Fly It, or Buy It? The Complete Guide To Using Camera Drones for Real Estate Marketing

best drones for real estate photography for a drone pilot

Marketing a real estate property is one of the most difficult things to do in business today.

The competition is brutal, partly because online listings generate most of the leads. Almost every property buyer today begins her search online.

So, it can be really hard to stand out from the pack.

How Drones Have Changed Real Estate Marketing

That’s why differentiating property listings through high-quality photography and video pays huge dividends.

Today, the latest marketing weapon in real estate is the use of dramatic camera drone photography & video tours in online listings.

Some agents claim that drones are the most important new technology to enter real estate marketing since the internet.

It’s easy to see why.

Using flying cameras, real estate photographers are producing dramatic, sweeping shots of landscapes, ocean and mountain vistas and seamless fly-arounds of gorgeous home exteriors…

They are also taking shots of homes never before imagined,

Like… flying down onto a property from 200 feet in the air; highlighting the details of a large, expensive property in dramatic form; then, flying fast 2 feet above a driveway right up to the front door…

Camera drones and their ground-based cousins, Glidecams, are also being used to tour the inside of a home, creating flowing, whole-house motion tours in ultra HD that can rival a Hollywood movie…

Limitations of Drones In Real Estate Photography

That said, a drone will never be able to shoot ALL of the photography & video needed to market a listing. There are still certain kinds of photos and videos that a flying camera is not well suited for, including:

  • Carefully-focused, fixed position photography. For example, shots designed to avoid an unpleasant feature or to help a room or yard appear larger.
  • The interiors of smaller spaces, such as condos or apartments
  • Homes shrouded by trees or other buildings.
  • Standard street-level shots that all buyers have come to expect in a listing.

So don’t fire your favorite photographer yet. Instead, ask her when she’ll be getting a drone.

3 Popular Drones Used In Real Estate Today

If you are considering purchasing a drone to record video and photos for real estate listings, then consider these three popular choices used by many real estate drone photographers today. (Note: the Phantom 4 is the latest in a long line of Phantoms, by far the most popular flying platform used by real estate photographers).

All three choices are ready-to-fly flying cameras that come complete with a 4K camera, 3-axis gimbal, flying platform, live video, advanced flight control software and a flight controller that are work together as a single product. Each one also carries at least a 1-year warranty.

Typhoon H

$2,799w/ 4K CG03+ Camera Gimbal
    • 1- or 2-Operator Use
    • Reliable 6-Rotor Design
    • Collision Avoidance
    • Retractable Landing Gear
    • 360 Degree Unobstructed Camera
    • 20 minute flight time
    • 3,000 ft range

Phantom 4 PRO

$1,499w/ 4K camera & gimbal
    • Solo Operator Only
    • Object Tracking
    • Collision Avoidance
    • Live HD Video Streaming (1 km)
    • Tap-to-Fly & Tap-to-Track
    • 20-30 min flight time
    • 7 km range

DJI Inspire 1 v2.0

$1,999w/ Inspire 1 camera and gimbal
    • 1- or 2-Operator Use
    • Detachable 9-Lens 4K Camera
    • Unique Spreading Wings Design
    • 3-axis gimbal with pixel-level stabilization
    • Full remote camera control
    • 2km range

See More Real Estate Drones

6 Benefits of Using Drones to Market Real Estate

So how do real estate agents and brokers benefit from using camera drones in their marketing, in the real world?

1. Create more dramatic, compelling images.

Using a modern ready-to-fly camera drone like the Phantom 4, you can create dramatic shots very easily (almost on auto-pilot) by combining GPS-programmed flight paths with automatic point-of-interest camera targeting.


Well-designed drone camera shots not only look incredibly professional, they can generate a sense of awe and interest that you simply can’t get from ground-based photography.

2. Create more interesting virtual tours.

A camera drone can literally fly into a home through the front door, and travel throughout every room, creating a far more natural virtual tour than station-based photography can.

