Insider Secrets for Starting a Successful Business

Starting an Aerial Photography Business

Richard Eller, author of The Secrets of Successful Aerial Photography, shares his advice about how to become an aerial photographer and start an aerial photography business. He discusses aerial photography equipment, film vs. digital, choosing the right aircraft, finding customers, and more. [21 min.]

Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you got started in the aerial photography business?

I’m a college-trained photographer with a degree in photography, and I’d been working for about ten years as a commercial photographer, and I was approached by a friend of mine who’s a pilot, and he asked if I wanted to start a business doing aerial photography, and I thought, well, sure I’ll give this a try. Sounds like fun. And I got hooked on it. This was back in about 1985, and then in 1990, I bought out his share of the business, and I’ve been working myself on it ever since then.

How does the aerial photography business work?

Well, it’s basically a service industry. Just providing aerial photography services and related products.

What kind of camera equipment do you need to get started, and how much does that cost?

Well, it depends on the type of aerial photography you’re going to provide. At the top end there’s aerial surveying, and that equipment is the most expensive. It can easily run over $100,000, because of the exacting requirements that are in the industry for that type of photography. Then at the other end, there’s just simple photography such as construction progress, and for that all you need is just a 35 mm. I would suggest, though, that with the exception of surveying cameras, you should have a back-up camera body, just in case the primary body malfunctions while you’re on a job, because in aerial photography so of the expense is the plane. The plane rental, the plane getting there onto the site. I’ve had it happen a number of times, where one body goes out, it’s just nice to have that second body without having to go back to the airport and get it out of the trunk of your car, or have to fly another day.

So, often the construction industry will hire an aerial photographer to document the progress of a construction job?

Yeah, it’s pretty much a requirement for most projects. Virtually any big project has a progress report that has aerial photography and usually one set on the ground, too. It shows that they’re meeting their monthly construction goals, and that things are being done right and proceeding according to plan. You might fly on a certain day once a month, and it could go on for a couple years for some of these projects.

What specific photography equipment do you use?

I mostly use a Pentax 6×7, it’s a medium and telephoto and a wide angle lens, and it uses 120 mm film. The reason it’s good is because you can make nice big mural prints out of it. A lot of stuff I do ends up in boardrooms of corporations or other places where they want a nice 60” print. And the smaller cameras can’t blow them up that tall. Now I do have a Canon, I use a Canon 35 mm system. Sometimes that’s all you need. I currently am in the transition to digital, looking at a few systems, trying to decide which one to go at.

Are most aerial photographers also pilots, or can you really do both at the same time?

Yeah, it’s about 50-50 mix of pilots and non-pilots. A lot of aerial photographers are pilots, but they don’t necessarily pilot the plane while they’re taking the photographs. So they’ll pilot to the position and then have someone else take over while they concentrate on the photography and this is for safety reasons. Now there are some who pilot and shoot at the same time, and in certain areas it’s not hard to do, maybe in a rural setting or very simple photograph that you can just grab out the window pretty quick. It is done, but I personally don’t like to see it, because most of the areas that I pilot in and work in are metropolitan areas where there’s lot of air traffic and congestion, you need to have one person just concentrating on flying the plane, while the other looks through the viewfinder.

I’m surprised the FAA would allow a pilot to be distracted and take photography at the same time they’re flying the plane.

That’s another kind of grayish area. Technically, the FAA requires that if you’re accepting money for your piloting, and that would include taking photographs, then it’s a commercial operation, and it means you need a commercial rating, and they’re really expensive. It’s something that you have to consider. And also, if you’re using the plane for aerial photography and it’s your plane, then you get insurance questions, too, that crop up.

So if you have a private ticket and you think that you’re going to go up and take aerial photography on a commercial basis, that may not be allowable?

It may not be allowable. Now, you may be able to fly the plane to the site and then have another pilot take over while you’re taking the photographs, and I think that’s quite acceptable.

Talk a little bit about selecting the right aircraft for aerial photography. How do you know whether to use a fixed wing versus a helicopter?

Well, there’s really three factors in selecting the right aircraft. It’s the location of the project, the requirements for altitude, and the cost. Some areas are called TCAs, traffic control areas. You have restrictions, they’re off limits to a lot of fixed wing aircraft. Or the fixed wing aircraft has to stay so high up that the photography is just not acceptable. So for certain areas a helicopter is the only way you can get in there. If you can stay above 1,000 feet, you can use a plane, but if you have to go down lower than 1,000 feet, the FAA rules state that you can’t go below that in a fixed wing aircraft, so that’s another situation where you need to use a helicopter. If, say, you’re shooting a small boat or you’re doing architectural work on a building that’s not very tall, that way you can get down lower, you can see more of the face of the building and less of the roof, and it gives a much more pleasing look to it. Then there’s the cost. Rental fees for fixed wing are about $150/hour, and helicopters can be $250-$1,500 an hour. So that’s another factor that goes into it, too, what the client’s willing to spring for the photograph.

What kind of clients hire aerial photographers? You mentioned the construction industry. Who else has aerial photography work done.

