you need to get certified to do so.
We put together a step-by-step drone certification guide for you here.
The long and short of it is this: many companies are applying for a Section 333 Exemption, while others are either waiting for the FAA to enact Part 107, or going ahead and flying commercially under the table.
If you’re just planning to fly your drone / UAV recreationally, then no. You don’t need Part 107, the Section 333 exemption or any other kind of UAV certification. You’ll just need to abide by standard safety guidelines as regulated per the FAA.
A few of those guidelines include:
- Flying in the daylight
- Flying under 400 feet
- Establishing a direct line-of-sight
- Not flying in national parks
- Not flying directly over people
- …and more
Note: If you’re flying a drone that weighs over .55 lbs / 250g, you’ll need to register it with the FAA, even if you’re just flying recreationally. This went into effect on December 21st, 2015.
To operate commercially though, where “commercial” describes any kind of flight operation that can be tied to economic benefit, the FAA requires you to get certified. For other uses like research or law enforcement, navigate to this FAA page and click on the appropriate category to learn more about what is required.
Of course, just because you’re certified doesn’t make you a strong drone pilot. You’ll need to master basic flight proficiency. You’ll need a strong command of the sUAS landscape, your hardware, your software and what can go wrong. And of course, to earn money as a professional drone pilot, you’ll need a strong business plan.
International Drone Regulations
New Zealand, Australia, Mexico, and Brazil are known for being more progressive.
Other countries like Canada and the U.K. have specific legislation in place and offer less favorable restrictions on UAV piloting and aerial videography.
To learn more about international drone regulations, check out our international drone laws guide here.
This may seem obvious, but we can’t stress enough how important it is to become a strong UAV pilot in a smart and safe way. Otherwise, you might end up needing to join a support group like the DJI Flyaway & Crash Psychological Support Facebook page. We giggled at that one.
It’s too easy to become engrossed in your new toy and to want to publish jaw-droppingly beautiful footage on the Internet. But trust us, you’ll be glad you took the time to learn how to fly. Don’t even think about the video footage at first. Just learn to fly, whether it’s on a flight simulator or, better yet, a training quadcopter like the Hubsan X4.
Take this guy, who learned the hard way that being an aerial videography expert might not be as easy as it looks. He was flying a DJI Phantom 1, which retails for $480!
Not sure where to start? Our guide on how to buy a drone is a good primer.
We say “quadcopter” knowing that you don’t necessarily need a UAV with four arms and propellers, but at the moment, those are the most approachable units when it comes to stability, pricing, availability and community support for beginning and intermediate aerial videographers.
Heck, if you’re Lec Park, you may even use an octocopter.
One of the most popular quadcopters for aerial videography are the DJI Phantom models. DJI’s quadcopters come ready-to-fly (RTF) and with an out-of-the box GoPro connector or built-in cameras.
I’d also strongly recommend looking into the Yuneec Typhoon H. They’ve got some solid technology and, from what I’ve personally experienced, an amazing U.S.-based support team.
Of course, this depends on what unit you are flying. Most people choose their unit first, and then their camera. Some quadcopters have built-in video cameras, while others require attaching a separate camera. The trick is to get as much power in your video functionality and performance as you can, using as little weight as possible. Even if your quadcopter can support the additional weight while flying, the lighter your payload, the longer your battery will last, and the longer flight time you’ll have.
For many, using a GoPro camera is the way to go. Their HERO4 model offers some SERIOUS image / video quality for its size, weight, and cost. It even has WiFi built in, so you can easily download your footage between flights. If you’re flying a rig like the DJI Phantom 2, you can hook up your HERO4 to it to capture some high-quality footage. Many people prefer GoPro over DJI’s own HD camera technology that comes with some of their drone models like the Phantom 3, Phantom 4, and Inspire.
Also, GoPros are pretty ubiquitous and offer a ton of compatibility with third-party accessories like vibration isolators and gimbals. Gimbals are covered below!
A more advanced aerial videographer might tell you to look beyond GoPro (and other CMOS image sensor) cameras, and to set your sights on a CCD. The high-frequency vibrations of a quadcopter in flight can warble your video recording with squiggles from shutter roll. A professional cinematographer would say that a light CCD video camera would offer more stable results when compared to a CMOS system.
