10 Things to Consider Before Buying a Photography Drone for Travel

I am writing this article with a couple of assumptions in mind. Firstly, I am assuming you want to buy a drone to take video and photographs. Secondly, I am assuming that you will be taking the drone with you when you travel. 

Also, for your convenience, I have set out a comparison of five of the more popular photography drones at the end of this post.

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1 – You can’t expect to “buy and fly” a drone

Like most camera gear, you can now buy drones in duty free shops as you walk through airports. But unlike many cameras, you cannot charge the battery, put a memory card in it and expect to be able to use it.  There is no automatic mode for flying a drone.

You will need to take the time prior to heading off on your next adventure to learn how to fly it and how to record video and take photos.  Many of the drones have a “learner mode” which is a great way to learn to fly.  

The first thing you will usually have to do before flying is to update the drone’s and remote’s firmware and software. This will need an internet connection and often involve large downloads.

2 – Size and weight of the drone

Drones come in varying weights and sizes. You need to consider the following:

  • As your drone is camera gear you will want to take it as carry on luggage on flights (lithium ion batteries must be in your carry on). The larger and heavier the drone is, means you have less space and weight for other items.
  • Will you need to carry your camera gear, including the drone, for lengthy periods during your travels? For example, if you are doing a lot of hiking the heavier the drone and accessories, the more weight you will need to carry.
  • Will you need a separate bag for the drone and its accessories? For example, the DJI Mavic Pro and Spark can fold up and be placed in a camera bag or back pack. However, the DJI Phantom 4 Pro does not fold up as small and its bag will become one of your carry on bags.
  • The drone’s weight will also determine if you need a licence to fly the drone (see point 8 below).

3 – What do you want to achieve with your drone?

Obviously if you are buying a photography drone for travelling, you want to take photos and record video. But not all drones are equal in this respect.  For example, if you are taking photos or filming video for personal use or social media you may be happy with a camera that takes photos in JPEG format and films in 1080p, rather than a drone that photographs in DNG (RAW) and films in 4k.

4 – How much time will you have to use it when travelling?

Flying a drone is not like grabbing a camera and taking a few photos. You need to set up the drone (some take longer than others), fly it to where you want to take photos and / or video and return it back to base. This takes time. If you are on a tight time schedule, it may be difficult to get drone footage. However, if you do not have a tight schedule, you can take the time to use your drone. For example, we spent 17 days driving around Iceland. We gave ourselves plenty of time to stop each day to take drone footage as well as photographs.

Above: Bruarafoss Waterfall in Iceland taken by our DJI Mavic Pro

5 – Set up time

While not excessive, drones will need some setting up each time you want to fly them. For example, the DJI Phantom 4 Pro is usually stored without its propellers. The GoPro Karma uses the GoPro camera so if you have been using the camera separately, you will need to put it back onto the drone.

In addition to setting up the drone and controller, you will also need to set up the camera. For example you may need to use a filter and adjust camera settings on a bright day.

6 – Flight time

When it comes to flight time, not all drones are made equal. It could be said that none of the drones have great flight time, but the shorter the flight time means the possibility of carrying more batteries and having the ability to charge batteries on the go (we charge batteries with the car charger if we are driving).  Drones with longer flight times enable you to fly further and possibly get photos that you would not otherwise be able to get. While driving in Iceland, we saw a ship wreck. We were only able to drive to about 2 kms from the ship wreck (it was on a small island). But we were able to fly the drone to the ship wreck to take photos.

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Above: Photos captured from video footage we took as we flew out to and circled the ship wreck.

7 – What safety features does the drone have?

The main safety features you will find in drones are collision avoidance and return to home functions.

Collision avoidance will vary depending on the drone you purchase.  Drones can have forward, sideways, backwards and downward collision avoidance or no collision avoidance.  For example, if your drone does not have backwards collision avoidance and you are flying your drone backwards, it will not alert you to possible obstacles that it may hit. In circumstances such as this you need to ensure you can see your drone and the conditions around it clearly.

Drones may have a return to home (RTH) function. A drone may automatically RTH when the battery is low, GPS connection is lost, or you use the return to home button. RTH is usually a direct flight path after flying to a pre-set height and avoiding obstacles is its path. However, in more advanced drones, the function can choose the best route home considering the environmental conditions.

The drone pilot should not rely on the RTH to get them out of trouble though, as environmental factors need to be considered.  For example, if a drone returns to home when the battery is low, but must fly into a headwind, there is a possibility the battery will run out before the drone reaches home.

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Above: While taking some drone footage in the Westfjords of Iceland, a group of tourists were rather excited to see our drone.

8 – Will you need to register your drone?

Depending in which country you live, will depend on whether you will need to register your drone. For example, in the United States you need to register any drone over 250 grams with the Federal Aviation Administration. However, in my home country of Australia, you do not need to register your drone. Also as long as the drone is under 2 kg and it is not for commercial use, you do not need a licence to operate it.  You should check the laws in your home country to determine if you need to register your drone.

9 – You will need to understand the local laws in the countries you are travelling to

Drone laws change from country to country and you will need to understand the laws in the countries you are travelling too.  In some countries you can seek pre-approval to use a drone in certain areas such as national parks. You will need to research the relevant laws for your travel destinations before heading there.

All drone pilots need to be aware of “no fly” zones. Some drones have this built in and will alert a pilot when they are in a no fly zone and potentially limit the maximum height the drone can fly to. There are a number of good apps available that will tell you where you can and cannot fly. Unfortunately we have regularly seen drone pilots ignore no fly zones.

Above: Fjallsárlón Glacier Lagoon in Iceland taken by our DJI Mavic Pro

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Above: A no fly zone sign in Helsinki, Finland

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Above: A no fly zone sign at Dynjandi Waterfall in Iceland

10 – Consider the warranty and accessories available

What warranty is available for the drone you are considering purchasing? Is the warranty worldwide or only in the country of purchase? Also, what does the warranty cover. For example, DJI have a Care Refresh warranty which is an additional cost to the original purchase price, but covers for accidental damage such as if you crash your drone. We decided this was a good investment in our first year of drone ownership.

There are a number of different accessories available, both branded and third party.  The more common the drone, the more accessories are available.

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Above: DJI Mavic Pro in front of the Solheimassandur DC3 Plane Wreck in Iceland.

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