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!
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.
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.
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.
Alliteration has been a weakness of mine for many years!
As part of my ongoing videography development I decided to try to create a short video that used no drone footage, no time-lapses and no stills apart from a short slideshow at the end. In other words from start to finish just video footage shot specifically for the project. To simplify it slightly I was going to revisit a regular location and spurred by my Sunday sunrise success (more alliteration but see earlier post) I planned to shoot a sunrise for this exercise.
The weather forecast was such that a misty start was a possibility but the forecast was also for reasonably clear skies with just a little cloud cover. Visions of low lying mist with a blue sky above, dotted with fluffy clouds, filled my mind. Knowing the lay of the land and where the sun would rise I was also thinking that if the sun peeked through said clouds I would get some lovely side lighting across the rocky edge at Buckstones.
Would you be surprised to find that it didn’t go to plan? In fact I think the trendy term is (or was?) #fail
My alarm went off at 5.30am and resisting the urge to snooze the alarm I was out of the door, flask of coffee in hand, by 6.00am. After a stop for diesel I was in place ready to shoot before 6.30am. Camera (Fuji X-T20) on tripod – check. Camera in video mode – check. Fluid video head in use – check. Audio recording active on camera – check. Lapel mic in place ready to capture my pearls of wisdom – check.
In short, a text book departure and set up. Sunrise was due at 6.59am and I was ready and waiting by 6.45am. The Nikon D800E was at my feet and I have never been better prepared for a shoot – ever. Period. There was just one problem. I had to guess at the composition because I could only see a few feet in front of me.
I stuck it out until 8.30am at which point I had to get back home to keep an appointment. During the two hours on location I shot video, waffled into the tiny dead cat on my collar and even took a couple of stills. At no point did the mist lift. There were a couple of occasions when there seemed to be a slight gap in the mist as it drifted across in front of me but at no point during the time I was there did it clear even for a short period.
Whether the video will get made is as yet an unknown quantity. I haven’t looked at what I have on the memory cards and nor have I listened back to the audio to see if I have enough to make something worth listening to or looking at. Unfortunately it will need to wait until next week at the earliest as I’m away on a conference until Sunday. If it does get made it will be a major achievement!
But, in closing, it is important to note one key thing – I had a fabulous two hours, enjoyed the solitude, the peace and the joy of trying to create something despite the conditions. There may, or may not, be an end result but I had a great morning.
An unscripted video filmed and shot at Buckstones on Marsden Moor a couple of days ago. It’s all new material but if I’m honest none of what I captured that day is likely to feature in a “best of” compilation, unless it’s the best of the worst!
I chose to record the voiceover totally spontaneously because I wanted to see if the narration sounded more natural as a result. I think it does. It also has a consistency from being recorded in one “take” although I must remember to stop turning my head away from the lav mic to retain a consistent volume. I’ve tried to adjust as necessary but getting it totally right at the time would have given a better result.
With the light not playing ball it was a bit of a let-down photographically. However, it was an excellent learning exercise as I wanted to ensure that everything (apart from titles and music) was produced from the one visit. So stills, video, drone footage and time-lapse sequences were all shot that morning. The voiceover was recorded stood next to the tripod, so some of the ambient background noise was picked up underneath the narration so to speak. Even the shots of the Pluto Trigger and Turnspro were created on location.
I also got to ramble about two pieces of kit that I have acquired in the last eighteen months and had cause to regret not taking a hat. The newest purchase, just last week, is a Turnspro for rotating the camera during a time-lapse (or even a video shot) and the other is the Pluto Trigger which I’ve had a long while now.
Shot over three days and using a mixture of video from the Fuji X-T20 and Mavic Pro, stills and time-lapse sequences together with a slideshow finale prepared in Pictures to Exe this video records three days of very trying weather and light!
I have been a stills photographer for many years but as my reader will know I have only started to make the transition into videography in the last few months. For this video I have decided to move away from a scripted voiceover (my wife said I sounded too “posh) and try to record a more spontaneous narration whilst out taking pictures. Audio recording is a big challenge for me however and this video mixes two sources of voice-over/narration. The first is the iPhone and the second a handheld audio recorder (Zoom H2n) with a Rode microphone. To me there is no doubts as to the first choice audio capture moving forward.
The usual YouTube link below but at the foot of the post is the link for an alternative version on Vimeo which I actually prefer.
Music: “On hearing the first cuckoo of Spring” by Frederick Delius
Fuji X-T20 and Fuji X-T1
iPhone 7 & Zoom Hn2 audio recorder
GoPro Hero Session 4 and Hero 3+ (Silver)
Alternate version on Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/228978590