Flying Drones At Night | 11 Things You Need To Know [2018]

drone flying at night darkness

Flying Drones At Night

The topic of flying drones at night has been debated a lot but there is still a lot of confusion around it. I would like to make things crisp clear for everybody, from simple drone enthusiasts to commercial drone operators. I will cover regulations, laws, equipment check-list, tips and tricks to bear in mind when taking your drone for the first flight at night darkness. And as a bonus, I will even give you my recommendations when it comes to choosing the right settings for your drone to capture the best quality long exposure photos.

First Off, Can You Fly Drones At Night?

Yes, You absolutely can. As a hobbyist, You don’t need any license to fly your drone at night. You only have to follow some basic safety rules. These rules are published by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and will benefit you by staying away from problems with law enforcement and not losing or crashing your drone at night.

Rules for flying drones at night are:

  • Fly for hobby or recreational purposes only
  • Follow a community-based set of safety guidelines
  • Fly the UAS within visual line-of-sight
  • Give way to manned aircraft
  • Provide prior notification to the airport and air traffic control tower, if one is present when flying within 5 miles of an airport
  • Fly UAS that weigh no more than 55 lbs. unless certified by a community-based organization
long exposure photo by drone
Long exposure drone shot of the city Riga

Do I Need A License To Fly My Drone At Night For Commercial Purposes?

Yes, to legally operate a small UAS under Part 107, you will need to have remote pilot airman certificate. Or as another option, you need to have a supervisor who has such a certificate.

In order to qualify for such pilot certificate, You need to be at least 16 years old. There are two options for applying for the certificate:

  1. You can pass an aeronautical knowledge test at a knowledge testing center which has been FAA-approved
  2. When you already own a Part 61 pilot certificate, other than a student pilot certificate, you must have completed a flight test in recent 24 months and you must take a UAS online training course provided by the FAA.

Once you have your pilot certificate, you need to apply for a Night Waiver from FAA. In order to get your night waiver, follow these steps on the FAA website.

drone pilot license
Drone pilot license

Tips For Flying Drones At Night

The first tip that I have for you, is to know your area. You really want to be familiar with where you’re flying. Whether do you flown there before or you pass by it every single day. It really is all the same but you want to make sure that you’ve seen the physical area that you’re in, in the daytime. So that you know where all the trees are, the buildings, the power lines, or any other obstacles that there could be. When you fly at night time, it really is hard to see things that you haven’t seen in the daytime. That’s the reason I am usually going to the same spot in the city or in the town that I’m close to, to get some cool long exposure pictures. Because I know all the obstacles and all the buildings and power lines that are around.

The next tip that I have for you is to be aware of your surroundings. Basically, all I’m trying to say is, just be safe when you go out to fly your drone. And yeah, I know I sound like your mom, but honestly, it’s true. Whenever I’m flying my drone, I’m always so deeply involved in my phone screen trying to get the best shot. Or I’m trying to look in the air for the Drone itself and I’m really not paying attention to my surroundings or anyone coming up to me. So honestly, it is good at night time, especially when it’s kind of sketchy out, just to make sure that nobody comes up to you. Even bring a friend with you, or usually, I’ll bring out of my mom or my girlfriend to kind of just watch over me, as I’m trying to fly my drone. Just to make sure that nothing happens.

Now, this next tip seems like a no-brainer, but I figured I’d throw it in here. Basically, you always want to make sure to remove your ND filter when flying at night. I know again this kind of seems like a no-brainer, but honestly, I just figured I’d throw this in here to remind you. It’s a thing that I’ve done a few times by accident, and it’s annoying to send your drone up in the air and then have to have it come back to land. Just to switch the filter out so. Just to remind you, always make sure that you pretty much leave your ND filter at home whenever you go out to fly during the night time.

drone nd filter
Drone ND filter – make sure to remove this bad boy before flying your drone at night – image credit: dronevibes.com

 

