Eyes in the Sky: How to Pick a Drone for Landscape Photography

3Share
Eyes in the Sky: How to Pick a Drone for Landscape Photography

I can’t count the number of times a stranger has approached me while I’ve been setting up my drone to ask if they can watch the launch. I imagine this is how the world’s first television owners must have felt as the neighborhood kids crowded around the only television on their block to witness such groundbreaking technology.

Drones are fascinating little devices. They have unlocked an entirely new world of photography—a world that, until now, was only accessible to airplanes and winged creatures like birds.

Operating a drone is like scuba diving for the first time—you realize that there is an incredible, unseen universe hiding just below the surface. One that’s been there the entire time.

You just never had the right lens to see it.

How Drones Changed the Game

From the surprising to the surreal, drones can capture the natural world in a way that would make Ansel Adams’s head spin. Their lofty perspective can show us everything from what the inside of volcano looks like to the Hani terraces in Duoyi Shu, Yunnan. For inspiration, look at this year’s 2023 Drone Photo Awards winners. The nature category is full of images that would have been impossible to even imagine 10 years ago.

Get a new perspective with a drone.
Get a new perspective with a drone.
Overhead is a new angle you can capture with a drone.
Overhead is a new angle you can capture with a drone.

Drones aren’t just useful for taking photos, though; they're also great for location scouting. Instead of trudging through the woods for miles to check out a new shooting destination, you can simply fly ahead with a drone. Flying saves you time and energy and allows you to cover more ground.

Basic Tips for Using Drones

If you are going out with a drone, there are a few key tips you should follow.

Check the Weather

More so than regular landscape photography—which could take place on a windy, stormy day—drones very much prefer nice, clear days. There are plenty of reasons for this, but the main one is simply that if you are flying a relatively lightweight electronic device in the air, any water or wind is going to introduce problems. Drones are designed to cut down on all excess weight, meaning weather sealing is not as strong as your pro DSLR. Also, the more wind there is, the drone could potentially be blown off course or burn battery power much, much faster than you would expect.

Learn the Laws

I can't write anything about drones without covering this point. Learn your local rules and regulations governing drone flight. If you aren't sure, you should ask local authorities before taking off. If you don't follow the rules, you can end up with a hefty fine. Or, in the worst case scenario, someone could get hurt.


Always learn the local laws when you plan to fly—especially if you are traveling.

For recreational drone use, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires you to take and pass the Recreational UAS Safety Test (free online).

If you plan to use your drone for commercial purposes (anything from photographing a football game for the school’s website to volunteering your drone on behalf of a nonprofit), the FAA requires you to become a certified drone pilot.

Exposure Bracketing is King

On the ground you have time to snap a photo, check exposure, and then confirm details before taking your next shot. Drones don't have the same advantages. At best you are working with an okay screen that is wirelessly connected to a device hundreds of feet away. This is not ideal for capturing landscapes with vast dynamic range. Also, the smaller sensors in drones are generally more limited than APS-C and full-frame DSLRs, so you'll want to make sure your exposure is as close to perfect as possible. Exposure bracketing combined with options like zebras can help you confirm you have a good exposure before you land.

Shoot in Raw

This one is simple and connected to getting the best exposure—shoot in raw. Raw retains as much detail as possible for editing later on. For drone photography, when you can't be quite as sure what is happening up in the air, you will want as much latitude as you can get for post.

The Mavic 2 Zoom's Super Resolution feature captures more detail than the standard shooting mode.

Take Advantage of Built-In Features

Some drones, like the DJI Mavic 2 Zoom, have fancy modes to squeeze even more performance out of their sensors. One example is a multi-shot mode that can create a high-resolution image with far more detail than the sensor can capture natively. Using features like this, as well as features like tripod modes that hold the drone in a steady position will help you get the shot. Make sure you use them.

What You Want in a Drone

There are a lot of drones these days with prices ranging from a couple of hundred dollars to thousands. Here are some key specs to consider when buying your first drone.

Size

This is the big one. If you buy a drone that’s too cumbersome, you probably won’t end up using it.

