You got your first drone, you got all excited, and went to a field to create some fantastic footage, but nothing turned out like in those incredible adventure movies that you saw on the internet?
I had the exact same problems when I started. I kept producing awful footage, and I even gave up droning for some time.
Like anything else, it takes time to learn and master our skills, drone cinematography is no exception. In fact, one of the hardest since we need to keep our eyes on lots of things:
- operating the drone
- keep your eye on the drone
- gimbal movement
- correct settings
Sounds pretty tricky, right? It is indeed if you don’t know how to achieve those cinematic drone shots. In this tutorial, I will guide you step by step on how to create more cinematic movements.
Let’s see what to pay attention to and what are those crucial steps.
Sometimes I got disappointed because I haven’t picked the right location for the job. It really matters for one simple fact; your footage is going to look more attractive. Location really matters; it is just what it is.
Some spots are more interesting than others. Although never underestimate the importance of exploring around, wondering, and finding new places.
Every location has some unique quantities; maybe we just need to see from a different perspective. Try to go low or look for interesting patterns. Don’t be afraid to go a bit further; you may find something worth shooting.
This is the same location from eye level and from 50 meters above. Totally different right?
I can’t enhance enough that location scouting is essential. Extensively researching the area before you visit is very valuable. You can get way ahead of other videographers if you do your location scouting well and arrive at the spot with a broader understanding.
However, don’t get fooled by iconic locations and filmic spots that other people shot continuously. Wonder around and try to find unique areas. Sometimes those iconic spots blind us to seeing the bigger picture.
Plan at home
Now that you have a better understanding of the area you wanna shoot, it’s time to have some storyboard or at least a checklist that you can follow on set and check them one after another.
Just collect and write down the essential shots you want to have in your movie. Following a car or an intro reveal shot. You get the idea.
This way, you will have a basic plan you can follow and the essential shots in-store, making your shooting process more fun. More importantly, you avoid scenarios when you only realize at the computer that you are missing some shots.
If you create and complete your checklist, you will basically ensure that you won’t run into unwanted situations at your editing table. I always do it, very useful.
Tip: overdue the list so you will have more options
Plan on location
Once you arrive on location, go and explore around by foot or fly around if you have enough batteries
I usually spend the first battery exploring.
Searching the location highlights; therefore, you will better understand what you want to shoot.
Once you know you are established the scene movements in your head, write it down and fine-tune your checklist with additional information. As a result, you have a very solid starting point to success with your movie.
That’s why I love the checklist/storyboard is powerful because now you just need to shoot and complete your list one by one.
Revisit to reshoot
If you have more time to visit the same location, the better. Simply because you can tweak or reshoot scenes that you are not satisfied with. So I advise planning more shooting days.
Use an ND filter
I recommend using polar pro variable ND filters, or a cheaper alternative is freewell ND filter; you can both buy them on amazon.
I hear this lots of times that ND filters are overestimated, and you don’t need them. I am going to show two simple examples of why this statement is wrong.
As you can see, the first illustration has a scattering or jerky movement because the light was too harsh, and the pilot had to raise the shutter speed. Although we all should follow the 180 rule where the shutter speed is double your frame rate. For example, if the frame rate is 24, the shutter speed should be 48 or the closest to 50. In daylight, you can only achieve this if you have an ND filter.
Your gimbal movement is critical to creating those cinematic shots. By default, it is set to very rough, which will lead to amateur clips. So, let’s go and set those values properly.
Go to your settings by hitting the 3 dots in the top right corner. Navigate to the gimbal section, go to advanced settings, and set the Gimbal Pitch Speed to around 20. This will slow down your gimbal movement while you are turning the wheel.
Another important Setting is the Gimbal Pitch Smoothness. I see this mistake all the time. Basically, when you are panning up with the camera, it stops when it reaches the movement’s end. We can fine-tune this by setting this value to between 15-25. This is what worked for me but try and experiment with what settings work the best for you.
