Beginner’s guide to drone photography - part 1 - staying legal

Beginner’s guide to drone photography - part 1 - staying legal

Cover image by Dimitris Tzankatian

A drone can extend your range of shooting angles and is great fun to fly, but what are the rules of drone flight?

Aerial photography used to be impossible for most photographers–but the incredible advancements made in drone technology over recent years and an increasing number of affordable drones means that it’s now possible for almost anyone. Drone photography opens up a whole wealth of interesting opportunities and gives an exciting new perspective for both stills and video photography.

Full panorama of East Iceland coast with lighthouse, captured by drone during winter low sun
A drone lets you shoot from angles that would normally be impossible for the average photographer. Image by Peter Kuklík

However, the increased availability of drones has led to a few accidents and near misses, with some high-profile issues around major airports. As a result, the regulations governing drone usage has come under scrutiny. In Europe and the UK for example, new drone laws came into force at the end of December 2020. Getting rid of the old differentiation between recreational and commercial flights, and instead switching to a risk-based approach that takes the weight, speed, and design of a drone and the operations undertaken into account.

What’s especially exciting about the new regulations is that if you have a drone that weighs less than 250g (8.8oz), such as the DJI Mini 2, you can fly almost anywhere you like outside of the Flight Restriction Zones that protect airfields–provided that you have permission to take off and land from the landowner.

Nevertheless, if your sub-250g drone has a camera, or you plan to fly a drone that weighs more than 250g, you must register with your country’s aviation authority. In the UK, this is the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). In the USA, it’s the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), if you're in Australia this is the Civil Aviation Safety Authority and if you’re based in Europe, you can find a link to your national aviation authority here.

DJI Mini 2 drone model
Although you need to register with your national aviation authority (the CAA in the UK and the FAA in the USA) the DJI Mini 2’s sub-250g weight means that you can fly it almost anywhere away from airfields

In the UK, getting a Flyer ID from the CAA is pretty straightforward, but you have to pass an online test - it’s free, and you can keep taking it until you pass. You also need to obtain an operator ID, which costs £9 annually.

The operator is the person who is responsible for maintaining the drone and ensuring that anyone who flies it has a flyer ID. For individuals, the drone flyer and operator are usually the same person, but organisations and companies can register as the operator and enable people with a flyer ID to fly the drone. For more information and to register visit this page.

Your drone must be labelled with the operator ID number.

Drone categories and operations

The new regulations in the UK and Europe introduced drone operation categories called Open, Specific and Certified, and specify a set of unmanned aircraft certification categories (C0-C4), according to their weight, speed and design. There are currently no certified drones and we're in a transition period in which drone pilots can fly existing ‘legacy’ aircraft.

The Open category of drone operations is probably the most relevant to photographers. It allows you to fly a drone of less than 25Kg within the visual line of sight at up to a maximum height of 400 feet (120m).

There are three sub-categories within the Open category as follows:

- A1 ‘fly over people’: This is for drones that weigh less than 250g. Because of the low risk they pose, these drones can be flown over people (but not crowds) and no qualification is required. Legacy drones that weigh less than 500g can also be flown in this category up until 1st January 2023.

- A2 ‘fly close to people’: Provided the operator holds the new A2 Certificate of Competence and is flying a class C2 drone (less than 4Kg in weight) you can fly as close as 30m horizontally from uninvolved people in normal circumstances and as close as 5m in the drone’s ‘low-speed mode’. Until January 2023, a legacy drone that weighs less than 2Kg can be flown in this category provided that the pilot has passed the A2 exam and the drone is kept at least 50m away from uninvolved people. After January 2023, these legacy drones must be flown following the rules of the A3 category.

- A3 'fly far from people’: Anyone can fly a drone of under 25Kg in weight in this category but it must be kept at least 150m away from residential, commercial, industrial or recreational areas and 50m from uninvolved people. After January 2023, all legacy drones that weigh more than 250g must be flown following the rules of this category whatever qualification the pilot holds.

