Drone Photography 101

Already one month without a post. Time flows quickly if you are busy I guess… Lots of stuff going on in my life at the moment, but now I finally got a slow evening to write again. This time about drone photography and how this can make your travels and travel memories even more amazing. A full travel photography set nowadays requires not only a good travel camera, but also an (waterproof) action cam and a video / photo drone for those great aerial shots and unorthodox perspectives. I have been dabling with both, albeit amateuerish, and just passed my drone pilot license to get ready for the trips I still have planned this year. So today I want to give an overview of what it means to own and fly a photo drone and how to travel with one.

Getting the right Travel Photo Drone

There are now quite a few good models available in the market, almost all provided by Chinese companies. The most popular are DJI, Yuneec, and Parrot. But actually there are hundreds of manufacturers.  Here’s a good overview:  Drone Company Overview 2018

However, I would stick to the three large and well-known companies, as their quality is far superior than the rest. Technical updates and support are more important for drones than for other equipment (say a camera or an action cam). The piloting software works on your phone and regular updates are a must to ensure compatibility. A drone is very far from being a manchild’s toy and working fail-safe meachnisms, material quality and reliable safety are very important. I would personally recommend DJI. They are usually the winner in drone comparisons and – while not the cheapest – provide  excellent support and aftersales.

Roughly, drones from all manufacturers can be grouped into three categories.

  1. Fun drones to play around (e.g. DJI Spark)
  2. Intermediate / Photography Drones (e.g. DJI Mavic Air)
  3. Professional Drones (e.g. DJI Phantom)

Professional drones can be amazing for photography, but they are more on the expensive side and the drones (expecially haxacopters or octocopters) are usually too heavy and/or too bulky to accompany us around the world. This is comparable to a full format camera and half a dozen lenses to carry around vs. a DSLR and one or two multi-purpose travel lenses. Some of these drones offer fasting mechanisms for action cams (e.g. a go-pro) and this can be a really great combination. Fun drones often also have cameras, but these are little more than just gadgets for FPV (first person view) flying. Image quality is awful. There is still a lot of movement in the market and upgraded drones are relased almost every year. So this article will probably be outdated by 2019, but my current recommendation would be to get an intermediate drone, either a DJI Mavic Air, which you can now get for a good price as the DJI Mavic 2 Zoom has come out, or directly go with the newest model, the DJI Mavic 2 Zoom, which comes with a Hasselblad camera and optical zoom (hence the name).

One key advantage of the DJI Mavics is their foldability. Check it out:

IMG_20180826_142433-01.jpeg

IMG_20180826_142359-01.jpeg

The Mavic Air weighs only 430g (including the battery), which is well below the legal limit of most countries and is excellent for travelling. Folded it is not much bigger than a compact camera. I strongly recommend to buy the fly-more combo pack for the DJI. Ill explain later why.

Equipment and Set-up

Drones are complex technical devices and require much more attention, preparation, and care than a normal travel camera. However, with some practise and optimization, this can be easily accomodated even in light or spontaneous travel.

You can categorize drone equipment into the following groups:

  • Drone itself (plus protective casing)
  • Batteries (plus protective casing)
  • Drone controller
  • Charging station and cables

Everything else (landing pad, rotor protectors, camera filters, sun covers) has more gadget character and is not required. I am still evaluating about the filters, but since the Mavic Air can take both HDR and RAW photographs and the camera is too weak for night shots and even with a gimbal too shaky for long-exp, I see only limited additional value. This is my travel set:

IMG_20180826_142926-01.jpeg

The grey bag comes with the buy-more set, as do the two additional batteries and the hardcase for the drone itself. Very handy and overall quite small and easy to fit into your carry-on bag. The only thing you will not get with the package is the LiPo Protective bag you see at the top of the picture. Since drone batteries have a high energy density and flow, the fire and explosion risk is much higher than for normal (cellphone) batteries. So the fire-proof protective case is mandatory for any flight! You can get this on amazon, for example here.

The equipment needs to be handled with care. The LiPo batteries can only operate in a temperature range between 20-40° and both extreme heat (>65°) and cold will destroy the batteries. The rotors of the drone are also quite sensitive and it is good to bring a spare set (the buy-more combo comes with spares). The Mavic air takes micro sd cards for recording the videos and pictures. As always: SD cards die easily and frequently. Bring a spare sd card – you can use this either for the action cam, for the camera or the drone, depending on which SD card dies first. 😉

Why three batteries? Each battery lasts roughly 25minutes. However, due to many safety requirements and risks (more on that later) I would recommend to set the battery safety setting to somewhere between 20-30%. 30% warning, 20% return to home. So that means you have 20mins effective flight time. The batteries charge very slowly and carefully (balance mode, one battery at a time, can take up to 3hrs). So for an action-packed vacation day and several shots, flights, and different angles, more than one battery is a must.

Moving on to the setup of the drone. You have almost as many options as you have with the professional DSLRs. And – similarly – you have an auto mode which is good for a start and then gets redundant once you have more experience. Still, there are a few quite useful settings for everyone. First of all – the drone itself has some great built-in features like the quick shots. Some of them are fun the first 2-3times and then useless (e.g. Asteroid), others offer great shots and angles which would be very difficult to pilot by yourself in this quality. Here are two examples (a couple joined me while recording and the mom had a really hard time dragging the boy and his dad away from me and the drone 😉 )

Beyond this, there is a cinematic mode, which slows and smoothes drone movement for video recording, also very handy to turn-on. I would also change storage of videos and pictures from internal storage to external sd and would turn on JPG+RAW recording in the settings. It does not slow down the recording much. Additionally, I suggest video setting Full-HD and 60fps. The 120fps slow-mo mode is really cool, but you can do this in editing later. And 4K 30 FPS looks also great, but can simlarly limit your flexibility.

