I am sure there are many of you out there like me who have heard all the ravings about drones and wanted to try one, but could never find a justification to actually purchase one. Like many hobbyists, I am busiest with my camera when I get to travel. Because my wife and I usually prefer to travel internationally, I just never imagined being able to use a drone in my travel photography. How would I deal with packing the drone when luggage space is already so limited; What about security regulations and foreign laws; What about theft or damage; and on and on. With a lot of valid concerns, I just never thought about using a drone for travel photography.
Then, my friend Sam Tielemans told me he was taking his drone with him to Thailand, Cambodia and China. When I saw the video he posted of his trip, I was hooked. He was able to capture amazing video of great locations with views I could never accomplish.
Sam lives a couple blocks away from me in Las Vegas and is a full-time family counselor and part-time videographer. He bought the DJI Inspire about ten months ago. He chose the more expensive Inspire because the 360 degree gimbal head is great for making video and the legs and propellers lift out of view to ensure a clear view for the video. He opined the DJI Phantom 3 or 4 would be great for photographers who do not rely as heavily on video.
Tip #1: Research the Laws where You are Visiting
Sam's trip included stays in Thailand, Cambodia and China. The most important thing about traveling with a drone is doing your research about where you are visiting. I thought this would be a daunting task (Even being familiar with such research being a lawyer), but you can find pretty much all the information you need on the internet and Sam said he easily found out about the countries he was visiting. With the increasing popularity of drones, the more information is becoming available for regulations you need to follow for any county.
Sam chose not to even fly his drone in Thailand because he learned that it is illegal throughout the country. While this may not always be a deterrent for all people in all countries, Sam learned that the authorities in Thailand actually put people in jail if they catch them flying a drone. Unsurprisingly, he did not want to take that risk.
In Cambodia, it is apparently illegal only to fly in select locations, including the capitol city (rumor has it the queen was spooked when a drone flew by her window) and Angkor Wat (more on that later). Apparently, China has very few restrictions and Sam had no issues flying his drone anywhere there.
DISCLAIMER: This article is not intended to offer legal advice and I have not verified any rules or restrictions on drone usage in any County. Please do your own research before flying a drone.
If you can afford it, Sam recommends buying a hard-shell carrying case, like the one to the right from Pelican, that would make it easier to carry the drone. Sam was creative in his travels without a dedicated carrying case. Because he had to pack light, he had one bag for all his personal items and then carried his drone in a garment bag he could sling over his shoulder and use as a carry on. His biggest concern with this set up was the lack of any protection for the drone. With it close to his body, he was extra careful with it and had no issues. He said a set up like his worked fine and said there are a lot of creative alternatives if you cannot or are not willing to purchase a dedicated hard case.
Tip #3: Give Yourself Extra Time at Smaller Airports
You might think a drone in a garment bag would attract a lot of attention going through airport security, but Sam was able to get through with relative ease. Of his nine total flights, he was only asked to take the drone out of his bag twice. Only once was there any actual concern. While he was lucky, you never know what to expect in smaller airports in some countries, especially when flying budget airlines. I have witnessed more than one frantic person that had an unsuspected issues at a foreign airport. The last thing you want is to deal with such issues if you are already short on time. In some countries, I would recommend always having a back up plan for getting to the airport if the country is known for going on strike.
Tip #4: Know what Kind of Batteries You can Carry
On a small flight from Thailand to Cambodia, the customs agent made Sam declare one of his batteries for the drone. Apparently, his higher-charge battery was not supposed to be carried, but they eventually let him take it without any further problems. Given that the batteries do not give you very much flight time, you will likely want the higher-charge batteries, but be aware that they can come with extra complications if you are not aware.
Tip #5: Embrace the Attention from Locals
With one exception, Sam had no issues flying his drone anywhere. He never feared the locals trying to steal or damage it. On the contrary, the drone proved a remarkable tool for helping him interact with local people. In many of the less-developed areas, nobody had ever seen or heard of a drone and just wanted to see it. Even in more developed areas, Sam had a crowd of people looking over his should at the screen whenever he flew it. Drones are still rare enough that you will attract attention and curiosity from people pretty much wherever you fly it. This was especially true for Sam with children. That makes the drone a great tool for getting to meet locals if that is important to your travel. I remember a trip I made to the rural villages in Romania. As we drove by the horse and buggies, little kids flocked to our car and gladly accepted our candy. That was such a cool experience. I cannot imagine how amazed they would have been had we gotten out of the car and started flying a drone (not to mention the amazing video/images we could have captured).
