Flying robots that make you money? I bet that grabbed your attention.
Everyone has heard of drones, contraptions like mini remote-controlled helicopters that now often have cameras attached. Also known as UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), the perspectives they offer have made them very attractive to photographers, whether the amateur or the professional. But can you actually make money with them?
To help you come to a decision, we spoke with David Hogg from Horizon Imaging Ltd, a specialist in the field of drone aerial photography for over 10 years. His professional opinion is included at every stage along with our advice, and you can learn more about him and his career further on in the article.
Well, a drone, obviously.
There are hundreds on the market, ranging from £10 toy quadcopters to hi-tech beauties for over £20,000. Sites like ExpertReviews and TechAdvisor can give you some more detailed information depending on your budget and preferences, but we’ve also included a few models for you to drool over here.
UDI U818A – £150
- Easy to fly
- First-person view, which means you get the images caught whilst in flight transmitted directly to your handheld screen.
- 2MP camera with 720p HD video
- 10 minutes battery life
You might think that battery life doesn’t sound impressive at all, but drones tend to have quite limited flight times – it’s rare to find any that fly for more than 30 minutes at a time.
Luckily, the batteries are both rechargeable and replaceable, so buy a few extra, charge them up and you can have a much longer shooting session without a hefty price tag.
The UDI is especially good for those just starting out in drone photography, since the controls are simple and quite forgiving of mistakes. Also, the lower price means that if it crashes – as it probably will at some point if you are a first-timer – you won’t suffer an immediate heart attack.
However, the low resolution camera means that whilst it may help you get to grips with drone flying, it won’t be suitable for professional use.
DJI Spark – £450
DJI is a frontrunner of the drone industry, and this modestly priced Spark has plenty to boast about:
- 12MP camera with 1080p/30 video capabilities
- Motors that can whizz the drone along at up to 30mph
- Flight time of around 16 minutes
- QuickShot, which automatically creates videos from your footage
- Gesture Mode, commanded through lots of arm-waving, lets you shoot videos following pre-defined paths.
- A 2-axis gimbal stabilizes the camera in the air, so pesky gusts of wind won’t result in reels of blurry images.
DJI Phantom 4 Pro – £1500
You might want to wince at those noughts, but console yourselves: this piece of tech is pure awesome.
David explains why this drone is so amazing:
There are literally hundreds of different options on the market, but in my experience it’s hard to go wrong with one of DJI’s platforms.
Having owned their Phantom 3 Pro, Mavic Pro, Inspire 1 Pro and Inspire 2 platforms, I would suggest an ideal platform for starting a drone photography business is the latest version of their Phantom, the Phantom 4 Pro.
This latest evolution of the Phantom has a:
- 20 megapixel fixed-lens camera with a 1-inch sensor which captures incredibly sharp images
- Low image noise and a high dynamic range (which helps retain details in the shadows and highlights)
- A 3-axis gyro-stabilised gimbal, meaning the camera stays perfectly level no matter how aggressively the drone is flown.
The capability of these modern DJI platforms is incredible, and they continue to evolve, with
- enhanced object recognition,
- automated subject-tracking and
- object-avoidance features
being introduced with every new revision. The Phantom 4 Pro would make an ideal platform to launch your own drone aerial photography business.
Think of all the companies that use (or could benefit from) aerial images or video in their business. That’s right – a real shedload. So when we say you can make money with drone photography and video, that includes an enormous range of possibilities. Here are a few to get the ideas started:
- Construction and property development
- Wedding photography
- Aerial inspections (of pipelines, civil infrastructure like bridges and roofs, mobile phone towers – anywhere awkward to get to)
- Security and surveillance
- Real estate and residential property
- Farming and agriculture (e.g. mapping, crop surveying)
- Sporting events, concerts, conventions
- News coverage
- Or once you’ve gained lots of experience, you could even offer pilot training
Unsurprisingly, quite a few people are worried about their privacy being breached, and the aviation industry as a whole has similar concerns. That means that when flying your camera drone for your personal use you must stick to a few guidelines set up by the CAA (Civil Aviation Authority):
- Keep your drone always within your line of sight: this means it can go a maximum of 120m (400ft) upwards and 500m (1600ft) horizontally.
