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How to shoot breathtaking aerial landscapes

In the last decade, the accessibility of professional-quality drones has ushered in a renaissance in aerial photography, giving photographers a fresh perspective on the world and allowing them to discover beauty they once overlooked in familiar places, including their own backyards.

We interviewed three inspiring pros—Petra Leary, Ruth Hurst and Merr Watson—to learn more about their craft. Along the way, they shared some of their best tips for emerging aerial photographers.

1. Consider your options

While it can be tempting to buy the first drone that catches your eye, Petra recommends holding off and exploring all your options. “Different drones have different abilities, so think about what sort of images or video you’re looking to shoot,” she advises. “Some drones shoot higher MB images but with smaller sensors; if you’re wanting to shoot high quality low light images, you want a drone with a larger sensor to be able to draw enough light in and produce something that is not all grain.

“Other drones come with smart features that allow for automated movements and tracking, which can be a great bonus depending on what you want to photograph. If you’re planning on creating work for film and TV, keep in mind that they require specific res and spec for video. There are so many aircrafts available now that I think researching before buying is super important.” If you’re not sure, ask photographers you admire, and read reviews. You can always rent or borrow to see if a piece of equipment works for your process, goals, and aesthetic.

Image © Petra Leary (@petraleary on Instagram)

2. Stay safe

In aerial photography, safety comes first, so always follow the laws and regulations in your location. They can vary widely, so do your research and check everything twice. Getting any necessary permissions and learning about possible restrictions might not be the most glamorous aspect of flying drones, but it is one of the most important. “I personally use a drone app called Opensky, which I find super helpful when looking into the drone regulations for each location I plan to fly,” Merr tells us.

3. Check the weather

The weather will determine whether it’s safe to fly—and whether you get great photos. “Make sure to check the weather conditions and wind speeds before you plan to fly your drone to ensure you get the best conditions possible,” Merr urges. “Weather can always change, so it’s important to plan your shoots around clear, sunny conditions with lighter wind speed for beautiful lighting and ease of flying.”

Image © Merr Watson (@merrwatson on Instagram)

4. Use a map

“For finding locations, Google Maps and Apple Maps are major tools for me,” Petra tells us. “I spend a lot of time browsing satellite views, looking for interesting landscapes and areas and saving/pinning them.” Those aren’t the only maps she uses, as she also needs to study the airspace at her location before takeoff.

“Another important tool is using the Airshare app (or the equivalent, depending on your country) and aeronautical maps when planning flights,” Petra continues. “These give you a breakdown of the airspace and any restrictions, helipads, aerodromes, and so on that may be in the same vicinity. Getting used to checking and reading these is something that will be very useful to learn, especially if you plan on getting into the commercial side of aerial photography.”

5. Make a plan

“I research locations before I fly there, not only because of drone laws and rules but also because it’s nice to plan out your shots and not feel pressured, especially when you’re working with a limited amount of battery flight time,” Ruth tells us. “I usually carry two to three spare batteries on me when going for a shoot, just so I can relax and not have to finish a shoot early because I’m all out of juice.”

While scouting a location, she’ll start to brainstorm vantage points and compositions. “Switch up different angles and different times of the day,” she suggests. “Experimentation is key! The more flight time you have under your belt, the more comfortable you feel with your drone.”

© Ruth Hurst (@ruth_hurst on Instagram)

6. Bring a filter

“Neutral density/polarizer filters are an essential tool to my drone kit,” Merr admits. “They help reduce light in tricky lighting conditions, combat glare in scenes that involve water, enhance colours/saturation, as well as add motion blur to create dreamy, smooth images.

“The ones I use most often are the ND4, ND8, and ND16 from PolarPro. The ND8 filter is what I use during golden hour to help soften the highlights and bring out more saturation in the colours. I use the ND4 for low light scenes, such as sunrise/sunset to enhance colours and the ND16 to combat sun glare and manage exposure levels during harsher times of the day.”

7. Double-check your gear

Another safety tip from Merr: “The last thing to keep in mind before you head out on a drone shoot is preparation. Make sure your drone is properly calibrated and up-to-date with the latest firmware. Check that your batteries are fully charged and that you’ve packed all the necessary tools and accessories, such as SD cards, spare batteries, and ND filters. The more prepared you are, the higher chance for a successful drone shoot.”

© Merr Watson (@merrwatson on Instagram)

8. Frame with care

“Composition is key, so think about how you’d like the final image to look and try to frame it that way when shooting,” Petra suggests. “When I started, I would overlook this and crop my images in post, which can work but means you reduce the overall size of your photo, and if you want to print your work later, that can be a problem. It’s a great practice to really try and frame things in-camera. It also encourages you to think more about things like balance, which is so important for creating interesting and aesthetic work.”

9. Play with light

“Lighting helps set the tone and mood for your image,” Merr explains. “I always recommend shooting during golden hour or sunrise/sunset to allow the whole scene to be fully illuminated. That way, you’re able to capture a dynamic range of soft lighting and those warm temperatures. Golden hour is also the time you’ll get those long, dramatic shadows that can help add depth to the scene and increase the overall quality of your drone images.”

There are a few apps you can use to schedule your shoot just right, such as LightTrack to predict where the sunlight and shadows will fall over a given landscape. Petra uses Sun Surveyor.

10: Start close to home

Don’t ignore your immediate surroundings. There may be hidden gems waiting to be discovered, even if you live in a city or built-up area. Aerial photography allows us to see things from a new perspective and find interesting things in the landscape that we can’t see while on the ground. Even if you’ve lived in the same place all your life, you may be surprised at what you might find in your local area.

Image © Petra Leary (@petraleary on Instagram)

About the contributor

Feature Shoot showcases the work of international emerging and established photographers who are transforming the medium through compelling, cutting-edge projects, with contributing writers from all over the world.