Mavic Air 2s – Take Two: the second take!

Two identical images … one in the original colour and the other in fabulous mono! The replacement drone got a second flight on Sunday morning. A frosty morning with the sun just starting to peak into the scene.

A more abstract view of Brookfoot Lock
So, which do you prefer?

DJI Air 2s, captured as RAW and processed in Lightroom.

Mavic Air 2s – Take Two

Two identical images … one in the original colour and the other in fabulous mono! The replacement drone got a second flight on Sunday morning. A frosty morning with the sun just starting to peak into the scene. I will pop a small gallery of images on as another post.

Brookfoot Lock

The sun is rising in the top right of the image hence the warmer tones on the left of the image and the cool blues in the shadows on the right.

A straight desaturation for the mono version

Airborne Again – maiden flight

One of my guilty pleasures over the last five years has been drone photography. On a recent trip to Eyemouth I was able to fly the drone on each of the four mornings we were there. On the final morning we finally got the conditions I’d hoped for so I headed to the beach before 6am for sunrise at 6:20am.

The pre-visualised image from the final flight of my Mavic Pro

Long story short, I got my previsualised image but as the drone was returning from its short flight it was ambushed by a small number of rather large gulls. It was over very quickly and there was only ever going to be one outcome. Gulls 1, Drone 0. Ironically, I’d seen videos of such occurrences and had cut my flight short due to the increased gull activity since I’d launched my Mavic.

Scouting party?

It ended up on a ledge about twenty feet above sea level. Scrambling over the beach I got to a point about twelve feet below this precarious perch and by some miracle I managed to scramble up and retrieve it, tucking it into my coat in order to have hands free to get back down again. It was pure adrenalin that propelled this sexagenarian with dodgy knees up that cliff face (although any youngsters reading could’ve done it in a flash I’m sure). Back at sea level and still surprised at my rashness I inspected the drone but the dangling motor arm told me all I needed to know. I’d not be flying at Whitehaven the next morning.

My favourite image from that last morning

After three weeks of long and tense negotiations I reached agreement with Senior Management and the Financial Controller and ordered a replacement. Not a like-for-like replacement however. My aged DJI Mavic Pro was to be replaced with a DJI Air 2s, a big improvement especially in terms of the camera and sensor.

On a windy morning with drizzly rain coming and going I set out for my maiden flight with the new drone. Nowhere exotic however, back to the flood plain where my Mavic Pro had its maiden flight almost five years ago.

Maiden flight at the flood plain

So, here are a selection of snaps from that maiden flight. The new drone handles nicely and the updated app used to fly the drone seems reasonably intuitive. I’m pleased with the image quality achieved from this first outing and looking forward to seeing what I can achieve with it in the future.

West Vale in the distance
Woodside Mills lock
I do like a panorama!
You dont always need to fly at four hundred feet

Guilty pleasures

Eyemouth – sunrise

I’m sure we all have many guilty pleasures, mine, photographically at least, is drone photography. It’s something I only tend to do whilst away from home and typically only early in the morning. There’s exceptions of course and in fact I bought the drone specifically to photograph a location very close to home.

The drone I use, a DJI Mavic Pro, is the only example in my photographic history where I bought the right tool first time and avoided the pecuniary losses associated with upgrading within a short period (or twice in nine months as happened when I bought my first DSLR). It was top of the range at the time and whilst rather long in the tooth these days still gives me what I need. I’d gone in to the store, which specialised in drones of all types, and was looking at a mid-price model as that fitted my budget nicely. However, after a long and useful chat with the salesman I came to the conclusion that I might as well go for the better model from the outset. Not wanting to rush in I thanked the salesman, drove home and rang the wife. An hour later I was back in store, card in hand and was soon the owner of the Mavic Pro, three batteries and a fast charger.

Woodside Mill lock – inspiration for my drone purchase
Woodside Mill lock – another point of view

As I mentioned above, my interest in a drone was raised by a specific location – the lock at Woodside Mill. I had photographed the lock in all seasons, all weather and from all angles … apart from above. Since then I’ve photographed that section of canal many times from the air as I also used the flood plain alongside the lock to learn how to operate the drone and its camera and also practice flying before venturing further afield.

I don’t use the drone enough to claim to be expert but I do have sufficient proficiency to capture some pleasing results. I usually fly it before breakfast as there are fewer people around but have been known to try sunsets on occasion. Mornings though are best as fewer people tend to be around plus I’m more of a morning person so am often back in the caravan or B&B in time for breakfast with the wife knowing I’ve got something “in the bag” for that day already.

