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Beginner's guide to drone video

An orange drone in flight.
(Image credit: Future)

Drones are undoubtedly one of the most exciting camera innovations of the last decade. And where they were once expensive, large, and crude devices, they’re now much smaller, easier to fly and much more affordable. Plus, their built-in cameras work seamlessly with drone smartphone apps to provide a clear live view from the camera letting you compose your photos and videos alongside adjusting settings.

The beauty of drones is that they allow you to get a high-quality camera into the air with relative ease; providing the ability to shoot from more unique viewpoints and various positions that are inaccessible on foot. Plus, the fact that anyone can use them, whether a professional filmmaker, keen amateur, or absolute beginner, makes them hugely attractive.

Capturing cinematic video is a little more difficult than capturing photos, but it’s still much easier than it first appears. So, to give you a flying head start, we’re going to teach you all the basics of shooting video that you need to know. So, charge up your batteries, learn the controls, and get ready to take professional-looking video footage that you can be proud of.

Choosing the right drone

Young woman with laptop at desk holding drone

(Image credit: Westend61 via Getty Images)

Buying your first drone couldn’t be easier thanks to a wide range of high-quality and easy to fly models available for all budgets. As a beginner, you may find that buying one of the new sub 250 g models such as the DJI Mavic Mini 3 Pro and Autel EVO Nano+ are the best option for you. These palm-sized drones offer advanced features such as collision avoidance and automated flight patterns for capturing professional-looking video at the touch of a button.

If you’re looking for something larger, more powerful, and with a larger camera sensor and more advanced features, then the DJI Mavic 3, DJI Air 2S, and the Autel EVO Lite+ are three of the best consumer drones available and offer the latest in drone technology. Check out our best beginner drones and best drones guides as they’ll help you to select the best drone for you.

When choosing a drone for shooting video, a model that can shoot in both 4K and Full HD as well as offering manual camera control is a minimum requirement for capturing video. Sensor size is less important for video, but if you also plan to shoot photos then you’ll find that 1-inch sensors and larger produce the best image quality for stills. Also, make sure that there are ND filters available for the model you buy because these are essential when shooting video.

Practice flying & be safe and legal

Autel EVO Lite+_Drone in flight (16 by 9)

(Image credit: Future)

Flying a drone can be a lot of fun, and the videos you can create have the potential to be sublime, but it also comes with some important responsibilities too. The laws in the United States and the United Kingdom are similar but there are some differences, so it’s essential to check with your local aviation authority.

In a nutshell, your drone must always remain in unaided visual line of sight and fly no further than a distance of 500 m/1,640 ft and an altitude of 120 m/400 ft. When it comes to people and property, you must remain at least 5 0m/150 ft away, and for crowds and built-up areas, you must stay a minimum of 150 m/500 ft away. Smartphone apps such as AirMap (opens in new tab) are perfect for checking whether it’s safe and legal to fly.

When you first get a drone, it’s important to read all the instructions and acquaint yourself with the controls and settings. And when you first begin flying, take advantage of Beginner Mode which limits the drone’s altitude and distance so it can’t be flown far away. This is perfect for getting used to how the controls work.

Before you even head out to fly your drone, it’s also important to familiarize yourself with local laws and regulations. In both the U.S. and U.K., you must register as a flyer if your drone has a working camera – it’s only drones that fall into the category of toys that don’t require users to register as a flyer and/or register their drones. For more information about drone laws and regulations visit the FAA (opens in new tab) website in the U.S. and the CAA (opens in new tab) website in the U.K.

Choose a good location to shoot

Photo taken by a drone. It shows the sea and the top of a seaside building.

(Image credit: Future)

Once you’ve registered with your local aviation authority, practiced your flight skills, and learned how to use the camera, it’s time to find interesting locations to shoot. For this it’s very much the same as when looking for locations for standard photos and videos, although you do have to think more about how things will look from the air.

Some areas that are perfect for drone photography will naturally present themselves when you’re out and about, but others may require a little research to find them. Photography location books such as the pocket-sized Photographer’s Guide (opens in new tab) series by Ellen Bowness are a great starting point for well-known landscapes.

Screenshot from Google Maps show how to use it.

