Drone photography has grown to become an essential offering for real estate photography, but between a complex regulatory environment, a whole new set of gear considerations for both photo and video, and the challenges of shooting from a new angle, it can be tricky to start. Fortunately, in this introductory guide to real estate drone photography, I’ll be breaking down everything you need to know to get started, including why drone photography is so necessary for your business and how to tick all the FAA boxes.
Why Use a Drone for Real Estate Photography?
Real estate photographers haven’t needed a drone in the past, but now it’s almost guaranteed to be requested for serious shoots, particularly in hot real estate markets. A drone offers a whole new perspective on the property, allows the agent or realtor to emphasize the beauty and surroundings of the lot, and just has that catchy and dynamic look that makes a listing jump off the page.
Aerial views are also essential for showing relative property sizes. You can shoot from above and from various angles to frame the property in context. I know this has been particularly helpful to round out the listing photos I produce for smaller homes in subdivisions where there otherwise would be few outdoor photos.
Avoid editing the photo to add things like representations of lot lines or sizes, as these technical aspects are a huge legal issue for property transactions, and you don’t want to be caught in the middle of that.
As compact and cell phone cameras have gotten better, agents only need photographers who can offer something they can’t. An agent can easily grab a wide-angle iPhone shot of the living room and call it a day (even if, as photographers, we know the shot could look better). What they’re less willing to compete with, and therefore more willing to pay for, are the complex services. This means video, virtual staging, twilight shoots, and drone photography can all help you win business more easily, and for a higher rate.
Additionally, drones are one of the only realistic ways to cover large properties. Whether it’s raw land or just a particularly large property, a drone is really essential to show the entire scope of the offering. Mapping and other more complex services related to large properties are also possible with drones if you want to offer even higher-end services.
Another interesting use of drones for real estate photography is in the video. Unlike filming with your ground-based camera, drones don’t require any additional equipment to support video. This means no need for a gimbal, an external video recorder, or an alternate tripod setup. As a result, you can integrate some motion and dynamic shots into an otherwise picture-based slideshow about the property, all at no additional cost in gear.
Finally, a good drone for real estate photography doesn’t have to be expensive. While drones have made a ton of advancements in features for automatic flight, flight times, ProRes video recording, and more, none of those are really necessary for real estate drone photography. Instead, a good quality image and even video can be captured from a range of drones, particularly in daylight and for online presentation.
Best Drones for Real Estate Photography
Shopping for a drone for photography may be a little unusual if you’re used to shopping for cameras. For example, most drones have a fixed-focal length prime lens or at most a moderate zoom. Only the most expensive and complex photography drones will have the ability to switch lenses. These drones, like the DJI Inspire line, offer many more features but are overkill for all but the most elaborate real estate shoots.
A screenshot of the app interface for flying
Instead, consider drones around the $1000-3000 thousand dollar mark, depending on your budget and desired features. While these drones aren’t cheap, they’re capable tools and will deliver image quality not far behind a ground-based. camera. You could go as inexpensive as a small drone like the Mavic Mini 2, but I just don’t believe the loss in image quality is worth the savings over a slightly larger drone like the Mavic Air 2. For real estate photos, the size benefit of the Mini just doesn’t matter.
The key features that I’d look for in any drone include the camera specs (focal length, raw file support, sensor size), flight time, and ease of flight. Remote ID support is an important consideration for the future use of older drones – Remote ID is a US federal requirement set to come into effect on September 16th, 2023 that requires the drone to broadcast the drone’s ID and position for safety. For reference, DJI claims “many of our most commonly used drones to be able to [sic] comply through a simple and free software update.”
With that in mind, the following is a breakdown of some of the best drones for real estate photography. All the models listed will be from DJI. While there are a number of other companies competing in the space, none have the scale of DJI, and none offer photography-critical features that would make it worth considering them over DJI. Photography Life has no relationship with DJI and these are simply my personal opinions about using these drones.
1. Mavic Air 2 and Air 2S
The Mavic Air lineup is right at that sweet spot of price and performance. The drone isn’t unreasonably large, and with the folding legs, can easily fit into your existing camera bag. Within the frame is a battery pack large enough for any shoot and a perfectly capable camera.
