Single-shot verticals (drone)

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.

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Shot from above the flood plain at Woodside Lock.  Apart from lifting the shadows slightly this is basically as-shot

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!

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Four hundred feet up – spot the pilot!

**POSTSCRIPT

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!

 

Long exposures at the weir

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.

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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.

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weir at Cromwell Bottom, River Calder 10-stop Freewell ND filter

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.

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Weir at Cromwell Bottom, River Calder

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.

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Flood damage from a couple of years ago is still very evident

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.

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Shot of the Day: weir at Cromwell Bottom, River Calder 10-stop Freewell ND filter

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!

Some anniversary thoughts

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!

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90 feet above the weir at Cromwell Bottom on the River Calder with the damage done by the floods a couple of years ago still very evident. A one-second exposure, courtesy of the 10-stop Freewell ND filter.

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.

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Sometimes exposing to the right means that you still have to leave the shadows as silhouettes!

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.

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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.

Exercise restraint

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.

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9 frame panorama DJI Mavic Pro at 65 feet above the River Calder at Cromwell Bottom. 

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.

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75 feet up

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.

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Of course, I’m not saying don’t take it up – 390 feet

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..

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Blackley Top

Conclusion

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.

Happy flying!

Isn’t it ironic?

It’s ironic, but as I get further and further from my schooldays I get more and more prone to schoolboy errors. Simple things usually. I always leave my phone downstairs on charge when I go to bed as it means I have a fully charged phone when I get up the following morning. So, this morning, up with the lark, dressed, grabbed drone (always ready) and the new iPad and off out to see how well the iPad functions as a drone screen and whether it impedes flying at all.  Minor inconvenience to find I’d forgotten to charge phone but that was offset by the fact that I was going to be using the iPad so no harm done.

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Looking back towards Elland. My house is just out of shot top right.

Off to my usual test zone near the car, park on the roadside and walk the hundred yards or so.  In short oder, drone set up, filter attached, controller turned on and iPad cable installed. New iPad in hand so all ready for the test. Apart from one minor problem – the iPad holder is sitting on the desk at home and there’s no way I can wedge this tablet into the controller.  So, fall back on the iPhone – with 40% charge (which, incidentally, would be down to 8% by the time I got home). I had a pleasant twenty minutes or so, I find I’m regularly getting 23 minutes plus with a little juice still left in the batteries, but time was up and I left without seeing how the iPad works in practice.

So, I ended up trying out the iPad/controller combination in my back yard.  Six feet off the ground with the sensors constantly complaining I was very near an obstacle (house, shed, trees) wasn’t ideal but it gave me a feel.  I will need to fly it properly in the open to see how the larger size and weight affect my flying and manoeuvring. It felt a little clumsy this morning, nowhere near as well balanced as the iPhone and I found it slightly more comfortable to angle the bracket so the edge of the iPad rested on my wrists. I don’t need to see the joysticks and my thumbs still rested happily on top although not quite as true as before, tilting very slightly outwards but I think I will get used to this.

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Seven feet above the upper patio – I kept myself out of camera-sight for the 34 frames by walking behind the drone

The considerably larger screen though was a joy. As someone who wears different glasses for distance and reading I find juggling two pairs of specs whilst trying to read the  detail on  the iPhone screen and also maintaining visual contact with a drone at four hundred feet an interesting challenge.  With the larger screen I could read most of what I needed to see without the reading glasses. At the end of the day the iPad screen provides almost four times the real estate of the iPhone so that was to be expected.

The one piece of data on the controller screen that I have got accustomed to using all the time is the altitude readout and whilst this also appears on the iPad screen I found myself constantly looking for it. I often swipe up on the phone screen to give me an uninterrupted view of the scene without the usual visual clutter, it makes composition more precise, and having the basic data on the controller too was very helpful.

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So, it will take some getting used to in terms of weight, balance and learning to work without the controller readout but my initial thoughts on this mornings experiments are positive. I cannot see me using it exclusively, the iPhone is always with me and the DJI experience seems to have been built around its form, whilst the iPad is bulkier and also doesn’t fit in the little bag I carry the drone around in.  So, on a stroll along the beach with the wife, where I always carry as little photography gear as I can get away with, I will use the phone. However, if down there on my own, or with another photographer, I will usually have a larger bag anyway and the iPad will slip nicely into the front pocket without really adding to the bulk I’m carrying.

Long-exposure

Not my best photography ever but I learnt a lot from this mornings mini test on the footbridge over Woodside Locks.

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Part of the reason for venturing out this morning was to scratch an itch and also to test a new filter. It had to be done very early (I was out well before 7am) to ensure I didn’t get in anyones way as this towpath is popular with cyclists, joggers and dog walkers at almost all times of day.

I fully understand the concept of ND filters for the drone, especially in controlling shutter speeds for smooth video, but have been surprised to see advertisements for ten-stop ND filters which can extend exposure times into the seconds even in bright sunshine. As drone photographers we tend to keep our ISO at the lowest possible setting but even at 100 ISO and on an overcast morning in the shade of some trees I was getting eight seconds this morning.  I could have pushed the ISO up and reduced the shutter speed but the purpose of today was to learn rather than create an image for the wall.

As you can see from the image above, the drone was no more than seven feet above the bridge over the lock with trees encroaching to within the same distance from above, behind and the right.  The morning breeze combined with the downdraft from the drone in such a confined space meant it was struggling to remain perfectly still; indeed I was surprised at how buffeted I was stood below and slightly to the drones right.

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A proof of concept shot (Freewell 10-stop ND)

An eight second exposure was probably a lot to ask in these conditions! I knew it would be tight under the trees, I’d even put the drone into Tripod mode to ease it gently in to the space, but had not really appreciated quite how much wind turbulence there would be.

A healthy dose of the shake reduction filter in Photoshop has produced an image that confirms the filter is neutral, and that given the right circumstances it should be more than practical to use slow shutter speeds in daylight to achieve a perfectly acceptable long-exposure from the air. To be fair I could have increased the ISO and thereby increased the shutter speed to 2 or 4 seconds for example, but this was after all just a quick  experiment to see whether the new filter lived up to the good reviews I’d read online and to prove that the drone could hold still enough for a longer exposure.

I’m convinced  that in a better environment I will be able to capture some interesting and creative images with the drone. I probably need to avoid hovering in what was effectively a wind tunnel next time! Mind you, that won’t stop me trying this again with a shutter speed of 2-4 seconds to see if that helps.

FREEWELL ND1000

The filter I was using this morning is a Freewell FW-MAV-ND1000 Filter. It fits snugly and easily and is also straightforward to remove afterwards yet still feels very secure on the lens. Drone start-up and gimbal calibration was not affected and the files have no appreciable colour cast in the test shots I took this morning returning an image with the same colours compared to shots from the same basic area and height but with no filter attached.

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.

Rain!

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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.

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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!