Shooting panoramas with the drone

If you’ve read any of my recent posts you’ll have noticed a few spherical panoramas as I’ve been playing with this feature on the Mavic Pro. Here are my thoughts having had a chance to shoot a few panoramas and played with them in post processing over the weekend.

The Mavic Pro has four panoramic shooting modes accessed via the DJI Go4 app which I use on my iPhone 7 when flying the drone. These are:

  • Vertical panorama – 3 frames
  • Horizontal panorama – 9 frames
  • 180° panorama – 21 frames
  • Spherical (360°) panorama – 34 frames.

I’ve seen other (different) frame specifications in some blog posts so I can’t comment on what’s available for, say, the Air but these hold true for me at this moment in time.

I found the vertical panorama less useful so haven’t really played with it that much. The horizontal panorama however is a format I’m very familiar with and enjoy shooting.

© Dave Whenham
Horizontal panorama – 9 frames

The 180° panorama is not something I play with very often when out with a camera, largely because it needs a specialist tripod head to get consistently good results. However, with the drone doing the technical bit I had nothing to lose by trying it out. Twenty-one frames with the drone adjusting itself between each shot automatically.

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Twenty one frames – the drone does the hard work too!

So far, my basic workflow has been:

  • Shoot the images with one of the panoramic presets
  • Quickly stitch and review on the app (depends on how critical composition is, I often skip this step)
  • Batch process the RAW (DNG) files in Adobe Camera Raw and save as full-sized JPEGs in a separate folder
  • Stitch the panorama using the DJI Media Maker app on my computer
  • Finishing touches in Photoshop

This has worked very well and I’m very happy with the results I’ve obtained so far. However, the DJI Media Maker app is very much an automated process with minimal user input and I do like to provide my own input! Artistic input if you like. I’ve been playing with Microsoft’s Image Composite Editor (ICE) this morning and that is looking interesting. I am running ICE on an iMac using Parallels software to overcome the Windows/Apple differences. I suspect that in this mixed environment ICE may run a little slower than in a native Windows system but have no way of verifying this.

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My first attempt at a spherical (360°) panorama with the Mavic Pro

One thing I should have done before shooting my first spherical panorama (above) was some basic research. Whilst I like the result I could have positioned the drone more carefully and kept the canal within the frame with just a little more thought. But that is what my regular visits to this location are for – to try things out, to learn and to make mistakes before visiting a more distant location. For example, I could have stitched this immediately on my phone whilst the Mavic was still airborne and got a sense for the finished result there and then, which would enable me to adjust my starting composition and shoot the frames again.

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One of the intermediate stages as the original long panorama is turned into a sphere.

When I got that first panorama back I wasn’t happy with the resulting sphere it created and after some further research I went back two mornings later and tried again.

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Spot the difference – broadly the same view but composed a little differently with the final spherical composition in mind.

Back home I stitched the 34 frames using the DJI Media Maker software (a free download from their website) and then took the panoramic image (above) into Photoshop to create the pre-visualised spherical panorama. Notice how the edges of the panorama become the central element.

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Second time – luckier!

So, there you have it. My basic panoramic workflow using the drone and my initial thoughts on the subject.

Woodside Mills lock

One of the things that featured in my initial interest in buying a drone was this set of locks near to my home. So, unsurprisingly I’ve photographed it from various angles and heights over the last twelve months. The lock is also within the relatively small area I regularly use to try out ideas with the drone.

 

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23 feet up is nowhere near my highest shot – but you don’t always need to be at 400 feet!

So, when I wanted to try using the panoramic feature it was to this spot that I headed initially. First results were very pleasing but on reflecting back at the computer I realised I could do better and also have a little more control of the composition by making some small tweaks to the process. So, for Take 2, I moved across the canal and used Woodside Mills locks as my focal point.

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102 feet up on a windy morning
© Dave Whenham
I’m immediately below the drone

What I was trying to achieve on a very blustery morning was a spherical panorama with the locks broadly central in the frame. And broadly-speaking it worked!

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From this …
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… to this. Thirty four individual images make up this spherical panorama which really puts the locks in context with their surroundings.

 

 

 

 

 

Rain!

© Dave Whenham
Perfect flying conditions?

What’s this? A Brit talking about the weather?

Never!

OK, so we do have a reputation for being obsessed with the weather but nevertheless the genesis of this post is the onset of rain.

I’d been expecting it; the forecast (see below) had suggested we’d wake up to rain which was frustrating as, having created my first aerial panoramas a few days ago (blog post to follow), I wanted to try out the onboard panoramic function within the DJI app. I’d not been able to get out yesterday and it was looking like I might need to wait until next week so when I left the house this morning and it was dry I decided to seize the day. 

