Guest post: Aerial drone photography – when your camera flies without you



Today's guest post on taking photographs with an aerial drone is by Frédéric Moix (website | gallery).

2011 and 2012 saw big improvements in the RC field, new technologies, new batteries, making the ability to lift a heavier DSLR camera more accessible. The interest is obvious: aerial photography is closer to buildings, objects, rock formations, etc. With this "close aerial photography" or "low altitude aerial photography" you can discover new angles of view for a fraction of the cost of the classical aerial photography performed by planes and helicopters.

It's going to be interesting to see the abilities of the new WT-5 wireless transmitter for remote images transmission from an aerial drone.


The flying system can be basically divided in three parts:

  1. The flying RC drone itself. Different models are available on the market, Mikrokopter seems to be one of the leaders in the field selling different multi rotors engines. I'm mostly working with an hexacopter (6 helix) and an oktocopter (8 helix).
  2. The DSLR camera body (mainly a DX body like the Nikon D7000 for its low weight, the D700 is also "liftable" and maybe very soon the D800 which is lighter than the D700) and a wide angle lens.
  3. The camera mount attaching the camera to the drone and enabling camera movements in different directions: the "nick", "roll" and "yaw" movement which can also be performed by the drone itself.

The ground system is composed of:

  1. The drone pilot and a RC transmitter
  2. The photographer with another transmitter enabling to aim at the subject with actions on the camera mount (as cited above) and even on a part of the movements of the drone itself. The transmitter is also allowing triggering, preferably through the drone in order to avoid the use of classical remote triggers who can interfere with the RC transmission and also in order to have everything on the same command (purely ergonomical).
  3. A screen transmitting what's happening in the air (what the DSLR is aiming at) - live view feeding for example, enabling proper framing as if you were "on board".
  4. A solid dose of experience and confidence (pilot and material)
The links (piloting commands, triggering and VDO feed) between the flying system and the ground system are basically a classical RC transmission system with a VDO sender and receiver.

Related links:

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  • I wonder how much C4 it could carry?

    • texajoe


    • inginerul

      @ZDP: Paranoid much ?

    • Everlast66

      Is this C4 some sort of canon camera – massive failure or something?

  • Seriously, these things need to be regulated.

    • Patch28

      They already are, much to the chagrin of the taco-copter inventors.

    • ATM

      Stop paranoia and join the free world the rest of us live in.

      • Calibrator

        LOL @ “free world”

        Your personal leash may be a bit longer, though.

    • @ZDP-189, the C4 is regulated, don’t worry, be happy! 🙂
      +1 @ ATM…

    • David

      I feel sorry that you live in a country where you are so terrified every day that you would even consider this.

      Seriously, move to a free country

    • Froghammer

      I can’t believe a photographer would say something foolish like this considering the crap we take for trying to get a nice picture.

      I hate walking around taking pictures and having people act like I’m trying to steal their identity, touch their kids or case a building for some huge terrorist operation.

  • R!

    Well ,nothing new they’re salin drones in shops since 2 years now!!!!

    • Calibrator

      The “new” bit is that these little helis get stronger and stronger and that even cheapos can now carry DSLRs.

  • gregorylent

    legality in urban areas?

    pretty sure the feds will want that for themselves.

    • iamlucky13

      In the US, they’re not allowed above 400 feet to avoid getting in the way of aircraft, and they’re not allowed within 500 feet of man-made structures or of people not involved in flying them.

      There are exceptions for designated airparks, which are listed on navigational charts to alert pilots an area may have unmanned aircraft in it.

      That basically precludes them from being flown legally in urban areas where you can’t be both below 400 feet and more than 500 feet from a building, although actual enforcement depends mostly on someone caring enough to call law enforcement and complain.

      It is possible to get further exceptions from the FAA, but in general those exceptions are usually limited to testing purposes.

  • jeff

    Regulations… that’s just what we need, more regulations that will do NOTHING to keep anyone safe! Are you suggesting that I can’t fly such a device because it might be loaded with a dangerous cargo? Makes perfect sense to outlaw it. After all, those willing to exploit such a means would certainly call off their plans if they knew that it was illegal!!! Really. It reminds me of the “no photography” signs that used to be on bridges and tunnels in NYC. The idea was that terrorists might use photographs to plan attacks. Problem is, tourists are obvious. A dedicated and committed terrorist however would simply conceal a camera (pretty easy to do these days) and would never be detected. And don’t forget the “law of unexpected consequences). Disallowing photography would have the side effect of reducing the pool of evidence after the fact. See, there would be no pictures of the suspects planning their attack since honest people wouldn’t be using cameras there, only terrorists using concealed ones!

