Aerial images are a powerful story-telling device offering another perspective. For example, an aerial photograph of a location can show the surroundings, set the scene, and give context in an instant — whether it’s for a music video or an investigative news story. The technological advances of the last decade have made drones and drone cameras affordable and commonplace. Now, there are many photographers who have purchased a drone and are offering drone photography as part of their services. But there are still many photographers who prefer to hire professional drone pilots, and there are many good reasons for it.
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Firstly, learning to fly a professional drone is very time-consuming and requires certification and knowledge of local restrictions. And while you can purchase a basic drone camera for as little as $30, a professional drone camera with good reach and battery life, and a gimbal that can maneuver a DSLR, can be costly.
That’s why New York City-based photographer Emily Andrews hired a drone pilot for a commission to photograph solar panels for Con Edison to show their commitment to clean energy. She says,
Doing the drone photography myself would have been a far too steep learning curve and not a good use of my time. Hiring a drone pilot was more likely to get good results in less time. It’s safer with a professional, too.
Like in any new field, there are many inexperienced and under-qualified operators, so it’s worth researching. Emily says,
They need to be aware of local laws and restrictions to do with drone use, which are different everywhere. Experience is also important. Large drones have a limited battery life, so to make the most of flying time, the operator needs to be adept at maneuvering the drone around.
Every country has its own drone laws and regulations. In the United States, anybody flying a drone for commercial (rather than recreational) purposes must be certified by the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) by obtaining a Part 107 certificate. The test will cover the basics of weather and flight safety, including not flying a drone over crowds of people, respecting privacy, that the drone always needs to be in the line of sight, and areas that are off limits, such as airports and military sites.
In addition to national laws like the FAA drone laws, there may also be local laws. In the US, for example, each state, county, and city may have its own restrictions and regulations that go over and above federal laws. Alan Perlman, a commercial drone pilot and instructor for two different drone schools says,
Here in Nashville, TN, we’re not allowed to operate drones in any of the Davidson County parks. In North Carolina, if you’re a non-recreational pilot (AKA a Part 107 certified pilot) you must go through an additional process to register with the North Carolina Department of Transportation to fly in that state.
To make things easier, they have built a directory of local drone laws organized by state.
You need to check that the whole production, including your equipment and the drone operation, is covered by professional indemnity/liability insurance.
The best way to check that experience and skill is often to look at a drone operator’s portfolio and testimonials. It’s worth checking if they have done similar projects to yours, as well as assessing image quality, straight horizons, color quality, interesting angles, and good composition.
Most of all, it’s important to do some research to ensure it all adds up. Tyler Mattas, a UAV drone operator from Adventure UAV has covered everything from a drone in flight for the Discovery Channel, to a decommissioned titan nuclear missile base inside and out. In his blog, he says,
Many providers are instead trying to conceal the fact that they use inadequate equipment. Be wary if you see a website full of professional-looking images of expensive drone and camera equipment implying that this is actually the equipment in use.
It is important to be aware that these may be stock images. He also warns,
Selling themselves on nothing other than their Part 107 certification is a widespread practice among inexperienced drone service providers.
He cautions anyone hiring a drone pilot to be wary of some companies who claim to provide national coverage but are often drone pilots operating in one area. They will then subcontract work to pilots who may not have the same experience.
So a critical eye over the website and maybe a phone call are essential to ensure that the portfolio, experience, and qualifications all add up.
The market leader is DJI, which produces prosumer and professional drone models with different specifications. But we’re also seeing photographers use drones from other companies like Autel and Skydio.
When hiring a drone pilot, functionality is more important than the brand and well worth doing some research and getting answers to the following questions: Will your camera be mounted on the drone, or will the drone operator provide the camera and lenses? Are these of sufficient quality? If not, can the drone carry your camera equipment? What is the battery life? Is there a gimbal that will allow you to adjust the camera angle? Who is going to operate the gimbal?
On production, you normally need two people. The drone pilot is responsible for maneuvering the drone, while the photographer is often responsible for the gimbal and camera. The drone can hover relatively stable in one place, giving the photographer time to adjust the exact position of the camera and take the photos. Emily says,
The setup I used was that the drone pilot operated the drone itself while I controlled the camera underneath. I could swivel it any which way, change exposure, and take the photo from a small console with a screen below. It’s really fun.
Tyler underlines the importance of allowing enough time for the drone work in the schedule. He says,
Don’t forget about the drone op in the production! Although clients are paying a lot of money to have it there, the drone work is almost always an afterthought at the end of the schedule, which can result in images that aren’t as good as they could have been. They are often complicated and difficult to pull off. So leaving it to last makes it even more important to have a good drone op that’s able to work fast, not make mistakes, and get solid shots under pressure and in limited time.
Just as the cost of drone and camera equipment varies greatly, so does the cost of hiring a drone pilot. Costs take into account their qualifications, experience, and equipment. It’s worth considering all the above when deciding if a price is reasonable or not. As a ballpark, Bark says that drone photography costs between $70 and $250 per hour.
Here is a quick breakdown of what to look for and how to hire drone pilots:
High-quality aerial photography requires considerable planning and preparation. While a small drone and a GoPro might work for a short viral video or even reportage, a slick, commercial production requires greater investment, but one that may be well worthwhile to give your project the edge. Emily’s advice? “Do it! It’s really fun.”
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