- Always fly your drone well away from aircraft and airfields (stay at least 2 miles away from your nearest airport).
- Drones must be flown at least 50m away from people, vehicles and buildings that have not given their consent to being filmed or photographed.
- You must also avoid congested areas by at least 150m. This could include residential housing, town centres, roads, railways, and large gatherings of people e.g. music concerts.
- You may only fly a drone for commercial purposes (anything involving commercial gain or being paid for your work – even being paid in kind) if you have a licence from the CAA.
These laws can vary depending on where you are, so make sure to check with local authorities and the owner of the land you will be flying over. The National Trust for example have banned drone use at all of their properties and estates, and many other beauty and tourist hotspots are following suit. Common sense will be your best friend.
To view the complete regulations, have a look at the CAA’s official document, ‘CAP 393 – The Air Navigation Order 2016 and Regulations’, here. Articles 94, 95, 240 and 241 will be most relevant to you.
At the end of the day, if something goes terribly wrong and your drone falls out of the sky, injures someone and you end up in court, they will ask you to prove that you did everything in your power to mitigate the risks of such an event occurring – which basically means, did you strictly abide by the CAA regulations?
If you can categorically say yes and provide proof, then the court may look favourably on the situation.
Obviously I hope this never ever happens for you, but it shouldn’t be underestimated that, as the drone operator, you have sole responsibility for the safety of your operations, which includes mitigating the risks to nearby members of the public – and if you’re operating commercially, this can mean simply declining the work if you cannot find a way to undertake the work safely.
Ha! I don’t need training! All you do is press the up button and wiggle the toggle things and… what does that button do again? Why has it stopped moving? And what do you mean, you won’t pay me if I don’t have proof that I can fly a drone?
In short: if you plan to make money with drone photography and video, training might be a good idea. In fact, it’s a legal requirement.
In long: here come the reasons.
Many crashes will be within the first few flights of the brand-new drone, and although pilot error is usually the main cause, incorrect calibration or setup can also cause mishaps. Good training courses will teach you how to set everything up and how to avoid the most common mistakes.
Photography – regardless of the subject matter or equipment used – rests on the same basic principles of lighting, perspective, good editing and so on. However, the different ways you can take advantage of this may not always be obviously apparent.
If you are only just getting into photography (or even if you have absolutely no idea but think it sounds cool), then lessons addressing this will be even more useful. Some of the companies offering drone flight training also offer photography training as well.
Documentation and legitimacy
This is the most important reason, although less exciting than the others. As of yet, there is no need for a licence for casual use of your drone or flying for recreation (although the government are actively considering it). However, if you are employed by a company to fly a drone for commercial purposes, or if you wish to offer drone photography services to your own clients, then you must go on a course to obtain your Permission for Commercial Operations. Sounds fancy, right?
It is important to make sure your training course is accredited by the CAA in the UK or the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) in the USA – this will ensure you aren’t being taken in by fraudsters and that you will learn everything you need to know.
David tells us:
Whilst starting to develop a portfolio, the next essential task is to become a CAA-licensed drone operator – to obtain your ‘Permission for Commercial Operations’ (PfCO).
This is a legal requirement for undertaking any form of commercial / paid work with a drone in the UK – whether that’s providing an aerial photography service to end customers, or using drones within your own company to give you a commercial advantage
For example, if you are an estate agent, you have to hold a CAA PfCO licence in order to use a drone to take aerial photographs of the properties you are marketing).
