Archives For Expedition

Steve Draper and Dave Halton of AerialVue

 

Over the last year the sales of drones for aerial filming and photography have exploded. I may be one of the few people in my circle of friends that has resisted the temptation to purchase one. Many of my colleagues have made the investment with varying degrees of success in the results they are achieving. Over the last year I also had the pleasure of working on a new 20 part documentary series titled Big Picture Earth. It is scheduled to be available in March through the new online service Curiosity Stream. The series gave me a thorough education in the do’s and don’ts of aerial filming with drones.

We used aerials in many of the episodes, each showcasing an iconic landmark, during which time I mostly directed the aerial shooting or occasionally operated the camera gimbal, but never acted as pilot. I quickly learned that flying at a professional level takes a commitment and skill level that many owner / operators do not meet. Fortunately through some colleagues at the BBC, I started work with the team from a UK based company called AerialVue. The company is run by Dave Halton, who has an engineering background and an amazing understanding of how to build, maintain and operate what he prefers to call a heli-cam… drone has too many connections to the aircraft flown by the military for less peaceful activities.

In contrast to the AerialVue team, and with a few exceptions, I have also seen some horrors, both in terms of the lack of understanding of the film making process, lack of skill in operating the aircraft or just plain bad judgment that can be dangerous for the crew or innocent bystanders.

In the last twelve months I have witnessed multiple crashes, fortunately the drone being the only fatality, seen unusable footage due to technical issues with the camera and copter, as well as running into issues with no fly zones….  So as a filmmaker, how do you either become a good pilot or find someone else to work with to capture good aerials. My time working with the AerialVue team taught me a lot of valuable lessons of how to do it right.

Here are my ten points to look for if you want to be successful.

