How Flight Policies Influence Commercial Drone Photography

Drones have dramatically changed the way we create content. With a drone camera setup, one can take pictures and videos from great heights, making use of unexpected perspectives that are normally not possible with regular cameras.

Since drones have become extremely popular in the past year or so, many professional photographers and videographers have added drone coverage to their services and packages.

However, due to the safety and privacy concerns that have arisen since the rise in popularity of the consumer drone, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) has come up with various rules and regulations that would change the way drone owners use their devices.

Stricter Requirements for Commercial Drone Use

The FAA has mandated that all drone owners must register their aircraft if it meets or exceeds the weight limit set by the FAA of 250 grams or 0.55 pounds. A penalty of up to $250,000 will be charged to anyone who fails to comply. This may no longer apply to recreational drone users due to a recent court ruling, but the FAA may still file an appeal to overturn this.

Commercial users have to adhere to a stricter set of rules for drone ownership and operation. For instance, the actual operator (the person who will be flying the drone) will need a to pass an aeronautical knowledge test and obtain a remote pilot certificate (FAA Airman Certificate and/or Rating Application) to be able to fly commercially. There are many other rules, but the most controversial of them all is that if you are planning to take drone photos for work or business, you must first get a permit from the FAA that expressly states that you are allowed to do so.

Since there are more rules to follow, commercial drone use can be a hassle and is fraught with legal potholes. To avoid the hassle of getting penalized or failing to deliver the agreed upon services to your clients, here are some important points to remember:


Pilot Requirements:

  • Pilot must be at least 16 years old
  • Pilot must obtain Remote Pilot Airman Certificate
  • Pilot must pass Transportation Security Administration (TSA) vetting


Drone Requirements:

  • Drone must weigh less than 55 lbs.
  • Drone must be registered with the FAA if it weights over 0.55 lbs.
  • Drone must undergo stringent pre-flight checks to ensure safe operation


Flight Requirements:

  • Flight must be within Class G airspace
  • Flight must allow for visual sight of the drone at all times
  • Flight must be under 400 feet
  • Flight must be executed during daytime
  • Flight must not exceed 100 mph
  • Flight must yield right of way to all manned aircraft
  • Flight must NOT be executed over people or from a moving vehicle

As previously mentioned, the rules of flight are bendable provided that the operator obtains a certificate of waiver.


Increased Limitations in Services Offered

Photographers who use drones to earn a living are directly affected by these policies—especially those who do wedding and sports photography. These rules can significantly limit the services that commercial drone users can offer.

For instance, according to the rules released by the FAA, commercial drones are not allowed to fly over groups of people. So if you are hired to cover a wedding, how can you possibly obtain the kind of shots the bride and groom would want if you cannot fly the drone over the guests? This would mean that you can only offer them shots or footage of their venue, or far-away group shots.

Nighttime flights are also prohibited unless special permissions are obtained, so drone photographers will have to take that into consideration as well. They can either apply for the certificate of waiver, or they can simply refuse to cover all nighttime events.

With all these rules, it can severely limit the services you can offer and the gigs you can accept. However, all hope is not lost. As previously mentioned, one option photographers have if they really need to deviate from these restrictions is to secure a waiver from the FAA. To be granted said waiver, the photographer must show proof of the safety measures in place through proper documentation.

Prolonged Lead Time for Each Flight

Another issue that arises from these strict drone policies? The fact that it significantly increases the lead time per client. If you are hired to cover an event or a specific location and the client requires you to deviate from the aforementioned flight requirements, you will need to ensure that there is plenty of time (at least three months) between the date the client booked your services and the date the event will take place.

Obtaining a certificate of waiver should take more or less 90 days to process, which means you cannot accept last minute bookings due to the prolonged lead time.

Take note that this waiver is only applicable to drones that weigh less than 55 pounds at takeoff. If your drone camera setup is heavier, you’ll have to apply for the Section 333 exemption. Most successful applications are said to have depended on legal representation, so you might want to consider hiring legal aid to help you present your case.

The process that one needs to get through for the commercial use of drones may be tedious. But when you think about it, you’ll realize that it’s for the safety and benefit of everyone involved.

Commercial drone photography and videography is a booming industry, and as long as you follow the rules, it can be a very lucrative business.

Liz Pekler

I am a travel photographer with several years of experience in the field. Being a freelance blogger enables me to help photography beginners and enthusiasts to tell wonderful stories of their travels as seen through their lenses. It also allows me to share my thoughts about another advocacy of mine: social equality and change.

View All Posts