A bit of an obscure title I know – that’s what happens whilst you type “out loud” I guess as you fumble for the right words.
The Mavic Pro’s gimbal gets a fair bit of stick for being so exposed – but it means that it can shoot natively in a vertical format which means “portrait” images using the whole sensor rather than cropping from a “landscape” or horizontal image. I was just coming to the end of my mornings flying (battery was at 20% and I’d already used both spares) when I remembered this facility so I took a couple of test shots. It’s a facility I’ve not used before and indeed rarely seen mentioned. I wished I’d thought of it when shooting the long exposures of the lock gates a few weeks back.
I could see this being useful if shooting waterfalls or any image with a “tall” subject, for example a lighthouse. I shot a lot of panoramas today and with hindsight could have switched to portrait mode for some of those too as this would have given extra height (and is more like the way I shoot panoramas with a stills camera too).**
So, despite over 16 hours flight time I am still happily learning!
I took the Mavic out the following morning, set to Portrait Mode, selected the Panorama 180 mode – and the camera swung back to horizontal for the sequence before returning to portrait mode at the end of the sequence. Seems I’ve not missed a trick with my panoramas!
My first attempt at a long exposure wasn’t a resounding success but it provided some very useful food for thought and experience. It also provided a surreal moment as I woke on Sunday morning to find it featured in Flickr’s “Explore” section despite its obvious flaws.
My second attempt therefore was made on a slightly more open stretch of the River Calder although for the initial close-in shot, the trees on the left hand side and part of the front of the scene were still fairly close to the drone. Once again I am using the Freewell 10-stop ND filter.
I have visited this part of Cromwell Bottom a few times recently, shooting the weir from above as an incidental part of a wider scene as well as deploying the infra-red Fuji.
My aim was to keep the shutter speed to around 1 – 2 seconds increasing the ISO if needed in order to do so. In the event it was a bright sunny morning so I was able to keep the ISO at 100 and still shoot with the desired shutter speeds.
I was using the iPad with the drone for the first time and the larger screen was a boon in quickly identifying that movement was still an issue when the drone was just 14 feet up but as the height increased the stability improved. As I mentioned earlier there are a lot of dense trees to the left of this shot and immediately behind the little monitoring station. I had wondered if these would help shelter the drone perhaps from the slight breeze but on reflection wonder if they were once again swirling the drones own backdraft around? Whatever, once we clear the trees matters improved although that begs the question what would happen in a stronger breeze?
The four images above are straight from the drone and even at this size the motion blur in the first is very evident. I needed to reduce the exposure time for shot three but looking at others I took around 90 feet the thoughts on height affecting motion blur in this situation hold.
All of the images shot at between 1 and 2 seconds above tree height were very usable, and if the scene had been more photogenic would no doubt have been properly processed too for my Flickr feed and blog. However, this trip was about learning the possibilities and so I wasn’t precious about the actual view. The question remained though, could I salvage the first image, shot from just fourteen feet up? I took the unprocessed image into Photoshop and applied the Shake Reduction filter. I manually selected five areas to provide multiple traces for the software and as you can see above the end result was definitely usable.
I played with a few exposures between 3 and 6 seconds but wasn’t happy with the results of these on the day. It could be that such lengthy exposures are possible on very still days but that will need some further tests. For now an exposure time of between 1 and 2 seconds seems to give me a nice creative look to the image without too many problems vis-a-vis image quality. As with the first attempt I am very pleased with the neutrality of this ND filter too.
So, a successful morning, a few more lessons learnt and some more food for thought. I’m looking forward to shooting some 1 and 2 second shots above the Northumberland shoreline in the Autumn!
The first anniversary of my Mavic Pro drone purchase passed recently and I got to thinking about what I’d learnt. In truth much of the learning has come in the last few months as I was not well enough to take the drone out over the 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 year flying?
First and foremost
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 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
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 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”. 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 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 small sensor on the Mavic 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.
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 736×4912 (72mb). Having to crop into the file throughs 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 as needed to really get the framing right. Swiping up on the 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 thats another blog post.
Do keep this in perspective though, I recently printed an image from the drone at A3 and was blown away by the quality. For small prints on on-screen usage the files can take some cropping but to my mind it makes total sense maximise every pixel available and careful composition at the time is a huge help in this regards.