Combined with a professional voice-over sound track, virtual tours can become beautiful visual stories, rich with information and history.

3. Highlight more property features.

Landscaping, pools, walking paths and back yards are important to many buyers. So are nearby parks and schools.

Aerial photos & video bring these advantages to life.


4. Generate new business.

Using drone videos and photos to market your properties shows prospective sellers that you take advantage of every opportunity to make their property look awesome – and to stand out.

5. Out-market the competition.

It’s a well-known fact that listings that look better and provide more information, sell better.

6. Save money.

Compared to shooting aerial photos from a helicopter or a fixed wing aircraft, drone videography is far cheaper – and easier to arrange.

Drones in Luxury Home Marketing

The visual advantages of camera drones have most impacted the way that expensive luxury homes are presented on the MLS and on agent’s websites.

Buyers of multi-million dollar homes often shop online first, so they expect high-quality photography and video in the online listing or they won’t bite.

It’s hard to argue that in the luxury property market, drone photography has upped the real estate marketing game in a big way.

Whether it’s to highlight the waterfront view, a gorgeous garden, or a really cool swimming pool, aerial drone photography captures the beauty and the utility of a home far better than ground-based photography or video can.

Luxury property markets across America, Canada and Europe are incorporating drone photography into their marketing, very quickly.

According to Joe Houlihan, managing partner of Houlihan & O’Malley Real Estate Services in Bronxville, NY, drones were used to photograph about 20 percent of their higher-end Westchester, NY, properties in 2015. In 2016, Mr. Houlihan expects to increase that to 35 percent. “It’s an additional cost that’s pretty reasonable,” he says.

In the ultra-luxe Silicon Valley market, drone photography has entered the real estate world in a major way.

All across the San Francisco Bay area, “drone videographers” exist that specialize in producing dramatic aerial videos and movie-studio quality property walkthroughs, using a combination of camera drones and hand-held gimbals.

2015 was the year of high-end marketing experiments; today, every level of the market is using drone-based video and photography.

Drones In Commercial Real Estate

Drones are used to market commercial real estate, too.

In cities across America, Europe and Asia, drones are used to plan and photograph high rises and other residential multi-unit projects, either to help them sell or for inspection and surveying.

Views: 615 S College Street from PortmanHoldings on Vimeo.

Drone footage is also being combined with 3D/CAD models to simulate the look and feel of large commercial developments:


Commercial Photographers Are Quickly Embracing Drones

The very first FAA Sec. 333 exemption for a real estate drone operator was handed out in January, 2015, to Douglas Trudeau of Tierra Antigua Realty in Tucson, Arizona. By getting the exemption, Doug became the first real estate agent to legally fly a drone for real estate photography.

Since then, the use of camera drones to market real estate has taken off in the United States.

Out of the first 1,000 FAA exemptions given to commercial drone operators, more than 350 were for real estate marketing.

The commercial photography industry is clearly embracing drones to meet the fast-growing demand for high-quality aerial video and photography.

In Chicago, the major photography studio, VHT, recently hired several certified camera drone operators to meet demand.

VHT’s Chairman, Brian Balduf, said he expects drones will be used on 20% of their shoots by the end of 2016.


The NAR Weighs-In on Drones

National Association of Realtors logo

One day soon, drone video or photography in real estate listings may be a minimum requirement in many markets.

That’s because from the top-down, the real estate industry is embracing drone/UAV photography as an important and valuable emerging technology.

As Tom Salomone, president of the National Association of Realtors put it,

Drone technology offers a tremendous opportunity for the business of real estate and the broader economy. That’s why NAR continues to support the integration of drones into the National Airspace and a regulatory landscape that allows for the responsible commercial use of drones.

The NAR recently compiled a Field Guide to Drones and Real Estate.  It’s worth taking an hour to read the materials they’ve compiled.

Tips On Using a Drone for Real Estate Marketing

real estate agent operating a DJI phantom camera drone

Whether you are outsourcing the work or doing it yourself, it’s smart to learn from others who have gone before you.

