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Aerial photography and videography is on the rise and it’s not hard to see why. Drones, quadcopter, unmanned aircrafts or flying cameras – whatever you want to call them – have opened up awesome opportunities to capture footage and photos at angles that people didn’t have access to before (without a helicopter). And let’s be honest, almost everything looks better from above. Now that drones have entered the market at pricing points for photography and videography hobbyists, we’ve seen many travellers with them around the world. Whether you’re new to the market or an experienced pilot, this post is going to be super helpful if you’re considering traveling with a drone. We’re going to cover everything – equipment, logistics, insurance, frequent questions we get asked, travel advice and even some photography tips!
To jump directly to a particular section, just click on one of the headers below. We love feedback so if you’ve found this post useful or have additional information for us to include, drop us a line in the comments below.
- What’s the best drone on the market?
- Long term travel with a drone
- Our equipment: drone, backpack and accessories
- Taking it on board: check in or carry on?
- Flying in other countries
- Photography & videography tips
- View some of our work
WHAT’S THE BEST DRONE ON THE MARKET FOR TRAVEL?
After travelling through 4 continents, we are certain when we say the DJI range is hands down the most popular. When we were on the market for a drone, we had our hearts set on a Phantom 3 Advanced but its pricing point had us questioning whether or not we should by it. Then, we stumbled upon Autel Robotics X-Star Premium. Autel Robotics is new to the market, launching it’s X-Star in May 2016. It had everything we needed and for a great price (an entire kit with additional batteries was still cheaper than buying a Phantom 3 Advanced on its own). So we bought one and named it Onji.
We bought Onji before DJI’s Mavic was released on the market. From what we’ve seen for general travel purposes, this is probably the best option given how compact it is. If you are a after a more ‘professional’ drone, are a first time flyer and want something within a good price range, we stand by the X-Star Premium.
The XSP shoots in 4K, has a 25 minute battery life, comes in a bright orange colour that you can see, comes with a hard case and best of all, you can remove the gimbal and camera in the event these need replacing or upgrading. The only downsides we’ve noticed are that it’s a bit nosier than the DJI range, it drifts a little when stopping (i.e. it doesn’t just halt) and the yaw isn’t very smooth. However, for a drone less than a year old, these are pretty minor limitations that we know can and will be fixed and also don’t affect the final quality of our videos or photos.
We believe that one of the biggest dividing factors is not in the specifications of the drones but in the customer service. If you watched Day 9 of our Iceland vlog, you would have seen that Onji fell out of the sky. We contacted Autel Robotics, sent through our flight logs and within 1.5 weeks, we had a replacement. Since then, the only issue we’ve had is with the SD card and again, Autel was quick to send out a replacement. This type of customer service is invaluable and the feedback we’ve received from DJI customers is that this level of service and product guarantee isn’t offered.
LONG TERM TRAVEL WITH A DRONE
We have been travelling with our drone for 5 months. At the moment, we’re currently travelling SE Asia. Since we use our Manfrotto D1 Drone Backpack for our camera equipment, we have one backpack for clothing, shoes and toiletries. This works because we are a duo so Amanda carries the “tech” bag and Daniel carries the backpack with everything else. However, if you are a solo traveller and want to take a drone, we recommend either going for a smaller drone (such as the DJI Mavic Pro) or bringing along a small backpack that you can carry at the front for your clothing.
We have no regrets carrying all of our gear with us. However, we’ll admit that we have considered purchasing the DJI Mavic Pro purely for its portability. If you’re tossing up between which to buy, we asked a fellow pilots, David Durst and Matt Langdon who own both the DJI Mavic Pro and the X-Star Premium about their experiences.
1) Which do you think is easier to fly for a total newbie?
DD: I think either one of them would be easy for a person that is new to drones to fly. Both have GPS stabilisation on them and have auto take off, auto landing and hover functions so that if someone were to have some problems they could let the drone take over and fly itself or land itself.
2) Which do you think is better overall for value and quality? And why?