The standard Air 2 is a fine performer for daylight shoots. However, the Air 2S has a larger sensor and various other conveniences over the Air 2 (like a longer transmission range). It comes down to your budget and shooting requirements, but in general, you should walk away with similar photos from either.
Overall, the Air 2 line is a really capable yet affordable way to get started with drone photography. As both the Air 2 and 2S are available new on the market, consider cross-shopping them. You may be able to snag a good deal on the older Air 2, or you may find that the 2S is worth the small premium.
2. Mavic 2 Pro
While the Mavic 2 Pro has been discontinued, finding a used model may be a great option for shooting on a budget. In terms of features, it compares quite closely to the Air 2S. Both feature a 20-megapixel, 1-inch type sensor and offer similar photo quality. The Mavic 2 Pro is a bigger drone, but it’s still very compact and portable. If you can find a bargain (AKA something meaningfully cheaper than the Air 2S) and are comfortable buying used, the Mavic 2 Pro may be a better value.
3. Mavic 3
The Mavic 3 represents the realistic pinnacle for drone photography, before stepping up to large, production-grade rigs. It manages to fit a Micro Four Thirds sensor into a body that can fit in a sling bag, all while offering outrageously long flight times and high-quality images. I’ve loved flying my Mavic 3 since I first got it, even if a number of the features, like the secondary telephoto camera, are unnecessary for real estate photography.
What impressed me most is the capability of the camera to produce flexible raw files. Past drones that I’ve flown have all had “brittle” files that need to be shot and post-processed with care, to avoid things like blown-out highlights (since at best they had a 1-inch type sensor). With the Mavic 3, I’ve been able to extend my shooting conditions into lower light and stronger wind without issue. On the basis of image quality, I’d recommend the Mavic 3 if your budget can support it, although it’s overkill for real estate photographers who are just starting out.
Of note, the Mavic 3 also has a more expensive Cine model with a built-in SSD and support for ProRes, but these features and the significant bump in price are unnecessary for most real estate drone photography.
How to Get FAA Licensed for Real Estate Drone Photography
In this section, I’ll be speaking about my experience with earning a drone license under Part 107 (the rules covering commercial drone flights with craft under 55 pounds within the US). While the process isn’t complex, and the FAA has made a good effort to make it pretty user-friendly, my experience isn’t legal advice, and you should always make sure you’re following all the rules, regulations, and laws around drone flight. Furthermore, different countries will have different rules. I’ve not flown commercially outside the US, and I can’t speak to the regulatory environment in other countries.
The first major thing to understand is the difference between flying under recreational rules and Part 107 (commercial) rules. You can operate a drone as a recreational flyer under the “Exception for Limited Operation of Unmanned Aircraft,” which regulates things like flight height, airspace, registration and more. For more info on the recreational flyer rules, the FAA has an in-depth article here.
Put simply, a flight for any purpose other than “purely for fun or personal enjoyment” falls under the Part 107 rules, and therefore requires a license. This means that photographers who make any money off their drone photography – or use their drone for any non-recreational purpose at all – are required to comply with all the elements of the Part 107 rules. These full rules can be read here.
Most notably, before you can fly, you need to have a commercial drone license and pass the FAA’s Part 107 test.
1. Studying for the Test
Fortunately, the process of acquiring a commercial drone license is relatively straightforward, although it does take some time. Taking the test also isn’t free, but it should pay for itself quickly if you have a real estate photography business.
The FAA requires that you sit for an Aeronautical Knowledge Test at an approved testing center – my local airfield offered the test, for instance. The test covers FAA Drone Laws, reading Sectional Charts, the National Airspace system, reading aeronautical weather forecasting, and more.
An example of the style of sectional chart you’ll need to be able to read to successfully take the test.
Studying for the test can take a few days, depending on how comfortable you are with the content and test taking in general, as well as your degree of exposure to particular aeronautical concepts like sectional charts. The general estimate is that it will take about 15-20 hours of study time over 2 to 3 weeks, which is generally much easier if you study through an established test prep company, but can also be done through independent study.
