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How to Get Started with Drone Photography Without Crashing

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I had been wistfully eyeballing drone videos and photos for a few years but I was always nervous that I would crash right into a tree on my first outing. When DJI announced the Mavic, I figured that with the price point and all the advances flight control, it was time to give it a go. Almost instantly, I had regrets. First, demand for the Mavic was overwhelming and the fulfillment ended up getting pushed back. Ultimately, I ended up waiting 2 months for it to arrive. Second, Casey Neistat got a Mavic really quickly (probably as a promotional item from DJI) and while it seemed great, he very quickly lost it. It was unclear if it crashed or ran out of battery or what but watching $1,000 disappear off into the air is not my idea of fun. 

I was hoping to have the Mavic for a trip to New Zealand last year and it ended up arriving exactly the night before we went out of town. Eli and I giddily took it outside for a test flight but quickly ran into necessary updates (which I now realize are extremely frequent). Standing outside in the subzero Chicago winter, we gave up on our one test flight and headed back inside. We packed the Mavic for New Zealand and crossed our fingers that it would work. After waiting 2 months, hearing about crashes and one failed test flight, I wasn’t feel optimistic. 

Initially, I hated the drone. At first the gimble had issues, the sd card filled up quickly and there were updates almost every other time we tried to use it. Then one day everything clicked into place, I figured out everything I had to double check before taking off and now I love it. I’ve been zipping around Chicago and on trips ever since.  So far I haven’t had any crashes and I hope that writing this blog post doesn’t jinx me!

Have patience

While all our initial mishaps were incredibly frustrating, they forced Eli and I understand each component that could fail. Most of the stories that I heard about crashes involved a new flier heading right out and being over enthusiastic early on. The learning curve for understanding the DJI drones isn’t that steep but there is a learning curve and you’re only short changing yourself if assume that you’ll be ready to go as soon as your drone arrives in the mail. Take a moment to become familiar with the drone and controller. 

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Practice

I’m personally quite afraid of heights so even though I totally understood that watching the drone fly wasn’t the same as being 30 meters in the air, I still got pretty nervous. Even though it was silly, I think my initial nervousness forced me to practice in order to get comfortable with the overall experience. My first 5 flights were in boring, wide open fields. It wasn’t exciting and I definitely didn’t get any interesting photos or footage but I learned the basics of flying in a safe and low risk situation. 

Be smart 

A few weeks ago, I got home to discover a note in my building’s mail room. I live in a mid-rise building near downtown Chicago. Someone had been practicing their drone flying and crashed their Mavic into my building. They were hoping it crash landed on someone’s balcony and that they could get their drone back. If you’re just getting started, be smart about the places you practice. Go to a park with a large open field. Take off and try to maneuver the drone a few feet off the ground. Don't just go zooming off. Learn how to operate the drone by sight with it nearby and then slowly shift to using the phone and controller. Once you’ve had a few practice runs and you’re ready to head out with your drone, make sure to double check if there are any laws you need to obey. For example, in Chicago, you’re not supposed fly over individuals or private property. Also, always look up and double check if there are any obstacles that your drone might get stuck in. 

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MAKE A Check list

The drone, like a dslr camera, has a number of components that all need to be ready to go in order for you to have a successful outing. Here are a few things to remember before you start flying:

Before heading out check

  • Are there any firmware updates via the DJI go app
  • SD card - do you have enough space? 
  • Charge on the controller
  • Charge on the drone batteries 
  • Battery on your phone (I always bring an external charging block for my photo just in case)

Right before flying

  • Take off the gimble clamp and cover
  • Make sure you’ve unfolded your drone (this is pretty obvious usually but I'm including it just in case)
  • Turn the drone on
  • Turn the controller on & plug in your phone
  • Check to see if you’re in GPS mode (so you can auto land)

And then you're ready to go!