Getting started with drone photography: A Resource Guide

Getting started with drone photography: A Resource Guide

DJI Mavic Pro There is plenty of information on the web about drone photography, but I’ve learned from experience that it is spread far and wide, and it can be very time consuming to get the bits you need. It can also be expensive if you order the wrong drone or even worse crash your drone because you were missing a key piece of information (yep, done that). So we’ve put together a resource guide that provides at least one approachable path for you to get started, have fun, and develop the confidence to push yourself and your drones further. We’ll be adding to this guide on a regular basis, so please let us know what additional topics you’d like to see included!


Picking a drone

There are hundreds of drones from dozens of companies, but to keep thing simple we’ll stick with the market leader, and excellent overall price performer, DJI. Staying within the DJI product line means that most of the controls and software features are the same between models, making it easy to upgrade and not have to relearn everything. Within DJI’s product line there are a few options for first-time droners:

DJI Spark

DJI Spark Quadcopter (Alpine White)If you are really unsure whether you want to become a serious drone photographer or videographer, the Spark is a relatively-inexpensive (starts at $500) way to get started, and is the smallest of DJI’s drones. You can for some more details. You’ll probably want the version that comes . It is limited by having less than 20 minutes of flight time, and a maximum 1 mile range. Both of those limits are more important than they seem at first. Flight time because you really don’t want to push things to the edge, and you can spend a few minutes getting your drone in position and properly set up for your photography, so a nominal 20 minutes can quickly turn into 5-8 minutes of real shooting time. Range too is an ideal maximum. You’ll typically get less. So if you want to send the drone off to the top of a nearby hill for a scenic, you’ll need to be somewhat close to the top already.

DJI Mavic Pro

DJI Mavic Pro The Mavic Pro is is our “Editors’ Choice” when it comes to a drone for serious hobbyists and many professionals. It borrows most of the fancy features from its big brother the Phantom, but folds up into an incredibly small package. I can easily fit my Mavic Pro, its controller, a spare battery, monitor shield, tablet, and spare props in my new favorite sling bag the . I’ve already written about , and since then things have only gotten more exciting, as I’ve been doing more automated flying using the Litchi app, and going on longer missions. There is very little to not like about the Mavic Pro. You can get the . You can get a .

DJI Phantom 4 Pro

DJI Phantom 4 Pro QuadcopterThere are several models of the Phantom 4 now, but frankly, if you are going to upgrade to any of them from the Mavic Pro, it makes sense to go to the top of the line, the Phantom 4 Pro. By moving up to the Phantom 4 family, you get a larger (1-inch format), higher-resolution (20MP vs 12MP) sensor, 4K video at 60fps, longer flight time, … The camera sensor is the same one as in the Sony RX100 V, one of the best rated point and shoots on the market. The Advanced model also adds rear obstacle detection (a feature I’d definitely like to have on my Mavic!) and a pair of Time of Flight sensors (not that important). You can get the , or get .

Really-useful Accessories

There are dozens of interesting accessories for your drone, but we’ve picked out some we’ve found the most useful. In most cases, the specific model of accessory varies with the model of your drone, so we’ll provide links to the Mavic Pro version, for simplicity.

Additional Intelligent Battery

DJI Intelligent Flight Battery for Mavic QuadcopterFor starters, you’ll want to . They’re expensive, but no matter how well you plan your drone outings, you’ll find you need more flight time than you think. For example, say you send the drone up, and then find you need a Neutral Density filter on it for the shot you want. Now you bring it back down, snap on the filter, and realize you’re part way through your battery and risking your mission. Having a backup will save the day. Plus, time flies by (pardon the pun) when you’re flying, and it is easy to leave the drone hovering while you figure out how to get it to do what you want, so having more flight time is a good thing. .

