My New Obsession: Aerial Photography & Creative Cloud

I have a new “hobby”, and I must admit, I am completely addicted. Perhaps “obsessed” might be the proper term. Luckily for me, it is a great use of Creative Cloud, so I can get away with it! What is this new obsession, you ask? Aerial Photography.

However, I’m not flying airplanes or riding in helicopters. In fact, my feet aren’t even leaving the ground at all… just my camera. It all started a few weeks ago when my friend Tony approached me about getting some aerial photos for experimentation. He knew I already had a GoPro camera, and that I was completely obsessed with it… GoPros take incredible pictures, and are very durable. The only thing was that we needed a reliable way to get it off the ground.

Enter part 2 of the equation, and the greatest part of my obsession: the quadcopter.  Basically, it is a multi-rotor remote controlled helicopter. Multi-rotor copters are mechanically very simple, very stable, and versatile. Just check out this TED video to see how agile and versatile they can be.

I had been wanting one of these for a long time. Researching here and there, looking at the DIY and pre-built kits. I wanted something that would be easy to fly, but also capable of outdoor flight and a camera payload. Copters can range from inexpensive children’s toys to high-end hex/octo-rotor professional rigs for many thousands of dollars, and I looked at nearly every one of them. I finally settled on the DJI Phantom.

DJI_Phantom

I chose this copter mainly for two reasons:

  • It has a GPS guidance system that makes it easy to fly, corrects for wind drift, and even has a “return to home” feature if the battery gets low or if it loses contact with the controller. Yet, it can be very maneuverable and agile. 
  • It is easy to setup, and comes with a GoPro mounting system.
  • The videos that people are producing with this setup will make your jaw drop. (Yes, I said two… this one isn’t an “official” reason.)

DJI’s promise of “ease of use” definitely holds true. It was setup and running very quickly, with the longest part of the setup process waiting for the battery to charge. Once we finally got it off the ground, there was no going back… Now, with everything that I look at, I wonder “Wouldn’t that be cool to take a picture of from the air?”

A word of warning, once you start down this path, it is very easy to become obsessed – I will elaborate more on this subject in a bit. For now, check out some of my recent photos with this rig. You can see the full collection (and any future photos) on my Flickr photostream.

Ocean-Pines-2013-06-17-020-editOcean-Pines-2013-06-17-014-editOcean Pines 2013-06-17-054-2.jpgOcean Pines 2013-06-17-020-1.jpgOcean Pines 2013-06-17-068-9.jpgOcean Pines 2013-06-17-062-8.jpg
Ocean Pines 2013-06-17-057-7.jpgOcean Pines 2013-06-17-055-6.jpgOcean Pines 2013-06-17-050-5.jpgOcean Pines 2013-06-17-046-4.jpgOcean Pines 2013-06-17-026-3.jpgOcean Pines 2013-06-17-014-2.jpg
Ocean Pines 2013-06-17-004-1.jpgPemberton Park - 2013-06-14-050-12.jpgPemberton Park - 2013-06-14-046-11.jpgPemberton Park - 2013-06-14-042-10.jpgPemberton Park - 2013-06-14-041-9.jpgPemberton Park - 2013-06-14-032-8.jpg
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In fact, we were so excited to fly it, that we didn’t even wait for daylight! The Phantom has a series of LEDs for navigation, so there was no problem flying at night, at all. Here’s a short video from my first quadcopter flight:

While this setup takes amazing still images out-of-the-box, you may have noticed that the video isn’t all that smooth. Some of the shaking can be reduced by refining your piloting techniques (don’t ascend/descend too fast, etc…). However, the default configuration isn’t ideal for video capture. Though, much of that can be corrected with some ad-ons (which I will be investing in), and software-based video stabilization in After Effects. Again, I’ll cover this more in a bit…

Lessons Learned

My explorations into aerial photography have provided me with some valuable lessons…

  • Accept the fact that you will crash.  Even though the Phantom is very easy to fly, at some point you will, without a doubt, crash the copter. Luckily every piece of the copter can be replaced. If your battery is almost dead and you try to take off, the copter will just flip over onto the ground. If you are trying to land and there is a strong gust of wind, you will likely crash. If you descend too quickly, you will crash. I mention each of these, because I have done all of them.
  • Immediately replace the nuts that hold the propellers onto the copter.  Within the first week of owning the Phantom, I lost a propeller and the copter came plummeting to the ground. Luckily, I was only about ten feet off of the ground when this happened. The “dome” nuts that ship with the copter look pretty, but are not reliable. Get some new nuts with lock washers, Nylock nuts, and/or some thread lock to prevent the nuts from loosening due to vibration. If you use thread lock, just be sure NOT to get any on the plastic propellers. I have heard it will do bad things to them.
  • Be prepared to obsess over the ways that you can use and modify the copter. This leads me to my next section…

Add-Ons

If you are like me, you will immediately want to explore all of the ways that you can use the Phantom once you get it. This will lead you down the road of watching countless YouTube videos that others have created, reading DIY instructions for modifications, and scouring the web for upgrade options.

