Aerial Photography

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Articles and photos by Charles Eide. Learn the basics of safely taking photos aloft. As featured in the December 2013 issue of Model Aviation.

I grew up flying RC models. The day my first AMA card came in the mail, I knew there was no turning back. As the years passed, I got into the film production business, and I now run a company called EideCom Media that creates and produces some amazing commercial work. When I began to see radio control technology get to a point where cameras could be mounted on aircraft and get reasonable footage, I had to go deeper. My company began adding cameras to the 800-size helicopters that we built and shooting some ground-breaking footage. During the past few years, this technology has changed and evolved to make flying easier, safer, more reliable, and more stable. We began receiving phone calls from RC enthusiasts wanting to know how to do what we were doing, so we decided to start the first Radio Control Aerial Photography safety course: FLYSAFE (see “Sources” listing). We have learned a lot, and in this article I will share how to stay safe and how to get great footage. With thousands of flights and hundreds of hours of RC experience, getting into radio control aerial photography may appear to be the natural next step for some pilots. There are many people, however, who want to get into it but have never flown RC. Either way, here are some tips on which to focus:

Focus on Your Flying Fundamentals

When you shoot aerial photography, you must be able to safely and effectively fly. Many people today fly with the assistance of a GPS. Flight systems are becoming more complex to help pilots, but there is no substitute for the fundamentals of flying. Don’t let your flight computer or other automation become a crutch. If you are not comfortable flying, get a simulator and acquire a practice machine.

Invest in Quality Equipment

If you want to shoot good aerial photography, when it comes to equipment you get what you pay for. Quality equipment comes with increased reliability and safety. At FLYSAFE, pilots are taught to put red lights on the back of their aircraft and white or blue lights on the front. You want to be able to easily decipher your model’s direction and orientation when you fly. Failsafe should be set up because it is an important function in radio control aerial photography. You want the added layer of safety in case your radios cut out or you lose your downlink signal. Failsafe should be set up in your receiver and your flight controller.

Our DJI S800 is lit to show FLYSAFE’s lighting standards for visibility.

Fly Line of Sight

If you invest in quality equipment, flying FPV can be fun, but it’s not 100% reliable. In the event of a signal loss, you could be in trouble. Always fly line of sight and only use your downlink as a reference. Accidents can happen and you don’t want to end up on the news, so never fly over people. The truth is, no matter how great of a pilot you are or how good your equipment is, things go wrong. Don’t fly over people and you won’t crash into them. Be a safe pilot and teach others to be safe. The more you advocate for the safe operation of radio control aerial photography, the better.

Time Your Flights and Monitor Voltage

It’s a good idea to set up a timer on your transmitter so you can time every flight down to the second. Always land with at least one minute of reserve. This ensures your safety and that of your equipment. I recommend flying with voltage monitors with an adjustable audible alarm. You can purchase them for less than $10 each online. Remember that it’s easy to depend on technology. Watch your altitude, don’t fly higher than 400 feet, and don’t fly near airports. Fly line of sight and know your limits and those of your machine. Remember that we must respect aviation regulations for the continued safety of general and commercial aviation.

Find a Helper

I recommend having a safety pilot with you at all times. This means there are two sets of eyes watching for potential issues. Consider having one person fly and the other operate the camera. Always focus on safety.

Michael Danielson (L) works with Rob Cherry on our helicopter on location. An open space such as this provides a good vantage point.

How to Capture Great Shots

I have discussed flight and safety, so let’s explore how to take great footage. How can you see what the camera is shooting? My company has a video ground station that provides real-time video feed with flight data and camera data for filming videos and shooting photos—improving accuracy and efficiency. There are many ways to accomplish this. Some cameras, such as the GoPro, have a limited-range Wi-Fi signal. My company choses to use Iftron Technologies’ 500MW 5.8 GHz downlink transmitter and Diversity Pro Receiver setup.

Choose a Platform to Fly

Are you flying a hexacopter, quadcopter, octocopter, helicopter, or fixed wing? Multirotors, when correctly built, are the safest and most reliable option. EideCom Media has an 800-size helicopter that we occasionally use to lift heavier cameras. Our hexacopter is used more than the helicopter because of its ease of setup, flight times, and other safety reasons. My employees love to use the DJI S800. It’s clean, integrated, and well designed. There are many other great options. Your platform will dictate which types of cameras and gimbals (the devices that hold the cameras) you can use.

A helicopter gimbal that is made to carry larger cinema cameras.

