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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Get Above It All

Aerial imaging using consumer-level “drones” is now within reach of any photographer. In this first in a series of articles, we embark on the steps to get started.

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Using a monitor, you can see what the camera sees as you're flying the Phantom.
3 Insert vibration isolation between the GoPro mount and the airframe. Many third-party manufacturers, mostly small, mom-and-pop shops on the Internet, sell vibration-isolation mounts specifically designed for the Phantom. These isolators use silicone dampener balls or wire isolation and are easily installed between the GoPro mount and Phantom. Be sure to look for one that isn't too thick, or you may have to order third-party landing struts to increase the usable height between the Phantom and the ground.

4 Buy a gimbal. Brushless gimbals stabilize the camera in roll and pitch directions and keep the camera absolutely level during flight, even when the aircraft is rolling and pitching aggressively. Brushless gimbals require vibration isolation to work properly, so they typically come bundled together. Using a brushless gimbal is absolutely the best way to get stable video; we'll discuss gimbals in detail in the next installment of this series in Outdoor Photographer.

Any GoPro HERO camera will work well to capture aerial video and still pictures from a quadcopter like a Phantom, but using a HERO3 will give you the best-possible image quality from a lightweight camera. The HERO3 shoots fisheye stills at 12 megapixels, allows you to select between Wide, Medium and Narrow fields of view, and includes the highest-bit-rate Protune support, allowing video recording at around 45 megabits per second (Mbps) without contrast or saturation applied for the best possible raw video source from a GoPro. Even without a gimbal, you'll be able to get fantastic still images and decent video from a new perspective. You'll be able to differentiate yourself as a photographer and give totally new context to your next photo essay.

Eric Cheng is an award-winning underwater photographer, publisher and technologist. Caught between technical and creative worlds, Cheng holds bachelor's and master's degrees in computer science from Stanford University, where he also studied classical cello performance. He's the founder of Wetpixel.com, the premiere community website for underwater image makers. See more of his work at echeng.com and skypixel.org.

What About An SLR?
When photographers start down the path of unmanned aerial photography, most inevitably assume they will be using large cameras like SLRs. The temptation is certainly understandable; SLRs are ubiquitous and are still king when it comes to image quality, but they're heavy and add unnecessary mass in an application where optical viewfinders aren't necessary.

Mirrorless cameras are particularly suitable for aerial photography because they combine large sensors with light camera bodies and lenses. However, even the lightest mirrorless cameras end up being fairly heavy for unmanned aerial applications. Remember that it isn't just a camera and lens that a multi-rotor must lift into the sky. A heavier camera necessitates a heavier gimbal, which requires larger (and possibly, more numerous) propellers, stronger motors, a larger frame and bigger batteries. Every part of a drone scales up along with the capacity to lift a heavier camera, including cost. Another problem is that larger drones still only exist in the hobby world and in high-end applications, which means you need to build one yourself or be willing to pay a lot more.

On the other hand, a Phantom and GoPro can both be purchased easily and put up in the air in a matter of minutes. Small UAS and GoPro cameras are the best way to get started in unmanned aerial photography. You're more likely to take risks with a $679 Phantom than with a large multi-rotor.

Flying skills are everything in this particular photographic pursuit, and you definitely want to fly a platform that you won't be too scared to use. In fact, I recommend practicing your flight skills using smaller, toy quadcopters, which can be purchased for as little as $40. All 4-channel RC quadcopters fly using the same radio configuration, so the skills you acquire as you fly toys around will translate directly into better aerial photography when using larger platforms.

Another reason for using a small aircraft, which for me has been the best reason, is that they travel well and don't scare people. I pack a Phantom, gimbal, camera, batteries, extra propellers, tools, remote monitor and video receiver into a single waterproof Nanuk case that fits into overhead bins on airplanes. TSA and customs officials identify the case as containing a "toy helicopter," and most people aren't afraid when they see me flying it around. Finally, smaller aircraft have reduced risk of injuring someone or causing property damage in the event of a crash. Once you're completely competent as an aerial photographer, you can plan your upgrade to larger, heavier cameras.


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