The arrival of winter brings a wide range of conditions that can have both positive and negative effects of drone flight. These crisp conditions offer a unique perspective of the world, creating an opportunity for those ambitious enough to brave the cold. These winter elements create visuals that cannot exist at any other time of the year. A fresh snowfall blankets out detail, causing a smooth and even canvas effect that draws the eye into the subject. Freezing rain and ice storms create forests of crystallized branches, shimmering and shining in the cool winter light. These are conditions that a drone pilot can use to their advantage when shooting photos or video.
Although the winter months present new challenges, it’s entirely possible to counter its adverse elements with proper preparation and planning, allowing you to fly and explore the season in a fun and controlled way.
Winter Conditions & Flight
Before jumping into specific shots and flight details, the most important aspect of flying in the wintertime is to understand how the cold is affecting your drone. It is true that many of these elements also affect other electronics and cameras, so these are general rules that can be applied across the board to all of your gear. Whether you are taking a dronie in the snow with a Spark, taking in the winter beauty on the ground with an Osmo, or soaring above the scenery with an Inspire, this preparation and planning will allow you to fly in the frigid temperatures with confidence.
The cold weather tends to scare some people into hiding indoors for warmth, when in reality there is so much to take advantage of during the winter months. The funny thing about the cold weather is that while it can be uncomfortable and a hassle if you are unprepared, it can actually make your drone faster and more nimble. Cold air is denser, generating more lift to allow your drone to fly with more agility while using less power. The catch is that the cold also can reduce battery capacity and therefore reduce flight time. The battle to keep warm is the inherent conflict with flying in the wintertime. If you can conquer the cold while keeping your drone warm, you can fly as much as you want to.
Keeping Batteries Warm
The most important element with winter flight is power. Without it, you are stuck on the ground. Your drone’s lithium-ion batteries, like most others, function through a chemical reaction. As the temperature drops the chemical reaction slows and becomes less effective, impeding the voltage output. You might have noticed that your batteries heat up as you use them, often being quite warm to the touch when the drone lands. That heat is a natural product of the chemical reaction, and when the temperature outside decreases the battery cannot function as usual. By default, most DJI drones will enter a safety mode when the battery temperature drops below 7°C (44.6°F). This safety mode reduces the top speed of your drone, making it appear more sluggish, when in reality this safety mode is activated to protect your drone from the lower voltage output, preventing battery overloading. It’s really quite simple: a warm battery is a happy battery. If you can keep your batteries warm your drone will fly normally.
There are a couple of easy methods to keep your batteries warm when you’re out exploring in winter. The first step is through battery insulation stickers, small adhesive foam pads that attach directly to the body of the battery. These stickers shield your battery from the harshest elements of winter, allowing the battery to heat itself at a faster rate. You can find battery insulation stickers for your specific drone model at the DJI store.
The next step is to physically heat the batteries with an external source. Many DJI drones have optional heating pods that use a small portion of the batteries’ energy to heat themselves. Later models like the Inspire 2 have the ability to heat their own batteries mid-flight. But what if you don’t have one of the heating pods? There are still a couple tricks to keep you flying. An old method used by camera operators stuck out in the cold is chemical hand and foot warmers. These small fabric packages contain a chemical mixture that will heat up when activated, maintaining warm temperatures for hours. They are super portable and can be found in most sporting goods stores, along with places that sell winter clothing and hunting gear. The best way to use these warmers is to place a few inside the drone case or drone bag, raising the overall temperature inside. These heat packs are exceptionally helpful if you plan to be out in the cold for a few hours.
Beyond batteries, there are a few other handy items of gear to bring with you in the cold. The first is somewhat of a no-brainer, but is equally important — warm clothing. There is no point in having the drone winterized if you’re freezing. A good winter coat, boots and gloves are critical if you want to spend any significant time outdoors in the winter. On the note of gloves, it’s a good idea to choose a pair that isn’t too bulky or cumbersome and will still allow you to feel and operate the remote controller. You don’t want to feel like you are wearing an astronaut space suit when trying to press buttons on the controller, so find a pair of gloves that are both warm thin enough to maintain your tactile feel.
