Drone photography resource guide: information, ideas, and inspiration for drone enthusiasts
Humans have a storied history of photographing the world from above and have spent the better part of the last century working to create and refine unmanned autonomous vehicles (UAV), a once seemingly-mythical technology we now see every day. Colloquially known as drones, UAVs allow photographers to access the sky above and have taken aerial photography to entirely new heights. UAVs have even resulted in the creation of a new kind of photography, the likes of which have never been seen before.
Due to the widespread availability of drones, anyone can learn the intricacies of this new artform. With enough practice and enthusiasm, you can even make it your career — there’s certainly enough demand for it. According to a 2019 Business Insider report, the drone services market could be worth $63.6 billion by 2025, growing roughly 50 percent each year.
Because of this growth, drone photography will likely be one of the most important photography trends of the modern era. As such, it will only continue to evolve and expand, attracting photographers of all levels. Whether you want to expand your repertoire as a professional photographer or pick up a new hobby, here is what you need to know to master the art of drone photography.
Preparing yourself and your drone
Drone photography requires more prep than many other kinds of photography. Not only do you have to buy and learn how to use an entirely new piece of equipment, but you must meet certain legal standards to properly protect yourself well before you take flight.
Select your drone of choice
First and foremost, you need to get a UAV — and not just any drone, but the right one for photography, for your skill level and your wallet. If you are new to drones, it can be hard to know exactly what to select. To narrow the huge list of options down, ask yourself the following questions:
- What is your budget?
- Do you plan to use your drone recreationally or professionally?
- Do you want a built-in camera, or do you want to attach your own camera?
- Will you be using your drone for still photographs, or photographs and videos?
- How long and how far do you want to be able to fly your drone?
- Do you want any additional features, such as lights for shooting at night or advanced connectivity options?
Like a camera, a drone is a large, serious investment. Take your time and do thorough research on different models, comparing the pros and cons of each one that interests you. This may be exciting, but go through the process thoroughly and you are sure to find the drone that suits your needs best.
If possible, borrow a drone from a friend or family member to take on a test flight. This will give you first-hand exposure to the experience of flying a drone. Make note of what you like, what you don’t, and what you need to research further.
Once you find the right drone for you, read the instruction manual thoroughly so you know how to use it properly. Understand what your drone is capable of and what it is not. Be sure to practice flying it in a safe area, such as an open field, to minimize the risk of hurting your drone (or other people) while you get used to the controls.
Research drone flying laws
With your first drone, now is the appropriate time to research the laws regulating drones in your area. Even if you are a casual photographer, you still need to take the proper legal steps before you can begin using your drone. In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is responsible for drone regulation. The exact rules you need to follow depend on if you are using your drone for recreational or commercial purposes.
Generally, your drone has to stay in your line of sight at all times when it’s in the air. You also have to stay in Class G airspace, meaning you can’t fly too high. You will need to prioritize safety when flying, avoid any manned aircraft, and take care not to harm the surrounding environment.
You will be tested on your knowledge of the FAA’s rules, and you must pass the appropriate test to get certified as a UAV pilot. If you want to use your drone recreationally, you must take and pass The Recreational UAS Safety Test and carry proof of passage with you when flying. Commercial fliers must pass the FAA Airman Knowledge Test. Upon passing either test, you must then register your drone with the FAA.
Keep in mind that, on top of federal law, you have to follow any state or local laws governing UAVs. Always make sure you know the laws in your area, otherwise, you may be subject to fines and other legal penalties.
Don’t forget drone insurance
You are not ready to start flying until you have properly and fully insured your drone. Though not required by the FAA, your drone is likely an expensive piece of equipment that needs protection. Between the weather and potential mishaps, the possibility of damaging your drone is high. Good insurance coverage will make it easier to repair or replace your drone should something go wrong.
Further, drone insurance can offer some protection if your drone accidentally hurts someone or damages their property. Without insurance, you are vulnerable to legal action and may be responsible for covering the cost of any damage your drone causes. The same is true for your business if you use your drone for commercial purposes.
Do your drone homework
Don’t hesitate to check out these other resources if you need additional assistance, have more questions, or want to learn more about drones:
- Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA): The AMA is a non-profit organization that frequently works with the FAA to determine reasonable, responsible rules for UAV use.
- Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association Drone Resources (AOPA): In addition to other aircrafts, the AOPA offers resources, news articles, and even a job network focused on drones.