Spare Propellers

The only time I’ve shattered a propeller on either of my Mavic Pro drones was when I crashed one (and there was a lot of other damage to worry about), but a spare set is cheap insurance in case you get one chipped up. Because the Mavic Pro sits very close to the ground when it lands, it doesn’t take all that much in the way of surrounding foliage to potentially nick one of your props. .

Neutral Density Filter set

DJI ND Filters Set for Mavic Pro Quadcopter (3-Pack)All the drones we’re talking about have fixed aperture lenses (just like your smartphone). That means in bright light, they need to use a very fast shutter speed. Resulting videos won’t look as smooth and “cinematic” as those shot with a slower shutter speed. The solution is to add a Neutral Density (ND) filter. Ideally you want to get the shutter speed to something not too much more than twice the frame rate. The Mavic Pro was not designed with filters in mind, and its gimbal motors have their hands full with just its camera. So DJI cautions against using any ND filters other than their own as it might cause your gimbal to wear out early. Fortunately .


For basic flying the free DJI GO 4 app is excellent – and free. It lets you exercise all the features of the drone, and has an increasing number of intelligent flight modes that allow for programmed operations. However, if you want to do complex cinematic shots, or simply traverse long routes, there are 3rd party packages to help.

Litchi for programmed flying

Once you want to put together smooth video shoots, or simply traverse extended or complex routes with your drone, you’ll outgrow DJI’s own app. That’s where Litchi comes in. For starters it lets you automate the process of creating 360-degree panoramas (either with JPEGs or RAW files). DJI now has some new panorama features, but they aren’t as extensive or flexible. Litchi also allow you to quickly plot waypoint-based routes using a mash up of Google Earth data, either in the mobile app or on its web site. It is a matter of seconds to drop a few waypoints down and tell Litchi how you want the camera to move and record. More sophisticated routes will take longer to plan, of course, and you may need to test fly them at first to make sure you are getting the results you want.

If I’m planning a mission of any distance, I actually feel safer leaving it to Litchi for the most part. Since I know where I’ve put the waypoints, and hopefully have said the altitudes high enough that the drone won’t hit anything, I can relax and watch the mission unfold rather than having to manually fly the entire time. Litchi also gives you lots of other clever modes, like Orbiting around a point of interest, and tracking. Many of those overlap with capabilities DJI offers or is likely to offer, so which you prefer may be a matter of personal preference. Litchi isn’t free, but it’s less than $25, so a pretty good deal as the software is actively supported and updated. It also has a very active user community.


For iOS users, AutoPilot is a programmed-flight alternative to Litchi. I mostly fly with Android devices, so I can’t give a personal review, but it has been around for awhile and the developers do keep updating it for the latest drones and with additional capabilities.

AirData (formerly HealthyDrones)

AirData isn’t actually software. It is a website that let’s you look at and understand your flight logs. It pulls out an amazing amount of information (for example the calculated wind speed for each portion of your flight) that is really helpful as you try to plan parameters for future missions. It has a variety of plans, ranging from free to $10/month, depending on how fancy you want to get, how many drones you own, and how long you want them to archive your data. You get a free month of Pro with your purchase of Litchi.

Learning Resources

One of my first, and most expensive, lessons after getting a drone is that the are more about marketing than teaching. They gloss over a lot of the fine points that can get your drone into trouble. Fortunately there are many YouTube videos that do a much more thorough job. I suggest choosing more than one on each important topic, as not all presenters cover every aspect. We’ll work on trying to pull together a curated list of videos, and perhaps record some of our own, but in the meantime there is one site that does an excellent job of teaching programmed flying techniques using Litchi. It’s , taught by Laurence Seberini.

Miscellaneous doo-dads

There are after market gimbal covers that leave a slot for the camera or integrate the clamp, tablet mounts of various shapes and sizes, leg extenders, and monitor shades available for the Mavic Pro. Some you can get through B&H or Amazon, while others are small-volume businesses selling on etsy or off their websites. We’ll add more detail on some of our favorites as we get more of them in to evaluate, but they’re out there!