Landscape photography enables us to capture scenes of natural beauty in the world around us. Yet one drawback is its limitation to the lay of the land. Geographical obstacles like cliffs and rivers reduce accessibility and limit the range of perspectives available.
Enter drone photography.
Drones open up a whole new dimension (literally) for photographers. For over a year now I’ve brought along a DJI Mavic Pro on my photography travels. While the image quality of larger drones (i.e. DJI’s Phantom 4 Pro) is superior, I’ve been able to take the Mavic Pro on extended hikes where bulkier drones would have been simply unfeasible.
After a year of capturing landscape photos with a drone, I wanted to share my advice for like-minded photographers looking to do the same.
Do The Safety Dance
I know, I know, safety isn't sexy. But it's important—particularly so when considering drone photography.
Be sure to do your research before you fly. No-fly-zones, wind and rain all impact when and where you should fly your drone. It only takes a few minutes before each flight, but will save you a world of hurt to remove risks before they arise.
In Australia I use a free, easy to navigate app called Can I Fly There? Which, essentially, is Google Maps overlaid with no-fly zones around airports and helipads.
Finally, check your surrounds before taking off. That is, stay clear of trees, power lines and people. After you’ve done your checks, time to fly!
Light (Camera, Action)
After safety, the next most important consideration is lighting—nothing new to Landscape Photographers. Just like photography on land, lighting conditions from the sky can make or break a drone photo.
For those starting out, I’d suggest it best to experiment flying under varied lighting conditions (e.g. dawn, mid-morning and overcast). Take a few shots under each condition and then review the photos afterwards in post to see what works best for you.
For me, I’ve found flying the Mavic Pro on overcast days is great for forest scenes where even lighting is preferred. Likewise, I avoid shooting seascapes in the middle of the day, as the overhead sun reflects back up off the water below, creating distracting glare spots in the scene. For seascape drone photography, I prefer early/late shoots and cloudy days.
Considering Composition: Patterns & Shapes
After you’ve got a good understanding of when to fly, next comes where to fly.
When considering composition in drone photography, I’ve found patterns, shapes and leading lines to be of more importance than foreground elements. That doesn’t mean you can’t include a foreground, it’s just a little more complicated 300ft in the air.
With the impact of foregrounds reduced, we must be more attuned to other elements of composition—namely patterns, shape and colour.
Forests and coastlines are the bread and butter of drone photography—for good reason too. Locations like pine plantations offer repeating patterns, while it’s hard to beat the textures and colours found along the coast.
While it’s easy to snap a shot over the beach and be content with the unique perspective, try to go above (pun totally intended) and beyond with your composition. Look to align the shot with the rule of thirds or have the patience to hover for 10 minutes in the same spot waiting for the perfect wave break pattern below. Just like traditional landscape photography, it shows when drone photographers go the extra mile to capture compelling compositions.
Explore & Experiment
The best way to capture stunning drone photos is to get out and shoot different locations under varied lighting conditions.
I’ve found the biggest aid in this is Google Map’s satellite view. Often I’ll spend time simply zooming around the app on my phone, looking for compelling compositions. Whether that be a pristine stretch of beach or a striking cliff edge, I’ll first scope out new areas online to get a sense of the lay of the land before visiting in person.
Other aspects to experiment with are the drone’s height and camera angle. See what the scene looks like from 20m in the air, and then compare with how it looks like from 120m above. Likewise, I tend to shoot most of my drone photos looking straight down onto the landscape, but experiment tilting the camera to include the horizon too.
Drone landscape photography is still just taking off (last one, I promise). There are a tonne of original shots still to be had—both from locations previously inaccessible and new perspectives of classic ones.
If you’re keen to get serious about drone photography, the important thing is to invest just as much time into it as you would with traditional landscape photography. Spend time researching beforehand, walk around to find interesting scenes and carefully consider each composition before you take the shot.
If the best camera is the one you have on you. Why not bring two along to your next landscape shoot?