First commercial steps with a drone - Dreamstime
I was really excited to see the subject of this blog contest as I just bought my first drone in December and so this is a perfect time for me! I decided to go with the Mavic 2 Pro - mainly because of its stability in the air and also for the fantastic Hasselblad camera with 1 inch sensor and 20MP resolution. But I’m not here to sell you on this particular drone. I thought I would walk through my experiences to date, firstly in learning all about drone photography and videography as a stock photographer and then in learning all about the laws and rules (in the USA) for flying a drone and my experience with the FAA pilot license that you require to sell your images and videos via stock agencies. As always, this is a contest for the best blog post and so a click on that green Useful button really helps me if you think this article has been worthwhile!
I’ve thought about getting a drone before, but what always put me off was whether there were enough interesting places to fly where you wouldn’t be breaking a law or local rule. Yes, the airspace restrictions are clear around airports, but national parks, state parks, local parks etc. seem to be restricting their use. What finally persuaded me was that I started thinking of the interesting opportunities to get different angles and views on more common stock situations - I’m thinking about images (or videos) of vaping that is always in the news these days. What about someone on a balcony taking a “quick vape” and a drone taking angles that would be impossible with handheld or tripod use. I’ve found that my drone is so stable in the air that I can put it in position and it acts as if it was on a tripod. For evening shots, the combination of the drone stability and the gimbal means that you can use the lowest ISO and shutter speeds down to 1 second and still get sharp results with no noise. So putting the drone anywhere around the subject can give you some great shots! I’ve still got to put my mind around the subjects that would best for this, but it seems like BBQ shots, parties on a balcony or deck, conversations, outdoor dining etc. would all make good subjects for a higher angle drone shot. If only spring and summer would come along!!
So with my mind thinking of the potential of a 10 or 20 foot tripod around my subjects, I then wondered if I would crash it! Being of a “senior” age, I did question if I had the dexterity and muscle control to accurately fly and land it without running into things! I’m glad to report that the drone is so well engineered that it won’t fly into things and if I’m not sure which direction to push the control sticks, just letting them go results in the drone hovering where it is and a tiny push will confirm that I am taking the correct action. I did take out DJI’s insurance where they replace the drone if you crash it (3 times I think!!) but so far I’ve been nowhere near an incident.
So with my flying skills around my local area increasing, I turned my mind to selling the shots and videos on stock agencies, including, of course, Dreamstime. Any commercial usage (and that is defined very broadly in the USA by the FAA) requires a Remote Pilots License. Commercial usage is obviously anything sold for stock purposes, but it is said it also includes videos on YouTube where advertising is shown. I started taking my drone photos and videos as a hobbyist while I studied for my exam, only uploading them after successfully taking the test. I probably took about a month to feel sufficiently confident of my knowledge to apply for the test, and clearly that wasn’t full time study. I generally would set aside an hour on most days to build up my knowledge and then took some practice tests to discover where I was weak and then focused on those for a while.
The FAA in the USA has a very useful document called the Remote Pilot Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Study Guide which contains almost everything you need to pass the test. It does have 87 pages, but if you read that, you will know most of the things you need to know. I also found the website of Rupprecht Law to be very informative. Maybe a little too much regulation oriented, but I did read most of the regulations he points to. He also has a helpful free study guide as well, with a last minute “cram” section! Finally, the 3dr.com website is also excellent for their shorter explanations of key points and a comprehensive test section. There are many paid courses available, but I didn’t think that was necessary. There are also many, many YouTube videos on the different aspects of the test (Tony Northrup has a 100 minute video on everything you need to know) and I did use those for areas where I struggled. In my case it was airspace definitions and also weather reports, but those extra videos finally got the message through my skull! Just a word of warning though! I did find the actual test to be harder than the example questions I had practiced with. Perhaps I was just unlucky but there were complex questions about which air space the drone would be in when flying at the maximum height about a specific tower. So there are multiple steps to getting to the answer (and even so I'm not sure I got that one right!)
