FAA Part 107-UAV Commercial Operations

This has been a long winter around the household.  We got in some good skating and snowshoeing early on, but then the flu took turns kicking everyone's butt.  And in the middle of all that, I was trying to study for my "Remote Pilot's" license.  This is the FAA Part 107 test, and it is basically the ground school portion of an actual pilot's test.  60 questions, 2 hours, multiple choice.  It covered everything from weather, to flight characteristics, to airport operations, and a whole bunch of other stuff.  Lots to study.  I have to admit, I was a little nervous.  It had been a long time since I had to study for something this important. "Flying a drone is important", you say?  For my line of work?  Yes, very important.  I would go so far as to say that Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV's) are the future of aerial photography and videography.

I just pulled the trigger on a new DJI Phantom 4 Professional UAV.  When you add in the extras, including extra batteries, you're looking at about $2300.  A serious drop in the bucket, to be sure, but not nearly as expensive as the UAV's that are now filming for show's like "Gold Rush" on the Discovery Channel.  The Phantom 4 Professional, let's call it the P4P, shoots a 20mp image file using a 1" sensor.  The sensor is 4 times larger than the sensor in the Phantom 4 (not professional), which will produce much better quality photographs.  And the 20mp's gives you enough file size for a decent sized print.  Not even close to what my Canon 5DsR can produce, in size or quality, but much better than the other UAV's in my "fleet".

Where the P4P really shines is with video.  The new lens has a field of view of 84˚, or about a 24mm on a 35mm format.  This means less distortion than with previous models.  And this baby can shoot H.264 4K video at 60 frames per second, recorded in a 100 Mbps bitrate.  Which translates to glorious video that has more "wiggle room" in post processing.

So what direction does Maine Imaging go from here?  Well, I have my remote pilot's certificate, so we'll be pushing UAV flights a bit more.  But the first thing on the list is going to be letters to all of my clients, explaining the new UAV rules, including where you can and cannot fly.  For example, you cannot fly within 5 miles of an airport, a very important safety rule that many Portland drone owners seem to want to ignore.  I've seen a whole bunch of drone photos from new "aerial photography" companies in Maine, of the Portland waterfront.  What's wrong with that?  Well, it's only 3 miles away from the Jetport.  And the area in front of the waterfront, and over the Fore River is known as the "Harbor Approach" which is the flight path that most commercial passenger jets take into the Jetport.  It's also an area that I do a lot of commercial aerial work from helicopters.  Last year, when I was shooting the Zumwalt come into Portland from a helicopter, I was nervous as hell that someone was going to fly a drone into the cockpit.  So keep in mind that any picture that you see of the Portland Waterfront taken by drone, is probably taken by a "newbie" that doesn't have their Remote Pilot's license, and doesn't understand, or care, about the danger he/she is putting people in by their reckless operation of a UAV.  This group of people will be a large problem going forward.

If you have a drone- fly safe and be smart.  And follow the rules!  If you are taking money for flying your drone, that makes you a commercial pilot, and you MUST take and pass your FAA Part 107 test and carry the proper insurance.  If people can follow the rules, it will all work out.  But I have to admit, I have my doubts...

The Sheepscot River

Wiscasset, Maine

The Sheepscot River is a 66 mile long river that originates in the little Maine town of Freedom.  It winds it's way through the countryside to Alna, where a set of tidal falls separate the upper section of the river from the lower, more navigable section.  When I say "more navigable", I'm talking about motor boats.  From the town landing in Wiscasset, you can head north upriver, under the railroad bridge (if the tide is right and your boat is small enough), and into a large shallow bay. The falls are at the head of this bay.  If you head south, you can continue down the Sheepscot, or bear right and follow the Back River down to where it meets the Sasanoa River.  From this intersection, you can head west towards Woolwich, Bath, and the Kennebec River.  Or east, where you can reconnect with the Sheepscot,  just south of Westport Island.  The Sheepscot continues south for another five miles or so, to the mouth, bordered to the west by Reid State Park, and to the east by Southport Island and the Cuckolds Light.

A Surf Scoter on takeoff.

A Surf Scoter on takeoff.

