drone

A PINHOLE PHOTO TAKEN FROM A DRONE

"Pinhole" photograph of Dogfish Head Brewery.

"Pinhole" photograph of Dogfish Head Brewery.

Every good news story or photo caption needs a when, who, where, what and why, and after reading this headline, I have no doubt you are probably seeking answers to those very questions. 

The when. Each year, normally around the third week in April, Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day is celebrated around the planet. In 2013 and 2014, I participated using what would be considered a more traditional pinhole camera, but last year due to planned travel, I had to get a little more creative which you can read about in Making the Best of Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day.

The who.  Me and my son. He is the one flying the Solo 3DR.

The who. Me and my son. He is the one flying the Solo 3DR.

The where. I can explain this in two ways. There was the original location of Cape Henlopen State Park in Delaware and the final location which came to me while enjoying a few beers after getting kicked out of Cape Henlopen State Park for flying a drone. I suppose I should have seen that coming, but like many initial plans that don't work out, I think the final outcome yielded much better results than the original concept would have. 

Something to consider when taking a pinhole photograph from a drone is that you will be looking through a pinhole when flying the drone. So keeping the drone in sight and close is very important.

Something to consider when taking a pinhole photograph from a drone is that you will be looking through a pinhole when flying the drone. So keeping the drone in sight and close is very important.

The what. This gets complicated and depends largely on your interpretation of what is a pinhole photograph. I'm always looking to try something new and was thinking of ideas on how to build off of last year's photograph when it hit me that I could use a GoPro. And if I was going to use a GoPro, it wasn't a great leap to consider using a drone. 

A few problems that I didn't consider. The GoPro has a fixed lens and even though I thought I was smart and ordered a lens cap, which I planned to drill a hole in, I didn't consider that there was still going to be a lens. Traditionally pinhole cameras don't have a lens. And then the surprise when I placed the cap, now with a small hole in it, over the lens and saw that instead of a wonderful slightly out of focus pinhole image, I was seeing a small dot made by placing a lens cap with a hole in it over the lens. So much for that. Experimenting with the size of the hole and adjustment of the lens cap I finally achieved the results you see in the top photograph, what I'm calling a pinhole photograph.

Non-pinhole photograph of Dogfish Head Brewery in Milton, Delaware, taken by Patrick Williams.

The why. I'll avoid the very snarky response of why not. But really, why not. When I rediscovered pinhole photography it was about trying something different, exploring new ideas, getting out of my comfort zone. It was never about making a perfect image or adding income to my bottom line. So why a drone? It was something I hadn't seen done before, seemed a little crazy, and I had nothing to lose.

Of course, you still might be asking a simple question. Is this really a pinhole photograph? The short answer is no, of course not. But if you read this far and some crazy ideas are making their way into your head, then I suspect you really don't care whether it's a true pinhole photo or not. I know I don't.

HANDS ON WITH THE SOLO 3DR DRONE

I may be late to the drone game, or more specifically late to actually owning a drone*, but it's not because I haven't wanted one. I've been reading about drones, talking with drone owners and wanting a drone from the beginning. I even came close to making the purchase on several occasions, but now I'm glad I waited.

And to be clear, I should say that I'm a part owner of a drone, in this case, a Solo 3DR, that I purchased along with my son. Part ownership is something that might consider as well.

So what was it like flying it for the first time?

My son Patrick prepares the Solo 3DR prior to my first flight.

My son Patrick prepares the Solo 3DR prior to my first flight.

Prior to flying the 3DR, my sole "stick" time consisted of 10 minutes with a DJI Phantom. The 3DR was incredibly easy to fly, easier than I remembered from my brief DJI experience. From take off and landing to flying patterns, I went through two batteries before I knew it and during the entire time, I never felt like I wasn't in complete control. And even though the 3DR was set to "child mode" it was nimble and reacted immediately to my inputs.

Something that always concerned me when considering the purchase of a drone was the camera; Would it be obsolete before the drone itself. The 3DRs current 3-axis gimbal houses a GoPro** and since Solo worked directly with GoPro, it means you have in-flight access to the camera's controls allowing you to start and stop recording while you fly. Not only is this unique to the Solo, it greatly reduces the amount of footage you have to go through during the editing process. Additionally, the camera receives its power from the gimbal.

