UAVs and Aerial Videography: Tips and Technique

Story by Ralph Bendjebar

In my previous articles on the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs/drones) in aerial photography and videography, I concentrated on the ethical and legal considerations, the hardware capabilities of some popular brands, and exposure techniques for both still photography and video clips. In this article I describe some techniques that can enhance your shooting style when in video mode and can result in some dramatic and interesting footage.

First, satisfy all of the legal and ethical requirements for where you intend to launch.

Don’t start recording at takeoff and fly around without a plan until you run out of battery life. Before the launch, work out a plan for what you intend to capture during the flight. Sometimes it’s best to use a first flight to reconnoiter the area before hitting the record button. Decide on an interesting perspective, and practice the maneuver before recording a sequence.

Consider the sun’s position in planning your moves. Most UAV cameras are somewhat challenged when it comes to dynamic range, so be aware that you will most likely overwhelm your sensor if flying toward the sun; lens flare will be pronounced. If the sun is directly behind you and you are flying close to objects, the shadow of the craft will likely be in the frame. And, if there is a good distance between the UAV and its shadow, you will notice a bright spot on the ground due to light bending (lensing) around the UAV. Be aware of sun angle to prevent these issues, which do not factor in when flying in overcast conditions or at twilight.

Most UAV camera lenses tend toward the short focal ranges that result in a wide angle of view. Because of this, if the subject in your frame does not have some near object to offer perspective, the view will appear two-dimensional. The whole purpose of using a UAV is to provide movement. Using foreground elements to do this in the frame while flying towards, away from, or parallel to the near object will offer a bit of drama and produce a more three-dimensional perspective.

The Reveal

If flying toward a distant subject, like a mountain range, an interesting technique is to start out with the camera pointing down and slowly tilting the camera up toward horizontal, revealing the subject at the end of the clip. This “reveal” works well over a body of water or flat plain.

The Rise

The rise is a vertical move out of a copse of trees (for example) to reveal the distant mountains or a lake. It is an interesting and useful establishing shot. Try to avoid getting too cute by panning. Unless done subtly, panning can become disorienting to the viewer.

Regarding panning, if you wish to establish a wider view of the subject do so as slowly as possible to avoid excessive blur in the video. A good rule of thumb is to have an object at the edge of the frame travel across the frame to the other edge in no less than seven seconds, assuming you are shooting at 24/30fps (frames per second). This will minimize motion blur. Use pans judiciously is all I’m saying, and don’t forget the 180-degree shutter rule to avoid judder (intense vibration).

The Fall

The reverse of the rise is the fall. If you plan to pass by a close object, like a tree, the fall can bring the viewer from a distant to a near perspective and feel like a zoom to a close-up. Be aware that if done in forward-descending flight, this requires some pilot skill and planning to avoid being in the frame.

The Flyby

The flyby requires that the UAV fly past a subject while the camera remains trained on the subject during the flyby. The gimbal needs to be panned at just the right rate to make this maneuver a success, and it is difficult to achieve, depending on the proximity to the subject. It’s much easier with a two-man operation, where one operator flies the craft, while the camera operator controls the gimbal/camera. Caution: be aware of nearby obstacles.

The Orbit

My DJI Phantom 4 and Inspire UAVs have a feature that enables an interesting maneuver called the orbit. The UAV circles the subject at a predetermined radius while the craft and camera remain focused on the subject. One can even vary the height and the radius during the orbit. Again, be aware of obstacles in the orbital flight path.

The Bird’s Eye View

Tilting the camera straight down and flying over an area like a vertical butte or waterfall can simulate what an eagle might see while soaring. Forward or sideways flight works best. Done judiciously, the bird’s eye view provides a unique and dramatic perspective.

A last thought: It’s sometimes safer to plan a backward flight that can be reversed in editing to simulate forward flight, but this only works if there are no objects like birds or rivers that would look silly moving in reverse.

I hope that I have given you some useful ideas to try out the next time you fly your UAV. Remember: fly safe, fly ethical, and fly legal!


Ralph Bendjebar is a resident of Minnesota who retired from Northwest Airlines in 2007 as an Airbus 330 Captain. He currently works part-time for Boeing as a B-787 flight instructor. Ralph’s photography career started with an avid interest in landscape photography that morphed into a further interest in wildlife. He loves photographing big cats on photo safaris, and his most recent trip in January 2016 was to his favorite location, the Serengeti. Ralph’s email address is rbendjebar@mac.com