So there's the basic geography of the river.  Let's talk about wildlife.  It's not quite June yet, but I've been on the River three times so far.  And I've already noticed some changes in the wildlife since last year.  I have yet to see a Great Blue Heron.  Two years ago, there was a Great Blue Heron Rookery at the tops of a bunch of pine trees, which were growing on the top of a "clifflike" section of granite, about three miles south of Wiscasset.  They are all gone now, with only the remnants of some of the nests still visible.  And despite the rise in the local Eagle population, the two eagle nesting sites (that I know of) are both vacant.  One of the sites lost the tree that was holding the nest, which isn't surprising when you consider that some of the older nests can be 6-8 feet tall and weigh..., well..., a lot!  Usually, when I want to shoot eagles, I'll drag my boat over to the Kennebec River, where I know of several nest sites.  

Hendricks Head Light.  Southport, Maine

So what is in the Sheepscot?  Well, I saw several Loons, both mature and immature.  A small flock of Surf Scoters, with their cool orange bills.  Lots of Eider ducks, Seagulls, and other common water fowl.  The Osprey community seems very strong this year, with the exception of the pair I have followed for the last couple of years, who have nested on the same buoy in the middle of the river, just below Wiscasset.  Last year, I noticed that the female had a transmitter strapped to her body that had started to fall off.  Through a FB fan, I found the right people to contact about the loose transmitter.  It turns out that this particular couple migrates to Central America every year!  So maybe these two are just a little late in getting to their summer home.  I'll keep an eye out.  If you're boating, the Mason Station, just south of the Wiscasset Bridge is a good place to watch Ospreys as there are several nests on and around the old pier.  They also seem to like the flat tops of the navigational buoys that you see in the river, to build their nests on.  I can't wait for this years crop of chicks to be hatched.  If you time it just right, and are near one of the nests on top of certain buoys, the strong tide will push the buoy over enough so that you can get some good shots of the chicks in the nest.

Osprey

Osprey

What surprised me a little on this last trip were the sheer number of seals in the Sheepscot.  Cruising past one of their favorite ledges, I counted over 100 seals and pups!  And there are probably 10-20 ledges and islands in the lower Sheepscot that routinely hold pods of seals.  This time of year it is difficult to photograph these guys, except from a distance.  If you get too close, one seal bolts for the water, and then the rest quickly follow.  I think this happens for two reasons.  First, the Mommas retrying to teach the pups what to do when boats and people are around, because when the seals are days old, they have no idea.  A couple of years ago, I was accompanying a marine mammals expert on a baby seal recovery.  When we found the three day old seal pup, we waited for over an hour for Mom to return, or call for her pup, but Mom was nowhere to be found.  The expert told me to watch the pup and not let her go back into the surf (as she wouldn't survive alone), while she went after a dog crate for transport.  As I tried put some distance between myself and the pup in order to get some shots  (I had two cameras with me), she continued to follow me around, getting so close that I couldn't focus the camera.  I finally realized that I had been backing up towards an incoming tide when the remnants of a wave ran over my shoes.  Realizing that I had to pick up the seal before she tried to make her way back into the sea, I tried to get my cameras out of the way,  grabbed the young female in a towel, and scooped her up like you would a baby.  So there I am, covered in sand, with thousands of dollars of camera equipment hanging around my neck, and a baby seal in my arms staring up at me with absolutely no fear in those big eyes!  The expert arrived about 10 minutes later and we put "Clara" in the crate and made our way back to the truck.  Clara was cared for, rehabilitated and, eventually released back into the wild by the Marine Mammals program at UNE.  

Seals "hauled out" on a ledge in the Sheepscot River.

Seals "hauled out" on a ledge in the Sheepscot River.

The second reason the seals head into the water is because they are pretty skiddish this time of year.  The boat traffic is just starting up again, and it will be a couple of months before they become acclimated to humans for another summer.

If you are heading out on a boat to capture some wildlife shots, you'll need to bring the longest lens in your bag, as you'll almost never be able to get as close as you'd like.  Choose a fast shutter speed to compensate for any rocking or vibration in the boat, and take lots of pictures!

Common Loon.

Common Loon.

I will continue to shoot on the Sheepscot River, and I'll also explore the other local rivers, including the Kennebec, Damariscotta, and the New Meadows.  I remember a very active Great Blue Heron rookery on the New Meadows that you could only get to by boat at high tide.  Maybe that will be my next adventure...

Thanks for reading.