Stability Is Everything

This is especially true if you are shooting video. In the radio control aerial photography industry, many companies are introducing new camera-stability technology that makes things easier. I like the DJI Zenmuse. The beauty of the product is its seamlessness. It is made for specific cameras, making triggering the camera easy. It also simplifies converting the video out signal for real-time monitoring from your ground station. PhotoShip One offers a new system called the Phoenix. It’s a brushless drive gimbal that uses technology similar to the Zenmuse. I have ordered a Phoenix gimbal and am excited to get my hands on it.

Frame Your Shot

If you are shooting video, don’t over-control the camera. If you are shooting still photos, get a variety of angles and take plenty. Blurry photos are inevitable because of the nature of flight. The better your gimbal, the fewer blurry shots you will take. Set the shutter on your camera to a setting that is higher than 1/250 to take crisp shots.

Taking photos at a golf and country club, with permission of the owners.

We took this image of a lake in Minnesota 150 feet above ground level, well below the 400-foot limit.

Two beautiful winter real estate photo shots in mid-January in 20° temperatures.

Invest in a Good Camera

GoPro cameras are adequate for the average radio control aerial photographer. If you want your photos to stand out, use a better camera. I recommend the Sony NEX-7. Expect to pay $500 to $2,000 for a quality camera, plus the cost of lenses.

For the Love of RC

The love of RC binds us together, and aerial photography makes RC more rewarding than ever. Embrace the incredible things that aerial photography can offer while respecting other modelers and the public. Remember to FLYSAFE! —Charles Eide


FLYSAFE (612) 387-0743 DJI Innovations Iftron Technologies (303) 378-8726 PhotoShip One (602) 743-5768 GoPro (888) 600-4659

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Great article and a lot of good info. Been flying rc for years and just bought a new quadcoper (Blade 350QX) starting out small just to try it. Flies easy and stable to give me some great video at our next club event to post on our website. Mike Cox

Excellent article covering the basics of RC AP&V. Nicely done!

Glad to see lights, line of sight, finding a partner, getting proper permissions, staying under 400 feet and other safety aspects were discussed! Excellent article.

VERY nice article!

With all the talk about this, I was surprised that the commercial aspects were not mentioned at all...unless I missed something.

400 is always a good idea, but it only applies if w/in a few miles of the airport. AMA clearly said so recently.

I read this article on my phone and rushed to cover this very topic -- I wish people could get the whole 400' thing out of their heads.

i am needing someone to take an aerial pic of a field on our farm that my future daughter in law wants to disc up the field and spell the words "Nick & Kristy Harrold" and then frame that and give that to my son on their wedding day next June....but not sure how to go about all this so thought of our local group here in Muncie Indiana...appreciate any suggestions. Kathy Harrold

Thanks some great reading!! any chance you could talk me through in dumb person terms the way you set up your camera for stills pleaaaaaase. Cheers M

This is an amazing drones Charles! I assure it can create a stunning aerial photograph that can contribute a lot in aerial mapping. Making such amazing aerial photography and mapping requires a good condition drones. Keep it up!

Aerial photography nowadays are really amazing that it creates a rare imagery from above. It creates a stunning and astounding photos which really amazed you. Aside to that, most of the photos are converted to some format to be used for making an aerial maps. Great article! Daniel - TerraServer

In this article the use of a downlink video transmitter is mentioned. There is no mention of the FCC license requirements that go along with operating a non-part 15 transmitting device. Use of this type of transmitter at power levels above those which would be required for downlink of video with any usable range requires an amateur radio operator license of proper class level. Operation without proper licensing is a violation of federal regulations. Also, the company named in the article, Iftron Technologies, has been cited by the FCC for violations in the use of out-of-band channels on their transmitters. I checked their site and they currently list none of these transmitters for sale. While I do feel that the use of these types of vide links are a very enjoyable part of our hobby, I also feel that they must be operated properly by those who have been trained in the use of transmitting equipment. This insures safety for both persons and property alike. An improperly setup transmitter, especially one of higher power, could cause interference and endanger others.

Long over due! Have felt so left out of AMA Model Aviation topics up until now. A pet gripe of mine is that no one represents those with an interest in aerial scenery. There Federal forests, deserts, and unoccupied areas of large National Parks which have been outlawed to fly in. When a few miss-used much used attractions in National Parks, not only are those areas justifiably restricted, but thousands upon thousand of acres of federal land where no one is around have been include in such restrictions. Scenic states like Alaska and southern Utah have dramatic differences in what is permitted in State Parks in compared to Federal land.

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