Must haves:

  • Extra batteries. The Phantom comes with one battery that lasts 10-12 minutes. You will want more batteries for additional flight time.
  • Better nuts to secure the propellers. (See my lessons learned above)

Of course, not all modifications are “must haves”; here are the next few options that are on my list. If anyone is looking for a gift idea for me, look at this list! :)

  • Travel Case. Without a doubt, you will want to protect your copter. I have mine in a cardboard box lined with bubble-wrap to prevent damage from travel and toddlers. If you plan on travelling with your copter (which I do), you will want something like one of these.
  • Upgraded Propellers. Larger propellers provide additional lift. Balanced propellers provide less vibration. Stiffer propellers also provide additional lift. The Phantom ships with 8″ plastic props. I’m looking into 9″ wooden or carbon fiber, balanced propellers.
  • Camera Gimbal System. A gimbal system will keep your camera stable, regardless of the pitch or yaw of the copter. This will make a huge difference if you are producing video. There are lots of options, from DIY kits, to the official DJI/Zenmuse Gimbal system that was just released today. I am drooling over these options.
  • Vibration Isolation Mount. If you have a gimbal, you probably already have this, but if you don’t, you might want one. A vibration isolation mount will reduce the copter vibrations that are transferred to the camera. This will result in better quality images and videos, and less “jello effect”.
  • ND/Polarized filters for the GoPro camera. ND filters and polarized filters can help improve the captured image or video, and can minimize the “jello effect” due to vibrations.
  • FPV Video Navigation System. An FPV (First Person View) video system gives you the ability to see exactly what the copter sees when you are flying. This can be really useful for framing of photos, or flying beyond line-of-sight. Most of these will require you to modify your copter. You can use the GoPro app as a limited FPV system; although keep in mind that it operates over an ad hoc wifi connection. If you lose the connection, you lose the video feed.

I mentioned that people are creating amazing images and videos with this rig; here are just a few that blew me away…

… and there are many, many more.

Creative Cloud

So, I’ve written all about the copter so far, but what about Creative Cloud?  How does it tie into quadcopters? Creative Cloud enables you to do more with the aerial imagery that you capture from the quadcopter.

When taking still images, I setup the camera so that it will automatically take two pictures every second. When you’re flying for 10 minutes, this ends up being a lot of images. Lightroom enables you to quickly import, tag, develop, and publish your images.

Import in Lightroom
Import in Lightroom
Develop in Lightroom
Develop in Lightroom

Many of the images need additional editing before they are suitable for your final product. Whether you need to remove objects (such as landing gear, shadows, people, etc…), or you want to tweak clouds or make other dramatic changes, Photoshop enables you to do these things. Photoshop enables rich editing and retouching of images.

Advanced Editing in Photoshop CC
Advanced Editing in Photoshop CC

Of course, it’s not all about still images. Premiere and After Effects enable editing and production of your captured videos. You can use Premiere to arrange multiple clips into a broader sequence, and you can add post-processing effects and image stabilization with After Effects.

Editing Video in Premiere Pro CC
Editing Video in Premiere Pro CC

…and what is a video without audio? Audition provides you with a rich environment for audio production. Whether it is editing the captured audio, or producing new music and soundtracks, Audition has you covered.

Produce Audio with Audition CC
Produce Audio with Audition CC

Here’s another video that I produced using Premiere for edits, stabilization with After Effects, and Audition for audio tweaks. Granted, I do not have a gimbal or other stabilization system, so bear with the quality!

This is just the proverbial “tip of the iceberg”. Creative Cloud gives you the tools you need to create amazing multimedia content, and the means to make that content engaging and interactive – from hobbyist to die-hard professional.

Once you’re happy with what you’ve got, don’t forget you can share it on Behance via your Creative Cloud membership!

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  • PH

    was hoping u made a phonegap controller for Phantom :-)

  • wayne parrott

    Very cool. I’m a phonegap’r and recently got into quadcopters for similar reasons as you. I have started small with simple V202 from MassiveRC ($50) to get the crashes out of the way. About to step up to a custom fab quad that I’m planning to build with ultimate goal of fpv control. Thanks for the post and good luck. W

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