What do I do with my drone’s video?

Drone video footage is perfect for so many uses, but really comes into its own on social media and independent movies. Everyone loves aerial footage!

How do I edit drone video footage?

The basics are that you need a computer/device with software specifically for video editing AND you need to make sure that the type of video file you are using is one that your system supports. Because this is so complex, with so many variables, you will find whole posts on this site, dedicated to answering this question in manageable chunks.

What editing software should I use?

Whichever suits your needs! All that editing software does is allow you to organise your clips and cut them into the shape you want. It won’t do any of the real work for you, but once you know your way around your chosen software, you will find the whole process a lot easier. The most popular editing software packages all do much the same thing, but each works in slightly different ways. Paid for options always provide the most functionality and in some cases are necessary to work with certain types of video file (eg, DaVinci Resolve 15 is available as both a free and a paid for version. However, the free version can not use the H.265 video files from the Mavic 2 Pro, but the paid for version can). For video editing beginners, the free software from both Apple (iMovie) and Microsoft (Movie Maker) is a really good place to start. Sure, they are limited in functionality, but both provide an easy learning process which will allow the user to step up to more advanced software later. Popular paid for software which is worth checking out includes: Adobe Premiere Pro, Apple Final Cut X, Avid Media Composer (TV & Hollywood standard but a steep learning curve), DaVinci Resolve Studio, Sony Vegas (Windows only), Hit Film (fairly new, but easy to learn).

What computer should I use?

Rule of thumb is to get the best specced machine you can afford! However, if you know what software you like this is a bit easier to define. Check out the recommended computer specs of your chosen software and try and max out beyond that! You may find that, beyond just computer specifications, certain peripheral hardware can make a big difference. The most useful bit of external hardware for video editing is a dedicated, fast hard drive (SSD is even better) for all your video files. Best of all is a RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks) system, which is a box with multiple hard drives, which work as one. This makes them much, much faster as the system only has to read a portion of each file off each disk. If you never use the computer’s system drive for video files, your computer will be much happier. This is because video files require a lot of system resources and your system drive is working fulltime already and video will run much more smoothly on a dedicated disk. The actual video file type you are editing is going to affect performance too. Many people are finding that certain types of 4K video just don’t work on their computers, whilst HD works fine. 4K really does need some power to work, so think about that before buying.

How do I work with 4K?

4K requires more computer power than normal HD and many computers are simply not up to the task. However, the use of proxy files (video files at lower resolution that you use for editing, but which get replaced with full resolution files at final output) will allow you to edit 4K on almost any computer and even on mobile devices. Of course, a high-powered computer will allow you to miss out this step!

Is there any difference between .avi and .mov and .mp4 files?

Digital video comes in many, many different flavours! The important things to know are that video is made up of a compression codec (H.264, H.265, Prores, DNxHD are common examples), which decide what makes up the structure of the actual video, and then that is presented as a video file in a wrapper (eg .mp4, .mov, .avi), which is what the software player will play back.  Different wrappers work better with different situations, eg a .mp4 video is more likely to be used on the web or on a BluRay disc, whereas a .mov file is likely to be used in editing on a Mac computer.

What is compression?

Compression is what reduces the size of a video format, so that it can be used in different ways. Eg, Youtube videos are highly compressed, so they can play on the internet easily. A fully uncompressed video (especially 4K and 1080 HD) is likely to be multiple GB in size and would require internet speeds far in excess of what is normally available to play back normally. What is compressed is the amount of data per second that the file plays back (the data rate) and is usually expressed as Mbps (megabits per second). The higher the number, the better quality the video, as it has more information.

Why does data rate matter?

The higher the data rate of video, the more scope there is to manipulate the colours and other visual elements. A standard DSLR will record video in camera within a range of about 10mbps to about 30mbps, whereas a Mavic Air can record 4K video up to 100mbps. That gives you much more data to play with in the edit, which can make a huge difference to the final output quality. Also, there are certain minimum data rates required (along with certain other specifications) for video to be passed by broadcasters as broadcast quality. So, if you are licensed to use a drone commercially, the data rate is critical to whether a broadcaster can use your footage or not.

What is bit depth?

Bit depth (Mavic 2 Pro has 10 bit capability, all other consumer drones only 8 bit) is a measure of the number of colours the camera can shoot. 8 bit gives you 16 million colours, whereas 10 bit gives approximately 1 BILLION colours. That makes adjusting colours in post production much, much easier and allows you to create much more accurate or creative visuals. Also, for broadcasters it is a huge deal, as those extra colours are necessary for broadcast compression. 

What is Broadcast Quality?

Broadcast quality refers to the minimum technical standard of digital video that is acceptable for major broadcasters. In the UK, this standard is managed by the Digital Production Partnership and the standard is strictly adhered to by the BBC, Sky, ITV and all other serious broadcasters. The standards are based on certain camera specifications, video encoding standards and data rates. As of January 2019, as far as consumer rated drones go, only the DJI Mavic 2 Pro (NOT the Zoom) has cameras that meet full broadcast specifications for HD productions and some UHD productions too. However, for independent productions and film makers, the fact that this drone is available, offering full broadcast spec, at such a low price is a huge deal!