Dave


Proper Exposure for "Snowy Scenes" and how to compensate.

I had a new client call at the beginning of the week asking for some aerial photos of a project "as quickly as possible".  Of course, I immediately asked if having a nice sunny day, that would produce beautiful, blue sky images, was important.  You see, there are two things that I don't like about winter photo missions.  The first, is the fact that 95% of everything below you is white.  Very monochromatic.  The second is that it's cold.  The planes and helicopters have heaters, but I still have to stick my hands out of the aircraft to shoot images, and let's not forget about that cold blast that hits you in the face and immediately makes your eyes water so much that you can't see, much less compose, much of anything.  But enough of my whining.

Bangor International Airport, Bangor, Maine.

Shooting this "monochromatic landscape" from the air is more demanding for the simple fact that all of that white throws off the camera's metering.  It tells your camera (because it is seeing mostly white) that everything is white.  So that anything that isn't white (lets say it's your kids playing in the snow) is usually pushed much more towards the darker end of the spectrum, or basically, underexposed.  So how to combat this?  Here are a couple of simple things that you can do.  First, shoot in RAW.  As a non-compressed format, it will give you a couple more stops of latitude to work with in post processing.  In other words,  with the proper software, you will be able to pull some detail out of those underexposed elements of your images.  The second thing you can do is to dial in your exposure compensation.  When shooting scenes with lots of snow, you want to add a stop (+1) of exposure compensation.  This will bring up the level of light that the camera records (1 stop) so that anything darker than the snow (which is basically everything on a sunny day) will be a stop lighter, and will allow for more detail to be brought out from the darker areas.  The drawback to this, is that all of your bright white areas (i.e. the snow) will be brighter, including a higher percentage of overexposed, or "blown out" areas in your image. If an area is truly blown out, then there is no information (detail) left in that area- nothing to try and "bring back" in post.

2011 World Cup Biathlon.  Presque Isle, Maine

So how do we successfully capture a snowy day, bright sunshine, image, and retain detail and information in both the snow and the darker areas of the image?  It's a balancing act, really.  If you start with what your camera's meter is telling you to be the proper exposure, dial in a +1 exposure compensation, and make sure you're shooting in RAW, you should be close.  In fact, from this point, you should be able to import to Lightroom 5,  Adobe's latest version with the "highlights" and "shadows" sliders, and work those sliders to bring up more detail in both highlights (the snow) and shadows (everything else).  This type of shot will challenge your cameras ability to capture the dynamic range of the image.  A less expensive, or older camera, with a smaller sensor, will not capture the same amount of dynamic range as something newer with a full frame sensor, so your results using this method will depend on what you're shooting with.  And remember, pushing those Lightroom 5 sliders too far will end up giving you an overdone HDR (high dynamic range) looking shot, so use them wisely.  This type of shot is going to be a compromise most of the time.  Concentrate, and expose for, the areas of the image (your kids playing) that really matter. After all, you probably don't want to see every detail in the snow, do you?

Cold Weather Shooting

MIP_2512.jpg

Well, my last post was about shooting from the air when it's cold out.  As I've seen my share of single digit and below zero shooting this winter, I'm going to talk about a few "common sense" things that you can do to protect yourself and your gear.

Most importantly, when you plan on shooting in moderate cold, to freezing cold, to "my nose hairs are frozen" cold, is your clothing.  Starting from the inside out, I wear underwear (not long johns but that certainly is an option), heavy wool socks, Carhartt lined work pants, a t-shirt, a second long sleeved t, sometimes a heavier long sleeved shirt, a vest (either a lightweight, or heavyweight wool vest, a pair of lined Carhartt overalls, and then a coat.  On my head, I either wear the silliest looking wool bomber's hat you've ever seen (because it's the warmest hat I have), or I have thinner hats that I can wear under a hardhat, if I'm on a construction site.  For boots, I wear a pair of old, heavy, boots from Beans.  Again, these boots are the warmest pair I have, and they're waterproof.  If I'm on a construction site, I have a pair of insulated, waterproof,  steel toe, boots.

One note about the layers that are closest to your skin: even though I wear cotton t-shirts, I also know that I'm not going to be out there more than two or three hours at a time.  If you plan on being out longer, wool or poly would be better, as it does a better job of wicking moisture (read: sweat) away from your skin.  Dressing for the cold so well that you sweat is not an ideal situation.  And, if you feel yourself sweating, you should peel a layer, or open a zipper or two to cool yourself off.