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Arriving at the location I went through the pre-flight routine that I’ve become reasonably adept at now and the Mavic was quickly up in the air and hovering at 200 feet ready for the planned shot. A quick shot to check exposure and I was ready. I fine tuned the composition, bringing the drone down to around 150 feet and set the controls for a spherical panorama which would need to capture 34 frames to work its magic. As I pressed the virtual shutter button to start the sequence a drop of rain fell gently on the control by my finger, then another, and another until it was properly raining. Less than ten frames in and the rain had arrived! I was thinking furiously. 

My first thought was “it’s OK, the rain is coming from behind the Mavic so won’t get on the lens”. Typical photographer, but this however was very swiftly followed by “I know it’s not waterproof but what about a little shower?”

Fifteen frames, not even half way. “I’ve seen videos of these drones being flown in snow storms so a light shower isn’t going to hurt”. Eighteen frames. “But those guys know what they are doing, I’m still learning”. Twenty one frames. “I’m not stopping now!

Twenty six frames. I wipe the rain from the face of my phone which is being used to control matters. Thirty frames. “I’m sure it is taking longer between frames”. Thirty two frames.

“Thirty four, finished!”  Must just stitch it first though, after all that was the purpose of the experiment”. I know, agonising for most of those thirty four frames and then I leave it up there whilst the app processes the images without knowing for sure how long the process would take! But this was the process I wanted to test out.

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It looked OK (see above) but I couldn’t zoom in to check I’d got all of the lock gates, which are worryingly close to the edge of the frame …

By now it’s raining steadily so common sense takes over and I bring the drone back, flying backwards to keep rain from the lens but still looking for compositions as I bring the Mavic closer.  I can’t resist a few more single frames as I bring the Mavic ever closer and finally back down to the landing circle at my feet. Swiftly wiping rain from everything I’m packed up and under the shelter of a large tree in no time.

Checking the flight log it’s taken me considerably longer to pen these notes than the events they describe.  But I’ve added to my knowledge and experience both during the flight and whilst writing this.  As always when a flight finishes I have that mixed feeling of relief that I’ve brought the drone back safely mingled with a desire to get back in the air. I’ve two fully-charged spares in the bag on my shoulder so plenty of capacity for a longer flight – but it is actually raining quite heavy now and for the second time in five minutes common sense kicks in.

© Dave Whenham
Processed completely on my phone before bringing drone back down.

Sat in the cafe with a coffee I was pleasantly surprised that the spherical panorama rotates gently when viewed via the DJI app although disappointed that when downloading it all I get is the long thin panorama rather than the spherical version. Something else to research, but in the meantime I keep looking at the gently rotating sphere, more than pleasantly pleased that the earlier research had paid off and Woodside Mills locks are virtually dead centre of the sphere as the image above shows, The tiny dot almost dead centre is my landing circle. I will reprocess the 34 RAW files later on the computer but for now am very happy with my short but eventful trip.

Walking back along the canal I was able to appreciate the fresh, warm smell you get when it rains for the first time in over a week. Heedless that the tree pollen season hasn’t quite finished I breathed deeply and savoured that unique aroma. I do like the rain!

Smoothing things out

So, having achieved a basic level of competence at flying the drone I am now able to concentrate a little more on the photography and videography side of things. Little things help, like knowing how to quickly change shutter speed whilst in the air and knowing how to clear all the information from the screen with a single finger when trying to fine tune a composition. As I was discussing with Richard this afternoon, once you’ve got your head around the flying bit then, and only then, can you give the photography side some real focus (pun intended).

© Dave Whenham

I took the Mavic out this morning specifically to try some new settings. These were geared towards videography and included adjustments to the gimbal and the way the drone handles as well as a tweak to the video settings.  For those who may be interested I set the video to 25fps at 4k and the style to D-Cinelike with custom settings of +1,-1,-1. Looking at the advance Gimbal settings, the pitch was set to 11 and smoothness to 15. Finally, I changed the Sensitivity settings – Att 100, Brake 130 Yaw Max 50.   I’m not qualified to explain all these but you can’t move on the Internet for videos and blog posts explaining it all in great detail – and some of it is accurate too!! I made the changes in an attempt to produce smoother video footage and start to take more control of things.

Watching back the first clip from this morning’s trip (see above) I can see a marked improvement in terms of the smoothness of the ascent and the movements are also cleaner. This was not shot in Tripod mode but achieves a good level of smoothness none the less I think, especially compared to earlier efforts.

