Section 8 – A Primer on Aerial Photography and Video
The idea of taking pictures and videos aloft is enticing many to join this hobby. It can be tempting to pull out your credit card and buy that top-notch aerial photography platform early in your drone career, but I would caution against it. As mentioned previously, beginners are much less likely to crash, lose or otherwise harm their machines if they first get a solid foundation in the basics. Here are some definitions and hints, though, so you can know what the camera carrying options are.
First Person View (FPV), Aerial Photography (AP), App Driven Cameras
The simplest form of drone aerial photography is accomplished by flying around with a tiny camera – and retrieving the video or stills from a memory card once the quadcopter has landed. Mini-quadcopters with built in cameras and controls can be found for as little as $30 – however, the resulting pictures and video will not be of a high quality. In order to get higher quality images, you must step up to larger quadcopters as they are capable of greater stability (less wobble) and carrying better cameras. A shortcoming of the most basic method is that you don’t see your footage until after you land and download the memory card to a computer.
First Person View (FPV) describes photography where you see what the drone is seeing, or at least a basic preview of it. The video is beamed back to a small monitor or to a set of special goggles the operator is wearing. This allows for much more precise control of the scenes being photographed.
App Driven FPV Camera Quadcopters w/Gimbal describes fancier video and photography machines such as those from DJI, Yuneec, Autel Robotics and others. These are what most serious aerial photographers will end up with after learning on lesser machines.
Aerial cameras often take a beating, so beginners should not use a fragile consumer camera for this application. Here are some of the popular cameras and types used in hobbyist (sub-$1,000) Aerial Photography – approx. prices in ():
Included or Optional low-resolution quadcopter camera ($25) – These are included or optional with many well-known quadcopter brands. They are very light in weight and can be activated for photo or video from the included transmitter.
Keychain Cams ($12-$60) – These are very popular lightweight cameras sold as “keychain spy cameras” which many hobbyists affix to their quadcopters. The more expensive models have a higher resolution and wide angle lenses. The images from these can be very decent if the quadcopter is stable and balanced and the lighting good (bright sunlight is not good for most of these cameras).
Mobius Sport Cam – ($65-$85) – A camera built specifically for the R/C market, this little wonder provides HD videos, stills (on a timer) and other great features for a low price. It can be lifted by some smaller quadcopters like the WL Toys v262, the HiSKY HM280, Skyartec Butterfly, etc.
GoPro and other Sport Cameras ($90-$400) – These are specially made for action – both shockproof and lightweight. Mid sized quadcopters (total weight up to 1000 grams or 2.2 lbs) are required to lift them, while the smaller keychain or similar models can be flown from minis and even micros.
The Parrot BeBop features a built-in front-facing camera which provides medium resolution images and FPV on a tablet or smartphone. Unlike most fixed cameras, the BeBop has fancy software and hardware which stabilizes the resulting video – making it similar to what is captured with a gimbal (camera stabilizer) carrying quadcopter.
The budding aerial photographer should spend some time on youtube and vimeo looking at various quadcopter videos and the platforms they were taken from. This will give you a good idea of what to expect out of your upcoming purchases.
Please note that true “hollywood style” aerial photography requires more expensive and heavier quadcopters along with better cameras. Some of the upscale models of drones even fly DLSR’s which weigh a couple pounds! Expect such systems to start at about $3,000 and quickly go upwards from there – putting them out of the range of most hobbyists and beginners. The price range of hobby range quadcopters and the associated features are below:
$50-$150 – A new generation of low-cost FPV models features are available – these have either built-in screens or use your smartphone as the monitor. Picture and video quality is poor.
$200 – $350 – larger toy or hobby grade models with brushless motors and Mobius and bargain FPV setup
$500 -$1500+ – Full size quadcopters (DJI, Yuneec, etc.) with dedicated or cameras and APV/FPV system installed. Most are driven by apps and use a tablet or smartphone for display and some control of features.
Hobbyists can put together systems in just about any price range from as low as $100. More detail on cameras, FPV and the proper quadcopters to fly them can be found in the section entitled More on Aerial Photography and FPV which follows later in this book.
