13 powerful tips to improve your aerial cinematography

Are you a drone pilot seeking to improve your aerial videos? Here are 13 useful tips to improve your aerial cinematography and help you get the most out of your multi-rotor UAV.

Drones are hugely popular for aerial video capture right now, and they are only getting more so.

As a drone pilot, learning all there is to know about your drone and how to fly it safely and skilfully can be a daunting task, let alone learning how to actually shoot a great cinematic shot with it.

I’m not here to tell you what gear to buy, or what’s the best brand right now. I want to just improve your aerial cinematography!

The best drone or UAV for you is the one you have right now.

The gear you have is only a small factor in getting great shots.

Yes having a bigger drone that can lift a bigger camera can be great, having a camera with better lens, resolution, dynamic range etc. is more desirable.

But bigger rigs can also be more complicated and have their own drawbacks!

Down through the years we’ve shot aerial videos with drones carrying everything from the Go Pro, Canon 5D MkII and Panasonic GH4 all the way up to the Black Magic Production 4K, RED Dragon and the Arri Alexa Mini.

From experience I can tell you that regardless of your UAV rig and camera setup, a good shot is a good shot.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t consider upgrading and developing your drone and camera kit as your aerial work and camera skills evolve; you will make those choices based on the needs of your business and your clients, and what your business can afford.

But your equipment shouldn’t stop you from making great looking aerial videos right now.

It goes without saying that you need to know and prep your own drone and camera gear.

Getting to know your rig takes practice, lots of it – don’t underestimate how many hours of flying you’ll have to put in with your gear so that you really ‘know it’.

In addition before you intend to execute a paid job you need to have all your insurance, licencing, permissions etc. before you go on site – but we’re not going to go into any of that here.

This article is all about the execution and aesthetics of shooting video with a drone – or to be somewhat more eloquent: aerial drone cinematography.

Many drone operators don’t come from a photography or video background, and to those I would encourage you to brush up on the essential principals of photography and shot composition, ie Exposure, Depth of Field, The Rule of Thirds, Balance, Framing etc.

The Vimeo Video School has some great beginner tips for shooting video, as does No Film School (for example, check this Beginner’s guide to shooting a dialogue scene out).

These rules apply just as much to video shot with a drone as with any other means, and knowing them will boost the quality of your aerial shooting dramatically. There’s no point in being an expert pilot if your shots are blurry or blown out!

Let’s move to the tips now!

13 Powerful Tips to Improve Your Aerial Cinematography

  1. Scout the location
  2. Pick a subject
  3. Rehearse
  4. Be ready
  5. Smooth & simple
  6. How high?
  7. Use foreground elements
  8. Look for symmetry and balance
  9. Unusual perspectives
  10. Speed & movement
  11. Starting & ending
  12. Dramatic light
  13. Location, location, location

1. Scout the location

tip1-scout-the-location

Even if you can only get to location on the morning of the shoot, give yourself some lead time to put the drone up for a test shot.

This gives you a chance to see the lay of the land, rule out any unflattering scenery, and ensures there’s no odd RF or magnetic interference that may screw up your shot in front of the client.

Flying your drone in a new location can be stressful, and doing a few passes ‘off the clock’ gives you a chance to orient yourself with your surroundings and any obstacles or hazards you may have to deal with – without the client barking in your ear.

2. Pick a Subject

tip2-pick-a-subject

This is true for video shooting in general, but you and your camera operator need to settle on a subject.

That’s how you’ll know how best to frame and execute the shots as they appear!

You need to know what the shot is going to say. Are you focusing on a building, a tree, a lake, a street, a person? What are you there to shoot?

Sometimes you may be trying to take in a landscape or an aerial panorama and you don’t have any one particular point of interest, or your point of interest may change as the shot develops.

That’s fine, so long as you’re aware of what you’re intending with the shot and not just ‘spraying’.

When picking your subject for the shot, take into account the starting & ending of the shot too.

3. Rehearsetips3-rehearse

Ok, the light might not be absolutely perfect right now, but get a shot in the can anyway.

By blocking out and shooting a few prep shots in advance, you have a chance to finesse the shot with some of the pressure off.

You might also spot something you didn’t see from the ground, or work out a better approach.

Then if, for whatever reason you can’t get the perfect shot (the monsoon season happens to start right this minute), you at least have something in the can as a backup.

Something is usually better than nothing!

4. Be Ready

tips4-be-ready

Drone videography is unlike many other kinds of camera work in that it’s largely down to opportunism.

The majority of aerial drone work is shot outdoors where there’s space to zip around, and as such we are always at the mercy of the elements.

The light conditions, the cloudscape, the wind and precipitation – we can’t control any of it.

What we can control is ourselves, and being ready and patient is a vital part of the drone cinematographers discipline.

Have your batteries charged, your camera settings right, your cards formatted, your focus set, whatever you need.

