I put off buying a photography drone for travel photography for a long time, and I regret it. Since I had zero experience, I was nervous! I had never flown any kind of remote-controlled toy, and nor played video games that used a joystick. Actually, I just never played video games at all.

Luckily, I finally figured it out with help from friends.

Please note, some links in this post may provide a small commission to me at no cost to you.

 

Don’t put off buying your first photography drone. It’s easier than you might think!

First, a friend who had a drone years ago (but crashed it and never bought a replacement), directed me to another friend of his. This man directed me to a book that comes with a password to some instructional videos. Those videos were useful for flying, but didn’t explain how to get the drone off the ground. So, I did fly for the first time with the help of people at my local drone flying site, the Berkeley Marina in California.


Sidenote for Women: I have never seen another woman or girl flying a drone (although I know they’re out there!). All the men and boys are really helpful and nice, so don’t hesitate being the only woman in a group. In case you do want to chat with women, a Facebook group for women drone pilots is Amelia Dronehart.

3-Step Process for New Drone Pilots

Thankfully, another friend, who flies for his profession, gave me this 3-step process:

 

Step 1 – Understand the Rights + Responsibilities of Drone Pilots

Where can you fly in your area? Do you research, because you definitely cannot fly near airports, in USA National Parks, over crowds, and in certain other spaces.

What other rules apply? There are height limitations, often 400 feet in the USA.

Registration – at the time of this writing, the toy drone I have does not need to be registered, since it weighs less than the minimum weight. However, many drones do require registration. Read and understand the rules. If you’re in the USA, here are useful websites:

Federal Aviation Administration Getting Started and Federal Aviation Administration Drone Registration

Traveling With Your Drone

Know and understand the rules of the places you’ll be traveling to. Every country has its own regulations, and I’ve heard that Peru doesn’t even allow drones to be brought into the country. I research this in these ways.
Part 1 – have a look at this website on drone laws.
Part 2 – Google for drone + country name. I read articles and see if anything comes up on government websites
Part 3 – I reach out to someone who lives in-country, since they may have heard something recently in the news, or might be aware of a government website to look at.
How do I find someone living in-country? I reach out via Instagram using hashtags. You can also use Facebook groups to find a person. I ask my questions directly to an individual, not to an entire group of people.

 

Step 2 – Buy + Fly a Cheap, Toy Drone First

Buy a cheap toy drone. And, practice, practice, practice for a week or two. You’ll need good weather, meaning no rain and very little wind. Drones shouldn’t get wet. And, little toy drones get carried away by the wind. Do not fly over bodies of water, as you’ll definitely lose the drone if anything goes wrong.

If you have no prior flying experience read the instructions that come with the drone. Alternatively, find out where people fly near you. Check out Meetup.com or use Google. Drones are different than remote controlled planes, so really make sure you find a drone group.

Here’s the drone I bought. Flight time is only 7 minutes per battery. So, I also bought a set of batteries, which comes with a charger for plugging them all in at once. The drone description doesn’t say this, but it arrived with a 2nd set of propellers. So, no need to purchase an extra set.

Why Start with a Cheap Drone?

Your cheap drone won’t have GPS, so it is more difficult to fly. However, once you learn on this you will be fine on a more expensive drone. What does the GPS do? It allows your to take your hands off of the controls, and the drone will stay in that spot. This is necessary so you can use a hand to adjust the cameras controls in some cases.

The reason every beginner drone pilot should start with a cheap drone is because nearly everyone loses a drone while learning to fly (and sometimes even afterwards). Obviously, it’s better to lose or cheap drone than an expensive one. Right?

Mine got stuck really high up in a redwood tree. Here are other ways drones have been lost among people I’ve heard from:

  • Crashed into a radio tower.
  • Crashed into a wall—backed up, when they meant to fly forward.
  • Flew the drone up high to see how high it would go, and then it was carried away by the wind.
  • Flew around a corner of a cliff, not realizing the wind was stronger in that area, and the wind took the drone into the side of the cliff.
  • Flying over a lake and lost radio contact (toy drone). The drone fell into the water.
  • Flying too close to a waterfall, and the mist got it wet. The drone lost power and crashed into the pool of water below.