This is one of the foundations to create cinematic drone movements. 24 fps is what they use in big productions. A higher frame rate will give you unrealistic and sometimes jibberish footage.
Color – DLog-M Profile
To shoot in D-Log-M, you need to switch the camera codec from H.264 to H.265; therefore, the D-log-M profile became available, and you can record 10-bit footage with an impressive dynamic range.
Instead of a standard picture profile, use this cinematic profile to give more flexibility once you grade your footage.
To have a correct exposure, use the histogram, a must-have feature, to record the best footage possible. Since you are using an ND filter that avoids choppy footage, your shutter speed is locked down to 50 or double the frame rate; you can only play with the aperture or ISO. Expose the image in the middle to avoid under or overexposed footage.
Unfortunately, the aperture is fixed in almost all consumer drones except the Mavic 2 Pro, and it can produce the sharpest footage between f/2.8 and f/4.
Knowing the light
Now that you know how to research and find a good location, it’s time to talk about the light’s importance.
Knowing the light will have a significant improvement on your shots. You will create more cinematic drone footage if you are aware of your light conditions. Pay attention to the changes and observe what time is the best for your location. For example, shooting on an overcast day will make your image look boring.
Avoid harsh lights. Seek Softer lights.
So, I guess I am not telling you a secret that you will have a higher chance to produce better videos around sunset or sunrise.
Definitely try to shoot around the golden hour. The light will have a softer touch to the environment, and the shadows become alive.
Shooting footage before or after sunrise when you can already see the light on the environment can lead to noisy images. Simply because drone cameras don’t have big sensors with high iso sensitivity. Therefore make sure the sun lit up your scene.
Due to the poor optics, Drone cameras can produce severe lens flares that are difficult to manage in the post, so my first advice is to avoid shooting directly towards the sun. In case you really need to, pan down the camera and neglect flares.
Unusual weather conditions can provide exciting lights and definitely will improve your footages.
Even if you just hang out with friends or family, always observe and pay attention to how the weather changes your surroundings.
Pay attention and see how the light changes during the day. For example, there are often foggy mornings during the autumn or spring.
Or a passing storm can produce a rainbow or make the environment very interesting and contrasty. Therefore it’s worth checking and observing these phenomenons to know and plan where to go next time.
Movements in Drone Cinematography
This is where you can really step up your game and stand out from others. With a drone, you can achieve lots of various shots that would be only possible with several other tools in the past. For instance, you can easily simulate a crane, gimbal, or slider movement.
In general, I would suggest keeping it slow and simple you don’t need fast movements all the time or moving the drone around all the axis. Just keep slow.
I will share the basic movements that are easier to achieve than showcase and explain those cinematic movements. But I highly recommend practicing the more difficult ones.
I created a cheat sheet and illustrations that would help you to understand the movements better.
Under each video, there is an animation that you are supposed to follow to achieve the same movements. I hope these little illustrative animations help. I know it would have helped me a lot when I started.
In movies, it’s pretty common to use a crane shot to show scale and introduce the scene. To create a shot like this is one of the easiest with the drone.
Hover wherever you want to start the shot, then slowly start to go upwards. To Make it more dynamic, film a car, person, or anything that goes away from the camera. Therefore your footage will be more dynamic. It’s a simple but yet elegant cinematic movement.
One of the most effortless movements, literally just point the camera straight down to the ground and go forward or backward. If you have a subject, a person, or a car, it will make your footage more exciting, and don’t forget you can always play with texture as well.
As I mentioned, your drone can imitate lots of camera movements, in this case, a slider movement that is also a simple one. Hover over your desired starting point flies sideways with the drone pulling the right joystick knob to the left direction.
Keep it low or keep it close. Or actually both. Just as I am indicating in the example below, fly above an obstacle then reveal the landscape. It creates a beautiful cinematic effect as the drone flies by an object. It gives great depth to the scene. Use a car or a person to add an extra movement and element to the stage.
Forward and reveal
One of the basics reveals shots, but it has a good impact on the viewers. Usually used, in the beginning, to reveal the scene and establish the location.