Here are a few guidelines the think about before planning your first drone shoot:

Hire a local drone professional.

There are several reasons you don’t want to start taking drone shots on your own, day one.

First off, it takes many hours (weeks) of practice to learn how to fly and take great shots in 10-minute flights, over and over again.

Second, in the US, you need a FAA UAV operator’s certificate (per Part 107) to fly a camera drone for real estate marketing – even if funds aren’t changing hands.

Third, you can learn a lot from a professional, just by talking, watching and listening. So if you’re business plan calls for buying and operating your own camera drone, go ahead and visit the first shoots, ask questions and use our 10-point checklist below to learn how the pros do their job.

Bottom-line, if you’re experimenting with your first one or two listings, then definitely outsource the work.

That said, it’s not THAT hard to learn to fly and shoot great video and images with a drone. Many agents today are flying their own shoots with easy-to-fly camera drones made by DJI, 3D Robotics and Yuneec.

Have realistic expectations.

Getting high-quality drone shots will cost more than a land-based photographer, and shooting aerial footage takes more time than ground-based photo or video shoots.

It’s not an order-of-magnitude change, but you’ll need to be flexible with your photographer’s time, especially if s/he is new to drones.

Buy the right camera

To take high-quality shots, you’ll definitely need the right camera.

The cameras and gimbals on higher-end ready-to-fly drones like the DJI Mavic Pro series, Inspire Pro and Phantom 4 Pro come are more than up to the job for capturing crisp, smooth and clean 4K exterior video. 

Getting the right camera is even more important for shooting inside a home – to handle the light exposure issues frequently encountered as your glide cam flows through windowed rooms. 

Here is one professional’s setup for shooting the interior of a $20 million home:


Take long, steady shots.

Those awesome real estate drone tours listed above? Yeah, they were edited-down from much longer clips.

You’ll need to capture raw footage that can be cut down to size after you return to the office or your home.

If you want to shoot 1-minute fly around, then shoot two or three 90-second trips in a row.

Always use a 3-axis gimbal.

DJI Phantom 4 - camera and gimbal
DJI Phantom 4 – camera and 3-axis gimbal

A high-quality 3-axis gimbal like the integrated set used on the Phantom 4, above, cradles the drone’s camera in a gyroscopically-balanced mount that holds the camera steady while the drone moves around. It also uses electrical motors to orient the camera while in flight.

3-axis gimbals enable super-steady, flowing shots and insulate the camera from most vibrations. They are the secret to getting those gorgeous, flowing videos you see online.

Do NOT fly your video shoot using a camera drone that isn’t equipped with a 3-axis gimbal, or you won’t like the result.

The best camera drones for real estate (see our three picks, above) tightly integrate their gimbals with their flight control and camera control systems, so you can control more aspects of your shots like zoom, pan and tilt.

Add Glidecam/Steadicam footage to create a seamless video tour.

DJI Ronin hand held gimbal
DJI Ronin hand held gimbal (about $2,500)

A Glidecam/Steadicam (like DJI’s Ronin pictured above) is a hand-held version of the same 3-axis gimbal that most high quality camera drones use to keep their shots steady and vibration-free.

You mount your DSLR or HD video camera on it and use your hands to orient the shot. The camera swings freely in its mount, insulated from sudden moves and vibrations.

In real estate marketing, Glidecams & Steadicams are used to take smooth, immersive ground-level video tours, especially walk-ins, walk-throughs, and walk-outs.

Because the quality of video shot from a steadicam looks identical to a camera drone’s video, using both of these methods on your shoot means the end result will look seamless. This is especially important if you want to mix-and-match interior and exterior shots into a single clip.

Watch this short video by Stephen Garner for a more detailed explanation of how Glidecams are used in real estate photography.

Shoot your most important footage 2 or 3 times.

Lighting changes, weather changes and vibrations come and go during each flight.

You won’t catch these subtleties by watching the live streaming video on the controller’s screen. So shoot every shot 2-3 times. You can edit-out the bad parts later.

