I bought my first drone, a Phantom 3 Standard, in May of 2017. Less than two months later, I upgraded to the Mavic Pro.
Of course, then I needed a new backpack to take it hiking. Then a new computer to edit, an SSD to store all the data, then ND filters, and those new quieter and more efficient props…
Then the Mavic 2 Pro was released. Look, no one said flying a drone was cheap, but it certainly is a ton of fun.
It is also one of a few hobbies that presents a unique opportunity to not only pay for itself but even provide a little extra side cash.
I’m going to lay out the five ways I turned this uber-expensive hobby into a profitable side hustle, and how you can too.
But first, Part 107
If you want to earn money (or engage in any commercial enterprise) using your drone, you need a Remote Pilot Certificate, also known as a Part 107 License.
It’s called Part 107 after the body of regulations that govern drone operations in the US.
If you don’t already have one, head over here to read about how to get one.
Side Hustle 1 – Real Estate
I can’t be the only one addicted to scrolling through Zillow right? Here though, it can serve a purpose. Pull up your general area and start looking through the listings. Obviously, any Real Estate listing page would work here.
Click on a listing and quickly scroll through the images looking for aerial shots. If they don’t have any, check under the Overview tab and look for how long it has been listed. If it has been up for more than a couple days, you can bet they don’t have any aerial shots.
Just below that on the listing, you will find the Listing Agent and a phone number along with the company they are associated with. During business hours, give them a call and hit them with something along the lines of:
“Hi! I’m (insert name) from (business name, though it can just be your name followed by aerial. At this point you probably don’t need anything official).
I was scrolling through Zillow and noticed your listing at 26 Roberts Street in Sanford doesn’t have any aerial shots. I’m offering a special rate right now of (insert whatever local drone pilots are getting. If you don’t know, send a couple emails and ask for a quote).
I’m not far from there and could swing up for a quick flight if you are interested.“
Bonus points if you can find a few listings in the area from the same agent that don’t have aerial shots. Give them a package deal. But don’t forget to add in the cost of travel.
And definitely don’t undercut your competition to get the job.
Not only is bad blood a way to make sure you don’t get recommended when another photographer can’t fit a listing into their schedule, but you will also be stuck charging that cut-rate from there on out.
Also, you will occasionally get an agent that wants to talk the owner into paying. Perhaps it is just a coincidence, but I’ve never had anything but trouble from these gigs. I now avoid it if at all possible.
Always work with the agent instead.
Okay, so once you get the gig, the hard part is over. I’m rarely there for more than 20 minutes as I almost always just do images.
If they want video, make sure to up charge. It will usually take at least another battery aside from the big uptick in skill required.
My basic formula is to do three orbits around the property, each round taking pictures of the four corners of the building.
On the first close orbit, try to isolate the building. Crop out neighbors and such in post, if not possible while flying.
In the next, further out orbit, try to give a sense of the neighborhood.
Then finally make sure to get any beautiful local scenery. You don’t need to be able to see it from the property as long as you can see the property in the shot.
I usually tell realtors that I can produce 10-20 shots of and from the property (if it has a great view make sure to get it), but they rarely use all of them.
Depending on the MLS the agent is using, there are different file requirements. If the agent doesn’t know, just google it.
Generally, I use pretty low-resolution files for real estate and that gives me an opportunity for another upsell, the signing gift.
Upload the files to a google drive or dropbox folder and invoice the realtor.
Once they’ve paid, send them the link and mention how lovely the property is and that a canvas print of their favorite image would make a lovely signing gift for their future buyer for only (3x the cost of whatever online canvas print sale you can find)!
Once you build a relationship with a couple of agents, they will start to reach out to you with new listings!
Side Hustle 2 – Prints
If you’ve been posting images to social media from your drone, it won’t be long until someone asks about prints.
There seem to be two stages to selling prints.
During the first, you sell a print or two here or there. It’s a nice little bonus, but it’s a bit of a hassle. To make it easier, pick a single printer. Someone reliable and fast.
Bonus points if it’s not a nameless online shop, but a brick-and-mortar shop near you.
Get a price list for standard sizes (8×10, 11×14, 16×20) along with maybe some panorama sizes if you take lots of those. Mark up those prices enough to make sense for you, but I recommend at least 2-3 times.
You should do the same for canvas and even metal prints. When someone asks you about a print, send them your price list, shipping not included.
In the best-case scenario have your printer do the shipping, but if not, you will need to include the cost of packaging along with the actual shipping.
As you continue to shoot and post, the print requests might start to get annoying. At this point, you might want to switch to the second stage of printing, where you need a solution to deal with the requests a little more seamlessly.
If you’ve got the room and the know-how, you can certainly set up your own print shop, but aside from the heavy upfront costs of a photo-quality printer, you have the running costs of ink, and paper, and you still need to ship.
I decided after about a year to switch to an online drop shipping printer. I use Smugmug.com, but there are several.
The general way these services work is you upload your photos to a gallery, and customers can either browse or you can send a direct link. The customer can then pick from a variety of sizes and when they pay, they see the price that you have selected.
The company then takes payment and sends the order to the printer who then ships the print directly to the customer. They also deal with quality control and returns.