Make sure you’re ready to rock when the right moment comes. Have your talent (actor, cyclist, driver etc.) ready and waiting, and clued in to know the signs when you might be ready to go; ie “As soon as those clouds clear and the light breaks through, we’re going to go, be ready”.

5. Smooth & Simpletips5-smooth-and-steady

Whatever you do, keep it smooth!

Any jerky movement from the drone pilot or the gimbal operator will remind the audience they’re watching video and take them out of the moment; and the shot’s ruined.

You have to let the shot ‘evolve’ in the frame, and that means keeping the movement as smooth and consistent as possible.

Often the best drone shots aren’t complicated. This incredible machine can put the camera in unusual places, and shoot from interesting angles and often that can be enough (see also the tip about unusual perspectives).

All too often, inexperienced drone pilots and operators try and do too much with a shot when there’s no need in an attempt to somehow justify their presence and prove themselves.

As with every aspect of shooting video or film, the shot has to serve the story. Sometimes, that means a simple and clean aerial view.

This can be particularly tricky when working as a lone pilot.

That’s why where possible I’d always recommend using a separate gimbal operator to control the camera.

In my opinion it’s too much for the pilot to concentrate on flying the drone and composing the shot all at one time.

Collaborating with a gimbal operator will definitely improve your drone videos!

6. How High?tips6-how-high

Whether permitted to or not, drones can fly pretty damn high, it’s what they’re designed for after all.

It’s easy to get a modern drone to climb to a couple of hundred feet in seconds, and this without doubt is one of the greatest contributions drones make to cinematography.

We all love to see that ‘bird’s eye view’ of an interesting landscape – it’s something we never could have seen before without being in a helicopter and it can be truly breathtaking.

Tracking along with roads, rivers and other boundaries is a staple of drone cinematography as is seeing the world from impossible angles.

However, just because you can fly high, doesn’t always mean you have to!

You need to choose your altitude wisely. Understanding when it’s appropriate to fly high will increase the quality of your aerial videos.

Once you get high enough, everything in the shot starts to look flat and two dimensional.

Further to that, the higher you are the farther and faster you have to move to create any sense of motion.

Having the drone too high up in the sky makes it harder to pilot, and only works for the very widest establishing shots.

If you really want to get a great birds eye view, keep your drone to a couple of stories off the ground, just above the tree line or the lamp posts, look straight down and follow the landscape.

This brings me to my next tip.

7. Use Foregroundtips7-use-foreground

Are you looking to add some instant drama to a shot, or to make that bit more epic and breathtaking?

Consider including foreground elements to really make the shot pop!

You already know you that picking your subject carefully is a very important thing you should do to improve your aerial video footage.

Now, pick a foreground element: it may consist of a tree, fence, wall, car – anything that you can put between you and your subject.

Having something move, appear or disappear close to the camera gives the viewer a greater sense of scale, movement and, importantly, drama.

It can be hard to inject a sense of movement when dealing with large wide open spaces, panoramas or huge features (remember: decide wisely when to fly high!).

If you can travel at full speed with the drone, the shot may not even feel like it’s moving at all.

In this case, your foreground elements are key to illustrating the relationship between your subject and its surroundings.

Picking the right foreground elements is another skill that will allow you to master the quality of your aerial videos.

8. Look for Symmetry and Balancetips8-symmetry-and-balance

The world is full of symmetry and balance, some of it accidental, some if it deliberate and as humans we actively seek it out and respond to it in our every day lives.

Symmetry is one of the oldest discovered artistic devices, having been employed deliberately in art since ancient times.

As I mentioned in the introduction, you should familiarize yourself with the use of symmetry and balance in painting, photography and cinematography to inform your use of it when shooting video with your drone.

As a drone cinematographer you are constantly making aesthetic decisions about your shooting.

Think of symmetry and balance as making your shots ‘neat’ and organised.

You should always watch the world for balance, rule of thirds, perspective and so on and use them in your cinematography wherever you can.

Perfecting a symmetrical or balanced shot can be very tricky, but also very rewarding. It will add a distinctive mark of professionalism to your aerial videos. Examples of usage of symmetry and balance in your shot could include:

  • flying centered through gateposts
  • gliding straight down the center of a river
  • keeping your subject balanced in the frame as you track behind them cycling thorough the park
  • getting your horizon split exactly on the upper ‘third’

and so on!

These opportunities will differ and vary with every location and situation, but once you know what to look for it will quickly become automatic and the quality of your aerial footage will improve greatly!

9. Unusual Perspectivestips9-unusual-perspectives

Drones can get to locations that we may often find difficult.

These locations are not necessarily too high (remember: you don’t always have to fly high!), or far away (although they may be) – but mostly awkward and time consuming to get to.

Want to see the street from the top of the lamp post, but can’t afford a crane? Use a drone.

Want to see from the middle of the lake? Easy, use a drone.

Want to look over that cliff edge beyond the fence?

Well, you get the idea.