There are three steps involved in obtaining your PfCO:
Complete a training course (including ground-based theoretical training as well as a flight assessment) with a recognised NQE (National Qualified Entity)
- Obtain suitable third-party insurance to cover your drone operations
- Write an in-depth Operations Manual detailing the platforms you intend to fly, your operational procedures, platform maintenance procedures, and methods for assessing and reducing the risk in your operations (including providing a sample Risk Assessment)
- Submit the above evidence to the CAA along with the application fee of £173 and within 28 working days you should receive your PfCO!There are a number of NQEs who provide the necessary training to become a licensed commercial drone operator in the UK. These include:
- Flyby Technology
- Resource UAS
- The UAV Academy
- The Aerial Academy
The courses provided by these NQEs will obviously differ slightly in their structure and delivery, but they will all provide you with the training and assistance you need to successfully apply for your PfCO, including sourcing insurance, and helping you to write your Operations Manual.
Courses are available across the UK and start from around £600.
Annual insurance premiums will vary depending on the amount of equipment you need covered, but they’ll typically be in the region of £400-1000. It also costs £130 to renew your PfCO licence with the CAA on an annual basis.
As you have seen, starting out will require a hefty investment. However, there is certainly money to be made from running a commercial drone aerial photography business, and the equipment will quickly pay for itself. Setting your prices is one of the keys to running a successful drone photography business, but it needs some careful consideration.
Creating a pricing structure for drone aerial photography – or any creative profession for that matter – is fraught with difficulties, mainly because there are so many variables involved:
- How much experience do you have? Have you just started out, or have you been working in the industry for 20 years?
- What type of equipment do you use? Do you have a 5 megapixel compact camera, or a 50 megapixel full-frame Digital SLR?
- Have you earned a professional reputation that means clients are willing to pay more for your services than those with a lesser reputation? Compare a world-famous portrait photographer like Annie Leibovitz to someone who’s just started taking portrait photos.
- What type of clients do you serve, and do you have specialist knowledge for working with these clients that others don’t have? Big commercial companies are usually willing to pay more than private individuals.
- Do you work on your own from a spare bedroom, or do you work in an office with the associated overheads? If you have lower overheads, you can afford to offer more competitive pricing, whilst still covering your costs.
- Do you restrict the usage of your images, and charge separately for applications which have greater exposure, e.g. billboards or use in high print-run magazines?
- Do your prices include pre-shoot site visits, travel and image editing? Or do these incur additional charges?
- Do the clients you intend to work for require you on site for an hour at a time, or days at a time? Do you want to do fewer large jobs, or many small jobs?
… and so on! As you can see, there’s more to creating a pricing structure than meets the eye.
That said; let’s say that it’s not uncommon for day-rates of single-man drone operators to be around the £800-900 mark, and 2-man operators to be around the £1500 mark.
This often won’t include travel and editing either.
Although my day rates do fall within this price bracket as a single-man operator, most of my current work tends to involve less than one hour on site, for which I charge £325 + VAT. Image editing and travel are then additional fees on top of this.
So what’s the best way to start thinking about this?
- Work out what you want to earn through your business,
- What costs are involved in your operation (including the cost of new equipment, annual insurance and CAA licence premiums, office overheads, marketing costs, etc),
- Forecast how many jobs you expect to be able to do per year, per month, per week (remember it’s not always sunny and the weather isn’t always conducive to flying drones!),
- Then calculate your rates based on this – and stick to them.
You’ll soon realise if you’ve pitched yourself too low or too high for your target market, and remember, it’s always easier to reduce your prices than to increase them – so start high and lower them if necessary.
All this considered, be very careful not to undervalue yourself by trying to undercut everyone else.
Yes there is value in charging less if you have less experience, or perhaps even doing the first shoot for a new client for free if you don’t have a solid portfolio of work for them to base their expectations upon – at least that way there’s no risk to the client if they don’t like the work you produce.
But simply undercutting everyone else in the market has more serious ramifications that you might think – not only does it become considerably less likely that you will be able to create a profitable and sustainable business, but it also devalues the service of aerial photography as a whole.
David is the owner of Horizon Imaging Ltd, a company that specialises in drone aerial photography and filming. We asked him a few questions about his work, of which we’ve included an excerpt below. Read the full interview and check out his website here.
How did you get into the industry? Is it competitive?
