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What I Learned About Drone Photography at the DJI Aerial Photo Academy

August 18, 2017

Let’s get this over with: I’m not a very skilled photographer. I enjoy taking photos from both the air and the ground, but I’m able to admit I’m not remarkably talented. So when Stacy Garlington, photographer and former product experience specialist at DJI, extended an invitation for a member of Drone360 to attend the DJI Aerial Photo Academy, it seemed like a perfect opportunity.

I personally attended the class in Madison, Wisconsin, but the Academy travels across the country — you can check out the upcoming cities and dates here. Garlington and Randy Jay Braun, a professional photographer of 33 years and former director of product experience at DJI, teach the course. They’re both well versed in the worlds of drones and photography, and understand how both fields work together.

But beyond their knowledge and experience, both Garlington and Braun are fun, high-energy educators who are eager to share their wisdom. Here’s a rundown of some of my major takeaways from the class — without spoiling too much of the syllabus.

1. Drone Photography Is Just That

This class doesn’t just focus on drones, nor does it just focus on photography. I think Garlington and Braun strike a good balance in the curriculum here, with the first half of the class focusing on the history, capability, and importance of drone technology and the second half focusing on all things photography.

For me, the first half of the class was pretty familiar territory. The second half, however, was a rapid-fire note taking session for me. This portion of the class focused on foundational photography and Adobe Lightroom editing skills. What is the difference between sensor sizes? What’s the best way to utilize a histogram? Why is cropping your photo so important?

But really, the takeaway here is that you can know everything about drones, but you need the photographic knowledge as well. You can be the best photographer on the ground, but you still need to know how to operate your drone and use its 3-dimensional capabilities to the fullest.

The top shot here is clearly overexposed — I didn’t know how to use a histogram properly when I took this photo. But an artful crop of the upper-right corner in Lightroom helped hide the problem, and adding some light rays from that corner made it seem slightly more intentional. I was also able to remove the dock using my rudimentary skills with the clone tool.

2. Adobe Lightroom is Amazing

I had a revelation at the DJI Photo Academy. Most of the stellar photos I see online are edited, some of them pretty dramatically. When I saw the real potential of Adobe Lightroom, I was legitimately baffled.

I watched in awe as Braun stretched mountains, changed skies from day to dusk, and dehazed skylines. Honestly, I was a little upset — how had I gone so long not knowing there was this amazingly powerful editing software available?

But I got over myself pretty quickly and tried to absorb it all: how to make panoramas, smooth out choppy water, clarify cloudy water, create artistic light beams, remove undesirable elements, and even distort skylines into tiny planets. I haven’t had the opportunity to try all of these skills, but they’re all outlined in detail in the Photo Academy workbook.

Yeah, it’s a sunset shot. I get it. I didn’t even shoot it in RAW, which shows my rookie status pretty severely. But the skills I learned allowed me to straighten the horizon line, change the hue of the sunset, and even paint in some orange onto the water’s reflection to emphasize the sunset.

3. But Lightroom Won’t Save You

As much as all of those things I just mentioned are true, Lightroom is not a way to turn a bad photo into a great one. You need a strong foundation to build on, and that means having an eye for how to frame and capture your photos.

One of the most important takeaways from Garlington was to use natural framing on your photos. For me, this was a new concept. As a drone operator, my instinct is to stay away from obstacles, not have them in the shot. But I looked back on some photos I had taken with the DJI Spark at a local cemetery and realized that natural framing really does add something to a photo.

But there are a lot of other framing elements that I had not previously considered. Braun urged that you don’t need to fly high to capture a good photo — and in many cases, you really shouldn’t fly so high. To make a building, tree, or other subject look taller, it should extend above the horizon line. This necessitates a specific altitude and camera angle, but results in a much better shot.

Before attending the DJI Photo Academy, I preferred the top photo. After learning about the benefits of natural framing, I realized that the bottom photo (which wasn’t an intentional shot) was actually pretty good, too. Looking back on it, I would have loved to capture the second shot from a higher vantage.

Really, this overview barely scratches the surface of all the knowledge in the course. If you’re a veteran drone photographer, a lot of the class may be review for you. But if you’re in any way new to the worlds of drones or photography, there’s a lot to learn at the DJI Aerial Photo Academy. And it’s never bad to be in a room full of others who share your interests and passions, either.

Want more drone photography tips? Here are 5 tips to help you execute an epic drone shot — and keep an eye out for the September/October issue of Drone360, featuring over 200 valuable pieces of drone-related advice.

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