5 Things Pro Photographers Should Know about Flying Drones

Adding a drone to your photography toolkit will expand your creative possibilities — taking you to new heights and new angles. However, incorporating drones can be a larger undertaking for a photographer than they first expect. From certification to federal regulations, there’s more to flying a drone than getting control of the joysticks. 

Most photographers who have gone through the process of incorporating drones into their aerial photography toolkit will tell you it’s worth it. It’s given them a competitive edge and allowed them to take on new projects previously out of their reach. Now they’ll never go on a photoshoot without their drone handy. To help you get started with drones in photography, here are five things professional photographers should know about flying drones.

1. If you make money from your drone photography, you need a commercial drone certification from the FAA.
A drone is a valuable tool in your kit as a photographer. However, some photographers are unaware of the regulations recently established around drones. In 2016, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) finalized the first operational rules for routine commercial use of drones called the Small UAS Rule, or Part 107. To fly under Part 107 you must:

  • Get a Part 107 Certificate from the FAA
  • Register your UAS as a “non-modeler”
  • Follow all Part 107 rules

The Part 107 Certificate is required for anyone who flies a drone for commercial purposes, such as real estate photography or entertainment/event photography. Learn more about how to get a Part 107 certification in this drone certification guide. There are many online courses available to help you study for the Part 107 exam, like Drone Pilot Ground School. Members of Professional Photographers of America (PPA) can take $50 off the price of the Drone Pilot Ground School with a discount code found under ‘Resources’ when you log into your PPA account.

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If you fly your drone as a hobby and do not make money from your drone photos, then you do not fall under Part 107. Instead, you would fly under section 336: Special Rule for Model Aircraft.

2. Capturing photos and video with a drone at night requires a waiver.
From capturing a wedding, to shooting a movie, to getting a great shot of a piece of property at dusk for real estate purposes, there are dozens of reasons related to aerial photography that might require you to fly at night.

Part 107 prohibits the operation of a drone at night, but you can apply for a waiver to be exempt from this rule for a specific project. According to the FAA, you should fill out their online Part 107 waiver form over at their FAADroneZone website, which you’ll have to register for. It’s the same place you register your drone commercially, apply for airspace authorizations, and submit incident reports if needed. After submitting the form, the FAA “…will strive to review and issue decisions on waiver and authorization requests within 90 days.” The process can be timely, so we suggest applying for your waiver far in advance.

3. You can use different flight modes to capture unique shots.
Drones provide a unique aerial perspective that can’t be obtained with any other camera. Not only can you capture images from upto 400 feet in the sky, but you can also use specific flight modes to add a creative element to your shot. You may find the modes under different names depending on your drone model, but here are some of the most common flight modes you’ll find on a drone:

Track: Use this flight mode to keep your camera pointed at a selected object at all times while the drone orbits around it. ActiveTrack is a popular intelligent flight mode available on multiple DJI drones. The mode allows you to track a moving object like a person, vehicle, or animal. In this flight mode, the drone uses its vision and sensing systems to maintain safe flight, letting you focus more on getting the right shot. 

Follow Me: In this mode your drone will follow your GPS signal to autonomously track you without having to be piloted. Since the drone does some of the work for you, this frees you up to focus on getting the best shot. Athletes and outdoor adventurers are particularly fond of this intelligent flight mode, since the drone can film their activities autonomously.

Stabilize mode: Most drones automatically level out after you make a directional correction, however; when you roll or pitch a drone, it causes the drone to lean and it may become unbalanced. This can cause blurred photos or make it difficult to capture the exact image you want. In stabilize mode you can fly your drone manually, and the drone will stabilize automatically when you change directions.

Panorama: In panorama mode, you can go beyond the frame size when capturing aerial photos. Use this mode to capture expansive aerial photography of landscapes and scenery without distortion. In this mode, your drone will take multiple photos and stitch them together into a panorama. Some drone models have multiple panorama modes, like DJI’s sphere, 180°, horizontal, and vertical panorama modes.

4. Not all camera drones are created equal.
Just like cameras, drones come in many different shapes, sizes, and levels of quality. Drones marketed as beginner drones or cheap drones usually have fixed cameras, but serious photography requires a drone with a gimbal. A gimbal lets you tilt the camera up or down independently of the drone’s movement—a necessity for professional photographers. You’ll also find variety in camera resolutions, lenses, and zoom capabilities.

There are a lot of good camera drones to buy out there, so it’s important to think about what kind of drone best fits your intended use, and then to perform proper research on the best options. This guide to drones with a camera will help you learn the bullet points of each of the most popular camera drones on the market today.

5. In addition to the FAA’s guidelines, there are additional state and national laws about drones that could impact your flight.
Drones are not legal in all countries. Photographers often travel around the world to capture beautiful photos of unique places, but it’s in your best interest to research the drone laws before traveling to another country. Flying a drone is legal in the U.S., but we recommend being aware of and compliant with drone regulations before doing so. The same goes for other countries where drones may or may not be legal.

Individual states may also create their own drone laws. For example, in the U.S. state of California, a state law makes it illegal to fly your drone to film or photograph an individual engaging in a private, personal, or familial activity without permission. This legislation is a response to the use of drones by the press in covering celebrities and other public figures. To learn more about drone laws in your local area, visit this list of drone laws by state and country.

We wish you good luck in adding drones to your photography toolkit. If you found some of the items on this list helpful, share this article with a fellow photographer. Learn more about drones and how to become a Certified Drone Photographer here.