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Should I buy a drone for rail photography?

28th December 2017

If you are thinking about getting a drone for rail photography, here are some things to consider before purchasing one.

Rules & Regulations
There are numerous rules and regulations for drone use.  Have a read of them before making any purchase.  You may find out that the shots that you were looking to get with a drone are very illegal.  For instance, in the shot below I took with my DSLR on the side of the river bank, I always thought that it would look much better from a drone since you could get a much better angle.

But when you look at the rules, this location is definitely off limits (being less than a mile from the airport).

The next thing to take into account is which locations you can use it at.  A drone will open up some new locations by providing new angles and shots that aren’t possible, even with the tallest ladders.  It is a good idea to take a look on google maps for each of the locations that you are thinking about using it to see if it is a good candidate for flying.

Photo Quality
A photo taken from most commercial drones will be nowhere near the quality of images taken from your DSLR.  When looking for a drone, the important things to consider:
Maximum Shutter Speed – The higher the shutter speed, the sharper images of moving trains.  When a train is travelling at 140km/h, a shutter speed of 1/60s will not cut it.  A shutter speed of  1/1000s is a minimum for the trains that I photgraph.
Image Noise – It is important to find a camera that produces a minimum amount of noise at regular settings (Eg. At least 640ISO with only reasonable noise).
Drone Vibration – For still shots in lower lighting, a longer shutter speed will be required.  The last thing that you want is shake from the chopper reducing the sharpness of your images.  (This is less of a concern for high shutter speeds, but more for video if you choose to shoot that).
Image Formats – If you typically perform a fair amount of post processing on the images, you’ll want to ensure that the camera can save images in RAW format.

The cost of a decent drone can be expensive.  Also, before taking the plunge, you should ask your self if that money could be better spent on glass.  For example, is there a telephoto that you’ve been looking at which is the same price?

As for resale, I’ve found that glass holds its value quite well.  Drones definitely don’t hold their value over time.

Flying Limitations
Just because you have a drone, doesn’t mean that you can fly it anytime you’d like since you will be at the mercy of the weather and lighting.  If it is raining or even slightly windy, you won’t be able to fly (of course that doesn’t apply to those who don’t mind breaking their new expensive drone).  Also, since the camera on the drone isn’t as good as one a DSLR, you will need to fly during bright lighting.

This is the first post in what I hope will be a series on drone photography (although the next post will take a while until I can figure out how best to take pictures using the drone).


  • Steve Boyko
    Posted at 11:29 pm 2017-12-28
    Steve Boyko
    Reply Author

    A very topical post! I’ve been thinking about drone photography for a while. The two things that put me off are A) expense and B) limits on where to fly. Looking forward to the next post!