 

Auto-bracketing with Mavic Pro

IMG_2346I don’t usually produce technique or how-to blog posts but thought I’d share my experience of using the auto-exposure bracketing (AEB) mode on the Mavic Pro. I went out this morning and shot a bunch of stills with the Mavic set to AEB mode and opted for it to take 5 frames. Nominally these are at a variance of 0.7EV from each other and indeed my software suggests between 0.6 and 0.7 EV is the norm. Bracketing is something I am very familiar with from my normal photography so I start with a good understanding of the potential benefits and pitfalls.

© Dave Whenham
Freemans Cut from Cromwell Bottom.

The first example of a 5-frame image, merged in Photoshop using HDR Pro,  shows Freemans Cut and was shot into the sun, you can probably see where the sun is, just out of frame top right. In this instance the five frames have given Photoshop everything it needs to produce a nicely balanced image and the -1.3EV frame  has provided the HDR engine with just enough material to work with.  To be fair, the -1.3EV frame on its own has sufficient detail to produce a very acceptable image on its own and this I feel highlights the main drawback of the fixed 0.7EV step in the Mavic’s AEB settings. I have found the [-1.3 -0.7, 0, +0.7, +1,3]EV  range far too limiting and often +/-1.3EV  is not enough for the dynamic range of the scene. With my Fuji and Nikons I have been known to shoot +3, 0, -3 at times especially when there is sky in the frame and I’m shooting early or late in the day.   It would be good at least to have a full 1EV adjustment between each frame and an option for +/-2EV would be perfect; I rarely shoot bracketed sequences at anything other than +/-1EV or +/-2EV.

Realistically, I can always revert to manually bracketing with the drone assuming the wind is light enough to give me time to manually change things between shots but it Ould be useful to have the option to vary the adjustment range via the Go4 app.

© Dave Whenham
The five AEB images in Adobe Bridge (unprocessed)

Despite this limitation I do think that it’s a worthwhile exercise to shoot in 5-frame AEB as on occasions it can really help when post-processing to have that extra +/-1.6EV available. It’s easy enough to delete files that aren’t needed later.  I use a 32gb SD card and have never yet filled it in the 20 minutes or so of flight time that I am getting from each battery. I carry spare cards so in the unlikely event of filling one I can always swap it out when changing batteries.

Historically I have used Photomatix Pro for blending bracketed images preferring it to the inbuilt option with Photoshop. However, today I tried the PS version (HDR Pro) for convenience and was pleasantly surprised by the improvements. In the event I did not even bother to see what Photomatix could do as I was more than happy with the outcome from HDR Pro.

© Dave Whenham
“Flat” image straight out of PS HDR-Pro vs “finished” image.

I found that using the “flat” preset in Photoshop HDR-Pro produced a good tonal range and an image that responded well to additional processing.  I preferred this to any of the other more vibrant presets and it’s a good compromise between time and convenience compared to using the other presets or manually adjusting the conversion yourself.

© Dave Whenham
Having the additional image files enabled me to bring out detail in the river whilst not burning out the hard-standing or caravan storage facility at the top of the frame.

 

© Dave Whenham
Photoshop HDR Pro handled the moving train very well

Today’s exercise has suggested to me that it is worth keeping the drone in AEB mode for stills photography as the default, moving to single shot only occasionally when conditions are appropriate. As with all photographic bracketing it is always possible to simply use one frame out of the sequence and it costs relatively little to simply delete the other four if they are not needed. Having the option though is well worth the minor inconvenience of having additional image files to sort out back home.

 

52 seconds of video

Over the last ten days we’ve had quite a few mornings when the weather has been relatively benign so I’ve been taking the opportunity to get some flying practice in. Being a photographer first and flyer second though I have managed to grab a few shots as well!

© Dave Whenham
The weir on the River Calder near to the site of the old Elland power station (that open ground top right).

I’ve been talking “drones” with Richard recently as he has just himself acquired a Mavic Air and is getting ready to launch (pun intended) himself on this fascinating branch of our mutual hobby – photography. As I’ve been responding to some of his questions, I’ve started to think more about the settings on my Mavic Pro. I’ve largely been flying using the default settings and also shooting video using default settings although the stills camera is set to manual and has been almost since I began.

© Dave Whenham

I’ve read a lot and also watched a lot of tutorials which recommend adjusting the responsiveness of the sticks and gimbal to help with smoother flight. The more I read/watch however the more I realise that from my perspective this is largely irrelevant as I mainly shoot stills for which I have the drone hovering as I compose and then take the image. With practice I can now make small, slow movements to edge myself into the “best” position and the jerkiness as I raise or lower the camera is not a major issue; the drone will be still when I take the shot.  It seems to me that the main benefits of smoother stick and gimbal action is for video footage whilst the drone is flying and as I don’t shoot much video I’ve never really bothered too much with this aspect.