If you choose to pay for an official test prep company, the one we’re affiliated with and recommend is called Pilot Institute. Their service is $249, or $149 through Photography Life’s discount (found here). They aren’t the only test prep company out there, but the combination of their well-respected course and the deal they gave our readers makes them the service I’d choose for studying for your Part 107.
2. Taking the Test
The exam itself is a 2 hour, 60 multiple choice question test. As a strictly proctored test, it’s an interesting experience. You’re provided with some map books, and are allowed to bring basic calculators without programmable memory. You’re prohibited from bringing writing implements, bags, written notes, electronics, smartwatches, and a whole list of other items – your testing info will go into all this, but still, it’s helpful to know what resources you’ll have to inform your study process.
To prepare for this bare-bones testing experience, I’d suggest studying with just the FAA-provided chart handout and a pencil. The math never required a calculator, in my experience, and keeping distractions to a minimum will make it easier to focus.
The test itself carries a $175 fee, and you’ll want to make sure you’re prepared to pass the test, as a failing score requires that you sit for the test again.
After passing your test, you have to complete some paperwork to actually apply for the certificate, then the FAA will issue your certificate after some verification (think weeks, not days). This is something that your test prep company will discuss, and the application information is fairly easy to find online. After approval, you’ll receive a drivers-license style card, reflecting your accredited status.
If you’re already a licensed manned aircraft pilot, you can instead complete an online course and apply for the certificate directly. The FAA has more information on that process for existing Part 61 holders here.
After you’ve received your license, you’re ready to fly! Having a current 107 license opens up a whole new world as a drone pilot. Between being able to fly commercially and in a wider range of conditions, I’ve gotten much more use out of my drone now that I’m certified.
How to Capture Good Real Estate Photos from the Air
Fortunately, all of the tenets of good “regular” photography still apply to drone photography. Composition, exposure, and accurate, pleasing colors are all still desirable. The only difference is that the techniques needed to nail these concepts are slightly different.
For drones, good composition may be more of a challenge. You need to understand how to position the drone across the X, Y, and Z axis, all with more flexibility than a traditional camera. Compositionally, you can shoot anywhere from ground level to 400 feet or higher (assuming you are in the proper airspace and have appropriate weather).
This opens up a much wider range of compositions, but all the same elements still apply. You still need to think about balance, positive/negative space, and keeping the horizon level. At the end of the day, it’s all about showing off the property, so figure out which angles emphasize the best features of the subject you’re capturing.
Exposure, as I alluded to in the drone equipment section, can be a greater challenge compared to other modern cameras. Drones generally don’t have the same degree of highlight or shadow recovery, even when you shoot raw, due to their smaller sensors.
This makes nailing exposure more important, particularly as a shot of a shaded building entrance and bright sky can lead to a wide dynamic range situation. Further complicating things, your phone’s screen isn’t a perfect tool to gauge exposure from.
As a result, I’d suggest always checking the exposure via the histogram, and making liberal use of the auto exposure bracketing (or 5-image burst) function. I bracket almost all of my drone photos, as the additional dynamic range and margin of safety in the exposure has come in handy a number of times. 5-image bursts are also built into most DJI drones and can allow you to improve your dynamic range via image averaging.
Recovering the highlights in the snow can be tricky if your drone lacks dynamic range. Here, an HDR bracket helps retain detail in the darkest areas of the image
I find that processing is easier on real estate photos compared to artistic photos, since not as many edits usually need to be made. For many shots, I’ll merge to HDR within Lightroom, in order to improve the file’s dynamic range. Then, it’s just a matter of cropping to refine composition, as well as tweaking contrast and HSL.
Real estate drone photography can be a great way to expand your business. Personally, I’ve grown to love shooting via a drone for all my photographic pursuits, not just real estate. The gear has gotten better, all while becoming more affordable, with bigger sensor sizes, longer battery, and better portability with each new model. Meanwhile, the further refinement of licensing and rules makes it easy to fly for interesting opportunities, all while remaining safe and legal. If you’re looking to get into real estate drone photography, there’s no better time.
If you have any questions, let me know in the comments. I’m also curious to hear from those outside the US – what’s the regulatory situation look like for you?