Let’s Talk About Drones

Some thoughts and musings about drones and filmmaking.

To begin: I am not (yet) a licensed drone pilot. I want to get this out of the way as it means I cannot make money from anything related to drone photography/videography. Since I do not make money from this site I can post images and videos here from my drone flights without violating any rules or laws. I have registered my drone with the FAA and I do follow the rules everyone must follow in order to fly a drone legally. Let’s all rest easy knowing we are standing on the right side of the line.

Christmas 2020. My wife listens to months of hints that I would like to finally buy myself a drone but I feel it is an unwarranted expense. She removes the guilt and gives me a DJI Mini 2. I am beyond pleased. I unwrap it and get things charging so I can take my first flight. Three minutes into that first flight I know that I was correct (I love it) and that I should have asked for the mid-level model, the Mavic Air 2.

So I spend the next two days flying the drone and taking pictures and getting video while I place an order for the new drone. I return the Mini, get the Air 2 and fly away like the little drone pilot I was meant to be.

Why write about this? I’d like to share some insights and thoughts I’ve had since getting a drone and flying it. There are a number of people on YouTube who make great videos about choosing a drone, or how to get set up for your first flight. I am going to put two videos I found helpful below.

If you have already chosen the drone you want and would like to watch a comprehensive video that walks you through every aspect of the device watch one from Jeven Dovey. I’ve put the Air 2S above but he’s made one for all of the DJI drones. As I mentioned I have now owned two different models and his walkthroughs for each helped me tremendously. He’s thorough, if you watch the entire video all basic aspects of the physical drone and how to use it will be covered.

Aside from having a channel name that I dislike there is nothing but goodness with QuickAssTutorials. He talks fast, doesn’t waste time with nonsense and offers practical advice. If you are looking for something other than a walkthrough about basics I would recommend looking at his videos.

I always say this but I think it is true – if you are anything like me then buying a drone probably does not make sense for you. I wanted a drone for impractical purposes. I keep writing screenplays and having establishing shots, the town center or the lonely house on the hill, and when I think about how I would execute these shots I am stumped. Or I was. Because I would need something like a drone to capture these images and I did not have one.

Now I have a drone and largely I am still not shooting these projects because this $1,000 device I own did not solve the other problems keeping me from making that short film. Namely that I don’t have actors or locations or a crew. So to bang this drum one last time – if you are anything like me (thinking and hoping but not actually doing) reconsider the purchase.

Some Things I Did Not Realize About Drones That I Should Have

My primary interest for drones concerns videography. So if you are reading this as a photographer, I am sorry, most of my thoughts and comments probably are not that interesting to you. Let’s state the first obvious point that escaped me: drones do not record audio. I know that this is glaringly obvious but if I can help one other person realize this then my job is done.

When you watch a video with drone footage and there is sound: ambient, voices, whatever, that’s all coming from elsewhere. The drone is capturing nothing. Most of you (maybe all of you) know this. I did not. It’s not major but I was surprised as I filmed my kids only to later discover I had no audio to go with it. It means an extra step if you are looking to capture audio at the time of capture.

The next big point: most drones have a fixed aperture. I’ve written about this with the iPhone. If I ever write about my action camera it will come up there as well. People do not address this enough: the aperture is fixed. What this means is if you are flying in some difficult lighting conditions, which you most likely will, you only have the ISO and shutter speed to control the amount of light hitting the sensor (it is another reason why having ND filters for your drone are a must).

This only applies if you are buying the lower end models of the DJI line. The Mavic 3 and the Mavic 2 Pro allow you to control the aperture. This is important to remember because if you try and rely on the auto features it could mean some really wonky settings for your video. For photography it is less of a big deal.

Something else to consider would be the obstacle avoidance feature. The Mini 2 does not have this (despite being the entry level drone) and what that means is the drone will not protect itself from flying into things. My Air 2 does have it and it is a wonderful feature. I am not overly careful when I fly (the video here shows that) and even with this feature engaged I still end up in trees. I’ve only found one person on YouTube who stressed this point and I think it matters. If you are just starting out it is helpful to have features that protect you from yourself.

Final point of this nature – internal storage. The Mini 2 does not have this feature and the Air 2 does. I cannot tell you how many times I have left my SD card in my computer and gone out to fly. I now keep a second SD card in my bag but before that I was so pleased that I could record onto the internal storage for the drone. It holds 8 GB which is ample and allowed me to do what I wanted to do. This is a really wonderful feature to have especially if you are traveling for the express purpose of shooting drone footage.

All of this is well and good but it is information you could get from anyone else – so why am I writing this? What I have learned about done videography over the past year is that it is a small part of filmmaking. Much like owning an action camera, the number of shots you actually need one of these devices for is quite low. I keep using my drone because I like it. I take pictures whenever I fly and I shoot a lot of video. But for me, a person who presently is only a hobbyist, I have little to no use for any of these things.

I post to Instagram and occasionally Twitter. Largely I edit together clips and they sit on a hard drive. If I make a short film I put a shot or two into the video and that is it. I love the drone, I love flying the drone but I am continually amazed at how little I need it.

Who you are and what you do is going to differ, greatly I imagine, from me. What I have found since getting a drone is that when I watch films or even YouTube videos (that are not reviews of drones) is that the shots are quick and few. If you were to look at the average length of a drone shot in a YouTube video that is not a review I would guess it is about three seconds long. Even the travel videos designed to highlight drone footage cut very quickly. Often they will incorporate a person is these videos, standing on top of a car in the middle of an empty expanse, and still the quick cutting.

Matti Haapoja is a master of standing on top of things.

In films they tend to be longer but there are perhaps three to five shots over the course of a feature length film. Which is not me disparaging the shots. Only to point out that I thought this would be a huge component of everything I would be making, now I find myself with a lot of footage and nowhere to put it.

These are specialized shots, almost on par with something like that probe lens that took over the Internet two years ago, for particular situations. I write this to offer up something that should have been obvious to me – this isn’t going to be the tool that allows you to suddenly make everything you want.

It’s fun, it just isn’t necessary.

Top down shots for life!

Author: John Ryan Sullivan

I am a writer and filmmaker.

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