View from above Woodside Mill lock looking along the canal

If I’m totally honest I have been tempted recently to upgrade as some of the newer models have far better cameras on board but have always resisted. If I used it every week I wouldn’t hesitate but it’s a guilty pleasure so not something I do every week.

Mist on the canal
Ringstone reservoir – above low cloud as I turned to see the view across to West Vale
A few moments later, with the sun forcing itself into the frame

One thing that I like to try is putting the drone up through low lying mist or cloud. It needs to be done carefully and for me at least preferably somewhere I’ve flown before so know where the obstacles are. Watching the greyness on the screen suddenly burst into life as you rise above the mist is always a treat.

Ringstone Reservoir – location of the two Misty images above … on a brighter day

The drone is great for creating abstract views or patterns too as the image of Ringstone above demonstrates.

Birthday sunrise at Bamburgh

One of the advantages of buying a better spec’d model was the built-in features that help you fly safely and with confidence. Remove your hands from the controls and it simply hovers where it is – great for us photographers. Some have a “return to home” feature and I found this very useful on at least one occasion early on in my drone journey. When I first bought the drone there were very few restrictions and it was possible to fly the drone well out of sight and pretty much as high as it would go … I avoided doing so for obvious reasons but on one occasion got so absorbed in making images that I completely lost sight of the drone. Slightly concerned I pressed the RTH button and scanned the sky anxiously. Several minutes passed before I heard the buzz of the motor and glancing at the screen realised it was now above my head and starting to descend. Finally I could see the drone by which time the low battery signal was sounding. I was extremely careful after that and indeed legislation since that date has, sensibly, brought in a requirement to always have eye contact with the drone.

Another from the sky above Eyemouth

I’ve finished this post with an image from Scotland that means a lot to me. The image quality isn’t the best but the conditions were not very good for photography that afternoon and after struggling with cameras and tripods for an hour or more we decided to pack up for the day. There was a persistent drizzle, it was blowing a hoolie and we were totally fed up. We dumped our wet gear into the van and sat in the cab with a coffee and biscuit before heading back to our holiday cottage when suddenly the sky lit up. It was still drizzling and the wind was still blowing away but we jumped out of the van. Dave grabbed his camera and for some reason I grabbed the drone.

Above 100 feet the wind was even stronger and we watched as the drone was buffeted and blown but I persisted and managed a couple of quick “snaps” before the rain returned with a vengeance and I brought the drone down for safety’s sake. It had been blown about thirty feet off course and I ended up bringing it down to just a few feet above the loch to fly it back without it being blown even more off course. Hair raising, adrenalin pumping but I felt alive!

Scotland close to sunset

Chocks Away!

Just got back from a few days on the Norfolk coast and having spent most of yesterday developing the film from that trip I am now faced with the bit I like the least – the scanning! So, by way of putting it off for a bit longer I thought I’d post a few of the drone pictures I took last week.

These were all made on Tuesday morning. Drone regulations mean that this is the only practical time when I can fly the drone in this location. It is also one of the better times of the day light-wise usually. I’d love to fly the drone in a location such as this at dusk but there are usually too many people about to do so whilst staying legal.

I usually take advantage of being an early riser and go out every morning, rain or shine, but in the event this was my only flight this week. A catalogue of things meant I wasn’t able to manage the other three mornings – but I’m keeping those to myself!!

Droning on – the vlog

One of my main photographic interests is creating audio visual sequences, AV for short. In this second vlog I ponder the current progress of an upcoming AV entitled Droning On which is built around a sequence of still drone photographs. I currently have a very incomplete narration written and wondered if putting the sequence into a vlog and recording my thoughts as I watched it would help.

In the event it did, but not in the way I envisaged. I’d set about the vlog thinking that it would free up the creative juices and I’d be able to come up with the additional three or four minutes worth of narrative I needed. In the even I decided to reduce the amount of narration to just an opening sequence, comprising most of what I’d already written and also a one or two sentence close.

It’s worth pointing out that the AV sequence is not complete; the sequence of images is how I intend it but the fades and timings will change when I settle on an accompanying musical track. The one used is YouTube friendly whereas the final version will likely use a piece allowed by my IAC licence but not necessarily allowable on YouTube.

Droning On

The second anniversary of my Mavic Pro drone purchase will soon be upon us (as I type this) and in order to supply copy for a Club photography magazine recently I got to thinking about what I’d learnt.  Incidentally, if you’ve been following recent drone product launches mine is the original Mavic Pro; the newer Pro2 is apparently a big step up in image quality.  

