Consumer drones are essentially airborne video cameras, but flying and recording at the same time can be tricky. If you’re not careful, you can end up with shaky footage, excessive glare, or worse, a run-in with a tree. Here are a few easy-to-follow tips:

Form a flight plan. When you’re flying a drone, every minute counts, says Alex Nasrallah, a Consumer Reports tester. Don’t waste battery life thinking about what, where, and how to shoot—do all that in advance. To be extra prepared, create an equipment checklist, too, suggests Travis Jack, who runs Flyboy Photo & Media in Raleigh, N.C. That way you won’t leave the controller at home charging in the kitchen when you dash off to capture that seaside sunrise.

More on Drones

Stay close to Earth. It’s tempting to fly as high as a drone can go, says Sally French, founder of the Drone Girl blog, but it’s far more interesting to capture the view from just above the rooftops. The best shots often materialize within 50 feet of the ground, but watch out for wires and other obstacles.

Keep the sun at your back. This rule of earthbound photography applies to drones, too. Be wary of light bouncing off buildings and water. “You get a lot more reflection in the air,” Jack says. Specialized lens filters, such as those from Polar Pro, can help cut the glare, he adds.

Rise up. For a more dramatic shot, take a page from Hollywood and those classic crane shots and start recording at takeoff, and keep going as the drone rises above the treetops. It’s also a good way to limit crashes because it’s less challenging to fly a drone upward than down, says Michael Kofsky, a Los Angeles-based video producer who occasionally shoots for CR.

Get a bigger SD card. Some drone cameras store video on microSD cards that you can pop out to retrieve the footage. (Many also let you transfer video wirelessly, through a phone app.) It’s worth paying $50 to upgrade from 16GB of storage to 256GB, Kofsky says. It’s no fun landing to swap out a card.

Bring a spotter. Once you hit record, you’ll be looking down at your phone to see the live footage from the drone, says Ryan Felner, a 16-year-old real estate photographer. That’s when the spotter—in Felner’s case, his mom—looks to the sky to make sure his DJI Phantom 3 is not drifting into trouble.

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the March 2018 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

How CR Tests Drones

Drones have exploded in popularity in recent years. on the 'Consumer 101' TV show, Consumer Reports' expert Bernie Deitrick explains how CR tests these fun and handy gadgets—and offers tips for how to stay safe when operating these devices.