This isn’t a free service, of course, and they offer a variety of plans depending on what you need.
If you like to sign your prints or check every pixel, this probably isn’t the solution for you, but it’s great for more hands-off aerial photographers.
Once you hit a certain threshold in profits, they send you a check. You can even drop a link every time you post an image to that page on your gallery. Passive income at its finest!
Side Hustle 3 – Stock
Speaking of passive income, stock video (and photos, kind of, maybe?) can be a nice little bonus every month.
There are several agencies where you can upload aerial video clips that someone might need for a YouTube video, business presentation, local or national commercial, or even on a TV show or movie.
Obviously, the sale price on stock imagery is determined by usage.
Shutterstock is just one agency, but they are all pretty similar. In fact, you can upload the same clip to multiple agencies, giving it a much wider audience and chance for a sale.
The best approach is to take high-quality aerial video and then cut it into reasonable clip lengths with no jarring movement included.
Upload it to their server and give it a title and keywords someone searching for that clip might look for and then it’s listed for sale.
If and when the clip sells, you get a cut. Keywording isn’t particularly fun though so there is also a service that allows you to partner with someone who is good at doing that and can keyword for you.
BlackBox is a service that not only pairs videographers with people they call curators to title and keyword, but they also have curators that will cut and edit your clips for you as well. Each takes a share of the sale.
Or you can do it all yourself and BlackBox still provides the added benefit of uploading your clips to several agencies. There’s a lot to understanding BlackBox so here’s a quick beginner’s guide:
Obviously, stock images are a thing, but they sell for much, much less. I usually get $10-20 for an average stock video sale (I’ve gotten as much as $300 and as little as $1, but those are less common).
But most stock photos earn less than fifty cents. One of my images has sold almost 100 times and I haven’t yet made $50 on it. To me, that isn’t really worth the effort, but if you work at it, you can make a little money.
Side Hustle 4 – Commissions
So this one is quite similar to Real Estate, but rather than taking photos of properties for sale, you take photos of a client’s camp, property, or just their favorite place.
People often ask when they see my posts on social media if I have any photos from a particular location:
- If I do, I send them to my SmugMug gallery with those images in it.
- If not, I apologize, but then add that I offer commissioned shoots if they are interested.
I charge similar rates to my Real Estate shoots, plus the cost of prints.
Again, take 10-20 shots of and from the property and upload low-res versions to Google Drive or something similar, then the client can pick whichever photo they like to have it printed so they can keep their favorite view at home.
If I get particularly nice images while out on a shoot, I’ll ask the client if they mind me sharing to my social media where I can plug the service for those who aren’t aware it’s even a possibility.
I usually get a few jobs from those posts.
Again, make sure to include travel, and when camps are involved, I usually double the mileage rate for dirt roads. Nothing like a flat tire to cut into your profits.
Side Hustle 5 – Social Media
If you haven’t noticed yet, social media presence is a huge part of turning your hobby into a side hustle.
Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok all offer some sort of payment for creators that are performing well on the platform.
They generally only apply to fairly large accounts though so you really need to work on growing your following.
Post often, post regularly, and ENGAGE.
There are no shortcuts here. Ignore those messages offering to grow your followers. They are all scams. You just need to put in the work.
Speaking of which, follow me on Instagram @northwoodsaerial!
Instagram’s Reels Play Bonus is the only one that makes me reliable income, and it’s only around $100 a month.
But I was already making Reels anyways. Now I just do it more regularly and focus on clips that I think will generate views.
If you stumble into a viral clip, you can earn over a grand, but those are lottery tickets you just shouldn’t rely on.
Bonus Side Hustle – Write for Droneblog!
If you are looking for ways to use your hobby of flying drones to make a little cash on the side, why not write for Droneblog? Your knowledge and experience with drones are a huge asset to our readers.
If you are totally into drones and know all the ins and outs of different models, how to snap great photos, fly an FPV quad, or have a head full of any other drone-related trivia, you know enough to share your expertise with the readers of Droneblog.
No writing experience is needed, just a love for drones!
If writing blog articles sounds like it might be up your alley, please follow this link to fill out an application.
None of these really offer ‘quit your job’ money. But all together they can certainly help to offset the cost of this ridiculously fun and expensive hobby.
And if you work at it they can even pay for that vacation you’ve been putting off.
While you’re on that vacation, make sure to take your drone so you can take some stock footage clips, post some reels and try to sell some prints.
This is where I make the disclaimer that I’m not a financial or legal advisor.
But yeah, you need to pay taxes on anything you earn and you should probably protect yourself with a Limited Liability Corporation and some Business Insurance. Consider contacting an attorney and/or an accountant.
But those decisions are certainly up to you and probably relate to exactly how much you are earning.
Does it matter what drone I fly?
Honestly, not really. You can make quality content with a pretty low-budget drone. Anything less than a Mavic Mini is probably a no go though.
Can I turn this side hustle into an actual business?
Sure, but you are going to need to invest a lot more time and money. Plus, when your hobby becomes your job, is it really your hobby anymore?
Are there any hustles you didn’t mention here?
Yes, inspections are probably the most likely one, but it’s pretty hard to break into that one as a side hobby. Most companies want a licensed and insured business.