There are over 1.5 million drones and 160,000 drone pilots registered in the US, according to the FAA. The FAA also estimates there are hundreds of thousands of drones that operate unregistered, despite the legal requirement. This incredible increase in the availability of (relatively) low-cost aerial technology has also seen a whole new industry blossom too – with many people starting a drone photography business in 2020.
It’s easy to see why – it all seems simple. Buy yourself a drone, get airborne, and then sell the images you take and make a good living. But, before you rush in headfirst to start your aerial photography business, you should take time to consider several factors. Drone forums tell many tales of enthusiasts trying their hand at a drone photography business, only to give up when they can’t land the number of jobs they need, or their equipment becomes damaged through inadequate flying skills.
So, how can you make sure the drone photography business you start will become a success? Let’s look more closely at how you can enter this exciting industry while giving yourself the best opportunity of making it work.
Don’t initially, quit your day job to start a drone photography business.
If you’re thinking of quitting your day job, borrowing money, and setting yourself up as a drone photographer, be aware of the significant risk you are taking on. Yes, drone photography is a growing industry, but the low barrier of entry means it’s flooded with operators competing for the same work you want. Loading up on credit card debt, then trying to start a drone photography business is an awful idea.
A more thoughtful, conservative approach is required. Before you spend any money on equipment, first develop a business plan for the venture. A business plan helps you clarify the feasibility of your local market for drone services, and also provides you an understanding of the potential Return on Investment (ROI) of your operation.
When you create your drone photography business plan, it should include the following sections.
An executive summary provides an overall snapshot of your business idea. It’s an excellent process to go through as it helps you develop your ‘elevator pitch’. If you get your idea down in writing concisely, then when you have an opportunity to tell a prospect what you offer, you’ll know what to say. It may sound unimportant now, but when you’re bidding on a project you’d really like to have, this will help you articulate how you’re different from your competitors.
This section details who you are, what your intentions are, where you operate, and the ideal market you want to serve. Also, include the equipment you’ll use to take your aerial photos and videos.
This is an essential step to go through. Who are the direct competitors in your area? How much do they charge? What equipment do they have? Are there portfolios any good? If you want to investigate how many competitors you have in your area, here is a link to the FAA Airmen Registry.
Marketing and Sales
An often overlooked but crucial step. Setting up a website for your drone business is mandatory, but it can take months for a new site to rank well with search engines. How will you get commissions in the meantime?
This is where you determine if you have a potentially winning idea. Here you need to detail your startup costs, day to day operating costs, and realistic forecasts of income and expenditures. When you have your costs calculated, you can then play around with the income section to understand how much business you’ll need to become profitable.
Once you have a firm grasp of what you’re offering, then it’s time to look at training, licensing and insurance.
Licensing, Training and Insurance for your Drone.
You will need to register your drone with the FAA before your first flight if it weighs 0.55lbs or more. All professional standard photography drones are typically heavier than this. The cost isn’t much at $5, and your registration will be valid for three years. Since you’ll be piloting a drone for commercial purposes, then, of course, you’ll need to get a license from the FAA.
The license is called the Part 107, and it is granted on the successful completion of a multiple-choice exam on different aspects of drone flying. The cost of the exam is $150, and you must be at least 16 years old and be able to read and write in English. Paid courses are available online that can help you prepare for the test, or you can self-study with learning documents provided on the FAA website.
If you want read more about my experience with the Part 107 Test, see here:
Make sure you pay particularly close attention to these 3 subjects on the Part 107 Knowledge Test, and you’re sure to pass the first time through.
Have you had much experience flying drones? If your flying skills are limited, then perhaps it’s worthwhile to find an instructor or mentor who can help you gain more experience and confidence. For about $300, you can get a two-hour lesson that covers the basics. When you consider the cost of a good photography drone is several thousand dollars, then perhaps the $300 for the 2-hour lesson is well worth the investment. Many photography drones come with inbuilt flight assistance programs, but truly there are no substitutes for developing strong piloting skills yourself.
Currently, the FAA does not require you to purchase an insurance policy to fly a commercial mission (though it’s advisable to check individual state laws). But, as a professional drone photographer, you shouldn’t fly without insurance. If you crash your drone into a person or property, then you could end up facing a hefty bill, or even worse a lawsuit. I would recommend you get liability insurance to cover you up to $1 million—budget around $500 annually for this in your business plan.
You might also consider hull insurance, which covers the cost of repair or replacement of your drone should you crash, or even fly away. Some manufacturers offer plans you can purchase when you buy your drone, or you could seek insurance from a broker or specialty company. You need to balance out any cost or deductible you will have to pay against the overall cost of just buying a replacement drone. Also keep in mind that while it might not be a legal requirement to obtain insurance, a corporate customer will likely insist on seeing evidence of insurance coverage before they award you a contract.
So, next, let’s take a look at the equipment you’ll need.
Drone Equipment you Need to get started.
A low-cost ‘toy’ drone is not going to cut it if you want to market yourself as a professional drone photographer. The capabilities of these drones, will not produce the quality of images required by your customers. For a drone suitable for a commercial enterprise, you should really consider spending a minimum of $1600 on a basic drone package.
A good drone to start with is the DJI Mavic 2 Pro, which is what I captured these images with. It comes with a fixed Hasselblad camera with a 1” sensor and can shoot 4K video at 30fps. You may find, however, that your competitors are operating with drones which cost $3000 and upwards. Many professionals use a Mavic 2 Inspire drone for their businesses because it offers you the freedom to mount different cameras.