    • BartyL

      But, think of the children…

    • dek8ut

      They also use cars and trucks and cellphones. Let’s outlaw them too.

  • Matt Balderree

    If you are doing this for a personal interest you can to it in the US but if you are trying to make money off of it, it is illegal. The FAA has not cleared these to fly in the United States yet, only if you are wanting these pictures for your own use. There was a real estate broker in California that got into a lot of hot water, with fines that could have been up to $100K.

    • Rob

      What would the FAA have to do with you making money off of it? Do you mean it’s illegal either way, but if you don’t sell the photos you’re less likely to get caught?

      • Matt Balderree

        No, it is only illegal right now to make money off of it. It is considered commercial flight and you have to have an endorsement from the FAA in order to make money off anything like this. If you are doing it for just yourself, you can do it all day long and into the night. But when you want to sell your photos then you’ll end up in hot water. The FAA is working on regulations to allow commercial use of these Unmanned Aerial Systems, Drones, whatever you want to call them, sometime around 2015 in the US.

        • Calibrator

          Thanks for the clarification & reality check!

  • Ben

    The drone sounds like a swarm of bees. There would be no sneaking up on people with this flying contraption. bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

  • I’d love to have one of these just to play around with… but I’d always be nervous of the battery dying or the whole thing just randomly crashing…

  • Rick

    Before anyone jumps to conclusions about what is legal and what is not……you may want to tap into the link below.
    For now Obama has said go ahead and fly!

    • iamlucky13

      Not quite. That law, which was passed by the House and Senate in addition to Obama, as a part of the much larger FAA funding bill, basically instructs the FAA to look into how best to manage the flights of unmanned aircraft.

      It does not specifically authorize flights beyond the existing max-altitude and minimum distance from people limits.

  • Mark H
  • @photologic, “the whole thing just randomly crashing” coment is a valid concearn. I looked into buying exactly this system, it is very popular here in Germany because that is where it comes from. After I read online all the experiences which such OCTOCOPTERS, one thing is common, it isn’t about IF you are going to crash, but WHEN you are going to crash. Due to the heavy weight of PRO FX DSLRs, the flight time will be VERY short, less than 10 minutes, much less if you fly aggressively. For me, a lightweight system is the best option. I believe this is where the Nikon 1 would really shine. Its not like you need a the D800 and a 24mm f/1.4 shot wide open in aerial photography; chances are you are looking for greater DoF anyway, thus a good, lightweight cropped sensor, mirrorless system makes A LOT of sense. One day I will know, I just don’t have the additional $3K it takes to get started; I’m still saving for my D4!!

  • Jeff

    Is there a US based site like Kopterworx?

  • Yesway

    I wouldn’t put my expensive equipment on a thing like that!

    Just use small hot air-ballons (google is your friend) and a long rope, that’s cheap and stable

  • arizonaSteve

    I would really like to get one of these, but I haven’t seen a “complete kit” anywhere. I don’t want to buy motors, control, battery, etc. separately.

    Anyone know a one stop shop place to buy one? Or even a smaller one to lift a gopro?

    • Jimmy

      Google Draganflyer they sell complete kits with dslr mounts

  • Nate

    Wow. There we go something new comes out and people want to regulate it already. To the commenter above. well turns out they already have.

    Please read:

    The case of the person on Cali being busted is fairly simple. Remote controlled air craft are governed already. Even those little 30$ ones you buy at brookstone. It is the manner I wich the vehicle is use. Read the last paragraph or so of page five and on into page six. The talks about the diffrance between operating as a modle aircraft and not.

    The simple gest is that the FAA carefully regulates aircraft, no matter there size, that are flown for hire or profit. A certificate of airworthyness must be optaned from the FAA if the aircraft is operated as anything other than model aircraft flown by a hobbiest for fun. The FAA does not consider a remotcontroled helicopter/airplane with powerful cameras, read powerfull cameras as just about anything Nikon, cannon etc produce) a hobbiest model neither do they consider the operator as a hobbiest. Once you start doing this the FAA has you classified as an operator. Also know at the PIC ( pilot in command). One you fall into this catagory you must be lissecened and you aircraft must pass and receive a certificate of airworthyness.

    If your aircraft is found to be experimental than you can. Of operate it for hire. Have fun reading through the above FAA artical. I have a co worker at my airline that already does aerial photography for a side job. He does his via a fairly neat helicopter. After talking to him it sounds like it took over two years to get certified and liccened to do this.

    Have fun.

    • John Richardson

      I remember when we used to shoot off Estes Rockets. There was one that had a camera in it, a little round disc of film that took one shot, it was very cool. Circa 1968 I think or earlier.