Fly with the wind, not against it.

This is important. Most camera drones are quad copters, and quads do not fly well in winds greater than 20-25 knots.

This is not just about flying into the wind, higher wind speed equals more turbulence – which generates less predictable movement and vibrations.

Also keep your shots low if you can – wind gusts happen more frequently the higher you fly.

You best bet is to choose a near-windless day for your shot.

If it’s windy and you have to shoot, then stick to flying below the tree line.

Prepare a flight plan + a camera plan in advance.

3DR Tower Droid Planner 3 flight planning app

This is where the flight control software that comes with your drone really matters.

The best integrated camera drones like the Phantom 4, 3DRobotics Solo and Inspire 2.0 are equipped with integrated flight planning + camera control software that let you map-out each camera position in 3D, over time. You can also plan camera angles, tilt and zoom on some models.

Lean on automation

The newest models like the Phantom 4 (read our review), are equipped with advanced automation features like object detection & collision avoidance and a automated trick camera shots that make taking professional footage a breeze.

By selecting the right RTF camera drone from the get-go, you’ll save a ton of time and get far better shots than trying to control everything yourself.

Fly safe!

The three key obstacles for a drone operator to manage around are trees, wires and people.  Failing to navigate two of these safely will destroy your drone, and hitting the other could destroy your bank account – or put you in jail.

So, if you are going to operate your own camera drone for commercial purposes, then definitely get professional training before you start shooting.

There are local drone safety courses available in most cities. Take one.

Another great option is to take the 3-day intensive flight training & safety course offered by FLYSAFE, starting around $500.

Learn how to shoot like the pros.

Yes, many of the leading camera drones are easy to fly and shoot. But getting great video and photos is mostly still about knowing how to set up your shots correctly, and how to avoid making rookie mistakes that ruin them.

Learn as much as you can from professional photographers who have years of experience flying aerial shoots.

To do this, you can take an inexpensive 2-hour course on Udemy, for example. Or a more in-depth 6-hour one.

There are online and local drone flight schools available, too.

How Much Does Drone Photography Cost?

If you’re outsourcing the work to a camera drone operator, you should expect to pay $200-400 to hire a professional drone photographer to produce a 1-minute video plus a dozen high-quality still photos. For detailed video tours of every room, you might pay in the low $1,000s.

If you want to do it yourself, then you will pay $1,000 to $3,500 for a professional-grade ready-to-fly camera drone with a 3-axis gimbal, a suitable 4K camera, spare parts and a hard case to carry it.

See Reviews of The Leading Real Estate Drones

For full-time realtors and larger brokerages, there is a pretty solid business case for buying a couple of camera drones and taking your own shots – assuming that you understand the risks and the legal / certification requirements that come with the job.

Most real estate agents outsource their photography, however.

Hiring a Camera Drone Operator: A 10-Point Checklist

If you’re in the market to hire a camera drone operator or photography firm to shoot your property, then here are the 10 items we recommend you cover with them before ordering the shoot:

  1. FAA Certified? Does your firm have an FAA Part 107 UAV Operator’s Certificate in-hand? (ask to see a copy)
  2. Liability Insurance:  Does your firm carry at least $1mm+ in liability insurance coverage that specifically covers piloting a drone for real estate photography?
  3. Client References: Please send me web links to 3 listings or property websites that contain your work.
  4. Interior Video: Can you also shoot interior stabilized video?  Many drone operators use hand-held gimbals to shoot interior and ground-based video that match the quality of their aerial shots. Important, if you want both.
  5. Pre-Shoot Planning Checklist: Please share your pre-shoot planning checklist, so I can understand how you work.
  6. Price List: how much do you charge for each of the following? (you should always ask for a fixed price for deliverables, not billed by the hour)
    • one 60-second 4K aerial video of a single family home
    • 15 high-quality still shots taken inside and outside of the home
    • one 30-second interior video
  7. Lead Time & Weather Conditions:  How much lead time do you need to prepare and show up onsite? What weather & wind conditions would prevent you from shooting?
  8. Deposit, Cancellation & Rescheduling Policy:  Are there any fees or cancellation penalties if we change our minds? How much lead time do you require?
  9. Copy of Blank Contract:  Ask for a copy of a blank contract ahead of time, so you can check for insurance and certifications, indemnifications, etc.

