Droning's a Beach with a Mavic Pro
I've been wanting to buy a drone for a long time. Several months ago, I finally took the plunge and bought a DJI Mavic Pro. Living in a city, I had limited opportunities to take it out for a test flight (most of Vancouver is a no-fly zone). However, I've been traveling the past few weeks with the drone tucked in my bag. (One of the great things about the Mavic Pro is it's incredible portability.) I've found myself in a lot of much more drone-friendly locations, so I have made it a point to get out there and get some flight time in. I've flown the drone a few times now, in several different locations. I got the best stuff (I think) in the last couple days at the beach in Belmar, NJ. I've only got one battery with me (roughly 20 mins of flight time depending on the wind), so it took 3 days of shooting to get enough to edit together. Since I'm on the road, I had to do all the editing and color grading on my laptop. After putting together my first edited compilation of drone video, I figured I'd post it with a few tips and lessons I've learned along the way.
LEARN LOCAL REGULATIONS
This might be the most overlooked part of flying a drone, but it's something you should take the time to be aware of. Before you fly, find out what the local laws and regulations are for drones, and make sure when you go fly that you are not in a no-fly zone. There are several resources on line where you can find more info on safe and legal drone operation in your area.
Here is a good place to start:
I will repeat what virtually everyone who has flown one of these drones has said before: get some practice in. Many have suggested starting with smaller, less expensive drones to just get the hang of it. I've flown some toy drones before, so I wasn't completely new to this. A huge advantage the Mavic Pro has for those starting out is the tripod flight mode. I would highly recommend using this mode on your first few flights. Basically, it smooths and slows down all the drones movements in flight. This makes it a great mode to learn in.
Another helpful tip on those first few flights is to make sure you're in an area with a lot of open space. Unfortunately for me, as stated before, I now live in Vancouver. Basically all of the city is a no fly zone due to buildings, people, and nearby airports. So, being impatient, I did what any sane person would do. I tried to fly it in my apartment. By fly it I mean just have it take off and hover. I used my dining table as the launch pad. I spun it around and moved it around a little bit, then set it back down. I was still trying to get a feel for it, so just trying to get it back down on the table proved to be a bit more difficult than I was expecting. I managed to just barely get it back down on the table.
My next attempt at a test flight (once again in the apartment) did not go so well. The drone was getting a lot of interference inside the building, and I think that contributed to a little more instability than usual. Also, still being a bit inexperienced, I wasn't able to quickly react and make the proper adjustments when it suddenly started drifting towards the window a bit. The drone was oriented facing me, and I made mistake of moving the joystick to my right, which was away from the window. But for the drone, which was rotated 180 degrees, moving right was moving straight into the window. That resulted in a crash that shattered all the propellers, but luckily did no damage to the drone. I had the plastic camera guard on which I'm sure saved my butt. But, the moral of the story is, when you're learning to fly, don't be impatient! Wait till you can find a good location where you have enough space to fly so small errors don't turn into potentially big (and expensive) crashes. Oh, and maybe have an extra set of propellers just in case. A propeller cage isn't a bad idea either.
I've done a lot of video shooting, but the video from a drone is going to be very unlike any other video that is shot on any grounded camera setup. So it maybe take some time to get used to the new perspective, and find out what kinds of shots will look good. If you're planning on using the drone on a shoot, you may want to do some testing to see what will give you the most interesting and useful footage. Simply sending the drone up in the air and pointing the camera down at the action is indeed cool in and of itself because of the vastly unique and new perspective you'll get. But these drones can move. One thing I learned while looking at the video I shot was something I hadn't originally thought about: The Mavic Pro is an incredibly stable camera platform. Not only can it be used to get amazing aerial shots, but it can be flown at lower, ground-level altitudes and give you silky smooth moves that might otherwise be difficult or impossible even with high end steadicam or rails. Of course, flying at lower altitudes means you'll be flying in closer proximity to objects and/or people. This is a great time to use the tripod mode. And always remember to keep safety a top concern, as those rotors can do some damage.
Another thing you'll need to experiment with are the video/color settings. What settings you use will depend a lot on what you'll be using the footage for, and whether you intend to do any post color grading. There are various resolution settings as well.
The video settings I used for these tests were as follows:
Color mode: D-Log
3840x2160 @ 24fps
Video Format: mov
I would have preferred to shoot at full 4k (4096x2160). Having it set to 3840x2160 was a bit of an oversight. I planned on exporting the final video at HD resolution, but having the extra resolution gives a bit of flexibility in post for reframing and cropping if desired.
Since I knew I'd want to do some color grading, I used the D-Log color format. I also made a few more adjustments in the color style menu. I will have to do more testing/research to see which settings will yield the best quality video. A much more in depth review of the drone and various color settings can be found on Phillip Bloom's blog.
Flying the drone out in the open really is pretty easy; so long as you take it slow and get familiar with the controls before attempting any crazy maneuvers. It has a lot of great features that make it a lot easier to fly. A very useful feature is the return home mode. Once I was at the beach and had the drone in the air, I decided to send it out over the ocean. This is a very small drone to begin with, and I found that it doesn't have to get that far away before it becomes difficult to see. The red lights in the front and green light in the back are useful for determining the drone's orientation, if you can see them. The video feed on your phone is also useful for seeing what the drone can see and thus which way it's facing. Again, if you can see it. I have a Galaxy S6 phone which I was using to fly the Mavic. It's not exactly easy to see in the daylight. The drone was out over the ocean where 180 degrees is flat, featureless ocean, and the screen was incredibly hard to see. I fiddled with it for a few minutes, then decided I'd see how the return home function worked. I engaged the autopilot, and it flew straight back. Very handy. Just be aware than when engaging the return home feature, the drone will elevate to a preset altitude before heading back.
Once you've got all that footage, it'll be time to edit. The desire might be to include every second of video captured because of how cool it will be to have the amazing ability to get aerial footage; something which was once reserved for high end, high budget productions. Remember the ultimate purpose of the video you've shot, and remember to use only what is needed and relevant to that purpose. As cool as the footage might look, the impact is greatly increased when used sparingly.
This will no doubt be an amazing new tool in the bag of tricks for low budget film-makers. Used correctly and appropriately, aerial footage can definitely add a big budget look to any low budget production. After a bit of practice, drones are also just wicked fun to fly!
Here's the edited compilation of what I shot at the beach over the last few days. It was a bit of an experiment, with the objective being to get a better feel for flying the drone, figure out what kinds of shots are most effective, and see what quality level the camera can produce. I think I'll need to experiment a bit more with color and video settings, as I saw more compression in the graded video than I would have liked. But for a drone of the Mavic's size and price, it's pretty hard to complain too much.