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The Ultimate Guide to Drone Photography & Videography in Madison, WI

Drones are quickly becoming a popular way to capture aerial footage and shots for a variety of purposes, from real estate listings to wedding videos. As drone technology continues to develop, the potential uses for drones only continue to grow.

Whether you've hired drone photographers before or you're considering bringing one on board for your next project, this comprehensive guide should give you everything you need.

It will cover rules and regulations around flying drones in Madison, the best times of day to shoot, and the best locations for getting that aerial footage or shot.

It will also touch on drone photography and videography in the surrounding communities of Sun Prairie, Middleton, Cottage Grove, Deforest, Fitchburg, Waunakee, and Middleton.

Let's jump in!

Important Terms to Know

Knowing a little drone lingo can go a long way in helping you understand both the capabilities of your drone partner, the regulations around flying them, and getting the best shots for your project. Here are a few key terms to familiarize yourself with before we dive in:

General Terms

The terms below apply to all types of drones, photography, and videography.

  • sUAS (Small Unmanned Aircraft System): The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) categorizes all drones under 55 pounds as sUAS. When you hear someone talk about flying a drone, they're usually referring to an sUAS. The sUAS is the entire system your pilot will use, including the drone, the controller, and more.
  • Part 107: Part 107 is the section of the U.S. federal aviation regulations that specifically cover operating requirements for small drones. In order to fly a drone commercially in the U.S., your pilot must have a Part 107 certificate from the FAA.
  • PIC (Remote Pilot in Command): The PIC is the person who is responsible for the safe operation of the drone during a commercial flight. The PIC must have a Part 107 certificate from the FAA. The PIC is the one flying the drone.
  • VO (Visual Observer): The visual observer (VO) is someone who assists the PIC by keeping an eye on the drone during flight, acting as a second set of eyes. The VO does not need to have a Part 107 certificate from the FAA. At Above Madison, we may utilize a visual observer if the airspace is busy or it's a complex project.
  • VLOS (Visual Line-of-Sight): Although there are some new exceptions with VLOS waivers, in general, your pilot must be able to see their drone with their own eyes at all times while flying. This is different than using First Person View (FPV), where the pilot is wearing goggles that show them what the drone's camera is seeing.
  • Base Station: This is specific to us here at Above Madison, but our "Base Station" includes all of the items necessary for a safe and effective flight. Including our sUAS, our flight logs and safety protocols, our insurance records, chargers, flashlights, and more.

Visual Terms

These terms apply to the capture of photos or videos from the drone. You really don't need to worry too much about these, but you may hear your PIC use these terms from time to time.

  • Aerial Photo: A photo that is captured from the air using a drone.
  • Aerial Video: A video that is captured from the air using a drone.
  • RAW Photo: An image file that has not been edited or processed in any way. A RAW photo file contains all of the data captured by the camera's sensor.
  • JPEG: A type of image file that has been compressed to create a smaller file size. Most photos you see online are JPEGs.
  • White Balance: The process of adjusting the colors in an image to make sure they look natural. For example, a higher white balance will result in a "warmer" photo or video and a lower white balance will result in a "cooler" photo or video. You may already be familiar with white balance if you've ever purchased lightbulbs from the store.
  • Aperture: The aperture is how much light the camera's lens lets in (think about an aperture like a kitchen faucet. The more you open it, the more water goes out). Similarly, the more you open the aperture, the more light gets in, and vice versa. Aperature is what's responsible for those nice blurry backgrounds in photos.
  • Shutter Speed: Shutter speed is how long the camera's shutter stays open to let light in. A faster shutter speed will result in a darker photo or video (but a sharper image), and a slower shutter speed will result in a lighter photo or video (but a blurrier image). Professional sports photographers shoot with a high shutter speed to get the athletes in action.
  • ISO: ISO is how sensitive the camera's sensor is to light. The higher the ISO, the more sensitive it is, and vice versa. A high ISO will result in a brighter photo or video, but may also introduce "noise" into the image.

Again, you likely won't need to know or memorize these terms, but understanding what they mean can help you understand what your PIC is talking about if they use them during a shoot.

Door Creek Church in Madison

Rules & Regulations In Madison

Now that we've gone over some of the basic terminologies, let's talk about the rules and regulations around flying drones commercially in Madison, WI.

As mentioned earlier, in order to fly drones commercially in the U.S., your pilot must have a Part 107 certificate from the FAA.