Drone operations involving aircraft that weighs less than 25Kg–but that are more risky than operations allowed in the Open category–are carried out in the Specific category. The Certified category is for the highest risk operations and includes drones that weigh more than 25Kg.

The drone classifications are as follows:

Drone Class C0: Can be flown in any subcategory

Less than 250g maximum take-off mass
Maximum speed of 19m/s (approx. 42.5 mph)
Unable to fly more than 120m (400ft) from the remote pilot

Drone Class C1:
Can be flown in any subcategory

Less than 900g maximum take-off mass
Less than 80 joules of energy transmittable if the collide with a human head
Maximum speed of 19m/s (approx. 42.5 mph)
Designed and constructed to minimise injury to people

Drone Class C2: Can be flown in the A2 subcategory

Less than 4kg maximum take-off mass
Designed and constructed to minimise injury to people
Has a ‘low-speed mode’ which limits maximum speed to 3m/s (approx. 6.7 mph)

Drone Class C3: Can be flown in the A3 subcategory

Less than 25kg maximum take-off mass
Maximum dimension 3m
Unlimited speed
Onboard height-limiting system
Onboard lighting
Geo-awareness system onboard

Drone Class C4:
Can be flown in the A3 subcategory

Less than 25kg maximum take-off mass
Unlimited speed
No automation other than basic flight stabilisation
Geo-awareness Geo-awareness system onboard

Dji Phantom drone quadcopter in flight
Drones should be flown with line of sight which can make larger drones desirable as they’re easier to see from a distance. Image from Steven McGrath

Gaining qualifications

The introduction of the new regulations in the UK and Europe meant that the requirement to obtain a Permission for Commercial Operations (PfCO) before you could earn any money from drone flights came to an end.

Consequently, you can theoretically set up a drone business using a sub-250g drone without any qualifications–provided that you have a CAA Flyer ID and commercial insurance. It’s the requirement for commercial insurance that may become the limiting factor as insurers may want to see some form of qualification if you’re making building inspections and the like (a popular . Nevertheless, you could still take landscape photographs from a drone and sell images and prints.

A disused tailings dam in Western Australia's Goldfields looks like a wound on the landscape when photographed from above
Details or patterns that are invisible on the ground can make exciting new subjects with a drone–and beautiful images to sell as prints. Image by Rob Cox

Instead of the PfCO, there are now two qualifications, the A2 Certificate of Competence which is a good choice for photographers, and the General Visual Line of Sight Certificate (GVC) which is more advanced.

Anyone who obtains the A2 Certificate of Competence qualification is able to fly drones in the A2 category. The General Visual Line of Sight Certificate (GVC) requires more work and allows people to fly drones in the Specific category.

Whichever qualification you opt for, the first step is to register with a CCA-qualified training school (know as a Recognised Assessment Entity or RAE) for theory training followed by multiple-choice tests. As a result of the pandemic, many RAE’s have switched two online teaching and examinations, making the training more accessible than in the past.

Unlike with the GVC, there’s no flight test for the A2 Certificate of Competence qualification but you have to confirm a level of flying competence. After passing the theory exam and flight test (Operational Assessment) for the GVC, the next step is to complete your Operations Manual which outlines how you will ensure that you work safely. In the final stage, the RAE sends you a certificate to confirm that you have met the required standards and you send that along with your application and Operations Manual to the CAA.

Anafi drone shot of inflatables
If you overfly a small group of people, make sure they understand how to tell if something has gone wrong and they they know the avoidance measures that they need to take. This can be done with the help of the A2 Certificate of Competence training. Image by Ben Hutchinson

Next steps

Even if you plan to fly a sub-250g drone, it’s a good idea to take the A2 Certificate of Competence training - as it will ensure you understand all the risks of drone flight, keeping yourself and others safe. It also means that if you get hooked and decide to upgrade when a C2 class drone comes along, you’re covered.

In the next part of our 'Beginner's guide to drone photography' we're going to be looking at the technical aspects of flying drones–stay tuned!

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