A Lofty Introduction to Drone Photography

Up until about 5 years ago, the only way to get aerial photographs was to charter a plane or helicopter, a major expense for an average hobby photographer. New technologies, new, more powerful batteries, and new drone companies have made aerial photography far more affordable, within the reach of a hobby photographer.

Drone photography is a sector I’ve yet to explore, but am intensely interested in.

It offers a different perspective of our world.

Stock image aerial shot beach blue water ocean gold sand
Stock image, aerial shot of a beach

Seeing our world from this perspective is fascinating. It’s weird. Alien, even.

Back before TSA reared its ugly head, whenever I flew I always opted for a window seat. I was fascinated by the world below. That thin shimmer down below, was that the mighty Mississippi River? Cars shrank into minuscule specks of dust. Land out west reshaped into circles of green and gold bounded by squares. The murky brown coastlines transformed into a tranquil, deep blue-green velvet blanket.

As a result of my interest, I’ve been keeping a close eye on this fast-growing drone photography industry and on the products.

aerial view mountains range silver sinewy curving river
Stock photography, aerial view of mountains and river

When drones became increasingly common and more affordable, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) took note. Mostly because idiots flew drones into airplanes’ flight paths, which are protected airspaces.

Naturally, they started putting together some rules and regulations. There was a move toward registering all drones, but they’ve since then rolled back that requirement to apply only to commercial-use drones (source).

In short, if you buy a model drone for fun, you don’t need to register. If you intend to make money doing drone photography and aerial videography (eg real estate photography, stock photography, weddings, etc.), you are required to register and obtain a FAA drone pilot certification.

The FAA Rules

The rules for flying a model drone are pretty simple and basic.

  • Fly your drone at or below 400 feet.
  • Keep your drone within your line of sight
  • Respect privacy
  • Never fly near other aircrafts, especially near airports
    • If you’re flying a drone within 5 miles of an airport, you must give notice
  • Never fly over groups of people, public events, or stadiums
  • Never fly near emergency, such as fires
  • Be aware of FAA airspace restrictions
    • Don’t fly in restricted airspaces. Washington, D.C., especially
      • Within 15 miles of the Reagan Washington National Airport, there is a strict no-drone rule. Outside that radius, model drones are permitted
    • Don’t fly over Military Operation areas (MOAs). No Area-51 aerial photography!
    • Don’t fly over warning areas (ie wildfires)

Your local city or state may have further regulations that must be observed as well.

So…in general, don’t buzz people’s houses and don’t be a turd.

white drone quadcopter unmanned aerial vehicle model
stock image, white drone

National Parks

What some people don’t know is National Parks have their own set of rules governing drone photography.

At this time of writing, the general public cannot launch nor land a drone within a National Park’s boundaries. This ban is officially temporary, but the officials haven’t shown any signs of budging toward lifting it nor making it permanent. The NPS officials are, understandably, concerned about the impact of noise on wildlife and the effect of an intrusion.

As an example, a pilot crashed his drone into the Grand Prismatic Spring, a fragile geyser hot spring in Yellowstone, and they were unable to recover it. The drone undoubtedly introduced new bacteria that could affect the micro-bacterial life in the spring.

If you ignore this ban, you risk a fine of up to $5,000 and 6 months in jail. A youtuber posted a video of a drone flight within a NP, a NPS employee found it, and they fined him.

Don’t risk it.

aerial view brown white cows green grass field range acreage ranch grazing
Stock image, aerial view of cows in a field

Some National Forests and State parks, however, do allow drones. The rules and regulations vary from park to park, and you may be required to obtain permits. Do your homework!

Tips

I plan on grabbing a drone at some point, and have picked up a few tips from the pros.

  • Extra batteries. The best drone on the market at the moment has only 20-23 minutes of flight time. It takes a little over an hour to charge, provided you’ve access to a reliable power source.
  • Practice at home. New drone pilots are frequently surprised by how easy it is to crash a drone.
  • Bumper guards. Given how easy it is to lose control when the faintest breeze picks up, bumper guards protect your drone’s propellers.
  • Extra propellers. They’ll break eventually.
  • Dedicated carrying case
aerial shot of frosty forest snow pine fir trees white blue woods
Stock image, aerial shot of frosty forest

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