There are also some specific regulations around flying drones in Madison that you should be aware of. Many of the items below can be adjusted with waivers, but your pilot must apply for those waivers from the FAA prior to flight.

  1. All flights must take place during daylight hours. This means that your pilot cannot fly the drone after sunset or before sunrise. And yes, there's actually an exact time for sunrise and sunset each day. (Try asking your phone, "Siri, what time is sunset today?" The answer it gives back is the exact time the FAA will use).
  2. Your pilot must have a clear line of sight to the drone at all times. This means that they cannot fly the drone behind buildings, trees, or other obstructions.
  3. The drone must stay within 400 feet of the ground at all times. This is actually a nationwide regulation, not just specific to Madison. That "ceiling" may be lower depending on the clearance provided to the pilot. For instance, downtown Madison typically has a ceiling of 200-300 feet above the ground depending on where you're at.
  4. The drone must not be flown over any people who are not participating in the flight. This includes bystanders, spectators, etc.
  5. The drone must not be flown over any moving vehicles. This includes cars, buses, trains, boats, etc.

Clear Airspace in Dane County

The Dane County Regional Airport (MSN) is pretty close to most of Madison (about 10-15 minutes), and as such, there are some specific regulations around flying drones near the airport.

Let's take a look at the map below.

B4UFly Drone App

The purplish circle is the restricted airspace from the airport. The green "boxes" extending out over Cottage Grove to the southeast and Deforest to the north are also restricted airspace.

Anything without color over it is a-okay to fly.

Pretty neat, right?

Because of how much of Dane County is covered in restricted airspace, it's important that your pilot have a good understanding of the do's and don'ts of flying safely here.

The Best Times of Day to Shoot

Now that we've gone over the basics of flying drones commercially in Dane County, let's talk about the best times of day to shoot.

As you may have already guessed, the best time of day to fly is during daylight hours. This is when your pilot will have the best visibility, and when the drone will be able to get the best footage using the natural sunlight.

Breaking that down a bit more, if you're looking for that golden hour light, you'll want to schedule your shoot for right around sunset. On the other hand, if you want vibrant blue skies, you'll want to schedule your shoot for early morning (sunrise) or midday.

Read more about tips for getting the best light here.

Depending on your project, you may be limited to a specific time of day (maybe your event is from 2pm to 4pm or your real estate client needs the shoot done around 11am). No worries! Madison often has nice, overcast skies which are actually great for photos and videos.

An experienced drone pilot will also be able to achieve the proper settings regardless of the time of day.

The Best Locations for Getting Aerial Footage

Chances are, your project is likely limited to a specific location (a house, a building, an event, etc). In that case, you may want to jump ahead to the next section where we'll talk about types of shots that aren't location-dependent.

Now, if you're wanting to get shots in and around Madison, you're in the right place.

A few use cases here:

  • Footage for a local event
  • A city highlight for construction investors
  • A demo reel for out-of-town clients looking to buy a home or building

In those cases, here are a few locations around town that will help you get a great feel for our beautiful city (quick note: our team has shot at all of these locations).

Natural Locations

These locations are all based around getting a feel for the different natural landscapes that make up Dane County.

  • Lake Wingra
  • Lake Monona
  • Lake Waubesa
  • Lake Mendota
  • Lake Kegonsa
  • Pheasant Branch Conservancy
  • The Arboretum
  • Olbrich Botanical Gardens

University of Wisconsin-Madison Locations

Popular locations around campus for great drone photos and videos.

  • State Street
  • Bascom Hill
  • Library Mall
  • Memorial Union
  • Camp Randall Stadium
  • The Kohl Center

Arts & Culture Locations

  • Overture Center for the Arts
  • Capitol Square + State Street
  • Dane County Farmers' Market
  • The Capitol/Capitol SquareWisconsin Veterans MuseumUrban LocationsDowntown Madison East Towne Mall Area
  • West Towne Mall Area
  • Hilldale

Local Attractions

For families or people new to Mad-town, these locations are sure to impress from the sky.

  • Henry Vilas Zoo
  • The Dane County Court House
  • Wisconsin Veterans Museum
  • Madison Children's Museum
  • Monona Terrace
Camp Randall Stadium from a Drone

Types of Shots (Not Location-Dependent)

If you're limited to a specific location (again, like a specific piece of real estate or an event), here are a few types of shots you can typically expect from a seasoned drone pilot.

