Beyond the reach of the longest selfie stick and more intimate than a hovering helicopter, camera drones are the next tech frontier in photography.
Enthusiasm for camera drones has skyrocketed in the last few years. Now, everyday consumers can get professional-grade aerial imagery that was once only possible with a sizeable helicopter — and budget.
Drones are an artist’s dream medium. Freed from earth-bound photography, camera drones allow creative minds to take flight and capture the world from a higher perspective.
Here are eight practical tips for traveling with an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) — from choosing the right drone to understanding battery rules when traveling on airplanes.
1. The Right Tools
Nothing is more important than having the right tool for the job and that means choosing a drone model that best suits a photographer’s piloting and artistic needs.
The drone market runs the gamut, from small reasonably priced drones to high-end cinematography UAVs.
Smaller sized drones are lightweight and highly transportable, perfect for demanding, longer-range trips and capturing far-flung adventures. Able to fit into an already stuffed bag, products like the DJI Spark or the GoPro Karma are affordable options for the intense, run-and-gun traveler.
On the other end of the size spectrum, heftier UAVs such as the DJI Inspire 2 and the Freefly Alta reign supreme. These models require their own special, heavy cases that aren’t so easily lugged from place to place.
What these large and pricey vehicles do have is unrivaled image quality and the most robust features around. Save these guys for short-range jaunts, easily accessible locales or for days when extra hands can help carry equipment.
Treading the middle ground is the DJI Phantom 4 and Yuneec Typhoon H, which has Intel RealSense 3D camera technology that allows the drone to see and avoid obstacles. With their medium size, these feature-rich birds can accompany travelers anywhere they’re able to sling a backpack.
2. Charged Up
Bring multiple drone batteries for the most fulfilling aerial experience. A single battery enables photographers to explore a lot of territory, but there’s nothing worse than a mid-flight dead battery.
Additional batteries give piece of mind and allow photographers to see beyond what they first envision. Grab even more power packs for capturing sweeping cinematic pans.
Given the amount of energy that lithium batteries can retain, these packages of power require their own special care.
Drone batteries can’t be checked in luggage on commercial flights. Make sure to drain lithium polymer (LiPo) batteries of energy before carrying them onboard in the passenger cabin. Also, consider carrying batteries in a LiPo fireproof storage bag for extra safety and protection. Lastly, don’t forget any foreign adapters and converters needed on the road to stay charged up.
3. Extra! Extra!
For more seamless travel, always carry extra parts. Propellers — the most commonly damaged drone part — are the fender benders of the flying world. Often drone models come with additional propellers for this exact reason.
Have small, extra parts for your UAV on call. After lugging a drone halfway across the planet, the last thing travelers want is an unusable UAV because of a few damaged or missing parts. It’s easy to remedy minor issues with an extra set of parts at the ready.
4. Wrap It
Acquire a specialized case that can take a bruising and protect the drone from the elements.
Look for cases with a hard exterior shell, coupled with a foam-lined interior that divides and surrounds the individual parts of the drone. Having casing designed to the model’s specific dimensions uses the space most efficiently and makes assembling the drone in the field a breeze.
Choose from a variety of case types to create an aerial photography toolkit: pouches, backpacks and roller-style bags. Nowadays, the littlest of drones can slide into a fortified pouch that can be stored within another bag.
Drone backpacks, designed to optimize portability for small- to medium-sized drones, are ideal for hikes and other adventures. UAV backpacks can also be carried on when boarding a flight.
For the big birds, consider hard-shelled roller and briefcase-style bags. These heavier options are perfect for checked baggage or long-term storage.
5. Fly Informed
Do advanced legwork to discover striking locations and drone-approved airspace worthy of the drone’s battery life.
Keeping drone flights safe and legal requires due diligence. Read up and comply with local and federal laws, as they vary widely in different states and countries. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is a good starting point for rules on flying UAVs in the U.S.
When location scouting, consume a regular diet of aerial photographs and make a list of inspiring points of interest. Use Google Maps to scout locations from an aerial perspective. Turn to Google Images to help develop a cohesive flight plan. Envision the backdrop and consider how the light will shift throughout the day.
6. Fly Smart
Anyone just getting started with UAVs should first learn how to pilot a craft effectively. The last thing a novice pilot wants to do is crash into a neighbor’s tree.
With lots of practice, the mechanics of the aerial system can become second nature, allowing photographers to focus on more important things — capturing stunning imagery, obtaining breathtaking videos and not demolishing the UAV.
Aerial photographers should consider starting their flying career with a trainer drone before investing in a pricier piece of hardware. Companies like DJI and 3D Robotics help customers to hone their flying skills on virtual flight simulators, keeping their sophisticated camera drones safe.
Finally, think tactically about where to take-off. Leave enough room to make mistakes and still bring the flying machine back to safety.
7. Survey the Scene
Now that the drone is airborne, it’s important to get the lay of the land. Scout the scene from above.
It’s incredibly easy to develop “tunnel vision” as a drone operator, getting so fixated on a certain subject or image that all the magnificent beauty in the scene behind or directly below the UAV gets ignored.
Encircle the subject, either manually or by employing an automated flight mode, and note where the light, composition and background seem to coalesce.
Journey to outlying locales to uncover unseen vistas. Revisit those locations with an extra battery and tinker with distance and height to further enhance the image frame.
8. Embrace Curiosity
Humans long for the sensation of flight, and drones can inspire awe in children and adults alike.
Expect and embrace the curiosity of strangers toward this remote-controlled, flying camera, whether on a journey across the street or around the globe. Share the visual and technological joys of camera drones with others.
Gaze upward. There’s a revolutionary technology hovering on the horizon, making a dramatic ascent to see the world from a different point of view.
Chase Guttman, author of The Handbook of Drone Photography: A Complete Guide to the New Art of Do-It-Yourself Aerial Photography, is a three-time recipient of the Young Travel Photographer of the Year.