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Aerial Videography Using Drones

Eric Cheng, the author of Aerial Photography and Videography Using Drones, discusses the details of aerial videography using drones, including image stabilization, using gimbals, camera settings, aerial video techniques, live aerial video streaming, post-processing and sharing, and the future of aerial videography.
This chapter is from the book

In Chapter 3, you learned about taking still pictures from the air. Many of the settings and techniques I introduced there are relevant to aerial videography, so it’s worth reading even if you aren’t interested in still photography.

Aerial videography is the primary reason drones have burst into the mainstream and have been growing exponentially in popularity. At the end of 2012, there were not many drone videos shared on sites such as YouTube, and a search for the word drone resulted mostly in videos of military drones. In 2012, camera drones were available only to the few hobbyists who could configure, build, and repair them. Small stabilizing gimbals had not yet made it to the marketplace.

Hollywood, however, had been using scale-model helicopters and multirotor drones for years to carry cameras, although they had been doing it without much publicity, possibly attempting to fly under the radar of the FAA for legal reasons (see Chapter 6 for more about regulations and policy). The camera drones used by Hollywood were designed to carry large cameras, and gimbal technology was still relatively simple when compared to the products that would emerge only a few years later.

I’ve already talked about the first ready-to-fly camera drones and the ways they affected the industry. But it was likely the sharing of videos captured from the air that amplified growth exponentially. Those of us who fly camera drones know that we are effectively in the drone sales business. If someone sees you flying one, it’s likely that they will come over to see what you are doing, and chances are good that they will leave wanting one for themselves. In a given flight, you might influence a couple dozen people at the most, but millions of people might see a shared video gone viral, and some percentage of them will become drone video converts.

Telling Stories

When consumer drones first started to become popular, almost all aerial video from camera drones attracted attention. The low-altitude perspectives and the way drones could move with almost complete freedom were enough to keep a viewer’s attention. This kind of special attention happens only during periods of fast and dramatic technological change. During these moments, expectations are violated, and viewers are often as interested in the technology and novelty as they are in being pulled into a story.

One of my first popular videos was a short aerial cut of surfers in Santa Cruz taken with a DJI Phantom and a prototype Rotorpixel brushless gimbal for the GoPro HERO3 (FIGURE 4.1). The video went viral and was featured all over the Web and on many news networks around the world. I attempted some rudimentary storytelling in the video, but what made it really interesting was that the footage was incredibly smooth. It was some of the first good, gimbal-stabilized footage from a new kind of camera drone, and viewers were amazed.


FIGURE 4.1 A DJI Phantom with prototype gimbal captures footage of a surfer in Santa Cruz in July 2013

Photo courtesy George Krieger.

When technology is no longer novel, videos need more substance to impel viewers to watch, engage, and share, and we’ve already reached that point with camera drones. Most people have probably seen footage from a camera drone, and drones are in the media almost every day. These days, it’s no longer sufficient to show videos that do not have an interesting subject or tell a compelling story.

When I talk about storytelling, I’m talking about both the kind of stories that involve a plot of some kind and the kind of stories that might be only visual or abstract in nature but have a sense of place and progression. There always needs to be a journey in order for a story to work well.

If you aren’t interested in making movies that include people, you can still tell a story that explores space. A particular natural formation like the cliffs over a nice spot on the coast, a lake that reflects light just so in the hours before sunset, or the silhouette of a bunch of cacti in the desert all can be part of an interesting story if the right pieces are captured.

Here are some basic questions to ask while you are collecting footage for your video:

  • Does your video have a clear beginning, middle, and end?
  • Is there a sense of context? Are the subjects anchored, somehow, in an environment or feeling?
  • Is the video satisfying to watch? Is it beautiful, evocative, disturbing, educational, and so forth?
  • Do you care about the video? Did you spend time planning, capturing, and editing it?

Videos need to have a reason to be shared. Typically, if you can’t think of a reason to share a video or don’t care about it, others will also not care when they are watching it (if they watch any of it at all). I’m not saying that you shouldn’t capture as much video as you can—you certainly should capture footage for practice, to satisfy curiosity, or simply for fun, but you don’t need to share videos just for the sake of sharing them. A meandering video of a boring location is not something most people want to see. Spend time crafting stories, and you’ll be rewarded by the feedback you get from viewers who are affected in a positive way by your work.

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