An introduction to DRONES
Choosing a drone
Right now we can’t think of a faster growing area in consumer technology. UAVs (or ‘drones’ to use the infamous term) come in many shapes and sizes and at wildly varying price points. You can buy a small indoor flyer for less than £25 or spend in excess of £10,000 for a heavyweight camera-carrying monster. Cheap indoor UAV’s require little explanation; simply shove the left throttle stick and watch it soar – most likely straight into the chandelier. Outdoor drones, on the other hand, use GPS to locate their position in the sky and will even hover in one spot if you take your hands off the controls. These GPS-equipped models are far and away the easiest form of model aircraft to fly – and the most reliable – but it is essential that you read the manual before take off, acquaint yourself with all controls and practice at low altitude and at low speed before reaching for the sky. If you don’t do this, you’ll quite possibly crash it and that would be a very bad thing given the cost of these things. Also be mindful of where you fly it and know your local ‘drone’ laws intimately. If you fly headlong into a car or, worse, hit a person, you alone are responsible.
Now we’ve cleared that up, what sort of drone are you after? If you just want to whizz about the local park or heathland, try something cheapish like the classic Parrot AR Drone or any number of budget-priced Chinese GPS-equipped copters currently flooding the market. They’re cheap enough not to cause too much of a fuss if crashed but their onboard cameras – if they have one – are woefully low on the resolution front making them near useless for cinematography purposes. Which bring us neatly to the arena of the HD camera-carrying drone…
Photography and video are the two main reasons why UAVs have, pardon the pun, soared to such stratospheric popularity. And all because of one previously unknown Chinese company – DJI. When, in July 2014, DJI released the Phantom 2 Vision+ with built in HD camera and three-way gimbal (the clever bit that keeps the camera rock steady no matter what the drone is doing), the world rushed at the opportunity to shoot the sort of aerial video previously only accessible to those sitting in a helicopter seat. Now suddenly anyone could shoot high definition footage of a myriad objects and natural features from a variety of tantalising perspectives just like the pros – and for a fraction of the cost of hiring a chopper.
Video and photography fans are naturally more interested in the quality of the camera on board than the mothership carrying it. But they also want a drone that integrates seamlessly with the monitor that receives the footage they’re shooting. Companies like 3D Robotics and Walkera are doing their utmost to create integrated bundles but truth is right now there isn’t a more reliable and complete Apple-like package than DJI’s Phantom 3 series or its pricier sibling, the Inspire 1. If you want to shoot stunning high-def footage using a reliable platform and have the dosh to spare then these two product lines should be your first port of call.
Finally, if you have no desire to shoot video and stills from the air but still want to get droning, try joining a race club and dart through an obstacle course of disused buildings and woodland. Racing drones are also equipped with a camera but this isn’t for shooting the White Cliffs of Dover or your sister’s wedding; it’s so the pilot can see where he’s going using a special FPV headset (First Person View) that receives live footage from the nose of the craft. It’s a hugely exciting sport but expect to crash – a lot.
How to shoot aerial video like a pro
Keep it low and slow
We can’t stress this enough. If you dart around the sky veering the craft from one direction to the other, the footage will just look awful. The rule is to keep things moving really slowly and without any sudden changes in direction. Also, the higher you go the less detail the camera will capture, especially if shooting an object like a monument or property. Keep the drone roughly at the same altitude as the object you’re shooting, move it slowly across the frame and, if you can, use the gimbal control to gently add a little counter movement and you’ll capture a much more cinematic tranche of footage.
Know your gimbal
The gimbal is an essential device designed to keep the camera it’s holding steady while the drone is in motion. Without it, the picture will dip and dive as the drone moves around. The best gimbals have three axes that stabilise pitch, roll and yaw. All gimbals can be controlled to move up and down by the pilot on the ground. Set your gimbal to one of the slower settings and take time to practice with it. Good gimbal control is essential to producing fluid footage.
Prevent jittery panning
Panning is an art. Stick to the universal ‘seven second’ rule and your footage won’t stutter as it arcs from one side to the other. This means counting seven seconds from the start point of the pan to the end point. That said, panning from a static position is never advised since it just looks boring as the image swivels from one side to the other. Much better to use the drone to slowly fly from one side of the scene to the other, perhaps while adding a smidgeon of subtle camera panning in the process. And, once again, keep gimbal and drone movement slow and steady – you can always speed up footage in post production.
Select the correct Shutter speed
In photography, a fast shutter speed is considered a good thing – it produces pin sharp images. However, it has a negative effect with video by giving the impression that the moving image – especially during sideways motion – is stuttering across the screen in tiny staccato movements. To get around this inherent anomaly, always try and set your camera’s shutter speed to twice that of the frame rate. So, if shooting 1080 footage at 50fps, select a shutter speed of 1/100 of a second. And if shooting at 25fps, try 1/50. However, these settings don’t work well in bright light, which is exactly when you’ll be flying. You’ll notice the video is massively overexposed and almost completely washed out. That’s where the humble but invaluable ND (Neutral Density) filter comes in. This simple screw-on kit is basically a piece of darkened glass that reduces the amount of light reaching the camera lens. Put one on and your videos will improve immeasurably with gorgeous, smooth motion-blurred pans that make a hi-res video so much more appealing. As a by product, ND filters will also reduce the ‘jello effect’; that wobbly look created by the in-flight vibrations that all drones produce. PolarPro (polarprofilters.com) produces some of the best Phantom-specific ND filters on the market. If using a new Phantom 3, we’d suggest using one of their ND8 filters for cloudy days and an ND16 or higher for the sunniest times.
Obey the UK law – Do Not Fly:
Over or within 150 metres of any congested area.
Within 50 metres of any person except during take-off or landing.
Over or within 150 metres of an organised open-air gathering of more than 1,000 persons.
Within 50 metres of any vessel, vehicle or structure which is not under the control of the person in charge of the aircraft.
Above 400 feet in altitude or further than 500 metres horizontally. And make sure your UAV remains within line of sight.
Finally, don’t even entertain the idea of flying for commercial purposes without a CAA licence or you will very likely be prosecuted.