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Finding locations to fly your drone legally for scenic landscape photos & video

As a landscape photographer, when I first purchased my drone, the main problem I faced was finding locations I could legally fly it to take scenic landscape photos and video. Now when I say “legally fly it”, that terms is a bit confusing.

In America, according to the FAA, you can legally fly your drone anywhere, as long as you are not operating in restricted airspace and/or have authorization to fly in controlled airspace. The FAA says that any air above the ground is Federal Airspace, and no local municipality or landowner has governance over it. But the problem with this is that although the drone can fly in the air anywhere (up to 400′ AGL, except restricted airspace/controlled airspace), you can’t launch, operate, and land the drone anywhere you want! Many local governments and parks have banned drones, and of course walking on private property without permission is trespassing. So you need to at least launch, operate, and land your drone from public property that has not forbidden drone use, or obtain permission from the owner of private property.

Know your local laws, rules, and regulations

Do not give the drone photography community a bad reputation, always obey all laws while flying your drone!

First, before you search for public land that is drone-friendly, you must become acquainted with your local government’s rules on drone use. For example, in my state of New York, drones are forbidden from State Parks without obtaining a permit first, and they are not known for granting permits, so NY State Parks are mostly out of the question. In my county of Onondaga County, drones are also forbidden from County Parks without obtaining a permit first. The requirements for the permits are a bit ridiculous, they require you to obtain the permit weeks in advance before your intended flight time, and we all know that it’s not safe to operate drones when it’s very windy or when it’s raining, so until we have the ability to get an accurate forecast up to 4 weeks into the future, then operating your drone in these parks is mostly impossible even with a permit – unless you get lucky and the weather cooperates.

To find your local rules on drone use, UAVcoach is a great resource. They have many drone laws & rules listed by City, State, and Country. Before flying your drone in a park, it’s always best to look on a park’s website (if they have one) for any posted drone rules, or give them a call. It’s better to not fly your drone there at all, than be issued a fine or arrested.

Finding actual drone locations once your know your laws & regulations

Once you know what areas and parks you can legally operate your drone in, there are several tricks I’ve learned to finding locations near you to obtain scenic aerial landscape photos! In my state of New York, it’s legal to operate a drone in public wildlife management areas, for example. These are areas that are public land for hunters to hunt on. I would never operate my drone in one during hunting season, and I am also sure to wear a bright orange vest at all times. It’s also legal to operate a drone in State Forests, State “Unique Areas”, state hiking trails, and just about any land owned by the state of New York (as long as it’s not a State Park, in NYC, or in certain areas of the Adirondacks).

Using mobile apps to find public land

Inside the i-Hunting app, which shows private property outlined in red, and public property outlined in green.

To find public land, there are several mobile apps I recommend. The best one I’ve found is the Onx Hunting App, but this app only has a 7-day trial, after that you can purchase a subscription. For a free alternative, I recommend the i-Hunting app. This one is not quite as detailed or user-friendly, but it does the job. Both of these apps are designed for hunters to find public land to hunt on, but they do show most public land. My method for finding drone operating locations using these apps is to zoom out on the map, and look for public lands near me. Then, I zoom into the public land and look for points of interest in the satellite view that might be scenic, such as streams, rivers, lakes, or other cool-looking land features. I also make sure these spots have easy public access and that I will not have to trespass on any private property to get to them.

Once I’ve found some locations, I load up the Google Maps app on my Android phone, and place a map pin on the spots. Then, I can save that map pin to my own list of “saved locations” and give the list a name. Now, I have a handy list of drone operating locations near me, when I have the desire to go out and take some scenic aerial photos, and I can navigate right to them!

However, there are some public land areas that aren’t in these two apps, such as certain local town parks, forests, and hiking trails, but I have a different method for finding these. What I do is use the Google Maps app in the Satellite Hybrid view, and look for areas that have green text, usually signifying that these are parks or public use areas. I then load that location up into the above hunting apps, tap on the area, and it will display the name of who owns the land. If it’s owned by the state or a local municipality, I know that I’m probably good to fly my drone there, unless they have posted rules on their website or signs at the location forbidding drone use. If I’m unsure, I always give them a call and ask.