 

Step 3 – Buy Your Drone for Photography

You’ll most likely research a DJI brand drone, because it’s the industry standard. This brand releases new drone models regularly, so is constantly producing new iterations with improvements. The types of drones DJI currently offers are these.

 

Descriptions of Drone Types; Click to Check Current DJI Drone Prices

1. Spark family – This mini drone is the smallest in the DJI family and has a built-in camera and gimbal.. It has a camera and is super portable. It is meant to be easy-to-use for beginner pilots. However, keep in mind that the Mavic has a better camera. It costs between $500-$600 USD depending on the package you purchase.

2. Mavic Air and Mavic Pro – This family of drones folds small for portability. This is DJI’s first model built specifically for portable photography. Built-in camera and gimbal. Approximately $1,000 USD.

3. Phantom 4 or Phantom 4 Pro (P4P) – Does not fold, but propellers are removable for transport. Built-in camera and gimbal. The drone arrives in a styrofoam transport box that fully protects the equipment in your car or home. It has a handle and is easy to carry, but is not strong enough to be checked on a flight. The box latches closed, but does not have a lock. It does not fit into a 60-liter backpack. Many photographers use this drone. Over $1,000 USD.

4. Inspire 2 – Professional level drone. Holds multiple cameras $3,000 USD and up.

 

Research These Items Prior to Buying a Drone for Travel Photography

Camera – What is the quality of the photos and video? Pay attention to sensor size. Video should be available in 4k and camera should shoot RAW. Is the camera built-in, or do you purchase a camera separately and attach it?

Gimbal – This is the piece that holds the camera steady, so video footage is smooth. Basically there’s a gyroscope that ensures that the horizon line is horizontal. If it doesn’t work well, your photos and video will be slanted or crooked and you video will be shaky, making it difficult to watch.

Battery Life + Flight Time – Flight time is valuable! The Phantom 4 has a flight time of 22 minutes, although the battery life is longer. However, you cannot run the battery down to 0% or it does damage. Also, pay attention to the cost of spare batteries. They can cost over $100.

Controller – This piece is used for flying the drone– it has the joysticks. You will want to check the weight, since you will be holding it the entire time you’re flying. What is the screen like? Perhaps it’s part of the controller, or perhaps you attach your phone and tablet. If you use your phone or tablet, then you will also download a free app. Keep in mind: before flying your phone or tablet should be fully charged, so you don’t run out of charge midway through a flight. My iPhone 6 lasts through 66 minutes of flying.

Sensors – Sensors sense if there is anything the drone might run into, and serve to avoid objects above, below, in back and in front of the drone, and on the sides. Sensors are really helpful when your drone is out of sight, because you can safely do more cool shots! Each iteration has more sensors.

 

Tips on Purchasing a Drone

  • Drones are different than remote controlled airplanes and helicopters. So, if you have pilot friends who help you, ensure they’re actually drone pilots.
  • If you buy a DJI Phantom, I recommend you not buy a model older than the Phantom 4 (so, not the 3 or earlier). This is because the controller and tracking tools greatly improved with the 4. The Phantom 3 often loses connection with the controller. And, the tracking (follow-me) follows the controller, not a person or object. This means that you have to carry the big controller, so cool selfie shots are limited.
  • Each model gets cheaper when the next model is released, so you can save money by purchasing a slightly older model.
  • Watch reviews on YouTube.
  • If at all possible: find someone with a drone who can give you a ‘tour’ of where and how to fly.
  • Research where in your area drone pilots practice. You probably will not be flying in your neighborhood, if it’s urban. Too many airports and other restrictions.

 

Packing a Drone for Travel Photography

There are various methods of carrying a drone for travel photography.

  • Flying – If you will check the drone on a flight, you will definitely want a hard case. I carry my drone on, and stow it under the seat in front of me. The batteries for my drone are lithium-ion, so are required to be carried on (check current rules with your airline).
  • Driving – If you’re driving, just use the case or bag that the drone came with.

Best of luck to you in getting your first drone for travel photography!!! Keep me posted! Send photos to me at Longest Bus Rides on Facebook. I’d be so excited to see them!!

Any questions? Do you have other tips for new traveling drone pilots? Please let me know by commenting below. Thank you!!

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