If you’re thinking about broadening your services with drone photography, this article is for you. These tips are based on unmanned aerial system (UAS) FAA rules in the United States (though other countries’ rules are often similar) and my experience with DJI drones.
For professional use, consider a model with a 1-inch 20-megapixel sensor such as the DJI Mavic 2 Pro (with its Hasselblad camera) and the DJI Phantom 4 Pro. The improvement in image quality over a 12-megapixel sensor is notable, though there are applications where lower resolution capture works fine.
If you tend to hike any distance to reach your flying location, a drone that folds into a compact form, like the Mavic, is a great way to go. Even with the controller and spare parts, it’ll fit into a thin shoulder or sling bag.
I highly recommended using a dedicated, high-brightness screen for the remote control rather than a smartphone. A dedicated high-brightness screen, such as the DJI CrystalSky, is twice as bright as most of the best smartphone screens. Or you can choose a drone system with a remote controller that includes a built-in high-brightness screen, like the DJI Phantom 4 Pro Plus or Mavic 2 Pro with Smart Controller. A dedicated device eliminates distraction from possible incoming calls. And setup and launch are much quicker, which can matter a lot, particularly for weddings.
Include fast MicroSD cards, spare props and batteries, and a case as part of your standard drone gear.
2. Drone registration
Go to the FAA Drone Zone to register your drone. It’s the law for virtually all drones. Once registered, label your drone with your registration number.
At the FAA site, you’ll be asked if you fly under Part 107 or under the exception for recreational flyers. Choose the Part 107 option unless you’re 100% sure that all you intend to do is fly for fun and will never sell or even give away any images to anyone for anything.
Keep in mind registering your drone and obtaining your Part 107 certification are two different things. One is like the registration for license plates on a car and the other is like licensing a person to operate a car.
3. Non-commercial practice flights
DJI drone systems include a great flight simulator. Use it. Once you feel you’ve mastered this, find a wide-open space away from airports with no one and nothing around. Then take your first flight. Fly low and slow, keep the drone in sight, and watch for any small aircraft at all times. Remember, everything you do at this stage must be for personal use only.
4. Study for the FAA Part 107 Certification
This is the part that certifies you as a UAS pilot. Read “Remote Pilot Test Prep,” published by ASA (Aviation Supplies & Academics). Everything you need to know to pass your Part 107 test is in this book. Find drone classes at flight schools and universities. There are also great online training academies. PPA member benefits include a discount from Drone Pilot Ground School. The success rate for passing the test on the first attempt is extremely high for those who take a class and study.
Take online sample tests multiple times and keep taking them until you consistently score 90 or higher. Doing so is a virtual guarantee of passing.
Dedicate a large amount of study time to the National Airspace System. It’s vitally important that you understand this section very well. Obtain and study the sectional chart for your location; it’s a like a road map of the sky.
Register to take your Part 107 at a local testing center.
5. Pass your test
... and then you’re officially certified. Now you can legally provide drone work to others.
6. Choose how you’ll implement your certification
You can add drone coverage to what you already do or explore new areas of opportunity, too, such as aerial mapping, tower and roof inspection photography services, and of course, real estate photography, among others.
7. Obtain drone-specific insurance
You need drone-specific liability insurance. We’re talking liability coverage, not just coverage for the physical drone. Talk with your existing business insurance carrier. There are online on-demand coverage options, but I prefer being covered without having to take any additional actions.
8. Photographing with your drone
For all the same reasons as with your regular camera, use the raw file option. You’ll also be able to choose shooting mode, exposure compensation, focus point, and ISO, right from the remote controller, even while your drone is flying.
9. Apps to support the mission
Through apps on your smartphone, you’ll be able to check weather, wind, potential magnetic interference, and the airspace you’re in. Additionally, through the built-in Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC), you may be able to instantly request (and usually quickly receive) authorization to fly in spaces otherwise not allowed. Apps that serve these needs include Kittyhawk, Skyward, and AirMap.
10. Changes are coming
The FAA is planning to implement remote ID requirements in the future. This will give law enforcement and federal security agencies the ability to identify a UAS in flight. Current hardware will most likely not become obsolete thanks to retrofit and other solutions that will come with the change. I’m fairly confident it’s not a reason to wait to move toward adding a drone. It’s a good idea to keep an eye on this now as this front is developing quickly.
Adding a drone to my wedding photography business has been rewarding. Think about the ways a drone could enhance your own work. I’ll dive deeper into the nuances of this topic at my pre-convention half-day program at Imaging USA 2021. Hope to see you there online.
Russell R. Caron is a wedding and drone photographer based in Maine.