Colin Smith’s 10 Drone Photography Tips to Take Your Imagery to New Heights

Sunset Panorama
What you’re looking at is Balboa Peninsula, California. “I’m actually standing on Corona Del Mar, on the opposite shore. The drone is flying maybe 200 feet in front of me and 100 to 150 feet up. This is a two-stage panorama, two images deep by five wide, bracketed for HDR to five exposures in 0.7 EV increments. I bracketed because I had the sun in the shot, and I used HDR to capture the subtle range of tones in the sunset. One key element for me was capturing the reflection of the palm trees right off the edge of the coastline, so that required that I fly the drone at a certain height. Shooting at this time of day gives you a really nice color palette.” Technical info: DJI Phantom 4; ISO 100, f/2.8, 1/290 second.
Photos © Colin Smith

Colin Smith may be known to many readers for his instructional videos and workshops, with a focus not only on Photoshop but also Lightroom. Aside from still photography, he also shoots video. But he had never pursued drone photography until about four years ago.

One day, Adobe Creative Director Russell Brown approached him about conducting the video side of a drone photography workshop—the first one ever given. Brown would be covering the still side. Not one to let a challenge slip by so easily, Smith picked up the gauntlet, investing in a drone and action camera—the original DJI Phantom and a GoPro—and went from newbie to drone master in a matter of months. (He switched to DJI cameras when they were introduced in later-generation drones.)

Early Morning Fog with Boats
The beauty of this shot speaks for itself. You just have to let yourself sit there and take it in. This was shot at sunrise at Balboa Island, Newport Beach. A DJI Phantom 2 Vision+ was used. “I was shooting the sunrise in the harbor, and suddenly the fog rolled in. I couldn’t have asked for a more fortuitous weather event. That made the shot, creating this amazing atmosphere!”

Popularly known as drones, quadcopters, or UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), these flying eggbeaters have literally elevated the art of both video and still photography. But all too often what we see captured from on high are just mundane images.

Pelican in Flight
This is one of Colin Smith’s earliest drone shots. It’s a still frame from video. “We had a seven- or eight-minute flight time in those days. I was out shooting surf and bringing the quadcopter back in when I saw the pelican. I was flying the Phantom 1 with a GoPro on a two-axis gimbal. They hadn’t invented a three-axis gimbal yet. There was no FPV (First-Person View) so I couldn’t see what the camera was shooting. We had jerry-rigged a potentiometer to the drone so you could tilt the gimbal up and down. So all I did was point the camera straight down, held my breath and hoped for the best, and the pelican simply swooped into the picture directly underneath. I knew I had the shot right away.”

Smith’s eye for composition and design has given him a unique perspective, raising the use of drones in photography to new heights. To spice things up even further, he adds HDR (High Dynamic Range) imaging and panoramic stitching to the mix as further evidence of that vision.

“You need special permission to shoot racing events. On this shot I’m using my DJI Inspire 1 Pro with the equivalent of a 90mm lens, which is in contrast to the wide angles I usually work with for my landscapes. I’m working with the track photographers who have greater access and standing with the safety crew somewhere in the middle oval—a safe area. You’ve got to be really careful. You can’t chase them around the track. You’re basically set up in one position. Shooting motocross is a little more difficult than drag racing, which I also shoot, because the bikes can be running at different speeds, different angles, and they’re much more difficult to frame. They’re more random. Whenever I shoot a race, I always get a ton of e-mails from the drivers afterwards asking for pictures. They love it! There’s a misconception that people involved in sports activities can’t stand drones. Just the opposite. Whether they’re surfers, wind surfers, or what have you, they just love drones. Because they get to see views of themselves they wouldn’t ordinarily see unless they were at a big-budget televised event.”

We recently interviewed Smith about his experience with capturing aerial images with drones and he provided the following 10 tips to help you get started.

1. Don’t Be Cheap
When purchasing a quadcopter, don’t cheap out. Remember, you get what you pay for. The things to look for are the quality of the camera the drone can carry, stability, and reliability. Smith works exclusively with DJI drones. Citing the professional quality of images captured, he restricts himself these days to the cameras that come with the drones, instead of rigging heavy DSLRs for flight. Another advantage to working with these drones is that they don’t exceed the FAA weight limit, which means you won’t need to worry about getting a pilot’s license.