Drones are free to move around in any direction with virtually no limitation except your imagination.

A low angle shot pushing through a tunnel, a top down facing shot staring down the fire exit stairs.

Those angles that would have been discarded before for being too difficult, time consuming, costly or logistically challenging are now much closer to hand with the help of our friendly neighborhood drone.

So think outside the box and help your audience see from a new perspective.

If you’re really clever and skilled, they’ll never even know the shot has been captured with a drone in the first place!

10. Speed & Movementtips10-speed-and-movement

As with a drone’s ability to reach serious altitude, another huge advantage of the technology is their speed.

Those electric whirligigs want to zip around pretty fast, and there is always the temptation to push this asset as far as you can handle it.

Often there is the requirement to chase a motor vehicle or galloping horse, or to close a large distance very quickly, but don’t underestimate the importance of more gentle and delicate movements.

The speed of your shot should relate to the needs and pace of the scene, balanced with what it sensible and safe with your rig.

Think of your drone as a substitute for a camera crane, jib, dolly and steadicam all at once, but it should also share the movement characteristics of these systems without their other limitations of distance and rigging.

You can use existing camera movement terminology to help describe a particular move to your pilot or gimbal operator such as ‘boom up’, ‘dolly across’, ‘push in’, ‘track along’.

It is useful to be versed in this kind of language if your client comes from a television or film background, and intends to describe their shot list to you in this fashion.

For example: a gentle boom up to reveal the huge house from behind the hedge (you already know the importance of using foreground elements to improve your drone videos), the slow push in on your subject standing in the park.

All these shots require a steady pace. You may find them the hardest to execute without bumping and bobbing around as your little flying beast fights to break free (and remember that keeping your movements smooth and simple is essential to increase the quality of your aerial videos).

Where possible, give yourself a lead in to the movement to allow the drone’s bumpy start to smooth out, and then flow through the required movement.

11. Starting & Endingtips11-starting-and-ending

This brings me to my next tip, and one that will have your higher end clients calling back time and again.

You have to learn to know how to start and end your shots.

What this really means is being sensitive to how your aerial footage could fit into a story or edit.

Typically, as cinematographers or videographers we allow 5 to 8 seconds at the start and end of a shot to allow space to have a clean cut or dissolve.

Incorporating this practice into your aerial camera work will help you produce much better videos.

You could also consider dividing your flights into specific shots. Choose a start and end point for your shot, at least one of which should be fairly static, and complete your flight or movement in between these points.

You can either hold frame on your subject at the start of the shot, then move away or around it. Alternatively, start with your subject some or completely out of the frame and then hone in on it.

Another viable option is to let your subject drift out of frame at the end of the camera movement, but with the drone still flying on its course.

At the end of each flight you should be able to count the amount of ‘usable’ shots.

The only exceptions to this rule are shots that are unidirectional throughout. By this I mean shots where the drone is simply pushing in one direction continuously with little to no camera movement.

These shots are easy to cut into a story as is, as long as they are at least 10 seconds in duration.

12. Dramatic Lighttips12-dramatic-light

Drones are uniquely capable of taking advantage of available light reflections on any given day.

Because you can fly your drone in virtually any direction, and to a huge height, you have a greater chance of being able to catch interesting reflections in water, glass buildings, polished surfaces and so on than you might ordinarily have with conventional shooting techniques.

So, keep an eye out for these chances when they appear!

Often calm water can look like a portal into a mirrored world from the air as it reflects the sky above it.

If the time of day and the cloudscape comply, you may also find yourself with the opportunity to catch some interesting light flares coming across your lens, or catch shafts of light (‘god rays’) piercing through trees or cloud cover.

I would encourage caution with this however, unless you are an experienced cinematographer and know how to control it: light flares can in fact bleach out a shot, cause unfixable hotspots on your image, and generally soften and wash out an image so be warned.

Early morning and sunset are classic times of the day to seek exciting light.

Often overcast days can provide a soft diffused light over a landscape reducing shadows, while bright sunny days can add harsh shadows, strong contrast and plenty of opportunity for colourful flares.

13. Location, Location, Locationtips13-location-location-location

Right now there is an ever growing number of drones in the world, and we’re getting the chance to see parts of the earth from a brand new perspective.

You should take advantage of your own unique neck of the woods.

Shoot it from every angle, and practice how to showcase it to the world.

Get out in the countryside where you’re from and explore it from the air.

Interesting architecture, landmarks and landscapes are gold to the aerial cinematographer who’s developing their techniques and building their portfolio.

Get out and shoot!

Conclusion

Working with a camera drone to capture video footage can be both a challenging and rewarding endeavour.

As technology advances we get more and more affordable and powerful tools with which to see and explore our world from new and exciting perspectives.

We hope you enjoyed these 13 powerful tips to improve your aerial cinematography, and you found something useful in here to help you improve your own drone videos.

We look forward to seeing what you’ve got!

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