Ninety percent I’d say is some form of real estate or property. You’ve got architects, developers, real estate brokers, both commercial and residential, construction progress for construction companies, government agencies, those are the major buyers. Then there’s smaller sub-markets that exist, such as farmers and maritime operations, boats coming in and out of the harbor, lawyers for law cases a lot of the time, and ad agencies, a lot of the ad agencies now are using aerial photos for their eye-catching appeal.

You mentioned you still use film, you’d think that using digital would give you some faster feedback about whether you’ve taken the right shot. Do you think it’s still common for aerial photographers to use film?

The industry’s just now beginning to switch over. I know a lot of aerial photographers that are totally digital now. Until recently the digital cameras just didn’t have enough megapixels to capture the detail that you need in an aerial photograph. Aerial photography is really about conveying information in the photo, and for that you need detail. And also you need the detail if you’re going to produce a really big mural. Until recently they just didn’t have the pixel count to get up to a 60-inch print. Now the high end DSLRs are more than a match for most purposes. And like I said I’m in the process of looking at a few systems myself. When you’re in that price, cost, performance, curve, where do you jump into it, because six months later there’s going to be another one that’s even better. It’s like buying a computer, you know, when do you say “OK, that’s enough,” you know. But I think it’s something that’s the wave of the future, definitely.

How do aerial photographers charge for their services?

Some photographers will just do a fixed, all-inclusive price per the assignment. Myself, I prefer to charge a photography fee, plus expenses. And usual expenses are plane, pilot, film and the processing. If they want prints, then I bill the prints on a separate invoice. I like the photographer’s fee and the breakdown of expenses better. When you just give them a fixed price, a lot of people don’t understand how much it costs to actually go take an aerial photograph. So I like the client to see what they’re paying for.

Do you charge differently if the client wants to have the rights to he photo, versus if you’re just selling prints of the photo to them?

That’s another area that’s transitioning now and part of that is because the Internet is having such an effect on copyrights. Traditionally, the photographer keeps the copyrights. What the purchaser gets is the use of that for the reasons that they hired you for the assignment. Then if they come back at a later date and want a different usage for it, a lot of photographers would charge for that. There’s a big trend now to just charge a set price for the photo themselves, and let them just use it however they want, or use it however they want for a set period of time. Just give them the CD and say “go for it.” And a lot of that is because they’re printing them themselves on their office computers. They’re scanning them and using them for all sorts of different purposes. It’s just impossible to police this, and so for the real high-end client, ad agencies, they understand copyrights and they can work with that, but just your regular construction development company, they don’t get it, so it’s easier to just charge them a price that includes the copyright, or charge a little extra and just let it go. The other consideration is that for most aerial photographs they’re not really going to be used for much else. If it’s a general area shot, you could sell it as stock. If it’s maybe an unusual office park, it might be of interest to other people, but the majority of the stuff that’s shot, who else is going to use it anyway?

What are some effective ways to market an aerial photography business?

The Internet is probably the best now that’s coming up. I mean, you’re almost expected to have an Internet site, and I get a lot of calls, a lot of email requests through the Internet. It’s just like any small business, you know, yellow page ads, targeted advertising in select trade magazines, direct mail. Basically now, I use direct mail and cold calls. And it’s probably the best method for aerial photography. When I started the business I drew up a list of prospective clients, and just started making cold calls, asking them if they used it, if they did use it, who’s the person responsible for purchasing it, and at least I’d have a name to go with the address then, which you need for the mailing list. And after a year or so I developed up a mailing list, and I’d send out about I guess every 2 or 3 times a year, send out a post card, and then follow-up with a phone call to make sure that they still had interest in aerial photography, and look in trade magazines to move up mailing lists. You can buy commercial mailing lists, but you’ve got to really stay on top of them to make sure that it’s really current. But I would say the best method is just cold calling and direct mail.

Do most aerial photographers work in a local or regional area, or do some travel nationally to provide the service?

Most are right in their area. I travel and I know of a few others who travel, but it’s really hard to do. So much of aerial photography is dependent upon the weather conditions being right. It’s really hard to track the weather when it’s out of town or it’s 500 or 1,000 miles away. You’re trying to set everything up. That far away, you’re using a rental for sure, so you’ve got to set up the rentals, you’ve got to track the weather, you’ve got to make all the arrangements for the way to get there, for the motel rooms. If the weather starts crapping out and you’ve got to start making changes to all this. You can’t just buy a 30-day in advance airline ticket for a good fare, you’ve got to get an unrestricted ticket so that you can change the date, so for all the kinds of problems that are associated with traveling, most aerial photographers just stay in their area. They might cover an area of 250-300 miles, something that they can do from their base, wherever their base airport is. Most of the rentals are through flight schools, and most of the guys in the flight schools are just trying to build up time until they can get enough hours so they can get into the major airlines. So invariably after three or four years they move on, and you just have to start working with someone new, but it really helps for someone who you work with, you know how they fly, you can get into position easier, you don’t have to make as much communication in the cockpit to try and get them to understand what you want to do. There’s a few little tricks or ways of trimming the aircraft and making turns that make it a lot easier, and if they know how to do this and you don’t have to explain things to them, it’s just much better. Plus there’s also the fact that anytime that you have a relationship that you’ve built up with a company, it just makes things easier. They’re more willing to schedule you in when it’s tight, or make way for you when you’ve got a rush coming up.