If you get this opportunity, take advantage of it. For me, experiencing a new culture is the coolest part of traveling and will allow you to get unique images most travelers will never see. Besides the great photo opportunities of children surrounding your drone in awe, take the opportunity to talk with the locals, find out something about them and you will be surprised at opportunities you might get to visit their homes or places they may guide you to for relatively unknown photographic opportunities. The drone can be a great ice breaker to open the door for travelers not willing to approach locals on their own.
Tip #6: Practice Flying Stealthily for Certain Occasions
The one problem Sam encountered flying his drone on this trip happened at Angkor Wat. Drones are highly discouraged at Angkor Wat so it is probably advisable to avoid flying them there, but to anyone that has seen the sprawling temple grounds, I think the temptation would be nearly impossible to avoid.
The crazy thing about flying a drone is that you can be so far from the drone that nobody can tell where you are flying it from. For this reason, Sam says he will often launch the drone and then sit in his car and fly it without ever having to worry about being confronted. At Angkor Wat, Sam did a good job of hiding among the bushes and trees while he was flying the drone. Unfortunately, security guards followed the drone back to Sam when he brought it in for landing. After much arguing (mostly with Sam's driver), the security guards let Sam leave once he showed them he deleted the videos from his iPod (the footage was never deleted from his memory card), but his driver told him the security guards had wanted to put him and his driver in jail. For situations like this, you can be up to a mile away from your drone without having to worry (it returns back automatically if you go out of range), but you have to be comfortable flying it only using the screen and being aware of things your video may not be showing you.
Tip #7: Bring Extra Propellers
Luckily, Sam did not crash or otherwise damage his drone on his trip through Asia, but it is very important to prepare for the worst in this case where even a small crash could disable your drone for the rest of your vacation. The best thing to bring with you is spare propellers. Unlike extra batteries, these are cheap and small. Sam learned the hard way to always have a few extra when traveling. On a trip to Hawaii, Sam spent some time getting videos of the LDS temple on the island, but his time was cut short when the drone crashed into a tree and broke a propeller.
Having only recently tried flying a drone, I can see how easy it would be to run it into a tree. On my first flight, I spent the first few minutes staring at the drone in the sky and flying it really high to make sure it did not get close to anything. Then, after a few minutes of getting the hang of it, I realized I was spending all my time staring at the screen and had no idea where the drone was actually flying. Because of this, I could have easily flown it into a tree that was not in the frame of the camera. That being said, I was surprised at how easy it was to fly the drone and I never once worried I would crash it from an inability to control where it was going.
Tip #8: Bring Extra Batteries
In addition to packing extra propellers, you will want to pack as many batteries as possible. Unfortunately, the batteries are much larger than we are used to in a camera and much more expensive ($150-$200). Each large and expensive battery only gives you about 18 minutes of fly time so you will need multiple batteries to get a decent amount of footage.
Tip #9: Plan to Accommodate Your Need to Charge the Batteries
Even though each battery only gives you 18 minutes of fly time, they take 80 minutes to charge. Because of this, it is mostly impractical to try charging the batteries during the day at many places you would travel. Sam said he had very little luck being able to charge the batteries around town and, because they drain so fast and take so long to charge, you cannot really charge them while you are shooting at a location. Sam traveled with three batteries and mostly just recharged them at night. This meant he was only able to fly and film for about 45 minutes per day on his vacation. For a travel/landscape photographer that seems crazy as I will shoot longer than that just for the sunrise. The importance of honing your fly skills and thoroughly planning where you want to fly is absolutely necessary.
Tip #10: Pack your Batteries in your Carry-On Luggage
Another thing to keep in mind with lithium batteries is you have to be able to fit them in your carry-on luggage ( this is true for any lithium battery including your camera battery). Because the batteries are so large, this is another factor that greatly limits your ability to take a lot of spare batteries with you. Make sure you have a carrying case and/or carry-on luggage that has extra space for as many batteries as you can afford. Think about this for when you are out walking too as you will want all the batteries on your person rather than sitting back in your luggage.
Tip #11: Pack your Batteries in a Fire-Proof Bag
Because the lithium batteries are subject to spontaneous combustion (which is why you can't check them), Sam said he would have felt much more comfortable had he been able to store the batteries in a fire-proof bag for carrying.
Tip #12: Learn Adobe Premier and Publish your Videos
Sam uses Adobe Premier to edit all of his videos captured on the drone. He says it generally takes up to two hours to edit just 2 minutes of footage. Because you have to get additional licenses to fly the drone for commercial purposes, Sam mainly used his Inspire for recreation and posts his videos on Vimeo.
Sam offered his email for anyone looking to reach him for additional questions. Feel free to comment as well and I will ensure the questions reach him.