The single most important article of clothing for cold weather shooting, are gloves.  You could obviously go the same way as my hat and boots, by choosing the warmest pair that you have, but they wouldn't be functional.  I have found that thinner gloves, with the fingertips cut off work the best.  I have two pairs (one heavy, one light) of these, and both have a little "mitten" piece that you can pull over your exposed fingers when you aren't shooting.  My hands still get cold, but it's a "manageable" cold.  And, I still have the option of shoving hand warmers into the gloves.

That's my cold weather set up.  You can certainly add wool or polypropylene long johns, an extra pair of socks, and any assortment of silly looking, but warm winter caps.  Another tip is to pick up some hand warmers.  I've never used these for my hands, but I have activated them, and taped them to the back of my camera a few times, to keep the camera from freezing.

So what about your gear?  Well, the aforementioned tip about hand warmers works well for cameras.  I have had a camera "freeze" a couple of times this winter.  I've also had my fluid head on my tripod freeze twice this year.  Both times when the temp was below zero.  As I need to have the ability to pan and tilt when I shoot video, even when it's below zero, I think I'll take my own advise and tape a hand warmer to the tripod head next time. 

Shooting in the cold can be a lot of fun, and you see some really cool stuff when it's minus 15!  But if you don't dress for it, it can be a miserable experience.  And a dangerous one!  I've had a busy winter.  Currently, I'm shooting three video projects for clients.  Staying at home when it's cold isn't an option for me.  So I dress warmly, take care of my gear, and embrace the winter that Maine throws at us.  I mean, that's why we live here, right?

MIP_4612.jpg

Cold Weather Photo Flight

A vertical shot of the target property from 5000'.

While most of my flying is done during the warmer months, which are also the ones with leaves on the trees, I still fly from time to time, in the winter.  Yesterday was one of those flights.  It was a perfect day, but a little chilly at 18 degrees. I met my pilot, Toby, at the Waterville airport, and while he started his preflight of the plane, I started my preflight of my equipment.  My checklist includes two cameras, one with a 24-105mm lens (for wide angle shots), and the other with a 100-400 zoom lens (to get close).  I check the settings, making sure that I am in shutter speed priority at 1/1250th second, and my ISO is at 400 or 640.  This usually gives me an aperture of f5.6, give or take a stop.  One camera hangs around my neck and the other, the one with the big zoom, rests between my knees.  Once I start shooting, I have to be careful because, in the heat of the moment, when you're shooting with both cameras, and you're wearing a headset with a cord, it's easy to get everything tangled.  So I try to tuck the headset cord under my leg and be conscious of the camera straps.  The last thing I check in the cockpit before takeoff is the window.  If it doesn't open, it's tough to work.  More often than not, there is a set screw that only allows the window to open about 4 inches.  This was the case yesterday, so we removed it, but the window was frozen stuck.  The little bit of ice in the window would come back to haunt me a little later.

We took off out of LaFleur Airport in Waterville and headed east to the little town of Hermon.  As Hermon is a little outside of Bangor, and Bangor International Airport, we requested "flight following".  Flight following is basically the tower at BIA letting us know of any other planes in our "neighborhood".  And although it adds a lot of extra radio chatter, it's nice to know that someone is watching out for you, as you fly all over the sky. And that's exactly what we do when we get to the target.  My instructions to the pilot will sound something like this "...bank right.....a little more... hard over... more... OK, straighten out... come back hard left... good, now hard over to the right...  hard over..." and so on.  Basically, what I am doing is directing the plane into the right spot in space to get the shot that I need for the client.  Of course, if I'm in the middle of giving directions and the tower comes over the radio saying that we have "traffic at our 2 o'clock at 2 miles and 2000'..." we stop taking pictures and look for that plane.  Once that plane is considered "no factor", we start the shooting process all over again.  

The Sappi Paper Mill.  Skowhegan, Maine.

