The flying of drones is a pastime that has grown rapidly over the last few years and opened a whole new world to photography. The creative opportunities are endless. The world looks completely different from 200 metres up. The views can be mesmerizing and stunningly beautiful. To check out what one can do with a drone, have a look at the International Photo Drone Awards 2023.
Rather than calling our pastime “flying drones,” we at the Victoria Camera Club have decided to identify ourselves as involved in “Aerial Photography”—which sounds professional and more fitting for an artform like any other artform. It also avoids the negative images of drones as a privacy-invading nuisance and an instrument of war.
The drone I use is a DJI Mavic Air 2, one of the most popular and versatile drones. I chose DJI because they have a virtual monopoly on drones—they have been making them longer than anyone else. DJI drones are sold in high-quality camera stores like Kerrisdale Cameras in Victoria. If you choose a lesser-known manufacturer you risk them going out of business and losing all your support—and software support is critical. It happened to me when the manufacturer of one of my earlier drones just stopped making them. My drone needed a GPS update but without support from the manufacturer, every drone the company had made was grounded. The drones could not lift off and fly! The software in the controller locked everyone out! So do your research before you buy and do not buy into any manufacturer’s hype.
The camera in my drone has a ½” 48 MP CMOS sensor with a f 2.8 aperture and an equivalent 24 mm focal length. Focus range is 1 m to infinity. Shooting can be done in JPEG, RAW, or both. The RAW file is supported by Photoshop and Lightroom. ISO, shutter speed, white balance, and EV can all be adjusted through the controller even when the drone is airborne. Because these drones are so popular, after-market neutral density and polarizer filters are now available. The options are there if you’re the creative type. Most of the time I leave the camera on auto and let the software figure it all out.
Since higher-end drones like mine use GPS to maintain their position, they are a rock-solid photography platform even in windy conditions. The camera is mounted to a three-axis gimbal that isolates it from vibrations caused by the propellers and the pitch, yaw, and roll of the drone. It also allows you to pan up and down to set up that perfect shot. A live video feed is displayed on your controller which functions just like the viewfinder on a DSLR camera. As soon as you like what you see, just press the shutter button on your controller and the view is captured on the onboard microSD card for downloading later.
It can be intimidating learning how to fly a drone but with some practice you can become quite confident getting it to take off and fly. Be sure to find a wide-open field to practice in before you try to do any serious flying. If you wonder about losing control and your drone flying away, do not worry; there are built-in safety features that will save it. First there is the “Come Home” button on your controller. Because the drone uses GPS to know where it is, it remembers where it took off and will fly back there. Second, if the drone loses the control signal or the battery gets low, the onboard software will tell it to come home. Third, some drones have obstacle avoidance front, back, and down so it can detect obstacles before it’s too late. The software will calculate a flight path around any object and fly around it without you doing anything. Do not buy a drone without obstacle avoidance! I would have crashed mine a few times if I hadn’t had it. It’s one less thing for you, the pilot, to worry about so you can concentrate on the photos you want to take.
My drone can stay in the air for about half an hour—plenty of time to set up a shot. Also, a drone can be eight kilometres away from the controller and still give you a good signal and video; legally, however, you may not fly beyond line-of-sight.
Here are some things you must know before you buy your first drone. In Canada any drone weighing over 250 grams must be registered with the federal government. Getting registered is easy; just go to the Transport Canada website https://tc.canada.ca/en/aviation/drone-safety. You will need the make, model, and serial number of your drone plus a $5 fee. You get a printable registration certificate immediately.
The pilot’s licence is quite a bit harder to acquire. There are two licence types, Basic and Advanced. The Advanced licence allows you to fly over people such as at sports events and concerts and, with a flight-specific permit, in controlled airspace near airports, heliports, seaplane bases, and other designated areas. The Advanced licence takes a lot of study, time, and money, and the passing grade for the Advanced is 80%. Start with the Basic test as it only requires 65%. You can get your Advanced later on once you get familiar with what is required to pass.
You must take online courses to study the regulations you need to know to pass the Transport Canada online Drone Pilots Licence Test. The test was about $45 when I took it. The online course I took to study for the Basic licence in preparation was around $100. If you want to study to take the Advanced License test it is $599.00, I took it with Coastal Drone School, coastaldrone.co, but there are other schools. Be prepared for some serious studying. Once you pass the test, you will receive a printable licence by email. I slipped my registration and pilot licence into plastic sleeves and always keep them with my drone. It’s a $5,000 fine for not having your registration and a $5,000 fine for not having a drone pilot’s licence.
As you will learn on your course, there are restrictions on where you can fly. The Canadian government provides drone fliers with a drone site selection tool https://nrc.canada.ca/en/drone-tool/ that shows all restricted areas where specific flight approval is required. I put it on my laptop so I have it when traveling with the drone. It is a colour-coded map that informs you of no-fly and restricted zones for all of Canada and is an essential source on drone regulations and lots of other useful information.
If you look over the drone site selection tool map you will see that most of the area around Victoria is restricted. However, the rest of the island is full of amazing scenery to fly over. Most drones fold down to a compact size for travelling and can easily fit into your luggage. I fly in permitted zones like Elk Lake just to practice. You can drive up north to find places to fly where there is lots of room—but be aware of possible local restrictions.
The best advice I can give about flying your drone is to be respectful. If you are at a beach, field, or campground, always go over to people nearby and show them your licence and registration and ask if it would be alright to fly. I found people more than happy to watch you fly because they are fascinated by drones, especially the kids. Being respectful generates a lot of good will for the drone hobby and shows the public you are a responsible drone operator, and that helps promote the hobby.
This is undoubtedly one of the greatest developments in photography in recent memory and it’s never been so easy to get started. See the world from a completely different point of view. Capture stunning and otherwise impossible to reach views over deep hidden valleys, soaring cliffs, or deep waterfalls; capture a sunset over a mountain from 200 metres up; take a shot of something that no one else has ever seen before. This is a new type of photography and there are some talented photographers who do amazing work. As well, more and more businesses are using drones. The aerial imaging market was valued at 2 billion USD in 2021 and is expected to reach 4 billion USD by 2027 so there is great opportunity for licenced drone pilots out there.
If you are serious about aerial photography, check out the Transport Canada website, the National Research Council Drone Tool website, the Coastal Drone School website, and DJI’s website https://www.dji.com/ca. Also drop in and talk to the folks at Kerrisdale Cameras or visit their website. They are knowledgeable about DJI and can answer your questions, and you can contact me also at the Victoria Camera Club website. https://www.victoriacameraclub.ca/
A couple of Youtube clips worth looking at.
Vancouver Island via drone vol 1. – YouTube Vancouver Island via drone by Blair Landry
This Is Vancouver Island (4K) – DJI Mavic 2 Pro – YouTube This is Vancouver Island by Calibreus
My First Drone Video by James Dies