Update on My Thoughts on the Mavic Pro

With a great deal of excitement, I picked up my DJI Mavic Pro for a trip to Thailand last April. I picked it up in the form of the Fly More kit that includes the drone, the remote, a 16GB micro-SD card, three batteries, spare propellers, a carrying case, and several charging options. Since then, I've added one more battery and a set of neutral density (ND) filters. 

The Mavic reignited the excitement for drone flying that had been robbed when the FAA instituted their jack-booted approach to regulation. After receiving the drone system, I flew a bunch up to the receipt of my commercial drone rating at the end of May, and I've logged quite a few hours in my logbook since. So I've had plenty of time for my opinion of the Mavic system to evolve. 

So what do I think now?

Well, in a nut shell, I still love the thing. While I've discovered some shortcomings along the way, I still consider it to be an outstanding system.

I'll start with talking about its form factor. With the actual drone folding to a size smaller than a Nerf football (Are those still made?), and a remote that folds down to the size of a paperback novel, the system is really darn easy to take with me wherever I go. And I go a lot of places, both in my Jeep and on foot. 

Out with my Jeep and my Mavic Pro in the middle of nowhere, Pike National Forest.

As to the included accessories with the Fly More kit, I have mixed emotions.

While traveling internationally, I used the include bag as extra padding to protect the drone and remote. But it really doesn't fit extra batteries or other accessories like my ND filter set. Now that I'm back stateside, I rarely use it. Instead, I've reconfigured my Lowepro Trekker 300 AW backpack to accept all of the parts of the kit I want to carry plus other camera gear I may want to take. That doesn't mean the bag is useless. If your flying time is going to be equivalent to one battery or you have another solution for carrying other batteries and gear, then the included bag may be everything you'll need. Several days ago, I talked to a horse trail guide who had a Mavic bag that was as well worn as a pair of my old Army boots. He loved it. 

The included charging accessories are kind of handy and kind of a joke. My biggest gripe is with the four-battery charging accessory. While it provides a set-it-and-forget-it solution to charge four batteries, it only charges one battery at a time. So what should be a one hour charging operation (if all batteries were charged simultaneously) takes four hours. If I have overnight or a day off to do my charging, this is fine. But if I'm on site and have cranked through my batteries, I have an hour for to wait for my next flight, and then around 40 minutes to wait after I've exhausted my first recharged battery, 40 minutes for the next, and so on.

One great thing the charger has is the ability to charge both my remote and cellphone while the batteries are charging via USB ports on the charger's converter pack. Another is a cool little device that can be plugged into one of my batteries to power USB devices while traveling and not actively flying the drone. Considering that, while in a commercial airplane I must take my batteries onto the passenger compartment with me anyway, this eliminates the need to take a separate USB battery pack. The kit also has a car charger that can be pretty handy.

Now let's talk about the imaging system and gimbal. 

The gimbal is brilliant. I've flown the drone up, down, sideways, and all around. The I always end up with motion imagery that is far more stabilized than I deserve. It's beautiful. 

The drone is small and the onboard camera is small. So by necessity, the camera's sensor is small (about a half-inch diagonally). Colors are represented admirably for such a tiny sensor. But noise is pretty pronounced, even in the lowest ISO settings. And high-contrast situations become a process of making the image as good as possible and then accepting that the darker spots are going to look kind of rubbish. 

In this image, you can see the pronounced noise in the darker blue of the sky. This was shot with the Mavic Pro at ISO 100.

To deal with the noise, DJI uses noise reduction that is so severe that it softens images to look more like watercolor paintings than digital imagery. I searched around in the internet and experimented to find what I felt were the best settings to negate this problem. I eventually landed on a custom sharpening setting of +1.

The overall settings I use are the D-Log color profile with a custom style of +1 sharpness, -2 contrast, and -2 saturation and white balance set to the outside conditions (usually Sunny). Others will have have their own differing settings, but this setup gives me nice and flat source imagery that I've become comfortable working off of. I also typically use an ND-32 filter to slow the shutter speed so I can keep the it down to 1/60sec when shooting at 29.97 frames per second and 1/50sec when shooting at 23.98 fps This produces the proper per-frame motion blur for video that isn't choppy-looking. In this, good ND filters are worth their weight in gold (or more since they're really light).

Speaking of the image itself, in D-Log I get an image that is really quite warm with extra red in the shadows. So in post after bumping up the saturation, I'm always pushing the tint and temperature sliders to the left. Then I go in deeper and push the shadows towards blue. I do this every time to get my baseline to work from.

For imagery settings, a quick tap with my finger on a button mounted on the back of the remote quickly brings up all the camera settings I need. Aperture is fixed at f/2.2. But ISO and shutter speed are the first options to pop up. And some quick and intuitive navigating gets me to other options like aspect ratio, recording file format, color profile, color style, and (for photos) RAW vs. JPG. 

Unfolding the drone and remote, system setup, and pre-flight inspections are all quick and easy. From arrival to my takeoff spot to launch takes less than five minutes. By the way, if you're wondering if your phone can be fit into the remote's holders with the phone's protector still on, the answer is no. I need to take mine off every time I mount my phone. 

