Photo Guide: Knowing The Drone Photography Laws

When I first got my drone, all I wanted to do was fly. It felt like I had complete freedom to shoot whatever I wanted. I could fly it thousands of feet away and take photos from a perspective I never could before. When I first started flying, I really had no idea what I was doing let alone getting myself into. After working closely with my good friend Tom Harmon for a summer, I learned a lot about drones and how they could be used for photography. I was eventually convinced to get a drone my senior year of college because of Tom and a video watched in school one day about creating images with a drone. For some reason, I just felt like this was something I needed to do.

I bought a DJI Phantom 2 Vision Plus and flew that for about two weeks before I decided that it would be better to have the DJI Phantom 3 Advanced. A little more technology at a little bit more of a cost. Coming from a background of shooting landscape and night photography for the past three years prior, I didn’t really know what to expect to shoot with my drone. Now when I got into drones, I never wanted to fly them because I thought it was fun. I wanted to fly to create photos and videos in a way that I couldn’t before. I wanted to be good at doing this so that I could take my work to the next level.

Living by the beach in Long Branch, NJ during the offseason, I was able to fly my drone freely day after day. The beach was my outlet. It was a place I could go fly with no distractions, no obstacles, and no worries. I was free to practice and shoot however I wanted. All that practice was really just a starting point for me, I didn’t get serious about creating images with my drone until after I graduated college and moved home for the summer. Just like most of you reading this, I was inspired by the big drone accounts I saw on social media. I told myself that I wanted to be just as good as those guys were. From there, the challenge began and I pushed myself to travel and create with this amazing tool I had.

Things definitely didn’t take off right away, but I dedicated a lot of my free time to go out and shoot with my drone. I spent hours on Google Maps searching for spots I thought would be interesting to fly at. I figured out what conditions I liked shooting in because I saw that different times of day (sunrise, midday, sunset, twilight) and different weather (cloudy, sunny, wet, foggy) gave my aerial photos a certain look. Once I had this figured out, I began to create images I was really happy with and dropped every excuse I could to not shoot.

I tried to keep this part as short as possible, but fast forward a few years later and here I am today. I moved out from home to work on growing my company, Simply Visual Productions. Looking back on it, my drone has literally changed my life and become a part of who I am. Aside from doing my own personal work with the drone, I would say that about 75% of the work I do requires me to fly my drone and capture either photos or video with it. I currently fly DJI drones and absolutely love how simple and reliable they are. My Inspire 2 and X5S is by far my favorite setup but is mostly used for commercial use. My Mavic Pro, on the other hand, is my favorite little travel buddy and is used for most of my personal work. I always try to stay in the up to date with drones because of how many opportunities have opened up for me.

Airspace:

Unfortunately, there are rules when it comes to flying drones. We have to remember that we have a piece of equipment hovering in the sky that faces the risk of falling and causing damage to someone or something. Regardless of what type of drone we are flying and how reliable it is, accidents happen. Over my past few years of flying, I have learned plenty of do’s and don’ts. So let’s jump into a little bit about airspace in NJ.

First thing I’d like to mention is that a lot of people break the rules. When we browse through social media, we see some photos or videos with drones that may look a bit questionable. This doesn’t mean the people taking these photos are bad people, but no matter what they are responsible for their actions when flying the aircraft. Different states and countries have different laws when it comes to flying drones. However, because they are still fairly new, the FAA is constantly trying to find better ways to regulate all of the drones and work with us pilots so we can have that freedom to fly.

Just because other people break the rules doesn’t mean that it’s okay for you to go out and break them too. When you are flying your drone, you always need to remember that you are responsible for anything that happens with it. Be aware of where you are flying and take note of the airspace you may be in. As a New Jersey droner myself, I try to always be conscious of this so I will take you through some of the knowledge I have on airspace.

Airports. These are big things to pay attention to, especially the big airports with commercial airliners. You should never fly within 5 miles of an airport unless you have some sort of waiver and or permission to be flying in that airspace. As silly as it may seem that a tiny little drone could take down a plane of that size, it doesn’t matter. You do not want to be putting anyone’s life in danger because you want to fly your drone and take cool pictures/video.

