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.

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!