As to the flying itself, the thing is a joy to have up in the air. It's very easy to move around, and its collision avoidance has saved me from severe tree-based interactions. With the drone's body being so small, following the FAA-mandated rule of having the drone in sight with the naked eye can get to be kind of a chore. But if you suddenly lose sight of it, some up-and-down or side-to-side movement usually works for reacquisition. And the DJI GO 4 app's map that has a handy line from you to the drone, so you can bring the drone straight back to you until you see it again. 

For flying techniques to prevent propeller introduction into my shot, the forward position of the camera means that this is never a problem unless I'm flying aggressively in Sport Mode.

So there are my thoughts based on the last 3+ months of heavy use. I do love the Mavic Pro. But as I get deeper into my professional life, I'll consider something with a larger sensor like the one-inch one on the Phantom 4 Pro for cleaner images. For now, though, the Mavic Pro has everything I need.

A Video Gift for Father's Day - Episode 1

A Video Gift for Father's Day - Episode 1

This year for Father's Day, I decided to make a series of three videos (plus one trailer) for my Dad about Colorado. My plan was to use my drone for the lion's share of the footage and fill in as necessary with video taken with my GoPro cameras and my Nikon D800. 

I originally wanted to make the series in UHD 4k, but I found two problems. First is that one of my GoPro cameras, the Hero 3 Black, shoots 4K video at an exceptionally slow frame rate. But if I knock the resolution back to 2.7K, I can get 29.97 frames per second. Second is that my D800 tops out at 1080p, and I needed it for filming my narration pieces that include green screen usage. So Episode 1 came out in 1080p. I'm exploring other methods for narration, and I'm going to plan to eliminate use of the Hero 3 and concentrate on exclusively using my GoPro 4 Black for the shots that aren't taken with the drone. 

Of course, the first thing I put together is the trailer for the series so I could present it to my Dad on Father's Day. You can find it on this site's Video page. In it, I used footage taken from the mines at Victor, the old farms and the South Platte River near Hartsel, Sheep Nose near Westcreek, and Sheeprock near Cheesman Reservoir. 

I set out the day after Father's Day to start filming the first episode. It's subject is the land around U.S. Highway 24 between Wilkerson Pass and Antero Junction.

The drone went up to fly along stretches of U.S. 24 before I turned north and headed into the the more mountainous area near the pass. After flying the drone from the base of Martland Peak, I moved south to the farms and the section of the South Platte just to the west of Spinney Reservoir. Unfortunately, the filming day was cut short when gusting winds kicked up. So I returned home to transfer the day's footage to long-term storage. 

The next day was far more successful. I started with the two GoPros mounted to my Jeep. The Hero 4 was pointed forward and the Hero 3 was pointed off the right side. I drove the entire route from the Wilkerson Pass to Antero Junction like this. Then I turned back down U.S. 24 and got the drone in the air for footage of Antero Reservoir and the South Platte River emerging from its eastern side. Then on the eastern side of Hartsel, I turned southeast down Park County Road and got more drone footage of the old farmsteads and the river down to Spinney Reservoir.

To cap the day, I jumped back into the Jeep, crossed U.S. 24, and headed back into the mountains around Martland Peak. This turned out to be my favorite part of the day, as I found trails that led to some of the most beautiful locations tucked into those valleys and draws. I spent far more time than I needed to here, planning my return to explore more. Then I headed home to download my newly acquired footage. 

You may be curious about the settings I filmed with on my drone... I used the D-Log profile with a custom style of -1, -3, -3. White balance was set to Sunny, and I shot at UHD 4k resolution at 29.97 fps. I used a Polar Pro ND32 filter that allowed me to shoot at ISO 100 and a shutter speed of 60. 

On Wednesday, I set up and lit my green screen and assembled the D800 with wireless lavalier mic for the narration. This was the part I was least looking forward to doing. But after two hours and a lot of cursing, I had my five minutes of narration done. 

Then I was off to my Mac Pro for assembly. I primarily used Adobe's Premiere Pro for the editing and color correction, and linked video over to After Effects for the chroma key portions. 

With the first draft done, I walked away from the computer to do other stuff. I came back with fresh eyes three times and made corrections and improvements. 

It is now Thursday, and video is ready to go. I'm itching to upload it so Dad can see it, but I said Sunday is the upload day. I may not stick to that as my Sunday schedule seems arbitrary. 

I Passed My Airman Knowledge Test

I'm well on my way, over the only major hurdle, to getting my commercial drone certification. Today, I headed into Peyton, Colorado to be administered the Airman Knowledge Test by the really great people at Springs Aviation. The test took me about 40 minutes (from the allotted two hours) and I scored a 95%. The test contained 60 questions and I missed three of them. 

The next step is to submit my application online via the FAA Integrated Airmen Certification and/or Rating Application (IACRA) system. I've gone as far as I can in the application, but I've hit a speed bump. Apparently, the test results take up to 48 hours to get into the system. HEY FAA! THIS IS THE COMPUTER AGE! NOTHING TAKES 48 HOURS! Well, I guess nothing except for big government.