There are many high-quality mini and folding drones to choose from that are small and easy to transport. On the other hand, if you’re looking to move to the next level, there are also bigger, more serious drones with complex camera systems.

I’d lean toward the mini drones for everyday use and the folding drones for more serious shooting. The bigger drones are reserved for high-end shoots, since the hassle of transport means individual photographers likely won’t be trekking them out on their own.

DJI Mavic 3 Pro
DJI Mavic 3 Pro

Sensor and Lens(es)

The imaging tech of the drone is likely built in and doesn’t leave much room for change later on. So, you’ll want to make sure the key part is of the highest quality. As with other cameras, you’ll want to evaluate the image sensor. Physical size and resolution make a huge difference in image quality.

Resolution has obvious benefits: a 20MP sensor will capture more detail than a 12MP sensor. Sensor size is less obvious. Considering most drones are extremely compact, the sensor sizes are also relatively small, commonly around 1/2.3", closer to a smartphone than a mirrorless or DSLR. This is why some of the latest drones with 1" sensors have shown marked improvements in dynamic range and low-light performance and are better for photography.

Most drones have fixed lenses and that’s what you have to work with. Higher-end drones might have cameras with lens mounts. First, decide whether you want and can afford the added cost and hassle of additional lenses, or make sure you have a good lens. Nowadays, you have two options for fixed lenses: a wide-angle prime or a zoom. Primes generally deliver better performance but zooms are much more versatile. You can’t go wrong with either.

Filters and Add-On Lenses

Even though (most) drones don’t have conventional lens designs, many companies have developed accessories to work with them. One market is in drone filters and lens attachments. If you are a landscape photographer already, you are likely familiar with various filters, such as polarizers and neutral density. NDs may not be your first choice for aerial flight, where you’d likely want faster shutter speeds, but polarizers are just as useful as they are on the ground. Just make sure to check the polarization before you take off because it’s impossible to adjust after liftoff.

Another unique accessory is the anamorphic lens attachment. More of a video tool, it can help photographers capture panoramic images without relying on stitching. Worth a look.

Learn more about the Benefits of Filters for Drone Photography.

Freewell All-Day Lens Filter Bundle for Mavic Mini Drones
Freewell All-Day Lens Filter Bundle for Mavic Mini Drones

Raw Support

For photography, specifically, you’ll want to look for a drone that captures raw images. Many lower-end drones are limited to JPEG, and any landscape photographer who wants to capture the highest quality knows to shoot in raw. I would argue it is especially important for drone photography since the remote controller/phone screen likely isn’t the best judge of exposure, so you want to make sure you have as much latitude as possible to account for potential exposure errors.

Battery Life & Range

Two key specs that affect general usability of any drone are the battery life and range. Battery life is straightforward—you only get so many minutes of flight time from a single battery, and more is always better. The second part is range, and that relies heavily on various technologies. Some use Wi-Fi for short-range use, some use 2.4GHz wireless to get more range, and then even more branch out to 5 GHz or even custom tech to get ranges of a few miles.

DJI Intelligent Flight Battery for Mini 2
DJI Intelligent Flight Battery for Mini 2

Combined, this determines the overall flight capabilities of the drone. I’d argue that the most important part is the wireless technology and to steer clear of Wi-Fi-only, unless you are just doing this for fun. Losing connection can ruin a flight, and you can always keep a couple of spare batteries for extra shooting time.

See? There are myriad reasons that every landscape photographer should consider adding a drone to their kit. And nowadays, drones have never been as small or as powerful, giving people great options for nearly any budget.

Need help finding a drone or learning how to best use one? Please feel free to drop us a line in the Comments section, below!

3 Comments

Really this article is more a buyers guide to drone equipment than anything else. No information whatsoever on actually using a drone to photograph landscapes. What a colossal waste of time.

Maybe you have a difficult time with reading comprehension... The title reads in part "How to pick a drone for landscape photography" and you're complaining because it doesn't give you information on "actually using a drone to photograph landscapes"? (face-palm).