Drone photography has taken a backseat for many over the past two years. But as the world opens up once again, pilots are back in the field and capturing even more impressive stills and videos than ever before.
During this time, manufacturers like DJI and Autel have been working hard to create some of the best drones we've seen so far. Camera technology has improved massively with the latest generation of drones, and the combination of this and our newfound ability to travel again is the perfect recipe for aerial photographers and videographers.
To celebrate a flood of awe-inspiring being shared on social media, we’ve compiled a collection of the best images uploaded to the SkyPixel Awards so far this year. From the lava flows of Iceland to the atmospheric landscapes of Scotland and the futuristic cities of China and beyond, these shots help give us a unique bird's eye view of some famous (and not so famous) locations.
Alongside each photo, we've described why it's a successful shot and given our thoughts on how it was achieved technically. And if the photos have left you inspired, we've also included some tips on how to improve your drone photography at the end of the gallery (which you can jump to using the menu on the left).
The best drone photos of 2022 (so far)
'Orchid' by Zhu Jianxin
- Taken on DJI Mavic 2 Pro in Xinjiang, China. f/6 at 1/240s, ISO 100
One of the most impressive aspects of drone photography is its ability to show us how the world looks from a bird’s eye view. And topdown shots – those where the camera is pointing straight down at the ground – can reveal the otherwise unseen beauty of the natural and man-made worlds. This stunning abstract image of the Taklimakan Desert in Xinjiang, China was the winning image in the SkyPixel 7th Anniversary Aerial Photo & Video Contest.
The photographer Zhu Jianxin said it, "looked like a fresh and elegant orchid" and we have to agree that the image has a much more floral quality than the location would suggest. Skypixel judge Stefan Foster added, “the real art in photography is to capture a photograph people have to analyse longer than a few seconds to see what the picture really shows”.
'Qianchun Interchange' by Chrix Chan
- Taken on DJI Mavic Pro in Qianchun, China. f/2.3 at ISO 100
This fantastic image of the Qianchun Interchange is proof that older drone models still have what it takes when it comes to image quality. Taken with the original Mavic Pro, photographer Chrix Chan was able to take advantage of the drone’s ability to rotate the camera 90 degrees to shoot in portrait format – a rare feature that’s only available with three drone models (including the new DJI Mini 3 Pro).
This image is all about the interchange in the foreground, but the mountains and illuminated bridges in the background add a further sense of depth to the scene. And despite shooting at dusk, the shutter speed required for a correct exposure wasn’t so long that camera shake was captured and this has resulted in a perfectly sharp, eye-catching low light cityscape image.
'A game of shadow basketball' by Yifan Zhang
- Taken on DJI Mavic Mini in the United States. f/3 at 1/400s, ISO 100
This perfectly-framed shot of a basketball court from above is a great example of how light can transform top-down shots just as effectively as when shooting with the camera facing forwards. Shot late in the day as the sun was dropping in the sky to create long shadows of the players on the court, the human element in the scene adds visual interest and shows the interaction between the players.
The colour palette of the scene also works perfectly; the basketball court is made up of blue and yellow, which are complementary colours on the colour wheel. While the surrounding grey area frames the court and helps to make the colours stand out. It’s an incredibly simple image, yet highly effective on a creative level.
'Early morning at The City God Pavilion' by Xi Xiaoyuan
- Taken on DJI Mavic 3 Pro in Hangzhou, China. f/5.3 at 1/240s, ISO 100
A stunning location for any type of photography, this aerial shot of The City God Pavilion in Hangzhou in China offers the perfect juxtaposition between the old and the new. Captured soon after sunrise, photographer Xi Xiaoyuan either cropped a landscape image to portrait format or shot a vertical panorama with his DJI Mavic 3, stitching the resulting frames together in post.
While the image would work well without the birds in the sky, capturing them as they flew over the pavilion adds interest to a warm yet featureless sky, while also helping to add a sense of altitude to the scene. This enchanting image was one of the recipients of the People’s Choice Prize in the SkyPixel 7th Anniversary Aerial Photo & Video Contest.
