Aerial photography can be awesome to look at. But what does it take to find a place to fly your drone safely to capture the memorable photos or videos that are so popular on social media? I’ll tell you.
I’ve been doing aerial photography for six years. When I was getting used to my very first drone, I was still going to college and lived by the beach in New Jersey. In late fall, winter, and early spring, there were very few people at the beach during the day. Compared to summer, this was a blessing because I had a huge space to fly around without having to worry about crashing into anything.
Back then, I didn’t know where else to fly and I didn’t trust myself too much with the drone. My movements when shooting video were twitchy. I was even still learning how to compose a good-looking image from the sky. I knew there was work to be done, but I didn’t want to just fly at a beach all the time… So how in the world was I supposed to figure out how to get better at shooting with my drone?
Inspiration & Creation of Ideas
We can be inspired literally from anything. A dream we had, a random idea, a movie, friend, social media, you name it. This step is crucial because it is what gives you the drive to get out and shoot. Personally, I was super-inspired by the ability to put my drone anywhere to shoot. After shooting the past 5+ years doing ground-based photography, I was excited to see what capturing from the sky would do for me. I knew the more I practiced and the more ideas I executed, the better I’d get.
Social media and accounts like DronePals, Fromwhereidrone, Drone Multimedia, Drone Globe and AirVuz provided me with photos and videos from other pilots around the world. Eventually, I began following those pilots because I really liked their work. Everything continued from there as I fell more in love with all the things you could do with a drone.
Google Maps – Your Hero
My mission was to find unique spots. The photos I was looking at on these accounts would blow my mind. Yet, I had the exact same tools these people used. I decided to jump on Google Maps and get into satellite view. This is the best thing that has ever happened to me to this day. It’s like a super-power to jump on there and know you can find places to fly and shoot.
In the image below, I’ve added colors to represent the safest places to fly. Once you familiarize yourself with your drone, you’ll understand how far you can fly, how high you can go and how fast the drone can move. On top of that, you’ll be shooting photography and video while maneuvering the aircraft. From this, you are gaining a sense of overall control. Quite a bit of attention involved, so where do you find a safe place to fly?
The green zone is the safe spot. Safe, meaning open space, few people and – if you crash – you’ll be able to retrieve your drone. This zone allows the pilot really good line of site without losing too much depth perception from flying far away. Operating within this radius, you can capture some beautiful photos and videos without putting yourself at too much risk.
The blue zone is when you are comfortable with your drone and understand it well. Still safe to fly in but now there are a few more obstacles. Here we have been introduced to a large body of water, trees and a gravel parking lot. It could be more exposure to people, with loss of perception and potential loss of the drone if it goes down. However, if you are comfortable with your equipment and trust yourself, you can fly over these areas.
The orange zone is where more of your awareness as a pilot comes into play. We have now added homes, roads, cars, people and private/public property. It is your responsibility as the operator to understand you are the Pilot in Command. Anything that goes wrong will be on you which is why I always recommend flying responsibly. In this case, all I am saying is to be aware of your surroundings and don’t try anything too crazy if you are flying over a busier area. If however you have an intention or permission to shoot, by all means, show people what you can do.
Downside to Satellite Maps
The only downside to this method is the occasional change that takes place over time. It is crucial to check the date of the maps to see when the satellites last photographed the area. In the photo above you will see a red circle showing the date when the images were last taken. Sometimes locations will change whether there is a yard of container ships that is suddenly gone or an empty plot of land that suddenly has a building on it. If you are serious about your craft or are doing it professionally, this is where scouting the location would be a good option.
Airspace & Weather Check
Before just zooming out to the spot you found on the map, it is important to confirm it is open airspace. One of the last things you want to do is get to a spot you want to fly only to check the FAA maps to see you can’t fly there. Apps like AirMap, Kitty Hawk, and B4U Fly are all great things to look into for airspace.
If you fall within 5 miles of an airport, the restrictions will tighten up. You may not be able to fly as high and you will have to be a lot more aware of your surroundings. Flight Radar is another good app if you would like to keep a heads up on planes and helicopters in the area. This honestly may sound like more than it is but getting into the habit of this will turn you into a responsible pilot.
Lastly, it is also smart to check the weather for the day you’d like to fly. Locations close to home may be easy. If you are going off to a job or journeying to a location more than an hour away, why not know what to expect with weather? I have done this before and got caught in heavy rain, fog, snow, and crazy wind. Inclement weather makes it more risky to fly.
If you look at the slider above, you will see that I have circled a spot in green. At this location, would be no where near an airport or restricted zone. This means I am okay to fly in that area. Looking at the weather, it appears to be a little chilly but still not too bad. When the weather is cold, there are definitely more things to be cautious of when flying. The best thing to do is in this situation is make sure your batteries are warm and let the aircraft hover for a few minutes to ensure the drone is flying proper before sending it out for that epic shot.
Every pilot wants to feel comfortable when they set out to capture something with their drone. Flying and capturing content should be fun and rewarding! After all the years I have spent doing this, I realize I have been through many challenges. Not every picture or video comes out perfect. The point is, if you don’t ever get out there to fly, how are you going to improve? You can stay at the same big field or beach forever but the world is a big place. Being able to know where to fly can help you tremendously.