In addition to winter clothing, bringing a snow shovel and landing pad can be quite helpful in deep snow and uneven terrain. Should you find yourself in a field or forest with deep snowpack, sometimes the easiest solution is to get out a landing pad to go airborne. The landing pad can also be a useful insulator from the ground if you have to set the drone case down. Putting the drone case or bag directly in snow or ice will speed up the temperature decrease inside, chilling any other spare batteries before flight.
With your preparation complete, your drone batteries will be warm and you have all the gear you need to be out flying for the day. It’s time to take off, right? Not so fast.
When going outside into the cold from a warm building or car it’s always a good idea to give the drone a couple minutes to acclimatize before flying. The rapid temperature change can sometimes cause internal humidity and fogging. You might have seen this effect in the summertime when you go from an air-conditioned building to the hot humid air outside, suddenly fogging up your camera lens. The idea is the same, just reversed in the colder months. The danger with any fogging in cold temperatures is that the humidity can freeze, which can lead to electrical shorts and unwanted surprises. It’s a safe idea to place the drone on a landing pad or level surface for a couple minutes to allow it adjust before installing the batteries and powering on. It is important to note that you should keep the batteries in a warm place while the drone acclimatizes, so that you don’t cool the batteries prematurely before flight.
Once the drone has acclimatized and you have powered your drone on it’s good practice to hover your drone over your landing pad or takeoff area for a minute, making sure that the battery voltage levels are holding at a safe and maintained level and that the drone is behaving in a normal and predictable way. You don’t want any surprises when the drone is a kilometer away, flying over a half-frozen lake, so a good way to reduce risk is allowing the drone to operate nearby for a minute before venturing out. If any unforeseen problems occur, the drone will be close and in a position that you can quickly land it. Once you have confirmed that the drone is operating normally and that your batteries are operating at a safe level, you are all set to explore.
Photography and videography in the winter is a unique experience. The conditions on the ground can vary so much that the same location on different days can appear as entirely different places. Exploring your shot and the areas surrounding it will quickly reveal how the conditions have impacted the terrain. For instance, a fresh snowfall blankets the area removing almost all detail from the ground. It creates a surreal effect similar to a blank white canvas, which can be used to your advantage to draw the eye into your subject. I’ll often place an object in the center of the frame surrounded by only snow to create a highlighted effect. You can then let the action play through the frame and really control the motion of your shot.
The harsh effects of winter on the terrain can also be a great subject to shoot. Whether it’s snowfall through forests and mountains, or the shape of ice frozen on the surface of water, the weather conditions can often become the subject. I find that most frozen lakes that appear flat and uninteresting from the ground are actually formed out of many intriguing shapes, intersected by jagged lines when viewing the water surface from the air. The best factor is that nature will never repeat itself and that no two frozen lakes are the same.
Showing how people interact with the weather can also provide a fun way to get a great shot. The terrain will present unusual shapes, which when combined with winter activities such as ice skating or snow shoeing, can really bring out the dynamic nature of the landscape. For example, what seems like a cold and uninviting lake can become intriguing with people skating over the same surface that other people are fishing from. It’s the winter contrast that can become the most interesting aspect of your shot.
The most important element to remember when shooting in winter is that the conditions change; locations will alter and vary in appearance in a matter of hours. With patience, preparation, and planning, you will be ready for those sudden changes. It’s also a good idea to revisit locations, as the conditions will change every day. I guarantee you will find pleasant surprises and unique situations that lead to incredible images.
When you can adapt to the challenges of winter, the season becomes a wonderland. Think of the chilly conditions as an opportunity to look forward to, not fear. While most people choose to hibernate, you can be outside flying and enjoy this side of Mother Nature to its full potential.