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How Do Real Estate Photographers Get Started In Drone Photography and Video?

Published: 08/07/2016
By: larry

DJI4Ray in North Carolina says:

I've been waiting for Drone Rules/Regulations to be clarified before I jumped in.  Time to jump.  I'd like to hear some recommendations for a good first time drone buy, important accessories to buy, pricing and service terms for clients, Insurances acquired, and "If I knew then what I know now" start-up recommendations.

Yes, expect that you are not the only one that has these same questions. The new Part 107 Rule announced by the FAA a couple of weeks ago has got a lot of real estate photographers and Realtors thinking about these same things! First of all Part 107 rule is announced but not working until late August.

I would caution real estate photographers thinking about adding drone photography and video to their services to their offering: Drone photography is more difficult and risky than ordinary real estate photography. Go slow. It's compelling but harder and riskier than it looks.

I'm certainly no expert in this area but I know that there are a number of PFRE readers that have already been through this startup process and can offer us all some advice. One such PFRE reader is Stephen Mann. I passed Ray's questions on to Stephen and here are Stephen's answers to Ray's questions above.

One problem is there aren't simple answers that work for 3 through 5 below. The answers to these questions are highly dependent on your location. Drone regulations, pricing vary widely between countries and between states in the US.

Here are some basic ideas to get the conversation started:

  1. What drone to buy: The DJI 3 and DJI 4 are probably the most popular gear. DJI has more than half of the current Drone market.
  2. Training: Many companies must be scrambling to create training programs for the Part 107 test. I fully expect that there will be many online training classes for the part 107 test. Here's some info on what to expect. Here is a related video class that Stephen recommends.
  3. Insurance for commercial operation: To me, this means liability insurance. While it would be nice to also have coverage for your drone getting damaged, I think it is FAR more important to be covered against the damage you can cause. It can cost a lot more. This area is probably evolving rapidly. There appear to be many alternatives when you google "commercial drone insurance". Here is one that Stephen suggests.
  4. Pricing for drone services: we've actually done a poll on this subject. But there is a lot to consider in pricing that this poll doesn't get at.
  5. Terms of Services: there are a couple if issues that you need to cover in your TOS that are unique to flying drones:
    • Someone needs to verify that the neighbors to the property you are shooting are notified and OK with your flying over their property. People can get VERY worked up about this issue regardless of what the local rules are.
    • There are many weather events or lack of permission to fly from FAA that can cause a drone shoot to be delayed canceled. Your TOS should cover these possibilities.

Since this whole subject is evolving very rapidly I expect that we'll be revisiting this subject frequently in the near future.

Feel free to suggest resources in all of these areas!


8 comments on “How Do Real Estate Photographers Get Started In Drone Photography and Video?”

  1. Another thing to get started with is canvassing your client base to see what they are willing to pay for aerial photos. Whatever they say, cut it in half. They might pay $100 for the first few homes and then they will taper off into only requesting aerials for select properties. It gets very boring looking at roofs and the images often highlight the building density of an area which can be a big minus. Like many new visual marketing products, there will be a surge in sales right away and it will fall off rapidly to only those properties that will benefit from a high POV.

    Wind will be a huge issue in some locales. It's hard to get a good forecast several days to a week out when you schedule an appointment with a customer. Your fees will have to reflect the need to reschedule and revisit properties to complete the aerial images. Customers are probably not going to be too happy with paying rescheduling fees, so figure on having to eat a bunch of that. My area is large and having to make a special trip for aerials will be cost prohibitive if I'm not building it into my fees.

    I haven't been very impressed with the DJI or GoPro images, so I'd want to have a craft that can carry a quality mirrorless camera such as the Sony a6000 with a good lens. This might require a better craft (= more $$). It's a hard call since I could find myself competing against hobbyists with lesser quality gear, no insurance or permits. The images that I see around my area are technically fairly poor quality. I'd have to decide whether I go in as cheap as possible so I don't have too big of an investment in hardware that could be idle much of the time or get better kit and push the higher quality images. I'm leaning towards cheap and dirty knowing the local agents.

    Insurance is a huge requirement. The top lines on a power pole are 12kv-20kv and to remove a commercial drone could cost thousands of dollars. I know that Southern California Edison does that type of work with the power on and with specialist crews ( a couple to do the work and several more to supervise.) They might get a kite down without charging, but on a commercial RCMA, they will be much more likely to charge since an insurance company is the likely payor. Anywhere up high that a drone gets entangled is going to cost good money to retrieve it.

    It may be a good move to refer customers to somebody already doing aerial images with an RCMA and take a commission. If there is somebody local that doesn't do Arch & Int stills to compete with you, let them deal with the permits and insurance until it's established that there are clients that will regularly pay a reasonable fee for the service. The costs will come down and the quality should go up if it takes off which could leave competitors still paying off lesser quality hardware when you decide to jump in. It's the early adopters fee.

    Expect to crash a few times while learning and every once in a while afterwards from miscellaneous problems in hardware/software or environment. I expect that insurance to cover damages is going to be very expensive.

    Does anyone have a average time frame for getting 2-4 useable images from unpacking to stowing back in the car?

  2. "Does anyone have a average time frame for getting 2-4 useable images from unpacking to stowing back in the car?"

