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Complete Guide to Commercial Real Estate Drone Photography

CEO Khai Intela
I almost titled this post "Commercial Real Estate Photography for Beginners," but felt uneasy with what that title would have suggested. Drone photography for commercial real estate clients is definitely not for beginners, per se....

I almost titled this post "Commercial Real Estate Photography for Beginners," but felt uneasy with what that title would have suggested. Drone photography for commercial real estate clients is definitely not for beginners, per se. Commercial real estate photography is, more often than not, marketing-oriented, and to effectively capture great marketing photos you must already have a keen eye for photography, own a quality drone, and have skill and experience using it. So if you already meet these criteria, but are still building your experience with commercial real estate projects, then this post is for you. Or, if you are an expert simply seeking affirmation of your expertise, read on.

Think Beyond the Shot List

My goal with this post is to provide more than a basic shot list. I hope to help photographers get a better and more holistic understanding of the task at hand. All properties are different. All clients are different. But if you have a solid understanding of the commercial real estate client's needs, you will be better equipped to adapt various situations that might present themselves.

Use Your Head (don't be this guy)

Dronegenuity I have a young daughter who loves the Amelia Bedelia series of books by Peggy Parish. The main character in the books, Amelia, is a housekeeper who takes instructions very literally. For instance, when told to dust the furniture, she spreads dust all over the furniture. When told to change the towels, she cuts them into shapes, and when told to dress the chicken, she puts the chicken in a new outfit. You get the idea. If a client asks you to "get shots of the surrounding area", don't be Amelia Bedelia, Drone Operator, and simply take shots of the surrounding area by itself! Instead, get shots of the subject property within the context of its surrounding area.

Background: The Basics

Commercial real estate projects, or "missions" as some call them, are similar to those in other industries in one significant way: the drone operator's goal is to please the client, and the only thing that matters is what matters to the client. What matters to commercial real estate brokers? Satisfying clients, selling properties, and selling them for as high a price as possible. Like you and pretty much everyone else, brokers are trying to please their clients and make as much money as possible. Find out what the client's goals are and deliver on them flawlessly.

Important: please note that this guide describes basic rules-of-thumb, and obviously does not apply 100% of the time. Now that the disclaimer is out of the way, let's move on to the basics.

Client's Clients

Who are a commercial real estate broker's clients? When many consumers pay a casual visit to the local grocery store or retail chain, they often assume the property is owned by the building's occupant, if they think about it at all. In some cases, this is true. Sears notably owns most of its real estate, but commonly, the occupants are tenants who lease the property from its owner. These property owners engage brokers to market and sell the owner's property. In most cases, it is the broker who coordinates the marketing efforts and contacts you, the photographer.

Commercial & Residential Real Estate ARE NOT the Same Thing!

I simply cannot emphasize this enough. Most drone pilots tend to be more familiar with the needs of residential real estate because it is, ahem, closer to home. But while these two categories of real estate have many similarities, there are significant differences as well; if you don't understand these differences, you will fail miserably. One of the most important attributes of a property for either category is location, location, location. But these two real estate categories differ on what "good location" means. Quiet serenity, surrounded by trees and against a beautiful mountainous backdrop. An oasis-like getaway...sounds great if you are a home buyer. If you are investing millions to open a new retail concept? Eh, not so much. For example, if a Realtor is selling a residential property located around the corner from a busy intersection, the agent representing the property might want to downplay its proximity. For commercial real estate, however, that same busy intersection might be the property's most important feature.

Good Neighbors

Prospective tenants want to open up shop in centers with neighbors that compliment their offerings, not compete. Tenants might negotiate terms of the lease that protect them from other competitors. The Paper Store, for example, has entered agreements that disallow retailers that derive a certain portion of revenue from toy sales from setting up shop in the same center. So if Toys R' Us were to try to open a store...um, nevermind.

Location, Location, Location

There. I wrote it. The phrase is such a widely-used cliche that it is almost painful to have to write down and publish to the web. Yet somehow, this mantra that is known to all is commonly forgotten by those who are taking photos intended to help market a property! The location of a property is a critical factor of its overall value and marketability.