The next tip that I have for you, is to fly with increased altitude. When you’re flying from point A to point B, I would always recommend going up to around 300 feet. Just to avoid any obstacles that you may not know. There may be new opticals that came up overnight. You never know if they raised some temporary power lines for example. I really don’t know I just like to fly out around 300 feet as I said. Just to make sure I don’t run into anything. 300 feet may seem like overkill, but honestly, I feel like that’s the sweet spot. 400 feet is sometimes pushing the FAA limit. And then, once you get down 200 feet, you could be running into some super tall building. super tall trees. You are not sure what could be around there. I would always recommend flying at 300 feet, that seems to be the sweet spot, and then from there, once you get your destination where you want to take a video or a picture, you could always lower your drone down to whatever height that you need.

The fifth tip is to always keep your eye on your drone. I know that it’s an FAA regulation that you need to be within line of sight of the actual drone, but during the daytime, I’ll tend to switch between looking at the Drone and also looking down at my screen or my monitor. Whatever I’m using at the time. But whenever I am flying my drone at night, I only look at the drone and I follow the LEDs. As when I look through the screen, it’s hard to see any obstacles that could be in front of me. It is much easier to follow the red and green lights moving throughout the sky.

Another thing that I’ve noticed. When flying in photography mode with the high shutter speed, the picture is kind of laggy when I am trying to fly. Thus making it an inaccurate representation of what’s actually in front of your drone. You might know what I mean when you flip in the picture mode on your iPhone and you looking around. It’s kind of laggy and kind of glitchy. But once you switch to video mode, you see that it’s nice and smooth. I would never recommend just looking down at your phone screen, as it really isn’t an accurate representation of what’s around you. I would always recommend watching your drones LEDs as they are super bright and really easy to follow.

You want to make sure the front LEDs are turned off on your drone when taking a picture or taking a video. A reason you want to turn them off is that they give you this weird funky red glow when you’re trying to take a picture or video. I’ll show you a little example of it in the next picture. As you can see, when my drone is stationary, the red glow is present, but it’s really not all that bad. Again, it is going to ruin your picture, so I would turn them off. The red glow is like all up in your face. It’s even hard to see the screen when flying, so honestly, I would recommend turning them off. But bear with me, I would recommend not turning them off all the way. You can go to settings and completely turn the front LEDs off, but I would recommend not doing that as I said. One of my previous tips was to always use that front led to know where you’re flying around. So another way is that we can make the copter turn the front LEDs off only while taking a picture or video. Go into the camera settings -> general, and then hit front LEDs Auto turn off. This is going to allow the front LEDs to turn off automatically when you hit the shutter button or when you hit the record button. This comes in handy all the time for me. It’s so nice not having to flip the LEDs on and off yourself.

Example of red glow on drone footage
Example of the red glow on drone footage

How To Take Stunning Long Exposure Photos With Drone At Night

Before I begin, I briefly want to cover the conversation of flying at night. Taking long exposure photos is of course done when it’s dark out, with plenty of lights around. This means that you will be flying during the night time. If you are flying under the Part 7 without a waiver from the FAA, you can get in trouble. But if You have not taken the exam and be still considered a hobbyist pilot, it is okay to do this.

Let’s talk about what long exposure photography is. To best explain it, I will show you an example photo, down below.

flying drones at night to take long exposure photo
Long exposure drone photo of Gwangan Bridge

I love long exposure photography. The stationary lights in our picture will stand still, while those that are in motion will create streaks across the image. Leaving us with this cool effect. To achieve a picture that looks like this, we want to move the ISO value down. As low as it can go, which is usually the value of 100 on DJI drones. To make the picture brighter, you want to increase the shutter speed. For example, if you are using a phantom 4 Pro, set the aperture value right in the middle at 5.6 to get the sharpest quality possible. If you’re kind of lost due to the photography terminology I was using, here is a little cheat sheet for you.

ISO – The camera’s sensitivity to light. A lower value will give you a darker image while a higher value will make the image brighter.

Aperture – A hole inside of the lens that allows light into the camera. A lower value will give you a brighter image, while higher value yields a darker image.