Lastly, you should slow down gimbal rotation in the settings. What is a gimbal? A gimbal is a pivoted support that allows the rotation of an object about a single axis. A three-way gimbal can thus remain independent of the rotation of its support. Or in one simple sentence: The gimbal keeps the camera from shaking and allows it to record stable images, despite the movement of the drone. But the faster you rotate the gimbal, the more abrupt the recording movements. So slow it down. This is the gimbal:IMG_20180826_142948-01.jpeg

In addition, you should activate the histogram in the camera and then flexibly shift away from auto mode for the picture shots. The camera of the Mavic is solid, but it is only a 1/2.3” CMOS with 12 megapixels. Not that great and the light spectrum is limited. So better watch the histogram so you can correct small deviations later without being fully-off the ranges. Last but not least: Turn off beginners mode, but keep some sensible safety settings on. Almost all countries limit to ~100m height and even though the theoretical range is 5km, the signal gets weak much much earlier and the drone gets uncontrollable. So I have settings for max height and distance. You can see my respective settings in the following images:

Legal Stuff, Licenses and Safety Regulations

Drone piloting and the legal enviroment can be described perfectly with one word: Chaos. In the early 2000s drones were unregulated in almost all countries and flying was simple. Nowadays, especially due to some incidents, the opposite is the case. Drones are massively overregulated and authorities are overwhelmed with the complexity of the regulations or have difficulty putting them into practice. Drone flight laws are not harmonized, neither across the EU nor in any other region. So every single country has different drone laws and regulations and you must know these before flying.

I will now explain the situation in Germany, but I will come back to the international problems which describing how to travel with a drone. German law groups drones into three categories:

  • <2KG
  • 2-5KG
  • 5-25KG

Some of the professional drones might reach into the above 2-5KG category, but most  travel drones are lighter than 2KG. So I will focus on these. There are many important legal challenges, based on a multitude of reasons. These are the applicable legal frameworks:

  • Luftverkehrsgesetz (LuftVG)
  • Luftverkehrsordnung (LuftVO)
  • SERA (Standardized European Rules of the Air)
  • ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization)
  • Nachrichten für Luftfahrer (NfL)
  • NOTAMS (Notice(s) To Airmen)
  • Grundgesetz (GG)
  • Bundesdatenschutzgesetz (BDSG) bzw. DSGVO (Datenschutzgrundverordnung)
  • Bürgerliches Recht (BGB)
  • Strafrecht (StGB)
  • Kunsturhebergesetz (KunstUrhG)
  • Uhrhebergesetz UrhG

This looks horribly complicated and typical German. And it is.

Thankfully it can be summarized into a few rules:

Before you fly:

  • You must have liability insurance with a minum coverage of 1M€. (Privathaftpflicht) Important: The normal liability insurance you might already have does NOT cover this. You need special insurance, I recommend this one:
  • You must have a fire-proof and solid plaque with your name and address on the drone. You get this on Amazon for a few euros. Example
  • If your drone weight is above 2KG or other special cases apply, you must have a drone pilot license (Kenntnisnachweis des Luftfahrbundesamtes LBA). This must come from a recognized institution. Here is the list. The exam is simple and can be done with little preparation. This license can be important internationally, as many states now require you to have a proper piloting license to operate a drone. These are different in each country, but some a mutually recognized. The LBA might or might not get recognized.

During flight (assuming the drone has a camera)

  • You must not fly in controlled zones (e.g. Airspace D around airports)
  • You must not fly above private property (if this would violate privacy)
  • You must not fly above 100m
  • You must not fly out of visual range (you must be able to see the drone)
  • You must not fly above or close to central public roadways (includes rivers like the Rhein)
  • You must not fly at night
  • You must not fly above crowds or at large events
  • You must not fly above power stations, industrial zones, hospitals, and other government facilities
  • You must not fly in naturally protect areas (Naturschutzgebiete)
  • You must not record or violete private space. This can include recording images of individuals, tracking individuals or simply recording someones garden. This can lead to criminal charges.

How to Travel with a Drone and how to actually Fly one

Traveling with a drone is not that difficult if you follow basic rules. The batteries are the biggest problem. They are explosive and highly flamable. So they must be stored in a fire-proof protective case and must be transported in the carry-on. You also should bring an English version of your liability insurance letter with you. Additionally, you should research in advance if the destination allows bringing a drone into the country and what the flight and registration requirements are. The DJI App offers an initial orientation overview for this and links to the respective government websites. But that does not always work. Alternatively, many drone travelers now post about their experiences. One example is this website (in German). Also you should have luggage that fits to your travel style with the drone – check my other article on travel preparation.

What else to observe when flying with a drone in different countries and in general?

  • Don’t fly through clouds or fog. You loose line of sight and the condensation can destroy the drone
  • Beware of animals, they might feel threatened and attack the drone
  • Check weather forecast and especially wind levels. Check your drone manual what the tolerated wind strength is. Be aware: At the coast and in the mountains, turbulence is very strong.
  • Don’t fly in the rain
  • Watch out for powerlines and trees
  • Always wait till the GPS is locked in, so the drone has a reliable home position to return. (It does that automatically in case of any problem)
  • Be careful when launching from a moving object e.g. a boat and adjust the home base!
  • Stay away from airports, military installations, hospitals and other government facilities
  • Privacy laws are now much more harmonized. So if it is wrong in Germany, it is probably also wrong in your destination.

I hope this article helped a bit in introducing drone photography. Yes, there are many annoying rules and regulations, but drones are no toy and safety is very important. Still, once you get the hang of it, amazing pictures are just one take-off away. Have a great trip!


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