The Cheapest And Easiest Way To Get Into Aerial Photography

A few months ago I got a random email that said "Would you like to review our new remote controlled drone that can carry a GoPro?" I love all types of electronics so I said I would be happy to. I assumed I would be receiving a remote controlled toy in the mail but I was very wrong. The DJI Phantom absolutely blew me away. Even after I destroyed it.

I received the Phantom a few months after that initial email. I had totally forgotten about it and when I did receive it in the mail it took my quite a while to figure out what it was. Once I put 2 and 2 together I opened the box and started assembling the propellers. I was instantly impressed by the feel of the product. It didn't feel like a toy. At that point I went online and realized that these things cost almost $700, way more expensive than the $20 RC choppers I enjoy flying around my office (which are incredible by the way). But at this point I assumed it was simply a very well made toy.

This is no toy
Although I have a bit of experience with RC products, I decided to watch some videos about the product online before I took it outside. It was at this point that I began to realize just how serious this drone was. As you can see in the videos below, this isn't some children's toy.

One of 5 videos introducing you to the Phantom

The Phantom has GPS built into it which changes everything. If you take a normal helicopter outside and there is any sort of wind, that helicopter will be pushed away from you. An unskilled pilot can lose the chopper in a matter a seconds. The Phantom will stay completely still no matter how much wind there is because its GPS sensor knows it's location down to the inch. In 15mph wind the Phantom will simply lean into the wind to hold its position. The Phantom can also tell it's altitude and will stay where you put it until you want to move it.

The benefits to GPS don't end there though. The Phantom can remember exactly where it took off and if it begins to run out of batteries, or if it looses its connection to the radio, it will simply fly up to 60 feet (to avoid obstacles) and then slowly land itself in the very spot it took off from.

Watch the Phatom land itself using GPS

I tested these features by flying the Phantom over my home and then cutting the radio off. My neighbor and I stood their in awe as we watched the Phantom land itself right in front of us. As I flew the Phantom around my yard I realized that this was the most fun I had ever had using a radio controlled device. It was so fast (22MPH) and the controls were so precise, it almost didn't seem real. It almost looked like something that was CGI but it was actually flying around right in front of me. I was having a blast using it but unlike my other RC toys, I could actually use this one for my business. Apparently it could hold the weight of a GoPro.

How I destroyed mine
My mind was racing with all of the pictures and videos I could shoot with the Phantom but I knew I should start simple. Mike Kelley was in town and we were filming his soon to be released DVD on architecture photography and I knew he was about to shoot a waterfront house. I knew the home had absolutely no back yard so the only way to capture an exterior shot would be from a helicopter. I've owned a GoPro for years but this was probably the second time I had ever used it. I attached it to the drone with the included GoPro mount and raised the Phantom into the air. I could tell the Drone felt much heavier, its movements were much slower than I was accustom to. I flew the drone out over the marsh and before I could spin it around it started to slowly descend. I gave it full throttle but the Phantom ended up descending faster and then crashed into the mud. We ran out into the marsh to grab it and to our surprise, the drone was fine. We suspect that the battery cable had broken loose causing the drone to fall. As you can see by this video below, these things are built like tanks.

These things are tough
We cleaned it up and charged the battery for a second attempt. This time as the drone was taking off I noticed a deer walking through the marsh. I decided that I wanted to capture up close footage and I steered the craft in its direction. The deer became startled and started running away and I decided to drop the Phantom quickly to try to salvage the shot. I forgot that the GoPro added significant weight to the Phantom and when I gave it full throttle to go up, it slowed, but not enough to keep it from hitting the water. I watched in horror as my new favorite "toy" splashed and then flipped onto its side. 2 of the engines sat in the water until we could get to it a few minutes later. Since my GoPro was not in its waterproof case and it was also destroyed in the crash. I'm ashamed to say that I didn't capture a decent shot of the house or the deer. I felt literally sick to my stomach. I had not only lost a very expensive product, I had also lost something that had excited me more than any other product in recent years and I had only myself to blame.

I have a few friends in town that did aerial photography for a living and they spent $25,000 building a hexacopter that would do the job. Now obviously their monstrous machine was better in almost every way however, for just $700 the DJI Phantom is a technological marvel. I have no doubt that at this point, nothing in this price range can come close to what the Phantom can do. If you have ever considered getting into aerial photography or videography or if you simply enjoy high end RC products, I cannot recommend this product enough but please, practice using the drone before you ever decide to take it near water. Especially with a heavy camera attached to it.

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I got to fly one of these last week. They really are pretty incredible. I didn't know how much it cost until after I looked it up to go buy one...definitely not high enough to sway me away from it.

While my DIY quad is super fun and was a great project to build and learn from, I'd never risk a camera on it. The Phantom is probably one of the cheapest ready-to-fly products I'd feel comfortable using for aerial footage.

Hans Klett's picture

So are these things legal or not? I can't get a straight answer from anyone. The people that sell these obviously want to sell them so they aren't credible. Your previous article doesn't make me race out to buy one either.

Legal? Maybe but … don't fly anywhere near and airport and definitely not over a crowded neighborhood.

Most places it's illegal to fly them commercially without a licence

Hans Klett's picture

So I guess I'll just wear shorts and a t-shirt so I look like a hobbyist while I fly it with a camera.

Lee Whitman's picture

Or DC. Anywhere in DC...

