If you want to get started with drone photography, make sure you check this pre-flight checklist.
The popularity of drones has exploded over the last few years, and for good reason. The technology continues to improve as the size and cost of consumer drones keep shrinking.
Although drones have many uses, both commercial and recreational, the popularity of drone photography has become one of the main factors in the growth of the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) market.
With this increased interest in drone photography comes an obvious increase in drone ownership.
This has had some negative consequences as there are no prerequisites for buying or flying a drone.
There are no mandatory tests or courses, no UAV pilot licences, and no laws in place to regulate who can buy or fly a drone.
This is great for the large majority of pilots who are responsible and considerate. Unfortunately, there are always a few who ruin it for everyone else.
You don’t need to look hard to find stories of injuries or damage to property caused by poor decisions made by drone pilots.
How do you enjoy flying your drone without making the news? The majority of UAV incidents are mainly due to their pilot’s failure to prepare correctly and know their equipment.
There are a few things that absolutely every drone pilot must do when flying a drone for the first time.
- Know the laws that regulate UAV use in your country.
- Read the manual.
- Put the drone in beginner mode and practice flying in a safe area.
There are also a few things that you must do every time you fly, whether it’s your first or thousandth flight.
These are not recommendations to help you get better drone photos or video, it’s an essential checklist that will minimize the chance of an incident that could damage property or cause injury or worse.
Before you leave the house to head to your location, you need to do some planning and preparation. I’m a big advocate of planning your photos, whether drone or regular photography.
This is less about composition and subject and more about safety. There are also some things you must do that simply can’t be done on location.
Flying a drone in wind and rain is not only bad for your electronics, but it’s plain dangerous. It may not feel windy on the ground, but 400 feet in the air it can be dramatically different.
I learned this lesson the hard way a few days after purchasing my first drone. I flew it too far away, not considering that it would require much more battery than expected to fly back into the wind, and the battery died.
I got lucky that time, but it gave me a scare. Learn from my mistake. Check the weather forecast and don’t fly in the wind or rain.
I use the native weather app on my Android phone, but the local weather service in your country should give you all the information you need about rain and wind forecasts.
If you’re planning on flying your drone around either end of the day, you need to know when the sun will rise and set. This isn’t just for photographic purposes.
Flying a drone in low light is a lot more dangerous than you might think. Drones rely on guidance systems that are critical in preventing collisions and landing safely. Even if you like using manual mode, flying in low light could be catastrophic.
I use and highly recommend the PhotoPills app for checking sunrise and sunset times. It also gives you twilight times so you can figure out when there will still be enough light to fly.
When planning your drone photos, you also need to consider whether flying in that location is safe and legal. Every country has different laws regulating how far you must be from airports, etc.
They’re not there to ruin your fun, but to keep aircraft safe. Don’t be the like the guy who’s drone caused a helicopter crash.
Here in Australia there is a great app called Can I Fly There? There is likely something similar in your country. Check our article on best drone apps for more information.
Plan Your Flight-Path
Take a look at a map and figure out the path your drone needs to take to get from its home point to where it will photograph from and back.
Often this won’t be a straight line, so make sure you’re able to keep the drone in sight the whole time from where you’re standing.
Also check the distance to make sure the battery will have enough juice to get there and back with time to photograph or video, and still have some to spare.
For this I use a combination of Google Maps and the previously mentioned PhotoPills app. They allow you to not only search for drone photography locations but figure out where to take off from and measure flight distances.
Update Your Drone
Most drone manufacturers are pretty good at releasing updates for their equipment regularly. It’s a good idea to check for updates to your drone’s firmware and device app before you leave the house.
They often include bug fixes that increase stability, add new safety features, and help you take awesome drone photos.
Format Memory Cards
This isn’t a safety issue unless you’re like me and have a tendency to throw your toys if you run out of space on your memory card mid-flight because you didn’t format it at home first.
This is a no-brainer, but worth adding because we’ve all made the mistake of forgetting to charge our batteries before leaving the house. It’s especially important when it comes to drone batteries.
You’re far more likely to delay bringing the drone back to its home point when you should if the battery is less than fully charged.
This means the chance of it not making it home is much higher.
On Location: Pre-Flight
Take your drone out of it’s bag and check it over. Make sure everything is tight and correctly attached. Check the propellers for damage or wear.
Even if your drone has never collided with anything, normal use can cause wear and tear that you may not know about unless you look. This includes the controller.
Remove the gimbal cover and clamp and check that it calibrates correctly.
Every drone will use a different camera system, but whichever you use, you want to make sure it’s functioning correctly before it’s in the air.
Use a microfibre cloth the clean the lens.
After turning on the controller and drone, calibrate the compass. This needs to be done every time you fly as the compass is a critical element of the drone’s navigation and safety features.
Magnetic fields can vary a lot from one location to the next, so don’t assume that because you calibrated it yesterday it’s okay today.
Give the drone some time to find its GPS location then check the satellite strength. Set the home point, including the Return To Home (RTH) settings.
Don’t ever take off until the drone has a strong GPS signal.
With the controller’s antenna up, check that it’s communicating correctly with the drone. Check the signal strength and don’t take off until it’s good.
If they’re not communicating effectively at three feet, it won’t be any better at 3,000 feet.
Check which flight mode you’re using. Some flight modes are better for flying, while some are better for taking photos and filming.
You may want to change flight mode while in the air, in which case make sure you know how to do it before you take off.
Re-Check Wind Speed
Don’t assume that the weather forecast that you checked last night was right. Look for signs of wind at higher altitude by looking at the movement of the clouds or trees.
Use your phone to check current wind speeds at your location. Remember, just because you can’t feel any wind doesn’t mean there isn’t any.
Visual Inspection of Location
Look around and above and make sure there aren’t any obstacles that you may not have seen. Static objects such as power lines can easily be missed, but also check for objects in the area that may be moving like aircraft.
Even with obstacle avoidance, don’t assume that your drone will detect and avoid them. It’s your job to know where they are.
On Location: Take-Off
Many drones have a auto-launch function that will start the propellers and hover just above the ground.
This is fine, but I prefer to start the propellers myself and check they’re working properly before it leaves the ground.
Listen to the propellers and if they’re more noisy that usual, stop them spinning and check them again.
If you’re satisfied that the propellers are functioning correctly, take off and let the drone hover for a few seconds.
Check that it’s stable first, then use the controls to check that it’s responding correctly. If the drone is functioning as expected, it should be safe to fly.
Never assume that because you went through this pre-flight checklist it will continue to be safe to fly. Conditions can change quickly and you need to be constantly aware in case they do.
Monitor the weather and light and be ready to land your drone if necessary. Keep on the lookout for hazards that might move into the area while you’re flying.
You also need to monitor your equipment and battery level. Bring it back sooner than you think is necessary and never ignore any warnings that your equipment might give you.
Drone photography is a lot of fun, but being unprepared can have disastrous consequences. As drone pilots we have a responsibility to fly safely and know when conditions require us to stay grounded.
By following these guidelines, you can ensure that you come home with your drone in one piece and without making the news.
By getting to know your gear and keeping safety in the front of your mind, you’ll be sure to have a lot of fun with your drone.
We have a great post on the best drones for photography and the best drone photography apps to check out next!