I recently attended a symposium about how unmanned aerial systems can be used in search and rescue operations.  I’ll be helping my search and rescue team “spin up” our UAS program and come up with best practices from a SAR standpoint.  The symposium was quite informative and got the tech geek in me pretty excited.

But I will NEVER fly drones or unmanned aerial systems or whatever they’re called now*.  For all the times I almost got hit by wayward Predators while flying fighters in Afghanistan, and later by hobby drones while flying helicopter tours over Lake Tahoe.  I hate them with a passion.  Never gonna fly one, I don’t even want to know anything about them.

*I’m currently looking at which photography drone would be best for me to purchase.

The symposium also made me realize how easy it was for a current pilot to receive a Part 107 sUAS license (required for commercial work).  So why not get it?  It’s free and takes an hour.

Why should travel photographers have a drone?

Better photos

I started thinking about all the missed perspectives I’ve had on all of my trips – sailing, hiking, all those times I said “I wish I could get a few more feet away from this mountain to get an unobstructed view of this landscape”.  There are just times where you can’t hold the camera and get the shot you have in your head.

I now realize just how limited my creativity has been without a flying camera.  My perspective has been limited even more than my creativity.

Better video

I started making videos on this last sailing trip, but they were all with handheld cameras, and strapped to boat rails.  But how cool would it be if I had a camera flying in the air that could follow me as I was sailing off into the sunset?  Or be right along side me as I was tending sails?  The shots I haven’t taken yet are already spinning through my head.

This video from DJI features a cat that can sail a little bit faster than mine…a little bit…but you get the idea.

Some other creatives have taken some cool aerials like these from Getty Images.

Scouting locations

Keep in mind that FAA regulations (and common sense) say that commercial UAS pilots need to keep the drone in sight with the naked eye at all times.  That doesn’t mean that they’re not good for scouting.  Example of what usually goes through my head while out backpacking close to sunset:

Hmmm, I could stay at this spot for the next hour until sunset and get what I know will be a slightly-above mediocre shot, or I could venture a couple miles over the next hill and get to a location that is either absolute shit or absolute magic.

A drone can take care of this in a matter of minutes.  I can pop the camera over the next hill and check out its photographic potential without wasting time or effort.

Get in the shot!

I’ve conceded that maybe I should finally jump on the drone bandwagon, but I’ll never ever ever get a selfie stick.  It’ll be nice to finally be in some shots instead of behind the camera.

Which drone is best for a minimalist traveling photographer like me?

If there’s one theme on this blog – and I realize I’m all over the place – it’s all about going light.  Backpacking, travel, photography…I’m all about maximizing my productivity with the least bulk and weight in my pack.  It’s a fine line to walk, but I think I’m doing alright.

So what are some of my criterion for a travel photography drone?  I wasted hours on YouTube videos and learned a lot.  Here’s what I took away from my YouTubucation.

  • Under two pounds
  • Portable (folding)
  • Gimbaled camera
  • Ability to shoot in RAW with manual mode photography
  • 2.7K video
  • Over 20 minutes of flight time
  • Quiet
  • Easy to fly
  • Autonomous flight modes allowing me to put the controller down
  • A price that wouldn’t send me into shock if something terrible happened to it

There’s really only one model that fits this bill, and that’s the $999 DJI Mavic Pro.  The Mavic, released last year, has all of these characteristics.  It’s about the size of a Nalgene bottle, sets up quickly, and can take photo & video well up to the standards that I need.

mavic proThe Mavic Pro has some fancy schmancy modes that could prove useful to an outdoorsy photographer:

  • Altitude Hold will maintain a set distance above rising & falling terrain
  • Active Track will follow a moving object
  • Tripod Mode will slow the drone considerably and make it smooth & stable to fly when flying through dense trees
  • Point of Interest will track something on the ground while you fly circles around it
  • Cinematic Mode will dampen those quick, jerky movements into smooth shots with a cinematic effect

Stats at a glance:

  • Weight: 1.6 pounds with battery (extra batteries are 0.5 pounds)
  • Folded size: 3.3″ x 3.3″ x 7.8″
  • Camera: 28mm f/2.2, Manual & RAW shooting available
  • Sensor: 1/2.3″ CMOS 12MP, ISO100-3200
  • Video: 4k & 2.7k @ 24/30fps, and 1080 @ 24/40/60fps
  • Max flight time, ideal conditions: 27 minutes
mavic pro

Photo from The Verge. Click on the photo to watch their video preview on the Mavic Pro.

There are some drawbacks to the Mavic Pro, but they’re not really deal breakers for me.

  • The sensor is small and isn’t great in low light, but I’ll accept that.
  • The camera isn’t as great as DJI’s newest Phantom 4 or Inspire drones, but hey, I’m not shooting commercials for Audi.  The camera on the Mavic Pro is still great for most commercial applications.
  • It’s extremely light weight.  I thought this was a good thing?  Yes of course, but this means that it’s less stable in windy conditions.  I’ll have to be careful here.
  • The small size will make it harder to see at a distance.
  • The frowned-upon “hand-catching” will be a challenge on a sailboat.  Maybe I’ll have to design some kind of apparatus for this.  I’m not going to go with the Phantom drones just so that I can have a handle to catch.

But at least I don’t have to carry something like this around with me on all my backpacking & sailing trips!  And through the airport…my gawd.

inspire case

Preparing to become an aerial photographer

A quadcopter with a camera flies a bit different than a helicopter.  And quite a bit different than an airplane.  I’ve done photography from both categories of aircraft, but nothing like this.  There are some things I can do to get ahead before my drone arrives.

14 CFR 107 Certification

Anyone wishing to use their photographs in some kind of monetary exchange will need to be certified with the FAA under Part 107 of the regulations.

If you already hold a current certificate under Part 61, this is easy!  I went to the FAA website and reviewed some rules specific to Part 107, took a 35-question test from my living room, and was certified in under two hours.  All that’s left is to verify my BFR currency in IACRA and the certificate is in the mail.

If you don’t have a certificate, the link above also has information for new pilots.  You’ll need to take a knowledge test and visit an FAA-designated person to complete the application.


The fun part – not crashing.  Quadcopters take a lot of practice.  Fortunately I can start this without having a physical aircraft.

I’ve played around with a few apps and the best free drone simulator I’ve found is Drone on my Phone.  I’ve noticed it’s easier to control on a tablet since the screen is a bit bigger and thus the controls are more forgiving.  There’s games and challenges to get you acclimated to the four-axis controls.

The DJI GO app also has a flight simulator, but it requires a physical DJI aircraft in order to work.  Once the drone arrives I can play around with a more accurate flight model while safely on the ground until I’m ready to fly.


There are some accessories I’ll want to have available for my first photo flight.  These include Neutral Density Polarizing filters, extra batteries, extra propellers, and a lens flare guard.

Who is my voice of reason?

I’ll be placing the order from Amazon shortly and will provide updates as I figure this thing out.

Am I making the right choice here?  Words of wisdom from anyone who has found something better?


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