The use of drones, particularly by photographers, has exploded in popularity over the last few years. From wedding photographers to real estate agents, Instagram influencers to wildlife photographers, and everything in between, drone photography opens up a whole new world.
If you are looking to add a new twist to your current photography portfolio, using drone equipment is a great way to do so. Or, if you are brand new to photography and are looking to get started, drones are fun to use and often take you to beautiful places.
But there’s a lot to learn if you want to become proficient with drone use. You’re going to need specific gear, an understanding of drone laws, and of course, lot’s of patience when learning how to fly a drone.
Ready to get started? Keep reading to learn how you can get started with drone photography today.
Understand the History of Aerial Photography
First and foremost, it’s important to have an understanding of aerial photography; the past, present, and future. Aerial photography is not a new phenomenon.
In fact, it was popularized during, and after World War II, once helicopters were becoming more common. But it began much earlier, in the 1860s, when French photographer Gaspar Felix Tournachon, otherwise known as Nadar, took to the skies in a hot air balloon in order to capture an image of a French village from above.
The process sounds simple, but it took three years of preparation. Early cameras in those days required the use of a dark room immediately. That meant that we had to carry everything needed to process the photo up in that balloon.
The original image from 1858 doesn’t survive, but Nadar’s longest surviving photo of Paris from the sky, taken in 1866, still survives today.
Over the course of a few decades, many other attempts at aerial photography were made as camera equipment became more efficient. From attaching cameras to kits and pigeons to carrying them along in small airplanes, aerial photography was born.
Today, we have the incredible privilege of taking crystal clear, color photographs from above. And we don’t even need to leave the ground. Using a remote control, we can capture any image in the safest way possible, thanks to the use of drones.
Photographers from centuries past would have marveled at this innovation. As a new drone photographer, it’s important to know the device you now hold was centuries in the making. Never take it for granted.
Develop Basic Photography Skills
If you are already a professional or just a competent photographer, you can skip this step. But for those new to photography altogether, you’ll need to understand basic photography skills and rules before bothering to send a camera to the sky.
It can be beneficial to watch a few videos online or take a course, that explains how modern cameras work. You need to know why the lens and the shutter are so important.
Most importantly, however, you need to understand the core tenants of photography. That is, you need to understand aperture, shutter speed, and ISO speed.
Learning and understanding these basic camera tenants is what separates aspiring photographers from real photographers.
Knowing how to adjust and balance these three factors with your images allows you to capture photos in manual mode. It’s the best way to achieve the desired results from your photography.
And it’s what will ultimately set your photographs apart from the millions of other aspiring photographers who just use automatic mode on their digital cameras.
So before flying your drone, take your camera out and practice adjusting these settings until you can take a photograph of the same scene in many different ways. Practice shooting in different environments, with different lighting and colors.
Only then should you bother sending your camera up into the atmosphere.
Have a Goal for Your Drone Photography
As you get started with your drone photography journey, it’s important to have goals. Drones aren’t cheap, and there are plenty of laws and regulations to follow. So why go through all the trouble?
Is it for fun? Do you just want to capture remarkable photos of far-flung destinations to share with family and friends?
Or do you want to make a career out of it? Are you trying to become a professional photographer who can be hired for weddings, events, or real estate photo shoots?
Do you want to sell your images to major publications? Do you want to work for companies that send their photographers on assignment across the globe?
Whatever it is that you plan to do, it’s important to clearly identify your goals; when you know your “why,” it’s easier to commit to the process and press on even when you feel discouraged.
Know Your Local and International Laws Ahead of Time
When you operate a drone, you are operating an aircraft. And if you weren’t aware, aircraft are heavily regulated, especially in the United States.
They are laws and regulations regarding aircraft and drones everywhere you go. It’s very common to now see signs in popular tourist areas that prohibit the use of drones.
Why all the rules? There are many reasons.
For one, drones can be dangerous, particularly in the hands of unskilled operators. Propellers can hurt if they were to hit people.
Drones can also cause damage to buildings and other vehicles. Not only that, but they can distract or scare people, such as drivers or pilots, and potentially cause big, costly accidents.
Aside from the dangers of using a drone, they can also be a nuisance. Drones are essentially miniature helicopters. That means they are loud.
In popular destinations, if everyone were allowed to use their drones, it has the potential to ruin the experience for everyone else.
Basic Drone Laws
Drone laws can vary from place to place. If you plan to visit a new location, always research local laws ahead of time. But in general, here’s what you can expect across the US.
