Since I’ve loved flying and been a licensed private pilot for more than 30 years, and an aerial photographer for the past 15 years, I’ve been paying attention to the fast-moving developments surrounding Unmanned Aerial Systems – UAS or UAV(ehicles) – more commonly called drones. I wanted to know what other photographers are thinking about the current state of drone photography and how it’s impacting their business, good or bad. I sent five questions to two other photographers who are using drones and asked their opinion, then I answered my own questions too.
Cameron Davidson is a corporate, editorial, and advertising photographer in Alexandria, VA, just outside Washington, DC www.camerondavidson.com. He’s been photographing a mix of aerial and ground-based images for more than 30 years and has recently started shooting from drones.
Rob Miller is a commercial photographer in Spokane, WA, the second largest city in Washington state but well-removed from the Seattle metro area some six hours away www.rlmillerphoto.com. For ten years Rob’s specialized in architecture, interior design, and real estate photography, while also completing a variety of other corporate work. He’s also recently added drone photography to his offerings.
And I’m Andrew Buchanan, a 20-year architectural and interior photographer in Seattle shooting mostly for architecture, construction, and engineering firms in the fast-growing Puget Sound region www.subtlelightphoto.com. I’ve also been shooting aerial images from helicopters for 15 years and I’m the drone skeptic in the group. At this stage of their development, I’m not convinced they’re a legitimate tool for high-quality, commercial still photography.
Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.
When did you first start flying a drone and why? What was the learning curve like? How long before you shot your first commercial project with a drone?
Cameron Davidson: Four years ago. I bought a Phantom 1 and promptly crashed it within a week. More out of curiosity than anything else. At first, the learning curve was tough. I lost a Phantom 1 in a National Park (this was before the ban) because I forgot to set a home point and the drone lost power fighting a down slope wind. It now resides in a tree in a hollow in Virginia. There are those that have crashed drones and there are those that will crash drones – it’s inevitable. I shot my first commercial job with my Inspire 1 last year. As soon as I received my 333 exemption, I started shooting projects with the quadcopter. I now have the 333 and 107 exemptions.
Rob Miller: In mid-2015 my clients began to ask about drones. I had a couple of helicopter photography flights under my belt at that time but only for larger commercial clients due to the added cost of helicopter charters. The idea of flying my camera around on a drone was very appealing as it [seemed safer], was less cost to my clients, and while it was primarily for work purposes it also sounded like fun. I did not hold a traditional pilot’s license so I called the 3-4 people in my area who were certified with 333 exemptions, pilots licenses, and aviation insurance and asked them to work together. I flew with a number of them until the new part 107 rules were released. In most cases, we flew the Inspire 1 Pro in dual operator mode which allowed me to work with the pilot to position the aircraft, then I would move the camera and frame the shots independently. This way I learned the rules, the controls, and got familiar with what can be done with the aircraft. Since I passed the Part 107 test I have transitioned to mostly flying my own drone in single operator mode but I do still work with some other local pilots when there is a need to operate with two controllers.
Andrew Buchanan: I’ve only flown a hobby drone once or twice for fun in the back yard, but I’ve been a licensed private pilot since I was 15. Although my license isn’t current, most of my knowledge of airspace regulations, the workings of the air traffic control (ATC) system, and the vagaries of the FAA in general are pretty ingrained. For the last 15 years, I’ve worked with a local helicopter company to shoot 6-12 aerial jobs per year from small two- or four-seat helicopters. Understanding ATC helps me plan my shoots most efficiently and work with the pilots to position the helicopter right where I want it. While 2-seat helicopters run around $300/hr here in Seattle, I really only need 10-15 minutes above a location to get a big variety of images. Plus, they’re incredibly efficient getting from A to B at 80-100mph in a straight line above traffic. Contrary to what many clients think, I can shoot a project within 30-40 miles of my airport for only about $300-350 in flight charges.
Regardless of your choice of aerial platform, please use this post only as a reference and a starting point for your own research and preparation. It is every pilot's individual responsibility to know and follow all relevant safety regulations to keep the skies safe for all of us. For more information on the regulations for the commercial use of drones for photography or other purposes, start on the FAA's Unmanned Aircraft Systems webpage here.