The professional pilots at Toledo Aerial Media, who have been shooting that Ohio city’s fireworks program for several years, understand that taking high-quality images from a drone begins with solid photography skills on solid ground.
“People think that the photos and video you capture from a drone are somehow different, but it’s still photography and videography,” Aldrich says. “It’s unrealistic to think you’ll be successful in the air if you can’t shoot on the ground.”
For Toledo Aerial Media, a fireworks shoot begins with careful planning. The company begins by scouting locations before the Fourth, searching for interesting new angles on Toledo’s fireworks display, which changes its location somewhat from year to year. The company gets its FAA waivers for night flight and informs city officials where it’s planning to shoot far in advance.
Unlike amateurs who are often anxious to get as close to the mortars as possible, the TAM team takes the opposite approach. Aldrich’s partner Phil Myers explains that in many of their most compelling images the fireworks are just one element of a composition that includes downtown skyscrapers and the city’s Maumee River.
They captured an epic cityscape from the other side of the Martin Luther King bridge, above a section of the water where there are no spectator boats below. “We’re often thousands of feet from the action,” Myers explains.
Once Aldrich and Myers select a spot, they don’t so much fly the drone as position it. Whether for still or video, they tend to keep the drone in one place, kind of like a tripod that’s 300 feet in the air moving the camera up and down slightly to change the angle, but staying well within the FAA’s 400-foot altitude restriction.
While the cameras on consumer-grade drones offer surprisingly good image quality during daylight, Myers explains the weakness of entry-level models is their performance in low-light situations. This weekend they’ll be shooting the Sony A7S2 a or the Panasonic Lumix GH5, although for their commercial work they sometimes fly a $90,000 RED video camera.
Higher quality drones—like the DJI Inspire 2 or Matrice 600 Pro that TAM plans to use this weekend—are also more stable than most drones meant for amateurs, which is the other major key to great fireworks shots. These models feature tripod-like steadiness that allows for razor sharp still images even while using the super-slow shutter speeds of between one and three seconds that fireworks require. But if it’s a blustery July 4th, with winds swirling at 20 mph, Myers admits that even the best drones can’t stay steady in those circumstances.
So despite all that preparation, Myers and Aldrich admit that at nightfall on the Fourth of July, there’s still a strong element of chance as they try to time hitting the shutter buttons on the remotes, hoping to sync with a slow-developing chrysanthemum shell as it blooms across the sky.
“It comes down to a little bit of luck,” says Myers. “You might take a couple hundred images and get 10 that are worthwhile.”