Your first few drone flights can be quite nerve-wracking but with the right drone and a systematic approach, you’ll soon feel like a pro

Intermediate

Drones like the DJI Mini 2 and DJI Mavic Air 2 make it very easy for novice pilots to take to the air for the first time. They have onboard systems that keep them stable and if you release the control sticks, they will hover rather than fall from the sky or drift erratically in the breeze. Helpfully, they also have geofencing systems that are designed to prevent you from flying in flight restriction zones - but you should learn where the nearest ones to you are to be safe.

Although the cameras on these drones have fairly small sensors (1/2.3-inch type for the Mini 2 and 1/2-inch type in the Mavic Air 2) they produce remarkably good results. They can even record raw files as well as Jpegs and 4K (3820 x 2160) video. However, if you want to take things up a notch, it’s worth looking at the DJI Mavic 2 or Mavic 2 Zoom which have 1-inch type sensors in their Hasselblad cameras.

There are also drones that accept cameras with interchangeable lenses, but naturally, they tend to be quite large and expensive.

While modern drones are generally very reliable, pilot error can cause problems and you need to keep that in mind when you’re deciding how much you want to spend on a drone. Bigger, more expense drones may deliver better results, but it’s worth learning to fly a drone with a smaller, more affordable drone first.

Make some checks


Whichever drone you purchase, there are a few things you need to do before you fly it for the first time. The most important thing is to find somewhere where you can fly legally. Somewhere away from an airfield and away from people. There are a few smartphone apps that can help with this, for example, Guardian by Altitude Angel for iOS and Android shows you where the nearest flight restriction zones are. Alternatively, use Drone Safety Map on a computer.

The weather is also an important consideration for drone flights as drones should not be flown in rain plus the air temperature affects their battery life and can even cause catastrophic icing. There’s also a limit to the speed of wind that they can fly in - it should be listed in your drones specifications. UAV Forecast is a really helpful app for keeping an eye on the weather conditions on iOS and Android devices.

Also make sure that you are familiar with the regulations that we detailed in Beginner’s guide to drone photography: staying legal. Don’t forget to register for a Flyer ID and label your drone with your Operator ID.

Many drone controllers use a smartphone running an app to provide a live view of the drone’s camera and give access to key features. Photo by Grigor Ivanov

Prepare for flight


The first step in getting ready to fly a drone is to charge its batteries and the battery in the controller. As many drone controllers connect to a smartphone, it’s also a good idea to ensure that your phone is also fully charged.

You can download the appropriate smartphone app for controlling the drone while you wait.

Once everything is charged, it’s a good idea to set-up the drone and make all the necessary connections while you’re still at home with a good wifi signal. That’s because there are always firmware or database updates that need to be made and often the drone won’t fly unless they’ve been installed.

Once that’s done, pack everything up and head to your flying location.

An aerial shot of a man surrounded by palm trees near the beaches of Palomino, Colombia
Although many drones have front and side-facing sensors for object avoidance, few have upward facing sensors, so take care when flying upwards near trees as it’s easy to collide with an overhanging branch. Image by Sebastian Delgado C

Making your first flight


Once you’ve arrived at the take off point, unpack your drone and if necessary, fold out the arms, deploy the landing gear and take the cover off the gimbal and camera. Also prepare the controller and, if necessary, connect and install your phone.

Even if it’s brand new, check over the drone to make sure that there’ no damage and that everything looks secure.

Now you’re ready to power up the drone and the controller. Some drones have an auto-take-off feature that you can tap to take-off, but if not, push both controller sticks down and inwards to start the motors. Then when you’re ready, take a quick look around to make sure that nobody is nearby and push the left stick gently upwards. 

If it’s your first flight, don’t worry about capturing images or video, concentrate instead on getting a feel for the drone and how responsive it is to the controls. Experiment with the different flight modes and see what impact they have on the drone’s stopping distance.

Also practise a few manoeuvres such as flying in perfect circles, clockwise and anti-clockwise, and fly figures of eight. This will help you develop your coordination and will pay dividends when you want to manoeuvre your drone into the perfect shooting angle.

Landing a drone is straightforward, it’s just the reverse of the take-off process, but it’s a good idea to practise landing on a particular spot. This means that if the landing space is ever tight, you’ll be confident of being able to land your drone safely.

Man in a green coat flying a drone
For your first few flights, concentrate on getting familiar with the controls and how your drone responds. Only start shooting stills and video once flying seems like second nature. Image by Daniel Slattery
Aerial Photograph of the Angel of the North, North East England
Before you take off, make sure that you are familiar with the area and you’re a sufficient distance from any flight restriction zones. Image by Wayne Shakell

Accessories


If you buy a new drone it will usually come with everything you need fly it but there are a few accessories that can come in handy. The most significant of these is spare batteries as drones have flight times measured in minutes, often somewhere between 20 and 35minutes. An extra battery will let you fly for twice as long.

DJI often offers its drones in a ‘fly-more-comb’ which usually includes three batteries and a charger that can accommodate more than one battery. Naturally, it bumps the price up, but it’s often cheaper than buying the batteries separately at a later date.

Overhead view of drone photography kit
While it costs more, buying your drone bundled with spare batteries and a battery charger will enable you to have more flying time on excursion

Spare propellers, which are also usually included in the ‘fly-more-combo’, are another useful addition as they enable you to continue to fly if an existing one breaks.

Some drones are remarkably fussy about what they will land on. Long grass, for example can set-off their object avoidance sensors so that they hover stubbornly just above the ground until you direct them towards something more suitable. A take-off and landing mat can avoid such issues and prevent the propellers from being damaged as they trim the grass.

An anemometer is also a wise investment as it enables you to check that the windspeed is below your drone’s maximum.

Because done cameras usually have a wide aperture, neutral density filters are essential for shooting video if you want to keep the shutter speed to half the frame rate.