How to Use a Drone for Photography

How to Use a Drone for Photography

A drone is a remarkable piece of equipment, enabling you to capture film and photographs from perspectives that were once believed impossible. Using a drone for photography differs significantly from filming with a drone. Let’s share some ideas.

When I purchased my first drone, I initially saw it as an extension of my regular photography. However, as time passed, my interest in the drone's filming capabilities grew. It provided an exceptional bird's-eye view of landscapes, enhancing my photography trips to France, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, and Norway.

While the drone enabled the capture of excellent footage in diverse locations, filming presented challenges distinct from those of capturing stills. It involved more than simply managing moving and non-moving images; it required a completely different approach to flying with a drone. I found it difficult, if not impossible, to fly a drone and capture both video and photos simultaneously.

Using a drone for photography isn't vastly different from using any other camera. You must meter the available light and set the exposure accordingly, just as you would with your regular camera. Occasionally, there may be restrictions based on the type of drone you're using, such as limitations on using high ISO settings without introducing noise.

It's possible that the aperture is fixed, leaving you with only shutter speed and ISO to achieve the proper exposure. In contrast to capturing video, these restrictions for photography are easily overcome.

The Dutch Wadden Sea, from a high altitude. It's a nice view, but it's difficult to get a good connection to the landscape. 

Composition with a drone is similar to that of any other camera. You need to find a suitable subject and, perhaps, some supporting elements in the landscape, incorporating lines to connect different elements within the frame. One advantage of using a drone over a regular camera is the unique bird's-eye view it offers, enabling you to effectively capture the flow of a river or the winding of a road.

Despite the common tendency among drone photographers to fly at great heights, this approach may not always yield the most interesting images. In fact, it can often make capturing compelling shots more challenging. This is somewhat akin to using an extremely wide-angle lens, where there's a risk of including too much clutter in the frame.

The Difference Between Photography and Filming

It's tempting to take your drone out for a flight just for the thrill, as I did in the first few weeks after purchasing my first drone. Yet, flying without a purpose proved to be a dull experience. The only thing I accomplished was depleting the battery.

My first drone, which I used a lot for learning how to become a drone pilot. But personally, I never enjoyed flying without a purpose.

But I learned to operate the drone, of course, which is imperative. If flying is your primary goal, consider using a first person view (FPV) drone, which I consider to be designed for the joy of flying. However, if the goal is photography or filming, flying is only the means to achieve your images.

For video footage, planning is crucial. You need to determine the clips you need and design a flight path that achieves the desired look. It requires a precise control over the drone's movements while filming. Even a small steering mistake can ruin a shot.

My video from an Iceland trip. You will notice some steering mistakes in the video, if you watch it carefully. It's fun to do, but difficult.

Using a drone for photography is completely different. While maintaining control is also essential, it's much easier to fly for photography compared to filming. Instead of designing a flight path, you can just fly to the desired location, adjust the position and height, and capture the photo. This approach conserves a lot of battery life, extending the drone's usability throughout the day.

The famous football field at Henningsvær, Lofoten, Norway. This can't be photographed like this unless you have a drone.

Fly With Purpose

While flying can be enjoyable, it should serve a purpose. Avoid wasting battery on aimless flights. For photography, it's straightforward: decide where you want the camera to be, fly there, fine-tune the position and height, and capture the image.

The village of Nusfjord, Lofoten, Norway. It's impossible to climb to this vantage point, but a drone can. This was captured only a few meters above the snow.

If there's no unexpected second composition, return the drone. Flying in circles with no purpose is less engaging and may just be a nuisance for bystanders.

If filming is your purpose, it’s also necessary to fly specifically for the desired film footage. If you’re not sure what to film, the result can be disappointing or even not useable.

A rather classic drone shot. It shows a river that flows through the highlands of Iceland. 

Don't Go Too High Up in the Sky

Many drone images exhibit a true bird's-eye perspective. These are captured by flying up to the maximum allowed altitude. However, unless there's a good reason for that altitude, it often results in dull images without a clear subject.