'Constant practice is the best starting point' by Max Tseng
- Taken on DJI Mavic 3 Pro in Taipei, Taiwan
Strong lines within a scene can make it difficult to capture perfectly composed topdown images because even a few degrees off, and the whole image is thrown out of balance. But this certainly isn’t the case with this intriguing image that forces the viewer to consider whether what they’re seeing is real or child’s play.
Photographer Max Tseng uploaded this top-down image of a driving instructor training ground in Taiwan to the SkyPixel Sport Category. And the beauty of this shot is that it takes a scene from the real world and presents it in such a way that it looks like a child’s road play mat with just a few subtle clues that it’s a real scene.
'Chinese Animation Museum in the Clouds' by Tension Vision
- Taken on DJI Mavic 3 Pro in Zhejiang, China. f/3 at 1/600s, ISO 100
With a Mavic 3 Limited Award in the SkyPixel 7th Anniversary Aerial Photo & Video Contest under its belt, this image by the pseudonymous photographer Tension Vision shows the Chinese Animation Museum emerging from the mist and its futuristic surroundings. The image was most likely taken as a vertical panorama and stitched together in Photoshop, but could have been cropped from landscape to focus more attention on the striking white building.
Either way, the result is a captivating architecture image. To capture this type of shot in these conditions you would normally have to trek into the hills or mountains to get above the mist, but thanks to drones it’s possible to get above mist and fog in any location. And the results can be spectacular.
'Scream' by Nikita Dukhnik
- Taken on DJI Mavic Pro in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia. f/2.3 at 1/1000s, ISO 100
Russian photographer Nikita Dukhnik asks on his Instagram account whether a face like this is intended to warn us of something? It’s an impossible question to answer, but what we do know is that Nikita has captured a stunning natural occurrence and earned himself a well-deserved award in the SkyPixel 7th Anniversary Aerial Photo & Video Contest.
Without the screaming face, that looks happier than the image title suggests, the scene wouldn’t be that remarkable. But thanks to the white face, which is presumably ice contrasting against the blue water that in turn contrasts with the golden grass surrounding it, Nikita has captured a once-in-a-lifetime image to be proud of.
'A moment to never forget, waking up in Switzerland' by Marleen Kuijpers
- Taken on DJI Mavic 2 Pro in Grindelwald, Switzerland
The First Cliff Walk in Grindelwald, Switzerland offers breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains and valleys at the best of times. But on this particular morning, photographer Marleen Kuijpers truly hit the jackpot while flying her DJI Mavic 2 Pro. With balanced light, Marleen was able to capture detail throughout the incredible scene, which is a far cry from how things looked the day she arrived.
Marleen said, “the day I arrived the weather was moody and I couldn't see any mountains, but the next morning was a moment never to forget. I woke up before sunrise and walked to the First Cliff Walk in Grindelwald, and while I was flying (my drone) I saw this amazing composition”. This goes to show that luck and motivation can be required in equal measure to capture the best images.
'I think it’s around here' by Fabian Ortiz
- Taken on DJI Mavic Air in Lanzarote, Spain. f/3 at 1/120s, ISO 200
Packed with humour and executed to perfection, ‘I think it’s around here’ by Spanish photographer Fabian Ortiz is a great example of how the high viewpoint offered by drones is a brilliant creative opportunity. Attention to detail is key with the models’ clothes contrasting brightly against the brown earth. Not to mention, the playful use of the natural features of the land turns the world as we know it on its head.
Thanks to its creativity, Fabian’s image caught the attention of the judges in the SkyPixel 7th Anniversary Aerial Photo & Video Contest and was a nominated entry. Although it didn’t quite manage to pick up an award, it’s a fantastic image that Fabian can be proud of nonetheless.
'The Old Man of Storr' by Tommy Morrison
- Taken on DJI Mavic 2 Pro in Isle of Skye, Scotland
The popular Old Man of Storr on the Isle of Skye in Scotland needs little introduction, being one of the most popular locations on the island. UK-based photographer Tommy Morrison has taken advantage of the typically moody weather conditions to capture a unique view of the world-famous rock formation with his DJI Mavic 2 Pro.