DD: The build quality of both are very good. The Mavic is made of aluminum and is very sturdy. The XSP is plastic but very sturdy as well. Value wise the Mavic would win this hands down. It has the ability to do many flight functions with the included DJI Go 4 App. The XSP however is limited in scope to Orbit, Waypoints and Follow-Me.
Pricing wise, I would say that the XSP wins here, for a price tag of $699 for an open box test unit off the production line you get a great drone, with all the features and warranty of the normal drones that are not open and tested by engineers. The Mavic at $999 is a good value for what you get, however there seems to be some limited quality still happening so you may have a wait of a week or two before it shows up. Comparing support from both companies, DJI still has its issues that even I have problems with getting warranty support.
ML: The XSP is more durable than the Mavic. The camera on the Mavic is known to rip out on first crashes. Even a small crash from 3 feet can knock the camera out and then you have to pay a fee for a refresh through DJI. The XSP can handle multiple crashes and keeps on chugging like nothing happened. I fly it in NY temps in winter and in snow.
3) If you were travelling long term, which would you take?
DM: It would be the Mavic, its portable, small and goes inside a nice small backpack and due to that alone it wins with no question.
ML: Mavic and X-Star Premium.
OUR EQUIPMENT: DRONE, BACKPACK AND ACCESSORIES
We first bought the XSP in the US before our trip to Iceland. The hard case it came with was suitable for our road trips in Iceland and the US but not for backpacking. For our 3 month SE Asia trip, we are carrying:
- Autel Robotics X-Star Premium
- Manfrotto D1 Drone Backpack
- PolarPro VIVID Collection (ND Filters) – this collection has 3 polarised ND filters (ND4, ND8 and ND16) which we use almost all the time.
- Accessories: 2 sets of propellers, charger and 64GB SD card.
At the moment, we are using an iPhone 6S as the screen for the remote control but we have purchased a NVIDIA SHIELD K1 8″ Tablet – Black which we will use instead. We find that using the iPhone is limiting due to the screen size and battery life since we also use it throughout the day. We carry our laptop with us so we are able to remove footage from the SD card during our travels. If you are planning on shooting in 4K and won’t have access to a computer or laptop, we recommend that you bring 2 SD cards.
The Manfrotto D1 Drone Backpack has been great for travelling because it has enough space for the X-Star Premium, all of our accessories, a laptop, tablet and DSLR camera. The backpack has a hip strap and chest strap, making it easier to carry for longer periods of time. Daniel hiked in Vietnam with the bag for about 6 hours and found it to be quite comfortable, however, the material isn’t breathable the same way travel backpacks are so you can get pretty sweaty wearing it.
TAKING IT ON BOARD: CHECK IN OR CARRY ON?
We have taken our drone on board for all of our flights through USA, Iceland, Japan, Malaysia, Australia, Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar. I think it’s safe to say that carrying it on isn’t a problem. When going through the security scan, we’ve had the bag opened twice for inspection and that was it. If you are travelling through a country that requires licensing or permits, we recommend that you carry a printed copy with you.
FLYING IN OTHER COUNTRIES
Before travelling to any country, we always check updated laws. Countries that allow drones usually mandate that you:
- Don’t fly over people
- Fly within line of sight
- Don’t fly above 400ft
- Don’t fly within a certain distance from an airport.
For the USA, we registered drone since this is a legal requirement. Other countries such as Perú require you to apply for a permit. It’s best to do your research ahead of time so that you have an adequate period to apply for any permits you need.
These are common sense flying rules that we adhere to:
- Don’t be a d-head when flying. If you’re at a busy location (eg a sunset spot), don’t fly in the way of people’s photos.
- Respect people, customs and cultures, not just laws. We often ask permission to fly in case it is considered offensive or if there is something we aren’t aware of. Most of the time we get a YES!
We have found traveling with a drone in South East Asia very easy. Locals love drones and are usually just curious to see what you’re seeing on the screen.
