If you’re producing stock you’ve probably already asked yourself whether you should (or could) get one of those quadrocopters and shoot stock with it. I’ve done this for roughly 3.5 years (using a DJI Phantom 1 with a GoPro 3 / 3+ for 2 years, then upgrading to a Phantom 3) so yes, it can be done and it can be great fun.
However, there are a few things to keep in mind and I’d like to give you a starting point for your own research into the matter. None of the below is to be considered legal advice and some info may be outdated, inaccurate or plain wrong. This is just my experience, how I went about the whole thing and the lessons I learned. For you, it should be no more than a rough overview and a starting point for your own research.
Let’s start with some of my favorite videos:
Are You Allowed To Fly?
If you intend to fly around with a drone, you’ll have to figure out if you’re actually allowed to do so at all and which restrictions apply. The problem is that legislation is very different from country to country and something that’s allowed at home may be forbidden abroad. If you want to play it safe, you should always check your local legislation and the legislation of the places you travel to. This can be a huge pain and if you want to take a risk, just go ahead. The truth is: In 3.5 years of flying, nobody ever asked me for a permit (which I have) and I was never questioned by police or authorities. Still it’s important to keep in mind that if you don’t know what you’re doing, you may be at risk.
I’ve only flown in a few European countries but the only country I’ll mention is France: It’s very, VERY restrictive with a very complex legislation. Don’t do it. At least not without a proper permit (which you probably won’t get).
Every other country I flew in or read about has roughly the following rules:
- Absolutely no flying above or near military installations, airports, airfields (Just in case you didn’t think of it yourself). As an example, iIn Germany, there’s a no-fly zone of 5km around airports and 2km around airfields. This means absolutely NO flying, not even at a height of 1m.
- Maximum flight altitude: 100m above ground (120m in some countries). Yes, your drone can go much higher. No, you’re not allowed to go higher.
- Fly within visual range. This means you have to see your drone at all times, without using binoculars or other visual aides.
- Do not fly over groups of people, industrial installations, railroad tracks, highways or basically anything which can take serious damage in case of a crash.
Additionally, rules may be different depending on whether you’re flying for fun or commercially, the weight of your drone, the time of day (some countries allow flying only between sunrise and sunset) or there may be additional restrictions for urban areas, natural reserves or just about anything you can think of. Depending on your location and your individual situation, you may also need a license, a fire-proof plate with your name and address attached to the drone, a flight log and, in most cases:
- Liability insurance!
This is particularly important. Even if you don’t need one (and in all cases where I checked, it was required), it is definitely good to have. Chances are high that your regular insurance doesn’t cover drones so you will need a special one. Also, you will want one that explicitly covers commercial use and photography / videography. There are several options but if you’re based in Germany, DMO is definitely a good choice (roughly 180EUR a year).
How Hard Is It? What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
Not very hard. Absolutely everything.
This will depend a lot on the hardware you’re using. I’ve only used DJI Phantoms and can’t speak for any of the Parrots and Yuneecs and Karmas out there. In any case, flying a drone can be difficult so you’ll want one with a good flight controller and (at least) GPS. Anything which improves flight stability and adds failure tolerance (like an auto-return to the home position) is a big plus, too.
This being said, a good drone can make things seem very easy: It goes in the direction you tell it, holds position even in windy conditions, returns home, shows its position and altitude on a map on your phone, maybe even avoids obstacles by itself. And yes, with some luck you can enjoy lots of hours of flight without any problems. But you may not be so lucky, so here’s a selection of stuff that can happen (and has partially happened to me):
- Flyaways – due to some error, the craft may just fly away. Maybe you’ll find it, maybe not.
- Battery failures – I had many of those with the Phantom 1 (none with the Phantom 3), particularly in cold weather. LiPo batteries are quite sensitive to cold – they will not break, but their performance may not be what you expect.
Failures come in two flavours: The aircraft may decide to land due to low voltage and – provided you notice this at all – you may be able to still exert some control over it. Quite useful if you’re above a lake or so. Or the craft may simply drop from the sky.
- Engine failures. No explanation necessary.
- Necessary software updates: It can be quite annoying if an update is mandatory and you find yourself in the field and suddenly unable to fly because you’re lacking a firmware update. Before going out, better check you’re up to date.
- Bird attacks. Yes, predatory birds have been observed to attack drones.
- Crashes. You’ll have them. After a crash it’s recommended to recalibrate the craft (e.g. the compass, gimbal, etc) and of course check that your propellers are intact. Don’t fly with broken propellers!
- Video link failures. This can and does happen and is very annoying. If your drone is out of sight, try an auto-return to the home point, if your drone can do that. If not, good luck.
- Losing GPS. This can happen for several reasons, but the most common is flying in areas without enough sky / satellite visibility, for example in canyons or near mountains. Flying without GPS is a lot more difficult and you’ll have to do a lot more controlling, e.g. to account for wind (particularly in canyons and near mountains where there’s a lot of air circulation).
- Probably a whole lot more. Remember: Your drone is a flying computer-camera, probably worth over $1000. It’s easy to use in most cases but if it crashes, it crashes badly. Not only will you lose your $1000 investment, but it can get other stuff damaged or it can get you or other people hurt or killed. I’m not joking. These copters may be classified as toys, they may be all plastic, they may weigh just 1kg – but they can do a lot of damage. Just imagine what would happen if you threw your DSLR up in the air, to a height of about 100m.