Judging by the ratio of the image, it looks like Tommy has captured a vertical pano and stitched the exposures together in Photoshop to create this atmospheric portrait format image. And while the altitude the image is taken from is much higher than anywhere you can stand to shoot from, the result doesn’t scream out that it’s a drone shot, which can work well to draw the viewer in.
'Volcano Sunset' by Daniel Haussmann
- Taken on DJI Mavic 2 Pro in Fagradalsdjall, Iceland. f/3 at 1/120s, ISO 100
Getting close to flowing lava may not be everyone’s cup of tea, whether on foot or with your drone. But capturing the Fagradalsdjall eruption in Iceland from the air is exactly what German Photographer Daniel Haussmann has done, and the result is well worth the effort (and potential risk to his drone). This portrait format image was most likely produced by shooting a vertical pano, although it could have been a landscape image cropped to portrait.
Shot at sunset, the image ignores the rule-of-thirds compositional device and focuses more attention on the bright lava flows that contrast beautifully against the black lava crust. The narrow, moody and colourful sunset sky at the top of the frame allows the scene to breathe visually, while the viewers’ eye dances between the orange sunset colour and the orange lava flows.
'Keep the clouds open to see the moon' by bbarry.97
- Taken on DJI Mavic Pro in Shanghai, China. f/2.3 at ISO 100
Shanghai is one of the most impressive looking cities in the world, and it’s the skyline created in the Pudong district that has become famous the world over. Pseudonymous Chinese photographer 'bbarry.97' took their Mavic Pro above the skyscrapers and clouds to capture this atmospheric low light cityscape.
Shooting with the original Mavic Pro meant they were able to rotate the camera to portrait format to capture this post-sunset image as the artificial lighting has begun to be turned on. Although this is more luck than anything else, the color of the sky matches the colour of the Oriental Pearl TV Tower almost perfectly to create a link between the front and back parts of the scene.
How to take great drone photos
If you’ve been suitably inspired by our selection of some of the best drone images of 2022 so far and fancy capturing your own awe-inspiring shots, you’re in the right place. Here are five tips to help you to take great drone photos of your own.
1. Research and plan your shots
You can turn up to any location where it’s safe and legal to fly, get your drone in the air and begin shooting. But if you’d like to take a more considered approach to location planning, you can use apps including Google Maps, PhotoPills, UAV Forecast and AirMap to plan every aspect of your shoots to perfection.
2. Turn on exposure and composition guides
With a drone in the air and the need to shoot and fly at the same time, anything that can speed up exposure and composition is extremely useful. To aid with both, within the drone camera menu, turn on the compositional guides and the histogram and you’ll quickly discover how effective their presence can be.
3. Capture images in raw
Always shoot in the raw file format to enjoy the best image quality possible from your drone. Raw files provide the greatest amount of latitude for adjusting settings without reducing image quality. So even if settings like Exposure and white balance are incorrect, it’s much easier and more effective to adjust them with raw files.
4. Embrace exposure bracketing and HDR
One of the problems with drones is that you can’t get ND grad filters to balance the exposure of a bright sky against the darker ground. The easiest way to capture detail throughout a high contrast scene is to use auto exposure bracketing (AEB) to capture bracketed exposures that can be HDR processed in Adobe Lightroom.
5. Shoot in portrait with vertical panos
The only drones available that allow you to shoot natively in portrait format are the original DJI Mavic Pro, the DJI Mavic Mini 3 Pro and the Autel Evo Lite. So, unless you have one of these drones, the only way to capture portrait format images is to shoot vertical panos made up of 3-4 shots that are merged in Photoshop.
- Need more guidance on these tips? Check out our guide on how to improve your drone photography
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James Abbott is a professional photographer and freelance photography journalist. He contributes articles about photography, cameras and drones to a wide range of magazines and websites where he applies a wealth of experience to testing the latest photographic tech. James is also the author of ‘The Digital Darkroom: The Definitive Guide to Photo Editing’.