- B4UFLY: B4UFLY is a mobile app that provides interactive maps for recreational drone fliers, so you know where you can and cannot fly. The app is available on iOS, Android, and desktop devices.
- Know Before You Fly: Know Before You Fly is a campaign that strives to educate the public about proper, safe, and responsible drone operation. In addition to providing information about how to fly, they also offer additional information and resources so you can learn as much about drones as possible.
- Remote Pilot – Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Study Guide: This FAA guide is designed to help you prepare for and pass the FAA Airman Knowledge Test.
- The Unmanned Aircraft Systems Collegiate Initiative (UAS-CTI): The FAA launched the UAS-CTI, a collaborative effort between colleges, the FAA, and other public agencies to ensure students have the skills they need to pursue a career in UAVs. Dozens of colleges that offer UAV-related courses and programs are already part of this program.
Drones are still a relatively new technology. We are still learning how to use them safely and to their maximum benefit. So be sure to do your research and stay on top of the industry. Your understanding of drones and how they work best, will be why you get that perfect photo or video.
Getting started with drone photography
Though it is unique in many ways, drone photography is still photography. Much of what you already know is relevant to this discipline, you just have to apply it differently. Simply put, you can do a lot with drone photography as long as you are familiar with the best practices around taking photos and video. If you are not, it is worth learning some of the basics before heading outside with your flying device.
Give it the old college try
Though you can get pretty far by teaching yourself, if you want to take a more formal approach to learning about drone photography, you can always go back to the classroom. If you are interested, look for schools that offer degree programs or classes related to:
- Digital art
- Filmmaking or videography
Like other branches of photography, you don’t necessarily need a college education — though a degree can help you stand out if you are looking to work as a professional drone photographer.
However, even a few classes can teach you the basics to prepare you to get out into the field. Look for classes offered by a local college, art or community center in your area, or online digital courses and programs.
Additionally, many websites provide free resources to teach the foundations of photography. Read up on new trends, more advanced techniques you are unfamiliar with, and areas where you know you need to improve.
Walk the walk
Once you have got your foundation, it is important to put both your photography and drone piloting skills to the test. Learning about techniques and theories is useful, but you will have a more enriching education if you go out, practice, and get some hands-on experience with your drone.
Even if you are a seasoned photographer, it will likely take some time to get comfortable using your drone as a camera. Drone photography is unique, and while you can still see what a drone “sees,” it is different from looking through a camera lens yourself. For example, perspective changes immensely from the sky, and using lighting while shooting from above is also very different.
The new equipment and drone point of view will require some experimentation as you familiarize yourself with the controls and settings, discover your personal preferences, and learn how to get the shot you want. In time, you will be able to plan your shots, capture them easily, and edit them to perfection in post.
Prepare for takeoff
Getting ready for a day of shooting with your drone may require a different to-do list so you don’t miss a single shot. Make sure your drone and its components, your camera, and your smartphone are all fully charged. Don’t forget to bring any accessories or backup items you may need, like an extra set of batteries in case yours run out, or lights so you can continue shooting after dark.
In addition, you should plan out exactly where you are flying in advance. Look up the rules for UAVs in that area and take care to follow them. Check the weather for that location to ensure you have ideal, or at least safe, flying conditions. Too much wind or precipitation can make it difficult and dangerous to shoot.
Get your bearings when you arrive at your location. Figure out where you will take off and land. Touch base with any people in the area so they know you are taking pictures with a drone. While many people won’t mind, some will, and this crucial piece of etiquette allows them to leave the area before you do something they are not comfortable with.
It may sound like a lot, but doing the above will ensure you have a smooth and successful flight. In time, your pre-flight routine will be second nature and you can spend more time focusing on your photographs.
In the beginning, don’t try to do too much with your drone photography. Start simple, and gradually work up to more complex shots, trips, or maneuvers. By focusing on the basics, you can fill your SD cards while getting more comfortable with your drone. This will also allow you to get the most out of your future flights.
When first taking your drone out to shoot images, keep the following in mind:
- The Fundamentals: Some parts of photography stay the same, regardless of where you are or what type of photography you are doing. Essential elements like photo composition and your camera’s shutter speed still matter when you are up in the air. Your shots will suffer and your efforts will be wasted if you neglect photography basics.
- Visual Interest: Look for visually interesting scenery, shapes, and patterns when you’re flying. You have the chance to see the world from a new perspective and you should do your best to capture that by showcasing something unexpected or attention-grabbing.