I'm a little frustrated at the delay, but as I have little choice I'll just deal with it with a little whining. 

I guess this would be a good time to state my overall impression of the Drone Pilot Ground School course. As I stated in my previous journal entry, the course provided me a very good structure for the information I had to ingest. To me, this was extremely valuable and worth the price of admission. And while the course materials did cover most of the information, enough to get a student who is paying attention a score of at least 70% on the official exam, it did have gaps that left me searching for answers that I felt were missing. I actually spent many hours seeking information external to the course, and this paid off with the 95% passing score I mentioned at this post's beginning. 

Also as I mentioned in the previous post, the practice tests kept me focused on the subjects that I needed to improve in and kept me confident in my abilities. But while the practice tests kept the same number of questions, the FAA testing format is completely different from the practice test format provided by DPGS. If to you a question is a question is a question no matter how it is asked, then you have nothing to worry about. For me, I had to take a couple of seconds to click my brain into the correct mindset to work with the new format. Also, the test had some questions that I found myself completely unprepared for (hence the three the I got wrong). In the actual course, hints that more information was available had me headed off in search of additional information. For the three questions I missed, the information was neither covered nor had indicators to search out more. 

But in the end, I did exceed the 70% threshold. But the perfectionist in me wanted the entire displaced threshold (dumb aviator humor that I just made up).

Back to waiting for the test results to show up at the FAA.


Working Towards my Commercial Drone Certification

Officially, it is Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations Part 107 certification. Essentially, it is the part of the CFR that the FAA has written in to allow drone flyers to commercially fly their drones. Any dumb schmuck can register to fly a drone and be crashing it into trees and people before they know it. But to make money, a drone flyer must cram his or her head with knowledge (that can never be used because of the FAA's own restrictions) and then regurgitate that knowledge in a multiple guess test. It's like testing a kid on the fermentation process of hard lemonade before he or she can open a lemonade stand. 

Anyway, I'm currently studying for the part 107 exam that I will be taking six days from now. I'm using an online course called Drone Pilot Ground School at http://learn.uavcoach.com/. While I suppose I could pick up any study guide and struggle my way through the information, I figured that a good structured approach with visuals would work wonders in speeding the learning process along. The website let me review the outline of the course content. And with that I decided that this was the course that I wanted...

...right up until I watched the introduction video for drone laws and FAA regulations. It pretty much consisted of the guy who put the content together, some cat named Alan Perlman, cheerleading for the great and wonderful commercial drone rules put in place by the FAA. He even takes a moment to give a one-man round of applause to the FAA. I almost quit and requested a refund right there. Instead, I got a beer and decided that course content would probably be shiny and good from a dooface whose lips are firmly planted on the rump of the FAA. 

And so far, it is. I'm about half-way through the course content. I've completed the sections on the aforementioned laws and regs and on weather and micrometeorology. And I'm about half-way through the section on the National Airspace System. Once I'm done with the NAS, I'll proceed to the final, long section on drone flight operations. 

By and large, the course has been put together well. It's pretty much death by PowerPoint with some well-made graphics thrown in. I do have a couple of things on which I can really applaud the course.

First, they've developed a great library of downloadable PDF resources that have been helping me along. Also, a student can download the entire lectures in print form if he or she wishes.

Second, every subsection has a quiz, every section has a quiz, and five practice exams are provided at course's end. I've used these quizzes to ensure my study stays on the right track and to build my confidence. 

One thing I have to warn you about if you are going to take this course: on the section about weather reports, only one type (METAR) is covered sufficiently. After Big Al the FAA cheerleader covers this, he breezes through the other types of reports, insinuates that the student will need to know them for the test, and then says something like, "they're pretty much like METARs". I ended up doing Google searches and learning about the other reports from sources outside the course. 

Let me share a couple of study techniques that I've employed to help me along.

Flashcards have been invaluable. Acronyms, definitions, and descriptions have all gone onto my flash cards. I'm up to almost 200. Every time I come back to my computer to get back at the course, I go through them. Lunch, bathroom break, answering the phone, whatever - I go through the cards.

For learning about the weather reports, I went to http://aviationweather.gov and worked my way through decoding a bunch of real-world METATRs, TAFs, FAs, and PIREPs. The Aviation Weather Center has this great capability where a user can look at a report in its raw form and then click a button to see a decoded version. It's like a test with the ability to immediately check my work. 

So that's where I am right now. It's taken me about a day and a half to get this far. I'm going to close down and get to bed. Tomorrow morning, I have a bunch of flashcards to go through. And then I'll try to wrap up the course. I'll definitely be done by Saturday (day after tomorrow).

Tale of Three Drones: The Phantom 1, the Phantom 3 Standard, and the Mavic Pro

When DJI came out with the original Phantom (now referred to as the Phantom 1), I couldn't wait to get my hands on one. I pretty quickly bought it, along with a GoPro Hero 3 Black (no on board camera system), and was soon flying. This original consumer quadcopter was revolutionary for its time, but it didn't have an available gimbal to keep the video smooth. Nor did it have any kind of first-person view (FPV) that could be used to guide one's efforts at video collection. And it didn't have any kind of damping system to reduce camera vibration from the four spinning and slightly off-weight rotors. This led to significant "jello" or waviness on the captured video. 

