Drone Photography and the FAA in the USA - Dreamstime

Commercial construction

When I started doing photography professionally back in 2006, I never imagined that I would be taking aerial photographs. I have had the opportunity to take some images while flying around in helicopters over Afghanistan and Iraq and always enjoyed the unique perspective my lens captured while in flight. But, the cost involved in flying a helicopter for the purpose of capturing this perspective was well out of reach of my operating budget. That is, until drones came on the scene. My DJI Mavic 2 Pro, with the fly more kit, cost me less than $2,000.00. I was ecstatic to have this technology for such an affordable price. Then I started reading about rules and regulations regarding air space and commercial photography vs. drone hobbyists. At first, it seemed like it was going to be impossible to use my new drone to make money, but the more information I gathered, the more I could see how all of these rules and regulations actually benefitted my business.

Upstate South Carolina Foothills at Dawn

It always amazes me that businesses that regularly used drones to capture photographs or video still have no clue (or outright ignore) the FAA regulations regarding the used of them in a commercial environment. To be clear, the definition of commercial drone use is any use of a drone (quadcopter or otherwise) “in connection with a business.” In essence, this means that commercial drone use applies to any use of a drone from which you hope to profit.

Clock tower on Furman Lake

Any commercial use in connection with a business, including:

Selling photos or videos taken from a UAS

Using UAS to provide contract services, such as industrial equipment or factory inspection

Using UAS to provide professional services, such as security or telecommunications

Using UAS to monitor the progress of work your company is performing

The fines are extremely high (up to $250,000)!

So, first thing is first. If you are thinking about adding a drone to your gear, consider the following:

1. An entry level drone with GPS stabilization (you will definitely want this for any commercial work) and a commercial grade quality camera will start at a minimum of $1,000. I use all DJI equipment, but there are a few others out there that have some decent feedback, such as GoPro.

With this setup, you will have between 30 minutes and 1 hour of flight time. This sounds like a lot, but flight time is not shooting time. Think about all the time you take setting up lighting, recon-ing a location, waiting on natural lighting conditions to align, etc. with your ground camera. I use a 4 to 5 battery setup that allows me to have batteries on a charger while in flight. With this many batteries, I can fly continuously, without interruption.

2. Getting your Part 107 UAS License costs a minimum of $200 for an online course, which (if you block out time for the course uninterrupted) can be done in about a week. And the test costs $160, administered by a private company, usually near or at your local airport. The test is no walk in the park, but any good online course should be able to prepare you for the test.

Sunrise Church

3. Being able to fly a drone successfully can be nerve-racking! You have $2,000 invested into your equipment and there are a lot of variables that go into flight, not to mention the hundreds of flight hours it takes to master the craft. Most "Hollywood Level" rigs are a two man operation (one person piloting the aircraft and one person running the camera), but, if you are like me, you have to do both. Which means you may be flying the aircraft up and to the right in a semi-circle while tilting the camera down and to the left. This maneuver requires the use of four fingers at one time and is a fairly regular maneuver. All of this is done while watching a small screen and keeping line of site on the aircraft, which can be as high as 400 feet in the air. Whenever possible, I use a spotter to help me keep line of site on my aircraft so I don't accidentally run it into something too small to be recognized by the collision avoidance system on the UAS, or if I am flying in a restricted area that would require me to disable the use of it.

Most of the drones I see for sale on eBay or Offer Up are being sold by people too nervous to fly it because they don't want to crash it. And I have crashed all my drones, so it WILL happen.

4. Lastly, Airspace is a funny thing. It seems that when a client wants aerial footage of their property or a wedding party wants to hire you for their wedding, they do not consider what airspace they are in. This can be a blessing and a curse. For obvious reasons, flying in more restrictive airspace can mean you can charge more for your services. The coordination that goes into contacting an Air Traffic Controller (ATC) prior to and during a flight in A through (typically) C airspace can be extensive. It can take up to 90 days to get an answer and, if the request isn't submitted properly, will surely be denied. On the flip side, if your client needs it done right away, they will not be able to utilize your services. I have lost a few clients because they "have another company" that can do it without all the red tape. But, they are taking a great risk when they do that. One that I wouldn't take.

Hopefully, I have given anyone considering purchasing a drone some things to think about as you move forward. In the end, it will come down to knowing your market, knowing your skill set, and knowing what you want to offer your clients. Flying a drone isn't for everyone, but there are definitely some opportunities out there in most markets to emerge as a leader if you can master the skills it takes to be a photographer and a pilot.

Photo credits: Jason Schulz.

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January 09, 2020


@Steve428 I should have mentioned in the article that that FAA has a prep package. I, like you, enjoyed learning about the technical side of flying a drone, through an online video course. I could watch the videos over and over if I needed to. I recently started using an LAANC connected app for my ATC approvals and have been much more successful in getting approvals faster.

January 09, 2020


Good overview. Don’t be scared of the Part107 test. It is $150 and you don’t need to buy a prep course, although you can for about $100. The FAA has a prep package for free that will get you ready if you study it. I did buy a test prep course for $100 because I prefer to watch videos and be instructed, versus studying an unfamiliar topic. Since you have to retest every three years, make sure you buy a course that comes with lifetime access and updates. Funny thing about that test; it has nothing to do with operating a drone, it is an airman basic knowledge test. Much improvement has been made in getting approval to fly in controlled airspace. We don’t call ATC anymore, we use an app to get approval through the LAANC system, and many times that approval can be instant. If LAANC isn’t available you apply online and yes, it can take up to 90 days. It’s a great hobby or way to make money!

January 09, 2020


It is incredible how far drones have come! Great Post.

January 07, 2020


Interesting!  Thanks for sharing your knowledge.  I love drone footage.  Drones have sure improved over the years.

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