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Newbie's thoughts after first 'Air holiday' (with film)


Mar 18, 2018
Hey there! I had been reading this forum in the weeks leading up to me buying my Air, so wanted to payback my thoughts that I hope others will find helpful.

(Apologies if this is an overly long and indulgent post. I think I'm warming up for a blog post.)

My Background
I've been a hobbyist photographer for a few years now, mainly in to wildlife photography. My wife and I spent our honeymoon on a Madagascar adventure, which is really where I felt the need for calm, stable footage as I filmed our exploits with a GoPro and my stills camera. Nevertheless, I was pleased to have crafted a 40-minute film from our time there. All of the above can be found on my website here.

Ever since then, I have been captivated by the possibilities of drone video- and photography. I remember my friend and I almost clicking 'buy' on a Phantom 2 back in the day. But the expense was considerable, so I thought about taking a CAA course so I could try and profit from the hobby at least. But that was more yet more expense ... so why not get a better drone ... more expense ... well why not go thermal imaging etc for the most opportunity. All without the promise of any work.

Too much money, and risk, so for the past almost four years I've restrained myself to window shopping.

The Time To Buy
Eventually accrued annual leave, my 'day job' going well, and the Air's release conspired to finally make me bite the bullet in March. Fly More Combo in black.

I had weighed up all the pros and cons, all the things that may go wrong or not quite be perfect, but I just had to finally give it a go.

I live near Richmond Park in south west London, so used its flying field for some initial practice. Then the next week I was off to the azures island of Madeira.

A Reminder Of The Realities
I will be using my Air for film and photos, and as part of deciding to buy I think it's important to remind yourself of the realities of making and showing your films and photos to people, especially if - like me - this really will be a hobby.

Is the Air's image quality enough? For my purposes of making holiday and fun movies to share with family and friends on YouTube etc ... absolutely yes. What about the Pro II? Well yeah but what about the Phantom, or the Inspire? On and on you go up the spending scale.

Does your audience care? Is it worth it? Just remember your audience...

People have jobs, chores, family, friends, hobbies, sleep ... lots of other things that they should be focusing on. All web viewing, even on a nice big desktop screen, is a delay to the thing you should be doing.

And when you think about mobile video viewing, people will probably be watching your video:
  • with "one eye and one thumb" (care of Luke W)
  • while trying to avoid being noticed they're watching it
  • in desperately imperfect conditions...
    • bad lighting
    • bad noise levels
    • finger smudged screen
    • cracked screen
    • pet cat in the way wanting to be fed
Even if your audience start watching your video - just how much of their quality attention will you have, and for how long? How 'quality' will your video look in their viewing conditions, regardless of how quality it actually is?

On balance of price, performance and use case ... I consider the Air to be the sweet spot.

Initial Practice And Reaction
From my few goes in the flying field, I had no qualms about range (people really let this thing go two kilometres away?!), and I was just pretty much blown away by the drone and the industry leading nature of it.

I found the SD card fiddly, the phone connector cable fiddly (the way it always pops out when you remove it), but above all so long as 'everything was green' before I took off, flying was fine.

Getting a smooth camera movement among multiple planes of movement proved very tricky. Kinda hard to practice too in a field with no specific points of interest of target against.

Soon my time was up and I was off to Madeira...

Experience in Madeira
The island itself was a recommendation - good walking, amazing scenery, and better weather for drone practice than either Wales for Scotland. I had never been there before and everything about this trip would be last minute and spur of the moment type thing.

I researched the official requirements for drones, and there was paperwork and such to file if you wanted to film, also film any of the coast, but they all had to be submitted long in advance of the time I had. So ... I just winged it. I got some battery protector bags, but that was about it.

Turns out I needn't have worried. Airport security didn't even glance, and everyone else I met either had their own drone or took a great interest in mine.

It's worth noting that predawn and sunrise are my preferred times to shoot. Sunset too, but mainly the former. So really ... there's barely anyone else there anyway! There was one guy practicing yoga on a beach at sunset who I felt bad for. But the crashing tide soon drowned out the Mavic's noise, and we spoke briefly after: he was friendly and inquisitive.

My main problem was the wind. It was seriously windy pretty much all of the time! On my first morning I went to Pico Do Arieiro. It's about 2km at peak, which you can drive all the way up to then hike along.

I was nearly blown off the path!

So although I was treated to one of the most glorious predawn sights I've ever seen, as desperate as I was to send the Mavic out across this kind of view (360 photo from Google Maps) I was also terrified of losing it.

I did send it up, and it coped okay with the high winds, but it was making an awful struggling noise so I decided to land it pretty quickly.

It will takes lots more flying before I'm happy to see it become a speck in my eyesight over this sort of height and terrain! I cannot imagine the nerve it takes to send a Pro 7km away!

The weather the rest of the days was quite cloudy. So it wasn't as ideal as I had hoped, even some spots of rain, but good enough.

Getting those calm, smooth multi-plane movements timed right now I actually had something to film proved very very very hard. Lots more practice needed!

