Consider drones for your next photo shoot

Last year, 750,000 drones – known to the professional industry as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and abbreviated as UAVs – were sold through big box retailers. If you own or operate a large resort, golf course or rural property, aerial photography seems like a natural enhancement for your website or other digital marketing purposes such as sales videos. What would once have been an expensive, helicopter-based photo session can now be delivered cost-effectively through the use of UAVs.

But, before you ask your neighbor’s kid to pop his GoPro camera onto his Radio Shack Vektor (a typical example of a toy UAV), there are a number of issues and regulations that you need to be aware of. That is why I sat down with Frank Galella, president of Next Generation Aviation Services, to learn more about this rapidly expanding field.

Frank Galella, president of Next Generation Aviation Services
Frank Galella, president of Next Generation Aviation Services

Is drone photography for every hotel, or is it only for resorts with a golf course?

Any hoteliers can take advantage of aerial photography. The larger the facility, the more effective aerial videos are. There is no way to capture the perspective a UAV can from the ground with traditional camera trucks, cranes or even helicopters. UAVs add an up-close and personal look at properties, highlighting the focal points and capturing the true beauty of a hotel. A UAV can also visually support your property’s interior if need be. Golf courses are quite vast and aerial cinematography gives a property the flexibility of showing off its facilities without boring the audience via endless ground shots. UAVs coupled with effective editing can give a perspective player a bird’s eye view of each individual hole, and narrated with the hole details to really sell the course.

Can’t anyone just buy a drone and a camera to make a video?

Yes, they can. In the same way, anyone with a computer can make a website! Flying a drone is no joke, though. Flying a professional unit capable of the quality of footage that you need for effective sales efforts is not something that can be purchased at a big box store. A typical drone and camera to take photos at family parties or events can be bought less than US$1,000. Professional UAVs are tens of thousands of dollars, completely autonomous, and have redundant autopilots, redundant GPSs and failsafe systems. They also carry a heavy payload, which in our case is a gimbal and camera. Professional camera equipment is another US$40,000, excluding lenses which can boost the cost up to over US$70,000. The quality of the output is directly related to the camera/lens combination. And these heavy units demand larger UAVs with gimbal mounts.

What restrictions are there to running and operating drones?

Any drone over a half-pound is considered by the FAA to be an “aircraft.” Therefore, we operate under the same set of rules and restrictions that “real” airplanes do, only we operate under what is called a 333 Exemption. This exemption allows us to operate as an airplane but we are exempt from obvious things like being able to sit in the cockpit. In order to fly under the 333, one must have an FAA pilots license, an FAA medical and an FAA biannual flight review, just like the real thing. This is why, in the last few years, you have seen the FAA fining people for doing dumb things with drones – they did not meet one of the above criteria or they violated some other aviation regulation. Importantly, it is the hiring firm’s responsibility to make sure the drone operator they hire has all the proper credentials. In other words, as the hotel owner, you run the risk if you hire someone who is not qualified.

Are the prices for drone photography going down with newer technology?

Professional drone photography rates are stable. One can expect to pay US$2,500 for a half day rate up to about US$5,500 for the whole day. The range in-between all depends on what camera equipment is being utilized. One not-so-obvious detail about professional drone photography is that we are required to fly with a minimum of a two-man crew, comprising a pilot and a gimbal operator or “visual observer.” Our recommendation is to have a third crew member running ground ops, keeping people safe and out of harm’s way. Drones are not dangerous by any means, but put in the wrong hands and they can be a real problem.

How do I integrate the photography into my property’s website?

A resort’s web design team would work directly with the drone’s production manager. Video can be supplied in any format and quality. Professional shoots are typically in 4K RAW, giving post production flexibility as well as enabling still shots at any timestamp in the video. Archive footage can be used at any time and there are literally thousands of still shot variables in a 15-minute video that can be used for brochures, Facebook posts, website stills and so on.

What tips do you have for those who are planning a drone photo shoot?

  1. Make 100% certain that the firm your hiring to do the aerial footage is certified by the FAA to carry out the project. Up until recently, it’s the drone operator that gets in trouble for operating without proper credentials, but now the person hiring is held accountable.
  2. Make sure the operators have insurance. UAV policies are aviation insurance policies, not general liability.
  3. Ensure that your post production strategy is figured out. Who is doing post production and are they capable of producing the results? Anyone with proficient editing capabilities will have “show reels” to prove themselves.
  4. Ask a marketing or PR staffer to stay with the production crew the whole time, as better results are always obtained when the someone familiar with the property is on hand.