Every photo needs a subject that stands out. Drone photography is not any different. Choose the altitude that makes a good composition possible. Don't fly high up in the sky just because you can.

Use the drone not at a high altitude, but at the right altitude. This way, you are able to maintain a viewer's connection with the landscape. Sometimes, this results in an altitude of only two meters. In other situations, this can be 10 or even 50 meters.

The same small river, from a great altitude, and from only 3 meters high. It doesn't have to be obvious when it's a drone shot. 

Reaching Impossible Vantage Points

A drone's benefit lies in capturing images from otherwise unreachable vantage points. Elevated by two or three meters, it enables you to capture leading lines more easily. A drone can also be used to avoiding obstructive foregrounds. Fly to the other side of the obstruction to get a clear view.

Chateau Grandval in France is situated in a lake that doesn't allow a clear view. Trees are obstructing the view from most places. But a drone can overcome this problem. But you don't have to reach a great altitude for the best composition.

Drones also enable shooting from inaccessible or hazardous locations, overcoming potential dangers. After all, you don’t want to risk your life for just a photo. However, a drone can offer you a safe way to get the shot.

It's impossible and probably lethal to climb a glacier like this. But a drone can reach such a place without any danger. But the photo doesn't have to clearly show that it's made with a drone. 

Use a Drone Wisely

While drones expand a photographer's toolkit, providing opportunities for otherwise impossible or dangerous shots, they also pose risks. Strict rules govern where and when not to fly. Respecting these rules is essential, as they exist for a reason.

The only way to see this meandering stream is from 10 meters high in the sky. It's clearly a drone shot, but not from a great height.

Do you have experience with drone photography? Please share your insights and any additional advice in the comments below. I look forward to your response.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Nando Harmsen is a Dutch photographer that is specialized in wedding and landscape photography. With his roots in the analog photo age he gained an extensive knowledge about photography techniques and equipment, and shares this through his personal blog and many workshops.

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Although I do not have a drone yet, and have never flown one, this topic interests me. I have a lot of interest in getting a drone to use for still photos, but no interest at all in ever shooting video from a drone. So based on what you say in the article, the still photography I want to do with a drone should be easier to accomplish than video would be. That's good to hear!

Definitely. It's necessary to fly to your shooting location and back again. No need for smooth movements. Still, it needs practice to fly. You don't want to fly into a tree, and in the right direction.

which cameras can be attached to the drone ?
Are these dedicated ones or could i use my sony a7iv for example ?

Most drones are already equipped with a camera. That has a small sensor, often limited to one inch in size.
The more professional, large and heavy drones can be fitted with a mirrorless camera. But these often need two operators: one for flying, the other for operating the camera.

Are there amphibious drones? I mean drones that will be okay if they land in the water by mistake? If so, are they affordable, or are amphibious ones far more expensive than "regular" ones?

I believe there are some floatation devices that can be added to a drone to prevent it from drowning ;)
But how will you retrieve a drone that has crash landed somewhere on a lake or sea? Changes are you will loose it anyway. In that case the extra expense for an amphibious drone would hurt even more

Well I would hope that an amphibious drone would float and have a little propeller to make it move in the water just like it moves in the air.

Plus, it is not difficult to retrieve things from the water. At least not from the ponds, lakes, and rivers that I frequent. When I hunted ducks years ago, we would often shoot a duck in flight, it would land out in the water, and eventually float in to shore. Just have to wait a while for the breeze to carry whatever's on the water's surface in to shore. I don't think we ever lost a downed duck, just had to work a bit and wait a bit to get it in hand.

Besides, either my canoe or my kayak is often on my car's roof rack - not a big deal to get in the kayak and paddle out to a stranded, floating drone, if I don't feel like waiting for it to blow in to shore.