In truth much of the learning came in the last six months of 2018 as I was not well enough to take the drone out over the 2017/18 winter months and prior to that I was still really nervous about the whole flying a camera thing. But practice is really paying off and even the quality of my images has improved considerably.

I am first and foremost a photographer, so, what does this photographer take from his first full year flying?

90 feet above the weir at Cromwell Bottom on the River Calder with the damage done by the floods a couple of years ago still very evident. A one-second exposure, courtesy of the 10-stop Freewell ND filter.

Importantly … 

Get used to flying it; to taking off, landing and generally moving about the sky. If you are a first-time flyer, then forget about photography for a few flights. Yes, it will be hard to do and a little frustrating, but practise flying in all directions, squares, circles, backwards, forwards, side-to-side. Get to instinctively know when pushing right on the stick will move the craft left and when it will move it right – it’s easy to forget especially if things go a little awry. The one time I crashed (see below) was exactly due to that confusion. With the drone pointing towards me and drifting to my left towards the trees I instinctively pushed the stick right to take evasive action. Except this was the wrong thing to do as it took the drone to ITS right and directly into the branches I was trying to avoid. I always try to watch the drone too when manoeuvring rather than the screen as I can more quickly spot if its drifting in the wrong direction.

Needless to say, I didn’t follow this course of action (to be fair no one suggested it) but in hindsight waiting just a little longer to take photographs would have meant better pictures from the start and a more comfortable flying experience.  Do as I say not as I did might be another way of putting it!

Exposure is critical

Hovering above the beach at Newborough. Sometimes exposing to the right means that you still have to leave the shadows as silhouettes!

The Mavic Pro has a much smaller sensor than many enthusiast photographers will be used to and therefore has less tolerance to noise. Indeed, whilst the stated ISO range is 100-1600 I rarely move it from 100 and indeed I’ve not seen many bloggers or vloggers suggesting using the higher ISO.  These days with live histograms on most cameras it is relatively straightforward to “shoot to the right” and the Mavic Pro is no exception. I have the histogram up on the screen at all times and watch it carefully. I aim to keep the graph pushed as far over to the right on the screen without “clipping” into the highlights.

Exposing to the right (ETTR) is a well-used photographic technique and means adjusting the exposure of an image as high as possible at base ISO (without causing unwanted saturation) to collect the maximum amount of light and thus get the optimum performance out of the digital image sensor. It is easier to pull down exposure in post-production than to pull detail out of the shadows. With the tiny 12mp sensor on the Mavic Pro I want to start with as much detail captured right from the start, hence ETTR and RAW (DNG) capture is my go-to approach.

Nail the composition

Here is one very good reason why you want to learn to fly and position the drone with as much accuracy as possible.

So nail the composition!

You only have a relatively small file to play with; 3992×2992 pixels (typically giving  a 23mb file) compared for example to my Fuji mirrorless camera’s 6000×3376 (48mb) or my Nikon D800E’s 7360×4912 (72mb). Having to crop into the file throws away precious pixels and of course if you then need to enlarge the image for printing you are further degrading the image quality.

Try to get composition spot-on to avoid cropping later. Be patient, rotate the drone and take it higher/lower, left/right, back/forward as needed to really get the framing as near to your vision as possible. Swiping up on the display screen to temporarily remove all the data and information displayed upon it can help and don’t forget to check the corners of the screen too. There is no doubt that in this situation the iPad screen beats my iPhone but that’s a discussion for another day.

Do keep this in perspective though, I recently printed an image from the drone at A3 and was blown away by the quality. A bit mushy sometimes in the corners but fabulous in the middle of the frame. For small prints and on-screen usage, the files can take some tight cropping but to my mind it makes total sense to maximise every pixel available and careful composition at the time is a huge help in this regard.

Exercise restraint

9 frame panorama, DJI Mavic Pro at 65 feet above the River Calder at Cromwell Bottom

When processing your images (I shoot RAW and process in Adobe Camera Raw) try to avoid pushing the sliders too far – less is definitely more and over-zealous use of the sliders will seriously degrade the image veryquickly in my experience (remember small sensor). Once again, getting the exposure right and nailing the composition also help here. I have found that skies generally need some gentle noise reduction, but again don’t go overboard and if you are able to do so I would suggest just selectively de-noising the sky and not the more detailed parts of the image which can quickly turn to mush.