Flying a quadcopter requires more steps than you might think. When you’re piloting a high-powered video camera in 15-minute chunks before having to recharge your battery, you’ll want to optimize your flight time as much as possible.
One way to save time in the air is to develop a strong pre-flight checklist. Make sure your unit is calibrated. Test your battery charge. Survey your surroundings. Spin your props and check your motor shafts.
I read somewhere that piloting a drone is like operating a flying lawnmower. It looks cool, but boy can it be dangerous if the flight path isn’t kept under control!
Have a disaster plan. Don’t fly over crowds, and make sure everyone nearby you is well aware of the dangers of a flying quadcopter. All it takes is one motor failure, or a propeller flying off into someone’s face…you get the idea.
Know your hazards and think through your flight path before you begin.
Some quadcopters, like the DJI Phantom 3 Professional, have an autopilot mode that you can manually configure. If you start to tinker with this stuff, know what you’re doing. You don’t want engage your quadcopter in an autopilot mode without being able to easily switch back to manual mode.
My Hubsan X4, as another example, has a regular mode and an “Expert Mode.” In the latter, the controls are a lot more sensitive and actually enable you to barrel roll, or to do a front or backflip.
Know whether your unit flies in GPS or not! That can be helpful as an aerial videographer. Know that if you fly in certain modes, you might not get as smooth of footage than if you fly manually. Your quadcopter will constantly be trying to auto-correct itself.
Strong aerial videographers know how to fly both in manual and automatic modes, with beginner and with more advanced settings.
The first thing an aspiring aerial videographer will learn is that, to get the kind of footage worth editing and posting to YouTube, you’ll need to SLOW DOWN your quadcopter.
At first, it’s helpful to think in terms of 3-7 second shots. It requires a lot of concentration to be able to get your thumbs to move so slowly and in a steady, fluid, controlled manner. Imagine a really long shot, where you start zoomed in on someone’s face and then slowly gain altitude, while focusing on the face, moving up until you’re high up above the city. Even a professional aerial videographer would need several takes to get such a beautiful shot. Start small.
Keep your camera moving in one direction, keep it slow and only make minor adjustments. No matter how great your camera, quadcopter or gimbal setup is, you’ll have to learn how to master the art of aerial videography finesse.
If you’re looking for more stable video footage, these two accessories are a must-have.
Gimbal – A gimbal is a pivoted support that allows the rotation of an object about a single axis.
Nicer gimbals can cost upwards of $379, like the DJI Zenmuse H3-3D. Many gimbals cost less than this, starting at around $100-$150. It’s just a matter of what you fly, what kind of camera you have and what you’re willing to pay for. GoPro gimbals are incredibly popular right now.
Your gimbal should use brushless motors, which have revolutionized the UAV world with their great power-to-weight ratio. Basically, a sensor on your camera mount is constantly telling the gimbal controller to be level. The gimbal controller sends signals to brushless motors that make small tweaks to the quadcopter’s pitch and roll
Prop Balancer – Ever seen the “Jello” effect?
Jello footage happens for a variety of reasons, but one of the easiest fixes is to balance your propellers! Most of the time, your propellers will come out of the package unbalanced, or wobbly, where one side is a bit heavier than the other.
A prop balancer like the Du-Bro 499 Tru-Spin Prop Balancer can help you understand whether or not your propeller is in balance. You can always apply clear tape to the lighter side, or sand the heavier side to achieve the proper balance.
If you want a beautiful, slow, and smooth shot, you may want to consider tweaking your transmitter settings to make your joystick less sensitive. In the below video, you’ll see how Chris slows his DJI Phantom 2 controller’s yaw:
In visual effects (VFX) and animation work, it’s called handles. Think about what shot you want to take. Ideally, your flight path and video recording start well before your shot, and end well after. This is also called flying through the shot.
An aerial videographer editor’s biggest pet peeve is not having enough room on either end of the shot to edit. Sometimes, a pilot will swerve away right after the shot is over, leaving an editor no room.