Legal & Safety Concerns

Drone Safety - Dont Do This
/\ Don’t Do This /\

Whether you are flying the drone yourself or hiring a drone photographer, you need to be aware of the legal and safety risks related to operating a flying camera.

If a drone you are operating wanders into another aircraft’s flight path, or if it falls from the sky, it presents a real and significant threat to life and property.

That’s why flying an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) is an act that is carefully regulated by the FAA and by state and local aviation officials.

We’ve compiled the latest FAA regulations and certification requirements in our Drone Safety Guide, and the latest news can be found here. Make sure you read both of these before heading into your first project.

Read Our Drone Safety Guide

Here the short version:

FAA Drone Registration

If you own a drone larger than 0.5 lbs in weight, then you must register your aircraft with the FAA. You cannot fly a drone heavier than 55 lbs in the US without a special FAA exemption.

Registering a drone is easy to do on the FAA website, and it only costs $5 to register as many drones as you own.

Unregistered drones are subject to a fine of up to $25,000 per aircraft.

FAA Flight Restrictions

While some of the FAA’s rules have yet to be finalized, the following guidelines are in place today:

  • Restricted air spaces: No drones may be flown within five miles of an airplane terminal.
  • No flights over people: unless you have written permission from every single person you fly over, then you cannot do it.
  • Flight ceiling: commercial drones cannot be flown at an altitude of more than 400 feet.
  • Line-of-Sight rule: Drone pilots must maintain visible eye contact with their aircraft at all times.

Drone Pilot Certification

A person who operates a drone for any type of commercial purpose – which includes taking photos for a real estate listing – whether they are paid for it or not, must have an drone/UAV operator’s certificate from the FAA.  You get that by passing a test issued by the FAA.  

If you have a COA / pilot’s license, certification is easy to get.  If not, then the test is more involved.  To find a suitable preparatory course check out our Drone Operator’s Training Guide.

A person who doesn’t have a FAA certification in-hand is breaking the law when they take aerial photos for you.  So don’t let people like this do your shoots. You could be held liable if something goes wrong. For example, if the drone crashes through a window or injures someone.  So check their papers.

Get Your Contracts Right!

If you are a new aerial photographer / drone operator, then you need professional legal help when setting up your contracts to protect yourself from the issues above (and more). DroneLaw.Pro offers operators contract templatestraining videos and a unique “Ops In A Box” business setup kit.

If you are interested in hiring a drone/UAV photographer for a real estate shoot, then make sure you know what a good drone contract looks like

Drone Insurance

While the risk of damage and injury by drone is very low, it’s not zero.

This is why you should demand that every drone operator you employ carry commercial drone insurance with at least a $1 million limit of liability.

If you fly the drone yourself, then check with your commercial insurance agent to make sure that drone operation is covered by your existing business liability policy.

To learn more about drone/UAV operator insurance, read our buying guide, Drone Insurance: Where To Buy It & How Much To Get.

The Future of Drones in Real Estate

Aside from shooting cool videos of expensive oceanfront homes, drones can also help with a myriad of dull but necessary real estate related jobs, including:

  • property appraisals
  • home inspections
  • documenting hurricane and fire damage
  • monitoring land erosion
  • documenting property lines and
  • visioning and master planning.

Using special software, drones are used today to create finely-grained 3D models of buildings and landscapes in the land development, construction and mining industries. The same tools may one day help real estate developers make better use of limited resources and design homes to fit more naturally in a particular environment.

The future of drones in the real estate and construction industry has yet to be fully written.

But so far, it’s looking pretty good – from up here 😉