Not yet as common as the infamous selfie stick, and certainly a little more expensive, drones have taken the world by storm. There is nothing like a fresh perspective to create some unique, and lets face it, awesome footage for your albums. With a drone now coming into the realm of affordability it is likely to be the hot item in this years Christmas stocking, for children and adults alike!
As a recent owner of a drone I can say they take some getting used to and they are not without their tense moments! Even the so-called ‘entry-level’ drones require a certain amount up-skilling to make sure you can confidently take your drone to the sky and have it land back in one piece. With 3 months of drone flying under my belt I’m not claiming to be a drone expert, but these tips focus more on the approach to buying and flying your drone for the first time confidently based on my experience.
1. How to Choose your Drone
If you are mid-purchase for your first drone you are likely already overwhelmed by reviews, sensational claims from manufacturers, and road test videos from drone experts who make it all look so easy. Finding the right drone for your skill set and intended use will mean you get just enough features and not pay for things you’ll never need or be aware of.
A drone is a sophisticated piece of robotics, it’s a lot more advanced than your average remote control car you may have had as a kid. Adding the dimension of flight to a remote controlled device creates exponential complexity, you are basically buying a commercial aircraft compacted down into something that fits in size of your hand.
I’d recommend using these criteria when comparing options for your first drone:
- Size – How transportable do you need your drone to be? Assuming you are wanting to film areas further afield than your own backyard, what will it take to pack up and reassemble each time you fly? Also it is recommended to carry your drone on as carry-on luggage if you are catching a flight, so if you are travelling with your drone, consider this aspect also.
- Control mechanism – Do you have a dedicated controller or is it within your existing mobile device (phone or tablet) or is their both options available.? A dedicated controller will give you more ‘control’ and also an increased range than relying on your existing mobile device
- Flight time – Drones suck up a lot of power and last about 20 minutes of flight time on average. You may want to consider a spare battery or two as part of your purchase. So just another cost to consider.
- What’s in the box – Understand what comes in the box and what is an add on (with additional cost). With drones in particular it is difficult to get an apples with apples comparison, so breakout what the advertised price actually gets you. Also try and get a few spare parts (particularly rotor blades) included so you can get back in the air quickly should you have a minor crash.
- Online Support Community – What online support is available? Not just from the manufacturer but from drone experts and forums. The more obscure brands may have less support material available.
2. Get Acquainted with Your Drone
If you’re like me you’re probably wanting to wrench the drone out of the box, cast all manuals aside and get into the air as soon as possible. I can’t stress enough how important it is to get acquainted with your drone and know the fundamentals before taking your first flight.
No matter how entry-level your drone is it is still a specialised piece of machinery and there is a methodical setup process which will help you become familiar with all the awesome features these machines have and how to adjust them to get the most out of the product.
So, if you do give or receive a drone this Christmas keep it in the box until the Christmas cheer dies down and spend time (however frustrating!) to learn the ropes before launching into space.
3. Tips for The Maiden Voyage
So, you’ve read all the manuals and watched the manufacturers and experts videos, you’ve connected your controlling device to your drone and you’ve got your bird all powered up for its first flight. If your heart is pounding a little, let me assure you the fear of failure and a crash landing is natural!
- Charge all the gear and extra batteries so you are not rushed by dwindling battery life
- Don’t fly indoors first time round, some people suggest this, but it’s a bad idea, trust me!
- Choose an open grassed field in clear weather with little to no breeze. Worst that can happen is it falls on a soft patch of grass.
- Take a mat to use as a launchpad. This stops both dirt getting blown into the electronics and prevents grass getting caught in the rotor blades
4. Perfect your Drone Footage
Once you’ve mastered the controls (which may actually take you a few flights to do without error) you will start to begin attempts at getting some usable footage, I mean that’s what you wanted all along right?
Practice does make perfect and mastering the controls is paramount to getting smooth footage. A rule of thumb is slow infrequent movements. A drone is very manoeuvrable although the footage will appear super jerky and unusable if you are changing direction and zooming all over the place. Practice switching between video and camera and adjusting light settings on the fly.
The best thing about a drone is of course the perspective you can get from overhead shots, over water or cliffs and action shots of certain activities like mountain biking. Get used to looking at the footage through the controller rather than where the drone is in the sky, it will take some time though before you take your eyes off your prized possession.
Lastly, a lot of drones will allow you to access the footage and edit directly on your device immediately after shooting. This is great as a preview although the highest quality footage is on the actual memory card in the drone. So when you are looking to edit, export the footage direct from the SD card for the best quality footage.
5. Drone Do’s and Don’t’s
- Do make sure you check the area you fly in is away from invading people’s privacy, drones naturally attract attention! People don’t like being spied on even if it’s unintentional.
- Don’t hand the controls to someone unless you have given them a good practice run first. After all your painstaking efforts to protect your drone a joy flight by a mate could end in tears!
- Do check aviation rules for the area you fly. While laws are still playing catch-up, consider your drone an aircraft and don’t fly near restricted air space, particularly if you are travelling in unfamiliar territory you may not know a military base is over the next hill.
- Don’t rush to get your drone in the air to capture a fleeting moment. Having a flight plan of sorts to check off is a good idea so you can make sure the drone is fully armed to protect itself and return safely.
- Do share your drone experience in the comments field below so others can learn from your mistakes, sorry expertise!
For the record, I was tossing up between the GoPro Karma Drone and the DJI Spark. Likely a common final pairing many will arrive at. I went with the DJI Spark based on the portability aspects (it’s tiny!) the slightly lower price and the all-in-one unit. It also has some bigger brothers in the DJI Mavic and DJI Phantom should you outgrow your Spark Drone at some point. The GoPro Karma drone is a good option if you don’t mind the larger size and you are happy to pay for the stand-alone GoPro and gimble that goes with it (compatible with the GoPro Hero Black 5 & 6).
Here is some footage I’m happy with captured over the rice paddies of Bali with the DJI Spark.