Our drones are essentially flying cameras. They are great to just fly for the hell of flying something, but it’s the cameras which are the main draw for most users.


The cameras are so clever and advanced, that it is very easy to keep them firmly set to ‘auto’ and just hope that the imagery that we get out of them is good. Frequently ‘auto’ is good, but often the results are not quite what we want and having seen so many drop-dead-gorgeous images from other drone users, surely we can get those too?


Well, we can if we use manual settings and it’s nothing like as hard to understand and master, as you might fear. It’s all just about understanding the light and how it works with your camera (ie drone).


This is designed to be an aide-memoire of the critical elements of capturing an image so that it can be useable; it’s not a comprehensive list of everything you must do when taking a photo or shooting video, but it should help those who are uncertain to remember the most important bits.


Light is everything


The more light there is, the easier it is to capture a good image. If light is low, you need to use what light is available to your best advantage. 


There are 3 tools (settings) used by cameras which affect the light’s reaction with the sensor. These tools/settings are:


  1. Shutter speed –the amount of time that the sensor is exposed to the light 
  2. Aperture –the size of the hole through which light travels to reach the sensor 
  3. Gain/Sensitivity (also called ISO) –a measurement of how sensitive to light the sensor is


Between them these three affect the exposure of the camera sensor to the light. Exposure is the single most important factor in defining a good picture/video from the bad. Correct exposure is when there is exactly the right amount of light to maximise the details and match your desired effect.


The trick is to balance these three settings to give you the best possible result. 


With time and practice, you will come to know what you like and what your audience likes too, but to help you on your way, here is the key thing to aim for:


Get as much detail into your images as possible– I’m not talking about lots of things in the frame, but making sure that as much as possible of what is already in the frame is actually visible. EG, the shadow areas are not just pure black, but you can make out what’s in the shadows; the highlights (skies, water, reflections, light coloured bits) also have detail visible and are not just bright white (this is over exposure. When an image is over-exposed it’s often called ‘blown-out’).


Video and stills require different settings, due to how they work. Fewer people understand video, so I’ll start there.


Video settings


Because video is essentially a whole load of stills taken really, really quickly (typically between 24 and 30 pictures every second!!! – frequently more), there is a lot of crossover between video and still techniques of exposure, but there are also key differences:


  • Shutter speed– video shutter speed needs to be set based on the framerate of the video (eg 24 frames per second etc). The shutter speed should be double the framerate, so video shot at 30 fps should have a shutter speed of 1/60thof a second etc. This ratio should only change if a particular effect is needed. If you do change it, it’s likely that the video will look very weird! The main effect of this is that your exposure control should not include shutter speed for video!


  • Gain/ISO– in video, ISO does not really exist, but there is something with exactly the same effect, called ‘Gain’. When a sensor is made more sensitive (which is what increasing gain/ISO does), tiny dots become more and more visible as the gain is increased. This is called ‘noise’ and is similar to ‘grain’ which was found on physical film, when that was used. Because stills can use different shutter speeds, this can be offset a lot more easily. In video, where the shutter speed is fixed, noise becomes apparent much quicker. So, try to use as low a gain as possible with video!


  • Aperture– this is where all the work is done with video exposure. As drones are likely to be used outside (and mostly during the day), the problem is usually that the light is too bright for good video, which is a lot easier to fix than too little light! When it’s too bright, as with people, you need to shut out some of the light from the sensor (eyes), so put on some sunglasses. Sunglasses on a camera are called Neutral Density filters. They do not affect the colours or the quality of the image, they just reduce the light getting in. You can get them in different strengths, so they can cater for any brightness of light. They make all the difference to your shooting. If you want to take great video with your drone, use ND filters!!!


Video cameras all tend to use different formats of video and drones are no different. Whilst the basics are similar, different aspects like datarate, bit depth and compression codecs make a huge difference to the quality of a video image – much more so (from a technical standpoint) than resolution and framerates. There is a post on the site, here, which explains this all in much more detail.


Stills settings


Stills are a lot easier, as you can use all of the exposure controls to their full, as you are only capturing one moment at a time and are not trying to capture motion.


  • Shutter speed– the slower the shutter speed, the more light gets to the sensor and vice versa, the faster the speed, the less light gets to the sensor. Remember, at slower shutter speeds any movement of the camera, or any movement in the frame, is more likely to result in blurring in the final picture. Of course, faster shutter speeds allow for the clearer capture of moving subjects too. Make sure that your shutter speed is appropriate to what your subject is doing!


  • Aperture– Not just about the amount of light, but aperture can be a key creative tool too. The larger the aperture, the shallower the depth of field, which is what gives the very popular ‘bokeh’ effect where the background is all out of focus and the main subject is pin sharp. This works in both stills and video, but as stills sensors are, traditionally, larger, the effect is more common there. The advent of large sensor, stills cameras with excellent video capability has made bokeh even more available to consumer video makers. It’s not really a feature on many drones at all, but the 1” sensors and adjustable aperture on both the Mavic 2 Pro and the Phantom 4 do give the opportunity for some real creativity with bokeh. Use aperture as a creative tool where you possibly can and see how it improves your images.


  • ISO/Gain– there is much more latitude for the use of ISO for exposure with stills. This is partly due to the fact that there is no movement in the digital noise, but mostly because the shutter speed can be easily adjusted, without having to worry about weird-looking motion. ISO can magically create light, where you couldn’t see any. But do make sure that your shutter speed is aligned to get rid of any unwanted noise. Try and keep your ISO as low as possible for cleaner images.


As with video, ND filters are something that you can find really raise your game in stills photography. Some might say they are unnecessary as you can adjust your shutter speed, but that doesn’t always work – especially with a moving subject on a very bright day and you want to capture some motion and bokeh too. Don’t let your photography be compromised by not having the right equipment!




Aperture – low numbers mean bigger aperture, with more light


Shutter speed – fractions of a second. Video shutter should be double the framerate. The faster the shutter, the less light to the sensor


Gain/ISO – the lower the number, the less sensitive the sensor, so more light is needed. Higher gain/ISO will introduce more digital noise to the images

Click for full size
Photography cheat sheet. Camera’s manual. ISO, shutter speed, aperture, frame frequency.


So, now you have a grounding in what the manual settings mean, let’s see your amazing results! Post your videos and photos on the DVA Facebook page!