So how to achieve this movement; firstly, set your gimbal facing the ground. Secondly, hover above your starting point, then slowly move forward or backward and pan the camera up with the gimbal wheel, just like I show in this little animation below.
Let’s move on to more complex movements, but With some practice, you can learn them. This shot’s main idea is to show the environment giving a full, half, or quarter circle around the subject. Which can be a person, car, lighthouse, or a boat, you name it.
And how to do it. Set the drone in position and point to the subject. Once you are in place, start pushing the right joystick to the left, and at the same time to turn the drone by pressing the left joystick to the right.
One of my favorite movements to emphasize the subject with a cinematic movement is the Helix. In other words, it’s a corkscrew movement flying downwards and rotating the drone simultaneously. Either way, it works to fly upwards and turn the drone, although the illustration addresses the first movement.
Fly up & Rotate
This one is simple, just flying upwards and rotating the drone meanwhile. You only need to use the left joy for this. To go upwards, simply push the left joystick gently up and tilt it left or right depending on what direction you want to rotate your drone.
Almost all of the types I mentioned above can add an extra movement by tracking the subject.
Although it’s a bit difficult if you don’t want to learn these complex movements, I totally understand. Use a built-in tracking feature. It is actually effortless. Go to quick shot modes, press the active trakcing option and draw a rectangle around your subject and hit record. That’s it.
Warning: Be careful because not all drones have obstacle sensors, and you can easily crash your drone if you are flying too close to the ground with lots of objects.
Spice up your footage and insert a few hyper lapses between regular shots. Most of the recent drones have this feature built-in, and you can easily create impressive footage. Check out this tutorial and learn how to use the built-in hyperlapse function with your drone.
I don’t want to go into details because I believe it deserves a whole article itself. I just want to share a few tips that helped me a lot during grading.
Keyframing small movements
Use the transformation tool to add extra movement to your footage by creating keyframes and changing your footage’s position. Zoom in or zoom out, move the footage however you like to spice it up.
I used Adobe Premier Pro for a very long time, but it’s a paid software.
So I was looking for cheaper alternatives.
I found Davinci Resolve which is free and professional software for both Mac and PC. It offers a whole other level for color grading. I found it very useful that I don’t need to proxy my footage because it does it automatically for me, therefore I can edit my timeline much faster.
If you want to give it a try I highly suggest watching some youtube videos. There are different sections where you can create a movie from start to finish. There are 6 tabs:
- Media (Import)
- Cut(Cut your clips)
- Edit (Timeline editor)
- Fusion (Visual effects)
- Color (Color correction and grading)
- Faitlight (Sound design)
- Deliver (Export)
I highly suggest you try it out because it is a fantastic software.
Presets and LUTS
There are tons of beautifully created lots out there. Some of them are even free. So go and play around with it to make your footage more cinematic that will definitely make a difference.
Here are some that I used and worth to check:
Music and sound effects
Sound fx and music have a significant impact on your video. It will make your footage more professional, even if the scene is not that epic. When you add audio assets, your movie will come alive. Just a few examples; add wind or bird sounds, add water sounds if you fly above a river or the coast.
You can buy relatively cheap microphones to record sound effects. What I personally use is the Zoom H1n. It’s an excellent idea to take it with you and record nature or city sounds. Use a windscreen; the best is a dead cat that will reduce your recordings’ wind noises.
On a recent project, I used a lot of sounds to emphasize the feeling of the video.
You don’t need to record your own sounds; you can download sound fx packs from the internet.
Here I some that I collected over the years:
To sum it up
- Do plan and Location scout.
- Use an ND filter to avoid choppy footages.
- Shoot in the proper settings
- Study the light, shoot around golden hours
- Experiment with cinematic drone movements
- Color grade your footage & Use Luts
- Sound design is essential; use it.
It’s definitely a long learning curve that takes time and patience, so hopefully, this article helps you, and you can produce more cinematic moves with your drone.