Drone Photography

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Hand-catching a Phantom 3 Professional drone while working with FONAG (A foundation dedicated to the preservation of natural clean water reservoirs) to map the source of the Rio Pita (tributary to Quito’s drinking water) in Cotopaxi national park. Sincholagua volcano in the background. Copyright FONAG 2016.

It’s a common refrain that I tell people that I didn’t think that I would enjoy drone photography quite as much as I do. Now, I find drones to be an indispensable part of my portfolio, and I feel quite out of sorts when I am without one. The increased quality and portability (exemplified by the DJI Mavic line) is making drone photography increasingly accessible.

Sunrises are often atmospheric, and a photographer’s favourite. In the Amazon, rainforest transpiration creates a billowing fog over the rainforest canopy, accentuated by increased morning activity by avifauna. Photographed with the DJI Mavic Pro I. Sunrise over Sani lodge, Ecuadorian Amazon. Copyright Paul Bertner 2017.

Background

Traditional reviews like those by “Trusted Reviews” or dpreview are good at pointing out the bullet points and specs that help inform one’s purchasing. They are also updated on a regular basis and can be a source for the most current information. However, it’s always valuable to see not just real-world performance, but performance related to one’s own particular needs. For example, the complex moustache-distortion present in many of DJI’s consumer-level drones is generally not an issue for the majority of photographers, However, those whose purpose is photographing architecture, might find themselves disappointed. It should be noted though that certain points raised by reviewers might be emphasized in a review if for no other reason than to appear thorough and balanced (ie. Justifying the need for the review itself).

The majority of my observations and recommendations pertain to rainforest photography in particular, and extrapolation to other fields is at one’s own discretion (and hazard).

My introduction to UAVs came through the DJI Phantom 3 Pro in 2016. I got roughly 6 months of flying out of the drone before a collision with an overhead tree branch in Ecuador grounded my ambitions, but not before offering a tantalizing taste of the possibilities of aerial photography. I picked myself up (registered anonymously in various drone support groups for pilot victims, this is actually a thing!), and after my confidence was sufficiently massaged back into being, I bought a new pair of wings. I switched to the more portable DJI Mavic Pro. Despite a noticeable step down in terms of quality, it is still an impressive device, and it’s portability ensures that it can thrown in a backpack to be taken along at every occasion, something entirely impossible with the larger series drones (technically I was able to rearrange the padding in my camera bag, a Gura Gear Bataflae 32L to accommodate the P3P, although this is still inconvenient and still requires a hard-case for international or rugged travel), and personally, well-worth the tradeoff. [Nb.The more recently released DJI Mavic Pro II offers important quality upgrades (1″ sensor), and 360° sensor FOV, better radio-connectivity, etc…]

Respective sensor sizes of various popular camera formats. Image from Dpreview.com

Drone Etiquette

Although drone enthusiasts will downplay the risks, one can say unequivocally that drones are noisy (though they’re getting better), dangerous (the same can be said of any object when dropped from a certain height), and to many, constitute an invasion of privacy. Therefore:

  1. Don’t fly in crowded areas, and maintain a respect for sensitive areas, including but not limited to breeding areas, nesting sites, feeding sites, watering holes, around rare/sensitive species.
  2. Always take others’ concerns into consideration when flying, especially during the early morning hours, or when flying might cause disruption to others’ activities eg. bird-watching.
  3. Make sure that you have advised anyone nearby that you will be flying, and if you will be taking pictures/videos which might include them, first obtain their verbal or written consent [a release is often necessary for unambiguous (ie. not subject to takedown/litigation) commercial use of footage].
  4. Always be prepared to ground your drone, whether that comes in the form of not taking off to begin with, grounding it prematurely and/or in an emergency landing zone, or should disaster strike, executing a forced combined stick command (CSC), and losing the drone in order to avert a greater catastrophe.
  5. Have a proper exit and landing strategy in place. The DJI app is error prone, and the app will crash at some point, that’s almost inevitable. It’s frightening when this occurs, but if you are flying with the remote, you can usually still execute return to home function (if not, RTH is a standard feature which is engaged when the drone loses connectivity with the remote), and then manually land by line-of-sight. Other complications might include radio signal loss, low battery or hardware failure and one should have a pre-flight strategy to deal with each in turn.
  6. Be aware of wildlife, and the impact your flying has on that wildlife (if in doubt, ask local experts or other drone operators). Drones can elicit defensive or flight responses from birds and mammals, which might endanger the animals themselves, bystanders, yourself or your drone.