We started shooting vertical shots of a property at 5000', and then started working our way down to 1000' to finish up with a couple of shots of the house.  As time is money, you want to get from 5000' to 1000' as quickly as possible, which usually means anything from a slow spiral to a vertical corkscrew.  I've done the vertical corkscrew, but find that I only last a couple of minutes before I have to ask the pilot to straighten out before I toss my cookies.  As we began our rapid descent yesterday, I realized that I couldn't get my window closed all of the way, because of that ice I had mentioned a while back.  Now, as I said, it was 18 degrees out, and if that plane was flying at 140 knots, that made the wind chill on my fingers about... well... pretty cold!  We actually had to slow down enough so that we could fly with the window open the rest of the flight, which was a pain, but not the end of the world.

Heading back to Waterville, I spotted the Sappi Paper Mill on the horizon.  It wasn't hard, as the steam the plant was giving off was rising a couple thousand feet into the cold, still air.  I was drawn to the mill as I enjoy shooting "industrial" sites from the air, so I asked Toby how far the mill was from Waterville.  He replied (in airplane talk) "one to two tenths".  When you're flying, time is money.  And the device that let's you know how long you've been flying (and therefore, how much money you're spending) is called the Hobbs meter.  One tenth of an hour is 6 minutes.  So Toby was telling me that the diversion to take silly pictures of a stinky paper mill would cost me between 6 and 12 minutes of flight time, which at $200/hour works out to 25-50 bucks.  As I knew there would be this cool looking waste pond on site, I told him to head over.

If you ever want to get up in the air around Waterville, make sure to contact the folks at Airlink LLC.  I've flown with Klaus Thalinger and his pilots several times, both summer and winter, and I've never had a complaint.  They also provide charter flights.  You can contact them at 1-207-859-0109.

The Waste Pond at the Sappi Paper Mill, Skowhegan, Maine.

Neutral Density Filters

Using my 10 stop ND filter to achieve a 30 second exposure during the day time.  Portland Head Light, Cape Elizabeth, Maine.

When I'm not flying around in planes and helicopters doing aerial work, I enjoy shooting seascapes and long exposures.  One of the most important pieces of equipment for this type of work is a decent set of Neutral Density (ND) filters.  A ND filter is a filter that "reduces or modifies the intensity of all wavelengths of light equally, giving no changes in hue or color rendition" (thanks Wikipedia!).  Some of the reasons that you might want to use a ND filter include blurring water, getting a shallow depth of field in bright light, extending long exposures, and so on.  They usually come in three forms, solid, split grad, and my favorite, the variable.  Solid ND filters are just that, a constant shade of grey across the filter.  The darker the grey, the more reduction in light that is allowed to enter the camera.  ND filters start at a 1/3 stop reduction, and go up to the massive 10 stop (like the Lee Big Stopper) and more!  A 10 stop ND filter is nearly impossible to see through.  When using my 10 stop, I will usually set my camera to manual focus, then focus on my subject, and finally carefully screw my 10 stop ND filter onto the front element of my lens.  When standing waist deep in cold Maine water shooting a waterfall, I use both hands when screwing the filter on and off!  Using my 10 stop has allowed me to shoot 30 second, and sometimes longer, exposures in the middle of the day.

Using a ND filter to blur passing trees during an Amtrak aerial shoot.

These are usually round glass filters, sized to screw into the front element of your lens, although they also come in rectangular, one size fits most, resin and glass filters.  Some of the larger manufacturers are Lee, B+H, Singh Ray, and Cokin.  A newer company on the market, Hitech, puts out an inexpensive series of resin filters.

A variation on the round, glass, screw in ND filter is the variable ND filter.  This filter is actually 2 pieces of glass, and the more they are rotated, the darker the effect.  With more and more photos shooting DSLR video, this variable ND filter can be used to control shutter speed when shooting video, especially on bright days.  And because you can adjust the effect just by turning the front piece of glass, you can actually achieve the desired effect while watching your display.  Pretty convenient!

My assortment of glass filters, rectangular resin filters, variable ND filter and holders.

My assortment of glass filters, rectangular resin filters, variable ND filter and holders.

Split Grad ND filters have a shade of gray on top and are clear on the bottom.  They come as a "hard" or soft" filter.  A hard split grad has a sharp transition from ND to clear, and would be used in an instance where there is a sharp horizon line, such as the ocean in a seascape.  When that sharp horizon  line isn't available,  a soft split grad graduates more slowly from the ND effect to clear.  You might use one of these for a forest scene with a bright sky that needs some taming.

