What to Look for when Hiring an Aerial Photographer
By Ben Stone, COO
So, you’ve come to a situation where you need either photos or video (or both) from a vantage point so high up that it just makes sense to have a dedicated aerial photographer handle the job. What factors are important when deciding who to choose to hire?
While there are many things to look for and determine when hiring an aerial photographer, one main overarching point stands out: their ability to deliver a product they claim they will. Each aspect of aerial photography is a potential stumbling block on the road to your delivered product, and all aspects of producing aerial photos and video will contribute to the photographer’s (and his or her company’s) ability to deliver on their promises.
This biggest stumbling block for any aerial imagery provider is safety. Adherence to safety protocol is crucial to the long-term survivability of a photographer and their outfit. If a photographer and/or their company regularly accepts (or even worse, actively engages in) lapses in adherence to protocol or regulation (FAA or otherwise), it is absolutely inevitable that photographer/pilot will pay a consequence for these lapses. Perhaps the consequence is a visit from the FAA or local authorities that results in license suspension or outright loss. Perhaps the consequence is a loss of critical equipment. Perhaps its damage to a client’s property. There are a number of routes to the same destination: this photographer is unable to deliver on their promise… either in part, or leaving you completely high and dry.
How do you know if a given aerial photographer is safe and careful?
There are two main features to look for:
1: A part 107 license, and 2: Experience
An unlicensed photographer/pilot is a sitting duck for trouble – they will, without doubt, eventually be caught. If you were relying on that person when that happens, they just let you down completely. The Federal Aviation Administration certifies pilots through 14CFR part 107 – this is currently the only license that matters, and if they have something else, they might as well not have anything at all. Consider asking to see the photographer or pilot’s physical license – the FAA always issues a physical, tangible license that they require pilots to have on their person at all times while operating, so it’s very rare a regularly-working pilot would not have it on them. You should be extremely wary of anyone that dodges or shrugs off a request to produce a license, especially if they’re on or at a job site. While it’s not a guarantee that every pilot has their plastic license on their person 24/7, anyone that does not should be able to produce it in short order. Again, a pilot/photographer or their company that is dodging you when you ask to see something official should absolutely be avoided.
Experience is the second part of the two critical factors in choosing a photographer/pilot. When a pilot receives a license, they have not proven their ability to do anything other than memorize answers to a test question. There is no “practical” exam for a drone operator license, so a fresh, low-time pilot may have only flown a drone a handful of times (it’s even entirely possible that they have literally never actually flown a drone). To add to this, their ability to pilot a drone is no indication regarding their skill as a photographer or videographer (more on that later).
The next item is safety. While it may seem like safety is placed 3rd here in the list, the reality is that safety is the reason the 1st two points are so important. Proving to the FAA that the pilot or photographer knows the rules (and then backing up that knowledge with the application of experience) and combining that with experience in the field is what leads to safer operations. Assuming the person is adhering to the FAA’s part 107 regulations (which, again, they need to be to have any chance at long-term viability), their ability to apply experience to their operation increases the chance for a successful outcome dramatically. It is critical that someone deciding on who to choose not ignore clues that an individual or company operating drones for photo and video are willing to shirk the law.
Once someone feels reasonably assured their potential hire is properly licensed, and has enough experience to be appropriately safe, it is important to keep in mind that no matter how adamant the pilot in command is at following safety procedures, there are some situations that cannot be mitigated or anticipated. This is why it is extremely important that potential aerial photographers be insured. There are many risks when flying drones, so general liability insurance is a must at the least, to ensure that the aircraft is covered. The operation should be covered under a commercial drone liability policy with coverage able to handle a total loss if something catastrophic occurs. Yes, some drones are quite small, and they’re getting smaller every day, but a lithium fire does not care if the drone was 5lbs or 5oz to start with.
It might sound like we’re putting the artistic ability of the pilot below every other factor, but don’t mistake our message: while the ability of the photographer is the real meat of what makes or breaks a hire, it’s the aspects of safety that allow for consideration in the first place. Once the issue of safety is satisfied, what’s left is what the person or the company can produce. Not only should an aerial photographer be able to capture fantastic landscapes, panoramic shots, and captivating video footage, they should also have a creative mindset during a flight. The pilot should always strive to go above and beyond, capturing everything expected from the shoot and more to constantly discover better ways of serving the client. The aerial photographer should keep these several ideas in mind that will provide good shot, for example, the lighting, angles, and shot composition to allow for the post production to go smoothly. These elements of one’s ability can only be assessed through careful scrutiny of one’s past works. While photo or video viewed alone, if compared to nothing else, it’s easy to be talked into something being “great” – but it behooves anyone to compare examples of one person’s work to the alternative options, as this allows you to get a sense for what potential you have in your area for creative deliverables and what you might prefer. It could turn out this “great” material is actually just so-so compared to another photographer in the area.
The final thing to look for when hiring an aerial photographer is their ability to be affordable to all clients with a range of budgets. The job of the pilot in command is to bring the client’s ideas to life in the best ways possible. Depending on the quality of work and style desired, the aerial photographer should be able to offer a range of different equipment to suit different needs. The pilot needs to be equipped to handle all sorts of situations and should clearly evaluate the type of drone needed to effectively complete the mission.
To boil it down, a quality aerial photographer is someone who is proven capable of delivering respectable and satisfactory results with their past works WITHOUT disregarding the critical aspects of safe operations. Search for an option that clearly states their intent to operate within all applicable regulations, while still maintaining the ability to deliver a result you’re glad to pay for.