Today, any amateur or semi-pro still photographer can jump into aerial videography by purchasing and learning to fly the many brands of affordable Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) otherwise known as drones. The learning curve can be steep, as you’ll have to adhere to a number of very specific and strict Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations. But the FAA and training organizations, such as the Academy of Model Aeronautics Flight School or DartDrones, provide all the information you need to get started flying drones and shooting stunning aerial video.
“Ultimately it’s time spent flying that will enable someone to fly well.”
To begin your drone flying journey, New York City-based film director Randy Scott Slavin recommends first buying a simple, easy-to-fly model.
Start with something cheap like the lower-priced models from Air Hogs. They’re meant for kids and can take a beating. Once you can hover and move around, you can then start considering an aerial cinematography drone like a DJI Phantom. You have to put in lots of flight time, so buy lots of spare batteries. Ultimately it’s time spent flying that will enable someone to fly well.
As a veteran drone videographer who has shot for numerous large worldwide brands, Slavin says to first master flying in circles, then figure 8’s. The ultimate test is to turn the drone toward you and fly what is called “nose in.”
When flying like this, all the controls are backwards so you really have to be dialed in. It’s really hard. Once you can fly one of these little drones, well then you’ll be golden with the more expensive cinematography drones like DJI’s Phantom.
Becoming A Pro
To get better footage, Slavin recommends strengthening your videography skills before trying to shoot from a drone. Choosing the right filters, aperture, frame rate and shutter speed should all be second nature before investing in a drone, as well as selecting proper lighting and time of day.
When you shoot, make your moves dynamic by flying close-up and also far away from the subject. Play with camera angles, and fly circling patterns to add dimensionality to the shoot. Always rehearse your moves before you get on location so you know what the flight profile will look like. And, of course, always consider the sun to keep drone shadows out of your shot.
If you are serious about learning drone filmmaking, one of the best sources of inspiration and information is the NYC Drone Film Festival, founded by Slavin. The 2017 event brought together drone filmmakers from around the world. The festival featured beginning to master classes, panels, drone racing, a Flight Cage, and manufacturer information. Watch the NYCDFF site for future Festivals.
“Play with camera angles, and fly circling patterns to add dimensionality to the shoot.”
Types of Pilots
There are two groups of pilots who fly drones to shoot video – recreational and commercial. The greatest distinction between the two is an increase in regulations for commercial pilots. You’ll want to quickly determine if flying and shooting video for money is worth jumping through the FAA’s regulatory hoops.
If a drone operator wants to fly only for fun, an FAA pilot license is not required. All drones over about half a pound must still be registered with FAA. You’ll be allowed to fly drones up to 55 pounds anywhere that is at least five miles from any airport without prior authorization from FAA. A recreational drone operator:
- Must always yield right of way to any manned aircraft
- Cannot fly more than 400 feet above the ground
- Must always keep the drone in sight.
To charge anyone anything for footage shot while flying a drone, a commercial drone operator:
- Must have an FAA-issued Remote Pilot Airman Certificate
- Cannot be younger than 16 years old
- Must pass TSA vetting.
Registration for drones over half a pound but not more than 55 pounds is required. Each flight must be preceded by a mandated pre-flight check by the pilot to ensure the drone is in condition for safe operation.
Commercial flying is allowed up to 400 feet above the ground in Class G airspace. FAA regulations regarding airspace are complex, and are covered in the Remote Pilot Airman Certificate training. Commercial pilots are only able to fly at “line of sight” height during the day at speeds below 100 MPH. The drones cannot be flown over any people or from a moving vehicle. Commercial drone operators can apply for waivers to fly near people or outside Class G airspace through the FAA’s online portal.
Whether you plan to fly for fun or money, FAA strongly advises you download their free B4UFLY Smartphone App, available for iOS and Android. This easy-to-use app helps drone operators determine whether there are any restrictions or requirements in effect at the location where they want to fly.
Looking for inspiration for your drone photography and videography? Check out these Instagrams:
To get a better idea of what filming with a drone looks like, here is an incredible video created by Rhino Africa Safaris that captures some of the most beautiful sights in Africa.