Congratulations! If you’ve gotten this far you are no longer a complete beginner – in fact, you probably know more about the subject than most of the general public! As with any graduation, this is a good time to reflect on both the past and the future. It’s also time to make some decisions as to where you want to go in your drone career. Here are some possible paths to take to drone nirvana:
1.You enjoy the mini and micro quadcopters and want to continue to pursue this low cost and high value pursuit. This can also extend into small racing FPV machines and acrobatics.
2.You want to delve further into the hobby in terms of both the technical and learning aspects and the various sizes of quadcopters. You may want to be a full fledged “hacker” and start messing with the quadcopter programming.
3.You wish to fly larger quadcopters for photography/video, mapping, etc. but don’t want to delve too deeply into the nuts and bolts.
Since this is a newbies book, we won’t go too far into all the technical details, but a basic introduction on how to step up follows.
Brushed vs. Brushless Motors
Most lower priced (toy grade) drones use small and inexpensive “brushed” motors which need to be replaced after only a few hours of use. They also are relatively inefficient and incapable of high speeds and large payloads. Higher performance quadcopter use “brushless” motors which provide a very long life, high efficiency and plenty of power.
Brushed motors have been common for over 100 years. They rely on “brushes”, which are magnets that actually touch the spinning shaft of the motor. You may have seen small motors produce sparks when running – this is due to to the actual contact between the carbon brushes and the motor armature.
Newer brushless motors are more sophisticated and electronic means (ESC – or Electronic Speed Controller – usually external to the motor) to control the rotation. This is done without any physical part (like brushes) touching the motor shaft. The result is a longer lasting and more efficient system.
Most racing and camera drones use brushless motors while the smaller and less costly (<$100) drones usually use the brushless type. When it’s time to step up from your beginner models you will almost certainly want to shop for a brushless model. As of 2016 the prices have become quite reasonable with some starter brushless quadcopter as low as $110. Popular models in the lower price range include the HiSky HM280, JJRC X1 and the Eachine Racer 250.
Programmable R/C Transmitters
Advancing in this hobby requires at least a basic understanding of the standard R/C transmitters (TX) which are used with many larger and FPV quadcopters. Note the two types shown in the picture following:
The RTF (ready to fly) drones mentioned earlier in this book are sold with a TX which was specially designed and programmed to run only the particular quadcopter it was sold with. However, larger drones are sold without a TX or with a specially designed and/or modified model, so the budding hobbyist may need to learn about the various options.
Fair Warning – you may feel, at first, that you stepped back 20 years and are working with some ancient artifact of the computer revolution. As a rule, they are not user friendly – no color screen, no mice or touch screen, links, help files, or automatic setup wizards. Someday this will change, but for now you may have to join the club and slog your way through learning these flight controllers if you want to enter the DIY (build, modification) part of the hobby.
The good news is that they are very powerful and flexible. A single model can store the profiles for many flying machines, so if the quad collection builds up you’ll only need one or two of these transmitters. They also allow for dialing up-or-down on the flight characteristics of flying machines, so if you desire your quadcopter to be exceedingly tame, the settings can be changed easily.
R/C transmitters have from 4 to 9+ channels, meaning they can control that many different actions (switches, modes, flight surfaces, etc.) on the model you are flying. The beginning quadcopters mentioned earlier in the book are usually 4 channel – the channels controlling:
1.Throttle – how much power is being sent to the propellers
2. Elevators – this makes the quadcopter fly forward or backward by tilting it (pitch)
3. Ailerons – tilt the copter side to side and… (roll)
4. Rudder – this makes the quadcopter spin on its central axis (yaw)
Larger and fancier quadcopters may need more controls, although 5 or 6 channels are enough for most models. Prices range from as little as $50 to as much as $350+, although very decent models can be had for $50-$150. Brands include Turnigy, Walkera, Spektrum, JR, Futaba, FlySky and more.
Many purpose-built (photo/video) larger quadcopters come along with a matching TX (Remote), so those who are entering the Ready to Fly ( RTF ) market of larger Camera drones may be able to avoid having to program and bind these multi-model Transmitters to their new models. As an example, this modern Transmitter (now called a Remote) is included with the new DJI Phantom 3 and 4 quadcopters.