View from Above

Drone pilots capture images for social media, TV, and film.
By Jason Cipriani
Drone flying through sky against backdrop of treetops.
Nikolai Zychowicz’s drone flies through the sky.

It’s safe to say that everyone has seen at least one video of a group of people waving to a drone as the machine flies off into the sky. Quadcopters, or drones, are fun to fly around your backyard or at a local park with your family. They also have the potential to unlock a career as a drone operator—more specifically, an operator who captures photos and videos that are used on social media, in commercials, and in movies.

Twenty-year-old freelance drone operator Nikolai Zychowicz has been flying drones since he was 10. It’s a passion that started with “cheap little helicopters that break after two flights,” he says. After saving up for an “actual, usable drone,” Zychowicz was instantly hooked. Drones brought together his passions for photography and flying. 

For the last five years, Zychowicz has been flying professionally. He captures photos and videos for clients—and gets paid to do it. 

Zychowicz takes a drone for a test flight off the coast of Massachusetts.

Life of a Drone Pilot

Every two years, commercial drone pilots need to take a test administered by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to keep their Part 107 license. A Part 107 license is required by the FAA for most drone pilots who want to make money from flying. 

Zychowicz studied for a month and a half, taking an online course to help him pass. The test requires an understanding of the rules and laws about flying drones and the aviation industry. “You have to know how to read flight paths, maps, and airspaces, and what all of the markings mean,” Zychowicz says. 

Freelance drone pilots like Zychowicz don’t have a set schedule. Instead, he’s able to pick and choose which jobs he wants to take on. And every job is different. 

To get pictures and video, Zychowicz attaches a GoPro camera to his drone before flight.

Some shoots, such as using a drone to capture an engagement proposal on a high-rise balcony, might only take a couple of hours. However, before filming Chicago’s Heatwave Music Festival in July, Zychowicz spent plenty of time in meetings. There was a lot of “preplanning and figuring out all the different interference and signals,” he says, with even more meetings once the festival actually happened. He spoke with managers and artists to figure out who was and wasn’t comfortable with a drone flying around during a performance. 

Ultimately, Zychowicz spent around 12 hours at the festival, piloting and recording. But the job didn’t end there. He then spent several hours watching and editing the footage he captured at the event.

Bigger projects, such as Hollywood productions, could keep a drone operator on set or available for weeks at a time. That could be just to get a two-minute clip, according to Zychowicz.

Getting Started

There are many types of drones, but they can basically be divided into two categories: first-person view (FPV) and traditional. FPV drones typically use goggles to stream a video feed from the drone’s camera to the pilot. This way, the pilot sees what the drone sees. A traditional drone is piloted from a point of view on the ground, using a smartphone, tablet, or controller. 

While in Chicago, Illinois, for the Heatwave Music Festival, Zychowicz flew a drone from the deck of a boat to capture the Chicago Harbor.

What is Zychowicz’s advice to someone who wants to start flying? Start practicing. If FPV drones interest you, he suggests using a controller such as the Tango 2 Pro and connecting it to your computer. Spend a lot of time playing a simulator game such as Liftoff, which mirrors real-life flying conditions and scenarios. The benefit of this approach, of course, is that you can—and will—crash as many times as you want, without damaging an expensive drone.

When you feel like you have the hang of it, you can transition to a real drone. If you’re interested in flying a standard drone, Zychowicz recommends the DJI Mavic machines for their easy flight controls and good image quality.

  1. Watch a video Zychowicz filmed using a drone.