Drone Photography vs. Helicopter Aerial Photos

Drone Photography vs. Helicopter Aerial Photos

There’s been an awful lot of news coverage lately regarding Unmanned Aerial Systems — UAS or UAV(ehicle) — more commonly called drones. Since I’ve loved flying and been a licensed private pilot for more than 30 years (more on that here) and an aerial photographer for the past 15 years, I’ve been paying attention to these fast-moving developments. Many of my clients are asking me about using drones for their aerial photo needs, so let me tell you what I know up ’til now and why I’m not yet sold on using consumer-level drones for professional photography.


New Drone Regulations

You may have read that the FAA regulations covering small drones have just recently changed in August, 2016.  In another blog post, here’s a brief summary of the previous and current regulations and why it matters for anyone looking to hire an aerial photographer to photograph your projects.  But very briefly, the new regulations require that to be flown for commercial purposes, a small drone:the FAA publishes requirements for the safe operation of small drones

  • must be registered;
  • must be flown by a licensed operator (but a much easier to obtain license than a private pilot’s license);
  • must be flown within certain altitude, distance, and speed restrictions, and not in the dark;
  • must not be flown over people not directly involved in the commercial purpose – like bystanders;
  • and I would add that, while not an FAA requirement, anyone operating a drone commercially should also carry the proper, drone-specific insurance to protect themselves and their clients in case of a mishap.  How much do you think the local power company charges to fix the mess when your drone hits the power lines?

Many photographers and hobbyists have been rushing out to buy these increasingly affordable drones and are studying up for their new Part 107, Remote Pilot Certificate exams in hopes of starting their own drone-related businesses.

But regardless of the regulations and training involved to fly legally, when it comes to aerial photography (stills) for my usual client base in the architecture, construction, engineering, and commercial real estate arenas, I’m just not sold on drones yet.


Limits of Drone Photography

First of all, let’s be clear that there’s a huge range of drones available on the market capable of shooting aerial photos and video, from inexpensive beginner drones with low-resolution cameras to large aerial platforms standing 4′ tall and equipped with gimbals (pivoting, shock absorbing mounts) and cinema-quality cameras that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

This starter drone has a low-rez camera not suitable for still photography

This starter drone with a low-rez camera has a range of about 100′ and starts around $120 on Amazon.

Studio-quality images and footage from the most expensive platforms and cameras has been appearing in movies and television commercials like this for years and is of the highest quality.  But renting or hiring those drones and their specialized operators isn’t financially practical for the vast majority of firms with architectural or construction projects to photograph.


The Phantom 4 drone is the newest prosumer level offering from DJI and starts about $1200.

The drones that are currently on offer for more affordable aerial images are mostly those made by DJI, Parrot, and other similar sellers and run from $500-2000 dollars.  Many of these drones have their own on-board cameras, but the less expensive ones are designed to carry a GoPro or similar small action camera.  In either case, the lens is a fixed wide angle, or ultra-wide angle (which dramatically curves the horizon and other parallel lines) and the image resolution is good, but not great — typically maxing out around 4000 pixels.  The lenses do not accept any filtration and the file format for still photos is typically limited to jpegs.  While some have pivots for independently controlling the camera in one or two axes (rotating, or tipping up and down), many require framing of these ultra-wide angle shots simply by re-positioning the drone.  And have you ever seen a vertical image shot by a drone?  I didn’t think so.  The creative and photographic limits of this caliber of prosumer aerial photography leave a lot to be desired for professional marketing applications.


Benefits of a Helicopter for Aerial Photography

In contrast, riding as a passenger in a small helicopter flown by an experienced pilot alleviates every one of these problems.

small helicopters are great choices for aerial photos

small helicopters like these Robinson-22’s are a great platform for aerial photography

As the passenger/photographer, I use the same cameras and lenses that I use for my ground-based architectural shoots, and I stabilize them with an external, under-mounted gyroscope to dampen vibrations.  I have a variety of lens lengths available, from ultra-wide angle to telephoto, and I can choose among them during the shoot based on my client’s needs and my own creative choices.  In the same 10-15 minute photo session, I can photograph a project in the context of the whole city, show visitors or users engaging with the space or building, and also shoot details of pattern, shape, and design.  Pro-level cameras all shoot in the RAW file format which offers the best means for really massaging the images in post-production, and delivering the largest, best-quality image to clients as TIFF files, jpegs, or whatever best suits their needs.  And best of all, the camera, framing, filtration, exposure, and other creative choices are being hand-held and controlled in real time by a photographer with 20 years’ experience which equals stunning, eye-grabbing aerial photography.

aerial photography from a helicopter offers great variety and options

Four different aerial photo views of this high school on Vashon Island, WA, shot from a helicopter using a variety of lens lengths, all within five minutes of each other.  Photographed for Cascade Design Collaborative – Seattle.


Comparing Drones vs. Helicopters for Aerial Photos

Make no mistake, the technology involved in flying, positioning, and navigating these unmanned machines is awe-inspiring.  They’re typically capable of self-leveling, automatically avoiding obstacles, returning to the operator with the push of a button, even slowly tracking a moving object on the ground.  Combine those amazing features with cameras capable of full-HD and even 4k video, and these drones offer incredible new opportunities for aerial video previously only available to movie and television studios.

But when it comes to the higher resolution needs and the motion-less nature of still photography, the cameras on these platforms are still pretty primitive.

Unmanned Aerial / Drone Photography
  • legal commercially as of late August, 2016, with certain restrictions/limitations on proximity to people and property;
  • limited size / payload means only a small onboard camera or a mounted “action cam” like a GoPro;
  • fixed wide or ultra-wide angle lens means not much variety in final delivered images, curved horizons, and changes to the relative size of objects;
  • resolution limits of cameras just fine for video, but limiting for still photos;
  • flight time limited to battery life of 20-40 minutes & small aircraft highly susceptible to wind conditions
  • limited technical and creative choices results in decent elevated record shots, but not professional quality marketing images.
Manned Aerial Photography from a Helicopter
  • professional quality cameras and lenses mean tack sharp images, clean digital files, and very large image sizes to accommodate the widest variety of uses

    Try flying a drone above a federally-owned building to see just how quickly the police show up.

  • variety of lenses from ultra-wide angle to telephoto for more photo variety and creative options, including vertical images
  • images are planned, composed, and controlled by an experienced, human eye, working with an experienced pilot to position the helicopter for best perspective and view
  • flying time of 1-1/2 to 2 hours+ means covering multiple sites, or more distant sites, is possible in a relatively short time; also much higher threshold for wind
  • maximum technical and creative control means professional looking images for marketing and promoting the capabilities of your firm, not just snapshots from a high vantage point.

Given all this, I have to say that I have yet to find a drone platform that offers comparable image quality, gives me the same creative control as a handheld camera from a helicopter, and that’s affordable for what my clients are comfortable paying.  While drones really excel at video in a way that’s not been readily available to the public before, in my opinion the still photos still fall short of professional quality and creativity.

So while the rules are changing, the technology is undeniably impressive, and I’m definitely considering how to take advantage, for now I’m happy to recommend and offer aerial photography from a helicopter as an affordable, creative, and eye-catching way to feature your best built projects.  And after all, isn’t that the whole point?

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