Taking your drone to a wedding? Read this first

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Best practices for flying your drone at weddings



It's spring, and that means wedding season is upon us!* If you're one of the many photographers planning wedding shoots this year, it's also a great time to think about including aerial photography in your plans.

A drone is a great way to capture unique shots that can help tell the story of a memorable day, and in my experience more couples are requesting drone photos than ever before. I expect that trend to continue. On the following pages, I'll share some of my best practices for flying drones at weddings, and give you some hints about things to pay attention to.

* Apologies to those in the Southern Hemisphere. We haven't forgotten about you.

Get certified or licensed to operate commercially



In the US, pilots who fly drones for commercial purposes are required to pass the FAA Part 107 exam. Passing this exam is beneficial beyond just getting a certificate: in the process of studying, drone operators will learn important rules, regulations, and best practices for flying responsibly, all of which will make you a more knowledgable, safer pilot.

You can self study for the FAA exam using the study materials provided by the FAA, or by taking one of the numerous available online test prep courses like this one from Drone Pilot Ground School.

Outside the US, many countries have similar regulations, so make sure you know what the rules are where you're operating and ensure that you have obtained any necessary permits, certificates, or licenses.

Register your drone with the FAA



After you successfully pass the Part 107 exam, you'll need to register your drone's serial number with the FAA. This registration is necessary if you're flying your drone for commercial purposes, and costs $5. The registration number must be clearly marked on your drone so it can be identified if there are any issues or potential accidents.

It should be noted that this registration process is also required for recreational drones, and pilots who intend to fly their drones as a hobby. The FAA had previously removed the registration requirement for recreational drone use, but has recently reinstated it.

Get a good UAV liability insurance policy



Get a liability insurance policy that covers your drone activities. It's not just a good idea – it will may in fact be required by certain venues before you're allowed to fly. Venues (and commercial clients) might dictate how much liability coverage you need, or even ask to be listed on a rider, demonstrating that they are protected from any liability during your flights.

Having no liability protection during a wedding flight could be disastrous; despite careful planning and preparation for your flight, unpredictable things can happen. Having UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) liability coverage will ensure that you're protected against the potentially large financial burden that could occur if an unforeseen situation arises.

Get a good UAV liability insurance policy



A common question I get is where to buy UAV insurance. Liability policies are offered through special aviation insurance companies, and traditional agencies will typically offer annual coverage based on the policy amount and number of drones covered. You can also purchase UAV insurance on a daily basis, for very specific places and time periods, and even specify the amount of coverage required.

If you intend to fly commercially on a frequent basis, it's best to buy an annual policy since they tend to be a better value for long term use. However, if you will only be flying the odd commercial gig once in a while, then getting coverage for the day may be the smarter option. I've had an annual policy from Costello Insurance for the past two years, and they've been great to work with, but if you'd like to look at an on-demand provider, then you might want to take a look at Verifly, which has iOS & Android apps that can be used to book coverage straight from your mobile device.

Update your drone to the latest firmware



Verify that you're using the latest software and firmware on all of your devices and drones. This includes updating to your drone's latest mobile app on your phone or tablet, as well as updating the firmware on your controller, drone, and maybe even your batteries. All of these components operate in synergy, so if one part is out of sync you could be exposing yourself to unnecessary risk.

I always go through my checklist several days before a flight, ensuring that I check for updates on all of my devices, and making sure everything is properly charged and calibrated.

Calibrate your IMU and compass before your flight



This is something that I used to take for granted, until I had a very scary close call while trying to capture a beautiful sunset. I decided to pull over by a beach, and proceeded to send my DJI Phantom 3 Advanced up for a quick flight. The drone jumped up and immediately lost it's GPS and compass heading, putting it into an uncontrolled frenzy in ATTI mode. I struggled through almost the entire battery charge to get it under control, and experienced the highest degree of stress I've ever experienced when flying a drone. I was lucky to get it back on the ground without damaging anything.

Looking back, if I had taken a few minutes to calibrate the compass and IMU, I would have a beautiful sunset to look back on instead of the stressful memory of that dreaded flight. Don't let this happen to you, especially at a wedding. I now always calibrate my compass and IMU before each flight.

Monitor wind conditions



Knowing the wind speed and direction is a critical skill for any drone pilot. When flying downwind it can seem like wind isn't an issue, but you don't want to discover that it is when flying back upwind with a low battery. Pay attention to the wind and know both where it's coming from and at what speed. I use an iOS app called Windseeker to help keep tabs on the wind conditions. It has geolocation abilities, and can even give you an augmented reality overlay of the wind direction for easier planning.

Wind can always be a factor when flying a drone, though to what degree may depend on which model you're flying. I've found that the DJI Phantom series are pretty resilient, and can typically fly in moderate to strong winds. Smaller drones like the DJI Spark and Mavic Pro may not be able to fly in strong winds as adeptly as bigger drones. No matter what drone you're flying, always use your judgment. If it's too windy to fly, stay on the ground.

Use a visual observer



Having a visual observer is a requirement for any FAA Part 107 pilot flying for commercial purposes. It serves to cover the line of sight requirement during commercial operations, and is generally a good idea for any flight in my opinion. It's very difficult to pay close attention to your controller and maintain line of sight to your drone at the same time.

Creating cinematic shots often requires close attention to your display, the controls, and your technique, and breaking that focus to maintain your eyes on the drone in the air will pretty much undermine all of those things. Play it safe and make sure you always have a visual observer to handle this task so you can focus on nailing that epic shot.

Keep a respectful distance



Flying with tact and consideration is a must in my opinion; when planning your shots, do so in a way that doesn't intrude on the ceremony. I never try anything too fancy without discussing it with the bride and groom. If I need to shoot something that requires me to get relatively close to the ceremony, I always make sure it's OK with them, and that everyone is aware of the audible noise that my propellers will cause.

Also, consider what type of drone is best for any given situation. If maximum image quality is needed I may use a DJI Phantom 4 Pro, but if image quality takes a backseat to noise, then I can often get more subtle shots with a less intrusive DJI Spark. My advice is to always balance respect for the wedding with the need to get the perfect shot, and discuss this with your clients. They'll appreciate your need to get the best shots without causing a huge distraction that potentially overpowers their special moment.

Best practices for flying your drone at weddings



These best practices should allow you to get great drone photos or video at a wedding, while also ensuring that you're operating safely, legally, and respectfully.

I'm interested to hear about other best practices you may have developed over time. Please share them in the comments below! We can all continue to learn and benefit by implementing them into our workflows.

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