  • Elevated Shots: Getting an elevated shot (usually between 30 and 50 feet) is a great way to show the property, land, or event area while still getting some of the surrounding context.
  • Low Shots: Going low (around 10-20 feet) is a great way to get a more intimate feel for the space. It's often used in real estate videos to show the detail of the home, yard, or surrounding area.
  • Wide Shots: These are great shots to get a feel for the overall space. You can see a lot of land or property with these shots which is why they're often used in agricultural settings or for big events.
  • Fly-Through Shots: These are shots that start wide and then fly in (or through) a specific area or feature. They're often used to show off a specific feature of the property or land like a big tree, a pool, or a nice view.
  • Zoom-Out Shots: The opposite of a fly-through, these shots usually start tight on one specific area and then zoom out to show the surrounding context. They're often used to show the relationship of the property to the surrounding area (like how close it is to the lake, downtown, or other landmarks).
  • Point of Interest Shots: This is when the drone circles a specific point while keeping the camera locked in on that spot. It's often used to show a 360 view of a property or feature like a home, tree, or event stage.
  • Straight-Down Shots: As the name implies, these shots are taken directly straight down from the drone. They're often used to show the detail of a property or feature like a roof, pool, or garden.

Of course, this list isn't exhaustive. Depending on the drone, pilot, and location, it's definitely possible to get other types of creative shots.

Drone Photography/Videography in Surrounding Communities

Above Madison is proud to serve the Greater Madison Area, which includes the communities below. Let's briefly touch on any unique considerations and perks of each community.  

  • Sun Prairie - Sun Prairie is home to sweeping prairies and incredible shopping (we're looking at you, Costco). Most of Sun Prairie is free from air traffic restrictions.
  • Middleton -  Middleton is known for its charming downtown and beautiful parks. It's a great place to get drone footage of both nature and urban areas. Middleton also (mostly) sits outside of restricted airspace.
  • Cottage Grove - Cottage Grove is home to more than 20 miles of trails and is the final stop for visitors leaving Dane County on their way to Milwaukee. Most of the Village of Cottage Grove is inside of restricted airspace. If you have a project in Cottage Grove, be sure to plan a couple of extra days for your pilot to get clearance.
  • Deforest - The northernmost community in Dane County, Deforest/Windsor is a great place to get drone footage of the Yahara River. Deforest is almost entirely inside of restricted airspace, so plan for extra time if you're hoping to capture footage in this area.
  • Fitchburg - Fitchburg is nestled between Madison and Verona and has beautiful greenery in the spring, summer, and fall. Fitchburg is not in restricted airspace but can have temporary flight restrictions during a fall football game at Camp Randall or if a helicopter is flying to a hospital.
  • Waunakee -  Waunakee is a small village located just north of Madison. It's known for its family-friendly feel, great schools, and beautiful parks. Waunakee is not in restricted airspace.
  • Verona - Home to Epic (one of Madison's top employers), Verona  is a great place to get drone footage of sprawling neighborhoods and landscapes. Verona is not in restricted airspace.

We've also flown in other Dane County communities like: Mt. Horeb, Monona, McFarland, Oregon, Stoughton, Deerfield, Black Earth, and more.

Epic's Campus in Verona

Hiring a Drone Photographer or Videographer in Madison, WI

Okay, okay... we know this part may be a bit biased, but hopefully it will help you out.

There are a handful of drone photographers and videographers in Madison. We'd recommend doing your research and reading reviews before hiring anyone. Here are a few things to look for:

  1. Are they licensed and insured? (This is important in case of any damage to property or injury.)
  2. Do they have experience flying in the Greater Madison Area? (Each community has its own quirks when it comes to airspace.)
  3. Do their drones have the ability to get the types of shots you're looking for? (Not all drones are created equal.)
  4. Does their past work look like what you want? (You don't want to be disappointed with your final product.)
  5. What are the deliverables they'll be providing? (Will you just get digital files or will they be edited?)

If you're in need of a drone photographer or videographer in Madison, WI, we hope you'll consider Above Madison. We're licensed and insured and have years of experience flying in the Greater Madison Area. Our drones are top-of-the-line and can capture the shots you're looking for. Plus, we provide edited video and photos that are ready to share with the world.

Request a quote today. We look forward to working with you!

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