The Best Light
As I say above, I try to only shoot in the golden hours of sunrise and sunset. Even then, with the low dynamic range of the Air's sensor (essentially that of your smartphone) you can't shoot the sun unless it's right on the horizon. Shooting the golden light on the rest of the landscape works better.

The Right Size
It's worth noting the Air is just an incredible size. I took the whole Fly More combo with me everyday and my stills camera with two lenses and a few accessories took up more room. I would say this is probably the perfect travel drone.

First Loss Of Control
One time at sunset on the coast it was very windy, so I cautiously tried a quick flight. For a brief moment I'm not sure what happened but the drone continued to fly out to sea (!) even though I was trying desperately to bring it back in. It probably only lasted a second or so, but it's safe to say once I got it back I promptly headed home.

The Inevitable Crash :(
Suffice to say, eventually my luck of 'flying by the seat of the pants' on this holiday ran out.

It was sunrise on my last morning, I had about 50 minutes to get to the airport, return my car and check in etc so I was already cutting it fine and in a rush.

I was at Ribiera Da Janela. Despite the cloud I was still loving the scene. It was windy (of course) but the only other person there, a photographer, assured me it was only about twenty mph. I sent it up, and stupidly did two thiings:
  1. Focused on the shot on my phone rather than the position of the drone
  2. Forgot that there was a factory or something behind me making the loudest noise, so I couldn't even hear the drone...
So I as I focused on my phone screen and the beautiful panning I was doing around these rocks on the shore, I forgot entirely about the cliff that I was standing next to.....

I felt sick to the core. It took me a moment to calm down, look at the map, and figure out where the drone was.

All I can say is I was incredibly, incredibly lucky:
  • It had gone in to a bush, rather than the sheer rock face
  • It was a few meters up from a walkway
  • One light was blinking through the bush that allowed me to spot it
  • There was someone else there to watch me as I scrambled up to get it.
I got it, I dusted it off, and when I got back home I fully cleaned it up and put on some new props.

Subsequent flights in the flying field makes it seem like everything is okay. One or two scratches on the body, but that seems about it.

Hopefully. I just reiterate how gallingly nauseous the ordeal was.

So, in a panicked rush I packed up and headed back to the airport, and home to edit together my first ever drone film...

In The Edit
Workflow Tips

I've seen lots of people ask about workflow for 4k and such. My previous career was actually processing digital footage in the film industry, so I try to apply what I learnt there.

I go in to lots more detail on the topic in a previous blog post on the GoPro Hero 4. Because it's the same h264 file format most of it still applies reasonably well.

Just bear this in mind - h264 is not a codec intended for the editing timeline! It works well as a file for web streaming. It works horribly as a file to splice and dice.

The best thing to do, the specifics of whatever program you're using aside, is the following (hard drive space permitting)
  1. Transcode all of you source h264 clips in to a low copy 'proxy'. I recommend something like 480p dimension in the Cineform codec.
  2. Assemble your rough cut.
  3. Now transcode the 'clips that made the cut' in to high quality Cineform, matching the source dimensions.
  4. Now either manually or automatically using your program as much you can, link your timeline to these newly rendered clips.
  5. Fine tune the editing, speed ramps, titles, music and colour grading on this high quality Cineform timeline.
  6. Export a high quality Cineform 'master' output - this is now the master version of your film.
  7. Encode h264 copies of this as you wish for distro + upload, although YouTube can now accept uploads of Cineform Quicktimes anyway.
With the above method, your timeline will never encounter an h264 and your PC will thank-you with acceptable performance.

There's much more to cover in detail, but with the right googling the information is all out there.

(I personally recommend Premiere or DaVinci Resolve)

What You Actually Need From A Clip
Once on the timeline, it's incredible actually how little you need from a clip. A second or two of very subtle movement and that's about it.

I had some loooooong shots over waterfalls and such ... but in a film interest would just be lost, despite the stunning scenery.

Editing really is tough love.

The Resulting Film
So here is my two minute edit of my first drone holiday, after many years of patiently waiting to take the plunge. I'm pleased with what I accomplished, and hope you enjoy it:

Final Thoughts And Future
I am glad to have finally bitten the bullet on a drone. The acid test now really is how much use I'll get out of it. I have barely used the GoPro since returning from my honeymoon in 2014.

But I think the Mavic has the utility to avoid the same fate.

For the time being I am not concerned about the range, the slight bits of lag here and there.

I am disappointed to notice the 'horizontal warp' in the image that others have spotted. Hopefully I can edit around it until there's a firmware or lens correction fix.

More than anything I just can't wait for more holidays, and decent domestic weather, to make more little films and continue to practice.

My only other concern is about 'regulations' and the growing list of where you can't fly. However I've realised that - so long as I'm not an obnoxious idiot - my preferred shooting times of golden hour sunrise means there's barely anyone else there. I'm confident that things will work themselves out in the end.

So I hope this post has been helpful and interesting. I just wanted to repay my thanks to all the many posts that helped me on my way.

To anyone still undecided about the Air: first see if there are events on where you can try one, or places where you can rent one, but overall the cost is definitely worth it if you think about the years and years of (in my case at least) holiday and fun films you'll be able to make. Remember the realities, follow a proper workflow, and remember when there's a cliff behind you.
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