My route into the drone industry ultimately started way back in 2005 after being inspired by the ‘Aerial Photography’ sub-group of the RCGroups online forum. Intrigued and amazed by the possibilities of being able to capture aerial photographs from model aircraft (a hobby I had been pursuing for the previous 7 years) I built my first ‘drone’ in December 2005.
After some practice, I took the following photograph of Claremont Fan Court School in Esher, Surrey.
This image remains one of my favourite aerial photographs to this day, and having sold a copy of the image to the school in 2006, I believe it is still in use today, some 12 years later.
The biggest challenge for any new business is how to break into an existing industry. When I first started undertaking the occasional commercial aerial photography shoot, drones were still a very new concept, and companies were generally intrigued by the perspectives that drones could offer when I contacted them out of the blue offering drone aerial photography services. These days however, virtually everyone has heard of drones and what they can do, most people have seen drone imagery before (if not on social media, then without knowing it in films and on TV), and a growing number of people even own them! This has made it correspondingly more difficult to get your name known in an industry that has seen meteoric growth over the past 5 years.
Therefore, my advice would be to take the same route into the industry as I did 10 years ago – make it a slow, gradual process over a period of many months (or even years), and whatever you do, don’t simply give up your existing job on a Friday and start your drone photography business on the Monday with no website, strategy or portfolio to show for it.
What is the best way to get started?
In today’s image-centric world, where websites, magazines and social media are crammed full of photographs (be they aerial or ground-level), what is going to make you stand out from the competition? For me, if I’m looking to collaborate with another photographer on a project, the first thing I’ll do is look at their portfolio of existing work. This will immediately give me an idea of –
- their photographic ability (both technical and aesthetic),
- how long they’ve been around (e.g. have they got a gallery of 5 or 50 photos), and
- their experience across multiple sectors (e.g. are all their photos of the same style of subject, or is there a diverse variety of subjects).
Of course, no-one can magic sample images out of thin air, but this is why spending a serious amount of time building a portfolio will set you far ahead of those who haven’t even created a website to showcase their work, let alone taken the time to produce some compelling sample imagery.
Sorry, I forgot to mention that you need to have a website before anything else, otherwise no-one will be able to find you, or see what it is you have to offer!
So, how can you start building a portfolio?
It could be as simple as photographing the homes of your friends’ and family, finding interesting subjects to photograph in the countryside like churches, windmills, monuments, and so on. This is how I started, and it taught me a great deal about how to take compelling aerial photos.
These aspects in particular are key:
- The direction of the light
- The direction from which the photos are taken
- The time of day
- The position of the subject in the frame
- The amount of sky you include in the image
- The size of the subject in the frame
- The way you post-process the photos afterwards
These aren’t things that you can fully grasp in the click of a finger – they have to be learned over time, through photographing numerous different subjects and finding out what works best for each scenario. It comes from hours of practice and experimenting – and often making mistakes, but then learning from them. So go out and start finding subjects to photograph now – the sooner the better!
What do you think people just starting out need to be aware of?
The drone aerial photography marketplace is becoming saturated at an incredible rate. When I gained my PfCO back in 2010 there were only 45 other commercial drone operators in the UK. 8 years later and the number of people / companies who have registered as commercial operators has passed the 5,500 mark … but interestingly, as of December 2017 there are only ~3,500 active companies who are still licensed – that’s an incredible 36% failure rate of companies who thought they could make a success from using drones commercially, but for one reason or another, were unable to succeed and so didn’t renew their licences.
Running a successful business using drones is so much more than just buying a drone and flying it around the sky – I would estimate approximately 25% of my time is actually spent flying drones, the rest is spent on developing the business, finding new clients, attending networking events, writing content for my website, doing the image editing, doing all the admin tasks and paperwork, and so on. That’s not to say it’s impossible to start a drone aerial photography business tomorrow which will be successful, and if you have the right mindset, a clear goal of what you want to offer, how you will monetise it and how you will stand out from the ever-increasing number of competitors, then I’d say go for it!
Have a look at David’s website and the work of Horizon Imaging here.