My flight procedure

  1. Determine whether an area requires any special flight permissions and query the relevant authorities to obtain permission.
  2. If flying at altitude >250M, I will check local flight plans and trajectories [Website].
  3. Where applicable, organize with locals a flight plan to minimize disturbance to others.
  4. Observe for any potential hazards. In the rainforest this includes lianas, vines, swaying trees or branches and depending on the forest, leaves (some dipterocarps and cecropias have giant leaves which when dislodged can entangle or else ground smaller drones).
  5. Determine canopy height and make the necessary changes to the Return to Home (RTH) altitude. **This step is often overlooked and can present a very real hazard**
  6. Determine that there are no immediate aerial threats (birds, overhead obstacles, impending rain, high velocity winds, etc…).
  7. Clear the ground, or preferably elevate the drone (a pelican case works very well as a landing/takeoff pad).
  8. Perform Pre-flight Checklist (See Footnote*).
  9. If taking off under the canopy, engage a stabilization mode (tripod mode for DJI users) for greater control. Be especially sensitive to any wind, which can move branches and lianas from several metres into away into the flight path of the drone. The drone will be slightly less responsive in tripod mode, but can be maneuvered more surely between hazards. This is especially useful for navigating from out of the understory to get above the canopy. Ensure line-of-sight, and preferably check from multiple perspectives to be certain that there are no small obstacles like vines or aerial roots which might otherwise entangle the propellers.
  10. Frequently check altitudinal changes and take note of inconsistent canopy height. Use custom key C1/C2 to quickly change gimbal position by 90 degrees to check for potential flight hazards from below.
  11. I’ll generally do a “fly-by” or  first pass of an area to begin with, limiting the number of photos I take in order to get the lay of the land, experimenting with different altitudes and generally not straying further than 1 km whilst choosing from a position which grants me the furthest line of sight possible. I never descend below the canopy using the first person viewer on the remote, only ever by line-of-sight, so as to appropriately gauge the hazards.
  12. Photograph the scene (details below) using a bracketed exposure.
  13. RTH with 15% minimum battery life remaining.

The Basics

Always carry out your pre-flight checklist (Detailed below)*. It takes only a minute, but it’s a good habit to get into, and can discover chipped propeller blades, compass disequilibrium, memory card absence/failure, etc…

Always carry at least one extra battery. Oftentimes one will have to reconnoitre an area first, or else return prematurely on account of the weather, a crashed app (affecting flight), battery life in either the phone or the remote, or else some other factor beyond prediction.

In the rainforest, the attached gimbal-mounted lens is still subject to fogging, especially in the morning immediately after takeoff as the system warms up. This will immediately frustrate any attempts at capturing that sunrise, and it can be difficult to remove the internal lens fog (which only manifests as soon as the drone has left the ground and internal temperatures rise). Therefore keep your drone, or at least the gimbal/lens dry in a dry-box with silica or some other desiccant when the humidity rises (alternatively you can use a plastic bag with silica/rice and gently wrap it around just the lens, sealing it with cellophane at the top.

Some useful accessories which I use are:

  1. Polar Pro ND-Polarizing filters ND 4, ND 16, ND 32. These are pretty essential, unless flying on completely overcast days.
  2. Landing feet extenders (for DJI Mavic Pro) may help cushion ones’ gimbal from a hard landing in uneven terrain, or else provide greater clearance for potentially lens dust to dirty the front lens during landing/takeoff.
  3. Extra folding propellers
  4. Soft sleeve for protection and portability

There are a huge number of OEM and 3rd party manufacturer accessories which include everything from propeller guards and multi-bay battery chargers to FPV goggles. and various remote controller mods and upgrades. Apart from the filters, which in my opinion are essential (and very obviously and immediately improve image quality), the other accessories provide a platform for customization, rather than indispensable gains in function.

Drone still Photography styles

  1. High altitude (>200M)

Perhaps the most obvious benefit and use for a drone is the imaging of large-scale geographical features which are otherwise inaccessible. At these altitudes, one should assume higher wind speeds and lower temperatures, and factor these into one’s risk assessment and battery consumption calculations (in addition to the increased risk of unwanted commercial air traffic).

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Headwaters of the Rio Pita at the foot of Sincholagua mountain in Cotopaxi national park, Ecuador. Shot with P3P drone. Copyright Paul Bertner 2016.

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Floreana beach, Galapagos, Ecuador. Photo taken with the P3P drone. Copyright Paul Bertner 2016.

Rio Pita waterfalls from Cotopaxi NP, Ecuador. Shot with P3P drone. Copyright Paul Bertner 2016.

2. Logistically inaccessible areas

These are dangerous, difficult or physically inaccessible areas. One might not need a wide altitudinal range, but simply take advantage of the drone’s maneuverability and flexibility. Examples include working under the rainforest canopy, around waterfalls or volcanoes/lava flows.

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A dense and an extremely mountainous terrain in Sumaco National park, Ecuador. Photographed with the DJI Mavic I Pro. Copyright Paul Bertner 2018.

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Caño Canoas waterfalls in La Macarena district, Colombia. Photographed with DJI Mavic Pro I. Copyright Paul Bertner 2018.

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Sani lodge’s Ceiba Canopy tower, Ecuadorian Amazon. The wide angle of the DJI camera is misleading, since the drone is actually quite close (<5m) from the topmost branches of the Ceiba tree. Photographed with the DJI P3P drone. Copyright Paul Bertner 2017.

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Photo from Morromico, outside Utria national park, Colombian Choco. Photographed with the DJI Mavic I Pro. Copyright Paul Bertner 2018.

