Drones are getting less expensive by the day, allowing filmmakers and aerial videography enthusiasts to really get creative with new products. As a beginner drone pilot, I’ve been following the industry for the past few years, and wanted to share a few basic cinematography techniques that will be helpful to anyone interested in being a drone pilot/videographer. (Note: If you’re in the United States and interested in flying outdoors, you are legally required to register your drone with the FAA if it meets certain requirements, which you can do here).
To start off with some inspiration, here’s a reel we put together to show the true power of aerial videography. Check it out and read on for the techniques you can get started with.
1. Aerial Pan Shot
Pan shots are typically captured while the camera is mounted on a tripod. In the case of drones, the tripod is replaced by the gimbal, in addition to the moving drone, away from your position. It’s quite a bit more complicated than a simple pan obviously, but the visual effect you can achieve is that much better. I prefer to do a pan left or a pan right while actually moving the drone forward or backward to add some sophistication to my shots, but many artists prefer to stay in “hover mode” while panning to maintain the stability of the shot. It’s a matter of taste and what effect you’re trying to achieve, so keep that in mind. Simply rotate your drone across the landscape or your subject, and you’re golden!
2. Tracking Shot
Usually used while moving parallel with the subject, tracking shots are choreographed in synchrony. The whole essence of this technique is matching the speed and being able to maintain focus on your subject at the needed composition point. We see these types of shots in motion pictures all the time, as well as at sports events and in car commercials. The trick here is to coordinate and rehearse as many times as needed. The easy way is to strafe your drone with the controls, with the camera at the same height, distance, and focal length, but you can add more movement if you feel comfortable or if it’s necessary.
3. Pedestal Shot
This is a type of shot where the drone is flying up or down without moving the camera/gimbal at all, and it’s strictly relying on flying. This technique of camera movement can be also achieved through a crane or jib arm, but obviously the range we can get through drones for how far up or down we can go is tremendous, and gives us way more freedom. Pedestal shots are used a lot to show statues, monuments, and even views above the clouds. This can be as easy as adjusting your altitude control and going straight up and down, without having to worry about camera movement or focal distance.
4. Fly Over
We see these shots all the time, everywhere from commercials to music videos to TV shows — you name it. An easy way to go about filming a good fly-over shot is to choose one object or specific landscape and focus the whole camera movement around that one subject, while the drone is continuously flying and covering the distance until it passes the object from above. Fly-over shots are used for various purposes, but you can mainly think of it as a type of shot that helps you place the subject in a geographical perspective and show the scale of it.
5. Reveal Shot
A reveal shot pretty much does exactly what the name suggests. It serves as a technique to reveal the point of our interest or what we want the audience to focus on. It’s probably my favorite aerial technique to create big “WOW” effects and show a specific time of the day, as well as serving as an intro and outro for a specific scene. Start your drone in a spot that’s out of view of your subject, then move it until your subject is in view — it’s as easy as that! Some classic motion pictures employed a reveal shot to create memorable scenes, such as the opening sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, which uses these type of shots to introduce us to the infamous Overlook Hotel.
I hope these techniques come in handy when you’re getting your feet wet with aerial cinematography. Don’t forget to register your drone if you’re in the United States and you’re planning on flying your drone outdoors to avoid any legal trouble. Be safe, responsible, and ALWAYS use caution when you’re flying, especially in public space.
Explore the clips used in our aerial highlight reel in the aerial and drone footage collection below.
Do you have additional thoughts or tips on drone cinematography? Let us know in the comments!