Drone Portraits: A Guide to Making Images That Soar

Perspective. It’s a word I try to keep at the forefront of my mind when I’m going through a challenging situation (or year, right?). Perspective is also a word I emphasize in my pursuit of better storytelling. 

Technology has endowed us with the benefit of capturing story with bold new perspectives. Smaller remotely triggered cameras and more compact and powerful lighting tools can now be placed anywhere. Out of all the advancements we’ve seen in the last 5-10 years, my hands down favorite is the use of drones

It was about four years ago when I decided to bring a DJI Phantom 3 drone to a ranch wedding in Oregon. My intent was to capture a few video clips that could be used on my website and, as I’m always looking for a new perspective, I thought I might try to grab some stills. Though the cameras in the earlier drones weren’t comparable in quality to the DSLR I was using then, I found I could capture images for my clients that before then could have only been obtained by booking my “Helicopter Rental” package, which strangely enough, never sold…  

Though not technically magnificent, I was able to capture the ranch at sunset with the wedding reception in glow, little girls twirling in their dresses from above and little details that perhaps everyone had seen—but not from this vantage point. Vendors were given images of their work they hadn’t seen before. The bride loved the perspective. 

[Read: Creative Solutions for Timeless Wedding Portraits]

A drone point of view of a wedding reception.
three flower girls twirl dresses as drone captures portrait from above.
My first foray into drone usage at events proved to be an exciting way to help tell the story for both the client and myself. All Images © Benjamin Edwards

Now, the majority of weddings and engagement sessions I capture have a drone component to them. As I seek to continually push myself and become more creative with drone portraits, I thought I’d share some things I’ve learned along the way. If you’ve not yet played with the bird’s-eye view that drones offer you, I hope this information sends you over the edge to take flight and enjoy the new perspective. 

[Read: How to Make Good Portraits in Lousy Settings]

Drone Portraits: First, Safety Steps and Laws

Know your equipment, as well as the laws and rules in your country, state, county or city. Know where you’re allowed to fly and how high. Fly in spaces you feel comfortable and fly within your ability. If you’re a beginner pilot and a Windows user, you can take advantage of DJI’s in-depth “Flight Simulator” software, which helps you grow your ability while walking you through different intelligent flight modes and environments. 

Editor’s note: In addition to new Remote ID requirements published by the FAA’s Final Drone Rules as of December 28, 2020, the FAA has slightly loosened its rules regarding nighttime flights over people. The new rule varies depending on the level of risk the drone might pose to bystanders and is broken into four categories. Depending on which category a drone falls into, operations at night are now allowed under certain conditions. You can read the description for each of those categories here.

Drone Gear: Assessing Needs vs. Budget

If you haven’t yet purchased a drone, examine your needs vs. budget.

Do you need to travel with a drone? If so, DJI’s latest offering, the Mini 2, is easy to transport, loaded with features and, at base price of roughly $499, doesn’t break the bank.

My personal preference is the DJI Mavic 2 Pro. Compared to older models, this iteration of the Mavic is still easy to travel with, and DJI’s partnership with Hasselblad has resulted in a fabulous capture device. The L1D-20c camera has a 1-inch sensor, providing better high ISO image quality and giving the photographer more control over depth-of-field.

Chances are if you already have a drone, it will work just fine for portraits. Just know the limitations of what you’re working with. If it’s an older model (despite the brand), you’ll likely want to avoid high ISO imagery.

Here’s a list of other items I like to have on hand when making drone portraits:

1. ND Filters

These are fantastic for both video and still photography with drones. ND filters allow you to reduce the shutter speed in brightly lit scenes.

For instance, you might be photographing a river midday but wanted the water to have that milky look that landscape photographers seek. A typical exposure may be f/4.0 with a shutter speed of 1/1200th, which would freeze the flow of the water. Depending on which filter you use, you could bring that down to f/4.0 with a shutter speed of 1/30th, lending the feeling of motion to the water.

I really like Polar Pro’s filter offering. Another popular brand is Freewell. Both companies offer a combo set, and it’s well worth the investment.

2. Additional Lighting

Though you’ll possibly need an extra set of hands, supplementing with additional light sources is a great way to draw attention to your subjects.