But I loved the thing regardless. Really, there was nothing like it. 

And soon, aftermarket gimbals started to appear. They were rubbish. Vibration isolation was still not available, though I copied some other people and put rubber grommets between the gimbal and the mounting point on the quad. This actually made little difference. Though they eventually steadied the mounted GoPros, the gimbals did not spin up quick enough to keep an initial bump from happening when the quad shifted. I spent my money, and received a general disappointment. 

But then DJI developed and released the Zenmuse 2- and 3- axis gimbals. Finally! Now we had a gimbal that worked. And it worked really well. Use of my quad had dwindled, but the Zenmuse gimbal brought me back to the fun of flying.

But we still didn't have FPV - well, not without spending money on an expensive FPV system that had to be soldered in and also weighed the quad down. 

The Phantom 2 eventually came and went. I let that one drift on by and never flew one.

But then, to support a training video I'd been hired to write and direct, I picked up a Phantom 3 Standard. As the video was going to be released in 1080p, the 2.7K video resolution was more than plenty. I finally had FPV to play with, and the new quad had all of these cool flight modes like Follow Me and Point of Interest (orbit). I was simultaneously giddy with excitement and in awe.

My Phantom 1 had been relegated to its case for a while by then, but the P3 rekindled my passion for quad flying. During that video shoot, I filmed people running from buildings and I chased and hovered over police cars. And this was all before the FAA lockdown, so flying was still fun! the P3 had a longer battery life, so I could stay up longer. I flew that P3 all around my Colorado mountain home. I chased myself in my Jeep over all sorts of terrain, I flew up to get close looks at mountaintops and outcroppings I was too unskilled to reach, and I flew in and around abandoned and broken-down buildings and houses.

I was even able to make some money on the side by taking shots for real-estate brokers. I turned my quad flying to developing my capabilities and techniques in real-estate video and photo gathering, thinking I could perhaps make a good buck or two.

But then the FAA stepped in and instituted heavy regulation. They prohibited the making of any money, threatening steep fines, unless the flyer was able to pass the same test taken by actual passenger aircraft pilots. Though we quad flyers were allowed nowhere near airports, we had to know procedures for interacting with and landing at airports. We had to know how to read convoluted pilot weather reports (when one could find the same thing on weather websites), and we had to be able to know and understand pilot tools like sectional charts and Notices to Airmen (NOTAMs). So when this was first instituted, the FAA successfully stopped potential entrepreneurs from making supplemental money and enabled newly minted drone academies to start charging $3,000 and up for classes to get a license. 

My P3 went into its case, and there it stayed. It did occasionally come out for a "wow moment" for friends. But the FAA regulations didn't allow me to let those friends actually fly it if they didn't own it. So that eventually stopped, too.

But a couple of months ago, as a trip to Thailand was looming on the horizon, I got excited. This was going to be a chance to fly a quad as I saw fit, without interference from the FAA. Funny enough, friends asked me if the FAA would be able to influence how I flew over there. They were concerned that, if I flew in a way the FAA didn't approve of and uploaded that video to YouTube, I'd be subject to their fines. Big government using fear as a control tactic. Go figure. 

I originally tried to figure out how to take my P3 in the smallest possible package. But in the end, it just wasn't going to work. So I ended up getting myself a DJI Mavic Pro. With a little rearranging and prioritizing, the Mavic Pro's entire Fly More kit fit in my camera bag along with my regular DLSR kit. It was the solution I'd been waiting for. 

WHILE IN THAILAND, I ended up flying the heck out of that Mavic Pro and loving every single moment of it. Free from restriction, I was able to experiment with different launch, recovery, and flying techniques. And I ended up learning a whole way more than I would have if I stayed stateside. 

Over the Phantom 3, the Mavic Pro adds some significant upgrades. First and most important, the quad and controller fold into very small packages that are easily transported. Second, the battery life is noticeably longer than my P3, meaning I can do extended hovers and fly all over the place before I have to reel the quad in. Third, the Mavic Pro adds a second GPS system (GLONASS) and front and down facing proximity sensors to allow for additional safety and precision. And finally, the Mavic Pro has a few more autonomous flight options that are really fun. 

I've continued flying that Mavic Pro upon returning to the States. Of course, I'm observing the FAA rules like I'm supposed to. But I've got the spark for flying quads back and will continue to look for new (and lawful) places to fly it. And now that the FAA commercial regulations have settled in and people have had a chance to understand them, acquiring a commercial license now costs about 10 percent of those early prices. I think I may get one and try to bring in a little cash.

For examples of my drone flights, head over to my Videos page and look at the The Mines of Victor, The DJI Mavic Pro in Thailand, Khao Sok National Park, and Episode 12: Learning to Drive.