Good drone cameras start at around $2000. Don’t forget to check out the quality of images and videos of the equipment you are considering by looking at images taken with the camera on YouTube and Instagram.
Can you get by with just one drone? Maybe when you’re starting out it’s possible, but don’t forget that you are being hired to shoot pictures and footage. If your only drone has a malfunction or you damage it, then the opportunity cost of having no backup could exceed the price of a spare.
Of course, alongside your drones, you are going to need some accessories to perform your services properly. Here is a list of things you should keep in your drone photography kit:
Batteries – These give a flight time of around 30 minutes, so you’ll need plenty of these to last a full day of shooting.
Spare propellers – Often fragile. If propellers become chipped or cracked, this will affect the flight, so keep several spares with you.
Backup controller – Used to pilot the drone. Consider having a backup for those days where everything seems to go wrong.
Propeller Guards – These protect the propellers from bumps and bangs, and are especially useful for novice pilots.
Spare SD Cards – SD Cards are usually pretty robust but keep some spares with you just in case the need arises.
Hard Carry Case – To protect your investment while you’re transporting them.
Image editing software – Professional drone photographers frequently enhance RAW image footage after the shoot, and you’ll need to become proficient at this too. The Editing Software I use and have had a good experience with is Final Cut Pro, if you’re using a Mac.
Create an Online Drone Portfolio.
As an aspiring drone photographer, you’re unlikely to be hired unless you have a captivating online portfolio. Your photos are your product! So, you need to be sure to display your best product, it may be your only opportunity. But, before you rush to create your own portfolio, take time to do an in-depth review of your competitor’s portfolios.
Once you have an understanding of the standard you’d like to achieve, look at how you can match, if not exceed your competitors. Links to YouTube or Instagram from an average looking website will not make the grade here. Invest some money into a slick, well presented online presence.
It doesn’t need to cost much money either. Website builders like Squarespace, WordPress or Wix can help you create visually stunning sites. And registering a web address costs around $15 or may even come free as part of a hosting package. You can outsource your website’s development for a relatively small amount on a freelance website like Fiverr or Upwork. Make sure that you see the portfolio of the person you hire and don’t go with the cheapest quote – as you typically get what you pay for.
You may ask the question; how can I have a portfolio if I haven’t done any work yet? It’s a common problem faced by many creative businesses. Consider asking family and friends to let you practice and create a portfolio on their property or businesses. You might also consider doing your first couple of jobs at little to no cost while you establish yourself in the field.
Once you get some good quality images on your website, you will also need to promote your website on search engines. While SEO is not the subject of this article, one tip I can offer is that you register your business on Google My Business. It helps you get ranked in local search results, which is hopefully where many of your customers will go to find a drone photographer.
How Much Should you Charge for Drone Photography?
This is always a hard topic for those starting any new business – how should you price your service? You obviously need to charge enough to make your venture worthwhile, so don’t get involved in race-to-the-bottom price slashing. Your local competition may include hobbyist drone photographers who will operate unlicensed for a small under-the-table fee. Instead, you need to make your offering stand apart from their cheap inferior service.
- Focus on providing an all-around professional drone photography service.
- Arrive to the shoot at least 30 minutes early.
- Be well presented, perhaps in clothing with your logo on it. It’s all about building your Brand!
- Have any documentation prepared and well presented.
- Advise your client on which shots are ideal. Have a laptop or tablet on hand to show customers different perspectives. You might even get to up-sell!
- When you have finished the shoot, get the final film or images to the customer within the agreed timeframe.
- In short, be the person the customer will have no doubts about recommending to colleagues, family and friends.
So now you know how you want to provide your service, how much can you charge?
According to thumbtack.com, the average cost charged for a 90-minute shoot is between $190-$250, with additional hours charged between $50-$70. Does this price fit in within your business plan? Create a spreadsheet which details your total annual costs, which should include; equipment, insurance, travel, meals, depreciation, administration, and your salary.
From this, obtain your weekly and daily costs to run your business. Then figure out how much you need to charge to make the venture worthwhile. Does $250 per shoot leave you enough margin to cover your costs plus your salary,with an additional 10% for a ‘Fudge Factor’? How many of these do you think you can book in per week?
With the competition fierce for standard wedding or real estate photography, you may consider trying to operate in some of the more specialist areas of drone photography.
What different kinds of Drone Photography services could I provide?
As a drone photographer, I’d recommend you specialize in a specific niche. When you’re just starting, it is OK to experiment with different kinds of drone photography to see which you like doing the most. One path you could choose is producing images and videos that you sell on stock image websites. You don’t earn much money when you sell stock images, but it’s scalable and can be sold over and over.
To create a business with longevity, though, you should find a niche you enjoy and set out to dominate it. Aim to develop a reputation as the go-to person for that specialty – it’s better to be excellent at one thing, rather than average at several.
More and more uses for drones are developed all the time, take a look at some of the niches you might choose specializing in:
- Nature landscape photography
- Urban landscape photography
- Sports events like cycling or extreme sports
- Real estate photography
- Wedding photography
- Land surveying
- Thermal building surveying
- 3D terrain capture
- Pipeline surveying
- Wind Turbine inspection
- Search and Rescue
Setting up a drone photography business today is challenging. Avoid making an impulsive decision to quit your job, take on debt, and ‘make a go at it’. Often times those decisions end in disaster, don’t be failed business statistic. But if you carefully plan, understand your costs, focus on service, price your services correctly, and develop a specialty, you will improve your chances of being a success in your drone photography business.