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 degrade the image very quickly in my experience. 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 more detailed parts of the image.
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. The image above was shot from 65 feet up for example and the shot above of a sunrise on Newborough Beach was taken from five feet.
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 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.
The image above, taken from 390 feet, was one of half a dozen I took as I brought the drone down from 400 feet to eventually place the two trees centrally at 140 feet (see below) but shot from a point more to the right and with the drone pointing more towards me than when it started..
I’ve a few other things to mention, including my experiences with filters and the various built-in shooting options but five seems to be the “done” thing for initial “top tips” features so I won’t rock that boat. Te 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
Undoubtedly though it’s the “straight-down” images that I like best especially when you can create layers and patterns.
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.
I headed up to Marsden Moor a couple of mornings ago hoping to capture some aerial shots of the early morning light on the rocks at Buckstones Edge. It was bright and sunny at home but twenty minutes up the road I pulled into the carpark in a total whiteout. I put the drone up but even at four hundred feet above me there was nothing to see!
So, I headed back with visibility improving the closer I got to home. Stopping and retracing my steps (tyre tracks?) I found it was not improving along the Edges so with domestic responsibilities waiting I headed back.
I did stop part way home, whilst still out on the moors, and had another try. This was slightly more successful although the files did need a bit more work than usual to make them fit for posting. This was partly down to the conditions and partly down to the fact I’d set the exposure to minus one EV by mistake and hadn’t noticed until it was too late!
A quick follow-up to the Drone update blog post where I reflected on almost a year of drone ownership. I mentioned that the area that needs the most work now is video footage but promised to share some simply to put a marker down to assess progress in twelve months time.
Firstly, a very short sequence from Anglesey on a short break over there in November 2017.
I haven’t done anything with the Newborough footage as yet, mainly through lack of time, but put this very short sequence together for Richard who accompanied me on the walk that morning.
On most of my trips out with the drone I tend to focus on capturing still images, it was what I purchased the drone for after all. Video footage seems to be mainly an afterthought which means that I sometimes collect some interesting snippets but they don’t work together as a coherent whole.
This was certainly the case earlier this month when I had a couple of early morning trips to the beach at Hunstanton.
I think one of the reasons for this lack of focus is that I tend to see the shooting of video as something to occupy myself whilst flying the drone into position for the next still image rather than as part of a broader narrative. I used some drone footage within various blogs (should that be Vlogs?) last year but each sequence was part of an larger overall piece rather than a standalone drone video and these inserts worked much better. The recce at Ringstone Reservoir in July 2017, produced not long after I got the drone, is a good example of this.
The final short sequence here was created for this blog. Unfortunately, I didn’t choose the best conditions for shooting video so poor light combined with mediocre skills hasn’t made the most exciting footage. However, as the purpose of this blog post is to put a marker in the sand then for good or bad here it is.
I need to work on collecting footage to tell a story but more importantly I need to up my processing skills considerably to get the best from my drone.
Well, eleven months to be precise but it’s close enough. So, how have I got on?
The answer is: “surprisingly well” to my delight and, well, surprise!
So, what has gone well and what still needs work or thought?
Well, 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. Not my smartest choice as the minute I plugged the “smartphone” into the Mavic controller it went “Oh, goody! A power bank!” 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.
Incidentally, all the images here were taken a couple of mornings ago especially for this blog.
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 heights or distances it can technically achieve but I cannot see why people want to fly their expensive kit in places where they cannot see it. For the images I take, and it is mainly stills, I rarely need to exceed two hundred feet and usually shoot from an altitude of between eighty and a hundred feet.
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 rarely now and on that occasion I was very unlucky; I realised it was heading sideways towards the tree and “corrected” its movement forgetting which way round it was. Still, no harm done apart from a few scratches to the drone and a dent to my pride.
I have not yet tried any of the flight modes but that is something on my to-do list for after I’ve improved image quality which is my main goal – consistently good files with which to work.
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 have found the files a lot cleaner, especially with the sun behind the drone.