Our drone is not covered by our travel insurance as it is considered an aircraft. This means that we aren’t covered for the contents OR liability. I worry about liability more than anything which is why I must stress the importance of common sense flying and knowing how to fly in manual mode (ie without GPS). Drones really are easy to fly. We flew it the first time without even reading the manual. However, it is still a piece of technology and ANYTHING can happen. We were very fortunate that when our XSP decided to fall out of the sky, it was when we were flying over land so we didn’t damage any property or injure people.
There are insurance companies dedicated to drone coverage. However, they will set you back a fair bit (we were quoted $1,000USD a year) so it is best if you contact your home insurance company and ask if it can be covered as personal property. We know that State Farm covers contents and liability as a additional cost to home insurance for around $60USD. Commercial flying also requires a different insurance so please look into this carefully. We’ve looked into several travel insurance companies and none provide cover for drones. We’d love to hear recommendations for insurance companies, particularly for travel, if you have any. Please let us know in the comments below!
PHOTOGRAPHY & VIDEOGRAPHY TIPS
We’ve learned some valuable lessons over the past 5 months, mostly through trial and error. To save you plenty of time and memory card space, here are some of our top tips for photographing and filming with a drone.
1. Practise, know your equipment & be confident in flying
We recommend that you get in ample flying time in large open spaces before you fly in foreign locations. You should read your manual carefully and know your equipment. What are the different camera and video functions? How do you make adjustments? Do you have any issues with the drone that can be rectified before you start travelling? Familiarity with your drone and its use will save you plenty of time when you are out on location. Knowing how to fly in manual mode is also a huge life saver should anything go wrong.
2. Assess your location before flying & PLAN
We have flown in large open spaces, confined spaces, through ruins and among trees. All flying has always been with a plan. When we arrive at a location, we suss it out and determine first if it is safe to fly. Are there any obstacles in the way? What flight path can we take? Could we spook any wildlife around? We also have to ask ourselves if it’s worth flying. If we aren’t going to get anything different than what we’d get with our DSLR, we won’t fly.
Once we’ve assess the area, we come up with a plan of what type of shots we’d like and how we’re going to fly. The reason for this is the limited battery life. Though 25 minutes seems like a lot, if you’re just hovering in the air thinking of what to do next, you’re wasting precious battery time. This is why we often get 2 locations out of 1 battery. We get all of our filming and photographs done within about 10 minutes.
3. Test your flight route
We do this if we are flying low or near obstacles. We will plan the route and then fly slowly to ensure that we are capturing what we want to see and to gauge the distance between obstacles. Whilst you don’t need to do this for every flight, we highly suggest it for dense areas.
4. Showcase different angles and aerial perspectives
We firmly believe that if you’re going to fly a drone, your photos and videos should actually show this fact. We saw a guy flying a drone at our eye level to film a bridge in Mandalay, Myanmar. This annoyed many people because it was noisy and in the way of their photos. It was also pointless because the pilot wasn’t capturing anything different than what a regular camera could film at that angle. If you’re going to fly the drone, make use of it and show case angles and perspectives that you couldn’t otherwise achieve.
5. Learn how to use camera settings
To get the most of our your aerial photography, you should learn how to shoot manually and what the different settings mean. The X-Star Premium allows up to an 8 second long exposure which means we can take great night photos and better sunrise and sunset photos. We’ve tried taking photos on auto-mode and though it’s fine during the day, the photos can be quite grainy if there isn’t enough light.
6. Edit, edit, edit
Most computers and laptops will come with a video editing software for free. If not, there are plenty available online or in an app store. Whilst you could just post up for 6 minute long video of you flying in a certain area, it’s unlikely that anyone is going to watch the footage except for maybe your mum – if you’re lucky. Throwing some random back track isn’t the solution either. Instead, try editing some of your best shots together but keep forward and backward motions together. Cut footage mid movement so that the video doesn’t feel like it’s stopping and starting. Keep this in mind when filming – you should always film an additional few seconds before and after.
SOME OF OUR WORK
The Iceland video is the very first video we made using drone footage. It was also our first time flying. We’re still learning and improving but hopefully you can pick up some ideas from our videos. You can view more of our work on our YouTube channel.