Cameras packed for Thailand

So this evening, I'm heading out towards Thailand. I'll arrive there sometime tomorrow. We'll land there and then be off to Limestone Lake in the Kao Son National Park. The place has the kinds of giant island-cliffs and vast, glassy stretches of water. I'm not actually expecting to be trying to capture photos of wildlife. So all this has been factored into my camera choice. 

The first big change from my trip to South Africa last year is that I'm not taking a long lens. For my D800, my lens choice will be the Nikkor 20mm f3.8 Ai, the Nikkor 50mm f1.4 G, and the Tamron 90mm f2.8 macro. Also unlike last year, I'm taking camera support in the form of a monopod with fold-down legs.

The next change is that I'm leaving my GoPros home. Instead, I'm taking a DJI Mavic quadcopter. Yeah, I know that the Mavic and the GoPros bring different capabilities, but this time I want to work with the Mavic exclusively. It folds down nice and small and fits in my camera bag with my D800 kit. I'm expecting to be able to get a bunch of beautiful aerial shots of the lake. I want to get wide and sweeping landscape video of the lake, islands, and surrounding jungle. But I also want to get video of family members kayaking. Now I'm not talking the cheesy mobile phone videos that friends hate when they're forced to watch. I'm talking cinematic shots like orbits, flyovers, reveals, and jib shots. 

This seems to be turning into a post about the Mavic.

Anyway, I spent the last weekend familiarizing myself with the the drone by filming tactical driver training for law enforcement candidates. Chasing the trainees and instructors around the closed road course quickly increased both my confidence and capability when controlling the drone and pointing its camera. 

So now I'm hours away from departure. I'm giddy with anticipation with both the trip and the upcoming opportunity for getting great imagery to share. So be looking for groovy videos and pictures in a month or so.

Flying the a new drone

I just spent the last weekend flying the DJI Mavic Pro drone to support filming of a law enforcement driving course administered by the members of several Colorado LE agencies. And I gotta say, it was a resounding success. While I already had a DJI Phantom 3 platform, I wanted the Mavic with its small collapsable form factor so I can take it on my upcoming Thailand trip. 

I actually hadn't flown a drown in quite a while, so I was pretty rusty. So my technique at the start of the weekend was very basic, but it advanced quickly as I became familiar with the Mavic and began to enjoy its capabilities above those of the P3. 

At the end of the weekend, I felt very comfortable with flying the drone. So now I'm ready for Thailand. I'm posting a quick video here, and I'll be working on a longer "cool guy" video with music and slick editing for YouTube.


More on trying art to influence your photography

Bob Ross has been a personal hero of mine for many years, and I've forever wanted to learn to paint because of it. So last November, I decided to give it a try. I picked up a bunch of painting supplies and an easel, kicked on the official Bob Ross YouTube channel, and put brush to canvas. While I can't say I was an immediate success, Bob Ross' teaching brought me along quickly. Before long, I was also looking to other online and DVD instructors. And not long after that, I decided I wanted to paint my own scenes.

While out on the road, I began to find myself visually picking apart everything around me to see if and how I could paint the elements of each scene. Throughout all my years of photography, I'd never looked at the things around me in such fine detail. 

So when I next picked up a camera, I did so thinking that I wanted to capture a scene to paint. My process of composition slowed considerably as I dismantled the scene through the lens in thinking on how it would look translated to canvas. 

My first effort at painting one of my shots was not a good representation of the photo it came from. The painting looked cartoonish, and in the end looked completely different from the source picture. But I was pleased that I'd given it a try, feeling that I was opening a new chapter in the stories of both my photography and my painting (for which my passion was quickly growing). 

My first attempt - photo taken in Pike National Forest not far from Divide, Colorado

Excited that I'd tried my first one, regardless of success, I went on to try my second one. It was much more of a distant view with water reflection included. It didn't turn out much better than my first one, but I'm still happy with the experience.

My second attempt - photo taken at Sprague Lake in eastern part of Rocky Mountain National Park

For my third attempt, I wanted to try painting a structure. This was something I'd only tried once before during instruction. But I figured that jumping right in was the best way to learn how to do it. And by the time I was finished, I'd created my favorite of the three photo-based attempts.

My third attempt - photo taken at Bodie State Historic Park in California

Yesterday, I headed out into the snowstorm at Mueller State Park to get a good winter picture of a dead tree at the Grouse Mountain Overlook. Upon arrival, I found that the tree had fallen over, becoming much less photogenic and... uh... paintinggenic. But the storm had transformed the park into a winter wonderland of which I took several pictures on the way to my destination. With my newfound eye for detail, some of the pictures that I took seemed like they would work for me to paint. In the end, here is the one I chose to try: 

My next attempt - photo taken at Mueller State Park near Divide, Colorado

I chose this one because, while it has the amazing white collected on the tree limbs, it doesn't have a whole bunch of tree trunks for me to get bogged down with. I'll get started as soon as I've finished writing this post. Depending on my results, I'll update this post with the finished painting.

Here is the result of my use of the above picture for inspiration, finished January 22, 2017.

Photography backend following a road trip

I promise I have another Tommy and his Cameras episode on the way. It will consist mainly of video I shot on the road with my iPhone and pictures from the myriad places I visited going to and from my parents' place several states away.

