Photographing Water from Your Drone Above

As a career-long photographer, it has occurred to me countless times that water is an exceptionally attractive subject to capture with a camera. Water photographs are wildly popular with any audience. Even prior to the invention of the camera, water was painted into the vast majority of landscapes by the artist. A simple shoreline scene often represents the drama of contrasting elements; solid versus liquid, static versus motion and sometimes man versus nature.

Why is water so compelling that it rocks our boat, so to speak? Because water is capable of many moods and is able to reflect our own human personalities. Water can become ice or fog, steam, or snow, placid or violent. Without becoming overly philosophical about the subject, it is worth exploring because we are seeing innumerable images of water captured uniquely by small drones ever since DJI began to build cameras into their consumer level drones four years ago.

Flying a personal drone over water conjures up excitement and exhilaration. There is a feeling of risk-taking, or perceived danger, as if the drone may forever vanish into the murky depths, or fly off the edge of the earth. However, those who fly drones frequently over water soon realize that it is generally more simple and safe than flying over terra firma!

There is a new thirst for tips about how to improve above-water photographs using a drone. When the original DJI Phantom (1) was released, Stacy and I attached an inexpensive sports camera and began to fly from our kayaks in the ocean. Mind you, the technology was nothing near what we are using today and we had our share unnerving experiences. Regardless, we flew over the water more than over land because of the allure. We have a list of “how-to’s” to help you create better water images.

How to Improve Your Over-Water Drone Photos

The angle of reflection equals the angle of incidence.

#1 – Understand the old photographers’ rule which says, “The angle of reflection equals the angle of incidence”. Said more simply, any reflection in the water will bounce back up at the same angle with which it is projected. Here is an example: If the sun is directly to your left at a 45-degree angle off the water, then it will reflect its light up to your right. In order to work around nasty sun reflections in the water, you must understand where not to place your drone. If the sun is at 90 degrees (high noon), then you must aim your drone camera using a lower angle to avoid the reflection. Now imagine if you want to capture the reflection of a pine tree on the other side of a small lake; that tree will cast its reflection at a lower angle (maybe 20 degrees) and thus you must lower your drone and aim the camera at 20 degrees to find the reflection.

#2 – Rough water will ruin a clean reflection, kill the water clarity, suck out any color, and have less appeal to the viewer. Shoot earlier in the day for clean water. In the photo below, water looks and acts like a mirror. This gives us plenty to shoot, especially reflections at low angles until the wind comes up. Once the water gets choppy, half the photo is gone. Poof! It is like trying to capture a pretty sky when there are no clouds.

Shoot early in the day, before the wind comes up. Rough water can kill an image by sucking away the color and reflections.

#3 – Control water movement using your shutter speed. If you want to demonstrate to your viewer that the water has beautiful motion, then drag that shutter speed a bit to create some motion blur. For example, to create the stereotypical cotton-candy waterfall set your shutter speed at between 1/10th and 1 full second. (This may require a neutral density filter to darken the overall scene.) Opening the shutter longer will blur the falling water and get rid of it’s distracting chunkiness. Fortunately, the newer drones are stable enough to act as a tripod and hold the drone motionless to avoid camera blur. Alternatively, if you are shooting a surfer on the face of a large breaking wave, you may opt to freeze the water like ice. To do this will require a shutter speed of 1/250 or faster.

A DJI Phantom drone follows a big-wave surfer down the line for a perfect point of view.

#4 – Expose for the subject. So often we see a drone photo of an overexposed boat (blown-out highlights) on well-exposed water. This occurs because water typically looks very dark from above and the camera automatically lightens the overall scene. If the boat is your subject, then you must set your camera exposure for the boat and ignore the water. To accomplish this, you need to override your camera’s electronic brain by either, A) using the exposure compensation wheel, or B) shooting in manual mode and intentionally underexposing the entire scene. 

The opposite action is necessary to expose for a subject below the surface. The photographer must intentionally override the camera to overexpose the entire scene revealing what is in the darkness of the water, as demonstrated by the whale image below.

Expose for the subject. Light values change drastically depending on whether your subject is on the surface of the water, or underneath.

#5 – Clarify the water. If you are shooting semi-clear water like a coastline of a tropical Pacific island, or a mountain trout-fishing stream, then you can enhance the clarity in post-processing. Adobe Lightroom actually has an adjustment slider called “clarity” that works magic on the water. Try “painting” clarity onto rocks and coral under the water’s surface using Lightroom’s adjustment brush – the water will look drinkable all of a sudden!

#6 – Adjust the watercolor. If the water in your photograph is an unappealing hue, again try using your post-processing tools to alter the color. We humans tend to be drawn to a bluish-greenish hue in water. If blue doesn’t work in your favorite Texas cow pond photo, then try desaturating the awkward color mixture of algae and mud.

Photographing water from a drone can reveal what has always been there, but is rarely seen
Photographing water from a drone can reveal what has always been there, but is rarely seen

#7 – Show a shadow on the bottom. If you are fortunate enough to make drone photos of places like Lake Tahoe, or the Caribbean, you have crystal clear water to work with. Take advantage of this by showing the shadow of a boat, swimmer, or other subjects on the bottom of that body of water. In fact, enhance the shadow to drive in the illusion of perfect water clarity. Why not?

Whenever possible, take advantage of shadows under the vessel. The shadow makes the water more alluring.
Whenever possible, take advantage of shadows under the vessel. The shadow makes the water more alluring.

Flying over water is safe and as simple as flying over land. Flying from a boat adds a considerable degree of difficulty. We wrote a separate blog for that!

Drones have given us a new perspective of the water around us. And for the first time, this perspective is accessible to all of us in a compact, affordable, easy to fly package. Take advantage and explore your world using a small drone – your imagination and creativity will be ignited like never before.

Authors Randy Jay Braun and Stacy Garlington are co-founders of the DJI Aerial Photo Academy, providing live city-to-city workshops helping attendees to create better aerial drone photographs for work or for play. A current workshop schedule can be found at www.djiphotoacademy.com and on their facebook page.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, face-to-face classes are currently very limited to small groups. They hope to resume full-sized classes in Q2 of 2021.

A book about Aerial Drone Photography? Yep. These two have energy! Randy and Stacy have just laid down the outline. There will be a nicely discounted price for every person on the MailChimp list. Chaaa-ching $$$$$. 

Until then, HECK YEAH, Randy & Stacy are teaching the same course (and more) to you as you sit in your LazyBoy chair at home. This is a bargain because you get a full six hours of bite-sized lessons that you can digest whenever you want. Take a look at our online Premium Masterclass.

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