In the US, for the time being, they are illegal for commercial uses and there is more or less a 0% chance of being able to get a COA. In any case, a COA would still require you to stay in a particular area of restricted airspace, which is not conducive to running an aerial photography business. It also doesn't look like it will be changing any time soon as there's no legal infrastructure to provide the back end for a licensing scheme for commercial use. As for the rest of the world, I have no idea.

Hi Matt, thanks for the info, and please share more of what you've discovered, I would like to safe and legal as I enjoy capturing footage! Thanks

For now, as long as you're not selling the footage you capture or using it to promote a business wear it out. The latest FAA Reauthorization Act suggests that the FAA plans to have the commercial use thing sorted by September of 2015 or sooner (unlikely). Until then you might consider checking into the Academy of Model Aeronautics,, or the Remote Control Aerial Photography Association,, for guidelines on staying out of trouble while enjoying your hobby.

Wait - Mike is releasing a DVD? When?

Lee Morris's picture

As soon as we finish editing it.

Spy Black's picture

I know you already had one, but there is a universe beyond GoPro. There's a few cameras that are lighter that would make better candidates for this device.


Great FStoppers, Let's post an article without finding the legal ramifications of it. RF Drones are ILLEGAL in the United States to fly for commercial purposes, unless you apply for a COA (Certificate of Authorization from the FAA). There was a huge case about this a year ago where the court system shut down an aerial photography business.

Doing this illegally can result into $10,000 to $100,000 fine or 3-10 years behind bars.

Let's hope you didn't already put someone into this predicament without letting them know the facts behind your article... Get it together.

I know it's been done, broseph, but no one is going to "search" to find this article about it being illegal. It needs to be stated within this article or linked to the old one. People will just read this, buy the copter and start charging for their services, landing them behind bars, where they could put FStoppers at fault.

Wanted to make sure it's clear, these things are dangerous, and when they fall they could seriously injure someone. Excuse me for being cautious.

Patrick Hall's picture

We were not flying ours commercially.

Someone would be pretty stupid to read one article about an RC helicopter, buy it AND then start a business without doing some additional research

Stupid or not, people do this all the time with apparently very little thought regarding the potential legal and safety ramifications.

I've read numerous stories in the past few years that start like this: "I have a few friends in town that did aerial photography for a living and they spent $25,000 building a hexacopter that would do the job."

Then 2 months later they get a letter from a government lawyer letting them know that their little business is not legal and they should cease or go to prison.

It's also worth noting the government, and the FAA in particular, have a pretty generous (toward them) definition of "commercial." Furthermore, unless you meet some pretty stringent requirements, there's no hope you'll ever get a COA to keep operating.

Adam, this is not an answer necessarily to you, more to the topic of your post.

But whats the matter with the US? Are you so terrible frightened about your safety? This all is neurotic- Grow up people. This is a very nice way for taking vids and photographs, not some terrorist device with your head as the twin towers. Also, it can`t fall down. If the motors fail, it would not fall but sink, due to the rotors would start auto-rotating.
Everything of course can fall down if treated careless. The flowers on your window. Your baby. Your car keys into the sewage. You in your shower.

And to privacy- anyone can spy on you with or without a device like this, you may have to trust in peoples common sense.
It is peculiar though, a nation with so much concern about privacy, not complaining while being excessivly spyied by its own goverment, and as a nation violating the privacy of your friends like Europe and thus like slapping them in the face, and seemingly feeling absolutely fine about it. Whats the matter?
Sorry, i`m loosing it a little here, but it`s with issues like this on blogs, when I always find myself raising my hands to my head in disbelive.

Part of the problem seems that RC quad aircraft give the impression that they are just 'park flyers'. RC aircraft, fixed wing and helicopters, have been around since before WW2, but most of these RC hobbyists belong to a club where safety rules and insurance are a condition of membership. Model aircraft weighing a few pounds and spinning propellers can be extremely hazardous, especially when there are four of them.

Most fixed wing and helicopter RC enthusiasts fly at their model airfield, usually out in the sticks far away from the public, so that injury to the latter is unlikely. Aerial filming at these locations would be rather a bore. Who wants to see aerial videos of endless fields at 200 feet? Herein lies the problem. Force all quads to join a club miles from nowhere where they can't hurt anybody, or just trust to luck, take great movies and hope that nobody suffers as a consequence.

Personally I do not think it would be a bad idea if at least a transmitter license was required for a small fee, and liability insurance, as with other model aircraft. This would at least make those coming into the hobby aware that they are legally responsible whilst piloting a model aircraft. Also it might quell any busybody who wanted to interfere. "Here's my license and here's my insurance. I'm legal, now f off!"

Goodness, this is a good and informative thread, and please feel free to friend me on fb, so I can stay up on this stuff, (scratching my bald head)... Anyhow, like I said, send me links and more information regarding what you've discovered or know.

wow just rang a company yesterday about one of these maybe something is telling me to get it

Is this a drone or an RC helicopter? Can you input coordinates and flight path? Or just the 2 uses you mentioned in the article.

Still a cool toy. I got no use for it though.

It should be called an RC helicopter. You cannot input your own flight path

Claude Lee Sadik's picture

I've been owning one for a few weeks now and love it! It's definitely more powerful than it looks like. Now if you want to get serious with aerial videography you definitely need a brusheless gimbal (like a a mini MOVI). At the end of this video you can see me tracking a convertible car in motion! ;)

Spy Black's picture

Fortunately you live in a country not rule by Corporate Imperialist that don't want their illegal activities to be revealed...


But the music is crap. BUT i found something even crappier:

Taio Cruz- Fast Car official music video