3. Bird’s eye view (BOV)

BOV obviously overlaps with many other styles, however, the BOV as I am defining it here, refers specifically to the camera oriented straight down. This is particularly effective when accentuated by geometrical shapes, or lines which can create an engaging aesthetic, especially when incorporated into a narrative.

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Kayaking in the Brazilian Amazon. Shot with the DJI mavic Pro I. Copyright Paul Bertner 2018.

Clouds reflected in the surface of Lago pan on Mocagua island, Colombian Amazon. Shot with the DJI Mavic Pro I. Copyright Paul Bertner 2018.

Compare the style of the next two shots. The first illustrates BOV, whilst the second has a larger angle of incidence.

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Tweedsmuir national park, British Columbia, Canada. Photographed with the DJI Mavic I Pro. Copyright Paul Bertner 2018.

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Tweedsmuir national park, British Columbia, Canada. Photographed with the DJI Mavic I Pro. Copyright Paul Bertner 2018.

4. Wide-angle landscape

These shots can provide an escape from landscape-blocking features, to enable impressive vistas. The maneuverability of the drone means that it can be placed into crevasses, across water features, or other dangerous or inaccessible locations.

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Sunrise around Tayrona national park, Colombian Caribbean. Shot with the DJI mavic Pro I. Copyright Paul Bertner 2018.

Challuacocha at Sani lodge, bordering Yasuni National park, Ecuador. Shot with the P3P drone Copyright Paul Bertner 2017.

5. Clouds

Flying into clouds represents some obvious risks (water/electrical damage and loss of line sight being the most obvious). However, one might judge that the benefits outweigh the risk, as clouds can completely change the framing, and atmosphere of a photo. I often experiment with their incorporation to some extent, whenever they are present, and it makes sense to do so. It’s important to keep a line of sight on the drone, insofar as is possible, in order to determine the cloud type, to have an exit strategy in case one loses sight and or control of the drone, and to respond to features in the landscape obscured by the cloud cover.

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Challuacocha lake, partially obscured by cloud creates an enigmatic and atmospheric perspective. Shot with the DJI Mavic Pro I drone. Photo from Sani lodge, Ecuadorian Amazon, 2017.

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Shot with the DJI Mavic Pro I drone. Photo from the Cauca Valley, Colombia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2018.

The clouds don’t necessarily have to be at camera-level to be effective, as long as the overall effect is immersive.

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Cauca Valley, Colombia. Photographed with the DJI Mavic I Pro. Copyright Paul Bertner 2018.

6. Golden hour(s)

Due to the curvature of the earth and line-of-sight, the arriving or retreating sun can be observed at higher altitudes before/after conventional ground-based photography (a point seldom accounted for by landscape photographers).

Sunrise in the rainforest is a great time to fly, and low-lying mists over the canopy add to the atmosphere.

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Golden hours still apply to drone photos, though be careful of the level of flare which can sometimes overcome the photo. Shot with the DJI Mavic Pro I drone. Photo from leticia, Colombia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2017.

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Amazon sunrise from Sani lodge, bordering Yasuni national park, Ecuador. Shot with the P3P drone. Copyright Paul Bertner 2017.

Sunrises are generally handled better than sunsets by the smaller sensor drones. They start to show significant noise at anything higher than base ISO 100, and don’t handle highlight/shadow recovery in post-processing particularly well either.

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Photo from Santa Cruz island, Galapagos, Ecuador. Photo taken with the DJI P3P drone. Copyright Paul Bertner 2016.

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Canoeing on Challuacocha lake at sunset at Sani lodge, Ecuador. Photo taken with the DJI Mavic Pro I. Copyright Paul Bertner 2017.

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Sunset over Palmari reserve, Brazilian Amazon. Photo taken with the DJI Mavic Pro I. Copyright Paul Bertner 2018.

7. Night photography

Despite drones being equipped with flashing LED safety lights, and being very capable of flying at night, the sensor size in most consumer models is generally too small to meet a minimum quality standard. Below is a blue hour shot, taken just after sunset.

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Mocagua island at the blue hour from Canaloa lodge, Colombian Amazon. Photo taken with the DJI Mavic Pro I. Copyright Paul Bertner 2017.

7. Narrative-driven 

This doesn’t necessarily represent a distinct style, but rather, is contextual and fits into the accompanying narrative. The more specific and focussed the photo, the greater the effectiveness. A generic landscape photo, regardless of the its beauty, is not as effective within the narrative as one which shows dynamism and can communicate along multiple storylines. Shooting in this manner often requires having a clear story in mind before flying.

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“A road runs through it” – Yotoco reserve is not only bi-sected by a highway, but is flanked on all sides by farmlands. It is a forested island, rich with interesting species, however, it’s unclear how this ~500 Ha reserve will sustain larger mammalian species in the long-term. Photo from Yotoco reserve, Colombia. Shot with the DJI Mavic Pro I. Copyright Paul Bertner 2018.

If you have any additional drone tips or experiences, I encourage you to leave a comment or PM.

*Pre-flight Checklist

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