In many ways, aerial drone videography has changed the landscape of video production. Shots that only a decade ago would have required costly rentals of helicopters or cranes can now be done by drones at a fraction of the cost, with equally high quality.
One thing to remember is that simply hiring a drone pilot or buying an expensive drone won’t magically transform your video production any more than, say, hiring a skilled camera operator or purchasing a high-end video camera. Ultimately it’s up to you to use your footage in a way that augments your story.
In its most basic form, aerial video can establish a location or give scope to your story; it can also heighten the drama, help transition between locations or subjects, and add physical and emotional depth to your storytelling. The best professional drone videographers maximize the utilitarian nature of aerial shots but also try to push creative boundaries to dazzle viewers.
Here are some examples of how these professionals capture drone shots in video production and use them in storytelling.
Types of Drone Shots and How They Impact Your Story
Just because you have the ability to shoot aerial footage does not necessarily mean that you need them in your video, or that they need to be ubiquitous. In many cases, less is more, and it’s more about maximizing their impact.
As Pond5 contributor Colin Mills (username SkyworksFresh) puts it, “Aerials are brilliant at adding ‘punctuation’ to a video. Just like a piece of text, if you were to see the whole thing as a block, with no paragraphs, sentences or punctuation of any type, it’d be difficult to understand.” So, it’s important to know which effects (“punctuations”) can be created with certain shot types.
Here are examples of the most common drone shots and how to use them.
Show Perspective and Scale by Zooming In (or Out)
Unless you’re flying fairly close to an object or subject, it can be difficult to get a sense of scale for what’s happening in the frame if the field of view is really wide. This is where a slow and steady zoom or push in/pull out can give a sense of perspective. A hiker in the woods or a ship out at sea can become very isolated with camera movement and composition together.
Pond5 Contributors Eric Carlsen and Joseph Guffee (username SceneLab) say, “Sometimes we start a story at the macro level and slowly back away to reveal the setting that our character(s) reside in…or maybe it’s just the opposite, we start in the big wide world and work our way to where and who they are.”
Heighten Drama with Close and Fast Shots
While showing the scale of a certain subject or situation can show some dramatic visuals, there are other ways to heighten the drama with drone footage in video production. Flying low and fast, and flying close* are two of the easiest ways to create a dramatic look and feel to a shot, since everything is moving so fast in the frame.
You can track a fast-moving object, narrowly fly your drone by or through something in the frame, or create a flight path that hugs tight against an object or boundary line in the frame to give viewers a real sense that something dramatic is happening.
Casper Diederik (Pond5 contributor Storytravelers) explains, “Often flying low creates more spectacular footage than flying very high. As you are closer to the subject you can create more dynamics to your shot that just flying at high altitudes. Try to use a drone more as a giant rig/jib or rails.”
Techniques like aerial dolly zooms, aerial hyperlapses, and aerial timelapses also increase the drama just like they would if they were “regular” shots, but typically require more planning and can feel gimmicky if overused, so practice and plan to get them right.
Finally, If you’re getting close to objects, make sure you’re taking every safety precaution and that you are legally allowed to do so.
Transition Between Shots
Not only does drone video create new perspectives for and enhance the production value of your videos, they can also simply help ease transitions between shots or scenes.
Using an aerial shot to establish the setting of a story or scene is a classic use of drones in video production, but with aerials shot in addition to the on-the-ground cameras, now you’ve got an extra angle to cut within a scene. As Pond5 aerial contributor and former “Eco-Warriors” Producer Gavin Garrison says, “In my storytelling, I’ve had several instances where ships making aggressive maneuvers have nearly collided, and in one case, actually collided. Cutting between cameras on the decks of the ships and the aerial really amps up the action.”
The transition doesn’t even have to take place in different shots! A drone can literally fly at eye level and then rise so far that it flies to the next scene location. As always, objects can take up the entire frame and be used for invisible cuts and other seamless transitions, so doing some planning on what you’re going to use in your transition shot can always help immensely.
Reveal An Object and/or the Crescendo Of A Building Story/Scene
This is exactly what it sounds like. You position the drone so that the object or subject is obscured by an object in the foreground, and then reveal it by flying in a direction so it’s no longer obscured. You can also follow something along that’s on the ground or directly below the camera and tilt up to reveal where the final object is. These shots are great for giving importance to the item being revealed, and can also give more context to the scene as more and more is being revealed.
This allows the viewer to follow along with the shot as more and more becomes visible, and can be timed to epic music cues and voiceovers.
Tilts, pans, and orbit shots can all be used for reveals, but the important part is to make sure your timing is right. Too slow, and a speed ramp may be required, creating jerky footage. Too fast, and the reveal doesn’t have as much oomph, and may not work well when slowed down.