While I processed many of my negatives in the hotel rooms that I stayed in along the way, I still have a few to run through the tank. I'm also slowly working my way through getting the negatives scanned while simultaneously preparing my home for the arrival of visiting family over Christmas. 

Places that I visited while on the road that I got pictures at are as follows (each is a link when possible):

Fort Union National Monument, New Mexico

Pecos National Historical Park, New Mexico

Two Guns, Arizona

Parashant National Monument, Arizona

Virgin River Canyon, Arizona

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Rifle Falls State Park, Colorado

In all of the places except for Parashant, I shot black and white film in either the 35mm, 120, or 4x5 format. At Parashant, I shot everything on the Panasonic Lumix GH4 that I took for video. 

So in the next day or two, I'll have the next episode of Tommy and his Cameras up and running.

Flatbed scanner - not so good for negatives

I'm currently at my parents' home for Thanksgiving, and I'm away from my darkroom and Epson V800 scanner. So my options for transferring photo negatives to the electronic medium are pretty much nil. 

I gave a try at scanning the negatives using my father's flatbed scanner while they were still in their protective plastic sleeve, and the results were all but unusable. Here is the only one that came out even partially useable.

Fort Union National Monument, New Mexico

Fort Union National Monument, New Mexico

The protective sleeve seems to have imparted a bunch of artifacts and dust and a yellow/sepia cast. Though the result is far from perfect, I think it does look cool.

Hotel bathrooms as darkrooms

Before taking off on this latest road trip, I wanted to come up with a way to develop film while on the road. Primarily, I needed a place where I could transfer exposed film into the developing tank for processing. After some ideas that I decided wouldn't work, I finally landed on the obvious: the hotel bathroom. The typical hotel bathroom doesn't have any windows, is usually as far from any actual main room windows as possible, and has a door that is off-axis from those main room windows (if not actually tucked back behind a wall). So that became my plan. 

After the first day of travel, I ended up at the La Quinta in Santa Fe, NM. And true to the ideal form that I'm imagined, the bathroom was just as I'd theorized to include being tucked behind a little wall. I had to wait until night fell so that very little light was coming through the curtains. Then I turned off all the room's lights, went into the bathroom with my film and my developing tank, and shut the door. I waited for several minutes to let my eyes adjust and see if any light was leaking in around the doors. Nope. Perfectly dark. 

So I got to work taking the 120-format film off the roll and putting it into the tank. One thing that I realized was that I didn't pack was scissors to cut off the film where it was taped to the protective paper layer. I ended up tearing the tape free of the film, though it left some worrisome residue (that didn't end up making any difference in the end). 

With the film in the tank, I turned on all the lights and got to developing at the bathroom countertop. I did stand developing, using a 100:1 water to Rodinol mix for an hour of developing time before moving on to stop bath, fixer, and rinse. 

When all was done, I had some beautiful negatives whose processing started in that light-tight bathroom. The next night, I processed more negatives in another hotel room bathroom with more great results.

Thoughts and reasons for episode 8

I started Tommy and his Cameras with the idea that I wanted to make a video channel for the everyperson photographer. Then I made a whole bunch of videos about shooting film cameras. And I didn't just go to film cameras, I went with large format film cameras (something very few people have). My thought was that I wanted to demonstrate that people shoot what they have and like, and I have and like film cameras. But I think the concentration on film took away from the everyperson's ability to relate.

Here is where episode 8 comes in. In the past, I have done series projects that have been very rewarding for one reason or another. And I wanted to use the momentum created by a new series to get me back into digital. Everyone nowadays shoots a digital picture at one time or another. So this new project is going to be all digital. Though I will, at times, be using my professional grade Nikon D800-series camera, I will also spend a lot of time shooting my enthusiast-level D3000 and my iPhone. As a matter of fact, episode 8 has a picture from my iPhone in it. 

So in shooting all digital for the new project that I'm calling "The Empty Chair Project", I hope to create content that more closely relates to the values that I originally established for Tommy and his Cameras. 

So whoever you, the reader, are, I hope that you find enjoyment in this series.  Go over to the Video page to see the video, or watch it on YouTube.

Episode 7 is now online

Episode 7 is now online

Yesterday, I set out in my Jeep to wander until I found something interesting for my camera. I ended up between Wilkerson Pass and Hartsel, Colorado in the Spinney Mountain State Wildlife Area in which I found a couple of old houses to take pictures of. I had my 4x5 Tachihara large format camera with me, and I put it to good use. That is the subject of episode 7, which can be found on the Tommy and his Cameras YouTube channel or on the "Videos" page of this website. Enjoy!

Trying out Paper Negatives

Trying out Paper Negatives

While I love shooting sheet film in large format cameras, it can get really expensive. 8x10" black and white sheet film bought in packs can cost over $4.00 per shot. The same size in color can cost over $14.00 per shot. And this is when bought from the most inexpensive places I can find online. But the 8x10" negatives the camera yields is unmatched in overall picture quality. Consider that the 24 full-frame DSLR sensors can be fit into the 2-dimensional space taken up by an 8x10" negative. That is a huge amount of information contained in the negative over the sensor.