I love using my Wescott Icelight (there’s now a new version available) with a warm gel to light my subject after the sun sets. It’s also possible to use a manually triggered flash during long exposures. It may take a few shots to get in sync, but it’s possible! I generally will set the output on my flash, then have an assistant fire when I ask them to. Adjustments can be made if necessary.

The nice thing about shooting with the bird’s-eye view is it’s usually easy to clone your assistant out of the shot. Be nice and let them know it’s not personal. 

3. Landing Pad

Dust in your drone motors is not beneficial to you or your budget. While there are a few pads on the market that you can purchase, you could easily make your own with a leveler or simply bring a small section of tarp. Just make sure your landing pad doesn’t have long hair…

4. Spare Parts

It’s always helpful to have spare props handy. If you’re mechanical, you can even replace motors, arms, etc. You can purchase tools specifically for drone repair at places like getfpv.com. There’s nothing worse than having an amazing image in mind, taking off, crashing and not having a spare prop. Ask me how I know.

5. Com Device

Walkie-talkies cleverly placed will save your vocal cords.

Drone Portraits That Soar, Unless You are in a No-Fly Zone

Drone portrait that soars of bride and groom with copper and neon lighting.
We had to work hard to get this capture after discovering we were in a no-fly zone. The couple ended up loving this image after we changed concepts a bit, and I’m excited to improve upon it in the future.

On occasion, as with anything photography related, things don’t go as planned. I had an epic shot planned for this couple by using a space on a downtown building rooftop that not many people have access to. Streaking car lights, neon signs and some additional lighting were going to make it epic. Once everything was setup, we got them into position but… 

The Mavic wouldn’t fly. “No Fly Zone.” 

Ah yes, we were close to the airport! Knowing what “could have been,” I had to switch to “what am I going to do now.” I remembered I had some steel wool left at home, so my gracious couple waited while we set it up. Parker and I quickly reset some gear, put the Wescott Icelight on a lightstand via a Magic Arm and went to take off… 

“No Fly Zone.” 

Death of an artist.

But there’s always another way. Knowing I wasn’t going to be far off the ground, I went and grabbed my older Phantom 4, which has no such software restriction at our home. The Phantom 4 camera pales in comparison to the Mavic 2 Pro, but this beautiful couple was waiting and I was determined to make an image for them. 

We swapped drones and took off. The steel wool was lit, my son Parker swung it, and the Icelight was gelled to a warm glow and images were made. I used a three-second exposure on the Phantom 4 to get the steel wool to show. Parker and the Icelight were cloned out of the final image. Note that long exposures like this typically won’t work well on a windy day. 

I learned a lot that evening. I’ll be studying and signing up to get my FAA Drone Certification. The information will be valuable, commercial use will be legal and I’ll be better prepared for situations like this. I’ve since learned that you can apply to unlock areas in which you received a “No Fly Zone” warning. Anyone else living and learning?

Drone Portraits: Tips and Other Helpful Hints

  • Utilize apps such as Google Earth, Lumos or TPE3d to help scout locations and see how shadows may fall.
  • Think about locations with interesting geological features, leading lines or color.
  • When using additional lighting for a scene, especially manually triggered flash, you can use DJI’s Go 4 app to view images just captured (even while you’re flying, watch the obstacles!). Go to Editor / Album / Photos and make any adjustments necessary.
  • Always shoot RAW.
  • When using supplemental lighting, have your assistant step out for a couple of frames to give you information you can use to clone with, or allow you to combine two frames.
  • Generally used for capturing video, try switching your drone to “Tripod Mode,” if you’re using a DJI product. This intelligent flight mode restricts the drone’s movement in a way that allows for smoother control. Other manufacturers may have a similar offering.
  • Experiment with slow shutter to drag out headlights and tail lights, give water that “milky” look and allow for playing with manually triggered flashes. Remember, you’ll likely need an ND filter for this. Buy a set with different strengths.
  • Experiment with the gimbal’s tilt to find just the right look for you. 
  • While newer drones are filled with features, use what you have. Story is still king.

Benjamin Edwards is a wedding, portrait and humanitarian photographer based in Bend, Oregon. After commissioning Kevin Kubota to photograph his wedding to his wife, Lauren, in 2002, Edwards saw the power of the photographic lens and knew he had found a passion. Inspired by Kubota, Benjamin and Lauren opened Benjamin Edwards Photography and haven’t looked back—except to be grateful.

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