Lori Carey Photography

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Learning To Fly

I have a love/hate relationship with drones.

I hate seeing my neighbor's drone fly over my backyard. They can be annoying when an insensitive drone operator buzzes around people (which isn't legal) or along a hiking trail where people want to hear the sounds of nature, or when they are wrecking the shot somewhere that landscape photographers are trying to shoot without a care for others. Then there's the idiots with a sense of entitlement, few skills and no common sense who fly where they shouldn't and crash them into the Grand Prismatic spring, annoy wildlife, interfere with fire-fighting efforts, and do other stupid things that give drone operators (unmanned aircraft pilots per the FAA) a bad name.

But there's no denying that aerial footage from drones can be spectacular and absolutely breath-taking when done right.

My cousin Sean Mitchell visited us last January while he was in California on business. Sean was the co-founder and COO of the Irish tech company Movidius before they were purchased by Intel earlier this year. I won't even pretend to have an inkling of exactly what Movidius does beyond making chips with a focus on AI (artificial intelligence), but some of the technology they developed was the Vision Processing System that does the Active Track, Tap-To-Fly, and Obstacle Avoidance for DJI drones/quadcopters. (I'm incredibly proud of my cousin - he's an astute businessman who is extremely intelligent and now wildly successful, but he's one of the most down-to-earth people you could meet and a really fun guy to hang out with). While I was cooking dinner, Sean and my husband were discussing the advances in drone (quadcopter) technology. My husband was fascinated and thought it would be great to have on our Jeep trips. I explained that as awesome as it would be, I was already stretched thin and didn't have time to dedicate to learning something new. Learning to shoot and edit video, and do it well, takes an incredible amount of time. Motion is a whole different ballgame than still photography.

A few weeks later my husband received a package in the mail with no note or sender information. It was the newly released DJI Mavic Pro Fly More Combo, in our hands while others were still wondering when they would ship. I couldn't ignore such a generous gift and all of my excuses about not having time disappeared. After adding international calling to Bill's phone so he could call Sean to thank him, Bill and I set up our game plan. I told Bill that if we were going to do this (rather if I were going to invest the time and effort), we were going to do it the right way and make it worthwhile. We would have to work as a team, with each of us taking on the responsibilities that played to our strengths.

He learned how to fly the drone and work the camera controls, I began studying basic cinematography and then teaching him what I was learning - camera angles and movement, the relationship between frame rate and shutter speeds, exposure, visualizing the scene, and all that other fun stuff that needs to be learned only after you learn how to control the drone. I'm sure I drove him crazy by making him watch endless drone footage that showed the kind of camera movement I wanted him to learn. Eventually he was doing more than just flying the Mavic around with the camera running. He began filming with an eye toward the end product.

I started learning about the legal and business angle of drones and devoted a lot of time toward studying for my 107 UAS Pilot license, which is required for commercial shooting. I'm ready to sit for the exam but I still haven't decided if I'm going to pull the trigger; being licensed changes the game completely and adds a lot more legal responsibility as well as additional restrictions (one would think that hobbyists would have more restrictions than licensed professionals, but it's actually the opposite in this case). I need to make a strong business case for obtaining my license (the exam is $150 and several hours) or we may just stick with doing it for fun.

Then I had to learn video editing. I purchased Adobe Premiere Elements because I couldn't justify $50 per month for Premier Pro unless I was making money shooting videos. I hated Premiere Elements. While there are some things I like about the program, I didn't like that only very basic grading could be done, the title templates looked very hokey, and the whole thing had the feel of software for amateurs. It was way too cutesy for me. After spending a couple months playing around with it, I decided to try the highly recommended DaVinci Resolve. After months of learning Premiere, now I was back to square one. Resolve is a very sophisticated and highly capable video editor, but learning how to use the program is akin to learning Photoshop; you could spend the rest of your life learning how to do everything the program is capable of doing. Nothing is intuitive, so while I usually can sit down and figure out how to use software right off the bat, Resolve took me hours and hours of studying before I could do even the most basic thing.

Meanwhile I was supposed to be shooting the "B-roll" when we were out in the field and I have to admit that I failed miserably. I get too wrapped up in shooting stills and forget about getting any video footage, and when I do remember to shoot video one of the hardest things for me to remember is to shoot for several seconds longer than I think I should...shoot "through" the scene. I've shot so many clips that were way too short to be of any use. I need to figure out how to change my mental work flow when I'm in the field. Bill kept adding to our aerial footage over several months and our archive was building. I wanted him to have a "brag" video to show his friends and family, and I wanted to show my cousin that his generous gift has been put to good use. We'd been working on this since January and still didn't have anything to show for it. I also wanted Bill to see the results of his hard work, and that there was a reason for the things I wanted him to learn (and also see why some things are mistakes that don't work).

All of this learning about how to fly (and control) the Mavic and the camera, aerial photography, cinematic techniques, video editing, and studying for the license exam has taken up a substantial portion of my time in 2017. We both still have a LOT to learn, but finally we've reached the point where the footage is starting to match my vision and my editing/grading skills are improving enough so that I could finally put something together.

I called it Learning To Fly because that's what it really is - Bill learning to fly the drone to capture cinematic footage at several beautiful locations we've visited in the California desert. I had hoped to share it on Facebook, but it's too big to upload there so I had to use YouTube. It's not perfect, we're both still working on our skills, but I think we're headed in the right direction. I have something to show my cousin, and Bill absolutely loved it, which was the important thing. I hope you enjoy seeing the places we love to explore and photograph in a whole new light.

The DJI Mavic Pro is perfect for us because it's small size is easy to fit in our already over-packed Jeep and it's so easy to fly. Knock on wood, we haven't had any mishaps with it yet.

It's getting harder and harder to find places to legally fly the drone. We try to stay educated on the legal issues and we're very conscious of only flying in remote locations where we won't bother other people. National Parks and Monuments are out, National Forests are okay. A huge portion of BLM land in California was recently made into two new monuments (Sand To Snow and Mojave Trails), so they are out now. Entire towns have banned drones (Laguna Beach most recently). We have to use an app on our phones to check for TFRs (Temporary Flight Restrictions) and NOTAMs (Notice to Airmen) and if we're going someplace without a signal we need to do our research first. Another app tells us if there are any airports within five miles (including heliports) that need to be notified before we fly. If I get my 107 UAS license so I can do it commercially, there are even more restrictions, more regulations, more requirements. I often wonder if it's worth all of the trouble. Yet there's no denying that the footage can be incredibly beautiful and shows a location in a way that still photos can't. I'm still weighing the pros and cons.

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