- Slow and Steady: Rather than flying haphazardly, go slowly through the skies. Not only is it safer for the drone and your surroundings, but you’re less likely to miss an intriguing shot if you don’t zoom past it.
- Find Your Light: Lighting is everything in drone photography. From high above, the light will look different than you’re used to. Take your time getting used to those differences, then make the most of them to get a beautiful picture.
As you build your skills and confidence with your drone, you can begin and veer off the beaten path. Toy with your camera settings, go to different locations, find new subjects, upgrade your drone — the possibilities for further exploration are endless.
Remember, this is supposed to be a way for you to have fun and explore your favorite art form. Don’t let any early failures prevent you from enjoying yourself, learning, or trying something new. This is your passion, and it is up to you to make what you want of it.
Pursuing professional opportunities in drone photography
Though many are happy to keep drone photography as a hobby, there are also professional opportunities available to interested enthusiasts. Due to the growing demand in this area, drone pilots can earn an average of $69,000 per year in the United States.
If you are interested in going down this career path, photography is a great way to get your foot in the door of the larger drone industry. If you have followed this guide, you have already taken care of the logistics associated with licensing, and mastered the most essential skills of drone operations. From there, it is easy to apply that knowledge to other areas in which drones are used — such as surveying or geothermal imaging — and continue building your expertise.
This drone industry is still emerging, providing plenty of flexibility and room for creativity. You can find work that already relies heavily on drone photography or become a trailblazing entrepreneur yourself. It all depends on the extent you want to work with drones, what you want from your career, and your imagination.
Research industries that rely on drones
Drones may be a relatively new development, but many industries are already benefiting from their use of this technology:
- Agriculture: Professionals in the agricultural industry use drones to plan out crops and fields, monitor crops and livestock, and assist with general farm management.
- Conservation: From capturing stunning landscapes to showcasing damage and devastation, conservationists use drone photography to support their environmental advocacy efforts.
- Construction: Drones play a vital role in the modern construction industry, including assessing conditions and progress, taking photos of the job, and safely inspecting sites.
- Filmmaking: Naturally, drones are also used for videography and filmmaking for blockbusters, documentaries and indies.
- Public Safety: Various public safety agencies, including police forces and fire departments, use drones’ photo and video capabilities to map out safety routes in buildings, find missing or hurt persons, and help others in post-disaster settings.
- Sports: Drones and sports photography are a match made in heaven, as they help highlight the dynamism, excitement, and action of athletics.
- Real Estate: Drones have added another dimension to real estate photography, allowing residential and commercial agencies to showcase their properties in a new light.
- Urban Planning: Planning professionals can use drones to assist with designing new buildings or developments, understanding traffic patterns, and general infrastructure planning.
- Weddings: In addition to other personal events, wedding photographers use drones to take their clients’ pictures and videos to another level.
Since countless industries already use drones for commercial photography, you’re sure to find a field that appeals to you and benefits from your existing professional skills.
Of course, as the technology continues to develop and become more sophisticated, people will discover new applications of drone photography. This will likely open up even more professional opportunities for drone photographers in other industries and fields.
Begin your hunt on job boards
The process of finding a position as a drone photographer is fairly similar to any other job hunt. Online job boards are typically the best place to start your search. Further, many popular job boards have areas dedicated specifically to drone photography, including:
From there, you can narrow your options down based on your preferred salary, your skills, the location or duration of the job, and the industry you would like to work in.
Additionally, you may be able to find open positions through other avenues, including on other job listing websites and at businesses in your community. You may also be able to find employment at organizations that specialize in drones themselves.
Take the plunge and start your own business
You can always try starting your own photography business and specialize in drones. Since the drone services market is expected to grow in the coming years, if you put the right amount of effort, training and research in, you have great potential to succeed in your venture.
Once you have purchased your drone and learned how to use it, you can start building your portfolio, marketing your business, and doing your best to earn clients. You will have to make sure you have all the necessary tools for the job, including accessories for your drone and professional photo editing and sharing software. Yes, gathering all of these tools requires a healthy budget, especially in the early stages of your business, but think of them as crucial investments in your business that will pay off later.
Go at your own pace when starting and growing your business. Remember, this is about sharing and channeling your enthusiasm for drone photography into a professional setting — you don’t want to lose that spark just because you have incorporated it into your work. At the end of the day, strive to make your business yet another opportunity to cultivate your love of drones, as well as photography.