The Road Goes Ever On

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Blackley Top

“The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.”

JRR Tolkien (1892-1973)

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!

A Misty start …

Or, be careful what you wish for!

© Dave Whenham

Calder & Hebble Canal (Fuji X100t)

Over the weekend I commented to my wife that I was fed up of waking up to sunny mornings with bright blue skies and not a cloud in sight. Don’t get me wrong I’m happy to be warm and dry especially at 6.30am but as a photographer the relentless blue-sky-no-cloud situation has been a bit monotonous.

So this morning I woke up to a grey, misty morning – and woke up too late to catch the best of it too! I still dragged myself out though and headed for this spot where I have had a composition in mind for a while – just waiting for some mist or fog. As I say, a bit too late to catch the best of it but a pleasing start to the day anyway.

For the record, it’s now 10.17am and the sun is shining and the sky is cloudless albeit a grey/blue colour.

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.

 

Customisation

I’ve always considered the facility to customise buttons on a camera to be slightly irrelevant and a bit of a gimmick.

Until I got serious about Fuji.

I have large hands and one of the slight concerns I had with my move towards the Fuji system was the small size of some of the cameras and in particular the camera controls. The buttons on my Fuji X-T20 for example are tiny compared to my Nikon DSLR and it’s taken me some time to teach my muscles how to reach some of the buttons without nudging any of the others. It was a small inconvenience however compared to the very big benefits, which I’ve written about before.

(C) Dave Whenham

Scenes like this call for manual control – which I often facilitate through the exposure compensation dial

So it has come as a bit of a surprise to me to realise that one of the attributes of the X-T20 I have come to appreciate the most is the ability to personalise several of the buttons. Who would have thought! The four way selector on the back for example came preprogrammed for moving the focus point but I found I was rarely using these because of the touchscreen with its touch-to-focus ability which I use 90% of the time. So I reprogrammed the 3 o’clock button for image format and 9 o’clock became picture style for when I’m shooting JPEGs. The 6 o’clock is used to enter focus selection mode and until recently 12 o’clock was not used.

(C) Dave Whenham

Another image that called for manually adjusting the exposure

There is a function (Fn) button on the top plate next to the on/off switch and the exposure compensation dial. I use exposure compensation a lot, keeping the camera in aperture priority and using exposure compensation to manually adjust exposure settings. This button came programmed for wireless communication and as I do enjoy being able to transfer images to my phone/tablet I left it alone.

All was well with this arrangement until recently when extended use of the camera has meant I no longer need take my eye away from the camera to change the exposure compensation setting. This meant my right hand was barely leaving the camera body as I turned the exposure compensation dial with either my thumb or the edge of my forefinger. In the past few weeks I have inadvertently triggered wireless communication countless times as my forefinger has depressed the button whilst turning the exposure compensation dial.

Amused I have not been.

So, this evening I changed the Fn button so it now does – absolutely nothing.  It’s a shame to lose the use of the function button but with the Q menu containing most of the things I change regularly and with the four way selector customised to my way of using the camera, everything I need is to be found in that small area on the back of the camera. I moved wireless communication to 12 o’clock by the way, I just hope I can quickly get used to its new position!

So, bravo Fuji for making this lovely little camera so customisable, it does make a huge difference to this users experience!

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.