By George Shaw
Although most of the applications for unmanned aerial vehicles revolve largely around inspection and mapping of extremely large areas, or for use in search and rescue and other applications, there’s no denying that it’s sexist use has been for cinematic imagery. But how can a tiny lightweight camera dealing with the movement of a flying platform get an image that Christopher Nolan would be proud to use?
Usually, when you get your first drone, you’re focusing more on not crashing than you are on how to get the best possible image. As someone who helplessly witnessed his DJI Phantom 2 fly away due to my ignorance, that is completely understandable. But after you have reached a point where you’re comfortable flying your drone in the air, and can safely operate it in concert with the drone’s collision avoidance features, you can then turn your attention towards your images.
But before we talk about that, it’s important to understand that camera movement in the sky is equally important as it is on the ground. The smoother it is, the less jarring it is for the viewer. That’s why when you see most drone shots, they are long and sweeping, with no sudden turns or movements. So to fly “cinematically” means that a little control goes a long way.
Settings. Set your shutter speed. Ideally, you want your shutter speed to be roughly twice that of your frame rate. So if you’re shooting at 24p, a shutter speed of 1/50 will give you a smooth and natural movement. Coupled with your drone’s gimbal, you should have a smooth image as you fly. But while the image will be smoother, you may still have to deal with a washed out sky or unwanted reflections, especially when flying over water.
If you’re a GoPro user, another option is to shoot in ProTune. ProTune GoPro’s custom tool box on the Hero cameras, and it offers advanced controls for Color, ISO Limit, Sharpness and Exposure. Everything from White Balance, color gamut, noise limits via ISO, exposure compensation, and even sharpness can be fine tuned to your liking, and gives you plenty of latitude when correcting in post.
Get an Neutral Density Filter. A neutral density filter will cut down on the glare much like a pair of sunglasses helps us to filter out the bright, ambient glare so you can see more detail. It also means you can adjust your shutter speed to make your image smoother. Ordinarily, if you slow down your camera’s shutter speed, you’ll end up overexposing the image, making it useless. But thanks to the neutral density filter, you can compensate for that quite nicely.
Add a circular polarizing filter. With a circular polarizer, you can get rid of annoying flares and reflections. It won’t work in concert with a neutral density filter, and you have to turn your polarizer to properly have the polarizer in phase. If it’s 180 degrees out of phase, it won’t work. So make sure you set your CP correctly.
There are many brands of filters out there that can do the job, but Polar Pro makes a series of great filters designed for GoPro and for many drone cameras in order to accomplish this. They also make a cinematic filter package called the Mavic Cinema Series 6 Pack for the DJI Mavic that comes with 1-3 stop polarized ND filters and 2-4 stop standard filters. Well worth the $180 investment.
Combining settings with technique and a few lens accessories, will go a long way to improving your image and make it as cinematic as it can be.