Piloting Tips and Tricks
The above are mainly technical problems. However, if you crash (and you most likely will) it will be because you messed up, not the tech. So here are some things to keep in mind:
- First and foremost: Practice, practice, practice. Don’t just unbox your drone and then fly hundreds of meters away. Learn how to use it first, familiarize yourself with the controls, ramp up your flying slowly.
- Avoid other aircraft. If you hear a helicopter or anyhting else, start descending immediately. First of all: it’s the law. Second: If you start looking for the source of the sound first, you may be too late for a descent. Helicopters are fast and can go very low.
- Keep in mind that your drone is flying through the air, not driving on a road. There is quite a bit of inertia and all your maneuvers will need a few seconds before having an actual effect. If you need to brake or steer away, do so in time. This is particularly important in this case:
- Descending: When descending, your drone enters the air turbulences its propellers create, which means it will have a lot less “grip” than in calm air. You should always descend slowly and/or while moving sideways (i.e. not vertically towards the ground). If you descend fast and in a straight line, your drone may need more than 10m of height to stabilize or stop the descent. Keep this in mind when landing. Some drones have a built-in speed limit when descending to avoid this (e.g. the Phantom 3 descends much slower than the Phantom 1). I’ve rammed my Phantom 1 into the ground quite a few times when trying to land too fast.
- Flying in the cold can be a challenge (as mentioned, LiPo batteries are sensitive to low temperatures). If you decide to fly anyway, follow these:
- Keep your batteries warm during transport. Rather than in the backpack, try to carry them in an inside pocket of your jacket.
- After takeoff, let the craft hover at a low altitude for about a minute. Draining power warms up the batteries and after a minute, they should be on a good operating temperature. Plus if the craft behaves well during this time, it will probably behave well during the rest of the flight.
- Keep an eye out for any battery telemetry (if you have it, and in cold weather it’s highly recommended). If your phone app tells you the batteries run low, return immediately.
- Keep in mind your flight time may be quite a bit shorter than in warm weather.
- Flying in any wind stronger than a soft breeze can be a challenge. As long as you have GPS, you should generally be OK as the craft will hold position. But if for some reason GPS fails, get ready for a challenge. As mentioned above, be especially aware of this when flying in the mountains or in canyons.
- Don’t get disoriented. From a distance of 1-200m, your drone will be a tiny spot in the sky and even if your video link works, the landscape can look very different from up there. Always try to keep track about where you are, where your drone is and in which direction its nose is. If you mess things up, you may mistakenly fly in the wrong direction and lose the video link, too. Hope you have that GPS-return-to-home function.
- Familiarize yourself with your drone’s different flying modes, if it has any.
- Starting near large metal objects. This can make you scratch your head, as it is sometimes not very obvious. If there’s a lot of ferromagnetic metal near your craft, the compass will go nuts. Keep a few meters distance from manholes and the like.
- People coming up and starting a discussion about what you’re doing there. I’ve had a few of these, but people were always very friendly and most said things like “Oh cool! I want one of those!” (But even if they’re not friendly and polite, you should be). The important part is: Don’t get distracted! Tell them you have to concentrate and that you’ll gladly talk to them after you’ve landed. They can’t object to that and it will show you’re a responsible pilot.
- If your drone vendor offers some kind of premium servicing options, consider it. DJI offers DJI Care, don’t know about other brands. I don’t have the extra plan and the two times I had to send in a drone for repairs, it took 2-3 month to get it back. If you don’t want to wait that long, get the extra.
- Not actually a piloting issue, but none the less important: LiPos can catch fire. For storing (and while charging) it’s recommended to use a LiPo “safe bag” – these cost a few dollars and are well worth the money. If you want to be even safer, store the batteries in an ammo box.
How About Privacy?
If you’re sticking to landscapes and rural areas there should be no problem, but as soon as private property comes into play, you should be careful. Even if your country has something like a “freedom of panorama” which allows you to shoot anything you like, this generally doesn’t apply to pictures shot from non-permanent aides: this includes ladders and sure as hell includes drones.
When in doubt, get a property release or stay away.
Is It Worth It?
Yes an no. Taking into account that most of the commercially interesting stuff (industry, cities, etc) is off-limits (either due to legislation or because the risk may just be too high) you’re basically stuck with landscapes – and maybe city shots you can take while flying above the sea or a lake or river. These can have value and do sell a little bit, but you won’t get rich. Also, as with everything in stock, if it’s easy to do it has probably been done already.
Of course you can also use drones to shoot footage of people – people who know what’s happening, obviously. But before doing that, I strongly recommend you to have quite a bit of practice and routine. Due to the wide angle lenses mounted on most drones, you’ll probably want to get in close, which leaves little room for error. You don’t want to accidentally fly the drone in the wrong direction and leave your model with some ugly bleeding slashes on their face. Those plastic propellers are sharp and spin fast (for some drones you can get propeller guards and you should consider buying some).
All in all: Yes, you can use drones for stock and at the current prices it probably makes sense to spend $1500 on a drone rather than on yet another lens. A drone lets you capture lots of stuff you wouldn’t get otherwise, but there rather complex laws and rules to follow and the whole thing requires quite some responsibility from your side.
If you decide to get one, have fun and fly safely!