By Andrew Pece

You are going to face many choices when you buy a drone for your aerial photography, yet how does sensor size actually affect the choice you will be making? Are larger sensors always the better choice? It depends on what conditions you will be shooting in, and as it turns out, many of the conditions we shoot aerial photos for real estate under are ideal for small sensors.

Let’s start off by taking a quick look at an analogous situation of sensor size in the world of landscape photography. A quick perusal of Youtube videos will illustrate that many professional landscape photographers now prefer smaller sensor micro four thirds cameras as opposed to bulkier full frame systems. This trend of moving to smaller sensors does make sense for many photographers because of the benefits that the smaller systems offer.

“Benefits of smaller sensors” may sound like a contradiction in terms. But it isn’t. Smaller sensors can actually benefit photographers in a number of different ways. Let’s take a look.

Shooting in an Abundance of Light (i.e. daytime)

Although I should not necessarily call shooting in the daytime an advantage for smaller sensors, the truth is the advantages that larger sensors offer are almost completely erased in bright and sunny conditions. We are not going to delve deeply into this subject here, but as a general rule, the more light you have, the more the advantages of a large sensor is erased. When do we tend to shoot aerial photographs in real estate? In the middle of the day when there is an abundance of light! Therefore, these smaller sensors are really able to produce comparable results.

Size of Equipment

When the sensor is larger, the equipment gets larger and heavier with it. This is probably one of the biggest reasons we see landscape photographers making the switch, and honestly, I feel real estate photographers should follow suit. Most of us run photography businesses, and the gear that comes along to shoots with us all fits into a case. Would you rather have a drone that simply slides into your current photography case, or a drone so large as to require its own, completely separate case? Just keep in mind that larger drones will in fact be superior to smaller ones when dealing with wind.

Attracting Unwanted Attention

Larger equipment is also always going to attract more attention. I think it goes without saying, that this is the type of unwanted attention that every aerial photographer would very much like to avoid. In fact, this aspect of aerial photography can be one of the most taxing aspects of the work as a whole. Chalk up yet another huge advantage to the smaller sensors.

Cost and Backups

For some, cost does not seem to be a consideration, and I think there are good arguments both ways on that front. But the truth is, flying drones gets expensive fast. You are probably going to need a backup drone, and if you are buying multiple drones with large sensors, you are not only packing quite a bit of gear, but the cost is going to get prohibitive fast.

We have seen that small sensors can really hold their own in bright and sunny conditions. But, what if you would like to shoot with your drone in low light like we see in twilight photography? I have seen many twilights shot with the Mavic series that look fantastic. The main factor here is going to be to shoot as early as possible by ramping up the lighting in the home as much as possible by setting all dimmers on maximum. You may also want to bring your own continuous lighting for windows that are relatively dark. There are quite a few very cheap, portable, powerful LED units out there. Also, to set expectations you may want to let your client know that if the wind does not cooperate you will not be able to deliver the aerial twilight. Another way to go about tackling the low light problem is to have a drone with a smaller sensor for your everyday work, and bring the larger sensor drone with you when you shoot twilights. Personally, I handle elevated twilights by putting my camera on a 24 foot tall light stand. This way, I can composite and have complete control over the image, yet the drawback is I obviously can’t get as much altitude in my compositions.

The main point I would like folks to take away from this post is that choices are not ALL about image quality. Think of photography like a mechanic reaching into his toolbox: he is going to choose the tool for the job that will produce a professional result, while minimizing his work. You will rarely see him choose an overly cumbersome tool when it is unnecessary, and the same should go with our use of drones.

Lastly, do not forget your Part 107 certification if you are considering doing paid work!

Sensor sizes of some of the more common drones used for real estate photography:

Phantom 4 Pro: 1 inch sensor

*Mavic Pro: 0.435 inch sensor

*Mavic Air: 0.435 inch sensor

*Spark: 0.435 inch sensor


*Drones I recommend for leveraging the benefits of smaller sensors brought up in this article.