What’s more profitable, taking custom work or creating stock aerial photography?

Definitely custom. Stock photography used to be a lot better than it is, but partly because of the Internet, it’s really lost value over the years. Now on the Internet anybody can sell stock photography. You don’t have to have a library of 2,000 images. You may have 3 or 4 but there’s a site where you can sell it from, and some sites even give it away. There is a place for stock photography, and I do sell a certain amount of it every year, it’s something that I do, but custom is usually where the money is.

Is this usually a part-time business for most people?

Not really. The problem with a part-time business is, once again, aerial photography is really dependent upon weather conditions. So if you only have one or two days a week that you can fly because you’ve got a full-time job somewhere, that really limits your opportunity to get the right day. Most aerial photographers are doing this full-time. Now, there are an awful lot of commercial photographers who provide aerial photography as part of their product mix. It may be studio, location photography, architectural photography and aerial photography as well. So I don’t know if you can consider that full-time aerial photography or not. I figure there’s maybe four or five hundred people doing it in the United States. There are some pilots who do part time aerial photography just to pick up a little extra money to pay for owning the plane, but a majority are full-time people that really do it as a business. It’s not an easy part-time business to do.

Can you recommend some good websites or magazines related to aerial photography?

Well, Google Earth is a lot of fun. There’s some interesting kite photography sites, but aerial photography is still such a niche business, that there’s really not a lot of media coverage of it. There’s a lot of aerial photography websites, but almost all of them are individual aerial photographers showing their work. Other than that, there’s not a lot out there. I have my website, Aerial Images, but that’s mostly a personal portfolio of my work. As a matter of fact I started an on-line art gallery, Aerial Arts, just to provide more awareness of the fine art side of aerial photography, it’s a gallery and a bookstore. I think it’s the only one in existence in the world. Aerial photography is still a pretty new thing. I mean just back in the 40’s, it was just straight down bombing kind of shots, and now with the wider cameras and other ways to take the photos and general aviation being much more available, it’s really just blossomed in the last 20 years, and it’s a new thing, though there’s not a lot out there on the Internet about it.

There’s no aerial photography trade magazines?

No, the closest thing would be like AOPA, which is the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, but none of that really talks about aerial photography. There’s a lot for pilots, but there’s not for aerial photography. I operate an email forum for professional aerial photographers, and it’s one of the only ones of its kind that I know either. There is a trade organization, PAPA, Professional Aerial Photographers Association, but they just publish stuff for internal use. There is no real media coverage of aerial photography.

What are the biggest mistakes people make when getting started in aerial photography?

You know, I’d say it’s the same as any business. Undercapitalization and probably charging too low a price for their services. Those are the two, and that’s a killer for most businesses, especially undercapitalization. Any business takes awhile to start up, and you’ve got to be able to be there to plug at it until the income stream starts picking up. Fortunately in aerial photography you can get advances from people and I would always suggest getting an advance for at least enough money to cover your expenses, so that you don’t have to put out of pocket expenses, because aerial photography has a real high cost ratio for producing the assignment. They’re not inexpensive to produce, and if you have to wait 30 or 60 days to get paid from somebody, you have to carry that debt during that time. So get the money up front. You shouldn’t have to be someone’s bank. Those are the things that I would say, it’s undercapitalization, and just underestimating the amount of money you’re going to have to put into this.

What parting advice do you have for someone wanting to know how to start an aerial photography business?

First I’d say examine the market where you plan to approach. Who’s around you, who are your potential clients? Metropolitan areas are going to be different from rural stuff, and metropolitan is really the only place you’re going to be able to make a really thriving business. Some people do it in the rural areas, but you just don’t have the number of clients there. And then, you know another thing that’s always good to do is sit down and estimate the number of working days you’re going to have available in your area due to the normal weather conditions. Does it snow in the winter? If so, you might have to take the winter off. Is the summer haze a real problem, or smog in an urban environment? How many sunny days do you have a year? Once you’ve got that you can get a handle on how many days you can actually work each year. One thing you can do with that is figure out how much money you need to pay for your health insurance, and a little vacation, and a salary for yourself, and then you can divide it by the number of days you think you’re actually going to have available for work, and that will give you a handle for what you’re going to have to charge, too. Some areas you have to charge a lot more than others. I worked in the bay area for 30 years, and prices there are definitely at least double what I would charge someone here in Arizona for a lot of stuff, just because it’s so much more expensive to operate. It’s a small business. There’s maybe 10% of it that’s actually taking the photography. The rest is just like any other small business, so take business courses, and cash flow management, time management, all that, everything that applies to almost any other small business will apply to running an aerial photography business, too.

Richard Eller is the author of The Secrets of Successful Aerial Photography and owner of Aerial Images Photography. He also operates Aerial Arts, an online gallery of fine art aerial photography.