What is RAW?

RAW is uncompressed still or video that has had no extra processing inside the camera. It is the highest quality, with the most data and requires more storage space than compressed formats like H.265/264 or jpeg for stills. Certain consumer drones can take RAW photographs, but there aren’t any current consumer drones that shoot RAW video. The main advantage of RAW stills is that they retain all the data captured by the camera and thus give a load more scope for adjusting the shots in an editing application. This also means that they need to be edited in such an application to look any good. Only take RAW photos if you have the means to use them, or else at least make sure you have a jpeg copy until you get the means!

How do I edit stills?

Stills need different software to video. Whilst you can work with stills in most video editing apps, they are not optimized for it and it really over complicates matters. Everyone has heard of Adobe Photoshop, but its counterpart, Lightroom, is probably the easiest software to catalogue and manipulate RAW images.

Why can’t I get my images or video to work with my iPhone?

Phones and tablets are not great when it comes to using the highest quality images and video you get from the latest drones. 10bit DLog-M H.265 footage from a DJI Mavic 2 Pro is unreadable on an iPhone, in its native state. Most phones are unequipped to read RAW still files too. This is likely to change as these formats become more widespread in the consumer marketplace, but at the moment you have to compromise.

What will work with my iPhone?

Phones can easily cope with jpeg stills and H.264 video files, so tailor what you shoot to what you can use.

So, what formats should I shoot?

The best your hardware can cope with! Good editing software will let you work with proxy files (lightweight video files that reference your original files and revert back to those on final output), which will allow you to use the highest quality footage on virtually any computer system. This is awesome, as it means you can output your final video in whatever format you want, right up to the highest quality available with your drone, whilst only running on a low-powered laptop. If making proxies isn’t an option (possible, due to software availability/cost etc), then it may be a good idea to shoot in a format that is more easily edited in your existing software. Most H.264 HD files are easily edited, even on a phone, and standard jpeg files can be handled by just about everything too. In most cases, you just won’t notice the difference.

How can I get music/audio into my video?

Digital editing systems nearly always work on a track/layer system. You literally place layers of video or audio on top of each other in your editing timeline. Once your editing software is open you can import whatever audio file you like and align it as you see fit with the video track. Both tracks play back together and you have sound in your video. Of course, there are a million different ways to set the audio (levels, timing, effects etc), but that’s a whole other lesson.

How can I get text onto my video?

This is very simple. All editing software has a text capability. With your video in the timeline, you should select your software’s text tool, click on the video where you want your text and type away. You can choose all the standard text variables, like weight, font etc and some editing software may even let you create complex motion graphics right in the video timeline.

What’s the best drone for video?

A major Hollywood Octocopter, weighing 100KG, with a RED or ARRI Alexa slung under it!  With this, you do tend to get what you pay for. However, it is relative and depends upon what you want to do with your footage. If you want to shoot video that is of the right standard for major broadcasters, there is only one consumer grade drone on the market that meets the specifications for full production in HD (4K, 100mbps, 1” sensor, 10 bit H.265 video): the Mavic 2 Pro. This drone has a camera which mees the technical specifications agreed by the Digital Production Partnership, which manages standards for all major broadcasters in the UK, but influences all the major broadcasters globally too. The Phantom 4 comes close and offers higher datarates at lower resolutions, but does not meet the full specification as it only shoots 8bit video, rather than 10bit. It also has a mechanical shutter, which eliminates the ‘jelly’ effect often seen in video shot with an electronic ‘rolling’ shutter, as found on the Mavic. Other drones have great cameras and will shoot sweet, sweet video, but its usage is limited by the spec. A good rule of thumb is that the higher the bitrate is of a camera, the better the video (as it is less compressed). Thus, the DJI Mavic 2 Zoom, Mavic Air, the Autel Evo and the Parrot Anafi are all worth considering, as they have 4K at 100mbps (mega bits per second) datarates and their camera sensors are similarly sized. The Mavic 2 Zoom and the Evo have a slight advantage on paper, as they can record in H.265, which provides for better video compression. Of course, the DJI Spark is utterly brilliant too, but only shoots HD. As most people don’t currently have any means of watching 4K in its full resolution, HD is possibly what you need anyway!

What is the best drone for stills?

See above! The main difference between the consumer drones here is how the camera works. Both the Phantom 4 and the Mavic 2 Pro have manually adjustable apertures, which makes all the difference in taking stills. They also have larger sensors, which allows for more efficient use of available light. Smaller drones can take much better photos than your smartphone, but none of them are up to the level of a decent DSLR.

What should I get?

If you’ve read through this FAQ, hopefully you will have some idea of what might suit you. My own set up, from which I run my own production company, outputting content for major broadcasters as well as internet channels, consists of a 10 year-old MacPro 6 core – maxed out with 48GB RAM, SSD system drive, fastest graphics card available for old Macs (GTX680 Mac) and a fast RAID system for media. DLog-M 4K plays beautifully, but any effects need serious rendering. I use a Mavic 2 Pro, which meets my needs perfectly.


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