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Down-to-earth photographyDown-to-earth photography

At or below 400 feet is the rule, but some of your best photo perspectives come well below, just off the ground, even. It's a compelling perspective when you know the tricks.

Drones are ideal for low-altitude cinematography due to their versatility, compact profile, and incredible cameras. Photo by Kelly Managhan.

Look up in the sky…

Pretty much all of us drone pilots can agree, it is thrilling and often a little nerve-wracking to fly our drones to higher altitudes. But lots of times, the scenery from up there is simply amazing and makes for incredible photos and video shots.

Those gorgeous panoramas of sweeping landscapes over the treetops, a slow glide toward a fiery sunset, or capturing the bustle of a cityscape below are now possible like never before. Social media and YouTube are full of these kinds of drone shots.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There is plenty to commend with these images and the emotion such perspectives can evoke, but let’s not forget that our drones are tools. And very versatile tools at that.

Well, Hello, Dolly!

Perhaps one segment that is learning to take advantage of drones is filmmaking and TV. The cost to deploy and set up shots is significantly lower, not to mention the time savings. Drone photography is particularly attractive and useful to smaller-budget indie production teams.

If you understand some of the techniques that filmmakers use, you too can apply these to your own drone photography and ratchet up your cinematic cred a few notches.

One of the more cinematic moves that a drone can make is a dolly shot. In a traditional setup, that means a camera mounted to the top of a rig called a dolly. This all rests on a short run of railroad track to allow the dolly, with mounted camera, to move smoothly from point A to point B. The idea is to remove any X, Y, or Z axis movement of the camera to produce a smooth and fluid motion through the scene.

While you can reconfigure the physical track layout for different shoots, just imagine how much simpler it is with a drone. No breaking down the track and reconfiguring. You simply change your flight path! Minimal, if any, equipment reconfiguration. This allows the director to get multiple angles quickly and easily and again, at far less production expense. You also can add versatility to the shot such as an elevation change while dollying. The example here would be slowly flying up a flight of stairs where the dolly track would be visible in the frame.

There are variations on this theme: A dolly shot can move in countless directions. To “dolly in” or “dolly out,” you will move the camera in toward or out away from your subject. Kind of sounds like simply zooming, huh?

Zoom and dolly are two different things, no matter how similar they seem. The easy way to differentiate them is that the dolly shot is the aforementioned camera movement toward or away from your subject. Zooming involves moving the lens elements, but not the camera. It is basically cropping your shot, either digitally or optically.

So, what’s the difference? Spatial relationship of the scene is the difference. Remember, zooming in on a shot may close in on the subject but the landscape, trees, buildings, and other peripheral background items keep the same relative view as the unzoomed shot. Zoom in, and the background is cropped tighter. The dolly shot keeps the subject the focus of the shot; however, the change in camera distance relative to the scene gives a totally different feel of actual motion to the shot, created by the actual motion of the camera.

Get on track

Tracking shots give a whole different type of look and feel to your shot. Tracking shots generally follow a subject alongside without changing the distance closer or further away. Think of someone walking along a sidewalk as the camera glides alongside. Your walking subject stays in focus, but you see the background whipping past as they move forward, in sync with your camera.

As always, tracking shots require smooth and steady camera movements. This task can be accomplished by track but also is perfectly suited for drones.

Rise up with the crane shot

You may not realize it, but chances are, you have already done some crane shots with your drone. Crane shots are those that rise from ground level or descend from higher levels. These shots have been used for years, even combining the use of a crane or jib (think “big selfie stick”) to raise and lower the camera while moving down a dolly track.

Crane shots can be the perfect way to do a reveal of a rolling, hilly landscape or cityscape. As you rise, the distant background elements come into view and can add a beautiful and dramatic element for your film.

Pointing out camera angles

In case you were wondering, I haven't forgotten that our drone cameras are on movable gimbals.

With any shot, typically you need to decide on your subject and keep it focused and in the center of your shot. Now that you are moving your drone and camera around, assuming the camera is in a fixed straight-ahead orientation, you can work with the shot types mentioned above.

Every low-altitude setup you shoot will require flight automation, some very smooth stick work, or both. Putting the camera close to the subject magnifies every little twitch, and a small gust of wind can ruin a shot that would look just fine from 50 feet higher. You'll want to practice down low to get the hang of it; you also might want to tune your sticks so the drone is less responsive. This is no place for sport mode, my friends.

As your skill increases, you can start exploring camera movement, all while moving the drone. Yeah, this is definitely chewing-gum-and-patting-yourself-on-top-of the-head-at-the-same-time-level business here. Each one takes a good bit of practiced skill, but the results are even more stunning and professional once you get the skills polished.

For example, imagine a crane shot starting on a person standing in front of a beautiful house. As the drone/crane rises with the camera fixed forward, we begin to lose the person to the lower part of the frame and the scene is replaced with the emerging background beyond the beautiful house. But what if you want the camera to stay on the person as the shot rises? Well, again, if your multitasking skills are up to it, then you can slowly tilt the camera down as you fly the drone upward. The key here is subtle movements! Make it slow, easy on the sticks.

OK, here’s a cheat for you… In this scenario if your drone has a follow or tracking mode, lock it onto the person before you begin to fly. Eureka! The camera will stay locked onto the subject as you fly upward and save you some extra work. It’s easy to think of these automated follow modes being for chasing moving objects, but sometimes, you are (that is, the drone is) the moving object and you just want to keep your subject locked in.

Getting down to business

Lots of stuff going on here, huh? That is why more practice is always a good idea. Not only practice to get better shots and be a better aerial photographer, but to be a safe drone pilot.

If you are flying in these lower altitude, tighter environments you will likely have less room for error. It is always imperative to follow the rules and fly in compliance with regulations. This means not flying over people and avoiding other potentially dangerous situations.

Take advantage of all the safety gear you have available, including a good landing pad, clearly marked flight area, and prop guards for starters. If you are shooting with people nearby, remember to make everyone aware of your flight details and keep your drone at a safe distance at all times, allowing a little room for loss of control. Flight safety is always your top priority, and when flying these types of complex shots, it can be easy to take something for granted. Make a safety check part of your preflight routine and stick to it.

Practice, practice, practice!

Now, let’s go out and try some of these new techniques! Find a nice open spot with some great scenery and get to work. Practice those slow turns and rises. Fly figure 8’s until your batteries want to go home. Use your drone case as a subject to lock onto. Most of all, practice slowing things down. Subtle stick movements, gentle camera tilt changes, easy on the yaw. All these things will come together the more adept you become flying like a camera operator as well as drone pilot and your cinematography will show incredible results!

Flying in low, tight spaces takes practice. Sharpen your skills to improve your flying precision. Photo by Terry Jarrell.

Terry Jarrell

Terry Jarrell is a remote pilot who owns Black Dog Drone Operations in central Florida. He has worked for nearly two decades as a technology consultant, instructor, and writer. Terry also works with Stallion 51 Flight Operations in Kissimmee.
Topics: Unmanned Aircraft

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