All Drones Are Not Created Equal


The general impression that real estate industry professionals seem to have of aerial drone photography is that it is an inexpensive way to get aerial views of a building or project, and a cheaper alternative to photography from aircraft. While this is true to some extent, selecting a drone photographer based solely on price can be a mistake. Drone technology is quite new and the FAA is still in the process of implementing regulations for the commercial use of drones. There is little information available for assessing the competency of drone companies, and hiring a drone operator can be like playing roulette. Just as anyone with a camera can call themselves a photographer, anyone with a drone can claim to be a professional drone operator. So what factors should you look at when hiring a drone photographer?


Pricing for drone photography can vary widely and is dependent upon a number of factors including cost of the drone and camera system, expertise of the drone operator, and digital processing to produce the final images. Drones can cost anywhere between $400 to $5,000 or more, and the cameras that they support have significant quality differences. It can be like comparing point-and-shoot cameras to high end digital cameras. While you can use lower resolution photos or video on a website, the question is whether that is the quality you want representing your product.

Equipment Used

In general there are three classes of drones defined by weight carrying ability and price. Inexpensive drones cost from $400 to a little over $1,000, and can carry low resolution cameras like the GoPro. The next level of drones costs between $2-4,000, and can support cameras with 4/3 sensors. The largest drones cost $5,000 and up, and can carry large cameras such as full frame digital cameras or high resolution video cameras. Compare the sensor sizes of these three classes of cameras in the picture below.


Sensor sizes_1060

The 35mm full frame sensor provides very high resolution photos and video, and is appropriate for most forms of high end advertising and media marketing. Depending upon how the images or video are used, hiring a drone that uses a camera with a full frame sensor may be overkill. For example, if the images are to be used in pdf or electronic documents, or for website video that is not meant to be viewed large, the expense of using such a drone may not be warranted.

Cameras utilizing the 4/3 sized sensors occupy the middle level between the 35mm full sized sensor and the GoPro 1/ 2.5” sensor. The 4/3 sensor is about nine times the size of the GroPro sensors. Cameras with the 4/3 sensor must be supported by larger drones. The image resolution of still photos and video produced from these cameras are appropriate for most real estate marketing ranging from low to high end properties.

Cameras using the 1/ 2.5” sensor are usually supported by drones that fall into the hobbyist to semi-professional category. Image quality can be adequate for most marketing purposes as long as the images aren’t meant to be viewed large.

Drone Pilot Experience

Photographers with more expensive cameras are not necessarily better than those with moderately priced cameras, and using more expensive drones does not necessarily mean better results. What is important is the amount of experience that the drone pilot has. Pilot experience is key to producing great images that work for marketing. Flying a drone requires many hours of experience and familiarity with navigating in areas that pose multiple hazards—car and people traffic, electrical wires, trees, and surrounding buildings. Aircraft flying experience, while not necessary, can help with flying in difficult situations involving wind and inclement weather. Lastly, familiarity with what clients need in their marketing may give better results than drone pilots who are unfamiliar with the industry.

Digital Processing Experience

 Drone photography involves two skill sets—drone piloting and digital processing. A drone pilot can take photos of a property, but the photos are just the foundation for great images. Digital processing must be done to adjust brightness and contrast, enhance color, correct perspective and alignment, and crop the image. Because the final look of the photo is largely a matter of interpretation, it is important that an experienced digital artist perform the postproduction work. If you are getting unedited jpeg images direct from the camera, you are dealing with someone who doesn’t have the knowledge or skill to deal with digital processing.

Drone Photography versus Aerial Photography from Aircraft

Drone flying is limited by the FAA to 400 ft. or less above ground, which is great for showing off a building or project from low altitude angles. Helicopters are generally limited to flying at heights of 500 ft. and above, and are best used for showing a building’s location within its marketplace, especially when it’s necessary to show proximity to freeways, the ocean, competitive properties, businesses, etc. Drone photography of multiple sites can be difficult logistically because the operator must physically go to the property locations in order to perform photography. Photography from aircraft can be more efficient and cost effective if it’s possible to fly to the different sites. Each mode of photography has its advantages and disadvantages, and clients need to decide which one best fulfills their needs. In some cases, using both drone and aircraft photography can provide the most comprehensive tools for effective marketing.

Certification and Insurance Coverage

Flying a drone involves the risk of accidents and possibly lawsuits, so it is vital that any drone company hired has adequate liability insurance. In order for a company to qualify for insurance, they must hold an FAA 333 Exemption or have the new FAA 107 certification. The FAA 107 certification program will make it much easier for individuals and companies to be licensed for commercial drone photography activities.