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Using a Drone for Stock Photography

Aerial photograph of the Beaverkill Bridge which is an old covered bridge over the Beaver Kill in Sullivan County New York.

Once you earn your Part 107 certificate, you can use your drone to earn money by taking aerial stock photographs.

Drone pictures fill a niche between ground-level photographs, which often lack perspective; and high-altitude aerial photos, which often lack detail. The airspace below 400 feet AGL is a sweet spot where the opportunities for perspective and detail converge.

That combination of perspective and detail is probably the reason why high-quality drone photographs enjoy high approval rates from stock photo agencies such as Dreamstime. In fact, I've never submitted a drone photograph to Dreamstime that wasn't approved.

What it comes down to is that stock photo agencies have bazillions of pictures of cute babies, insects, flowers, computer parts, and models pretending to be office workers. Competing with their existing stock in those categories is a challenge because they're already super-saturated. But they don't have a lot of aerial drone pictures, so it's a lot easier to get drone photos approved.

How to Make Money Taking Pictures with Your Drone

Taking and selling aerial stock photos with your drone is one of the easiest ways to transition from a hobby drone pilot to a professional aerial drone photographer. You don't need clients, bookings, or advertising. You mainly need a sharp eye and an imaginative mind.

You have to think about the kinds of pictures that Web developers, advertising agencies,greeting card manufacturers, and other users of stock images need: and then go out and take those pictures.

You also don't need to be a superhuman drone pilot. If people have commented favorably about some of the drone pictures you've taken, then you probably can make at least some money using your drone to shoot aerial stock photos. Some people actually make a living that way. Many more use it as a way to offset the high costs of an expensive hobby.

You will, of course, need to earn your FAA Part 107 certificate before you start using your drone to take stock photographs. A TRUST card isn't enough because shooting stock photographs with the hope of selling them is commercial, not strictly recreational. You can learn more about the difference between hobby flying and professional flying here.

Aerial photo of heritage railroad tracks and rolling stock next to a rural road is an ad that links to Empire Drone home page.

You'll also need a professional-quality drone designed for photography and videography. To get the kind of detail that stock companies expect, you'll need at least 4K resolution (6K or higher is better) and a 20 megapixel sensor (again, higher is better). Other things to look for include a large sensor, low-light capability, and the ability to shoot and save pictures in a RAW format.

Finally, you'll need an agency to license and sell your photographs on your behalf. If you're totally new to stock photography, I suggest you consider Dreamstime. They're very supportive of new photographers and have reasonable acceptance standards for new applicants.

I also sell royalty-free images at Can Stock Photo; and at SkyStock, which is a specialized stock photo agency for aerial photographs. These agencies are a little tougher to get accepted into, but it doesn't cost anything to apply.

Being accepted by a stock photo agency typically requires submitting an application, along with the best samples of your work. You won't be accepted until you show them what you can do. So send the best you have. You should make sure your photos are as clear, sharp, and interesting as possible; and save them using your photo-editing software's highest quality settings.

Remember, you must earn your Part 107 before you start applying to stock agencies because flying with the intent to sell the photos or videos is clearly commercial, and falls outside the recreational exemption.

Revised March 4, 2022.

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