Despite the technology being around for many decades, it’s only in the last few years that drones have become so popular in the filmmaking world. Mainly used for military purposes in the 80s and 90s, drones did start to see use in industrial sectors through the early 2000s. For example, corporations began using them to inspect pipelines or spray crops with pesticides. However, they remained costly tools, out of reach for the everyday consumer.
If you wanted to capture epic, jaw-dropping aerials for your film, the only way to do it was to hire a helicopter. While the shots looked great, it was costly. Peter Jackson’s Lord of The Rings trilogy is a great example of helicopter footage used for big blockbusters in the early 2000s.
Thankfully for us – the independent filmmakers and creatives who don’t have tens of thousands of dollars to spend on a helicopter – things have really changed in recent years! 2013 saw DJI release the Phantom 1, and since then, we’ve never really looked back.
Through innovation and competition, drones have changed filmmaking landscaping for the best, making epic aerial shots far more accessible and achievable for the masses. Nowadays, practically every videographer has a drone in their backpack. There are so many options on the market we’ve even had to create a drone buyer guide to help!
If you’ve just recently got your hands on a drone or want to level up your flying skills, read on.
How to use drone footage
Over the last 10 years, we’ve seen how drone cinematography can be used for all kinds of different scenarios. Drones are fantastic because they enable us to operate a camera in a fully three-dimensional sense, capturing a different angle and perspective that was previously impossible. This has ensured drones are used for various purposes in filmmaking.
Setting the scene in vlogs and documentaries
For as long as filmmaking has existed, cinematographers have used wide shots to set the scene and introduce an audience to a location. Naturally, drone cinematography is perfect for this! Whether it’s a vlog on YouTube or a nature documentary, a beautiful, wide shot of a landscape or a city helps place your story and introduce your audience to a scene. You can find plenty of great examples of this type of drone shot on Artlist.
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Whether it’s to sell a property or for a corporation to show off its new headquarters, drones have revolutionized the property tour video, aerial videography of the property shows off the architecture and adds a lot of context, helping viewers to get a better understanding of the size of a property and what it looks like in connection with its surrounding environment.
With the advent of the FPV drone in recent years, you can now get some incredible interior shots that aren’t impossible with a traditional camera and gimbal.
Action and sport
Speaking of FPV drones…action and sports videos have really benefited from drone cinematography. For major sporting events like a football final or golf championship, you may have noticed TV broadcasters using wide shots taken from a drone to establish the location of the event.
With FPV drones, we’re now seeing some incredibly skilled pilots take us up close and personal with sporting action like we’ve never experienced before.
Similarly to sports, drone filmmaking has also had an impact on event coverage. When filming events such as concerts and festivals, a drone can provide some incredible shots of the crowd and a unique aerial perspective that shows off the scale of the event.
How to improve your drone cinematography
With so many opportunities to use aerial footage, you’d be smart to brush up on your drone filming techniques. Below, we’ve got a few top tips for you.
Plan your flight
While throwing your drone up immediately and starting to shoot can be tempting, you’ll probably waste your battery and not capture everything you need. Before the flight, analyze the location and compile a shot list. If you plan in the days beforehand, you can even use tools like Google Earth or the Sun Seeker app to know and understand where the light will fall when you’re there. This will ensure you get everything you need and have enough battery power.
Know your settings
While most consumer drones are ready to fly and shoot straight out of the box, it pays to tinker with the settings and understand what will give you the best aerial cinematography. For example, you’ll want to take a look at the highest resolution you can film in and what codec is available. This choice can drastically improve the quality of your image (as well as the file size). Understanding how to correctly white balance, expose the image, and focus are also important skills.
When you’re really comfortable with your drone, you can even play around with the controller’s sensitivity, determining how quickly or slowly a drone reacts to your movements and how the actual camera gimbal operates.
Shoot a flat image
When I say “flat”, I mean that you should shoot your footage in the flattest LOG profile possible – hardly any color or contrast. One of the key aspects of making any footage look cinematic is color grading. So when you shoot a nice flat image with your drone, you have as much flexibility as possible to color grade it and create a really cinematic image, exactly how you envisioned.