The important thing to note about shot types is that many of them can overlap. A reveal can give a sense of scale. Transitioning with aerials boosts the drama. A bird’s eye establishing shot gives scale and can reveal something interesting out of the frame as it slowly transitions to the next interview!
The key is that the shots are motivated, and serve a purpose to give them the most impact.
Drones vs. Helicopters
While both helicopters and drones are both great tools to capture dynamic footage, each one has strengths and weaknesses.
Using drones in video production is obviously much cheaper and offers more flexibility to shoot on the fly, but you run into challenges of battery life, which can limit flying time. Drones can get in much closer than helicopters, but they move relatively slowly by comparison and can’t cover large distances. Also, drones are outlawed at US National Parks, while helicopters can be flown instead. Helicopters also allow for the use of much higher end cameras than drones.
Regardless of their differences, it comes down to two main factors. “In both cases, what you can achieve is completely governed by the quality of your equipment” Mills says. He goes on to say that “both tools are only as good as their operators and pilots. Even if you have the best technology, it is the skill and vision of the operators that will deliver the excellent shot on either platform.”
It’s important to know what you’re capable of as a shooter and/or pilot, and knowing if you can get the shot. As Garrison says, “it’s all about choosing the right tool for the job and budget. I use both, they each have their strengths, and neither replaces the other.”
There is one extra benefit to using a drone, and that is the ability to use the drone by holding it, since most have built-in gimbals and can act as a stable rig. “We can quickly go from capturing wide establishing aerials and tracking shots of the actors to handheld closeups using the drone as a handheld gimbal,” explain Carlsen & Guffee.
Drone Licenses, Permits & Regulations: How To Stay In the Know
No aerial videography shoot is complete without knowledge about what you’re legally allowed to do. As a drone user, you need to make sure you’re not shooting in restricted airspace, and that you’re not exceeding regulatory limits for altitude, as well as the legal proximity to certain buildings and objects.
If you’re planning on operating a drone in the United States, the use of drones is regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The FAA maintains different rules, regulations, and licensing/certification requirements for recreational flyers (those who fly for fun and personal enjoyment or as an educational institution) and those who fly for commercial, government, or any other non-recreational use. If you’ll be planning on selling footage you take with your drone or shooting footage for commercial use, you’ll most likely be required to register your drone and obtain a Part 107 drone pilot license from the FAA. For more information, contact your legal counsel or check out the FAA’s Web site. If you’re looking to take drone video in a country other than the US, be sure to find similar information from that country’s equivalent governmental body.
Caspar Diederik says, “Before you fly, make sure you read the local rules. Check the area on Google: Stay generally far away from airports and military bases. There are apps available where you can learn about no fly zones.”
Garrison adds, “It’s also critical to check FAA bulletins for changing restrictions in any given area. Wherever you are, never fly during air rescue operations, near airports, or during active wildfires.”
Something else you’ll want to be cognizant of with aerial videography is making sure you’re complying with trademark and intellectual property law. Videos that include recognizable buildings, landmarks, faces, or private property may require a release form to be used for commercial purposes.
Lastly, be respectful so that you don’t ruin it for others. Mills lays it out plainly: “We often find that movie makers have damaged the reputation of aerial videographers, especially in areas sensitive to wildlife. For that reason, we always try to move through swiftly and cause minimal disruption – after all, you may be coming back!”
Drone Video Recordings in Post Production
The last step in working aerials is finally bringing it all home in post-production to make it pop. Diederik has a tip: “It’s a whole other skill to get the most out of your clip as for the color grading. I always recommend shooting in a non-contrasted, non-sharpened, and non-saturated profile so you can work better on the colors in post.” After that, it’s time to create some dynamic projects that create effective ways to engage with the audience.
Pond5’s Drone Video Library
If you’re a producer, filmmaker, director, cinematographer, or creative professional and don’t necessarily have the time or the money to spend on creating your own drone shots or wrestling with the legality, there’s, of course, another alternative. Pond5 has the world’s largest library of royalty-free videos with well over 30 million footage clips. But we also have the world’s largest library of aerial and drone footage clips, with over 2 million to choose from, representing virtually every major country, city, landscape, and natural scene you can imagine. All of these videos have been taken by Pond5’s community of some of the world’s most talented drone pilots and videographers, and all have been vetted for legal use. Do a search on Pond5 and click on the checkbox under ADDITIONAL FILTERS that reads “Aerial” to browse our aerial footage. You might be surprised how easy it is to find a scene that comes uncannily close to your creative vision–available at a fraction of what it would have cost you to shoot it yourself.
Using quality footage using drones can be an exciting way to up your filmmaking game. From planning out your shooting location to shooting amazing shots to finessing the final look of the footage in post-production, you can really blow the competition out of the sky and transform your video production with stories and visuals that profoundly affect your viewers.
If you enjoyed this article, read our post on How to Make a Good Drone Video to learn more.