Aerial filmmaking is all the rage these days in the world of videography. As an avid traveler and writer, I’ve seen the market for it rise by the day!
Action films, or those set in far-off locations, generously use drone shots. I myself took up a drone after watching Skyfall! But aerial videography is not about simply shooting from a bird’s point of view. It’s about making your subject come to life.
In order to do this, there are a few pointers you need to keep in mind.
It doesn’t help to rely on fancy equipment for stunning shots. Any videographer worth their salt will tell you that it’s your personal touch that sets your footage apart, just as I have learned over the years.
To this end, I’ve outlined a few tips below that will distinguish your aerial videography from others’. If cinematic fjords and skylines are what you’re going for, read on!
Tips to Succeed in Drone Videography
1. Know your device
The market abounds in good quality drones, each with its unique specializations. Some models are ideal for indoor shoots while others come with 360-degree cameras. What’s good is that most models pack in a host of functions that not only reduce the effort required on your part but also allow for a variety of shooting techniques.
For instance, most recent models are equipped with a cinematic mode and course lock feature. Both result in slow and smooth footage which may easily be likened to scenes from your favorite films with a little post-processing.
It helps to know what your camera offers. Only then will you be able to plan your shots well, keeping in mind essential factors such as time of day and wind speed. Which brings me to my next point…
2. Atmospheric factors
There’s a golden rule of shooting that remains unchanged with medium or equipment – shoot during the golden hour. No matter what cinematic look you’re aiming to achieve, shooting shortly before sunset and after sunrise results in well-defined footage with dramatic contrast and soft, warm colors.
It’s a no-brainer that the wind can make or break aerial filming. Videographers especially dread the ‘jello’ effect of wind on drone footage. As an amateur, I would often go by the rating on the equipment, i.e. I have filmed in wind-speeds up to 25-36 mph. Each time, the footage turned out to be unusable.
If you rely on editing to remove the ‘jello’ effect, you’re likely to be disappointed. Instead, secure the right conditions for flying from the start. A wind-speed under 20 mph is ideal. Also, don’t forget to check for visibility issues and electromagnetic interference.
3. Fly Slow
Your drone can fly fast, but that doesn’t mean you should. With the remote in your hands, it is possible to assert greater control over filming than you think!
Flying fast was among the most frequent mistakes I made in my initial days of drone videography. What resulted after hours of filming was jerky, distorted footage, something extremely demotivating for a beginner.
Flying slow lends a distinct cinematic quality to your shots. The slow-motion creates drama and gives the impression of higher shooting platforms such as helicopters, which in turn increases the production value.
Additionally, I am a stickler for caution. Drone videography comes with the obvious risks for your equipment, but slow flying speeds, along with improved quality, ensure the safety of the camera by lowering the chances of crashing.
4. Use ND filters
This is again something I have found immensely helpful for all sorts of filming projects, aerial or otherwise. But it is especially useful in the case of drones as the amount of light entering your camera can be far greater in high altitudes.
An ND filter is an inexpensive investment with high utility. It allows you to adjust the amount of available light and keep the scene as natural-looking as possible. Most professionals consider the filter to be an essential component of their toolkit. By allowing for shutter speed adjustment, it takes you closer to the coveted cinematic look for your footage. Also, it prevents overexposure!
A CPL or polarizing filter is another accessory that I keep handy. It eliminates the light reflected off surfaces and results in more saturated and natural colors of the sky or water bodies.
5. Use a Flat Image Profile
Personally, it is more exciting to be able to edit and color grade my footage exactly the way I want. This is why I make sure to shoot in a flat image profile or in Protune while using a GoPro.
This mode results in washed-out greyish shots that are at first dull and lack character. But what this offers is a high degree of control when it comes to post-processing.
A flat camera setting gives you the most dynamic range from aerial filming and helps to retain ground detail. In addition to that, elements such as clouds are prevented from blowing out, thus resulting in more balanced palettes that lend themselves to effective post-processing.
However, it does require greater expertise and time to process and color grade flat image footage. If you wish to avoid that, you can always stick to standard camera settings as on the Program mode and let the equipment take over. Given their technical sophistication, cameras seldom disappoint in this category.
6. Shoot in 4K
Yes, I know what you’re thinking; I’ve been there too. Drone videography is difficult enough, why add to the hardship during post-processing?
But the truth is, as inconvenient as it may be to edit 4K clips, they provide exceptional control over the editing process. What you are left with is the desired aesthetic in terms of color and style – the perfect look right out of your favorite film!
In my experience, 4K has been especially helpful in zooming and cropping. In 4K, both are feasible edits to make without compromising the quality. Earlier I would often end up incorporating extra elements in my frames while tilting up or down. Thankfully, having shot in 4K, it was a breeze to remove such superfluities and focus on the subject.
7. Composition and Layers
An essential aspect of drone videography a lot of filmmakers miss out on is composition. I’ve seen the best of us make errors in this matter and it’s only after years of practice that I could achieve some level of expertise.
Drone videography has an inherent quality of predictability about it; there are only so many ways you can shoot cities and landscapes from high up. What you can do differently, though, is present the viewer with something new; keep them looking for more.
The surest way to achieve this is by adding layers to your frames. The primary rules of photography are perfectly applicable here. While shooting, I make sure to incorporate a distinct foreground and background that work in cohesion to act as a ‘reveal’ for the viewer.
While it may not always be possible to do this, it gives your film an edge over the rest. And in the time of Vimeo and Youtube, in order to be visible, you must stand out.
8. Add motion blur
Although strictly speaking, this falls under post-processing I make it a point to talk about motion-blur in any article on drone videography. This is because it is a technique that truly makes a difference to the look and feel of your footage.
There have been times when it was absolutely necessary to shoot at higher shutter speeds, and I’m sure you are familiar with such situations as well. Not only does this leave you with lesser control but it also results in jerky footage with a considerable amount of strobing.
Motion blur is added to footage in post-processing to counter this very effect. After Effects offers this technique and additionally, you can also use a third-party plug-in like ReelSmart Motion Blur. All such effects perform the same function and give your footage that extra zing!
9. Color Grading
As you can probably tell by now, colors make or break aerial shots for me. Without finesse in the color scheme of your footage, it easily falls flat and may be relegated to the category of documentary shooting that lacks artistic appeal.
Through color grading, you can add tremendous versatility and dynamism to your clips by tweaking the hue and saturation, and also incorporate elements from various film stocks. Programs that elevate your film from standard drone footage to cinematic storytelling are Red Giant Colorista in After Effects, and Film Convert.
Aerial filmmaking has remained a favorite since my boyhood days. Like all crafts, there are no shortcuts here and only practice may get you somewhat close to perfection!
To go over the key points, know your equipment inside out; it’s all you’ve got. Fiddle with it, live with it, and fly slow to get the most out of the camera. It’s a highly efficient device but it demands careful study.
With drone videography, you’re at the mercy of the weather. It helps, therefore, to plan your shoots after extensive research, keeping in mind the time of day, wind speed, and a number of other atmospheric factors.
Finally, devote as much time and attention to post-production as you do to filming. Editing is necessary for final touches and a taste of Nolan’s charm.
And on that note, I will sign off. You’re still here? Go shoot!