One last thing to consider is "stacking" your filters.  I have often stacked a polarizing filter on top of a ND filter, particularly when shooting waterfalls.  The addition of the polarizer allows for a little color saturation, removal of any reflections, and at a loss of 2 more stops of light, for even longer exposures.  This is a fun way to get really creative, but keep in mind, that like with most things related to photography, you get what you pay for.  Less expensive ND filters may not reduce all of the wavelengths of light equally, resulting in some color shift in your images.  My (reasonably) inexpensive 10 stop filter gives me a warm color cast in exposures that last two minutes or more.  I can usually reduce, or eliminate this in post, but when you consider that a top of the line 10 stop ND filter cost well over $300, a few extra minutes in post is OK with me.  Happy shooting!

Using a soft split grad ND filter to darken the skies.

Welcome to the new Maine Imaging Site!

Well it's been two years since the last Maine Imaging website was designed, and I felt it was time to "refresh" our look.  So for the last month or so, I've been working on the new site (off line) on Squarespace.  Squarespace offers several different templates that you can choose and make your own.  And, as we're a small company, it makes sense to use this formula to put together a website.  I know that website designers are people too, and that they have to make a living, but after much research, I decided to continue on my own.  What is it that they say about a man who chooses to defend himself in a trial?  Well, here's my thinking behind the decision.

With the help of a friend, who was in Marketing and SEO for several years, I have learned much about SEO (search engine optimization) and what the search engines are looking for when someone types a query into a search bar.  Maine Imaging currently shows up on Google's front page for everything that we want it to.  Which is exactly what you want, right? And yet, I still get spam from SEO consultants, telling me that they could get Maine Imaging to the front page of Google.  Do these guys even look at your site before sending out their spam?  Most of the folks doing site design and SEO want you to purchase a package that includes both of the above, and some extras.  But these packages are expensive, often several hundred dollars a month. This is a tough pill for small companies such as Maine Imaging to swallow.  I also wonder what you get for that sort of money.  But I digress.  If you're working your own website, here are a few things that I can recommend.  I'm no Guru when it comes to this stuff, but I have had some success (and don't forget the help from my former marketing buddy...) with my SEO.

1. Use Smugmug, or a similar service, to host your images.

I use Smugmug to host all of my images and video clips.  Smugmug is a wonderful service for photographers, as they not only host your images, but they also handle their SEO incredibly well, back up all of your image files, and have an online store to sell your images.  And, their customer service is excellent!  Smugmug is very well thought out, and while there is a learning curve, it's easy to use.

2. Name your files before uploading. 

This is a biggie!  Search engines will get people to your images faster if you name them correctly.  For example, I have a night time, aerial,  shot of Boston.  Actually, I have a whole gallery.  Let's say the image files current name is MIP_1234.jpg.  Should I leave the image file's name the same way as it came out of the camera?  NO!  I should change the image files name to something that tells what it is, such as: MIP_AERIAL_BOSTON_NIGHT_MA_1234.jpg.  You might think this is a pretty long name, but it tells the story of what, exactly, the image is.  And this file naming helps the search engines find your image out of the millions of other images floating around in cyber space.

3.  Add keywords to your images before exporting for upload.   

Use your keyword tool in Lightroom, or whatever editing software you use, to add keywords to each image file.  When I got back from that night time flight over Boston, I imported the images from my CF card into Lightroom.  In that process, I added specific keywords to ALL of the image files.  Keywords like "Boston, night, aerial, ma, mass, massachusettts, helicopter, city, fall, photo, image, nighttime, dark, etc.".  Now, all of those keywords are attached to all of the images I've imported.  And, they will stay with those images when I export them for uploading.  As I select which images, out of the several hundred or thousand I have taken on a flight, that will ultimately be exported and uploaded to my on-line galleries,  I will add more image specific keywords.  For example, I have a killer shot of the Custom House clock tower, so I will add, "custom house, clock, tower, custom house clock tower," to my keyword list for that image file.  I might also add "Custom House" to the image files' name before uploading.  Now, if someone uses a search engine to look for "night time picture custom house tower boston",  the search engine will have an easy time finding the images that I have taken the time to properly name and keyword

If this helped at all, please leave a comment.  I have never been a blogger, but with the new site, comes new responsibilities.  And blogging is supposed to be good for SEO!  

Thanks for taking the time!

Dave