Looking for a solution that would allow me to keep shooting relatively cheaply, I came across the idea of the "paper negative". To employ a paper negative, I just needed to place photographic paper (the same used for printing final images in a darkroom) into my film holders in place of film. Then shoot normally.

To try out the paper negative concept, I used my Burke & James 8x10" field camera equipped with my Kodak Ektanon lens. I used my Fidelity Elite film holders and Adorama's house brand multigrade resin-coated paper. Compared to the $4.00-per-shot price tag associated with the traditional negatives, paper negatives would cost me about $0.45 per shot. That's quite the potential savings. 

Burke & James 8x10" field camera with Kodak Ektanon 19.75" f10 lens

I had no idea what the working ISO of the paper is. So I ran tests to determine the working aperture by shooting sheets at ISO 6, ISO 3, and ISO 1.5. After developing the paper in the darkroom, I scanned them to my hard drive. Here are the results shown as negative(original image) and then positive. To create the positive, I imported the negative image into Photoshop and simply inverted it black-to-white and vice versa. In all the pictures, the subject I metered off of is the pile of logs on the table.

Starting with ISO 1.5, I used an aperture of f32 and a shutter speed four seconds. The exposure is obviously too long, as the subject is far too bright. So the paper has a faster ISO than 1.5.

ISO 1.5 negative image

ISO 1.5 positive image

ISO 3 is one stop of light faster than ISO 1.5. So to shoot ISO 3, I kept the f32 aperture while speeding up the shutter speed to two seconds. The image shows significantly more detail in the subject area, but it is still too bright. So the working ISO is also faster than 3.

ISO 3 negative image

ISO 3 positive image

ISO 6 is one stop of light faster than ISO 3, so while maintaining the f32 aperture I shot at a one second shutter speed. ISO 6 really seems to be zeroing in on the proper exposure. The logs have nice detail. But they are still just slightly too bright. Since ISO 6 was the fastest I shot, I'll have to do some more experimenting. ISO 12 is the next faster stop of light. But I'm thinking that will be too fast. I'm suspecting that I'll find my answer somewhere around ISO 8. 

ISO 6 negative image

ISO 6 positive image

While shooting with such a long lens (19.75" or about 502mm) requires a fairly long extension of the camera's bellows, shooting closer up to the subject requires an exceptionally long stretch. And as the film is moved away from lens, less light reaches it. So I shot at two different distances from the subject. The first three shots were shot at head-and-torso portrait distance, causing a bellows extension of about 14". But at headshot distance where I set up for my fourth and final shot, I had to stretch the bellows out to almost 24". Here is that shot. Notice that, though I shot with ISO 3 settings, the light falloff from the almost twice as long bellows makes the picture look like the ISO 6 shot above. So it appears that between the 14" and almost double 24" bellows extensions, I lose about a full stop of light on the negative.

Closer in ISO 3 negative image

Closer in ISO 3 positive image

With some more experimenting to lock down the proper ISO settings at specific bellows extensions, I'll be able to make this whole paper positive thing work for me quite nicely. I'm excited to get out with my 8x10" camera and put this to use. And the almost 90% reduction in cost per shot is a great incentive to continue with paper negatives. So I'll keep playing with it and posting the results.

Success with Caffenol-C

Success with Caffenol-C

The other day, I stumbled on a YouTube video about a film developer called Caffenol-C. It is a home-brew developer made up of instant caffeinated coffee, powered vitamin-C, and washing soda (NOT baking soda which would not work for this formula). A quick search of the internet brought me to caffenol.org where I found recipes and articles about personal experiences. 

The formula I used consisted of 1000ml water, 24g washing soda, 20g vitamin-c power (called "crystals" on the GNC bottle), and 46g of the cheapest bottle of instant coffee garbage that can be found at my local discount store. I split the water across two containers with 500ml in each in order to mix the coffee/vitamin-C and the washing soda separately. This allowed me to make sure that each dissolved completely. Then I combined the contents of both containers and mixed again. Once mixed, Caffenol-C STINKS! It smells like coffee mixed with dead animal mixed with sadness and burned heavily. 

With the concoction ready, I poured it into the developing tank that contained several sheets of Ilford FP4 Plus film. I did the initial agitation and table tap, then every 30 seconds I turned the tank over four times followed by another table tap. At the end of 9 minutes, I poured out the Caffenol-C and used water as a stop bath. I then fixed for five minutes with Kodak fixer and rinsed by running water into the tank for ten more minutes. 

This process yielded negatives that became the pictures below:

Announcing episode 6 and thoughts on analog photography

Announcing episode 6 and thoughts on analog photography

During my trip to the Mojave National Preserve, I busted a steering component on my Jeep while driving a road that had eroded to boulders. I limped the Jeep home and got to work on fixing the problem. While working on it, I badly injured my back and shoulder and was out of commission. 

I became impatient to get back to making videos, and I didn't want to miss the chance to make a video of the changing aspens. So I got out and filmed episode 5 using several of the digital media I had at my disposal. And in doing so, I re-injured my shoulder. 

