Plan your aerial photography and video shoots like a pro with the help of these essential apps
These 5 apps below are invaluable when it comes to using your drone - each can be downloaded for your Android or iOS device and they'll make your life much easier when it comes to both using your drone most effectively, and navigating restrictions and legalities of drone use.
Airmap is an invaluable app for all drone pilots because it provides clear and up-to-date location information to ensure your drone flights are safe and legal.
"Airmap is a must-have app because it could save you from receiving a hefty fine for innocently breaking local laws and/or putting yourself and others in danger."
Using the map, you can search for locations or use your current position to check for restricted airspace, special use airspace, advisories, NOTAMs (which are notices to airmen outlining temporary use of airspace), local rules and much more.
When using the map to identify your current location or to search for suitable locations, you can toggle between road and satellite maps depending on which is best for your situation. What’s more, you can connect your phone with the app running and use it to control the camera of supported DJI drones. However, for most drone pilots, using the manufacturer’s drone app will most often provide the best experience.
Airmap is a must-have app because it could save you from receiving a hefty fine for innocently breaking local laws and/or putting yourself and others in danger. Airmap is available for 20 countries including Canada, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Another app that offers almost identical functionality is Drone Assist UK which is in some ways better than Airmap, but as the name suggests this is only available for the United Kingdom.
2 UAV Forecast
As well as knowing whether you can safely and legally fly in the desired location, the weather is always an important consideration, too. Wind, rain and drones do not get on well – you can’t fly in rain – so it’s always best to check the weather before you head out to shoot, as well as again when you arrive on location.
While most standard weather apps will give you a good idea of whether it’s safe to fly, UAV Forecast gives you all the weather information you need, specifically aimed at drone flights, for searched or current locations. This includes how many satellites your drone will be able to connected to at any given location. Locations can also be saved as favourites, which is ideal for those places you regularly visit. But what makes this weather app particularly useful is that it clearly displays whether or not it’s safe to fly, so you can check this at a glance without looking at the detailed information. Although the detailed information presented is always useful.
UAV Forecast also includes a map showing No-Fly Zones and flight restrictions, so it could act as an all-in-one solution for flight planning. The map side of things isn’t as detailed and easy to use as Airmap, so it’s definitely worth using both. UAV Forecast is free for the basic version, which offers everything you need in a drone weather app, but for longer forecasts, you can opt to pay for a yearly subscription.
3 Google Maps
Many of us use Google Maps to perform tasks such as searching for businesses and as a sat nav on an almost daily basis, which can make us forget just how useful it is as a tool for finding shooting locations. So, whether you’re shooting standard stills with a mirrorless camera or DSLR, or planning a drone flight, Google Maps is always a handy option.
The default road view, Satellite, Terrain and Street View are all useful for location scouting for obvious reasons. Although Street view is less useful for locations themselves because the view is most often limited to roads, it can be incredibly useful for locating parking when planning to visit rural locations.
It’s generally much easier to location scout using Google Maps on a computer or using a tablet because of the small screen on a phone, although the latter is perfectly adequate and is often the only option when you’re out in the field. Once you’ve found suitable locations these can be saved as pins that will be saved to your Google account where they can also be accessed on your phone and used for navigation. Plus, there is the ability to measure distances within Google maps so you can ensure that you’re the required distance away from buildings and paths etc. (check your local regulations) as well as to identify safe take-off and landing areas.
PhotoPills is a powerful landscape and astrophotography planning app offering a wealth of information that will help you to plan any location-based photography or drone shoot to perfection. And alongside the map for location planning with detailed information about sunrise, sunset, sun and moon position and the milky way, there are lots of photographic resources that can be used to help you achieve the desired results in a range of technical areas.
This is all alongside clear times and compass information that makes shoot planning ultimately more successful. One of the most interesting features is the 3D augmented reality views of the sun, moon, milky way, celestial equator, Polaris, depth-of-field and field-of-view. These help you to visualise an abundance of information using your smartphone to overlay graphics over the scene. Another useful section is a series of calculators that help you to plan and calculate long exposures, time-lapses, capture stars as spots (Star Spots), star trails, hyperfocal distance, depth-of-field and field-of-view.
PhotoPills is a fantastic location scouting and shoot planning app that’s highly recommended for all outdoor photographers and drone pilots. One of the downsides is that it can be difficult to use at first because of a few quirks, but you can view tutorials that are accessible from within the app and on the PhotoPills Website. These quirks are easy to overcome, and once you understand how some of the elements within the app work, you’ll find it invaluable.
5 Sun Surveyor Lite
If you’d prefer not to pay for PhotoPills, although it’s definitely worth considering, Sun Surveyor Lite is a useful app for checking sunrise and sunset times, golden hour times, twilight times and much more. It’s not as fully featured as PhotoPIlls and not aimed directly at photographers, but despite this it remains a useful app that some people may prefer for its ease of use.
Within the Lite version you get access to the 3D Compass that shows the current position of the sun and the direction of travel, including sunrise and sunset points on the compass. This allows you to see exactly where the sun will be and when for your current location. You can also scroll the calendar strip at the bottom to check the sun position for future dates if you intend to revisit the location.
The other free to use section is the Ephemeris where you can check sunset times, golden hour times, and twilight times for the current day or future dates. And within this section, you can also check sunrise and sunset times for the entire year at your current location. If you’d like to unlock the Live View, Map and Street View features, including augmented reality sun positions, the full version of Sun Surveyor costs £6.99 / $7.99 and can be upgraded within Sun Surveyor Lite.
More drone photography articles:
Discover more drone photography tips, tutorial and guides with our dedicated section on Focus
James is a freelance photographer and journalist producing content for photography magazines and websites and is a former deputy editor of Practical Photography magazine. He’s also the author of The Digital Darkroom: The Definitive Guide to Photo Editing.View all articles