So what did I learn about the photographic issues? As you can see from my images illustrating this article, I was lucky enough to go to Hawaii with my drone in late January and so I flew many times out over the ocean. The rule here is to keep (or have an observer to keep) the drone in sight at all times and so choosing a place to launch outside a state park and having my wife keep her eyes on the drone was all I needed. With a 30 minute flight time, I had no issues going far enough out to sea to get shots that would be impossible in any other way. I did upgrade my controller with a mount that allowed me to use a larger tablet (10 inches) rather than a phone as the display panel. In bright light things are always going to be difficult to see, but the larger tablet gave me a lot more room to see the video, the camera controls and important information about the length of flight still available to me. You don't want to run out of battery power when well out to sea!
Incidentally, it is often difficult to distinguish between a still shot from a drone and one from a higher viewpoint. This one below was actually taken from an overlook with my still camera - but it could so easily have been a drone shot. As the keywords would also say drone (in case someone was looking for an aerial shot that this one would meet), it is pretty difficult to tell when an image was actually taken by a drone. Of course, videos are very different, but I’m still processing those!
While I am on video, the first thing I realized was that although this drone has an adjustable aperture (down to F11), it does get softer in sharpness as you stop down. This is normal with a small lens and even smaller aperture opening, but it does mean that the sweet spot is more around F4. With bright conditions and 100 ISO, you have to use a pretty fast shutter speed which breaks the rule of choosing one that is “twice” the frame rate. So even with 30fps, you cannot get anywhere near 1/60th second. So my first purchase (actually my second as spare batteries came first!) was a set of 4x to 16x ND filters. My set also included the same thing with added polarizing, which is handy for ocean scenes to cut through reflections on the water. A bit tricky to adjust in flight though! So in the bright sunny weather of Hawaii, I tended to always leave the 16x ND filter in place to bring down the shutter speed at around F4 to 1/60th second to get that smooth video that most people look for, especially over beaches with the waves breaking on the sand. I did wonder if that slower speed would give me issues with still shots but as I mentioned earlier, I found that shots down to 1 second were sharp so 1/60th gave me no problems.
I also became a convert to what are called Log profiles in video - DJI has one that you can select that gives a wider dynamic range (from brights to darks) but looks very washed out in the monitor and when you playback on your computer. In this mode, the video (up to 4K) is saved in 10 bits rather than the normal 8, which gives it much more leeway for handling brighter areas. The downside is that it doesn't look great when you just want to impress your friends there and then, but there is a conversion LUT (look up table) that DJI provides to use in Premiere and other video editing suites to bring it back to a “normal” look. As you gain more skills in video color correction, you can do your own color grading to get the color you prefer. This approach gives you much better looking video after processing with less noise in the shadows.
My stills are always taken using the raw format and I made use of a feature to automatically take three shots that are one stop apart so that if I didn’t quite get the exposure right, I would have alternative exposures to choose from. I also used manual exposure for both video and stills - you get a warning on the screen when something is over-exposed and a histogram to compare the overall brightness in a graph. Changing the exposure is as simple as rotating a control wheel on the controller. I also found that you could take some pretty good panoramas by holding the drone in place and taking a shot, then rotate a little, take another shot and so on. Although you can’t turn your drone on its side (!) to get a higher vertical resolution, you still get some great widescreen effects! The shot below is an example of that technique:
I did find that pushing up the ISO rapidly introduces noise and so taking still images with longer shutter speeds is always preferable to pushing up the ISO to get a shorter one. If your subject is moving, you may not have a choice, but for general landscape shots, make use of that stability to avoid noise. You can use the normal controls in Lightroom or your video editing suite to reduce noise, but I did find that it rapidly softened the image. So using a longer shutter speed makes a lot of sense if you can. You can also try using 1/30th second for a 30 fps video to avoid that extra ISO step when you are in sunset or similar conditions.
Overall, I have been very impressed with both the quality of the images and videos, but also when I let my mind wander and think of different perspectives I can use for more standard stock photos, I think I will get a great deal of enjoyment (and hopefully income) from this purchase. I’m also tempted to see if any local photographers (or realtors) are interested in adding aerial shots to their house sale details. A bit of a step outside the world of stock photography but all sources of income help! I hope you have managed to get to the end of this long article - if you found it useful, you know there is a button there to record your appreciation! Thanks!
Photo credits: Steveheap.
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