  • Benjo

    I’ve used cameras on multicopters for a few years now. Very fun, but definitely requires loads of practice, planning, and money. The kit for a mikrokopter, transmitter, batteries, stabilized gimbal will run towards $4k before any photo equipment. At this point it does require at least some skill with mechanical and electrical components, as well as some decent computer knowledge.

    And, technically, since laws haven’t caught up with technology, it’s not legal to operate them for profit. Sillyness generally, as I know plenty of folks who shoot stills and video professionally with these. I’ve also seen great urban shooting that I’d never attempt for safety reasons. I did find one great opportunity to use mine professionally, just didn’t mention how I got the shot.

    Crashes are inevitable in early going, so use a dummy weight! I just never lift anything I’d be terribly upset about losing (usually I’ve flown an E-PL1 and 9-18mm or 14-42mm)…an E-PL1 and 14-42 is currently $199 refurbished, so not a huge risk. Also you can use a weird delay setting and tape down the shutter release on olympus cameras to get a handy intervalometer.

    I’m afraid I haven’t had the time required lately to do much with my multicopters, but I hope to get airborne again this summer.

  • Drone

    I will just shoot the copter and get D700 for myself. C’mon baby!

    • iamlucky13

      Protip – When procuring used camera equipment from over-zealous microcopter operators, choose a single projectile device such as a rifle or handgun, rather than a multiple projectile device such as a shotgun.

      This maximizes the residual value and utility of equipment recovered in this way.

  • T.I.M

    That’s remind me when I came in USA, I could not fly because my licence was not valid in Florida (I was private pilot in France)

    So I started RC airplanes as a hobby, and when I put a wireless camera/receiver on my airplane, older guys at the club were thinking that I was a terrorist (that was right after september 11)

    Now, ten years later we all laught about it !

    • Mikycoud

      Hmmm, photographer and pilot living in France… Weird we haven’t crossed paths yet. Oh, right, silly me, we might have actually! Can’t say for sure…(that’s the problem with being invisible 🙂
      Salut l’ami au fait! A+

      • T.I.M

        I live in USA since 1999
        N’oublie pas de voter pour moi le 22 Avril !

        • Mikycoud

          Ah! Tu serais bien embêté si 50.1% des bulletins revenaient avec T.I.M dessus! Remarque, un nouveau slogan du style Liberté Égalité Nikonité serait bien à mon goût…(vu que la fraternité, c’est pas trop ça en ce moment 🙁 )
          Disclaimer: non French speaking readers, please disregard this post, which is way too silly to be worth translating anyway 🙂

  • Mat

    Its funny some of you think regulation would STOP people from using it in a bad way…..Regardless of the law people will use whatever they want whenever they want. putting in place rules and regulations would scare off some but definitely not all.

    • jeff

      That is exactly what I said above! Basically locks are meant to keep honest people out of your home, not criminals. Making something illegal just keeps you and I from doing it. The terrorists and other criminals will simply do it. They don’t care about breaking the law.

      • preston

        Locking your house does prevent opportunistic burglary though. My neighbor actually saw somebody approach our house in the middle of a weekday and try to open the door (without knocking first) after looking in our windows for a while. When he found it to be locked he simply walked away. If no lock on door, then we get burglarized. Our neighbor would have called the cops though, so I’m sure he’d have been caught.

  • Robyn

    Can it be used to locate stock of Nikon D800?

    • T.I.M

      LOL ! Good one !

    • Fishnose

      That’s so improbable, it’s more likely to find life on Mars…..

  • Distanted

    Be careful. Iran just issued the following statement: All your D4 are belong to us.

  • Just another way of spying on innocent people.

    • Rob

      You can also spy on guilty people with this.

      • BartyL

        Everybody is guilty until proven innocent?

        • T.I.M

          I did not kill John Lennon

          • BartyL

            I think the only thing we can say for sure is that nobody saw you do it!

    • jorg

      yeah, and every photographer is a paparazzi.

      i love your one-liner…

  • Jason

    This is awesome. I have been wanting to do something like this for some time now. Glad to see I’m not the only one.

  • Pierre

    Regulating minicopter is a funny idea for a country thas has more guns than people.

    I would make guns illegal instead if you ask me.

    • Rob

      Guns are already regulated but are legal because they were believed to be necessary for defense. Minicopters can’t really be used for self defense quite as easily. The minicopter regulations have little, if anything, to do with the physical safety of the public. I have no idea where you came up with that comparison. It just came across like you hate guns and like to mock the US.

      • Rob

        I guess I should have said the regulations aren’t to protect people from intended physical harm. Preventing harm because of accidents and negligence is certainly one reason they are regulated.

    • Tom

      Good one!