If you are tasked with photos of a grocery store that is adjacent to a Lowe's, by all means, be sure to get photos that depict both Lowe's and the grocery store! Everyone and their mother knows what a Lowe's storefront looks like, but you can use aerial photos to provide the powerful advantage of context. Is the property in question only hundreds of yards from an exit off the interstate? Is it right next to a Best Western hotel? Is the parking lot busy? Let's see it.

commercial real estate aerial drone photo

Staying Up-to-Date

Walgreens Draper, Utah Customers benefit by seeing recent shots. Because of what are often ridiculous zoning laws, it might be the case that only a retailer could move in anyway. But even absent these rules, retailers cluster together for good reason. Looking for Walgreens? Find me the nearest CVS. As a photographer assigned to a commercial real estate project, your job is to introduce prospective buyers to their potential new neighbors.


Retail chains use both proprietary and purchased data when selecting locations for new store openings. They perform regression and other statistical analyses to help predict whether a new store will be successful in a prospective area. Factors plugged in can include demographic data such as median age, household income, and total number of children within a defined area. Others including approximations of total retail spend on particular categories of goods. So what does this mean for you, Drone Photographer? It means that by providing a greater quantity and wider variety of shots, you will equip the broker with more options to help grab his or her prospective clients' attention and help the clients better visualize their stores in the potential location.

Of course, investors aren't going to exclusively rely on photos for this information, but the imagery you collect can help them visualize the area. Photos can capture other important features that can be harder to find even when equipped with expensive data tools. How visible is the location from the road? Is there a new traffic light close by? What does the flow of traffic look like?

Drone Photography is New. Aerial Photography Isn't.

Commercial real estate brokers have been using aerial photography for decades. Airplanes and helicopters have given way to drones as the primary vehicle by which this is accomplished. Capturing close-ups of a store's facade was obviously challenging when attempted from an airplane, but thousands of dollars were paid for these photos. Why? Because high-altitude shots could provide potential lessors or investors an idea of the area in which they are considering locating. You should attempt to provide your clients with the best of both worlds.

Highs & Lows

Always get shots from the highest altitude from which you can legally fly. In most cases, this is 400 feet. And of course, if you climb to a height of 400 feet, be sure to fly far enough away to capture the property images from attractive angles. In addition to high-altitude shots, you should also provide the benefits only drones can offer - shots taken from close to the ground.

drone photo aerial map

Timing is (almost) Everything

Empty parking lots are the stuff nightmares are made of for retailers and the mere sight of them can give pause to potential lessees. That said, if the current tenant's lot were always full, it might not be planning to relocate in the first place! The trick is to plan your shoot around a time when you expect the center to be busiest. Saturday afternoon can be a great time for many, but not all, retailers. If you are planning to photograph a bank, don't go on Saturday evening. If the center is anchored by Hobby Lobby, which closes its doors on Sundays, don't go on a Sunday. You get the idea. Effective approaches to address this situation can include either asking your client what he or she thinks, or simply calling the store and asking the person who answers the phone. Another great way to plan your shoot is to check Google Maps to see when a location is busiest.

What Would You Do?

I would think of it this way: You are the marketing manager for the company that owns this property. You are about to spend money on an ad to promote this property. You have only a single image with which you can market the property. Which image do you choose? Or conversely, if you were potentially interested in purchasing a commercial property, what would you want to see and know?

The Shot List

Move Around

You should always include shots from various heights, angles, distances, and directions. For CRE, always include shots from all compass points. This means get shots from the cardinal directions: North, East, South, and West. It's also, of course, a good idea to include shots of Northeast, Northwest, Southeast, and Southwest. Capture shots from the building's corners. Get shots that show the subject property within its surroundings. For video, always include at least one point-of-interest (POI) lap using DJI's intelligent flight technology. This is a good approach for still photos as well. Just be sure to be high and far enough away to have the entire property in the frame of the photo.

Show the Horizon

You don't need to show the horizon in every shot you take, but you should always capture shots in which the horizon comprises the top 20-25% of the image. This will make for attractive photos that also provide solid context of the surroundings.

Get it All

Be sure to get the entire building or shopping center into a single shot. You wouldn't deliver a shoot of a residence with only fragmented photos of the garage, roof, etc. without including a shot of the entire home. For larger properties, this will mean flying high and far. For some massive properties like shopping malls or apartment communities, you might need to collect several overlapping images that can later be stitched into an orthomosaic or panorama.

Pylon Shots

Pylons are simply the entrance signs you see when entering the property. These often contain the most up-to-date information on who the property's current occupants are, and if the list is impressive, your client will be sure to want to show that off.