  1. Find a very skilled pilot to work with or spend the time to teach yourself, making sure you have excellent skills before flying on a real film project. Yes, you can buy a rig from a big box store like Best Buy, take it home and be airborne ten minutes later but that will end badly! The AerialVue team have tens of thousands of hours logged, made the rooky mistakes long before trying to become professional, skills that takes years to hone, but as the rest of the points will describe, many of the things you need to know can be implemented next time you fly.
  2. Set up a safety protocol which includes
    1. A designated take-off and landing pad that is clearly defined, is safe for the copter and has good separation from bystanders. That means the machine is not in danger of turning over and is clear of dust that will dirty the lens and over time damage the mechanics of your rig. Take a weighted blanket or tarp into the field for this purpose or even a folding table.
    2. Have a clear idea of your flight plan, which takes into account legal restrictions, permissions from property owners and is understood by the whole crew
    3. Know a clear a set of commands or announcements that are verbally given as the machine is powered up, takes off and lands eg “Spinning Up” “Taking off” “Landing”… this may seem obvious but it is essential so that someone does not approach the machine at the wrong time and this keeps people focused.
    4. DO NOT… and I will say again…. DO NOT fly the UAV out of visual contact, even if your system is equipped with a GPS map that appears on a tablet. In most places this is illegal, as well as being down right foolish as it is impossible to be completely aware of situations you may be getting yourself into. If you don’t crash into something, fly into a restricted zone, chances are you will lose reference of where your machine is, run low on battery and end up crash landing. I have seen this more than once with copters ending up in a lake, narrowly avoiding ending up in crevasse on a glacier or getting broken when the operator can’t get the machine back to the designated landing pad.
  3. In addition to the flight plan, have a good understanding of the shots you want to achieve before taking off. That means whoever is directing needs to communicate clearly with the aerial team before any flight and have direct and simple commands for them during the flight. If you fail to do this, half the battery pack will be spent before the camera starts to capture usable images on any particular flight
  4. Have enough batteries for the UAV and camera to complete the task. This seems obvious, but countless times I have been on shoots where the drone team has perhaps 4 packs, when the flights will require 12. Always check this at the planning stage and assume nothing… remember the golden rule of production, “assumption is the mother of all screw-ups”. Although most of my producer friends would word that a little more crudely.
  5. Make sure that the charging situation for the battery packs is carefully monitored. Many units from companies like DJI now have smart chargers, but other rigs do not and require chargers to be programmed every time they are used. A mistake can literally be fatal as if incorrectly charged, packs can easily ignite, burning with immense heat that can not be extinguished easily. There are countless example of homes or offices burnt to the ground thanks to mishandled batteries. If you are on a shoot and staying in a hotel and recharging at night, ask yourself if you want to be responsible for starting a fire with the possible loss of life and property being catastrophic! Stay with the batteries as they charge and keep monitoring them during the entire process. Never leave them unattended.
  6. Talking of batteries, don’t try to squeeze in one more shot when your batteries are low, towards the end of a flight. Have a defined cut-off point when you are something like 20% capacity and always return to the landing point at this time. First you are in danger of losing power and crashing but also this practice will damage batteries and mean they have to be replaced… an expensive day out.
  7. Not only should the pilot have visual contact with the copter, but they, along with the gimbal operator and director should have access to a video monitor that is showing the camera feed. Last year I worked with a pilot that refused to work with a monitor. He could not see his ground speed and how it related to the landscape we were shooting, couldn’t see if the framing was correct and wanted me as director to feed him this information as we proceeded. I heard panicked requests like “are we moving yet?” It cut down productivity to a fraction of what it should have been and wasted everyone’s time.
  8. Keep checking camera settings and the lens as you shoot, making regular adjustments as required. I try to avoid any automatic functions such as focus or exposure unless using a cheaper unit that is designed to be used with something like a GoPro. We were flying over Rome last year and despite requesting full manual mode, the operator thought he knew best and enabled autofocus on a Panasonic GH4. We were in low light conditions and the camera kept hunting for focus due to the lack of contrast in the image. In and out it went as the shot went on, and to compound the issue, he also had such a bad video downlink that you could not see this happening. Guess what he had to come back another day and redo everything. As an extra note about cameras & lenses, carry a polarizing filter and a selection of ND filters so you can maintain a filmic look by shooting at 1/50sec for 24/25p filming situations. This means you can shoot a mid range aperture (f5.6-f8) in sunny conditions. Not having to stop the lens down too much (f16-f22) as this means you will not being getting optimal sharpness from the lens. The polarizer will also give more saturated colors. This will also mean selecting a lens that can take a filter. Some wide-angles have dome fronts that will not allow this. In my experience using this kind of lens can also lead to more issues with flare when flying into the sun…
  9. Illustrated by this experience in Rome, make sure the downlink for video monitoring is solid and of good enough picture quality to judge composition, focus, whether there is dirt on the lens and whether the flight is of the correct speed, altitude and bearing.
  10. Bring spare parts with you into the field. That is everything from extra batteries, cables that might break, cable ties to secure loose wires, antennas… basically anything that might break or be lost. The team from AerialVue take no chances, not only do they have spare parts, they bring at least one spare drone that can be airborne in minutes should there be a problem.

 

Apologies if many of these points seem obvious but when you hire an aerial team assume nothing as all the things that I have described going wrong have all happened to me in the last twelve months when I have trusted operators will be well prepared. Of course with the exception of the AerialVue team (and a few pilots here in the US such as Matt Ragan of Birds Eye of Big Sky) who showed us how to do it right!

Dave flies a wonderful UAV called a Skyjib and that he has modified so that he has incredible control of the flights and camera positioning. The first time I flew with him I asked him to catch the rays of the rising sun at dawn along the top of a large ruin in Yorkshire. As a cinematographer, it was the dream shot to capture but most of the previous pilots I had worked with would have had a one in ten chance to getting it right… Of course Dave and his camera operator Steve Draper nailed it first time. And all thanks to them being more prepared than any other team I have worked with.

