Aerial Ingredients: Lighting

This is the first entry in a series of posts we're calling "Aerial Ingredients."  In this series we'll be sharing some lessons we've learned while filming low-altitude aerials. 

There is definitely some overlap between what makes a good shot on the ground and in the air.  Many of the guidelines for good ground based video can be carried over to aerial cinematography, such as good composition.  We're going to take a look at some of the similarities and some of the additional ingredients for a good aerial video shot.  Our first topic is lighting.

Screen grab from Dewees Island video footage.

Good lighting: Lighting plays a very important role in aerial cinematography.  Sunrise and sunset is generally a great time to capture beautiful footage.  When scheduling a shoot, it’s important to schedule shots that will benefit from these time periods, and schedule the rest of the shots for the remainder of the day.  Typically you want to shoot on a sunny day.  Waiting on clouds to move can slow the process down.  There are some limitations to shooting in a dark environment as it is harder for people to judge depth in the dark. 

Below is a video with some highlights of a shoot on Dewees Island near Charleston, SC. We shot a lot of footage on this short trip, but the best shots took place the evening we arrived, the following morning and that evening.  The light was great during those 3 chunks of time.  Compare the bird footage from the opening shot, to the bird footage that appears later in the video. 


Summer on Dewees: Aerial Highlights from Yonder Blue Films on Vimeo.

Shooting every shot during "golden hour" isn't realistic, but with good shot planning, you can maximize your time.  The dock jumping shots took place midday, and that was a time that made sense for those shots, so we scheduled them accordingly.  You don't have to schedule every shot down to the last minute, but be conscious of putting yourself in the right place at the right time. 

When time allows, a scouting session can be very beneficial.  Apps like Sun Seeker will help you determine where the sun will be at certain times of day.  That way you'll know if a particular shot or subject is best for sunrise or sunset. Here's a demo from the developer:


Another great asset on any shoot is local knowledge.  For the Dewees shoot, Judy Fairchild made scheduling easy.  She's a longtime resident of Dewees Island, and is the owner of Dewees Real Estate.  Her extensive knowledge of the island and network of island residents made this shoot a lot of fun.  If you're not familiar with an area, it's great to have someone there who knows it backwards and forwards - especially someone as nice as Judy and her family. 

We hope this post was helpful.  If you liked it or know someone that would, please share it like crazy!  If we get enough interest, we'll continue to share more posts like this - we've got a long list ready to go.  Thanks for reading.

Note: There's a post on MultiRotorForums for this article.  It can be found here.



Yonder Blue Films is a production company based near Atlanta, and we’ve had many people contact us about our low-altitude aerial video shot with our Cinestar 8 multirotor copter.  So we’ve decided to share a review.  Before we get to the review, here’s a sample of some of the shoots this year with the Cinestar.

We purchased our Cinestar 8 frame early in 2012 and started assembly while wrapping up a TV show for NBC Universal. The instruction manual for the frame was clear and allowed me to put it together on my dining room table fairly easily, with a fair amount of patience from my wife.  At first, I was struck by how simple the design seemed.  But this simplicity has proven to be a very smart design.  Many of the parts are interchangeable which means we don’t require as many spare parts lying around.  Also, once you assemble one section, other parts are similar in assembly.  It took some serious engineering skills to simplify the construction of this frame and allow for the reuse of parts.  This frame is also very adaptable to a variety of setups.

I purchased the Cinestar 8 frame from Quadrocopter.  I used their RTF Cinestar as a guide for how I would outfit our Cinestar 8, but I also made some changes based off some research.  I did start with the standard QC-3328 motors combined with APC SlowFly props in the 14x4.7 size.  This is a good motor / prop pair for lifting mirrorless cameras and some smaller DSLRs.  We did discover later that for larger DSLRs like the 5D MkIII and camcorders like the Sony FS700, that we preferred the Xoar wooden props in the 14x5 size.  But for cameras like the Panasonic GH2, we’ve stuck with the APC SlowFly.  

For the flight controller, I did head in a different direction.  The Cinestar frame was designed around MK electronics, but is easily adapted to other flight controllers.  I did a lot of research before deciding on our flight controller.  At the time, the three main contenders were MK, DJI, and Hoverfly.  I found people having success with all three of these flight controllers.  I ended up choosing the Hoverfly Pro.  Here’s how I went about making that decision.  First, I did a lot of reading on forums like  Second, I took a look at the manuals for each of the three - I knew I’d be spending a lot of time with my nose buried in one of those manuals, so I figured I should take a look at them.  Third, I contacted a few folks that were using them.  What really sealed the deal for me was an endorsement for the Hoverfly Pro from Mike Hagadorn of Cloud Level Media.  He was getting great results with a Cinestar / Hoverfly combo.  Also, the Hoverfly had the easiest setup, is based in the U.S., and I could get customer support from them easily.  It flies awesome too!