    • Yes, let’s make guns illegal like in the UK, where violent crime rates are 10x higher than our most violent cities in the U.S. Since the criminals there know the citizenry isn’t armed, they can do darn well whatever they please without any fear of reprisals or self-defence. That’s a great idea.

      The only thing criminals fear is their own well-being. When that’s brought into question by an armed populace, crime drops dramatically. Of course, politicians and media will never tell you that. Try researching for yourself if you want the facts.

  • I’m no fan of government regulations, but if those things start waking me up in the morning or buzzing noisily around all our National Parks, and crashing into public crowds, that will NOT be cool.

    Airspace is just the same as the roadway. You gotta have a license / training, if you want to be in control of something that could cause a potentially fatal accident. It’s just that simple. So let’s wrap it up with this “it’s a free country” spiel and think sensibly here.

    I’m a huge geek and I love toys like this, by the way. Just playing devil’s advocate here…


    • preston

      Exactly right Matthew. There would be a whole pile of these copters at the bottom of the Grand Canyon!

  • I would be really scared to attach my camera to a drone… Imagine how “nice” it will look after a crash.

    • The D3 supports or crash from a motorcycle, D4 have stronger body so it’ll be fine! 🙂

      • Rob

        Unless the D4 on the motorcycle slammed directly into a concrete wall at over 100km/hour, the forces on a D4 falling from 50m are much, much greater. The whole (almost) instantaneous deceleration to zero isn’t very good for cameras.

      • But here it was all about D700 😀

  • Check out our new drone ‘CineCopter’ carrying an heavy full frame DSLR on a 3 axis gimbal:

  • Tony

    You can use drones to iluminate strategic places with flashes and pocket wizard

    • iamlucky13

      They’d make great light stands!

  • bigeater

    This is great news for photographers in farming regions who might want to create another source of income. Farmers and vineyard managers are all about color infrared and other types of aerial photography. Get the IR filter taken off your sensor and you’re in business.

    • iamlucky13

      The infrared images that are useful for discerning nutrient and moisture content of soils are filtered for specific wavelengths, so you’d need to both strip the RGB filter layer, and add a specific UV filter layer.

      Also, I think, but can’t confirm, the wavelengths of interest are in the mid-infrared band, and SLR sensors don’t have great performance in that band to the best of my knowledge.

      Plus, even though satellites are very expensive initially, they cover a lot of ground, so the end-user price of such images is relatively cheap. I’m not sure you could really make a living trying to compete against the satellites, unless for some reason the farmers need much higher resolution than the satellites provide.

  • Teo

    Just got my D800
    pure luck (no stock any where and no pre-order either)
    Got the last one at Singapore Airport 😀
    Best Camera Ever !

    Do you think my AR-drone will carry it ?

    • I would not risk it but if money is not the issue go ahead and let us know how it went.

  • stepper

    The architectural firm that I work for used to pay big bucks for a pilot to fly out and take aerial photos for us. Now-a-days I just yank the images off of Google Maps.

  • I wonder how much a balloon would cost compared to this helicopter?!?

    A balloon with more than one helium pocket would seem much safer for equipment. A crash would be annoying but not devastating on photo equipment since it would flout down somewhat slowly and bump the ground rather than just drop out of the sky.


    • BartyL

      I think there would a problem with getting the balloon to point where you want it. A small balloon (small enough to be a practical alternative to the RC copters) on a tether will respond to every gust and eddy and bounce around a lot. Even with the camera separately controlled it would be more luck than science.

      • Chris

        A balloon, yes, a small airship, no. In Spain, for example, there is a company (MRW or similar) who have been doing this for years commercially. Basically, a couple of guys in a van pitch up, the airship (about 7 ft long) comes out the back, all ready to rock n’roll with a Nikon attached on a gimbal mount. Controlled by wires from the ground. These things fly up to a couple of hundred feet and work well, even in fairly strong winds.

        Btw, in case anyone here wonders about the 400ft restriction in the US: the minimum altitude you are allowed to fly an aircraft (that’s a manned aircraft) is 500 ft, except in remote areas. Therefore, the FAA have built a 100ft cushion into the system.

  • kece

    anybody knows what is the price tag for this stuff???


  • Dave

    Complete systems with camera pre-integrated at:

    I gotsta get me on of these!

  • ha

    Way to derail the comments…

  • Atiwat

    This is very awesome drone, I want to play it at soon.

  • Marilyn

    I want to gift someone with a toy drone. Mostly for fun, but a contractor might hire her to take some roof pictures and other views around a work site. (or, not hire her, but buy her pictures) Does she require some sort of FAA certificate? If so, how does she get it?

  • I think it is pretty neat taking aerial shots. You can get nice views from the drones. Of course I do mean rc drones lol

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