 

Dave Halton of AerialVue with the typical selection of heli-cams he brings to locations

 

Cotton Coulson

January 16, 2016 — Leave a comment
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Sisse Brimberg and Cotton Coulson on assignment in the Arctic

Apologies in the long gap since I last posted a story. We took an unscheduled break after the tragic loss of colleague and close friend Cotton Coulson , who helped establish this blog. It is still hard to process the loss and perhaps the best tribute to our wonderful friend and  talented photographer is to post a selection of his images. In a following post I will link to a article about Cotton, which wife Sisse Brimberg helped to write and is a great tribute to our much loved friend and colleague.  God speed Cotton…

 

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Cotton Coulson died May 27, 2015, while on a diving expedition off the coast of northern Norway. See more of his and Sisse Brimberg’s photography at keenpress.com.

 

Exploring the Kamchatka coast

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I just returned from exploring the rugged coastlines of Chukotka and Kamchatka to photograph native villages, wildlife and the region’s landscapes in this far outpost of the former Soviet Union. Based on board an expedition ship, life is easy, but each day, trips ashore meant transferring into a zodiac and braving the turbulent oceans, relentless salt spray and waves crashing over the bow. This is followed by a ‘wet landing’ on a beach, dodging the surf and attempting to get onto dry land as soon as possible.

On shore, we then faced the uncertain weather conditions that the wilds of Siberia would send our way. There to take photographs, it meant keeping camera equipment safe in these challenging conditions, one mistake could mean it is swamped by salt water and ruined. I watched this very thing happen a year ago while making a landing at Gold Harbor in South Georgia. It is a truly spectacular wildlife location as the beach is home to hundreds of thousands of king penguins. Eager to get a shot, a fellow traveler has his new digital camera around his neck and ready to shoot as we approached the beach. Six foot swells pounded the landing site and as the zodiac hit the beach, it was pushed sideways by the powerful swell and a wave dumped right on top of us. In an instant, $6000 of camera equipment was lost and to make matters worse, the photographer no longer had his camera to use and we still had two weeks to go, visiting some of the world’s most spectacular wildlife locations on the planet. This must have been heart-breaking.

 

 

D24wXeds_000140Over the years of doing this kind of expedition D24wXeds_000139everywhere from the heat of the Kimberley coast in Australia, Antarctica and now the Russian coast of the Bering Sea, I have tried many different combinations of cases, dry bags and packs. The pile of packs in my office closet tells the story of never finding quite the right solution. Then on a recent trip to start shooting a story on the water crisis in the Owens of Valley of California, I decided to take a look in an outdoor equipment shop in the town of Bishop. A pack immediately caught my eye. Light weight, waterproof and made of a very durable material it looked ideal for my ship borne adventures. Produced by Hyperlite Mountain Gear, I researched the company and to my surprise found out that is based in my home state of Maine. Its great to see such a well made product that is made locally. Their innovative product line is ideal for everyone from hikers wanting to keep the weight of their packs to a minimum, to adventure sports fans that play around the water as the roll top closures make the bags waterproof.

During my trip to the Russian Far East, we visited villages like Tymlat and Lorino where I shot a portraits of the villagers, we also hiked in the mountains of Kamchatka experiencing everything from sun to torrential rain. My new Hyperlite 2400 accompanied me on all these adventures, providing a ideal way to get my camera gear ashore safely, as well as giving quick access through the roll top when I needed to quickly change lenses or a battery. Although the model I have is designed for ice climbing, the outside pockets and straps also provided an ideal place to keep a can of bear spray handy, essential as we passed dozens of brown bears on our shore trips.

I have more adventure planned that include sailing around the coast of New Zealand and Macquarie Island, back to the Kimberley and also exploring the coast of Chile. The Hyperlite pack will be with me all the way.