Heliports are a bit different than airports but they also play a big role when it comes to flying. It is definitely crucial to know about air traffic anywhere that you go flying. I have done a lot of flying in Jersey City and a bit over in certain parts of NY. One of the main things I keep my eye on are all of the other aircraft I am sharing the airspace with. Helicopters and Planes always have the right of way so if you are flying and you see them, be sure that your drone is out of the way. If you are unfamiliar with the place you are going to fly or have any concerns about being able to fly there, do a little bit of research before you go. If you get there, they to get there a bit earlier than you need to and just examine the conditions of the area to make sure you are good to fly!

Flying over people/traffic, over 400ft, in State Parks and National Parks are also big no’s for drones. However, like I mentioned earlier the airspace is still being classified. Flying in the dark is also looked down on because of all the danger it can add to the situation. Not being able to see your drone as well can cause unnecessary danger which is why it is sometimes good to have a Visual Observer with you. A VO is somebody who keeps their eye on the drone at all times so that you don’t lose line of site. Technically, you are always supposed to have a line of site on the drone, so no matter what, try to always know where your drone is. Flying over people or cars that aren’t in operation with the aircraft also presents another hazard.  Try to keep your drone over areas without too many people or traffic, this way if anything goes wrong your drone will crash and break but you won’t have to worry about damaging a person or property in which you’d more than likely be responsible to pay for.

Things may or may not change as time goes on but that is something we will have to wait to find out about. This may sound like a lot of information to know but there is a reason that the rules are the way they are. To make things easy, you can look at a VFR Chart to understand the airspace you’ll be in, or you can make things easier on yourself and download an app that will help you out.

I personally use Airmap because I like how clean the app is. It loads up quickly and shows me all the places I can and cannot fly. Another cool thing this app shows you are TFR’s (Temporary Flight Restrictions) so for example, if the president travels to NY or NJ, they may place a TFR within a certain radius of a given point. This is a very strict NFZ (No Fly Zone) which means you should not fly your drone within the red circle it shows. These are nothing to worry about, they are only temporary and you can see when they start and end. Just make sure you are aware that this could happen so that you don’t have to find out on the spot. Airmap will also soon be in partnership with the FAA so that you can be granted permission to fly in certain airspaces after submitting information about your flight. This is going to unlock a whole new world to us pilots, especially the ones who are doing a lot of work with their drones.

Drone Apps to Check:

Insurance:

If you are running a business or doing work with your drone, Insurance is something you probably want to have. I would even recommend getting it if you a fly often on your own just to keep you covered incase anything happens. A good app for this is Verifly, you can purchase insurance by the hour that will cover yourself and your flight to a certain extent. If you think that you fly too often, Hill and Usher is a great company to reach out to regarding a quote for their Aerial Coverage. They bill an annual fee but cover you or your business over a course of time rather than by use of the aircraft.

Insurance can be pricey as it is known to be, but it is always nice to know that you are protected if anything goes wrong with your drone.

Commercial Use:

If you are going to be flying your drone and getting paid for doing so in any way, shape or form, it is required by law to have a Part 107 License. This test is on the more challenging side but again is here for a reason. A lot of the stuff I covered above would be easier to understand after taking this test and acquiring a license to fly your drone for commercial work. Today, a lot of company’s or people that want drone work make sure that whoever they hire is licensed and insured. Though the chances are slim, if you do work without this license, you do face a chance of being fined.

Do you need a license to have a drone? The answer to that is no. I do believe everybody who owns a drone should be aware of the airspace and the rules but a license is only required if you are going to be doing work with your drone. There is plenty of free, helpful information online to help you study for this test and there are testing centers all throughout New Jersey that you can go to take the test. Once you pass the test, you mail in your certificate and wait to receive a license in the mail. For more information on Commercial Use and obtaining a part 107 License, check out the article at FStoppers.

Conclusion:

After years of flying and creating, I realize you don’t just pick up a drone and become an aerial photographer. It takes time, patience and more practice than I had ever imagined. Even today, I am still practicing and learning every time I go out to fly. It took me a while to adapt to the rules, pass the test and get insurance, but now I am used to everything and understand why it is all necessary for me to have.

My drone has done more for me than I ever could have imagined and I love to see the work other people are able to create with their drones. If you have a passion for this type of stuff and love nothing more, all I can say is keep chasing that passion and let everything fall into place. Remember to follow the rules and have some fun when you go out to fly!

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