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More months, more flying. I’ve come to believe that real appeal of aerial photography lies solely in one thing: the ability to see familiar places or objects or classes of objects from a drastically and otherwise physically inaccessible perspective. An image shot from a slightly elevated level with gimbal only slightly down is not that different to standing on a hill or building; an image shot from some altitude and entirely top down is at the other end of the scale. Most of the really interesting drone images I’ve seen or personally captured seem to fall into the latter category. We are coming dangerously close to the automated and the formulaic, here. Or are we?

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In some ways, shooting with a drone forces you to completely re-examine one’s photographic fundamentals. Interesting light is a given, though remember this is subject specific: whilst long shadows can cast interesting silhouettes, flatter, lower-contrast light on certain subjects can work too – it all depends on the subject and creative intention. Foliage, for instance, seems to work better with diffuse and lower contrast; otherwise the spatial frequency of leaves and other reflecting elements can be too high and make the overall image just look gritty. There is a certain amount of exposure control, but limitations in terms of what’s interesting perspective-wise; drones with longer tele lenses aren’t widespread yet (other than interchangeable lens options on the Inspire 2) mainly because of weight and the necessity of having a second camera for the pilot; so in practical terms, you’re limited to wide. That’s somewhere in the 24-28mm range. Anything more than 45deg gimbal-up to the horizontal results in fairly ordinary perspectives; we’re back to relying on extraordinary light to carry the shot. Anything more than 45deg down starts to get interesting, but we face a new problem: one of orientation.

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I’ve found that if you’re not very careful establishing which direction is the implied ‘up’, you can land up producing a very disorienting image. There’s no inherent reference a lot of the time – in the best case, you have shadow direction suggesting bottom and highlight edges suggesting top – however, even this often fails as soon as surfaces become three dimensional and subject elements get hidden in shadows cast by other things. It doesn’t help that moderate wide angle geometric distortion inevitably results in some stretching towards the edges of the frame, too – which further means that one has to be careful putting dominant objects at the edge of the frame, as they will stretch and perhaps draw attention where you don’t want them to. Conventional ideas of composing with strong foreground anchors when shooting with a drone are somewhat moot as you’re never really close enough to anything for the ‘dramatic wide look’; the best you’re going to do is with a large structure and some converging lines.

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Speaking of converging lines: for some odd reason, any divergence from references – e.g. edge of frame, horizon, road grid etc. – becomes very obvious, and care needs to be taken to position the camera carefully. This is not so easy when the aircraft itself is often moving slightly, and positioning cannot be absolute. It’s compounded by wide lenses that magnify any misalignment. The only solution I’ve found is to simply back up a bit and give yourself adequate room for correction afterwards. It also makes me wish for a larger sensor for more processing altitude and resolution; right now we have to make every pixel count because there are only 12 million of them.

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I actually think that a lot of the magic of a drone is lost when used for only stills: the main draws remain change of perspective and the ability to look straight down without seeing the support. For video, the draw is something else: the ability to move in an almost unlimited path around and object and in doing so, provide the audience with the illusion of being able to move free of constraints. This is uniquely differentiated from our normal daily experience since we generally only move in one plane, and even then only within defined paths.

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Whilst it’s quite a lot of effort to plan, shoot and edit a video every time you go out, the new DJI Goggles are quite another experience entirely. Two 1080P screens (one for each eye) with adjustable interocular distance and diopter provide a remarkably immersive experience, especially if viewed with no flight data overlaid (not recommended!). Otherwise, it’s possible to fly off the controller as normal, but give the goggles to somebody else to experience. Is it better than looking at your iPhone screen to fly? Yes. Is there any way to present the experience online? Unfortunately, not. Stereoscopic stills would be nice, but there’s probably not going to be much of an effect with typical aerial subject distances. So, for us stills shooters – a large print or screen still reigns. But it would still be nice to have a longer lens sometimes.

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In the meantime, I leave you with my adventures from around the neighbourhood – the Mavic accompanied me for its first international trip a little while back as a reconnaissance drone for quick scouting before setting up big brother M600 and H6D-100c payload, and images from that trip will follow in due course. For the stills photographer, I think this is actually the strength of the smaller drones: convenience and size meaning that you can easily see whether it’s worth setting up and sending up the big guns; whilst stills quality is very good given the 1/2.3″ sensor size, there are still of course serious output limitations. Don’t be surprised if there’s a larger aircraft in my near future… MT

The DJI Mavic is available here from B&H, Amazon or DJI directly. As are the FPV goggles (B&H, Amazon, DJI). More information can be found on the DJI website.


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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

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