Height isn’t everything

You don’t have to shoot everything from 400 feet up! Just because you can doesn’t mean you always have to. I have included height information in the image captions and you will see there are successful compositions shot from 65 feet up for example and even from head height.

75 feet up – Newborough Beach

Be open to shooting each scene from different angles and differing heights. I will often take the drone to 400 feet and then slowly bring it down tweaking the composition and taking a series of different images as I drop back down to around 80 feet. Other times I will watch the screen as I slowly rise into the air looking for the optimal point at which the composition seems complete.  There is no zoom lens on the Mavic Pro I use (although a zoom version has just been released along with the aforementioned Pro 2 with its larger sensor) so, just like using your feet to “zoom” a prime lens on your stills camera, you need to use the joysticks to “zoom” around the composition with the drone.

Of course, I’m not saying don’t take it up – 390 feet, Blackley Top

The hardware

Whilst I’m not intending to review the hardware some comments are pertinent as the choices you make here can have a big bearing on success or failure. 

Ringstone Reservoir. It can be a little disconcerting putting the drone up into mist for it to temporarily disappear but it gives an angle I could not get otherwise.

Let’s start with what for me makes the whole process workable – the viewing screen. The Mavic Pro doesn’t have a screen supplied with the controller, so I purchased an Android smartphone to fulfil this function. Turns out that this was not my smartest choice as the minute I plugged the “smartphone” into the Mavic controller it went “Oh, goody! A big battery!” and proceeded to draw power from the controller. Unsure as to whether this was normal or not, or indeed if it was expected, I decided to change and use an iPad mini instead. I figured the bigger screen would make it easier to read the display so parted with a few more hard-earned pennies to buy the small iPad and a sunshade to keep the glare off the screen. This worked much better apart from one niggle, it kept sending out a warning message that it was running low on memory even though I was only running the DJI app. Nervous that this might cause me to lose sight and/or control of the drone I switched to using my iPhone whilst I investigated.

Long story short – I never did get around to investigating and now simply use my iPhone. The only compromise is that if I’m going to be out all day I take a power bank to top the phone up for normal use if required after flying the drone although to date I haven’t needed to use it. I put the phone in Airplane mode whilst using the drone to prevent calls or messages interfering with the flight.  I need to wear my reading glasses AND my distance glasses simultaneously however; the former on the end of my nose to view the screen and controller and the latter above them so I can maintain line of sight with the drone. I must look slightly odd, but such is old age.

Flying the drone and keeping it safe in the air was always going to be my biggest concern and I have to say I’m very glad I opted for a premium model as I quickly got to grips with the basics and whilst I was in no hurry to step out of beginner mode when I did take the plunge I was pleasantly surprised. If in doubt, I can let go of the joysticks and the drone will hover where it is until I get myself sorted! The requirement to maintain line of sight means that under my control the drone never gets remotely close to the maximum distances it can technically achieve but I cannot see why people want to fly their expensive kit in places where they cannot see it. 

“Bamburgh Sunrise” DJI Mavic Pro at 102 feet above the beach at Bamburgh

As already mentioned, I have crashed the drone once, in Snowdonia, on the first occasion when I had someone with me whilst I flew the drone. Thankfully it was less than twenty feet off the ground and the branches I flew it into helped cushion the fall. I had the drone pointing towards me which means that right on the controller means go left as far as the drone is concerned. A mistake I make very rarely now but still, no harm done apart from a few scratches to the drone and a dent to my pride.

So, whilst flying the drone is still an adrenalin-fuelled experience I do now feel confident in flying the machine and am starting to produce some pleasing results, particularly with still images which I capture using the DNG raw mode and process in Photoshop. I have found that I need to apply sharpening and clarity a little more aggressively than I am used to and that I have to be extra careful with regards to noise in the image. I usually take the drone out early in the day and have not yet shot extensively in the brighter part of the day but when I have I find the files a lot cleaner, especially with the sun behind the drone.

Conclusion

So, I have made good progress with flying, have settled on using my iPhone as a screen and am starting to get some good still images from the drone. Whilst there is still some work to do with image quality, or perhaps more accurately consistency, I am now producing usable and pleasing images from every flight.

I’ve a few other things to mention, including my experiences with filters shooting panoramas and the various built-in shooting options but will leave those for another day.  

Ringstone Reservoir on a brighter morning. As with all branches of photography looking for something a little different to the norm can result in striking images

To recap my conclusions from this exercise, learn the basics (flying), remember to squeeze as much from the little sensor as you can and exercise restraint when sat at the computer.

This is one purchase I have never regretted for a single moment.