I'm about to leave for Iceland in 2 days. It's only a short trip for 1 week this time. I've been in Iceland 7 times for extensive nature and travel photography between 2000 and 2017, though. BUT the forthcoming trip is my first I'm thinking of bringing my drones (Mavic 2 pro and Mavic 3 standard). BTW, I'm registered on the Federal Avation Agency, the drones are insured and equipped with the plaques required by the EU now. And of course, I also had passed the online test to get the drone driving license.
It's no question that Iceland basically is a spectacular destination for drone flights. However, watching all the aerial captures and videos on Iceland including the footage posted from the author above, I'm really wondering how/if the drone pilots manage to circumnavigate (or ignore ?) all the strict rules that are in place there and have been continuously extended since 2016, at least. Drones are banned in all National parks and almost at all known tourist hotspots there. It doesn't matter if there is traffic from visitors or not. That includes Geysir, Gullfoss, Pingvellir, Skogafoss, Cape Dyrholaey, Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach and also the Jökularssaron Glacier Lagoon shown in the video above, since it's part of Vatnajökull National Park. These are just a few examples of an endless list of prohibited areas. For my upcoming trip and goal to use my drones, I had tried to collect all informations regarding drone flights there and read all the documents & regulations published on the websites of the Icelandic authorities (ITA, EIA etc).That said, for an exemption to fly your drone in a restricted and protected area you need to apply and pay for a special permit in advance which is only optional for scientists or commercial crews working on a specific project, though. There are lots of documents required, including a project description, flight route, the concrete time slot, duration of the flight etc. And even then, it's NOT a general license to fly your drone everywhere you want but just valid for the special area you have applied for, of course - and at a given time. Most important,- from what I've seen, It's generally not possible for private persons, such as amateurs/semi-pros to get that permit without the preconditions above in order to fly their drone for leisure or personal purposes in a prohibited/protected area. BTW, that should be valid for all the Youtubers by then,too, IMO. For flying out of sight or higher than 120m (which seems funny to me in a mountainous area, btw) you need an additional permit requiring special preconditons and documents, too. So I have given up on all that hazzle for my upcoming trip. After my enthusiastic anticipation to bring my drones to Iceland for the first time, I have been pretty disillusioned in the end up to the point of considering to leave my copters at home. Surely, you may find a remote place to fly them legally without a permit and it's still less restricted in the Highlands up to now. But the Interior is not accessible at that time of the year, of course and at the overwhelming majority of known locations drones are simply banned now which is indicated by "no drones" signs there, too.

As an added attraction almost coincidencing with the timing of my trip the spectacular fissure eruption started on Dec18th on the Reykjanes Peninsula north of Grindavik..It goes without saying that this would be an amazing once-in-a lifetime experience for drone pilots as it obviously has been for those who had been lucky to capture and film the past eruptions on Iceland. The current eruption site is extensively closed, though. That is understandable for safety reasons and the respect for the people of Grindavik, too, who had been evacuated in November. Unfortunately, drones are prohibited in a large area around the eruption, too..But nevertheless, you could watch the footages on Tik Tok, Youtube etc shortly after the eruption had started and on the following days up to now.. Clearly they were not just captured from helicopters of the authorities but from private drones, too.
So I'm increasingly annoyed that rules and regulations don't seem to apply for everyone. I'm not referring to the officials and authorities, of course but to private persons who evidentally have no legitimation or permit.

I apologize for my pretty long comment that maybe could appear a bit OOT here. But given the footages from Iceland posted above and countless other drone videos around and many of them taken in prohibited regions. I'm actually very interested in the approach and experiences of the author and other users how to deal with all the restrictions and rules. I guess that this is a relevant subject for others, too. That means if/how other private drone pilots got exemptions, circumnavigate the rules or ignore them - especially in Iceland but elsewhere, too.I cannot judge to which extent the rules are "just on paper" so that I simply take the regulations too literally just being too concerned. Or, if you are just willing to accept the risk of having your drone confiscated including a high penalty (in Iceland currently ranging from $1560 to $ 37900 and be sent to jail depending on the situation) - just in the hope the authorities don't get aware of your flight in a protected / prohibited area ;-)

In any case I 'd appreciate your honest opinions and experiences. Thank you in advance


Nando, your post beautifully captures the balance between the thrill of drone flying and the purposeful art of photography. Insightful tips for achieving stunning shots with a relaxed drone approach.