(Image credit: Google)

However, if you’d like to find lesser-known spots and those closer to home, Google Maps is an excellent resource as the satellite view is a great tool for sourcing photogenic places. While this offers a top-down view of the world, you can still use Google maps to find locations that you plan to shoot with the camera facing forwards rather than straight down. Other features including Street View which can be useful for street-level views, as well as the ability to measure distances to ensure that you’re far enough away from roads and buildings.

Drone video 101

Shooting video with a drone is much easier than you think. But, like everything to do with photography and video, there are simple mistakes that can easily reduce the quality of your footage. The hardest part of capturing captivating drone video is arguably not knowing how to fly the drone to make the footage look interesting.

Fortunately for beginners, most consumer drones include a feature called QuickShots. These are automated flight patterns that allow you to capture professional-looking videos at the touch of a button. Simply set up the camera, select the desired QuickShot, and the drone will do all of the hard work for you. These are fantastic in the beginning, but as your flying skills grow, you’ll naturally take more control and perform manual maneuvers that are more unique and appealing. But, before you even think about flight maneuvers, you need to know how to shoot video correctly.

The 180 rule

The most important thing you need to know is to shoot in manual mode using the 180 rule. Manual exposure ensures footage remains consistent, while following the 180 rule guarantees video footage with natural-looking fluid movement. When setting up the camera for shooting video, you first have to select the frame rate – this is how many frames are shot per second. Most people shoot at a frame rate of 24 or 25 fps, while those creating videos directly for sharing on YouTube may choose to shoot at 30 fps.

Once you’ve selected the frame rate, the next most important setting is shutter speed. The 180 rule dictates that shutter speed should be double, or as close to double, the frame rate as possible. So, when shooting at 25 fps, a frame rate of 50 fps will capture movement perfectly while 40 fps and 60 fps will still be okay. The way to achieve the desired shutter speed is a combination of ISO, aperture (if your drone has an adjustable aperture), and neutral density (ND) filters.

ND filters reducer the amount of light that’s able to enter the lens, which for video means you can achieve the correct shutter speed for the frame rate being used. For drones, ND filters typically come in sets of four with ND4 blocking 2-stops of light, ND8 3-stops, ND16 4-stops, and ND32 5-stops. So, how does this relate to shutter speed? Let’s assume the shutter speed at ISO 100 is 1/500 second when the frame rate is set to 30 fps. To reduce shutter speed to the desired 1/60 second is three stops, so you’d need to use an ND8 filter.

How to set up your camera to shoot video

1. Select video settings

Drone Video Set Up Step 1 - Select video settings

(Image credit: Future)

Go into the camera menu and set the desired resolution which will typically be 4K or Full HD. Next, set the desired video frame rate, which in this case was 25 fps. Some drones allow you to capture video in a Log profile, which requires additional processing, so in the beginning it’s much easier to shoot with the Standard color profile that captures video that’s ready to use straight out of camera.

2. Check exposure

Drone Video Set Up Step 2 - Check exposure by changing ND filter

(Image credit: Future)

Hold the drone facing the direction you intend to shoot and set ISO to 100. If you have a drone with an adjustable aperture set the aperture to the desired setting, but if the drone has a fixed aperture don’t worry about this. Next, set the shutter speed for correct exposure and then work out which ND filter you need to achieve a shutter speed that’s roughly double the frame rate.

3. Set shutter speed and white balance

Drone Video Set Up Step 3 - Set shutter speed and white balance

(Image credit: Future)

Now you need to adjust the shutter speed to the correct setting, which was 1/50 sec here. If the light changes during shooting, you’ll need to either use ISO, aperture (if your drone has an adjustable aperture), or change ND filters to control exposure. Also, make sure that white balance is set to a fixed preset such as Daylight because Auto white balance can change the color balance during a shot.

Now you should be all ready to take to the skies and discover the world from a whole new beautiful angle!

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James is an award-winning freelance landscape and portrait photographer, as well as a highly experienced photography journalist working with some of the best photography magazines and websites with a worldwide audience. He’s also the author of The Digital Darkroom: The Definitive Guide to Photo Editing. www.jamesaphoto.co.uk (opens in new tab)