This may seem obvious, but if you’re a few hundred feet in the air and several hundred feet away from your landing zone, the last thing you want is to run out of flying juice and crash to the ground. It’s happened too many times.
You should be diligent about timing each of your flights. You’ll want to anticipate your usage and evaluate your power system. Test your battery before each flight to ensure it’s fully charged. Make sure to land with safe battery reserves of at least one minute (1:00).
You may want to buy extra batteries. Loading your quadcopter with a camera and gimbal can affect your flight time, and since flight times are sometimes just 15 minutes, and batteries can take a couple of hours to charge fully from 5-10% up to 100%.
Don’t shoot aerial videography into the sun. Actually, try not shoot in even remotely the same direction, as your propellers can cast shadows on your lens and can warp your video in strange ways. Also, if direct sunlight hits your lens, it may highlight dust accumulated during takeoff. On that note, make sure to clean your lens before every flight!
You’ll want to pay attention to wind gusts while flying. It’s generally recommended that you don’t fly in wind greater than 15-20 knots (17-23 mph). But at those speeds, it’ll be tough to get smooth footage. For best results, you’ll want to fly in under wind speeds of 7-9 knots (8-10 mph).
Flying in precipitation is generally not recommended, but if you’re using a UAV system that’s been tested to perform in precipitation, fly at your own discretion.
Make mental notes of all electrical wires, tall trees, buildings, or other obstacles.
It may help to establish a hover, several hundred feet off the ground, slowly rotating your camera around to look for potential shooting spots.
This is an important one, particularly if you’re not using (and an expert at using) an FPV system.
When flying your quadcopter, establish a direct line of sight. It’s always easier to fly directly toward or directly away from you. Anything beyond that requires more advanced depth perception.
Use objects near and far from you to set up the direct, unobstructed line, and fly in a straight line when you can.
This is where it gets fun!
A first-person-view (FPV) system involves transmitting live video from your aerial camera to the ground, either to a special screen that can be attached to your transmitter, to an iPad or video monitor, or to special FPV goggles. Experienced aerial videographers can fly FPV 100% of their flight time.
If you’re using an FPV system, you’ll want to have a “spotter,” someone who can keep an eye directly on your quadcopter at all times, particularly during takeoff and landing.
An example of an entry level FPV system is the Hubsan H107D FPV X4 Mini RTF Quadcopter, which includes not just the quadcopter, but also a built-in micro camera and transmitter with video screen. At the top-end, a more advanced FPV setup might involve the DJI Lightbridge.
Check out this (insane) montage of FPV drone racing in the French Alps.
Pretty gnarly, eh?
So you’ve built yourself an excellent and stable setup, and now it’s time to get serious about aerial videography. Try your hand at these mastering these common aerial videography pans:
This is a great beginner move. You’ll have to position your camera to where it’s shooting straight down. You can either hover in one place, or move slowly over a range of land. You can also experiment with slowly rotating your quadcopter while gaining altitude. It can yield a cool, spinning effect when you’re looking straight down at something.
In gaming, sometimes this is called a strafe. Here, you’ve got a subject that starts outside of the frame, and then you slowly, while maintaining the same altitude, move to the side in a straight line, letting the subject slide across your video screen. It’s just filming with a dolly, but in the air instead of on the ground!
This involves a bit more skill. Here, you’re piloting your drone through some kind of gap. Using an FPV system is a must! You should fully scout out the gap before flying through it, and you should have a second person watching your drone with you.
This is one of an aerial videographer’s more technical moves. To render smooth, fluid video, you’ll not only need to be an excellent pilot, making a ton of tiny adjustments on both sticks simultaneously, but you’ll also need a great gimbal, balanced propellers, and excellent vibration dampening.
You’ll need a constant yaw rate, which can be tricky to achieve, and you’ll need to adjust both your forward / backward and left/right motions to keep the aircraft the right distance and speed from the subject.
In lieu of a full orbit around your object, you can also try what’s called an orbit-by, where you approach a target at a slight angle, to where you’d be flying just to the side of your target. As you pass by, slowly yaw to keep the object in frame. The shot ends as you move away and backward from the target.
Here’s a great YouTube video that explains some of these pan using drone simulation software: