Aerial photography has been a staple of the film industry for decades. It used to be that the only cameras that could be put in the sky were those owned by big studios with big budgets. But, in just a few years, technology has advanced to the point where nearly everybody can leave the house and come home with a camera drone in less than an hour.
This is both good news and bad news. It’s good news because advanced technology is in the hands of more people, which means that the bar for creativity goes up across the board. More people can contribute to the art which means that it evolves faster and impacts more people.
This phenomenon has repeated itself throughout our history. As methods of transmitting information improved—first with the printing press, and recently with the Internet—more people were given the opportunity to learn, and the rate of human scientific discovery increased. When you add more nodes to the network, it becomes better. The same is true of drone photography.
But there’s also a downside.
As more and more people became educated and our society evolved, it became harder and harder to stand out. The low-hanging fruit was gone. This is true of drone photography as well. It’s no longer enough to simply have an eye in the sky—the quality needs to go so much further than it did twenty years ago when just having an aerial view was a unique perspective.
When you rely too heavily on your drone, all your shots start to look the same and your content becomes predictable. And unless you’re an aerial surveyor or something, drone footage shouldn’t take up anywhere near the majority of your shots.
Here are 5 ways to get cool shots without a drone
The purpose of video is to tell a story visually—and the same is true of still photography. Using aerial footage is definitely a component of that, but it’s not the only one… and it certainly isn’t the most important one. Here are some other tools to keep in your bags so you can use the right tool for the job.
Learn to use a gimbal
A gimbal is a device that stabilizes your camera on all three axes. You hold the gimbal in your hand and mount the camera at the end. Internal motors help you get smooth camera motion that appears significantly less shaky and unstable than handheld footage. Your drone likely has a gimbal like this to keep the camera steady while flying in unstable air. Learning to use one on the ground will give you a lot of flexibility for capturing cool shots, especially in situations where using a drone is impractical, illegal, or impossible.
As with drones, a gimbal is a tool for certain jobs—but not all of them. It’s very much possible to overuse stabilization. There are situations when shaky handheld footage can fit the scene and give you a desirable aesthetic, even making the viewer feel like they’re part of the scene.
Learn to shoot interviews
People are interested in people. However cool the projects you’re shooting are, I promise there is room in your feed for your people. Especially if you’re trying to attract more people. Show your team working in their natural environment, and take some time to talk to them about their work. This makes excellent content, and when shot well, looks really cool too.
An interview with an interesting person in a striking location will always be a worthwhile piece of content to produce. Learn to capture these interviews efficiently and you’ll have a constant flow of content for your social feeds. BIG bonus points if you interview your customers/clients as well as your own employees.
Get GoPros and use them in creative ways
One unlikely idea that made a big difference to my shots was this: a GoPro is a consumable product. Pro-level cameras and lenses can cost thousands of dollars each. But a GoPro is only a few hundred dollars—considerably less if you buy used. Losing a GoPro once in a while is a relatively small price to pay… Especially when you consider the kind of shots you can get with them.
You can mount them to construction equipment, hardhats, power tools, you name it. You can tie one to a cord and leave it in a hole you’re about to backfill, then pull it out halfway through. You can drop one down a well, mount one inside a concrete mixer, pour concrete over it, whatever. You could probably even flush one down a toilet if you have the waste pipe disconnected. Treat your GoPros as consumable products and don’t be afraid to risk them getting dirty, lost, or broken.
Practice getting different angles
The angle of your shot can convey a lot of information. Learning how to use those angles to create the feelings and appearances you want is an invaluable skill. Shooting a 5’11” man from down low will make him appear larger than life. You can make him look heroic, impressive, intimidating, or menacing. Shooting the same man from over his head will make him look shorter. You can use this to make him look diminutive, unassuming, or less important.
This is true of your field of vision as well. Shooting a man on a jobsite with a close-up will make the scene all about him. Shoot the same man in the same location from farther back or with a wider lens, and the viewer will see a lot more context. This will show the man’s role in his environment, or perhaps show just how tremendous the environment is compared to just one person.
The amount of space your subject takes up in the frame and the subject’s position relative to the camera says a LOT to your viewer about the scene. Use this to your advantage.
Work on your weaknesses
Stagnation is the enemy of visual interest, as well as creative expression. And however practical your purposes, creativity is an important factor in the accomplishment of your mission. Be sure to exercise the muscles that you don’t use frequently, otherwise you’ll get lopsided. Nobody wants that.
If you find yourself using your drone too much, you can make a point of only using it for one shot in each video you make. If you notice that all of your videos are shot from one perspective, you can practice camera movements to convey emotion or deliver information. If you notice that your videos are all from a moving perspective, consider forcing yourself to mount your camera to a tripod and shoot from one perspective for each shot.
Again, the purpose of videography and photography is to tell a story visually. Aerial footage has its purposes—establishing shots, diminishing imposing objects, showing the scale of very large (or very small) subjects, what have you—but it’s simply not the right tool for every job.
If all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. Your drone is just one tool in your bags. Make sure you fill them with other tools and spend time learning how to use them. To do otherwise is to risk your content becoming boring and blending in with the woodwork.
Now go show the world what you do. ✌🏻