    It really depends on the kit and the mission. The phrase "fast, cheap, high quality- pick two" really applies here. For "fast, cheap" I use the DJI Phantom 2 with a GoPro Hero4 camera. I set the camera to shoot a photo every five seconds, launch, fly around the property from various angles then land. On the laptop I verify the series of photos looks good and I pack up and leave. 30-minutes to an hour depending on the size of the property. Add another half-hour to select the photos for the client, and maybe another half hour if I want to tweak the contrast and color saturation a little. For high quality, I use a hex-copter that can carry a DSLR and take really high-resolution RAW photos. But the preflight, mounting the camera, and the flight planning can itself take 30 minutes to an hour. Double the times if you plan to do video as well.

  3. @Stephen Mann, thank you for the information. It sounds like having a wi-fi'd camera would speed things up a bit, but there are still some time set-up and preflight checks that aren't going to change much. 30-45 mins could be a good average once somebody is experienced with their rig and they aren't waiting on weather. It can be hard to correctly price a new service until one has enough experience. Pricing it too low initially can be a problem. Doubling the price is hard to put over, but knocking 30% off is very easy.

  4. IMO - Drones are amazing and add so much to the marketing media. I've owned 3 Phantoms. A 2+, 3, and now a 4. Each model gets a lot better and more reliable. Every time I fly I get nervous. These things are not perfect and can act abnormally. Just watch the hundreds of Youtube videos of drones that fly away and crash for no reason. That said, I would't live without it.

  5. I use the DJI Pro and haven't looked back. I'll keep my pricing underwraps for now, but agents in my neck of the woods find my fee very, very friendly (I'm just north of Boston). I just don't get why some REPH have to charge so much! In my accounting book, I'd much rather have fast pennies than slow nickels! On the flip side, if some agents already have a listing and I did not photograph for them, then my pricing is much higher. In essence, I have two price points: one at the POS (point of sale) and the other non-POS - meaning if I do the photo shoot and the agent requests drone photos at the time of the photo shoot, my fee is less vs. an agent who phones me and simply wants drone photos.

    To increase revenue stream and to add more margin, I hustle house builders, car dealerships, swanky ocean front homes, swimming pool builders, etc. In about a years' time, I think I've paid for my drone twice. Again, fast pennies. So think out of the box and determine where you can sell your drone photo chops.

    For video, every house is different, but I offer a very similar patterns of how I fly the drone to a property - up and over, back to front, etc. Maybe between 30 to 40 seconds of a video clip. I usually have 6 times that amount in actual footage, but I whittle down the best videos to about 40 seconds. Again, just depends on the house and what makes it unique. Of course, I charge more for video because it simply takes longer to create and process.

    Never fly when too windy or tons of trees nearby. Always be smart about flying. I make it crystal clear to my clients that I will only fly if safe to fly. If conditions are not ripe for flying, I tell them I will try and swing back and do the flight, not charge. Yea, no charge because more times than not, I'm in the area and it is no biggie to make a quick detour to do this for them.

    My drone is pretty much at the ready to my efficiency is high. In other words, by the time I arrive at the sight and turn the car ignition key off, I can fly my drone inside of 3 minutes and this includes compass calibration. Of course if the seller or agent is present, they usually want to chat and such and therefore this eats into my efficiency, but that's okay. They are curious. And if this happens, I usually solicit their help and I let them see what the house looks like with the "eye-in-the-sky" on my android tablet. They get stoked, they are my visual spotters, they feel they have a "vested" interest in the selling process and they are giddy with excitement about the whole process. Positive, fun experience for everyone and the agents call me back for more photo shoots and drone work.

    I say jump into the deep end of the pool head 1st, eyes closed. The water is warm, refreshing and deep. You can't get hurt with the exception of spending about $1,500 for the newest DJI Phantom 4. Oh yea, pick up four additional batteries, props, case and a tablet device. Now you are at about $2k. So yes, a little pricey to jump in, but depending on your area, you could make your money back. It's getting crowded in my parts with drone flyers, so I will have to be more creative or hit other vendors for drone photos, so don't wait too long.

  6. Speaking for myself - a one person real estate photographer in mid-South Carolina, I am with Robert Moreno on the pricing; I will keep it fairly low. I say WILL because I have not shot commercially yet (no pilot's license or exemption), but my regular clients are anxious for me to get started. This will be probably 80/20 still photos vs video clips. Regarding the drones, I DO have a lot of experience with these on a "recreational" basis - I have four. The best two for photography have VERY stabilized gimbals, GPS, etc - the DJI F550 hexacopter, and the DJI Phantom 3. I'm Registered since late December, of course. Not to argue with anyone here, but the images from the Phantom are simply spectacular! Crisp, clear, distortion-free after edit..."Good enough to eat."

    VERY much looking forward to passing the new Part 107 exam and becoming certified the end of this month -- already have my appointment (space) at the FAA testing center.

    By the way, are some of you seeing any STATE requirements for insurance? We have none at this point in SC - only the possibility of a redundant registration of equipment exists at this point. To be perfectly honest, I do not care to have equipment insurance but would welcome a simple liability policy if it can be had reasonably priced. Yes, I know, nobody plans an accident (oh, except of course handling emergencies IS part of the Part 107 body of knowledge you must possess).

  7. Great comments, much appreciated. I can see many scenarios where pricing may be altered based on situation. I think it's also important to set clear guidelines and expectations for the client in advance to prevent misunderstanding and bad customer relations.

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