There are many career paths for commercial drone pilots, especially those who have recently passed the Part 107 exam. As drones become more prevalent in the world, there is almost no limit to where your drone can take you. While having options is a plus, it can also be overwhelming.
Some career paths, such as flying drones with lidar, may seem exciting but can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment and specialized training. If you have already decided to provide drone photography services in your area, the next step is choosing the services you want to deliver.
As a new commercial drone pilot, one of the best sectors to start in is the real estate industry. Real estate photography services are one of the easiest to provide and require the bare minimum of startup costs.
With little more than a drone and a personal computer, you can start providing these services. We will discuss some of the gear and training you will need as well as how to market your business. Finally, we will touch on tips for your first gig.
Armed with your Part 107 license, you can be working in this exciting field starting today.
When it comes to gear, it seems everyone has an opinion. While some sing the praises of a particular drone, others may see it as little more than a flying piece of plastic. For this reason, I will cover gear in general without naming specific brands. The important thing is the capability of these systems and what they can do for you in real estate photography.
Your drone is the first and most crucial part of your aerial photography business. For this purpose, drones are essentially a flying camera. The camera's capabilities should be your primary consideration.
As a former real estate agent in California and a current commercial drone pilot, I have discussed this topic with many people in and out of the drone community. More often than not, I have found people will either ask for the capabilities of a specific drone they know (or have heard about) or they will request a minimum megapixel count.
Some agents will say they want their pilot to fly a DJI Phantom 4 Pro or better. Others might specify a camera with a resolution of at least 20 megapixels. My personal opinion is that most real estate listings would be just fine with a resolution of 12 megapixels, however, since 20 megapixels seems to be what most agents I know require, I would recommend a drone with at least 20 megapixels and a 3-axis gimbal.
Additional drone equipment would include a few extra batteries and an ND lens set. Although a ground camera is not a requirement, some clients will only want to deal with pilots that can also take ground shots. You can do this by flying your drone a few feet off the ground, but this is not preferable.
Another option is to purchase a simple DSLR camera. Your cell phone is not going to work here. Used DSLR cameras are on resale sites for two or three hundred dollars. I would go with the DSLR as it makes you look more professional and provides a better product to your customer.
You will need a computer to download and edit the images and videos you capture. Unless you plan on handling massive editing projects, most off the shelf desktops and laptops will be fine. Editing software can be expensive, but many market leaders in the space offer monthly plans that are affordable for any startup business.
As the saying goes, practice makes perfect. Real Estate photography will often bring you close to the subject you are shooting. Unless you are filming remote parcels of undeveloped land, residential and commercial real estate locations tend to be a forest of obstacles for your drone to avoid.
Powerlines, streetlights, billboards, and plants are just a few of the hazards awaiting your drone. While many drones have obstacle avoidance features, you should never rely on them. Practice flying around structures and do not trust the sensors to keep you from a collision. Your piloting skills and safety procedures are the only things you should entirely rely on. As a rule of thumb, I like to recommend at least 40 hours of flight time to become proficient.
If you are new to cameras, take a course or study some of the many YouTube videos on aerial photography. Many drones have built-in features like Auto White Balance (AWB) that make capturing images easier. Some have specific camera settings like D-Cinelike to help with better processing after the shoot. Do not use these without understanding what they do to your final product. Be good at your craft and understand how to use the camera without these features.
As a new commercial drone pilot, marketing can be a little bit of a challenge. Once you have determined which services you will provide and what fees you will charge, you need to find customers. Without a portfolio or website to showcase your work, you will need to get creative.
You may decide to make your first shoot for a client free of charge. I would not recommend this. You are a skilled professional and deserve to be compensated for your time. Instead, build your portfolio with your own house or a friend's place. Using your home will allow you to take all the time you need to get the photos right.
Real estate agents are your best customer in this career path. You can find lists of real estate agents in your area by searching the internet and through organizations like the National Association of Realtors.
Email campaigns are one way to go. Several services will help you create effective campaigns for a low monthly fee. Many of these will also track who reads your message. Keep in mind that most people are accustomed to getting lots of emails. The majority of people you market to in this way will never even open the message.
Printed flyers are another option. Brochures can be sent via the postal service or delivered in person. I recommend meeting with agents in person. There is no better way to win a customer than by meeting them face to face. Here you can showcase your work and professionally present yourself.
Your First Gig
Once you have landed your first gig, remember to prepare in advance for a successful shoot. Plan each of your shots before you are on location. Some clients will provide a detailed shot list. Others will assume you will handle that. Make sure you understand precisely what the client needs to avoid reshoots.
It is a good idea to create a standard shot list for specific property types. Real estate ads for single-family homes highlight different features than a strip mall or multi-unit apartment complex.
Fly on days where there are few clouds in the sky and good lighting. The best lighting is usually between 11:00 am and 3:00 pm.
Look at the street views for the location and decide what the best spots are to showcase the property. A survey of the area will also identify obstacles in your flight path to avoid or work around. Do not forget to review the weather forecast for the location.
Make sure all your gear is ready the night before the shoot. Batteries should be charged, software updates should be completed, and if need be, any airspace authorizations should already be taken care of before the day of the shoot.
Once on-site, remember to be professional and follow all safety rules. Sometimes people are curious about drones flying in the area. I have been approached many times by neighbors or curious onlookers, wondering what I was doing. Be friendly and professional when approached but your main priority is safely flying your drone.
I recommend wearing a safety vest while flying. If you are in a bright orange or yellow vest, you are not trying to hide what you are doing. People usually trust workers in vests to be around their homes or businesses.
Stick to your planned shot list and make sure you have completed everything required before packing up for the day. It is a good idea to take multiple shots for each location just in case an image or video is not useable.
Once you return to your workspace, download the images and video content from your drone and camera. Make sure to check each file for accuracy and quality. When you feel confident that you have everything the client has asked for, send the files.
I recommend including an invoice with the files unless other arrangements have been made. Invoices are professional and give both parties a record of the transaction.
Sending the files is also your chance to look for future business with the client. Perhaps you include a discount coupon for future work on the invoice or ask directly if the client has additional projects. Whatever method you prefer, do not pass up the opportunity for a future sale.
Congratulations, you have completed the first of hopefully many real estate photography projects as a commercial drone pilot.
Meet The Author
David Daly is a graduate of the United States Naval Academy and former United States Marine Corps officer. He is a consultant to the UAV industry and runs a commercial UAV company (Vigilante Drones) and a non-profit (Vigilante Cares) which uses drones to help military veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).