 

Special thanks for the photographs go to fellow adventurer Luca De Santis. A talented photographer & graphic designer, he also helps produce the Italian travel magazine Meraviglia Paper

Traveling Drives

August 25, 2014 — Leave a comment
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Transcend 500Gb drive

 

Traveling the world shooting video, we have seen cameras evolve from shooting on tape to card based memory such as SD, CF or even the latest like CFast cards. While its great to see the results of each day’s shooting, it also means that you can no longer simply hand a shot tape to the producer to take home to the edit room. Instead, it means late nights backing up to drives. That means fast write speeds are essential if you want to enjoy dinner, a good night’s sleep and to avoid hovering over your computer.

I set up a nightly routine of backing up both video and photographs to a drive. Starting with a folder for each day, I then create sub-folders for each camera. I also take the precaution of taking the drives in pairs and cloning the folders, so I have a back-up in case a drive is damaged or lost.

With growing file sizes from both video and still cameras, this means I can easily fill a 1Tb drive on a shoot, along with its twin for safety. On documentary shoots for television clients, it can easily exceed this….

I often travel to places where there is no replacing items in the field. This means the drives have to be reliable to minimize the chances of one failing. While I try to hand carry the drives, it also seems gate checking bags on small planes is getting to be the norm. I split the cloned pairs across my two bags, so sometimes get forced to trust one set to the airlines. Seeing the injuries that baggage handlers can inflict on my otherwise indestructible Pelican cases, I was immediately drawn to the products from Transcend when I saw that they are rated to withstand use by the armed forces. Although the jury is out to whether they are as dangerous as the airlines! But so far, so good….

As a result I just took a pair of Transcend drives on our expedition to the Russian Far East. Shooting images of the wildlife, landscape and people of the region was a great experience and detailed in two previous stories on Tymlat and Lorino villages.

Each unit worked flawlessly and with a USB3 connection, cut down the transfer time from my memory cards to the drives.

Transcend make a wide range of drives and I would recommend heading to their website for specifications. In general I would recommend the 500Gb or 1Tb units with the fastest connection that can be utilized by your computer. Bottom line…. I would thoroughly recommend these military spec drives to anyone and will be buying fresh units for each of my upcoming expeditions.

One addition to the mix would be a small USB hub if your computer has limited built-in connections when cloning from one drive to another. It seems Apple are saving money by limiting the connectors on their new designs…

Thanks for all the great feedback on images from Tymlat village. We then traveled further north and called at Lorino.

We enjoyed another warm welcome on the beach, where I again shot series of portraits from this remote corner of the world. As you may have seen in the last post, this is where I worked with Ralph Grizzle and his son Alex to shoot the short film featured a couple of days ago. I hope you enjoy the window into this wonderful part of the world.

We hope to be back here again next year with Silversea Expeditions and will keep you posted on dates. I would be great to take you along on the next adventure!

 

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During the last two weeks of exploring the remote coastline of Chukotka and Kamchatka with Silversea, I have been running photography workshops and giving my fellow explorers an insight into the documentaries we have shot over recent years. One of the best things about these trips are the other travelers you meet. Amongst the many new friends I connected with were Ralph Grizzle and his son Alex. Ralph runs a very popular blog, Avid Cruiser, followed by a huge readership from around the world. He and his son had the mission of shooting a series of shoot films while on board the Silversea Discoverer that would review the trip and share the many adventures we experienced. They very generously and offered to feature me in these videos, in particular, the visits to meet the native peoples that live along this remote coastline.

As readers will know, one of the highlights for me was visiting the native villages. (Tymlat was featured in a recent post from the ship). In both villages I had the pleasure of taking Alex with me as I shot, along the way teaching him some of the tricks of the trade. Here is the short video they produced. In the coming days I will post a gallery of the images from the villages of Lorino and also Teller.

We just had the great pleasure to visit Tymlat Village, a remote Siberian fishing village which is cut off from the rest of the world for much of the year. The people could not have been more welcoming. Here are portraits of some of the people that greeted us

 

(Posting to the blog is challenging from this remote part of the world, so I will follow up with more information when I get back to the US)

 

Just click on an image and scroll through the slideshow


Created with Admarket’s flickrSLiDR.