Droning On

The second anniversary of my Mavic Pro drone purchase will soon be upon us (as I type this) and in order to supply copy for a Club photography magazine recently I got to thinking about what I’d learnt.  Incidentally, if you’ve been following recent drone product launches mine is the original Mavic Pro; the newer Pro2 is apparently a big step up in image quality.  

In truth much of the learning came in the last six months of 2018 as I was not well enough to take the drone out over the 2017/18 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 full year flying?

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.

Importantly … 

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 (see below) 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

Hovering above the beach at Newborough. Sometimes exposing to the right means that you still have to leave the shadows as silhouettes!

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 indeed 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” and the Mavic Pro is no exception. 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 photographic 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 tiny 12mp sensor on the Mavic Pro 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.

So nail the composition!

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 7360×4912 (72mb). Having to crop into the file throws 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, left/right, back/forward as needed to really get the framing as near to your vision as possible. Swiping up on the display 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 that’s a discussion for another day.

Do keep this in perspective though, I recently printed an image from the drone at A3 and was blown away by the quality. A bit mushy sometimes in the corners but fabulous in the middle of the frame. For small prints and on-screen usage, the files can take some tight cropping but to my mind it makes total sense to maximise every pixel available and careful composition at the time is a huge help in this regard.

Exercise restraint

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

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 seriously degrade the image veryquickly in my experience (remember small sensor). 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 the more detailed parts of the image which can quickly turn to mush.

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. I have included height information in the image captions and you will see there are successful compositions shot from 65 feet up for example and even from head height.

75 feet up – Newborough Beach

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 Pro I use (although a zoom version has just been released along with the aforementioned Pro 2 with its larger sensor) 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.

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

The hardware

Whilst I’m not intending to review the hardware some comments are pertinent as the choices you make here can have a big bearing on success or failure. 

Ringstone Reservoir. It can be a little disconcerting putting the drone up into mist for it to temporarily disappear but it gives an angle I could not get otherwise.

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. Turns out that this was not my smartest choice as the minute I plugged the “smartphone” into the Mavic controller it went “Oh, goody! A big battery!” 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.

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 distances it can technically achieve but I cannot see why people want to fly their expensive kit in places where they cannot see it. 

“Bamburgh Sunrise” DJI Mavic Pro at 102 feet above the beach at Bamburgh

As already mentioned, 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 very rarely now but still, no harm done apart from a few scratches to the drone and a dent to my pride.

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 find the files a lot cleaner, especially with the sun behind the drone.

Conclusion

So, I have made good progress with flying, have settled on using my iPhone as a screen and am starting to get some good still images from the drone. Whilst there is still some work to do with image quality, or perhaps more accurately consistency, I am now producing usable and pleasing images from every flight.

I’ve a few other things to mention, including my experiences with filters shooting panoramas and the various built-in shooting options but will leave those for another day.  

Ringstone Reservoir on a brighter morning. As with all branches of photography looking for something a little different to the norm can result in striking images

To 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.

This is one purchase I have never regretted for a single moment.

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