You can’t fly higher than 400 feet. Your drone has to be within eyesight at all times. You can never fly in restricted airspace, near other aircraft, or near an airport.
Don’t fly over groups of people, stadiums, or sporting events. And don’t fly over emergency situations, such as an ambulance response or a wildfire. And, of course, never fly your drone while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
There are many other location-specific rules, too. National Parks have banned the use of drones within their grounds. You also can’t use them around Washington DC.
You should never fly over private property without permission. And if you see a sign saying not to use a drone, respect its wishes.
As an aspiring professional photographer, it’s up to you to give photographers a good reputation and follow the regulations and rules.
Invest in the Right Equipment
So you understand photography, and you are aware that drone photography comes with its own set of regulations. Now it’s time to invest in your own equipment.
Depending on your goals, you may be able to start cheap and upgrade later on, or you may want to go big right out of the gate.
If you know you want to get serious about drone photography, get the right setup in the beginning. There’s no point buying a cheaper product only to have to upgrade in a few months once you understand the limitations of the original.
Professional drones have cameras built into them. That means they are ready to fly and capture images right out of the box.
Aside from the drone itself, make sure you pick up a travel carrying case. A drone-specific camera bag will have compartments for all your parts and accessories, making it easy to bring your setup all around the world.
Drones are also subject to weather and to rough landings. They are going to get dirty. Buy a drone cleaning kit to keep your drone in good working condition even in the harshest of environments.
While your drone’s remote control has a screen that lets you see and take photos, it’s not as cool as using FPV goggles. First-person view goggles make it feel like you are on board the drone, flying it from the cockpit. Using these goggles, you can more effectively see what your drone sees.
Make sure to get professional-grade memory cards for your drone, too. If you want to capture tons of 4K video recordings, you’ll need a card capable of handling these large files with ease.
While you are at it, grab a fireproof bag for your drone batteries. While combustion isn’t common, drone batteries come packed full of ions, putting them at some risk. A fireproof bag will keep you and your gear safe.
And if you plan to fly your drone indoors or in areas with tons of trees, you’ll want to pick up some propeller guards. These bumpers protect your propellers from damage if they bump into anything.
Unfortunately, you can’t buy a drone and start flying it right away. If you bought a cheap drone toy online, you could do so. But any serious drone purchase requires registration and possibly certification.
Most drones weigh more than 250 grams, meaning that it needs to be registered with the FAA. It only costs a few dollars to do this, and registration is good for three years. You’ll need to display your drone’s registration number on your actual drone.
You’ll also need to take a basic knowledge test before you can start operating your drone. This is easy to do if you are flying a drone for personal use, meaning you are not making any money.
You can take the test for free online. Once passed, you’ll receive a digital certification that you should save to your smartphone so that it is always with you.
If you plan to use your drone to make money in any capacity, you’ll need to do more. You need to take a much more in-depth exam in order to receive Part 107 certification. Once you have this, you can start selling your aerial images, working for clients, and otherwise make money with your drone.
Drones aren’t cheap, especially if you invest in commercial-grade equipment. They are also at constant risk.
Photographers love flying them into the mountains, over open water, and above cliffs. Not to mention, flying them high above a busy city is great fun, too.
And, of course, you travel with a drone. Taking anything onto a plane, where its safety is outside of your control, is a risk.
Oh, and don’t forget that operating a drone comes with liabilities. If you damage something or cause injury to someone, you can be held liable. Drone insurance can protect you against these claims.
Considering that your drone setup is an investment, don’t risk losing it all over a simple mistake. Get drone insurance instead.
If you use your drone on a regular basis, particularly for commercial usage, you can expect to pay at least a few hundred dollars per year for comprehensive coverage.
Considering that one successful photoshoot or commercial project can more than pay for the cost of insurance, buying a policy is a no-brainer.
Practice Makes Perfect
Flying a drone takes practice. It’s very awkward at first. Luckily, modern drones are much easier to fly than their predecessors.
Still, you’ll need to practice a lot if you want to operate your drones in complex areas and take professional photos. Don’t plan on taking good photos for a while.
Just get out there, fly, and shoot photos as much as possible, even in the same location each time. A competent drone operator has put many, many hours into the process.
Begin Your Drone Photography Career Today
Now that you know what it takes to get into drone photography, it’s up to you to decide if it’s worth it. There’s a lot to learn, a lot to buy, and a lot to practice.
But considering that you can take images and videos that have never been seen before, it’s an incredibly intriguing proposition. Drones are fun to fly, especially if you’re going to get paid to do it.
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