Shutter speed –  the length of time the shutter of a camera is open to expose light into the sensor. These are measured in units of time, therefore the longer the shutter is open the brighter it will turn out.

Just to repeat what I was saying earlier, first you wanna be going to set the ISO to a value of 100, making your image as dark as possible. This allows us to increase the time that the shutter is open. Usually, a shutter speed of 5 to 8 seconds is perfect, as it will drag those lights, such as boats and cars, a good amount. As far as Phantom 4 Pro owners are concerned who have the option to set aperture. Use the value of 5.6 to achieve the sharpest image quality possible. One other setting that we want to change is turn off front LEDs. This turns off the front red LEDs for a brief moment, while the drone snaps the picture and ensure any red tint, coming from the lights, won’t ruin your shot. Another thing, that is worth mentioning, is to make sure your camera is focused to get a crisp image.

There we have it. Taking long exposure pictures is fairly easy, but you just need to know the settings in order to get some of the best looking shots. Hopefully, this helps you out in that department.

One more thing that I do want to say is taking multiple shots is key. During my last flight, I took about 15 different pictures using different angles a different shutter speed values. This will give me room to choose the best picture when I later sit down at my computer to see the results.

Checklist For Flying Drones At Night

  • Make sure your drone is ready and charged up enough
  • Have your SD card with you
  • Make sure your controller is charged up enough
  • The cell phone is charged up enough because if you’re flying the Phantom, you need your cell phone
  • Always calibrate your drone. Just to get the compass going, familiarize with the area. Again, you can never be too safe, especially flying at night time

A thing to know is when you’re flying, have a picture or video you want, in mind. Make sure you have your shots planned out. You want to go from point A to point B, get what you need, and then you can fly around for fun if that’s what you want to do. But again, just go from where you are to capture what you need, just go straight line. Don’t try to do too fancy of the thing. That’s how people get carried away and their drone shots look ugly. I know I used to do this a lot when I first started. When I just first started flying, I’ll just go up in the sky, flying around and then I won’t capture what I need exactly. Then the Drone battery will be dead after like 20 minutes because I’m just up there, trying to figure things out. So, while your drone is still grounded, figure out what you need, go up, take your shots, and get it safely down.

The Best Settings For Night Time Flying

Once more, I’m going to go over the settings of my drone when I’m flying it at night time. Like I said, always calibrate it, then tap on settings and then go down to the main alert settings, always change max flight altitude. I’ll put it to like 250-350 feet. I’m very scared of losing the drone at night time, that is one thing I don’t want happening to me. So I always change the maximum flight altitude down and then I also set a max distance as well, so it doesn’t go too far. Whatever shot I need to get at night, it doesn’t need to be that high or far away from me. PS, You don’t have to do the all that safety issue if you’re very confident in your flying skills. Another thing I also do when I’m flying at night time, I have the Return-to-Home setting on. That is a no-brainer even when I’m flying out during the day, I have that set on. Just in case I lose signal or anything like that. Lastly, make sure you have your LED lights settings right. You want your front red lights to briefly turn off while taking a photo or video.

flying drones at night settings
Example of DJI drone settings that you need to adjust for flying at night – image credit: fromwhereidrone.com

Let’s Sum Things Up

Flying drones at night can be an awesome experience and you will be able to capture an amazing footage. My favorite drone images are long exposure photos taken at night in some city. It is not hard to achieve great results, but make sure that safety comes first. No one wants to lose or crash their drone, that has been bought for their hard earned money. Bear in mind all the tips I covered in this article and you will stay away from troubles. Make sure to always follow all the regulations that are valid in your country. Now that you have all the knowledge, the only thing to do is to wait for the night and go fly your drone. Flying drones at night can be really FUN, believe me!

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Flying Drones At Night - Don't Do It Before Reading This
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Flying Drones At Night - Don't Do It Before Reading This
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When it comes to flying drones at night, I would like to make things crisp clear for everybody, from simple drone enthusiasts to commercial drone operators. I will cover regulations, laws, equipment check-list, tips and tricks to bear in mind when taking your drone for the first flight at night darkness.
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