2. Consider Transport Options
When bringing your drone on a plane, carry the drone batteries separately with you in personal luggage in the event the drone case won’t fit in the overhead and it has to be stowed elsewhere on the plane. By the way, Smith never takes more than one drone when he flies, but may take several when driving to a destination.

3. Know the Rules
Keep in mind that the “line of sight” regulation for drones means that you have to be able to see it with the naked eye, not with binoculars or a long zoom.

4. Bracket Exposures
“I bracket everything when I shoot now,” Smith notes. “I don’t necessarily develop the series of images as an HDR, but in case I need them, the added exposures are there.”

5. Experiment with Altitude
The altitude your drone is at will make a huge difference in your composition, along with noting the relative foreground and background in the shot. “In drone photography, there’s no excuse for having conflicting lines and a cluttered foreground and background because you have complete control over it.”

6. Look for Reflections
“With drones, you can control reflections in a way that you couldn’t do before,” Smith notes.

Jump Shot
“I’ve photographed basketball with a regular camera in the past but I’d always wanted to shoot it from a unique vantage point, something different from the every day—from above. Now I could do that with a drone, taking it to the next level. I approached this one person who was shooting hoops and asked if he wouldn’t mind if I photographed him from the air with my quadcopter. He agreed. I was really fortunate that he was a good basketball player. This was one of my earlier shots, so it was originally captured as video with a GoPro.”

7. Use Good Light
Just as you would in your everyday landscape photography, always look for beautifully lit scenes when shooting with a drone. “I’m usually out about 30 minutes before sunrise, at twilight,” Smith explains, “and then also maybe an hour after sunrise. Around sunset, I don’t start shooting before 45 minutes prior to the sun going down. Before that, there’s no color; it’s not very interesting. If I’m shooting auto racing or things like that, that’s obviously different—you can’t control when to shoot.”

Tiny Planet
Every once in a while, you have to indulge yourself and just have fun with it, as Smith did with this composite. “The quadcopter seen here is a prototype of the Phantom 2 Vision. It was the first-ever drone from this company with an attached camera. Basically, I’m standing on Laguna Beach, shooting what would later become a stitched panorama. Then I brought the drone closer and shot that with my Canon 5D Mark III. I set up the gear on a tripod and then flew the copter into the frame. And then just composited it into the shot. That’s me standing on the beach toward the top of the frame.” Tiny Planet is a stereographic 360-degree panoramic projection. (You can find a tutorial on this topic on Smith’s website,

8. Change Memory Cards
“I always change the card between every single shoot,” Smith explains. “And when I change the battery, I change the card. So in case something does happen, I’m not going to lose my whole day’s shooting.”

9. Safety First and Last
Watch for high winds and gusts, especially at the heights the drone will be flying. “If there’s any doubt about weather conditions, just don’t fly.”

10. Have Fun
Drone photography can be a challenge and there will, no doubt, be a few quadcopter crashes if you’re just getting started but it’s all part of the experience. Live, learn, and enjoy.

Colin Smith operates out of Irvine, California. To see more of his work, view his tutorials, and learn about his workshops, books, and DVDs, visit, or see his work on Instagram: @photoshopcafe.

Colin Smith’s Favorite Gear
“I love the quality of the images and the small footprint of the DJI Phantom 4 Pro+. It’s a drone that I can take anywhere and get really high-quality 20MP images and 4K video, thanks to the one-inch sensor and mechanical shutter with adjustable aperture. The Plus version has a very bright and sharp screen attached to the controller and makes setup fast and easy.”

What’s in Colin Smith’s Gear Bag
• GPC cases
• DJI Phantom 4 Pro+
• DJI Inspire 1 Pro
• DJI Mavic Pro
• Apple iPad Air 2
• X-Rite ColorChecker Video
• Lexar microSD cards
• Freewell ND and polarizing filters
• Extra batteries