One of the features that really impressed me about the 3DR is that it is the only drone that can automatically control both the drone and camera position while in flight using their Smart Shot feature. Think of Smart Shots as presets that allow you to circle an object for a wrap-around shot (Orbit), go hands-free (Follow), put yourself in the center of the action for an aerial reveal (Selfie), or follow a virtual cable (Cable Cam), all to get a perfect shot. A soon to be released update will expand the Cable Cam Smart Shot allowing you to enter multiple points.

It's simple, fly to a point A, frame your shot, fly to point B and frame your shot, then hit play and the drone will fly from point A to point B exactly as you programmed it. And maybe the most impressive thing is, you can save a shot and repeat it. Think how useful that would be and how much production time it would save.

The 3DR was really easy to fly and using Smart Shots, even a novice like me can achieve professional cinematographic looks with very little experience. ( Photo by Patrick Williams )

The 3DR was really easy to fly and using Smart Shots, even a novice like me can achieve professional cinematographic looks with very little experience. (Photo by Patrick Williams)

Bottom line, the 3DR with a gimbal and GoPro isn't the cheapest drone on the market, but if you are looking for a solidly-built, easy to fly drone that is capable of capturing amazing aerial footage, I would highly recommend it.

Watch footage taken at Cape Henlopen State Park and around the North Beach, Md., area taken by Patrick Williams.

* I'm using the term drone throughout this post, so if you prefer unmanned aerial vehicle or quadcopter or something else entirely, feel free to substitute those terms while reading.

** I'm currently using a GoPro White. To take advantage of the in-flight camera control, you will need a Hero 4 Black.

GETTING HIGH - ON PHOTOGRAPHY

Getting a higher perspective.
Getting a higher perspective.
I photograph a fair amount of trade shows, exhibitions, and symposiums as part of my job with the Office of Naval Research. These events tend to be in the same venues year after year so over time it becomes a real challenge to get a different perspective or make new unique photographs.

This year during the Sea Air Space Exposition held at the Gaylord in National Harbor, Md., I decided to get high for inspiration and go a little old school.

I should say that "I" didn't get high, but my camera did. But before I reveal how I made these photographs, let's explore some options available to get that "aerial" perspective.

Even 15 feet of elevation offers a different perspective of a fairly static scene.
Even 15 feet of elevation offers a different perspective of a fairly static scene.
The first thing would be to look over the venue and see if there is a balcony, overlook or some other position that would allow you to shoot down on the event floor. The downside, of course, is that your booth or exhibit would need to be in the right location to take advantage of this shooting position.

Absent of a balcony, you could use ladder or bucket lift, both of which are available at most locations. However, once the show floor opens the event coordinators are unlikely to allow a bucket lift back on the floor. A ladder is great but does limit your ability to reposition quickly. It's still a good option and if you are unable to secure a ladder locally, consider bringing the best non-photo accessory available with you.

I get a little flying time with a friend's DJI Phantom 2. These are great for use outdoors, but a little risky to use on a trade show floor.
I get a little flying time with a friend's DJI Phantom 2. These are great for use outdoors, but a little risky to use on a trade show floor.
Finally, before I reveal the technique I used, you could use an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) such as the DJI Phantom 2. Now these UAVs are really cool and would surely work, but the reality is that they may get you kicked out.

So while all of the above techniques will work, I opted to go a little old school and attach my camera with a 14-24mm lens to a Gitzo carbon fiber monopod and extend it all the way out. I then used a Pocket Wizard to trigger the camera, but you could use a cable release or even the self-timer. This technique puts the camera about 15 feet up and I think offered me the photos I was looking for including a unique shot of the Navy's X-47B.

Of all the photographs of the Navy's X-47B from the exposition, mine was the only one mine was the only one I saw taken from above.
Of all the photographs of the Navy's X-47B from the exposition, mine was the only one I saw taken from above. 
Another advantage of the monopod is that you can follow the action. I would bring the camera to my eye, focus, then raise the camera and start shooting.

If you find yourself in a rut and looking for something different when tasked with photographing the same thing, literally try a different perspective and get high.