Other Factors to Consider

After considering the type of business you are photographing, refer to Google Maps once again to determine the direction the subject property faces. Ideally, you want to shoot at a time of day when the sun is shining on the front of the building. Avoid shooting at times of day when there will be heavy shadows that can't be eliminated in Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom.

The Strange & The Ugly

Avoid shooting when large delivery trucks or vans are on the premises. Unfortunately, this is a factor that is difficult to predict. You will simply have to wait it out. This rule also applies to people who may be loitering outside of the building talking on their phones, smoking, or simply staring at the drone in the sky in amusement.

Camera Settings

First things first, update your camera settings to shoot in RAW format. Save detail and recover data by shooting in the RAW (.DNG) file format. RAW files preserve all of the data from the sensor, meaning there is more information to work with when you are editing the photos in post-production. You can recover lost detail in the highlights and shadows, and even in poor lighting conditions you can create great marketing photos. For high-contrast settings, consider shooting in HDR.

No Fisheye

And it should go without saying, but I'll say it anyway: No Fisheye. Ever. Thankfully, DJI currently dominates the drone market and sells drones that don't have this problem. But every once in a while, someone will come along with an older drone with a wide-angle lens that produces these hideous and useless photos.

Photo Examples

A wide range of commercial property types are popular subjects for drone photography; properties can include retail, warehouses, office buildings, apartment communities, self-storage facilities, vacant lots, and more. You can see some examples of commercial real estate shoots we've recently completed in Dallas, Atlanta, and Northern New Jersey near New York City.

Key CRE Terms & Concepts

Here are some basic terms that you don't necessarily have to know, but familiarizing yourself with them can help ensure you understand your client's language and can deliver the specifics.

Anchor Tenants - Either a department store or a major retail chain with enough prestige and popularity to attract other retail tenants and consumers. This is basically the store in any given shopping center that has an appeal that is disproportionate to the others in the center, and one to which consumers will travel as a destination. These can be big-box retailers, Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Lowes, Target, or it could be grocers such as Whole Foods, Albertsons, Kroger, etc.

Pads - A pad site, or outparcel, is a freestanding parcel of commercial real estate located in the front of a larger shopping center or strip mall. Common occupants of pad sites include banks and restaurants.

Offering Memorandum (OM) - The offering memorandum is a presentation and legal document provided to potential investors to summarize a potential deal. These documents are critical to commercial real estate transactions. They are so important that much of the demand supporting drone photography for commercial real estate is driven by broker desire to create attractive and compelling OMs. The OM will typically highlight various aspects of the investment such as a detailed description of the property, the location and relevant demographic trends, a financial summary, pictures, comparable sales and/or rentals, and any other information relevant to the transaction.

Net Lease - Net lease refers to a contractual agreement where a lessee pays a portion or all of the taxes, insurance fees and maintenance costs for a property in addition to rent. Net leases are most commonly used with commercial real estate. In the purest form of a net lease, the tenant is expected to pay for all the costs related to a property as if the tenant were the actual owner.

Net leases are typically broken down into three categories:

  • Single (net): tenant pays one of the three expense categories.
  • Double (net-net): tenant pays two of the three expense categories.
  • Triple (net-net-net): tenant pays all three expense categories. Triple net leases are usually whole building leases with a single tenant for the long term (10 years or more).

Mixed Use - A mixed-use development, as its name describes, is a property that can be occupied by various categories of tenants, including retail, residential, office, or industrial. A common form of a mixed-use property in urban areas features ground-level retail with apartments or office space above.

Deferred Maintenance - The name speaks for itself, but is worth briefly touching upon. Deferred maintenance is the practice of postponing repairs on the property. Items needing maintenance can include potholes, broken gutters, crumbling sidewalks, missing roof shingles, peeling paint, etc. Investors considering the purchase of a property need to know how the prospective investment will affect future cash flows, and awareness of these factors can affect sale negotiations. These items are particularly meaningful for drone photographers, as the state of repair isn't something that can be found on CoStar, Loopnet, or ESRI.

Taking Off

I hope this helps. Your commercial real estate clients aren't going to walk you through all of these concepts and details; instead, they are going to expect you to know what photos to capture and from which angles to do so. But remember the important caveat: all projects are different and clients may have specific requests and things they would like to see and not see. Use your head, ask the right questions, and deliver beautiful aerial imagery according to your client's needs. If you'd like to learn more, please check out some of our other drone photography tutorials, or simply follow dronegenuity on our social media channels: YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, and subscribe to our mailing list for regular updates.