Use an ND filter
When you’re flying with a drone, nine times out of ten, you’ll be flying outdoors, and this means you’re working with a lot of natural light that’s out of your control. Often, the image will be too bright and overexposed. Rather than upping the shutter speed (which would produce footage that isn’t really cinematic), using an ND filter on your drone keeps things correctly exposed. It’s like putting a pair of sunglasses on your drone camera (don’t do this).
One of the key aspects of filmmaking that applies no matter what camera you’re using is composition. Chances are, you’ve already heard about the rule of thirds, and this is a technique that applies up in the air, too. You can enable the grid marker on your flight app to line things up. A good rule of thumb is to keep the sky in the top third of the frame while using vertical lines to place your subjects of interest.< Additionally, keep an eye out for things that look pleasing to your eye – shapes, patterns, and symmetry. All kinds of things reveal themselves when we’re presented with the birdseye perspective. Finally, make use of foreground and background. The drone is flying through a three-dimensional space, and you want to make the most of that. If you capture a wide landscape shot without any focal point or anything near the drone, the image may feel a little “flat” and two-dimensional. By adding something to the foreground (a tree, a building, or a mountain summit), you suddenly add depth and interest to the image. [clips id ="341211"]
The other key aspect of composition in drone filmmaking is motion. If you take a look at any great drone shot, ask yourself why it’s so great. It’s because there’s motion in the frame – things are passing through it, and the drone is always on the move. Flying through an environment and keeping things moving keeps an audience engaged and interested – even if it’s just a slow pan forward. Stationary drone shots are typically not as intriguing.
Pay attention to your speed
Yes, a drone is a new toy, and of course, we all want to see the maximum speed, but speed does not translate well to great aerial footage. Slowing things down tends to produce much better aerial cinematography. It allows your audience to take in more of the scene and ensure the footage is buttery-smooth and stable. When flying at speed and suddenly making quick changes of direction, the result can be quite jarring to watch, snapping you out of the moment.
Of course, if you’re in the business of flying an FPV drone, the rules are a little different on this one!
Drone cinematography moves
Now that you better understand what goes into making a great drone shot, you can start practicing. Using the idea of motion, camera control, and composition, here are a few moves you can learn that will improve your drone cinematography skills.
I love using “360” shots as my introductions to a scene because they’re so dynamic and really help place a subject within its environment. In this aerial stock footage from Artlist, the volcano is the subject, and we get to see how it looks while erupting within its environment. There is also the reveal of people at the edge of the magma field.
Zoom out, pan up
I use this technique of zooming out with the drone while panning slowly up with the camera to reveal the scale of a place or scene. It works great if you’re in an epic mountain range!
This is a pretty standard shot, but if you do it right, it remains one of the best drone filming techniques out there. I love to get way up high above a cityscape and then tilt the camera looking directly down before panning slowly over the buildings. It provides a really interesting wide shot that can work great for intro shots in documentaries.
Of course, you need to follow local laws and regulations when it comes to flying over cities – bear that in mind! A great way to get around this could be to download stock footage from Artlist’s aerial footage collection.
Remember what I said about revealing something in the foreground? The pilot of this shot could have just tracked the person crossing the bridge from right to left, but by pulling back and revealing the bridge in the foreground, set against that epic background of the Himalayas, the shot is much more cinematic.
Another great way to play with depth and foreground subjects is to pass through something in your frame. This type of shot really immerses the audience in the environment, and it could be done either by flying forwards through the rock pillars or backward.
It doesn’t necessarily matter which is the best drone for cinematography – it’s much more about what you do with the drone you buy. You can instantly level up your drone filmmaking skills with these tips and techniques.
Meanwhile, you can find plenty of inspiration in Artlist’s aerial footage collection, or perhaps even use the aerial stock footage if you don’t yet have a drone or want to navigate trickier city shots where laws and regulations may come into play. You’ll also find plenty of music for drone videos, so it’s a win-win!