So after a more reasonable amount of time to convalesce, I finally got out and filmed episode 6. I've been wanting to try Harman Direct Positive Paper for a long time, and episode 6 became the video about that experience. Direct positive paper goes directly into the camera in place of film, and an image is put directly onto it (instead of shooting onto a negative and then shining a negative onto the paper through an enlarger to get the image). 

"Why didn't everyone use direct positive paper instead of film," I hear you ask? First of all, direct positive paper is SLOW. Where the slowest film I ever shoot is ISO 50, Harman Direct Positive Paper comes in typically between ISO 3 and ISO 6. This means much more light is required on the paper get a useable image by using much longer shutter speeds, much wider apertures, or both. Direct positive paper, also yields images that are reversed (a mirror image) from what the eye sees. So, for example, any words in the image would be running right to left instead of the other way around and scenes as you know them would be backwards.

"Okay. They why use it," I hear you further ask? First is for the sheer joy of the challenge. Use of direct positive paper comes with many challenges and shortcomings, and working through these is fun to me. Second is for he artistic expression of it. I often hear other photographers talking about achieving the "film look" or the "analog look", typically through use of Photoshop manipulation or some app on a phone they take a picture with. And while I've seen come close, none actually achieve that look without really using analog media. I find the look of pictures captured by analog means, be they from tintyping, film, direct positive paper, or just about any other analog technique to be beautiful. Analog has a contrast and a feel and artifacts that really just cannot be duplicated by digital means. And finally, it's for the printing potential. A frame of medium format film is around three times larger than a full-frame DSLR's sensor. A sheet of 4x5" large format film is around six times larger. This means, if I scan the negative to print on a large format printer, I can make images that are at least three-to-six times larger than what comes off a DSLR. 

I've started to ramble, so let me call a halt to it and wrap this up by saying that I'm excited to be back at it in making these videos. I had a lot of fun making episode 6, and I'm looking forward to whatever is next.


Episode 5 is all about the aspen trees

Episode 5 is all about the aspen trees

For Episode 5 of Tommy and his Cameras, I wanted to go in a completely different direction from my previous episodes. The beauty of the aspens that the episode was about brought out the artist in me. So Episode 5 isn't so much instructional in any way so much as it's an artistic indulgence for me. 

After shooting almost exclusively in film for quite a while now, I broke out my digital gadgets and employed them in this video. My DSLR, my GoPro, my GH4 (mounted on a stabilizer), heck - even my drone were all brought to bear. 

Filming took place early morning on October 3rd and was completed on October 4th. Then I took the pile of memory cards from the electronic gadgets and transferred imagery (video and still) from them onto an external hard drive. I'd actually begun putting the film together on the 3rd, and then I finished it up on the evening of the 4th. Then came the almost 3 hours of upload time my slow internet requires. 

Everything in Episode 5, exceptions the first two roadway scenes, was filmed in the Pike National Forest north of Divide, Colorado. While yellow aspen leaves were in abundance on the 3rd, an all-day wind storm blew much of them away by the time I returned on the 4th. So I had to find aspens on low-ground and sheltered by hills all around. It turned out to be pretty easy to do.

The music is a very gentle piece that I found on the Free Music Archive and was able to use according to the Creative Commons 4.0 International License that it was subject to.

If you want to watch episode 5, you can find it over on the Video page following the link at the top of this page.

Pictures in the aspen trees

Pictures in the aspen trees

This morning I want out to film the first shots for the Episode 5 video. By the way, Episode 5 will be an experiment and be completely unlike anything else I've done with Tommy and his Cameras. 

Anyway, knowing I'd be out among the aspens, I decided to take my Nikon D800. I haven't shot that camera in a while and I wanted to stretch its legs out. l tried as much as I could to capitalize on the sun backlighting the leaves to get them to glow.

Saved by my iPhone

Saved by my iPhone

On my recent trip to the Mojave National Preserve, I spent most of my time shooting pictures with my film cameras (mostly my 4x5" camera). But for the moments when I was walking and the film camera was in its backpack, I had my iPhone handy. I got some pictures from it that I'm pretty darn happy with: 

On my last day in the preserve, I explored the Kelso Dunes. I took several pictures with my 4x5" camera on color film. But I also took shots with my iPhone as I made my way around. When I got home and into my darkroom, I totally screwed up the processing of the film - my experience processing color film is extremely limited. The film shots were useless. But, thankfully, I had shots from my iPhone. They obviously don't have the true film look, and they can only be blown up so big for a print. But I'm really happy with the images. So thanks to my iPhone's camera, I still came away with good shots.

Burned Bacon

I was making breakfast in my kitchen when I looked out my living room window and saw that the sky was on fire. My Panasonic GH4 with a wide-angle lens was already mounted on a tripod and was close at hand, so I grabbed it as I ran out to the front porch. I took a few shots with the camera and just stood there in my pajamas, admiring the view. Then I remembered that I was in the middle of making breakfast. Oops. The bacon was burned, but everything else was okay.