I experimented this week with the bracketing facility on the drone and these lined up very well and therefore blended well in Photoshop. This is probably the only preset I have used as I have the drone set up for manual operation in still image mode; with greater confidence in flying the craft comes more time to study the screen and adjust other factors such as image settings.
The still files convert well for black and white too and even a potentially aggressive mono converter such as Silver Efex Pro can produce some very striking results (see above and below). I usually try to frame an image so as to use all of the file (its “only” 12mp and I try to use them all) but these images above Woodside Mill locks were ones where the crop made more sense.
So, I have made good progress with flying, settled on a screen and am starting to get some good still images from the drone. Whilst there is still some work to do with still image quality, or perhaps more accurately consistency, I am now producing usable and pleasing images from every flight.
What about the areas which have not gone so well?
You will note there is no video in this blog post. Not because I didn’t take any but because I’m not happy yet with the quality of the video I am capturing. One look at YouTube however will confirm that the Mavic Pro is capable of stunning video footage so I am under no illusions – the weak link is me! I will post a minute or twos video in a separate post at some point just for reference.
I have not yet had the confidence or indeed understanding to move the video mode out of automatic and I think I need to do some serious research on this aspect and start to experiment. Moving the stills capture to manual was a no-brainer as I’ve been shooting cameras in manual mode for over forty years (my first camera was fully manual). I need to transfer some of these skills to shooting video footage with the drone. I am able to capture reasonable video footage, manually, with my Fuji X-T20 camera so I do have some skills to draw on there too.
The other key skill I need to develop is grading the footage. It may be because I rarely shoot in great light with the drone but I find the footage is not as usable out-of-the box as footage from my Fuji X-T20. So far I have had mixed success with some footage turning out very nicely and some very disappointingly. Along with learning to capture the footage manually I need to learn how to properly process it if I am to be more confident about sharing video footage from the drone.
So, in conclusion, I have learnt masses in the past eleven months. I have achieved a reasonable level of competency with the flying element, a good level of competency with regards to still imagery and am still learning how to capture good video footage.
But, great progress and a purchase I have never regretted for a single moment.
9:50pm, weather forecast for tomorrow – starting bright and clear in most places. Thinks, “finally time to get the drone up for its first flight of 2018.”
Batteries charged – check!
Drone firmware up to date – check!
Drone in case – check!
Cables in case – check!
Memory cards – check!
Cleaning cloth – check!
Camera in bag – check!
Mobile phone on charge – check!
Portable phone battery – check!
11pm, gear checked, packed and ready to go.
6am, alarm jerks me awake and I look out of the window. Wall to wall, nothing. Grey, grey, grey oh and more grey. The wife is in luck, no dawn shoot so a lift to work at 7am is on the cards.
7:39am, a test shot looking over the Nestle factory with some of Halifax’s architecture in background. Will look good I think with warm morning light on the warm coloured stone contrasting with the bright metallic feel of the factory in the foreground.
7:52am, coffee in front of me, transfer image from camera to iPad and marvel at modern technology yet again. My test shot is a keeper! Celebratory sausage and egg butty is called for.
8:23am, still grey, grey, grey. Abort and try tomorrow? Or drive out and hope?
8:24am, realise that there is a basket of dirty laundry awaiting me at home.
8:26am, in car heading for the moors!
8:38am, signs of some light creeping in.
8:53am, Pulled over on to some rough ground alongside the B6114, drone in the air.
First shot from the drone since early November. Checking later it’s a keeper too.
9:02am, drone at 200 feet above Buckstones. Light not good but I am getting some flying practice in too. A few snaps of which a couple will find their way on to Flickr in the afternoon.
9:13am, Hands like ice so reach into bag for hand warmers.
9:14am, back in car. Hand warmers are still on my desk!
9:16am, heading back along B6114 and see a few crepuscular rays so pull over for a quick snap. Drone on the seat next to me so decide to use that rather than the Fuji.
9:30am, back indoors. Coffee brewing, hands painfully returned to life as I drove and are now back to normal.
10:00am, images loaded into Adobe Bridge and a small smile of satisfaction on my lips.
View from 60 feet up above Buckstones looking down the road towards Rochdale (I know it’s beyond the horizon but stick on the road and you’ll get there).