Asking private property owners for their permission

Sometimes the best aerial photo and video opportunities will require you to launch, operate, and land your drone on private property. In order to do this without trespassing, you must get permission from the property owner or manager to operate your drone there. Using the above mobile apps, you can find out the name of the property owner that owns the private property by tapping on it. Once you have their name, you can try searching the White Pages for their phone number, and give them a call. Sometimes people do not have their phone number publicly listed, so you might be better off knocking on their door.

Definitely follow your country’s drone laws as well

Just because you’ve found a local spot to fly your drone, you must still obey your country’s overall laws on drone use. In America, this is regulated by the FAA. Their laws state that you cannot operate a drone more than 400 feet above ground level, you must always maintain visual line of sight to the drone, you cannot fly over people or moving vehicles, you cannot operate your drone before sunrise after sunset without anti-collision lights visible for up to 3 statute miles away (and must get a waiver if flying commercially), you must obtain authorization from the FAA to fly in controlled airspace areas, and you cannot fly in restricted airspace areas.

Before flying, always be sure the location is not in controlled or restricted airspace! There’s many apps for this, but I’ve found the best one to be AirMap. Using this Android and iOS app, you can find controlled and restricted airspace areas, as well as obtain authorization to fly in them directly inside the app (for most areas). Never fly in restricted or controlled airspace without obtaining authorization first.

Flying over property where drone use is prohibited

As I mentioned earlier, the FAA controls all airspace above the ground in America, and as long as you are not flying in restricted or controlled airspace without authorization from the FAA and are obeying their rules and regulations, you are flying legally. A local park that prohibits drone use (such as NY State Parks that I mentioned earlier) cannot tell you that you can’t fly your drone over their park – they can only prevent you from launching, operating, and landing your drone inside the park.

Based on current U.S. laws, it is perfectly legal to launch and operate your drone from outside the park, and fly it over the park to obtain scenic landscape photos and videos. However; the caveat to this is that the FAA mandates that you always obtain visual line of sight to your drone, and if you don’t, you are flying illegally. So if you intend to fly over a park from outside the park, do your diligent research to find a location close to the park that is public property not part of the park, that also gives a good visual line of sight to where you will be flying your drone into the park. The above mobile apps I referenced can help with this.

In summary…

  • Know your local laws, rules, and regulations for drone use.
  • Know the national laws for drone use.
  • Always obey all national and local laws, and obey park rules prohibiting drone use.
  • Do not fly in restricted or controlled airspace without authorization.
  • Never trespass on private property.
  • Always get permission from the owner of private property.
  • Use the recommended mobile apps to find public property to fly your drone from.
  • Check online or call the managers of the public property to be sure they do not have specific regulations against flying drones there.
  • Have fun flying and getting scenic landscape photos from a higher point of view!
One of the first photos taken with my new Mavic 2 Pro drone. I launched and operated the drone legally from a local Wildlife Management area that I found using the i-Hunting app.

I hope this article was helpful to you! The information in this article pertains to flying drones in the United States of America, your own country’s laws may be different. This article is not to be considered legal advice, always check the laws, rules, and regulations for where you are flying your drone; if you are unsure, call the government and ask or consult an attorney.

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John
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John

Great information!

Gregory Dunbar
Gregory Dunbar

Thank you!

Norman Kaplan
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Norman Kaplan

Thanks, well written article…makes me want to sell m Mavic 2

James Shaffer
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Excellent information. Not only for Drone Pilots but also for the General Public Land Owners and the curious to understand that Drone Pilots have several laws and strict guidelines to follow before they start flying.

Sharing information like this is what makes our Sport grow with the Respect it deserves.

Thank You

Rich
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Rich

As a brand new drone operator I can honestly say this is an excellent article for me. Thank you so much!

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