Last night however I made a few adjustments to the gimbal settings and to the Mavic’s Gain and EXPO settings and so was glad to get the chance to try shooting a little bit of video this morning to see if there were noticeable differences. I haven’t noted my settings here as I’m no way qualified to share but what I can say is that it made an appreciable difference to my ability to shoot smooth(fish) footage without using one of the advanced modes. Based on this experience and some more research I have noted down a new set of settings which I will try next time I get out for a flight.

Mavic Pro – polariser vs none

In You Get What You Pay For I wrote of my experiences with some budget graduated filters for the Mavic Pro and concluded that whilst the set I had were not up to the job I needed to do some more research before buying a more expensive set of filters.

I also have a set of  ND filters and a polariser for the Mavic Pro made by the same budget-priced company. Whilst the ND filters will be of more use once I start to seriously explore aerial video or what to start experimenting with slower shutter speeds for aerial stills but the polariser is already proving useful for stills photography.

© Dave Whenham

The polariser I have is a simple push-on affair and once airborne, as with all these filters, cannot be adjusted. It is a matter of looking through the filter and turning it until the desired effect is reached and then pushing it firmly onto the lens. Of course, the effectiveness of the filter varies according to the drones position relative to the sun too so as you fly and manoeuvre its quite possible that the optimal amount of polarisation is not being applied. However, with all that said the filter does help particularly when photographing trees and foliage as it helps cut through the glare and intensifies the colours. The two images above illustrate this nicely – top left and bottom right are from the polarised frame whilst top right and bottom left are from an unpolarised frame. To make the comparison fair I applied the same basic RAW adjustments to both images.

It is possible, especially with the new Dehaze slider, to add punch back into non-polarised images (see below) but given that the files are only 12mp to start with I prefer to keep post processing to a minimum wherever possible.

© Dave Whenham
Brookfoot lock on the Calder and Hebble Navigation just outside Brighouse from c.300 feet.
© Dave Whenham
RAW file – straight off the card

The polariser is one filter I won’t leave home without and indeed based on my experiences to date I will probably upgrade to a premium brand at some point.

 

Near Miss!

© Dave Whenham
DJI Mavic Pro, circular polariser.

This was taken with the drone around twenty feet up and whilst I was using Tripod mode on the Mavic for the first time in order to gently manouevre the drone up through the tight spaces between the trees. This mode considerably lowers the maximum speed (down to around 2mph I believe whereas my Mavic has a normal top speed of 23mph according to my flight record) and also makes the sticks “duller” for finer control. I’d not used the mode before but was interested in how much more control it provided and also whether or not it really did improve the look of video footage.

The gaps between the trees where small and narrowed as you went upwards but by standing underneath and being careful I was doing OK.

Snap! At twenty feet I used the button on top of the controller to grab a still as I gently eased upwards.

So, this picture was taken and all was serene and I was feeling confident and calm as I gently pushed up to thirty feet when suddenly – whoosh!

As the drone cleared the shelter of the trees a sudden gust from a crosswind slapped it hard towards the top of this slender tree and with the camera module pointing downwards I could see I was inches away from crash-landing in the treetop. I then realised just how slow Tripod mode is – VEEEERRRRY slow.   I was not able to simply push the stick upwards for a a sudden burst to take the drone up and out of danger so it was a painful few seconds before I was free of the tree and bringing the drone gently back down again.

If I’d had more experience of Tripod mode I would have hit X to return to normal and pushed up on the stick to clear the danger more quickly.  But we learn with each flight and as my time with the drone approaches twelve months I’m learning more each time I fly. Certainly five months stuck indoors with health issues unable to fly the drone didn’t help my learning but I’ve made up for it this month with six separate outings in eleven days with a little over two hours flight time.

I tried once more to push the Mavic upwards but the wind was still giving the drone a serious battering though so prudence suggested it was time to bring it back down below the treetops for the time being!  I still continued to use Tripod mode but kept the drone to around twelve feet as I practiced flying through the trees.

You get what you pay for

Ironically, for someone who once wrote about the need to label things to help my understanding I don’t like to label myself photographically. I am just a photographer. If pushed very hard however I would probably own to being a landscape photographer. As a landscape photographer I understand the need to balance the tonal ranges between, for example, sky and land. There are various ways but being rather old school my preferred, but not my sole, approach is graduated neutral density filters, ND Grads for short.

