Gateway Dragon Boat Festival – From the Air

I mentioned a while back on the podcast that I bought a drone. I’ve had it for about 7 months now, but haven’t had as many opportunities to use it as I’d like.

I was pretty skittish about it at first. I started looking up drone regulations in the United States. Between reading about those and worrying about flying an expensive piece of equipment that could very possibly crash or fly away, I got to feeling like I’d made a mistake buying it to begin with.

Since then I’ve gotten much more comfortable with flying. It’s not the controls so much. Those came kind of naturally from years of video games and a history with flight sims. What I worry about is the connotation of flying a drone around. I worry other people will freak out or call the cops or something even though I’m extremely cautious and never do anything creepy or dangerous to others. Now, I’m feeling like I can actually fly without somebody coming over and yelling at me. I’m not saying they would. It’s my own insecurity more than anything. I don’t want to be the center of attention in public, really.

I really, really enjoy flying and the footage from these things is incredible all things considered. I’ve got a DJI Phantom 4 which is a nice drone, but still reasonably affordable for people who are into this sort of thing (and I found a good deal too). The features including object detection, tracking, and 4K video capture are remarkable. Just a few years ago this was unobtainable technology for the average person, but now you can capture footage that used to require helicopters and planes.

So this is my first drone video I’m putting out in public. It’s the first thing I’ve shot that can kind of stand on its own as something interesting to watch. Oh yeah, and it’s in 4K so take advantage of that if you’ve got a 4K display.

Every year, the charitable arm of my company puts on Dragon Boat races at a county park. This year, I took a break from my job filming the festival on the ground to capture a little aerial footage. It was a gorgeous day. The lake normally looks awful, but that day it actually looked good which is a minor miracle.

I had done a couple test flights earlier that week. While teams practiced in their boats, I practiced following in the air as I had little experience following moving subjects and no experience flying over water.

Most of the research I’d done said to use the D-Log color setting on the camera. Makes sense. Logarithmic gamma profiles are said to provide the best dynamic range and latitude for color grading in post production. Generally that’s true, but I found the D-Log test footage from my Phantom 4 to be lackluster.

After doing more research, I found several drone enthusiasts making a case against D-Log. Given the relatively low bitrate of the video capture on Phantom drones (probably all of the affordable drones, really), there’s less latitude for pushing around the color and contrast in post than would normally be the case for log footage. It also doesn’t seem to drastically improve dynamic range. The footage ends up too gray and too flat with lost color information. At least that’s how it seemed to me and some others.

On the day of the event, I wound up shooting with the D-Cinelike color profile in 4K. That worked nicely. And like most filmmakers using Phantom drones, I shot with a neutral density filter and a 180 degree shutter. The PolarPro ND 16 filter cut down on the light just enough to allow that even though it was a very sunny day. Clouds, white tents, and white vehicles were blown out a bit, but I can live with that. Still, I’d like to get the ND 32 filter for future use.

I’m normally fairly tame with my post-processing and color correction. I don’t like to go nuts, but I really pushed things for this project. I was just trying to have fun and make it a little different from the plethora of drone videos out there.

At first I wanted to use a tilt-shift effect on just a couple shots – especially the really high ones. I ended up applying the effect to all shots to varying degrees. This required different blur maps to mimic extremely shallow depth of field which, of course, the tiny-sensor drone camera cannot actually achieve.

Normally this would be a little too gimmicky for me. Hey, I was having fun! And some of the shots turned out really nice with this effect. This one’s my favorite.

Actually, one of the reasons I kept the tilt-shift blur was to rid the image of nasty artifacts. This was a result of 4K at a 60 Mbps bitrate which isn’t really enough when it comes to highly detailed scenes. Ripples in the water particularly suffered under this constraint. After putting a nice, gentle camera blur effect over most of that, I found the image much more pleasing in most cases. That’s just embracing limitations, I suppose.

I have other projects in mind for the drone although I’m not sure how many drone-footage-only videos I’ll make. For me, it’s a tool to augment other projects. I don’t have a slider, crane, Steadicam, or gimbal. A drone can fill in for some of those tools when kept closer to the ground.

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