photography business

Drone licenses, registration and more: 5 things to know about incorporating drones into your photography business

So you’re a professional photographer, and you’re looking to add aerial photos to your photography business offerings? Do it. Aerial photography is a brilliant way to augment your existing portfolio of work. A drone shot helps with the exposition, showing a wide view of the scene you’re trying to set. And for some photo businesses, the ability to offer aerial photos can set you apart from your competition.

Real estate photographers can now provide views of entire properties, showcasing epic backyards or unique architecture. Wedding photographers can show off gorgeous venues. Sports photographers can document athletes from all new angles. Landscape photographers can show off nature from a completely different perspective.

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But if you’re a professional photographer, adding a drone to your business model isn’t as easy as just ordering a ready-to-fly drone online, taking it for a couple practice flights and flying.

When flying drones for commercial purposes (like a professional photography business) there are the legal barriers and regulatory hurdles you should know about.

Before launching a drone for your photography business, here are five things you must do first:

1. Register as a drone pilot with the FAA:

If your drone weighs between 0.55 lbs and 55 lbs (most photography drones on the market such as the DJI Mavic Air 2, DJI Inspire, Yuneec Typhoon and DJI Mavic Pro fit in that range), you must register yourself as a drone operator with the FAA. 

Note you register yourself, not your drone. You register once and receive a registration number, which you’ll affix to any and every drone you own.

To register, just visit the FAA’s drone registration website, create an account (you’ll enter your address, phone number and email), pay the $5 registration fee and voila! After that, you’ll receive a unique registration number unique, which you’ll have to write anywhere on your drone.

I recommend writing it in Sharpie on a piece of masking tape which you stick on your drone. You want something easy to remove, in case you decide to donate or sell your used drone (or lend it out to a friend, even) down the road.

2. Get a drone license:

Assuming you’re flying drones for your business (that’s opposed to recreational or hobby purposes, then you’re legally required to have need a drone pilot license.

You’ll see it formally called a Remote Pilot Certificate, and you get it by passing a written test called the Aeronautical Knowledge Test (it’s commonly referred to as the Part 107 test). 

Common sense along won’t get you through this test, which asks detailed meteorology questions, asks you to read a sectional chart and more. Expect to put in at least a couple of  studying hours. I recommend enrolling in a Part 107 online study course like Drone Pilot Ground School or Drone Launch Academy.

By the way, even if you’re flying for hobby purposes, you need some sort of certificate. If that’s you, you must pass the (albeit easier) FAA recreational drone test, referred to as TRUST. Learn more about taking and passing the TRUST FAA recreational drone test here.

3. Making sure you can legally fly in the places you intend to:

Adding a drone to your wedding venue will be a lot tougher if your wedding venue is located next to an airport. Alas, you need FAA permission to fly drones in anything other than Class G airspace.

The good news: most airspace out there is Class G airspace. But you always need to check to make sure you can fly in that airspace (it’s illegal to fly in Class B or C airspace without authorization, and it can even be illegal to fly in otherwise Class G airspace due to temporary restrictions, which can often be put in place due to weather, natural disasters or major events). If there’s an airport within five miles of you, odds are, you’re not in Class G airspace.

How do you know if you can legally fly in the airspace you intend to fly in? Check the FAA’s official Know Before You Fly website. It’s simple: just type in the address of where you intend to fly, and the FAA will output a yay or nay.

Some drone manufacturers make it even easier. For example, DJI’s drones also automatically tell you whether you’re clear to fly in a certain area before you takeoff (of course, that’s aggravating if you’ve already gotten to your location and are ready to take off…so check ahead of time).

Note that there aren’t just FAA restrictions. Some cities, parks, universities and other  private property managers impose their own rules around taking off or landing drones on their property. For example, it’s illegal to take off or land drones inside of a National Park.

4. Practice flying:

Before flying a multi-hundred dollar camera drone, start with a cheap, toy drone. Any $30 toy drone will do. In fact, the cheaper, the better.

Here’s why: the cheaper the drone, the more difficult it is to fly. Master a drone that’s hard to fly, and flying a “real” drone will be a breeze.

Once you upgrade to a more expensive drone — like anything from DJI — you’ll find yourself using features like GPS lock, the ability to hover in place and features like auto takeoff and landing.

Not to mention, if you do crash, you’d want to accidentally fly $40 into the pool vs. $400 or even $4,000.

Drone licenses, registration and more: 5 things to know about incorporating drones into your photography business
The Skydio 2 or DJI Mavic Air 2 could both be good drones for your photography business. Both cost less than $1,000.

5. Get the right drone gear:

The best drones for photographers start at about $400 on the low-end to anywhere above $3,000. Across the board, all of the best drones for photographers will have a camera built-in and are ready to fly out of the box.

Some overall specs to look for:

  • Camera quality that fits your needs (if you’re already a photography professional you’ll know what you need). Consider whether the camera supports filters too.
  • A gimbal. Gimbals are crucial to keeping your camera steady. Without it, every time movement looks incredibly jarring and your video will appear jello-like or shaky.
  • Battery life between 20-30 minutes. That’s the standard among most camera drones. If a drone promises significantly more than that,  then be skeptical: it’s either an ultra-expensive enterprise drone, or just a scam. Don’t get too hung up on battery life. Just buy a second battery!
  • Altitude hold. This keeps your drone at a fixed altitude, and is essential for easier, more controlled flight.

What else do you wish you knew before starting your own aerial photography business, or incorporating drones into your existing photography business? Leave a comment below!

Happy flying!

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