© Dave Whenham
DJI Mavic Pro with Neewer ND Grey filter

It wasn’t a big surprise then that now I have the basics of this drone photography lark under my belt my thoughts should turn to the subject of how to control tonal range in my drone images.  I’ve tried the exposure-bracketing feature on the drone which works reasonably well but there is still that hankering to get it right “in-camera”. So I started to think about and look out for ND Grads for my Mavic Pro. Unlike a tripod-based DSLR I cannot change filters mid-flight with the drone; it has to be brought down, landed and powered off in order to attach or swap out a filter.  In addition, owing to the size and build of the drone lens it is not possible to vary the positioning of the graduation – just as with a screw-in filter for your traditional camera the position of the graduation is a given. So, using filters on the drone has to be a considered option.

Whilst looking on the internet I found a third party set of three different ND grads (grey, blue, orange) for £40. I found no review for them online, apart from amazon.com reviews which I rarely trust these days, however reviews of the company’s ND and polariser filters elsewhere on the ‘net were reasonably positive so I marked them as a “maybe”.

I then found a set by Chinese company Neewer for just £11. I’ve used Neewer products before and found them reliable rather than spectacular so figured I’d chance my £11 on a set which duly arrived the following day from that well-known international online retailer beginning with A. But how did they fare?

© Dave Whenham
Not the best light but at least it was “real-world” light!

I put the drone in the air with no filter attached then brought it back down to fit the ND grey filter. This is best done with the drone powered off and the gimbal lock in place. I then returned the drone to the air and endeavoured to take exactly the same image (I didn’t do too bad) to use as a comparison. Back home I converted both RAW (DNG) files in Adobe Camera Raw applying the same basic adjustments. The results are shown in segments 1 and 3 above. There is a noticeable grey cast in the image taken with the filter attached but this was easily removed as can be seen in segment 2 and I was left with a well-balanced shot.

But does the filter make a lot of difference? As can be seen above the filter definitely darkened the sky but looking closely at the image and the bottom half of the frame does appear a little bit darker too. To test this I left the filter on and took a third image, with no sky to see what happened.

© Dave Whenham

I was expecting the top half to be darker than the lower half but that doesn’t seem to be the case. I took several other test shots too and came to the conclusion that the filter was having minimal effect on the image in terms of changing tonal range.

The blue graduated filter did definitely add a blueish tint to the upper half of the frame but again did very little beyond this to darken the tones in the sky relative to the lower half of the frame.

© Dave Whenham
Neewer Blue ND Graduated filter

So, you get what you pay for in life I guess and for me based on this mornings experience these filters do not function as well as they might especially in terms of their prime purpose – that of reducing the tonal range in the image. However, I will try them out on another day when the sun is shining brightly and the tonal range is larger to see if it was the light not playing nicely this morning.

Will I be trying the £40 set? I’m not sure yet – I think I need to do some more research and see what other peoples experiences have been (assuming I can filter out the dubious “paid for” reviews on amazon).  The lens of the Mavic is very small however and I’m starting to think that there just isn’t enough real estate to allow the graduation to work as I’d like.

The jury is out as they say and I need to investigate further before parting with any more money!

Calder & Hebble (Drone)

I was very fortunate recently to have three consecutive mornings where I not only rose early but conditions were ideal for some flying practice.  On all three I headed to the closest stretch of the Calder & Hebble which affords sufficient space for me to fly a drone without getting in peoples way. That said over the three mornings I saw just two people so I was hardly a nuisance.

I used a polarising filter on the Mavic for the first time and that together with some bright early morning light produced some punchy, colourful images.
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The image below falls partly into a landscape but also partly into an abstract style of image to me. It was for these types of straight-down abstract/semi-abstract images that I originally purchased the drone.
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Bold colours, strong contrasts, a polariser and careful positioning of the drone all combine here to create one of my favourite drone images to date. I am still smiling several days after making this one!

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Woodside Mill (remains)

This particular spot lends itself very well to images like the one below with strong lines, an almost graphical look but also when you look closely you see road, canal and river broadly running together.

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All of the images above were shot with the sun either behind the drone or to the side and mostly with the camera pointing down so not receiving any direct sunlight. Shooting into the sun though as in the image below creates a far more contrasty scene and less saturated colours.

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Undoubtedly though it’s the “straight-down” images that I like best especially when you can create layers and patterns.

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I was lucky to get three good mornings, and almost an hours flight time over the bank holiday weekend and greatly benefited from the opportunity to practice my flying and aerial photography skills.

© Dave Whenham
And the inevitable mono!