When purchasing the parts for our first large multi-rotor, I didn’t hesitate in going with the more expensive parts.  I wanted the best.  One area where I was hesitant was the ESCs.  These plug in between the flight controller and the motors.  I went with Turnigy Plush ESCs.  I was hesitant about them because they were fairly inexpensive compared to other ESCs on the market, but they had a good reputation. They’ve proven to be “bulletproof” as it says on the label. They’re easy to program too if you have the programming card.  Their only drawback is a bit of noise, and I may check out some Castle Creations ESCs at some point since they are a bit quieter.  

We’ve put over 1300 flights on our Cinestar in a variety of locations: lakes, rivers, inside retail stores, factories, museums, across the globe.  To sum up our experience with the Cinestar in one word - awesome.  This flying carbon fiber beast has performed like a champ.  The frame has held up great under the stress of a lot of use in tough conditions. It has proven to be strong and durable.  Most of the frame still looks new!  Below is some footage from one particularly tough shoot.

The adaptability of the frame has definitely been a huge asset.  We’ve really taken advantage of this with the gimbal. We initially used the 2-axis Cinestar gimbal, then quickly upgraded to the 3-axis gimbal for more shot options.  Being able to shift parts around on the gimbal allows you to properly balance a variety of cameras on the gimbal.  We’ve discovered that balancing the camera is very critical with the gimbal stabilization systems that have been released in 2012, like the Hoverfly Gimbal board and Freefly’s Radian system.  Freefly, the manufacturer of the Cinestar line, has released several tutorial videos on how to properly balance a camera on the gimbal.  Some of the other gimbals on the market don’t really allow for these adjustments.  

On a recent shoot in Oklahoma we needed to film some slow-motion footage with the Sony FS700 - a fairly long camera when compared to the DSLRs that we typically fly.  It was clear that the FS700 wouldn’t fit on the stock gimbal, but this is where that adaptability came into play.  I simply purchased longer carbon fiber arms from Quadrocopter, a Freefly distributor, and swapped out the stock arms.  This allowed us to successfully fly the camera and pull off some fun slow-motion footage from the air.  I actually bought a single boom arm from Quadrocopter, then cut it in half, only to discover a few days later that they sell arms that are already cut to length - should’ve called them first.

A few other features of the Cinestar have been very nice.  The flight battery is mounted on the center of the frame, which keeps it balanced in flight.  There are o-rings between the copter and gimbal that isolate any motor vibrations to keep them from reaching the camera gimbal.  Since most of it is constructed from carbon fiber, it is very lightweight while remaining tough.  I’ve found it to be easy to work on as access to screw heads is easy.  I’m sure there are a few other highlights I’m ignoring, but obviously my review of the Cinestar is overwhelmingly positive.  Below is a highlight video from a 3 day shoot at Belmont University.  

To be fair, there are a few small things that I think could be improved, but I’m no engineer.  The screws used require a 2.5mm driver or a 2mm driver.  Most of them require a 2.5mm hex screwdriver - those work great. The button head screws that use a 2mm hex screwdriver aren’t quite as tough, so be careful with them.  I’ve mangled two of them, but fortunately the kit includes some spares.  The second issue is really a tradeoff.  The Cinestar can pack down really small, which is helpful when you need to check it at the airport.  The downside is that it can take a bit of time to reassemble it on location.  A second pair of hands is very helpful though, and an electric screwdriver speeds up the process immensely.  For shoots around Atlanta, we just keep it assembled as it fits in our vehicle.  Overall these issues are minor, and Freefly Systems is continuing to add updates to the Cinestar - a few are hinted at in the comments of this recent test video.  

After a day of filming for John GraceObviously, we’re very happy with the Cinestar and all of the components we’ve chosen to install on it.  Freefly has designed an impressive multirotor for aerial cinematography, and it is fun to fly.  But the best thing about this whole endeavour has been the human element.  We’ve made many new friends since getting our Cinestar airborne.  The multirotor industry is chock full of some awesome and generous people.  The team of geniuses at Hovefly, the helpful crew at Quadrocopter, all the great members of MultiRotorForum and Freefly forum, the fun folks we’ve flown for, and the super supportive Freefly Systems - they’ve all been great.  Just one example of many, I needed some spare props really quick that I couldn’t find in stock in the U.S.  I posted my dilemma on a forum.  That same day, Tabb Firchau owner of Freefly shipped some out to me.  They don’t sell props, they just had some spares and sent a pair my way.  The only question, “How fast do you need them?”  I’ve got several of these stories, and I’m sure that 2013 will bring many more.

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All the best,
Yonder Blue Films
“Impossible Made Beautiful”

Disclaimer: While we received no financial compensation for this article, we have beta tested products for Freefly and won a contest that included products from some of the manufacturers mentioned.  But that has not biased this article in any way.