So, do you want to take pictures and/or video with a drone? Here’s my suggested roadmap that includes some things that I learned along the way, along with the things that I did that worked, YMMV. 

The first thing that you should decide is why you want to do this. If it is an extra tool in your artistic toolbox to get a different perspective for your photo and video, that’s one fork. The other is that you think flying a drone is cool, and you are interested in turning it into a job. This path would take you to flying someone else’s drone for inspections, mapping, industry, that is an entirely different fork.

If it’s an artistic thing, do you already shoot photo and/or video with a handheld device? Do you understand how depth of field, camera moves, rule of thirds, etc. work? If you don’t have a grasp of the artistic skills needed to manage a camera, then I suggest that you get a camera that is handheld, like your phone, and learn how to do some of these things first.

Still want to fly? Then read on:

1. Download a simulator app. This is definitely the cheapest way to learn how to fly. You can try FPV, and stabilized drones. Learn the difference, and learn how to use the controls. Learn what control modes work for you. I’m a gamer, and use a game controller when I play. The simplest translation to flying for me was to switch my drone to mode 3. The controls for the drone mimic the controls for the FPV shooters that I like to play with my game controller.

2. If you’ve gotten the hang of a drone simulator, then buy a cheap drone. I bought a little thing called a Tello. It is the perfect blend of small and relatively inexpensive, along with a little bit of stabilization, and survivability in wind and crashes. I added a gamesir controller, and learned how to fly around objects in my backyard, since it doesn’t have any collision avoidance. Once I got the hang of it, I also learned to do some fairly cinematic moves with the slow speed mode to learn how to keep things smooth and steady without any assistance.

3. Start studying for your part 107 FAA license. This is an important step, because you will need this certification if you intend to fly a drone for commercial purposes. Even if you are only creating art for yourself, if you intend to receive compensation for it in any way, you need this certification in the United States. the EU and other countries have their own rules, I suggest you do some research in your area. If you are only going to be flying it for strictly “recreational” purposes, the drone needs to be under 250 grams and only flown for fun. The FAA tends to look the other way with folks who are putting video up on YouTube, but if you start getting big and popular, you will run into problems. There are several good 107 study courses online. I took this one.

This will also get you familiar with the rules of entering the air space in your country. In the United States, most people will live under some sort of controlled airspace. There are rules for how to fly there, how high you can fly, and when you can’t. as I dictate this article, my entire region in the San Francisco Bay area is under a temporary flight restriction ( TFR ) because President Biden decided to visit the area today. If I really wanted to fly a drone today, I can still put my little Tello up in my backyard without any problems…

4. Get your license. If you are still having fun and flying your little drone. And you feel like you’re ready to enter the big leagues and get your part 107 license now is the time. I definitely recommend getting your FAA certification before you get a big drone. I did it in the opposite order and it was very frustrating to know that I really couldn’t fly until I got that email from the FAA that I had my temporary license.

5. Take the plunge. As this article is written, my two drones of choice are the DJI, mini 3 pro, and Mavic 3 pro. They are obviously very different price wise. But the photo and video quality of both is definitely excellent. I decided on the larger Mavic 3 pro because I live in a windy area and need the extra wind handling capabilities of the larger air frame. Along with that sweet, sweet 70mm lens. The fly more combo is highly recommended. And I budgeted for several accessories. Landing pad, propeller guards, because I will be flying over people and that is required for category. 2 certification. And the wide-angle lens. I purchased a few other necessary items, and they will be in the resources section.

6. Learn how to use your new camera. Make no mistake about it, this is a complex camera with wirly knives that you need to learn how to use. You should already have the basics of controlling it down. If you have followed this roadmap you already know how to do the cinematic drone moves without the pre-programmed routines. This will make you far more comfortable when using the routines, and increase your ability to do smooth cinematic video when, for some reason, the pre-programmed routines will not work. Also, get familiar with the exposure controls and resolution settings before you start using the drone for commercial or artistic work.

7. Fly! Put it up in the air, often. The only thing that will improve your shooting is practice. Book learning only goes so far. Unless you’re sitting under a presidential TFR like I am right now, get it up in the air and practice, practice, practice

A lot of people ask me about learning their new camera, and a drone camera is no different. I recommend a fractal approach. Let me explain: when you first get a new camera whether it has propellers or not, there are a lot of settings to learn. Don’t stress. Put it on automatic, and go out and shoot. as you run into problems with how your images or video look, learn how to fix that. One of the first things that I learned after getting my 5D was how to use “back button focus“. I liked being able to have a subject close by, and have the background out of focus, called “bokeh“. But not having the subject in the center of the frame was problematic because the auto focus wanted to pay attention to the background. With back button focus set up, you aim at the subject, hit the focus button under your thumb, and then properly frame the picture. This will keep the camera from re-focusing on the background, which is now in the center of the shot. There are other tips and tricks like this, that you learn along the way. Quite quickly, you should find yourself, relying less and less on the automatic functions, and doing everything all the way down to shutter and aperture manually. 

All of this exposure and technical camera knowledge will translate well when your camera has propeller blades…

The style of learning things, as you need them, will will help you to not be overwhelmed. When I first got my 5D, the manual was huge, with lots of stuff to learn. I put the manual away, kept it on automatic, and just shot and enjoyed it. I call it fractal learning because you start with big chunks, and divide them up into smaller, and smaller chunks as you learn the details.


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